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much sweeter than it ought to be

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Yang is twelve years old the first time her father takes her to sea.

She’s young still, sure, but already sturdy and strong. When she fights with the other kids in the back alleys of Dunwall, battering each other around with cheap wooden swords until they splinter and break, she always wins. She fights hard but fair, something she learned from her father. She thinks he would be proud, probably, but she and Ruby never tell him what they get up to when he’s out to sea.

The children of the slums of Dunwall have their own rules and codes of conduct. Adults just wouldn’t understand.

And by the standards of those codes and rules, Yang is almost a hero. The other kids whisper about her sometimes, telling stories in the street about her victories over Mercury Black despite his supposed close association with the Hatters — a rumor that Yang doesn’t believe for a second. Some street punk like that getting let in with the Hatters, even if they’ve declined in power and influence lately, would be a travesty.

He’s not as tough as he obviously thinks.

Or maybe he does know. Maybe that’s why he likes to play so dirty.

There are rules of conduct, but Mercury ignores them all, like now when he thinks it’s a good idea to try winning by getting under Yang’s skin.

A lot of people have tried it before. They bully Ruby, who’s still so young and trusting — too trusting for Dunwall’s streets — and think that somehow it’s going to make Yang weaker. But it doesn’t work.

She only hits harder.

But Mercury is dumber than most. He doesn’t just shove her sister down and threaten to use a rusted spring razor to rearrange her face — although that’s already reason enough for Yang to slam her knee into the back of his head, hard, and swing the blunt edge of her fake sword in a looping arc to catch him in the ear.

But he isn’t done.

“Yang,” he laughs, flecks of blood in his smile. “Always where you’re not wanted. Didn’t your mother teach you any manners before she left?”

Maybe he was going to say something more after that. Some stupid joke. He’s always making jokes.

But Yang isn’t really listening.

The only thing she can hear is the pounding of her heartbeat in her own ears as she hits him, over and over. It’s a high and frantic sound that all blends together, like a single drawn out tone.

It makes her think of the way that Uncle Qrow once described whale song to her.

She keeps hitting.

Over and over, until bone starts to crack. Some of it is in his face, she’s pretty sure, but some of it is in her hand too.

There’s so much blood when Ruby tries to pull her off of him.

“Yang,” she shouts. “Mr. Black is coming, come on!”

Mercury’s eyes go wide and his attempts to struggle out from underneath Yang become stronger, suddenly much more insistent. “Get off me, get off—” But he doesn’t have to say it again. She is up and running with Ruby.

Mr Black works forging weapons near Bottle Street and has been there since before Yang was born. Everyone knows he’s the reason Mercury Black has as many spring razors as he’d like to carry around in his pockets, but that he’s also the reason that Mercury can only run with a limp.

Yang isn’t going to stick around to see what he does to someone else’s kid.

*

Uncle Qrow returns home before their father, even though they left on the same ship two days earlier. It’s a short journey this time, so Yang and Ruby only had to prepare one dinner together the night before. Ruby did all the knife work and Yang kept an eye on the fire.

Tonight, though, the adults are going to be back and can handle things from here.

It’s probably for the best, because Yang isn’t certain she could use her hand if she wanted to.

“What you got there?” Qrow asks from behind a cup of Orbon Rum. “Behind your back…”

Yang isn’t holding anything behind her back except for her own hand, which she can’t close into a fist anymore. Somehow holding it there, just out of sight, had seemed like a really effective and subtle way of keeping their secret.

Now she’s thinking maybe she was wrong about that.

“Nothing,” she says, which is true at least.

Uncle Qrow leans forward in his chair, watching her carefully. “How’s the other guy look?”

“Worse!” Ruby chimes in happily.

Qrow’s attention shifts to her. “You saw it too, huh?”

“Yang saved me,” Ruby says, her voice firm and resolved in that way only little kids can be, and Yang should know: at the very mature age of twelve, almost thirteen, she’s practically an adult.

“How brave.”

“Yeah, well Mercury Black had it coming.”

Qrow takes another long sip from his cup; it’s the same one he uses most nights, especially if dad’s not home yet to see him. “I bet he did. And now your hand is hurting, huh?”

“… yeah.” Yang tries to flex it but she flinches.

“You’ve got to learn how to throw a punch, kid.”

“I know how to hit things,” Yang says, feeling heat pooling up inside her chest. She gets like that sometimes, and doesn’t even know why. Ever since Ruby’s mom died, it’s only gotten worse. She feels heat in her chest and in her cheeks, boiling. So hot she’s almost light headed. “I can hit things just fine. Ask anyone.”

“Okay, but how about learning to hit them without hurting yourself.”

“… he has a point.”

“Shut up, Ruby.”

But he does. He has a point.

“I’ll teach you. Some other time. When your dad isn’t about to come home and kill you.”

Ruby’s eyes go wide with a child-like concern and her head swivels around to look at her sister. “Oh, Yang! I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”

“But we’ll give you one hell of a memorial, kid.”

Just then the door creaks open and in walks dad, a sack of food over his shoulder. “Sorry, who’s dying?” He laughs and gives a smile to the room in general, but it freezes on his face when he sees Yang.

When he sees her hand.

*

Dad doesn’t kill her. But it’s worse.

It’s so much worse.

He’s not mad, he’s just disappointed. He thinks sticking up for Ruby and fighting off some bully is disappointing. Because the adults just don’t understand what it’s like. Dunwall isn’t still the place they talk about it being when they were younger.

It’s not safe, not even in the streets right outside their house, and especially not for a kid like Ruby. Not yet, at least.

“I can teach her too, you know, just wait until she’s a little older,” Uncle Qrow says that night after dad exhausts himself with yelling and then leaves the house completely, the door banging on its hinges after him.

Yang doesn’t say much in response. She just nods, and so does Ruby.

Their dad is gone for over an hour.

When he comes back, there’s no smile on his face. It’s totally blank.

“Get sleep,” he says, not looking at Yang at all. “Tomorrow you’ll be coming with Qrow and I. To work.”

For the first time all evening, Qrow sits up straight. “Are you sure that’s such a…”

“I’ve decided,” dad says, firmly. “She isn’t going to end up like—”

“What, like me?”

“No.” Dad hangs his jacket on the hook by the door and turns away from all of them now. “Like your sister.”

Yang feels the heat in her chest again, boiling, but she doesn’t say anything.

*

The next day, her father takes her down to the docks.

He’s less cold than he was the night before. “Come on,” he says, quiet but steady. “It’s time we put all that muscle and quick feet to good use.” His hands on her shoulders are steady too, steering her through the crowds of people.

Yang has been to the docks before, plenty of times, but it feels different now. These aren’t just dumb adults to avoid or stare at in curiosity. Any one of these people are almost like her equals now.

She’s really going to be almost like an adult herself, already earning her way in the world.

Maybe dad means it as a punishment — even though he says he doesn’t, that morning over the bread and cheese they break their fast with, he says so over and over — but the fact is that, no matter what his intention is, Yang is starting to feel excited.

She’s been on a few boats before, but it’s not the same.

She’s never stood on deck of anything as big as this whaling ship. The way it moves is like the whole world twisting around underneath her. When they push off from the docks, she can feel the bottom of the world pull out from under her and suddenly she’s floating.

It’s like dreams she’s had of flying. But better.

It’s real.

Even though she’s smaller, way smaller than everyone else, nobody treats her like a dumb kid.

When it’s her turn to help tie down the mast, they shout quick instructions and expect them to be followed. And she does, even though she still struggles with her right hand at first.

She manages and she doesn’t complain.

In that first day, she learns to tie more kinds of knots than she ever knew existed, but also where to put her feet, carefully, when climbing the rigging. It’s easy enough. She’s been climbing most of her life — up the railings to the rooftops of Dunwall, a whole city stretched out beneath her feet — but this isn’t just the same filthy slum that she’s always known as home. This is the entire world, big and beautiful and stretched out in every direction.

It’s incredible and terrible.

She learns to scan the horizon for the signs of whales in the distance and begins to learn the smell of an oncoming storm.

It’s not long until she gets callouses on her fingertips that help her to hold her grip steady when they ride against the rain, the wind and water lashing against her face.

*

Dad gives her an old knit hat to wear, water stained but warm.

She recognizes it as one her mother used to have, from the photo her dad doesn’t think she knows that he still keeps in the third dresser drawer on the right.

When Qrow sees her wearing it the first time, he goes very still, staring for a long stretch of silence. This time he doesn’t have his cup of Rum with him; he’s drinking it straight from the bottle. “… maybe you should cut all your hair off, kid. Really avoid worrying about the wind then.” He hiccups. “Did you think of that?”

“I think if you try it, I’ll cut your hand off.”

“… so that’s a no then.”

He smiles, though, just a little.

*

Yang is already strong when she begins her career as a whaler but within a few months the job has begun to leave its marks on her body.

Her skin becomes incredibly tanned, little creases forming around her eyes. Most sailors get those kinds of lines, the crows feet they call it, from watching the horizon for so many hours, day after day and year after year. But Yang’s come right away, even sooner, from all of her smiling. Every day, from sun up to sundown, she’s grinning like a fool, hoisting herself higher and higher. Maybe one day she’ll be able to actually touch the rim of the sun that shines down on them from above.

Her already broad shoulders begin to bulge with muscles thickly knotted like rope. She thinks to herself that she could tie a convincing line into the shape of her shoulder blades, if she had to. It suits her, this work, and it fits itself to her body like an old friend.

Even the stink that comes with whaling doesn’t bother her much.

She’s used to hard smells, after all, from so much time in the back alleys of Dunwall. Dead and dying whales, despite all the blood, still smell much better than the mixture of piss, shit, sour liquor, and rotting flesh that hang in the air over the poorest parts of their city.

Once they finally catch a whale that they’ve been tracking — the whole weight of their vessel straining against its resistance before it tires itself out, however long that might take— they finally pull it up onto deck to begin the slow butchery that occupies most of the voyage back.

They encourage wearing masks during this part of the process and sometimes gloves as well. The thick rubbery hide, when pierced, gives off a heavy aroma that clogs up all of the air. Slick blood covers almost every surface. It isn’t exactly pleasant, but it reminds Yang of all the coin waiting for them once they’ve finished.

It means they’re about to start the long journey back to dock and home to Ruby.

*

The first time they catch one, Yang’s very first voyage out to sea, they race after it for hours and hours. It’s a big creature — bigger than most buildings Yang has been inside of herself — and the whole ship shakes when it breaks the surface, lashing the water with its tail.

They spear it right away, blood rushing into the water all around them.

Red stretching out toward the horizon in every direction, like eager hands.

“What now?” Yang asks, her voice high and thin.

“Now we wait.”

Her dad’s hand is heavy and steady on her shoulder. Her Uncle Qrow isn’t anywhere nearby because he is manning one of the harpoons driven into the creature’s side. There is a clear trail of blood and gore that runs from the end of his weapon to the weeping wound in the side of the massive beast.

It bleeds slowly, still resisting, and they wait with it through the night, alternating hands to keep a steady tension on the weapons holding it in place.

By daybreak, the thrashing has slowed and they pull it up onto the deck. Its eyes are as big as Yang’s head and it looks directly at her, slowly blinking, but she’s not certain that it can see anymore.

Her dad tries to shield her from the sight of the dying animal and the men with knives as they prepare it, but she edges her way past him to watch.

He still has no idea what they’ve all seen in their own streets.

*

The only thing that Yang still hates, even years later, is the mournful sounds that the whales sometimes make at night when they’re still in the process of giving up on life.

“Whale song,” Uncle Qrow tells her. He looks as though he wants to say something more, but thinks better of it.

He’d told her about it before, the pained cries that whales can make. The way he described it, she expected it to be beautiful, majestic, and wanted to hear it for herself one day. Now she knows better.

“I hate it.”

When Uncle Qrow puts his hand on her shoulder it never feels as steady as her father’s, but she appreciates the gesture. “Yeah.” His voice is so soft, she’s not sure that he’s actually said it aloud at all, but the word is still there somehow.

Like something buried deep inside of her bones.

*

Yang isn’t allowed to join them for every voyage, even as she gets older.

The ones that they know are going to be very long, that would keep all of them away from home (away from Ruby), dad tells her to find some other work dockside instead.

It never crosses any of their minds, not even Yang, that she would ever take the day off for herself without working at all.

Maybe dad’s right and this has all been good for her. She doesn’t feel that heat as often anymore, boiling inside her. She’s too busy, too focused, and it’s easy to make a good impression on the people looking to hire when you don’t let yourself feel any of the bad things.

She smiles, for one. People have always liked her smile, and she likes it too.

Even if the way the members of the nobility look at them sometimes makes her want to spit instead. But when Yang smiles, those noble lords and ladies who had been carefully holding themselves back — like being poor was something contagious they might catch if their clothes even touched — almost relax.

They move a little closer.

She’s seen others take advantage of this kind of thing. Any kid who knows their way around Bottle Street knows not to let Emerald bump against you unless you’ve got a hand firmly on your coin purse, so maybe the rich snobs are onto something. It would be so easy to take that pouch off the gentleman’s belt when he’s showing off to the lady next to him about how confidently he can move amongst the little people.

But Yang resists. She doesn’t want to be what they think she is.

It’s better to smile when they ask her a question and then wink before she laughs and says, “Sure, that’s easy.”

No matter what it is. It’s always easy.

Want her to scale a guard tower? No problem. Want her to pass through the rat infested side of town, through the feuding Hatters and Bottle Street Gang, just to deliver a letter? Easy.

Need her to speak to a specific courtesan at The Golden Cat on your behalf?

Hey, the ladies there all say they like Yang’s wink and her smile too. It’s all easy.

No matter what the wealthy say they want with you, no matter how much it almost brings back that hot and boiling feeling, it’s easy. Just smile and say so.

Even if Yang thinks she might understand Emerald better day by day.

*

Compared to sailing in search of whales, serving as an especially small and fast courier through the twisting back alleys and narrow streets of Dunwall is really miserable. There’s no wind in her hair, none of that shifting and pitching newness of the world viewed from a ship.

Still, it pays well enough and they need all the coin they can get. Apart from paying for the family’s meals, every extra bit of coin they earn after goes to pay for Ruby’s books. It’s been that way for as long as Yang can really remember, or at least since Ruby’s mom died.

They have a plan, the four of them.

Because one day Ruby is going to be the brightest mind in the whole of the Empire, discovering new ways to make use of the oil brought in from whaling ships like theirs. She’s brilliant and she genuinely wants to do good.

To make the world better than she found it.

All the coin earned by Yang, Uncle Qrow, and their father will put her there, in time, and by doing that they’ll all be doing their part as well.

*

It has to be worth the effort; and most days it really feels like it is.

Only ten years old, and already Ruby knows how to disassemble broken traps they might find abandoned in the back alleys where unsuspecting children could stumble into them and risk losing a limb. Yang used to make a habit of triggering them herself, poking at the central mechanism with a shattered wooden sword and felt a grim kind of a pleasure at the way the shrapnel glittered as it sprung through the air, so close to both their faces.

There are a lot of things to fear in Dunwall, but all those other kinds of fear can start to feel smaller when you stand so close to death over and over. It’s a sort of freedom.

Some people say — though it’s only in whispers where they know the Abbey can’t hear them — that if you brush up against the very edges of your life often enough, the Outsider will know you by name. He’ll actually hear when you call.

It’s silly. The sort of things the kids would say to each other when they’re playing in the streets. Something to laugh and shout in Mercury’s face when he doesn’t play fair and loses anyway.

That’s what she thought, at least.

All of that changes when Yang is fifteen and she’s pulled over the railing of their whaling ship into the tossing waters below.

*

Nobody else sees it happen.

The storm picks up suddenly, without warning, and everyone has a very specific job to do when the weather turns like that. They’ve faced these things before, most of them a dozen or even a hundred times. Even Yang has ridden into hard storms already — or worse even, a bad storm when whales are riding close, bursting through the surface and nearly shattering their hull — but something about this one feels different.

The hair on the back of her neck stands on end, like a warning, and then just as suddenly the rain is coming down. It scatters across the wooden planks of the ship, rattling like the gunfire she’s heard when the City Watch is training in the Tower grounds. She used to climb to the roof and watch them, daydreaming about the life of a soldier — adventure, excitement, but also three meals every day and a warm bed to come home to — and it’s this memory, dreaming about warmth and comfort, that is nestled at the back of Yang’s mind when the ship dips suddenly, twisting in the waves, and then reels back up again, just as sharply.

She grabs for the railing, tries to grip it with her right hand, but another wave surges over the side, battering her back before dragging her forward.

The ship pitches. It shifts.

The momentum knocks Yang off her feet, but upward, flying as the deck pulls away from underneath her. She screams, something almost like exhilaration, but then just as quickly turned to fear.

Yang reaches for the railing again, but it slips from her grasp, scraping across her fingertips.

She is still thinking about the soldiers and their rapid gunfire when the water rushes up to meet her, slamming the air from her lungs in one swift collision.

Bam. Impact.

*

Deep enough underwater, even the light is different. Yang doesn’t know how far down she’s gone or how long she’s been down there. She isn’t sure of anything. The world is only the rush of water, twisting in white foam and black swirls all around her.

No matter how much she struggles to reach the surface, it’s like some kind of force keeps pulling her back, tugging her down.

It stings to keep her eyes open, but even worse is the realization that she wants to close them. The way her vision is starting to blur. Her arm wrenches with pain as she tries to swim faster, to drag herself against the tide that’s pulling her back. Every part of her is aching.

She thinks that she might hear whale song, somewhere close and only getting closer.

It would be so easy to just listen to it. To stop and to listen.

Just close her eyes and stop fighting.

It’s easy.

*

White foam and black nothing fills up her ears, eyes, and throat. She wants to scream, even though she knows she shouldn’t.

Her lungs feel inky, thick, and then she feels nothing.

Nothing.

*

Yang isn’t sure if her eyes are open or closed, but she’s pretty sure this is a dream.

Or a nightmare. Or maybe death.

It’s probably death, because suddenly there’s a man here too, and she knows his name the moment she lays eyes on him. The word appears at the back of her mouth — heavy, thick, and oily against her tongue — but she refuses to say it out loud.

She won’t speak him into being.

She isn’t sinking anymore. Or floating. The water has completely disappeared and they are standing together, adrift in the vast emptiness all around them.

The man — no, a boy, freckled and even younger than she is — smiles as he moves closer. “I’ve been waiting for you.” The expression doesn’t reach his eyes and barely even looks right on his mouth. It’s not really a smile at all; it’s like someone took a knife and carved a face into a stone. Or into bone. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Yang takes a step back, studying her opponent. She’s pretty sure she could take him, if it came to hand to hand. But that’s not what he is. That’s not how this works, and she knows it.

Maybe that’s why she still can’t (won’t) say his name.

“You’re gifted. With physical talents, yes, but loyalty too.” He tilts his head, dark and empty eyes studying her. “That’s rare.”

“Maybe you need some new followers then.”

“So you do know who I am.”

Outsider.

Father of the dark. Keeper of the Void. The man— no, boy — who’s there to greet you at your death.

The worship of him is a grave offense as far as the Abbey of the Everyman is concerned, a source of great debate. Some of the Abbey faithful will tell you he isn’t even real, just a story for the simple minded or simply immoral to get them through long cold nights with no food or comfort, and in this one area at least Yang has always wanted to avoid trouble as best as she can, to not pick a side, but here he is right in front of her.

He’s real.

His followers were right all along and their frantic worship with idols carved from bone is starting to seem a little less crazy. But still kind of crazy.

Especially with the way his eyes are so empty, a great big empty nothingness looking back at her, it doesn’t seem like there is anything here to worship or to praise. The sailors who call upon the Outsider for safe travels were pleading to the wrong person, because Yang is pretty sure that somehow she’s still sinking, drowning, and he only looks amused.

“Sure,” Yang says, carefully. “But how do you know who I am?”

She takes a step back, away from the darkness in his eyes that mirrors the darkness that surrounds them.

Cold.

She feels a heavy (sinking) sense of cold creeping up behind her, just out of sight. When she turns her head, just a little, it’s not quite there anymore. It’s moving, shifting around them.

But drawing closer.

“Oh.” The Outsider laughs, and his unnatural smile stays carved into his face a little longer than it should, like a trailing threat still hanging in the air even after the rest of him shifts out of view before appearing again, even closer than before. His smile is even sharper too.

Yang starts and tries to back away, but he follows quickly.

“I know your Uncle,” he says, his voice like a whisper, like the soft lapping of waves in an endless sea of nothing. She takes another step back but his hand reaches out quickly to grasp her by her face, thumb pressing firmly against the spot between her eyebrows, as though he can press straight through the ridge of her forehead into her tender brain below. “… tell him I said hello, won’t you?”

*

And then the cold and the dark is all she knows.

*

Until Yang is suddenly bent over on the deck, puking her guts out with Uncle Qrow standing over her, creases of worry all over his face. “That’s it, kid. Just let it all out.”

Nothing Yang has seen in her travels out to sea would have led her to believe that what’s coming out of her now should be so thick and black. Just the sight of it is enough to curl her stomach so that she retches again, her whole body shaking with the force of it. The muscles in her shoulders ache with exertion — from swimming against the pulling current, from supporting her weight as her whole body apparently tries to expel her insides to her outside — and, by the Outsider does it hurt.

Actually.

Maybe she’s going to rethink her use of that particular turn of phrase.

For now she allows herself the luxury of collapsing on the deck, but is careful to roll first, landing a little away from the mess she’s just made. The storm has almost passed, and there’s no more rainfall to wash off the deck.

Yang is faintly aware that it’s probably something she’ll have to clean up herself later.

But right now, Uncle Qrow is watching her with a look of concern and something she thinks might be recognition. Maybe she won’t have to say anything at all.

Because there was something she was supposed to tell him. She remembers that much.

But what it was… that’s harder.

The memory is pulling away, like the storm clouds pushing back across the horizon, leaving sunlight suddenly streaming in and searing her eyes.

She squints and then she shuts them.

Behind her eyelids, it’s only darkness and despite the burning heat of the sun, Yang feels strangely cold.

*

For weeks after that, dad doesn’t want her sailing out with them. He treats her like she’s fragile, like it was somehow all her fault. But from what the other sailors say, it isn’t that uncommon to fall overboard. Most people are rescued, just like she was.

This is part of the job.

“But you’re not a sailor, Yang, you’re still a child.”

That isn’t fair because it isn’t true, not really, and hasn’t been for some time now.

“That didn’t matter to you before!” Yang shouts back, feeling a greater impulse to hit something than she has in ages. “Why start now?”

“That isn’t fair, and you know it.”

“Oh, but what do I know! I’m just a kid, remember?”

She really wants to slam the door behind her as she storms out of the house, but the wooden frame has started to rot and she doesn’t know that it would hold up against her anger.

It’s better not to risk it.

There are still too many things kept back there she still wants to keep safe. Things like—

“Yang! Wait up!”

Like that. Like Ruby jogging just to catch up with her, not even looking where she’s going so that Yang has to grab hold of her hood to tug her out of the way of the broken whiskey bottles scattered at the corner. “You should go home, Ruby.”

“Then so should you. Dad’s worried.”

“He’s always worried.”

“You mean since you almost died? Yeah, he’s worried about that.” Ruby flings her arms up in the air for emphasis. “But I am too, you know. And Uncle Qrow. We all are.”

“That … doesn’t make me feel a lot better.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel better.” Ruby huffs. “I’m trying to be honest.” Very abruptly, she stops walking. “Where are we going?”

Yang is slower to stop, so she has to turn to look back. She gestures with a jerk of her head. “The docks. Where else?”

Ruby looks uncertain. “Dad says I’m not supposed to go there.”

“You’re older than I was when I started.” For half a second, Yang almost wants to let herself feel the annoyance she can sense creeping in, but she can tell that her sister actually seems worried, and so she smiles instead. That part’s easy. “Come on. Since when have I ever let anyone hurt you?”

“You haven’t. But last time it came close you broke your hand on Mercury Black’s face.”

“I didn’t break it.” Yang’s smile almost melts away completely when she squints out at the horizon. “It just stung. For a little while, and now I’m fine, see.” When she looks back at Ruby, she’s grinning again, wiggling her fingers dramatically.

“Wow, three years and you’re like brand new.”

“Exactly.” Yang turns and doesn’t bother looking back. “So come on.”

She knows that Ruby’s going to follow.

*

The work dockside isn’t as good as riding out to sea, but it pays well, and it’s time Ruby learned a little bit about taking care of herself, Yang thinks. Uncle Qrow had promised to give her fighting lessons, but that was before their trips started keeping them away from home longer and longer, and besides, combat was never going to be Ruby’s problem. She’s smart and quick on her feet; she could learn.

Her problem was trust.

“Alright.” Yang slaps a heavy hand down on Ruby’s shoulder. “First rule: you don’t approach Overseers. Ever. Some of them might look like they have business and they’ve always got a lot of coin, but they’re not worth the trouble.” She gives her sister’s shoulder a pointed squeeze. “Ever.”

“No Overseers. Got it.” And Ruby does look like she’s filing all the information away for a later time, her eyes carefully scanning the crowd. “So what about worshippers of the Outsider? Can I—”

Ruby’s never learned to talk quietly about things like this, and Yang could swear a few of the people around them stop and take notice of the question, even before she’s put a hand over Ruby’s mouth.

So Yang smiles at them, that great big winning grin, before spinning her sister around to face her. “No. Just stick to normal people, okay, or maybe nobility, but—” Visions of Ruby telling the nobility all about the dead birds her uncle brings her to practice dissection quickly pass through Yang’s mind. “— just don’t say the things you’re thinking, okay, to any of them. Not when it’s work.”

It takes Yang a moment to realize that Ruby isn’t answering because she’s still covering her mouth.

She withdraws her hand and Ruby lets out an exaggerated heavy breath before her shoulders shift quickly, up and down. “Well, when do I know if it’s work!”

“If they’re nobility, it’s always work.” Yang’s eyebrows drift upward, almost like an unspoken question. She can’t believe she still has to teach her sister this at her age. “They’re not your friends, Ruby.”

“I know.”

And maybe Ruby does know that, but it doesn’t keep her shoulders from deflating when she admits it.

To Ruby, everyone is just one good conversation away from being a possible friend.

This is why she needs Yang’s guidance.

*

On that first day down by the docks together, Yang wants to keep it easy for Ruby.

No dangerous missions across all of Dunwall for her.

So when a request comes in to deliver payment in the other side of the city, passing directly through Hatters territory, Yang takes that one for herself. She’s already confident enough in her climbing — has been for years — and it’s good to remind herself that she can still do the challenging things, even after her dad and uncle have started treating her like glass.

Because even Uncle Qrow is really worried, for some reason.

It’s almost unsettling.

But she doesn’t have to think about that now.

For now there’s only this, this moment, and the feeling of the light breeze as she runs over the rooftops, careful not to slip on any loose roof tiles, and keep an eye on the people passing in the streets below.

There’s a pickpocket and some unsuspecting merchant. There’s a whaler on leave — you can always tell the ones who have done it long enough from how they still walk like they’re drifting at sea — and there’s a courtesan who plies her trade somewhere local like her own flat instead of a more expensive establishment.

From high up above, you develop an eye for these things.

Like how she can spot the Hatters from a block away. It’s a relatively small gathering of them in the streets, probably bragging and boasting about some easy mark they ganged up on, especially because (as she draws closer) she can see that Mercury Black is there with them.

Maybe he wasn’t lying about those connections all these years.

And it really seems like the years haven’t changed him at all, since he and some redhead boy — no, more like a man, actually — are pushing around a smaller boy. It’s the two of them and four others actually dressed as Hatters, all ganging up on one small guy.

No. Wait.

That’s definitely a girl in some kind of lame disguise consisting of a long jacket and hat that admittedly fooled Yang herself, sure, but only for a few moments (and from very far away), so she doubts it’s very effective for people approaching them at ground level.

They’re arguing about something, their voices almost loud enough now for Yang to hear by the time she carefully swings down to the railing just over their head.

“I don’t understand why you’re making this so hard,” the redhead man says — definitely a man, now that she’s closer, way older than her or Mercury and probably the girl in disguise too, whose arm he’s gripping tightly. “I thought you and I saw eye to eye on this.”

“Let me go,” the girl says with the rising emphasis of someone used to people actually doing what she says.

So an idiot, probably, who walked right into danger.

But even so. Any friend of Mercury’s probably deserves a quick thrashing, even if he’s older (and a little bit bigger), and it’s not like Ruby isn’t the kind of person who stumbles into these same kinds of problems anyway. Rescuing the sweet and stupid is kind of Yang’s thing.

Even if this girl currently strikes her as really pretty dumb.

“So you’ll what? Run home to your parents?” The guy shoves — he actually shoves — her back into the hard brick of the wall and Yang’s grip tightens on the railing. “Do they know what you’ve been sneaking around doing?”

Yeah, okay, he definitely deserves this, but she’s way outnumbered and should really wait for the right opening to—

“We’ve got company.”

Well, shit, apparently the one thing that has changed with age is Mercury’s way more aware of his surroundings and knows to scan the rooftops. Their eyes actually lock together for half a second before he slaps the redhead on the shoulder and Yang takes one deep breath before flinging herself over the railing and hurting down to the street below.

The plan is to use the body of one of the Hatters to break her fall — she doesn’t care which one, although preferably not Mercury, since she already knows she can take that punk — so long as she avoids caving in the poor girl’s skull, since that would kind of defeat the purpose of what she’s going for. Which is probably a little bit heroic, but a lot of dumb too, so between the two of them they’ve got all the stupid pretty much covered.

Maybe this random girl can also throw some of her weight around in more of a fair fight just to even it out a little.

“Feel free to run,” Yang shouts right before she lands all of her weight on one of the gang members and plows them right into the ground, face first. Just lead with your shoulder; it’s easy. She jumps back up and grins over at the remaining Hatters. “That goes for you all too, but I guess you probably won’t listen.”

Guns. Of course they’ve got guns.

The smile really abruptly drops from Yang’s face just as the redhead loosens his grip on the girl, turning quickly to say, “No guns, you idiots, we can’t risk the—”

Whatever he’s worried about risking, he doesn’t finish saying it because suddenly he’s doubled over on the ground, clutching his groin in agony. The girl quickly backs away after landing her strike, bristling and glowering, golden eyes bright with fury. So maybe not a total idiot.

And kind of… cute, actually

Despite the angry look on her face — or maybe a little bit because of it — the random girl is really cute.

No, pretty. She’s pretty. Like grown up kinds of beautiful. Black hair spilling out of the cap she’s tried to hide it under and—

Wait, shit, Yang has to focus because Mercury and the Hatters who didn’t take her up on the offer to run are still standing and now they’re advancing on Yang with blunt weapons drawn.

Moving in on Yang only because mystery girl just actually made a run for it.

To be fair, Yang did present the option, but she hadn’t actually expected her to be so ungrateful.

Maybe she should have remembered to use her devastating wink.

“… shit.”

“My dad’s not here to help you this time, asshole.” Mercury hefts the heavy pipe he’s holding in his hand. It’s made from rigid metal and looks like it could probably kill Yang with a few well placed hits to the base of her skull. “But if you like, I’ll give you a head start.” He swings the pipe against the wall, hard, sending up a shower of sparks. “Not sure I can say the same for my friends.”

The two remaining Hatters exchange an uncertain glance with each other.

Yang takes the opportunity to crack her knuckles and tries to make herself seem taller. She glances toward the end of the alley — where the girl ran off to. Yang could probably make it, if she started now.

If they still kept their guns in their holsters.

“No interest?” Mercury laughs and he hits the wall again. “Oh, well.”

Just like that, he’s running toward her, weapon raised, and flanked by the two others. Yang takes several quick steps back, almost stumbling, but they’re moving too fast. She should turn to run, it would be faster, but every instinct screaming inside of her says not to turn her back on her opponent — not to run.

And somewhere, in the distance, she hears whale song.

Wait. No.

That’s gunfire. Several quick shots that hit their mark, blood splattering all across the alleyway, mixing with the filthy rain water from the early morning.

Mercury screams and drops to the ground, a pool of blood forming underneath his shattered legs. One of the two Hatters isn’t so lucky; she drops and then goes utterly silent, staring upward.

And the redhead is nowhere to be found. Probably run off, the bastard, and isn’t that just the perfect irony.

Because while Yang has never actually heard the guns from this close, she knows that sound instantly. It’s why she’s not surprised — only very, very afraid — when she turns to see the City Watch blocking the mouth of the alleyway.

So this is it then.

She always thought there was a chance she’d be arrested — it’s almost a rite of passage when you’re poor enough — but she didn’t think it might involve a risk of dying in a hail of bullets. She holds up her hands, palms out, and hopes the woman at the front might take pity on her.

She’s tall, very precise and proper, with her dark red hair pulled back tight away from her face. Getting a better look at her now, she couldn’t be much older than Yang herself. Definitely not the head of the guard then.

Maybe she’ll have some pity.

“Hello,” the woman says, her voice level and calm, but almost warm. In other circumstances, Yang might even think it was friendly. “Is this her, your Imperial Highness?”

“Yes,” says a slightly familiar voice, with the emphasis of someone who is used to people doing what she says.

The guards part like the tide pulling back from the shore, and there stands the random girl.

Her hat is discarded now, thick dark hair (as black as the Void) trailing down around her shoulders. It’s entirely the wrong time to think it, but Yang can’t help but notice how attractively disheveled she looks, or the way her golden eyes have softened now. “I’m sorry,” the girl is saying, holding out her hand. Every assembled member of the City Watch actually appears to visibly tense, which she very resolutely ignores. “We haven’t been properly introduced.”

She smiles and waits, holding out her hand.

Yang hesitates, her eyes scanning the rows of guns that are still pointed much closer to her than she would like. “… yeah, hey.” She waits a moment longer before stepping closer. And then another step. Finally, they’re close enough for her to reach out and take the other girl’s hand. “I’m Yang.”

“Blake.”

Yeah, Yang had started to work that much out.

And now she’s really glad she didn’t give the girl her famous wink earlier. She’s really sure that someone like her isn’t meant to flirt with Blake Belladonna, Imperial Princess of the Empire of the Isles.

She’s also probably not supposed to hold her hand for this long, which she realizes and then immediately drops. “… sorry,” she mumbles. She grins, but then thinks better of it, settling into a more neutral expression.

“Don’t be.” Now that her face isn’t occupied with being enraged, Blake actually comes across as kind of dry, even faintly smirking. Her eyebrows lift as she eyes Yang up and down, evaluating her in almost the exact same way all nobility tends to before sending her off on some errand. “Do you usually go head first into danger to help someone you don’t know?”

“It’s not always the head. I usually prefer my fists.”

Just behind Blake’s shoulder, Yang notices the redheaded woman is almost smiling at that. And Blake’s own smirk is only bigger. “Do you know how to use other weapons than your hands?”

“Not… really.” Yang is trying to follow this line of questioning. Is she being accused of something? Some robbery that might have happened nearby? “Hands are a lot easier to keep track of.”

She thinks she could make a joke about wandering hands, but very much thinks better of it, given the circumstances.

“But you think you could learn?” Blake’s expression has grown soft again. Yang had always thought nobility had a tendency to hide their emotions behind the still, lifeless masks that they called their faces, but this girl is different. “Do you think you’d want to learn?”

“To learn… what?” Yang blinks. She tries to refocus. “Sorry, I don’t follow.”

“I’m asking if you would like to be a part of my royal guard, Yang.”

“Your what?”

One of the soldiers near the back exclaims it first — though the others move to shush her quickly — but the sentiment is quickly echoed by Yang herself. “Your what?”

“I think you heard me.”

Yang did hear it, but she’s not sure she believes it.

“Like … with a sword. And a gun? And— and a job, and—”

“And risking your life for mine, so please try to think it over before you—”

“Yes,” Yang says, because she doesn’t need to think. She’s done plenty of thinking already. “Yes, I will. Gladly.” She waits a moment and then remembers, “Your Imperial Highness.”

Blake actually cringes, her voice low when she says, “Please don’t call me that.” Her words are whisper soft, like the water lapping against your feet when you stand close to the shore. “Just Blake is fine.”

Yang is certain that’s not actually true, that calling nobility anything less than what they see themselves as is a mistake, but she isn’t about to argue with the person who just offered her the nicest position anyone in her family has ever had the chance to rise to. “Yes, alright. Blake then.”

She holds out her hand to shake and every gathered member of the City Watch looks absolutely mortified; obviously it was the wrong call, but Blake takes her hand again anyway. She shakes it, firmly, like a business agreement has been reached.

For just a moment, Yang can’t help but think that the Imperial Princess of the Empire of the Isles has more callouses than she thinks anyone would expect.

Somewhere far off in the distance, she thinks she can hear the sound of whales singing.

Chapter Text

Dunwall Tower is unlike anywhere Ruby has ever been before. It is so nice.

In fact it's so very, very nice that the word "nice" starts to seem insufficient. It is magnificent. Magical.

And also really, really absurdly big.

"Yang!" Ruby shouts the first time she's brought there, bouncing along at her sister's side. Ruby has noticed that sometimes her level of enthusiasm is enough that people need a little easing into it; shouting their name at them seems to at least partially do the trick. "Is this what it's like standing next to a whale?"

"What?" Yang gives her a strange look, clearly not on the same wavelength at all (yet).

"Big!" Ruby gestures emphatically at the buildings around them. "Huge!"

"... no, sis, animals — even really, really big ones — are nothing like buildings."

"But—” Ruby gestures again. "So big!"

"For one thing the buildings stay in one place. And for another, they're, you know. Not alive." Yang blinks at her slowly, like she's not sure she's in on the joke. (There is no joke! Only excitement.) "You have seen a whale before, right?"

Ruby actually physically waves her hand to shoo the question away. It's that absurd. "Only dead ones. They're boring." She very quickly jogs past Yang to hoist herself up onto the nearest stone ledge to survey the training grounds below. "Wow!" She twists around — dangling her legs back on this side instead — and Yang moves as though she might need to catch her. Not likely! "Is this where you learn to shoot a gun?"

"I don't really—”

Ruby gasps. "Haven't they given you a gun yet? Do they not trust you? Have you been disloyal?" She vaults back down from the ledge, the members of the Watch below already completely forgotten, and grabs Yang by the lapels of her guard's jacket. "Yang, you can be honest with me. Are you going to be fired? Did you shoot— no, murder someone?"

"So this is the level we're going to be at today, huh? Like... all day?"

Ruby releases her. "My own sister. A wanted criminal."

"Could you keep it down?" Yang says, and for a moment at least the grin has almost slipped away from her face. She might actually be serious. "I'm not everyone here's favorite person."

"Really?" Ruby sounds dubious.

"Well, not yet."

There. The grin is back, and all is right with the world.

*

Especially as the tour continues and Ruby gets a good look at the library!

Holy cow.

She knows it's not polite to make a lot of noise when other people are probably trying to do some reading — although actually it's practically empty, just one dark skinned girl close to their age with black hair and gold eyes, and nobody else, does no one in this tower realize what a treasure they've got right underneath their noses — and okay, so maybe Ruby is running through the stacks and she's shouting a little, but that's just because Yang isn't keeping up.

"Keep up, Yang!"

The entire history of Tyvia! Every book of poems or philosophy from Morley that’s ever been printed, ever! Entire collections on wine making practices in Serkonos, and a row after row about every inch of Gristol and the seat of power within the Empire, Dunwall herself.

Ruby lets out an impressed whistle and quickly climbs up one of the bookshelves. She might not be as good at climbing as Yang, but she's just fine when motivated. She nears the top and reaches for a particular volume that catches her eye. "Yang! It's a book on whaling!"

It's only now, teetering way up high, that Ruby bothers to look down and see her sister's strangely mortified expression.

And that random girl is standing right there with her, for some reason.

"I am so sorry," Yang is saying to the stranger in a hushed and urgent way, and if Ruby didn't know better she'd actually swear her sister is blushing. "She's not usually like this."

That is definitely not true, and Yang should know better than to lie when she's already started turning red. It only makes her neck go even pinker!

Luckily, the stranger is only looking up at Ruby, her golden eyes a little wide with what might actually be concern. "It's fine, but can she get down?"

"I'm fine!"

She is not fine and in fact her grip is slipping a little.

"Could you just..."

"Drop the book," Yang calls up but, after the stranger's startled look, quickly adds, "I'll catch it!"

Ruby drops the book without any further prompting. True to her word, Yang snatches it out of the air, making it look easy. She turns to give the girl next to her a grin before handing her the book.

"I'm glad you rescued the poor book, but could you please worry about me now?"

Ruby feels like she should be trying not to shout, but that’s too bad.

Because she’s definitely shouting.

"The book didn't do anything wrong," Yang calls back. "You put yourself there! But if you let go, I'll catch you too."

"That sounds like a terrible idea. What if she crushes you?"

"I'm not that heavy," Ruby says with maybe too much emphasis.

Yang claps her hands together and lowers herself into a readying stance. "Come on, sis. I got you."

And she probably does, Ruby knows that. Yang is the strongest person she's ever known, especially as she's gotten older.

So yeah, no problem, she can catch her. Just let go. One, two, three. No problem.

Just go. One, two—

The door slams open abruptly and a very angry — and very loud — woman storms in, shouting at the very top of her lungs, “What sort of ill-bred idiot is making such a commo—” Right then, the woman rounds the corner and sees Ruby dangling from the very top of the bookshelf. She gasps and covers her mouth, which is very dramatic but really does seem to be the kind of behavior that must happen a lot at the Tower.

“Don’t worry about it, Weiss, we’ve got things under control.”

“Oh, certainly!” The woman, apparently named Weiss, flings her arm up dramatically. “I can see that!”

Ruby does not want to interrupt what is clearly some kind of ongoing ordeal between her sister and the woman dressed all in white, but her grip is very much slipping at this point. “Hey… guys? A little help, please?”

“Just shut up a second, Weiss, okay—” Yang turns quickly away from the woman and whatever weird dramatic conflict they have going on and calls back up, “Just jump, okay, I got you!”

Sure, just jump. Easy. One, two—

"Ruby, now!”

—threeeeeee!

She lets go, barreling backward and then down, down, down — maybe not quite that far, but it feels that way — into Yang's awaiting arms with an incredibly necessary, "Oomph,” and an impact that almost sends them both rocking backward into the bookcase behind them.

“You okay, sis?”

“Never better!”

It is definitely a lie, and she actually feels a little bit woozy, even after she’s deposited back on the ground.

“What did you think you were doing!”

The Weiss person definitely likes to shout. She’s doing a lot more of it now.

“Lady Schnee, we had things perfectly under control.”

A noble lady. Of course.

It makes sense that someone who yells a lot and is rude to her sister for no reason would be nobility of all things.

Not that Ruby has met a lot of nobility outside of the real jerks who hang around the docks and sniff the air like they’re better than everyone.

Lady Weiss Schnee sure seems like a real air sniffer!

But right now she does not sniff the air or look better than everyone else. Instead she looks a little alarmed, maybe chastised, and says, “My apologies, your Imperial Highness.”

Oh, wow! That’s a lot bigger than just being a noble Lady, Ruby is pretty sure.

“Your— your—” Ruby tries to say it back, to use the full title like she’s pretty sure is expected, but the words get caught up on her tongue, especially now that the woman who is apparently some kind of royalty — maybe the princess Blake Belladonna, next in line to be ruler of the Empire of the Isles?? — looks directly at her and her whole brain freezes up, restarts, and then surges into sudden overdrive. “— oh, I am so sorry, you’re the owner of all these books, aren’t you! Or your family is. And I was almost stepping on them. Or landing on them. I could have hurt your books! Or… you, I suppose, but Yang was probably going to take care of that.”

The princess Blake Belladonna of the Empire of the Isles blinks very slowly and her very royal gaze shifts over to Yang. She blinks again. “Is she always like this?”

For a moment, Yang actually looks like she considers lying again, so Ruby answers for her. “I am!” She rocks on the balls of her feet and folds her hands in front of her, very prim and proper, as one should be in front of royalty!

“I promise it’s charming. Eventually.”

“What, no, always!” Ruby huffs and turns her attention back to Blake. Blake Belladonna, princess of the Empire of the Isles! “And what about you, my Lady Your Highness? Have you always been a princess? Wait, no— that’s stupid. Of course you have. Forget I said anything. Next question!”

“I’ve got one,” the still very angry Lady Schnee cuts in. “Who is this person and why are you subjecting us to her?”

The way Yang adjusts her shoulders is something Ruby has seen a million times before, though she isn’t usually wearing a really proper uniform when she does it. (Not once before, actually.) It really changes the whole effect! It’s kind of formal but still cool. “Lady Schnee, this is my kid sister. And you’re going to be nice to her because she’s just a nice kid and also she isn’t me.”

“Well, she certainly doesn’t smell like you.”

“That was the first day!”

“You promised you’d let it drop, Weiss.”

“My apologies, your Imperial Highness, but—”

Honestly, this boring conversation carries on like that for quite some time, and Ruby isn’t paying any attention at all. Because this Weiss character, for whatever reason, is carrying a sword. A really cool really sharp really sophisticated rapier, just there at her side. Maybe she was going for lessons? Maybe she carries it with her always? Maybe it’s required for some kind of counterbalance to offset her very big head?

The point is! Ruby really, really wants to touch it.

So badly.

And maybe that shows on her face.

“What is your sister doing?”

Definitely wasn’t drooling! Or staring too long at the sword! Or moving closer so that she could pretend to bump into Weiss and have a chance to touch it, none of those things were happening at all.

“She likes… weapons.”

The way Yang trails off like that, you’d think she was admitting to something bad, instead of a purely scientific and intellectual interest in the implements of war and bloodshed.

You know, normal thirteen year old kid stuff.

Even if right now both Weiss and Blake are looking back and forth between Yang and Ruby, almost like they’re suspicious. “I promise she’s never, ever stabbed anyone,” Yang says after a moment.

“Not even accidentally!”

The look that Yang gives her makes it seem like maybe she isn’t helping.

*

That first trip to the Tower was… eventful. Not only did Ruby get to meet Blake, who is technically her sister’s new employer, but she also met a Lady! Lady Schnee!

She really doesn’t think she ever wants to do that part again.

But the visiting the big Tower and meeting a princess was alright.

She wouldn’t mind more of that.

*

It’s not as though there isn’t lots to do in the meantime, of course.

The coin her family has been bringing home has been put to very good use for a while now. First it was books — not nearly as many as Blake and her family have, obviously, but still way more books than there were in the house when she and Yang were much younger — and Ruby doesn’t want any of it to go to waste. So she reads and she reads, for hours and hours. And the note taking! So many meticulous notes that she has to create a system to help preserve so much paper for later use and reference.

Then come the lessons.

First it's Uncle Qrow, fulfilling his promise to Yang to teach Ruby to better defend herself. That’s always so much fun! It begins with the basics, he calls it, practicing with the same busted wooden swords Yang used to pick fights with in the alleys.

This much, at least, comes for free.

Apart from the bruises.

Uncle Qrow doesn’t pull any of his hits, whacking her sharply in the elbows or sometimes the ear to make his point. “You learn faster when it hurts.”

That’s the kind of overdramatic thing he has a tendency to say, but Ruby isn’t really sure it’s true. She doesn’t think people necessarily need to suffer in order to become better people or anything — but in this case it is definitely motivating. Getting hit is never any fun, so she really tries to avoid it!

Especially when he announces that they’ll be switching from wood to real daggers in a week’s time.

“What, why?”

“I think it’ll really help you.” Qrow grins his sharp grin she’s seen him use before getting into fights at a pub. “Come on, kid, admit it. Haven’t you always kind of wanted to stab me?”

Ruby’s pretty sure that there is no safe answer to a question like that. “I definitely have not?” she says, wishing it didn’t come out sounding so uncertain.

“Exactly.”

*

Ruby does not end up stabbing her uncle, but that might only be because Yang gets a few days off from her new job at the Tower and comes home to visit.

It’s still so weird seeing her in a uniform! Especially the one worn by the City Watch, colors that every kid from a certain side of Dunwall has an almost instinctive reaction to. It’s like a warning sign you can spot from far away. If it wasn’t Yang wearing it, the sight might turn Ruby’s stomach, without even thinking.

But it is Yang, and that smile is contagious.

“You’re home!” Ruby flings her arms around her sister and squeezes until she thinks maybe she hears bones creaking, but maybe that’s just her overactive imagination. People say she has one of those. “Did you bring me any books from the library?”

“Those aren’t actually mine, you know.” Yang lifts her eyebrows like maybe she’s teasing and for the moment Ruby allows herself to hold out hope that her sister did the only morally justifiable thing and actually definitely did bring her a book. (She probably didn’t.) “Honestly, I’m not sure they even count as Blake’s either. More like… they belong to the realm.”

“I’m a part of the realm!”

Yang squints, like she’s seriously reconsidering this now. Seen the error in her ways. “Well… yeah. I guess you are.”

“I know I am!”

Ruby puts on her most winning smile, like maybe she’ll be able to retroactively convince her sister to travel back in time and bring books home with her.

To borrow!

It’s not stealing if you return it in perfect condition and nobody even notices!

“Well, sorry, but maybe next time, okay?” Yang takes another step toward the front door and then hesitates. Usually she barrels her way in head first — kind of like she does with most things — or at least leads with her shoulder, but her uniform jacket is pristine and new. She reaches to unbutton it and very carefully folds it over one arm before pulling the door open and stepping inside.

There’s really nowhere she can put it down that isn’t already the kind of mess that could probably transfer onto such nice fabric. Ruby is pretty sure that food stains and filth aren’t a standard part of the City Watch uniform protocol.

Yang purses her lips in a very faint start of a frown.

“Maybe next time you wear your civilian clothes, huh?”

She says it gently, or at least she means to, but that look on Yang’s face only gets deeper.

“Yeah. I guess I didn’t really think.”

Not for the first time, but sharper than she can ever remember, Ruby realizes that her sister is a person who exists fully outside of her. That when they’re apart, Yang is still doing, still changing. More than the muscles she got out to sea, her sister might become a whole new person while she’s at the Tower.

Yang might slowly become someone who doesn’t fit inside their home anymore, but maybe Ruby might one day be someone like that too.

She’s not sure how to feel about that. For either of them.

*

The homecoming starts off admittedly a little bit rough, but that just means there’s so much room for improvement!

Because of course Yang still belongs with them. She’s a part of the family. She’s the center of it, in a lot of ways, especially if you consider how hardheadedness can be really foundational. She’s like the concrete they built the rest of the stuff on! Sturdy and strong and likely to give you a concussion if it lands on you hard enough.

Eventually Yang settles for hanging her jacket over the back of the chair she usually sits in for dinner, a relaxed smile back on her lips.

Uncle Qrow returns home shortly after that with a fresh bottle of whiskey that he declares they’re now all old enough to drink from — “at least until your dad gets home” — but Ruby almost instantly regrets her decision to take two big gulps back to back.

It’s awful.

No, wait, that’s not sufficient.

It’s terrible and disgusting, like someone setting your stomach on fire and then spitting in your mouth just for good measure, and then after it’s like you can feel the liquid swirling around inside your stomach when you move too fast.

The solution she settles on is to not move at all.

“Is this why you’re always in a bad mood, Uncle Qrow?” Ruby asks, face down on the table directly in front of her.

“… am I?”

“What, like that’s not deliberate? I thought it was a part of the mystique.”

“Mystique, huh?” Qrow audibly takes a drink. “You think the ladies might find that attractive?”

“Not even a little.”

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Ruby declares loudly, to no one in particular.

“Just don’t get it on my jacket or new boots, okay?”

“I will. Right on the boots. The laces! Where it won’t wash out!” Ruby has moved only far enough to be able to get a better look at the boots in question, so that she can be sure they have laces for her to comment on. And they do! And, wow, they’re actually… so nice. Her sister is living like a fancy person now, with soft looking leather boots that probably hold up to the conditions of the street better than anything Ruby’s ever had on her feet before. “Wow, those are nice, Yang.” She very lightly bumps the edge of her sister’s boot with her own. “I guess I’ll try to miss.”

“Maybe just a really careful outline.”

“To emphasize them.” Ruby lifts her head from the table. “It’s flattering when you think about it.”

“I’d rather not.”

“No.” Ruby narrows her eyes in feigned but still very sudden and seemingly intense indignation. “I want you to think about it. Right now!”

Uncle Qrow makes a face, like he still doesn’t understand anything about the kids who have been growing up under the same roof as him for years. “Are we… still talking about Ruby’s puke?”

“We are!” Ruby raises one hand (very triumphantly) and points it at Yang. “And her shoes.” The finger moves over to Uncle Qrow. “And your … booze!”

“You thought it would be a good idea to make her less inhibited,” Yang monotones. “Such a great idea.”

“She shouldn’t have had enough to make a difference.”

“I am not drunk.” Ruby sits up even straighter, the actual indignation replacing her earlier mockery of it. “This is just me, thank you very much.”

For one of the first times all night, Yang’s smile feels as real as it’s ever been and any actual annoyance or even the pretense of it just completely melts away.

Ruby’s sister is really home, if only for a few days.

*

Yang helps with Ruby’s training during her days off, when she can.

She teaches some of the same techniques it seems like she’s been learning in the training yard at the Tower. Her manner becomes very practiced and precise, almost overly cautious.

So basically nothing like the normal Yang.

But it’s sweet somehow. Like she’s actually worried.

“You know that I’m not totally useless without you, right?” Ruby asks.

“Sure, but I’m not the only one who’s gone some days.”

Most days.

Ever since Yang first left, Ruby is home alone at night on most days, and it’s fine, you know, she’s getting used to it. It means more time to read, more time to her thoughts, more time to talk to herself — but at least usually she does that out loud instead of only in her head because then that might actually be crazy.

Saying those things you’re thinking out loud automatically makes it more normal and sane, right?

Right.

As compared to right now when Ruby is thinking a whole lot, but all she says is, “I could always just whack them with a book.”

“Not any I bring you from the Tower, you can’t.”

Yang takes a quick swing at Ruby’s jaw, as if to emphasize her point, and Ruby’s so distracted by the promise of books that she almost doesn’t remember to try to deflect it. She doesn’t manage until the last minute, so the weight doesn’t redirect well and it actually almost stings.

But she’s too excited about books to care. “So you’re going to? Bring me books.”

“If you survive long enough for me to get them here.”

This time Ruby’s ready for the follow up swing. “Oh, am I near the end?” And a third. “Because if these are my final days, I’d rather spend them doing… just about anything else other than this, like maybe using a real gun or a sword might be better.”

Yang rolls her eyes and grabs for Ruby’s wrist — this time her movement is so rapid that it makes it really obvious every swing she was taking before was deliberately slowed — to quickly twist and then flip her onto her back, knocking all the wind out of her at once.

“Oof!”

Yang stands over Ruby, blinking down at her slowly. Her jacket has been abandoned since that first night, but she’s still wearing one of her uniform appropriate button up shirts, with the sleeves rolled up to just past her elbow. “If I had a sword or a gun, you’d be dead.”

If you had a gun,” Ruby says, speaking slowly as though reaching a gradual conclusion before grinning triumphantly. She points upward at her sister. “So you admit they haven’t given you one!”

Yang rolls her eyes and offers Ruby her hand. Which she does take (she’s not too proud). “If you want to survive long enough for books, you’re going to have to make sure Uncle Qrow doesn’t stab you to death either.”

“Did he try to knife you too? Is this a thing he does to family members?” Ruby gasps with exactly the correct amount of dramatic emphasis. “What if we had an older brother we don’t know about and Uncle Qrow killed him?”

“You done?”

“Almost!” But then, just as abruptly as Ruby’s brain went down this trail of thought, it veers off again. “Wait, if you’ve learned how to use daggers then how come you still mostly just hit stuff?”

Yang shrugs. “More fun.”

So far Ruby finds that hard to agree with.

*

Yang spends a lot of the rest of the weekend helping with Ruby’s instruction, sure, but there are other things too.

They race each other climbing to the terrace overlooking Clavering Boulevard. It’s a street where fancy and wealthy folks live — that’s why it’s named for a dead High Overseer, since that’s about as fancy as you can get — so Ruby doesn’t usually like to spend time there, neither of them do, but sometimes the doctor who lives halfway down the street hires people to clean his mansion or even the laboratory. He does experiments in there on all kinds of things, and Ruby’s taken notes but only when he isn’t looking.

She doesn’t think he’s the kind of man who would be fine with a child looking at his research, particularly one who was smart enough to understand it. People like him like to feel better than children, especially poor ones, but that makes it easier to learn things.

Ruby’s pretty sure the only reason he’s allowed her into his research area at all is he seems to think she doesn’t know how to read at all.

Sometimes the wealthy and the nobility, especially those around Clavering, are so hateful that it can be used against them, or at least to your. His knowledge can be useful! And sneaking around his study while he’s sleeping is good fun, but today Yang is with her so Ruby doesn’t even try to find out if he’s hiring.

Instead they buy a handful of grapes each and see who can spit the seeds furthest.

It’s always pretty fun to compete with Yang in little things like this, but even better when there are haughty rich people passing down the same street, looking more outraged by the minute.

Yang lets Ruby tag along after to say hi to some of her friends at The Golden Cat — “they are actually just friends, sis, I’m fifteen and they’re adults, don’t be gross” — but almost seems to immediately regret it when they all insist they should provide Ruby with the necessary “education” to keep herself safe. From men and boys, they say — “are we so sure there’s a difference” — and Yang makes some excuse to leave quickly.

The two of them walk down to the docks at the end of the long day to see the sun set over the horizon.

Ruby watches her sister’s face as the setting sun lights up in her eyes. She wonders, for the moment, if Yang sometimes misses all of this. The sea and the sense of freedom, sure, but even the streets and the games they used to play.

She wonders if Yang misses her, but is afraid to ask.

*

When Yang’s first days off from work end and it’s time for her to return to the Tower, she lingers for a moment in the doorway, jacket slung over one shoulder. Their father is seated at the table, looking smaller than Ruby ever remembers seeing him. He stares at his mug of something — maybe the same rum that Uncle Qrow is usually drinking — but he doesn’t say anything.

It’s way too quiet.

So Ruby speaks first. “I’d say we’ll miss you, but you’re still going to be right here. Unmissable.”

Ruby realizes it’s not really the same for Qrow or their dad, though. They are already gone so often, and now their schedules don’t even overlap with Yang’s. But when Dad looks up from his cup, he’s smiling. He’s trying. “Take good care of yourself. And eat well.”

“Yeah,” Yang says, her voice so soft. It’s never soft. She’s never quiet like this, and it makes it all feel even worse. “I know, dad.”

And just like that, the doorway is empty, the wooden door banging sternly on its hinges.

Even though Yang did her best to slip out quietly, her departure is still felt.

*

Maybe it was that weird ending that keeps Yang away after that.

She has other days off, after all. Long periods in between training where she is free to do as she likes, but now she seldom comes home. She’ll write to Ruby, sometimes. Invites her to come back around to the Tower or promises to deliver her books, but they usually meet in a public square or something.

Yang doesn’t return home, not often. When she does, it’s on days when Uncle Qrow and dad are still away at sea. Ruby can’t help but wonder if her sister still remembers enough of the schedule to know when they won’t be home.

But that feels stupid to even consider. It’s so unlike Yang.

Still, when she does return home, she never brings her jacket again.

*

Alongside the fighting lessons — from Uncle Qrow and from Yang — Ruby also receives much more varied instruction in just about everything else imaginable.

And she has a very good imagination.

In addition to the books she brings home, Yang sometimes brings a small satchel filled with coin. Her father and Uncle deliver some too, all tied up in a small pouch. Ruby keeps it all hidden under her mattress, all the coins she needs to pay for instructors.

She rotates through them, learning all she can from each one’s limited area of knowledge. The sort of professors that are experienced in a wider array of information are not usually bought for so cheap a price, so instead she finds specialists — people with only one area of expertise — and she drains them of every ounce of that knowledge, paying and visiting them until there is nothing else to know.

She studies history and economics. She learns the biology of all kinds of things but especially whale oil processing, which is especially useful in Dunwall. She carefully studies everything that happens on the whaling ships or in the factories. She reads about the long history of sailors’ claims that the beasts are violent and deadly brutes that must be subdued, but also about workers crushed underneath the gears used to tame them. She learns that the oil is more plentiful if you keep the whale alive for longer as you harvest. She studies the diaries of men gone mad from their long work disassembling.

The more she reads, the more grateful she is that her family has only ever worked at sea.

She is grateful, especially, that Yang isn’t out there at all anymore.

The books describe what can be done with each and every part of the whale’s body — how the fat is rendered and the way the processed oil becomes energy — but they are curiously silent on the topic of bones. Ruby isn’t surprised, of course. Any books that would come from the Tower library must be Overseer approved, after all.

They couldn’t possibly talk about how whale bones are utilized in the worship of the Outsider.

So Ruby is going to have to find that out on her own.

*

Ever since she returned from the sea, Yang has felt differently about the Outsider than she did before.

Maybe she doesn’t think anyone’s noticed, but Ruby certainly has.

Before then, Yang was largely apathetic; but now someone will mention his name in the street and her sister will tense. Maybe she blames his lack of protection as the reason she came so close to death. He’s supposed to keep sailors afloat, isn’t he? But her sister nearly sank to the bottom of his waters. Ruby can understand the cause for resentment.

It’s not as though she trusts anything he represents or hopes to worship him herself.

It’s just that if he is some kind of all knowing and all powerful being who can understand and direct the course of human history, then maybe a short conversation wouldn’t hurt. If nothing else, he could seriously help Ruby with directing the focus of her studies to make her more productive. There are so many things to learn! Especially if she wants to actually be of use to the Empire sometime before she’s too old to actually do anything.

It’s just too much.

And for someone like her, with no background and hardly an impressive family name, to be listened to in the Tower or amongst the legendary minds of the Empire, she needs to make a strong early impression. She needs to know enough to hold her own.

Ruby definitely has no interest in ever worshipping the Outsider — the black-eyed bastard, as many in the street call him — but she might not mind a quick chat.

*

Bones. It starts with the bones.

Everyone knows that, but what more after?

Most accounts about how you go about summoning the Outsider — it probably qualifies as summoning since there’s definitely ritual and ceremony involved — originate, as far as Ruby can tell, way back in ancient times with a large rune that is his symbol carved into the bones of even larger whales. The modern version are much smaller charms, still made from bone, and sewn into hiding spots in your clothing. They’re supposed to do all kinds of things, from increased fertility to warding off smells.

Maybe not wearing the body parts of dead things or running water over yourself occasionally would help more with that much, Ruby thinks, but lots of the people of the slums swear by the things; she wouldn’t be surprised if Uncle Qrow had one or two tucked away inside his jacket. But the originals are supposed to be better and bigger.

Much, much bigger.

How you go about finding a whale bone of that size these days without working in a refinery is beyond Ruby’s best guess.

Unless people just steal them.

*

Ruby is careful to leave all of her valuables — coin purse especially — at home before she goes looking for Emerald Sustrai.

She expects to find her somewhere in the Distillery District, most likely in search of work from the Bottle Street Gang, but she is a bit surprised to find her just there at the end of Endoria Street, hanging around outside the home of Granny Rags. Emerald is a thief and not entirely known for her high moral standards — which is why Ruby expects her to know plenty about the Outsider as well as possible sources for acquiring large whale bone — but it’s not usually like her to throw rocks at the house of an old women. Even one as generally unstable as Granny Rags.

She’s not alone, though.

“Come out, old woman,” says the older girl standing just in front of Emerald, hefting a small rock in her hand. “We only want to talk!”

Ruby hangs back at the mouth of the alley, crouching down to listen.

“No one comes to talk these days, dearie,” a strained voice says from inside the home. “You best run along or I shall grow quite hungry.” She laughs and the sound sends the hairs on the back of Ruby’s neck on end.

Everyone knows about Granny Rags. She is almost exactly like a harmless old woman is expected to be, at least in how she looks, but also the rest of her is not at all harmless, not even a little bit. One family down the way swears she stole their pet dog and then ate it.

Ruby would believe that.

“You bore me, old woman.”

The rock collides with the building’s window and a shriek can be heard from inside. “I’ll send him after you! Don’t think I won’t.”

Emerald is starting to look concerned. This is the kind of shouting that can draw a crowd, even if it’s only to stare and watch, and destroying someone else’s property is technically against the law, even if the Watch don’t usually bother to come and protect the people of the slums from each other outside of a more deadly fight. (Even Yang, now that she’s one of them, doesn’t like to get involved in disputes she knows might only become further agitated by the appearance of someone in a bluish grey coat.)

Ruby has no interest in just gaping at a woman suffering, but she’s not sure she should intervene either. What’s the right thing to do when you’re not sure that either group is actually very good people?

But that’s probably not fair.

She came looking for Emerald and wanted to ask her things, to use her knowledge and resources for her own gain (like she does just about anyone else), and she didn’t even bring payment. How much better is she?

Well.

Good enough that she wouldn’t be throwing another rock like Emerald’s — admittedly rather well dressed — friend is. “I won’t be turned away again!” And another. “If you can call him, then do it.”

Ruby feels certain, beyond any doubt, that they are talking about the Outsider.

By now Emerald looks almost like she’s pleading, saying something too soft for Ruby to hear from this far away, and the woman almost looks swayed.

She hesitates, frowning and scowls at Emerald. “You won’t boss me around like some servant.” She shakes the hand off her elbow and shouts back at the apartments, “I’ll be back, woman! With coin if it’s what you need. And then you’ll answer questions.”

What sort of answers do people expect from a woman who eats dogs and has on at least one occasion, in front of witnesses, been seen pretending to have a conversation with a rat?

Crazy ones, probably.

But maybe you have to be a little bit crazy to want to speak to the Outsider.

Maybe it’s a really, really stupid idea.

*

That’s why Ruby doesn’t tell anyone when she goes looking for Emerald again the next day.

She doesn’t find her, though, and maybe that’s for the best.

What was she planning to do exactly? Ask the master thief to rob a whale refinery and run off with a massive bone slung over her shoulder? That’s probably something that the City Watch would notice and even Yang couldn’t get them out of that one.

Not that her sister would probably even want to help Ruby on her quest to contact the Outsider through creepy ritualistic means just to ask him a couple questions about life, the universe, etc.

Really it’s probably for the best if she drops this line of investigation completely.

At least, for now.

*

Ruby can’t help but think that maybe her weird little diversions and side tangents into very specific areas of inquiry are because she’s lonely. She’d hate to admit it out loud — saying you’re bored is like admitting to being boring, right, because interesting people can usually entertain themselves — but ever since Yang left, the house is really… empty.

And, alright, yes: it’s boring.

It’s really, really boring, even with all the new and interesting things there are to learn. It’s just too quiet.

Not that Yang was just constant noise, because she was obviously more than that. But also she was constantly noisy too, and the silence is really unsettling.

Ruby doesn’t say it, but it must be obvious (somehow) in her demeanor because one day dad comes home with a present.

As usual, he is in after Uncle Qrow, but the two of them exchange a knowing look just as soon as dad is through the door. “I’ve got you something, Ruby. Now you can tell me if you don’t want it, but—”

There is probably meant to be some mystery here.

Her dad is speaking like it’s going to be a big surprise, like Ruby can’t see the bundle in his arms that is wriggling around. Or hear the bark that’s punctuating every other word.

“— I think it would be—” Bark. “—very good for you—” Bark bark. “—to learn some of these responsib—” Bark bark bark. “—ilities.”

Ruby is so excited that she’s almost jumping out of her skin. She bounces onto the balls of her feet. “You brought home a puppy!”

“… yes. I was going to say more about—” As if on cue, the dog sticks its fluffy little head up out of the bundle and barks again. “—showing us you’re ready for adulthood.”

Ruby is listening, she totally is, and she gets how this is about being an adult and mature and everything important like that, but also this is the most precious and the cutest furry little friend she’s ever seen with the fluffiest little face.

“What’s his name! Can I name him? How do we feed him? Is he going away with you two on the boats or does he get seasick?” Ruby gasps, a sudden horrific thought flashing through her mind. “What if he falls overboard!”

“He isn’t going with us,” her dad answers quickly, as if he actually thinks that will be enough to dissuade this trail of thought now that Ruby has launched herself down it. “He’s going to keep you company.”

The dog barks again and Ruby holds out her arms, ready to embrace him.

The entire dog is barely more than a bundle himself, all fur and compact bones, and a lot of dense body heat. Ruby holds him close and she can almost feel her entire body temperature rising. “Now who’s a good boy?”

The dog licks her face with a tongue like sandpaper and bumps her shoulder with his head, over and over.

It’ll be like a work in progress, but that’s okay. Ruby can appreciate that kind of thing.

*

The next time Yang meets with Ruby to exchange one of the finished books with another from the library — this one on mining practices across the Empire, particularly regional variances in geological construction — she brings the puppy along with her.

His name, the family has decided, is Zwei; and when he wags his tail his entire body almost vibrates with the excitement.

“I’m gone for just a few months and you replace me with a dog.” Yang tsks, placing Ruby’s finished book — this one about gardening — into the satchel she’s carrying on her back. “Is this basically like admitting I was the family guard dog?”

“I’m pretty sure that would have required you listening to us. Any time. Ever.”

“Oh, yeah.” But Yang only smiles. “So can he do any tricks?”

“Yes!”

Ruby is so enthusiastic and eager in her response that Zwei almost looks startled, ears perked up and entire back end wagging side to side.

“… I can’t wait.”

“Zwei, sit!” The dog looks at Ruby, shakes his entire being with excitement, and then barks. “Zwei, roll over!” Another bark and this time Zwei adds a little hop for good measure. “Zwei, paw! Paw, Zwei! Sit! No, no— stay right— stay, Zwei.” Another bark. “… Zwei, speak!”

This time Ruby is met with silence.

“Wow, yeah, he’s great. Should I be offended if this is my replacement?”

“He is really, really good at what he does, it just takes a minute, okay!” Ruby actually stomps one foot but immediately regrets it based on the smirk her sister gives her.

“Is that a full minute, like on a clock? Because I can count you down if you need it.”

“Thank you very much for the book, but didn’t you say you have somewhere to be?”

“I’m pretty sure I can delay patrols by a minute.” Yang peers down at the eager pup. “Isn’t that right, buddy? If I want to see you sit?”

Just like that, Zwei sits. The little fuzzy faced traitor.

Yang’s laugh is just absurdly loud. She really is really noisy.

*

The next time they meet, Ruby has taught Zwei to sit when she says so (most of the time), which she’s pretty excited to demonstrate for Yang.

Who did not come alone.

Ruby had been sitting in the street — the better to play with Zwei at eye level, after all — but stands abruptly when she sees the two women coming. That’s absolutely the princess (her Imperial Highness) walking next to Yang, even if she’s wearing some kind of hat to probably try to blend in.

Who would fall for that?

Who thinks someone looks like something totally other than what they are just because they have something on their head!

It doesn’t matter, there’s no more time to think about it really, because the two of them are suddenly very close, laughing about something and walking so near each other that their elbows almost bump together every other step.

It doesn’t seem very efficient at all.

“Hey, sorry, my friend here wanted to tag along, you know how it is,” Yang drawls like it’s just a very normal and casual thing to have a disguised — not very well at all — princess trailing behind her, trying to somehow look less regal than she very clearly is. And maybe it is. Maybe this is some weird game they play at the Tower all the time; try to spot the royalty in her deep blue jacket that looks like it’s made of something much too fine to belong in Dunwall’s filthiest streets.

At least the hat is ratty.

And Yang has dressed down appropriately for the occasion — whatever that is — in a slightly worn henley shirt in a faded off-white, trousers, and one of her older and slightly stained jackets to conceal the weapon at her side.

So she does have a gun.

And so does the princess, judging by the almost anxious way her hand keeps moving close to her belt.

Yang nudges her with her elbow. “I told you, stop worrying. You stand out more around these parts if you’re not armed. It’s fine.”

“Wait,” Ruby says, still not at all caught up with any of what’s happening, but registering just enough of that to be indignant. “How come I’ve never got one then?”

“Feel free.” Yang tucks her hands in her pockets, but her entire body remains taut in that sailor’s posture of constant readiness. “But you’ll have to let Uncle Qrow practice on you with it first.”

“… pass.”

“Um, hello again, Ruby,” Blake chimes in with a little bounce before moving forward past Yang to offer up a handshake. “Yang told me you were borrowing a book about the history of water distribution throughout the isles.” They start to shake hands, but Blake is actually gripping pretty tightly, wringing Ruby’s hand with such enthusiasm as the audible excitement builds in her voice. “Nobody’s ever wanted to discuss it with me before at the Tower, so I thought— maybe I’d come along to talk with you, if you don’t mind.”

“What!” Now it’s Ruby’s turn to yelp and exclaim, gripping Blake’s hand just as tight. “How? But why! It’s so interesting. The mechanics required to transport—”

“—yes, can you imagine the political engineering required to—”

They both stop mid-shake and blink at each other before rushing to rectify.

“No, but I mean, politics is okay too—”

“— yes, of course, the engineering feat is—”

They stop again.

“Are you two going to be like this all day?”

That at least is enough to get Ruby to snap out of it and look over at Yang, absent-mindedly releasing her grip on the hand of the princess of all the isles — who she was just shaking hands with, wow, this is weird — and say, “What do you mean all day?” She moves her gaze back to Blake. “Are you planning to read it with me?”

Yang laughs and eases up close to them so that she can lower her voice and sling an arm over Ruby’s shoulder. “No, see, Blake wants to see her city. Like, up close.”

“It’s not really my city.”

“Not yet.”

“And we’re going to be her tour guides,” Ruby says, processing the information. And then it hits and she almost jerks out of her skin with excitement. “Oh! Tour guides. We can show you everything cool. Like the blacksmith—”

“No way.”

“— and the whale refinery—”

“Not without a permit.”

“— or The Golden Cat!”

No,” Yang says this one with even more enthusiasm and maybe a bit of a blush.

One of Blake’s eyebrows twitches in a curious and maybe a little suspicious expression. “You know, I think I’ve heard of The Golden Cat from some of the men in court.” She pauses, maybe for dramatic effect. “Women too. Do you two… frequent there?”

“No,” Yang says way too quickly for such an obvious lie.

But not quick enough to beat Ruby to her exclamation of, “Yang does!”

Blake smirks.

“On business!” By now Yang’s blush is actually pretty visible. “No, I mean— what she means is sometimes I’m hired to—” Honestly Ruby has never seen her sister almost stammering like this. It’s kind of hilarious! “— I’m not hired like that, I just, you know, talk to people.”

“So why don’t we go talk to people?”

Ruby huffs and puts her hands on her hips. “Yeah! They like me there.”

Yang is so flustered she pulls her knit hat down past her ears and stomps off in the opposite direction from the Tower. “We’re going to the docks. Come on!”

Ruby watches her storm off before smiling over at Blake. “Does she try to boss you around like this at the Tower too?”

“I think she’s just showing off for her sister,” Blake drawls and begins to follow after Yang without any further discussion.

But is abruptly halted in her tracks. Just as soon as Yang’s departure made it clear that the humans are moving out, Zwei has quickly returned from where he was sniffing a pile of garbage just a little further down the street.

He barks, since that’s his best trick.

But Blake does not look impressed. If a person could somehow leave their own skin behind and evaporate into dust or smoke, she’d probably be doing that.

Instead she stands very, very still and points down at the wiggling ball of fur. “What… is that?”

Ruby blinks and looks down herself. “What, the dog?”

“Sorry, yes, of course, but is it— It’s yours?”

“Yeah?” Ruby’s not sure what the actual question is here; maybe she’s missing the point. “Ours, I guess, technically. Yang would be his partial owner, if she was ever home. No offense, of course your—” Oh, but they’re going incognito today, right, so; “—your Blakeness.”

But Blake doesn’t seem amused or enlightened by any of this. She’s just staring with really intense focus.

And Yang has doubled back to join them.

“Hey, you know it kind of defeats the purpose of my dramatic exit if you guys just hang around here—” She stops mid-sentence, her eyes on Blake, and something close to genuine worry comes over her face. “Hey, you okay?”

Blake blinks and her eyes finally leave Zwei to jerk (pretty sharply) back to Yang. She smiles and there is way too much teeth. It’s not very regal at all. “I’m fine.”

“You look crazy.”

Ruby probably shouldn’t say things like that to royalty.

But she does.

She looks seriously crazy.

“Do you… not like dogs?” Yang asks, talking slowly and easing herself in between Blake and Zwei, who continues to be a small harmless ball of fluff who practically falls over after barking with excitement around Yang’s ankles. “We can send him home for the day. If you want.”

“No, I—” Blake actually shudders. Like her entire body. “I’m fine. I just had, uh. It’s a small phobia. Thing.”

There’s that super crazy smile again.

And Yang seems to notice how really uncomfortable and weird it is too, because she’s the one to turn back around to speak to Zwei. “Hey!” He sits immediately, because he’s still a furry little traitor. “Hey, buddy. Go home.” The dog tilts his head. “You know where home is, right, so… go!” Yang even points for added emphasis.

It even seems to work, because Zwei is suddenly up on his feet and trotting off at a brisk pace.

And here Ruby was excited to demonstrate her ability to get the dog to sit down.

“Come on,” Yang says again. “This time you two are following, yeah?”

For some bizarre reason, Yang winks in Blake’s direction and is met with a loud laugh, all the tension draining back out of her royal shoulders.

Ruby honestly didn’t know that laughing like, so abrupt and genuine, that was a thing that an Imperial Highness would do over a wink from her admittedly pretty cool big sister.

It’s going to be a really weird day.

*

Ruby always loves visits to the docks, but they’re much better with her sister there.

Yang knows everything there is to know about whaling. Sure, so do dad and Uncle Qrow, but they’re bored with it by now. Maybe it’s just something that happens when you get really old, but now the two of them talk about the things they probably used to care about and there’s no light behind their eyes. Yang isn’t like that.

She can make almost anything sound like she cares about it; and judging by the way Blake watches as she talks, it’s not just Ruby who thinks so.

“You see that rope right there,” Yang is saying as she points at one of the docked ships preparing to set sail. “That’s a part of the pulley system they use to haul in the whale.”

Ruby takes this opportunity to chime in with some of her own knowledge. “It was invented by Anton Sokolov who works for—” Oh, wait, abort, this isn’t going to be impressive or interesting at all. “—for your family, actually, so you probably knew that.”

“I knew that Anton had made improvements to our whaling ships,” Blake confirms with a small but really pleasant smile. “I didn’t know what kind precisely.” She looks over at Yang, as if checking for guidance. “Can we get any closer, or is that not usually allowed for citizens?”

“Since you are very much a citizen today, just a normal everyday gal,” Ruby agrees, with her eyebrows moving up and down quickly in a very sneaky way.

Yang gives her a look like she does not appreciate the highly sophisticated stealth at all, which is basically her loss. “… not a lot closer, no, I’m sorry.” She squints in consideration.

Or maybe that’s all the direct sunlight.

No, yes, it’s definitely deep thought because Yang’s face suddenly lights up with a clear realization. “Maybe next time, if you ever want to do this again, with a little warning I can let one of the captains who knows me know we’re coming. I bet she’ll let us on board. Just for a peek.”

Ruby is honestly flabbergasted and it probably shows on her face. “You never did that for me!”

Blake gasps. “Yang, really? Never?”

Honestly Ruby can’t tell at all if Blake is actually outraged on her behalf or if she’s just using a chance to tease Yang, but it doesn’t matter, because both are very valid responses.

“You two don’t get to gang up on me together.”

“Well, maybe if we had to walk somewhere far, far away, like, oh I don’t know, just thinking randomly here, just brainstorming really, maybe The Golden Cat, then we’d be so distracted by the journey that we—”

“Food,” Yang says abruptly. “Do you think food would stop you?”

It wouldn’t, not Ruby. Very little can stop her once she gets going, but for whatever reason, Blake actually perks up a little. “Is there a market near here?”

“Well, not exactly a full market, but a lot of merchant stands along the way.” Yang gestures with a jerk of her head. There’s fruit that way, Ruby knows, some of it even fresh. Sometimes there’s fish, though how good (or fresh) it is can vary a little based on how well it’s selling that day. “Easy to keep stocked this close to the water.”

“Nothing probably as nice as what you eat in the Tower, though,” Ruby feels the need to clarify.

“No, I—” Blake laughs, maybe even a little self-conscious sounding, but she still smiles. “I just really want to see the markets.”

Yang is looking at her with a really strange look on her face.

Maybe she’s also wondering why Blake is setting herself up to be really disappointed by very average and normal food, but if that’s what she’s thinking, she doesn’t give it away completely. “Okay,” is all she says, walking off with her head down a little against the wind that rises up off the water.

Blake places a hand on her hat to keep it in place and the coattails of her jacket flap slightly in the heavy breeze. Ruby gets a quick look at the blade at her waist in that moment and can’t help but let out an appreciative low whistle.

It’s even nicer than Lady Schnee’s rapier! Which, admittedly, Ruby has thought about once every few days since she saw it all those many — many, many, many — months ago.

Blake looks startled, probably because she might not realize who’s whistling at her just at first. Once her gaze lands on Ruby, though, it softens from its anxious curiosity (and confusion) into something a little closer to fond. “I can show you it later. Some other time.”

“Do you promise?” Ruby asks with so much enthusiasm the words almost slur all together into one mess of sound.

“I do.”

By now, Yang has doubled back to step in between them. “You two are a lot slower with each other than either of you ever are just with me.” Her gaze shifts from Blake over to Ruby. “Are you talking about aqueducts?”

“No, I almost forgot!” Ruby’s entire body practically lights up with excitement. “I don’t know a lot about it, though, honestly; I haven’t read the book yet. And Yang! Don’t forget it’s probably still in your bag! So you should get it out before—” She frowns. “Was this a joke question? Because water distribution isn’t funny.”

“It’s really not, that’s completely true.”

*

Eventually Yang gives up on trying to walk next to them and goes back to leading the way while Blake and Ruby carry on a really fascinating conversation about the history of waterways in the other isles, but especially Morley and Tyvia.

Of course the very specific water flow and irrigation is one of the reasons Tyvia is so famed for its wine! Ruby’s never had any for herself, but Blake has, and she vouches that it is actually very excellent.

“I’ll bring some next time, if you want.”

“Next time,” Ruby says, not wanting to allow herself to make it into a question.

“Yeah. If you even want there to be a next time.”

The funny and kind of surprising thing is that Ruby does want it. And not like it’s surprising like Blake’s a bad person or she’s rude, and it’s not like Ruby’s ever found it hard to make new friends — or at least to want to — but sometimes when she thinks about the princess (when Blake isn’t actually here, and she’s only just a thought), Ruby can’t help but remember what her sister told her before, about how nobility is never your friend, no matter how they smile.

Except sometimes Yang looks back at them as they’re walking, and with the way she looks too long at the quick smile Blake offers in response, Ruby’s pretty sure her sister has forgotten that advice completely.

*

The market way is just the same as it always is. Lots of people, lots of pushing, lots of people pushing and swearing and occasionally urinating against a wall when they think the crowd is too thick for anyone to notice.

There are fruit stands scattered along the streets and places for selling meats and cheeses too. The stink from the raw meat is almost overwhelming, but close by someone is selling flowers and that helps to mask it, just a little. It’s almost only food just here, with the people who offer fabrics and clothing further down the way, eager to avoid the stench of the meat, cheese, and fish making its way into the clothing irreversibly.

As good as whale meat can be, it probably doesn’t smell great on your pants.

Forever.

Ruby is thinking about that, the smell of whale and how it permeates, when a Whaler in the full uniform of the refinery — the slickers, the gloves, the mask with the protruding snout to avoid inhalation, and a hood pulled up to cover the rest of their face — collides (roughly) with her shoulder. She’s jostled so hard that she takes a full step back, a little startled, and anticipates the moment that the whale’s stench will inevitably wash over her.

But it doesn’t come.

Instead she’s immediately overwhelmed instead by the stench of people as the crowd surges around her. She means to apologize to the whaler, whoever they were, but they’ve disappeared into the crowd of people pushing closer to two singers who have begun to sing a song about the Belladonnas and their legacy. One strums a stringed instrument of some kind and the other sings in a loud but quavering voice.

Ruby sends a quick glance over in Blake’s direction but she doesn’t seem to have noticed.

Perhaps she’s too distracted or overwhelmed to take note of any one thing.

She’s smiling from ear to ear, though, and picking up her pace to race after Yang — tugging at her elbow to keep her from moving away too fast — and whispering something urgently close to her ear. Yang grins at her and nods.

An apple. She buys Blake an apple and scrubs it off against the — honestly not that clean either — front of her shirt before presenting it with an exaggerated flourish. “For your royal Blakeness.”

“… I didn’t think you heard that before.”

“I hear everything.”

“Except when dad’s asking you to clean the table.”

“I don’t believe he’s ever asked that in his life.” Yang pays for a second apple and takes a quick bite. “It’s usually a lot more like telling.”

She hands the apple over to Ruby who takes an even bigger bite herself, mumbling around the mouthful, “So you do hear.”

“Yeah, I hear just fine. I just don’t answer.”

Blake is watching them with the apple still gripped tight in her hands but close to her mouth, her golden eyes darting quickly back and forth between them.

If it wasn’t for the way the fruit is obscuring her mouth, Ruby could almost swear that she’s smiling.

*

It’s only much later in the day — when they’ve made their way back to the docks to watch the sunset in the very same spot that Yang and Ruby usually do together — that Ruby notices her coin purse has gone missing.

Someone must have snatched it while they were in the crowded market! Ruby is annoyed and a little bit flustered, but she doesn’t want to spoil the big day they’ve had.

Yang notices her scowling. “Hey, what’s up? You okay?”

And Ruby just smiles a forced smile and says, “I’m fine. Sure.”

She didn’t have a lot of coin still in that purse anyway.

But it’s really the principle of the thing.

*

The next time the three of them go out, Ruby is careful to keep her hand on her purse every time they’re in a crowd and she urges Blake to do the same.

Yang laughs and shakes her head. “You weren’t doing that already?”

She wasn’t.

But everybody has to grow up eventually.

*

Time passes.

Ruby does get a weapon and she even lets Uncle Qrow try to hit her with it as part of her training. He misses every time, and she even thinks he might have actually been trying to make contact.

It’s a little hard to say for sure.

But what matters is that he misses and Ruby keeps the trick blade after they’re done. What looks like a simple long dagger at first can extend, curving into something with much more reach.

The first time Yang sees it, she gives the kind of appreciative whistle that Ruby usually might for someone else’s steel.

The three of them take turns tossing apples in the air for Blake and Ruby to slice into halves with their blades.

Yang actually catches one before it hits the dirt and eats it.

When they both turn to look at her expectantly, she shrugs, mumbling around a mouthful of fruit. “I’m not going to practice punching an apple…”

*

It becomes a kind of norm. Blake and Yang both sneak out of the Tower together, each dressed down for the occasion in their own particular way. They give Ruby warning now and she leaves Zwei at home for their trips together around the city.

She wonders if one day they might bring along Lady Schnee, but they never do.

Ruby is fourteen, nearly fifteen, when they both arrive quickly one day — she is lost in a book and doesn’t notice the approach — and Blake announces the occasion with, “Guess where we’re finally going!”

It takes a moment for Ruby to shift her brain away from large scale weapons manufacturing to the question (sort of a question) she was just asked. She blinks blearily. “… whale refinery?” Maybe that’s just the assembly lines on her brain. “Or—” She blinks a little more, studying Blake’s expression; the smirk gives it away instantly. “No.”

“I told her the last time we spoke, you had mentioned wanting to learn more.”

Yang.”

For her part, Yang does not respond to the prompting and Ruby could seriously almost swear that she’s pouting.

But that doesn’t stop Blake. “You’re a growing girl with interests. A thirst for knowledge that needs to be quenched.”

“Quench me!”

For the first time that day, Yang interjects, “Don’t— don’t say stuff like that, when we get there. Please.”

*

The Golden Cat isn’t as big as Ruby remembers it.

Maybe because she was a lot smaller herself, at the time. It’s not as if the building has actually changed its size. Probably.

But after Dunwall Tower, a lot of other things seem smaller.

The street leading up to it is drab, just like everything else so close to the Distillery District, but it connects very close to Clavering. Ruby used to think that the people living on Clavering were all nobility, truly the finest in Dunwall, but now that she’s older she knows better. It’s where people who weren’t born into nobility but have more coin than they know what to do with — art dealers, doctors, and even the occasional retired decorated member of the military — move so that they can still feel better than everyone else.

Turn the corner from there and you’re on your way, but it changes back to warehouses and alleys. The reputable people of the city wouldn’t allow the ladies who work at the Cat to pass down their clean streets so often, but they sure do like to visit them.

Once you’re through the gate, it turns pretty at least, and that is exactly the way Ruby remembers. Lush and green, with flowers everywhere, their petals open in a way that’s probably meant to be a vulgar metaphor of some kind. The kind of thing you read about in poetry from Tyvia or Serkonos.

They linger outside on the lawn, waiting until the noble woman just now arriving at the door finishes discussing her business with the man on duty.

Blake looks especially interested, even as she pulls her cap further down around her face. Maybe she knows the woman?

Maybe this was a terrible idea after all.

Once the woman is inside, with no wealthy people still hanging about to see the riffraff intruding, Yang jerks her head toward the door to indicate they should make their move.

There’s a list of offered prices — like a menu, sort of — and Ruby makes her roughly billionth attempt to get a look at it before Yang grabs hold of her by the hood and pulls her quickly inside.

She’s just curious!

The economic scale of an establishment like this is really fascinating! And did— did that third one down say something about electrocution?

What!

*

Of course there is the main stairway that spirals upward, plush red patterns on the wall and gold trim on every available surface. There are portraits of beautiful women of varying ages, and the frames are gold too, even though Ruby suspects it’s probably a fake coat of paint.

But instead of going right up the front entryway, they turn right at the doorway and creep in through a side door that leads to the staff stairwell. A sign there indicates a V.I.P. exit out back, leading down, but Yang nods her head again and they travel upward.

This part is a little bit familiar to Ruby too.

She remembers some of it, so this must have been the way they came before. For whatever reason, her sister knows about the backrooms at this place.

If Blake thinks it’s strange, she doesn’t comment.

They go up a few floors and pause at a small balcony overlooking the room at the top of the main staircase. It looks like a place for the clients to wait or gather. There’s seating and decorations, including some kind of weird statue that’s probably supposed to look like a naked woman, except it’s really uncomfortably deformed. Just curves and smooth surfaces; no face and no expression.

Fruits are laid out in trays all around, along with half finished cups of wine. It looks like Tyvian red and Ruby wonders if Blake would think it was one of actually good quality; some of the clients here are true nobles, after all, and might actually have standards.

The guy just underneath them seems to have enjoyed it okay, at least. He is drunk, from the looks of it, and stumbling as he reaches out to grab the elbow of one of the girls who’s passing.

“Excuse me,” she says and tries to slip away, but he holds harder. The tray of drinks in her hand slips and shatters on the floor.

“Now look what you’ve done.”

Yang tenses but doesn’t say anything.

There’s a member of the City Watch just there, waiting in the corner of the room, watching passively.

Ruby doesn’t think that this is a usual part of their patrols, so maybe he’s off duty. Or maybe he was hired for the day by one of the nobles here and chose to wear the uniform to look more intimidating.

That sort of thing used to work on Ruby too, before Yang got her own.

“Should we do something?” Blake asks, more obviously agitated than Ruby’s ever seen her.

Yang’s eyes move around the room quickly, evaluating. There are other girls visible just through the glass of the door leading out of the room, apparently on their way. “… no, it’ll be fine.”

And she’s right. The other girls clearly see what’s happening and they rush to overwhelm him. Two of them kneel down to help clear the glass and another three surround the man and almost smother him with forceful affection, pushing him back into the nearest chair and kissing his face until the girl he had been pursuing has slipped out of the room.

He forgets her almost instantly, pulling another one down into his lap somewhat forcefully.

Blake is staring hard.

The joke doesn’t seem very fun anymore.

“Do you know him?” Ruby asks, her voice barely above a whisper.

Blake doesn’t answer.

“… come on,” Yang’s already backing away from the balcony, looking obviously annoyed and chewing on her lip. “We should do this some other time.”

“Yeah,” Ruby agrees almost immediately and Blake nods, not looking either of them in the eye.

Yang stops on the stairway headed down and tries to force her usual confident grin. “Don’t worry about it. This is the worst part of here anyway.”

Blake tries to match the expression with a smile of her own, but it doesn’t stick at all. “What is?”

“The nobility.”

*

It’s weird. When Ruby was younger, she never believed that kind of things Yang used to say about how noble people can never be your friend, will never see you as their equal.

It just didn’t seem fair or right to discount an entire group of people and miss out on a lot of possibly great friendships. Imagine a world where the two of them didn’t know Blake!

Unthinkable.

But as she gets older, and she sees more of nobility, sometimes Ruby wonders.

Sometimes, like when they were watching that man tugging on the girl who was only trying to do her job, pulling her around like she’s not even a person, Ruby’s not sure she really thinks that nobles are people either. Not entirely. Not most of them, at least.

Even though Blake isn’t anything like that.

It’s confusing.

And it isn’t made any easier when everything very suddenly changes.

*

It’s only a few days later, still early in the Month of Nets, when Yang comes to her sister with a strange — really, like completely and totally bizarre — proposal. At first Ruby is concerned that she’s expected to have finished the book already.

But it’s actually much, much more ridiculous than that.

“Move in with you? To the Tower?”

“Well, not with me exactly. I can’t invite you to the watch barracks and I don’t have my own room. Not yet.” Yang stands a little straighter, like she’s almost able to see her own future stretching out before her. And it’s a great one! “But if I work hard, I can make my way to Officer, and they usually get their own room. Officer Nikos is my age, and she made it.”

“And then I’ll sleep in your bedroom!”

Yang gives her one of those slow really fond grins she gives when she thinks Ruby isn’t keeping up even though it’s obviously the other way around. Ruby is ahead of the game! The rest of the Tower just needs to catch up with her actually. “There are dormitories for scholars staying at the Tower. It’s like the barracks, but for…”

“Don’t say nerds.”

“… yeah, no, something else then.”

“But you want me to come move in with you!” Ruby waves her hand, unwilling to let technicalities slow down her enthusiasm. “In the Tower. Or nearby, at least. Whatever. The point is you missed me too!”

“Well.”

Ruby’s expression instantly shifts into one of abject horror. “Did you not miss me?”

“I did! Of course I did.”

But?”

“Well, to be honest, it wasn’t exactly my idea,” Yang says, before hastening to add; “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great one. But it came from Blake.”

“Do you always call her Imperial Highness of all the Isles by her first name? Is that even technically allowed? Because it kind of almost sounds like it could be treason.” Ruby grins, a thought dawning on her. “Does Lady Schnee think it’s treason?”

“She definitely seems to, especially since it’s me.”

“My sister! The rebel and outlaw.” Ruby darts dramatically to one side. “Even though she is the law!” And then to the other. “Wanted and pursued across—”

“So is that a yes you’ll come to the Tower? Because I kind of think we should talk to Qrow and dad about it.” Yang blinks at her impassively. “Before you lose your voice or whatever because it feels like you could keep going for a while.”

“… I don’t think I’ve ever lost my voice before.”

“First time for everything.”

Chapter Text

If you’re ever going to understand where you’re going, first you have to understand the history of your own familial legacy and your place within it.

The Schnee family originates from Tyvia, the northern most Isle of the Empire. The island is known for its cold, harsh winters and its craggy mountain peaks, but the people who flourish in such a difficult climate are only strengthened by these unique challenges. They produce a finer quality of person to the north.

Anton Sokolov, the greatest mind in all the Empire, originates from Tyvia as well as a good number of culinary experts, exemplary strategists, and exceptional military minds. Their food, particularly their wine, is sought all throughout the other isles.

If one were inclined toward being overly dramatic, it could be said that Tyvia is one of the most vital organs in the body of the Empire. Realistically, they must be either the heart or the brain.

Most likely, it’s the brain.

*

Most of the people of Tyvia do not concern themselves with the petty squabbling of the islands to their south, but that is with good reason. Because of their fine food and relative geographic isolation, it would be quite easy for Tyvia to survive on its own, entirely separate from the lesser islands that depend on the contributions that come from the north.

Every son and daughter of the northern island knows that.

But survival alone is never enough.

It is the generosity of their family’s spirit coupled with lofty but attainable ambition that led the Schnees to leave behind the island of their origin and relocate to the essential heart of the Empire. The two islands could not be more different. Gristol is green in all the ways that icy Tyvia is not, but it also has considerably greater economic disparity.

Some radicals will tell you that there is less poverty in Tyvia simply because its mines, overflowing with a wealth of metal ore, also function as labor camps where many of the deeply impoverished inevitably end up. While this is partially true, the overall implication is simply ridiculous; the vast majority of Tyvia’s enemies are actually foreign born agents sewing dissent. These criminals can hardly be considered impoverished citizens when they are, in fact, dissidents and outsiders.

Again, any child knows this.

Any native born Tyvian is clever and resourceful enough to earn their own way. That’s why they have so many wealthy people; it’s only what’s theirs by right.

*

Relocating into Dunwall, the capital city of Gristol and the center of the Empire as a whole, was a risk the Schnees considered carefully before embarking on their journey for the betterment of all.

The move benefited the Schnees themselves, certainly, but the change did just as much good for many local residents: all of the formerly unfortunate people who would reap the rewards of the family’s good business sense and careful advisement.

Consider: when Nicholas Schnee, the first of his name, displaced the lease holders on a mine near Old Lamprow, that was a benefit to everyone who had a stake in the business. Being from Tyvia, they knew much more about the running of a mine and how best to turn a profit. Everyone who worked at the mine benefited, and even the family who were bought out probably made more in that deal than they would have while retaining their inferior ownership.

They just didn’t have the proper business sense to maintain it for themselves.

It’s not uncommon. A lot of people don’t deserve what they have, but that always shakes out in the end.

Economics is essentially fair, balanced, and just.

Through this acquisition, the Schnee family fortune only grew. They secured a place as integral members of Dunwall’s nobility, going back six generations now. It wasn’t long after that before their position within society expanded even further. In the royal court of the Belladonna family, the Schnees have served a vital role for decades.

They are absolutely crucial to the power structures in place, providing emotional and (most significantly) tactical support to the Emperor and the Empire as a whole. Many might well say that they are the most important family in the entire Empire by now, except of course for the Belladonnas.

To suggest any more than that would be treason of the highest order, and a Schnee would never dare.

But certainly, other people might say that. It wouldn’t be surprising.

*

Nicholas Schnee, the third of his name, had served as advisor to the late Emperor for nearly 23 years before the Emperor’s son, Ghira, had ascended to the throne. Nicholas would serve him honorably for another four years before his own son-in-law, Jacques, was appointed to be his replacement at the right hand side of the ruler of all the Isles.

Just four short years after that, Jacques’s eldest daughter, Winter Schnee, was named as Royal Spymaster to the Empire, though certainly that is an appointment with far less public fanfare. Most of her work has been done in secret, with long journeys spent away from home.

Unfortunate as that is, it is a necessity for the good of all. Surely the Schnees can be considered the most selfless family in the Empire as well as the most practical.

Were any lesser family to hold so many high positions throughout the court, it might be considered a terrible risk. Not so in this case, of course. There was always going to be a Schnee in the highest positions at the greatest court in the Empire.

It was an inevitability borne out of necessity.

Only the best people deserved to hold such power.

Any well-read child of the Empire would know all of these basic facts by heart, of course, and Weiss Schnee is much more than that. She can recite her own family’s lineage going back at least eight generations, forward or backward. The second daughter of Jacques Schnee, she was meant to be next in line, to inherit the responsibility and legacy of protecting the entire realm, while naturally securing her family's own position and power at the same time.

It is and has always been her destiny.

Her father has been bringing her to court since she was old enough to stand, carefully positioning her to befriend the Emperor's only child, a daughter of the same age. (Weiss could not help but occasionally wonder if her parents had deliberately planned to conceive their second child the very moment that they knew the Empress was expecting. Which would be perfectly fine with her, of course. Brilliant, in fact.) She was always there, at the side of the princess, eager to form the vital childhood bonds of friendship.

And a friendship did form, of a sort.

The Belladonnas are not overly suspicious people, certainly, but they also limit who can come in and out of the Towers which also serve as their home. As a result, Blake spent very little time around other children her own age, apart from servants and other people of less stature that a princess would obviously find more of a nuisance than anything else.

It poised Weiss to become a friend almost out of necessity, if nothing else.

*

They are nine years old, and both of them are being taught to use blades. General Ironwood, head of the Imperial forces, should have better things to do with his time, of course, and almost certainly would if his only charge was even someone as important as Weiss Schnee.

But he is here to train a future Empress.

“Back straight, your Imperial Highness.”

“It’s… Blake,” the small girl huffs, straightening her back to an almost exaggerated degree. “Just call me Blake.”

“I’ll call you whatever you like if you can best me.”

Blake’s form is sloppy, made up of overly harsh and sweeping movements. It’s obvious to Weiss that she has been practicing with some other blade again — not the rapiers they’re meant to be learning with. For whatever reason, Blake has always been attracted to more barbaric, almost primitive weapons that are much larger and heftier to wield.

It shows in the arc of her swings now. The muscle memory is all wrong.

Blake lunges too fast, too hard, and Ironwood easily swats her aside. “Again.”

It does not annoy Weiss that so much time is spent on Blake’s instruction instead of her own (of course it doesn’t), even as her palms itch to prove herself. She can do better than this. She already knows that she can, so there’s barely any point in showing it off.

But of course that is simply because Weiss always applies herself, while Blake simply does whatever she likes.

The freedom to act however she likes has never belonged to Weiss Schnee, but certainly that is because she can be relied upon to have her family’s greater interest at heart. It is her dependability (her commitment to those around her) that makes her the perfect candidate to be the next advisor to the throne.

*

She knows this even at age eleven.

By now, Weiss spends more time with the Belladonnas than she does her own family. They’ve set aside a room for her in the Tower, just down the hall from the Imperial Princess, though not as plush or well furnished as their daughter’s.

That’s fitting, Weiss thinks, and it does not bother her at all.

She knows that her life will always be lesser when directly compared with the person whose shadow she is meant to reside in. It does not matter. It does not need to.

Her father promises that one day it will all make sense; he will explain to her the way the world “really works, not how it seems to.” He says these things with a softness that is not often present in his voice and Weiss thinks that, perhaps, now he has finally begun to trust her with the family’s honor which she is meant to uphold.

But he says these things just before sending her away from the family’s home in the Estate District. Even despite his own job in court, he spends more time at home than Weiss does. Sometimes she misses her own bedroom in the pristine white stone building that the family established as their home so many decades ago, built with rocks hauled in from their own quarries.

First it is days spent away at a time and then it’s weeks.

Eventually she is at her own home for only weeks at a time, and eventually just a few days or even hours.

But of course it does not really matter. It does not need to.

*

Weiss is never explicitly asked to return home at all anymore, except when Winter returns.

Her older sister, who is is so seldom in Gristol at all, sails from port to port and meets with the commoners and nobility alike. There she learns the habits and customs of the other cultures of the Isles, certainly, but also the preferences and opinions of their leadership. It is Winter’s sworn duty to protect the crown through subtlety, and she is much more skilled in manipulation than Weiss has yet learned to be.

It’s why every conversation with Winter requires the utmost care, speaking each word with precision and certainty.

Even when it is as simple as Winter asking, “Are your studies going well?”

“Certainly, yes. Thank you for asking.”

Weiss is home for the first time in over a month, because her sister’s ship reached port yesterday. Winter would have made it home to Dunwall earlier, but they were delayed by obstructions in the channel. Whaling ships went beyond their approved boundaries and became a nuisance.

Father says Winter should report the whole lot of them, but she does not seem interested. (“They might lose their license and livelihood,” she had said, which Weiss did not fully understand. That should be the point, shouldn’t it? If people do not keep to their place, if they only interfere, then what good are they?)

But as it stands just now, Winter’s interest seems to be entirely on her little sister. “And your study of the princess. How is that going?”

“She is…”

Weiss trails off, uncertain how to answer.

“Do you consider her a friend?”

What a terribly difficult question.

Blake Belladonna has always been kind, but she is sometimes aloof and detached in a way that is probably very wise for a future ruler of a vast Empire, but incredibly difficult when one is meant to encourage and influence her in a particular direction. It is the responsibility of a Schnee, after all, to steer the Belladonnas correctly towards what is best for them, even if they might not realize it for themselves just yet.

They always seem to come around toward being reasonable, of course, but it can require a considerable amount of time at the side of the princess. When they were younger, this was more easily said than done, as Blake had a tendency toward evasiveness, both in conversation and quite physically as well.

It has not necessarily become easier with age and Weiss is not yet quite as adept as her father or sister when it comes to people management. She is working at it!

“She is my dearest friend,” Weiss says eventually.

The answer remains difficult, simply because it is the truth.

*

Blake often appears to sense when Weiss is trying to intervene or attempting subtle suggestion. The princess has a habit of slipping away whenever Weiss has turned her back for too long, especially if she is in the middle of a lecture.

It's not as though Weiss gives an unreasonable number of lectures!

Blake just happens to deserve a considerable amount of them, especially when she is being careless with her own royal person.

It simply would not do for her to break her royal neck while Weiss was the only living person there with her. She hardly thinks the Schnee family’s reputation could survive being present for regicide. (Is it still considered killing if you only watch the particular princess dash her brains out on the stones but do not actually participate? Perhaps that’s just suicide through stupidity.) It’s less of a concern now, as they start to get older, and Blake spends less time trying to climb things than she did in the past.

There is still far too much climbing happening if you ask Weiss, of course, since her preference would be none at all.

Bookshelves! What sort of barbaric animal climbs a bookshelf! Priceless tomes could be damaged in the process, and who is going to have to repair them? Certainly not a princess.

It’s inconsiderate as well as undignified.

No matter.

The point is that Blake brings these lectures on herself, but perhaps Weiss should have learned by now not to say everything that she’s thinking — especially when what she’s thinking is “how could you” — because her Imperial Highness does seem to have a tendency to take it badly.

Often this means sneaking out of Dunwall Tower and wandering off to who knows where.

It’s exactly the kind of behavior you might expect from that stable boy that the princess hangs around with. The ruffian has appalling manners and absolutely no breeding, so certainly no common sense either. He doesn’t even bother to put on a shirt! As if anyone is interested in what his pale chest looks like.

If Weiss didn’t know better, she would think he was trying to flirt with her Imperial Highness.

Which is simply ridiculous.

A commoner could not catch the eye of a Belladonna; not in a million years.

*

Of course, it is understandable that some might mistake Blake’s kindness for something else.

Her Imperial Highness is attentive to the feelings of others. She has always been considerate of Weiss — of her presence, which Blake seems to be very aware of — even though they are very different people. The way that their lives have been made to overlap, to interconnect, has never appeared to burden Blake the way that it might a less considerate person.

Certainly she sometimes does not smile when Weiss enters the room, but it could not be said that she frowns. Not exactly.

Except for those times when Blake might be caught up in a conversation with someone else — some servant or stable boy, some no one that may be uncomfortable around a member of such a noble house as a Schnee. In those instances her expression could be said to be much closer to a frown, but that awkwardness is really to be expected! It can hardly be blamed on either of them.

It’s the fault of whichever stupid commoner has more of Blake’s attention than Weiss ever has, and if she gives the fool a dirty look then isn’t that the very least that they deserve?

“Can I help you, Lady Schnee?”

Blake seldom calls her “Weiss,” not when other people are present, and that is of course a sign of respect. Friends might call each other by their first names, but that isn’t how things work with nobility and princesses. “I’m going to go practice with my rapier, and I hoped you might join me.”

The servant is still standing there, as though they are too dense to understand when they are being dismissed.

Perhaps Weiss should say it outright?

“No. I don’t think so.”

Weiss snaps her gaze right back to Blake. She thinks to ask why she won’t come and work on her blade work, which is poor and only getting worse with time really (she is still holding her weight all wrong for the delicate weapon), but she obviously cannot question the Imperial Highness in front of a commoner.

Who is still standing here.

“Alright,” is what Weiss says instead. “Thank you.”

When she walks away, she could swear she hears Blake resume her conversation with the servant behind Weiss’s back. What could she possibly have to say to someone like that!

*

It’s fine.

Weiss does not need Blake to pay attention to her or want to spend a great deal of time with her.

It’s not as though Blake’s focus is ever entirely in one place to begin with. The two of them have spent years studying together, after all, and Weiss has seen how easily the focus of the Imperial Princess can drift.

Professor Port, for example, provides an excellent overview of the history of the Empire, even if his recounting is occasionally too dry for even Weiss’s taste. At least the subject is of interest, though you certainly might not know it from watching the princess.

They are twelve and Blake is more interested in stories about ships and sailing than she is diplomacy. She doesn’t care about her family’s own regal legacy. “I’m living it already,” she answers, when asked about the royal responsibility the Belladonnas have had to Dunwall.

They are thirteen and Blake argues that she should be learning something more, not about the past, but the now. They are fourteen, and Blake spends more time drawing images in the margins of her notes than she does writing what their tutors are saying.

Weiss tries to get a look, just a peek, but Blake carefully covers it with her hand.

Still, she could swear that was meant to be a sketch of a boy of some kind. No doubt it’s her stable boy with his terrible manners and arrogant smile.

It has all begun to worry Weiss. A great deal.

*

She would not say that she and Blake are overly close (not exactly), but Weiss does feel as though there was a time when they shared the same goals. In fact, she knows it, because they used to talk about their dreams.

When they were both smaller, both foolish perhaps, Blake would sometimes sneak down to meet Weiss at her borrowed bedroom door and they would hide underneath the covers and talk until the sunrise. It was almost like sisters, except only the kind you read about in storybooks, certainly not like any kind of relationship Weiss has ever had with either of her actual siblings.

It was nice, in its own way.

She knew about Blake’s desire to go sailing. She dreamed of exploring the other Isles that would one day be a part of her Empire and to see them on her own terms; to have adventures alongside of the courtly politics that were expected of her.

Weiss knew, even then, that this was foolish.

Her own father would have considered it absurd. Childish. Beneath Weiss to even entertain such ideas in a member of the royal family instead of squashing them outright.

But Weiss had never been as good as the rest of her family at convincing or persuading. If anything, it was Blake doing it to her.

Because she thought the adventures out to sea sounded fun.

*

But that was then.

Now they are both nearly fifteen and they don’t talk to each other like that anymore. They barely talk at all.

Not that Weiss cares either way.

It takes a considerable amount of effort to faze a Schnee. They are all steady and reliable — it's a familial trait passed down through the many generations — and even as young children they are not easily discouraged or put out.

Weiss’s composed demeanor (quite exceptional for her age) has been remarked upon by most of the adults she has ever come in contact with, including the majority of the royal family. If Blake has never found occasion to compliment her on this particular trait (or almost any of them), that must be because she is too immature herself to notice these fine qualities in someone else.

The wisdom for self-reflection often times only comes with age.

Weiss can hardly fault Blake for her lack of it. So many children their age are only just that: still foolishly, horribly childish. Weiss has never been very much like a child, which is almost certainly why she has had so much trouble befriending them. Other children, that is.

She makes friends with adults just fine. In fact, were she pressed, she might say that she feels closer to the Empress than to her daughter, despite the obvious age difference. It's just so hard to relate to people who don't care about the same things that Weiss does.

Like legacy and heritage.

Even the Imperial Princess — someone whose entire life should be defined by her birthright and a comprehensive understanding of history and her inevitable place within it — does not seem to fully understand how Weiss feels about history. It’s not only her own history and her family's — though certainly, she is very occupied with that at all times — but also the entire span of the Empire.

The rise and fall of houses of power and influence. The way that time shapes the people and the practices.

Both Weiss and Blake enjoy reading — of course they do, they are women of refinement and good breeding — but while Weiss focuses largely on historical accounts of diplomacy or economic analysis, Blake wastes so much of her time on elaborate fictions about young people in the throes of passion or, yes, even pointless adventure stories about traveling out to sea.

Usually there is a terrible sword metaphor in the write-up on the dust jacket and a title so lacking in effective wordplay that its double entendre is entirely singular. Weiss has tried to read them, really made an effort, but she's always left with a terrible desire to toss the volume across the room — preferably at the head of whoever wrote such dreck, if only their skull was available to be put to such clearly superior use than it is when they’re writing.

Even as they get older and Blake's taste in literature begins to change — she actually begins to read more non-fiction than ever before — Weiss still cannot say that there is much overlap in interest.

After one of her many adventures outside the Tower that she obviously thinks no one is aware of (how dense does she think Weiss is), Blake spends an entire afternoon in the largest section of the massive library, stacking piles of books on each table until they’re taller than herself, row after row.

Weiss inspects the covers casually, not wanting to seem as though she is taking too much of an interest.

The titles are things like The Realities of Poverty: A Treatise on Economic Reformation, Life in Gutters But Dreams in the Clouds, and From Bottle to Greasley: Living in the Shadow of Lords.

Insurrectionist nonsense.

From someone else, Weiss might consider such a reading list little more than a beginner's guide to treason. A roadmap toward the disreputable.

"A little light reading, Highness?" Weiss asks ever so smoothly as the stacks grow ever larger.

"Don't call me that," Blake says, not bothering to turn to face her. "I have a name."

But Weiss doesn't miss a beat. "Recommendations from your stable boy, I take it."

"Sun has a name too, Lady Schnee.”

"Mmm," is all Weiss offers in response. She finds that when Blake is more annoyed with her, she's more likely to actually make eye contact. It's useful for imparting exactly the right amount of haughty displeasure required for a subject such as this.

But this time the princess continues making her stack of books without ever looking up.

"Well, I just wasn't sure if he could read. That's all."

"I'm sure you weren't."

It's infuriating, honestly, when Blake refuses to get angry. “Maybe you intend to read it to him. Bedding down in a pile of hay and—”

“That is quite enough,” Blake says, her voice sharp and commanding. The voice of the princess that she so seldom bothers to be, made all the worse because of its lack of use. When she turns to face Weiss now, her expression is entirely blank. There it is: the innate ability to empty yourself entirely of all things, all feeling, that comes with nobility. “I believe I won’t require any more of your company today, Lady Schnee. Please feel free to retire to your quarters. Now.”

It isn’t a request, but Weiss allows herself the dignity of pretending. “I think that I shall, Blake.”

Well.

That will certainly show her!

*

Whatever is happening to the Imperial Princess cannot continue. Not only are her trips outside the Tower obviously dangerous (especially given her love of heights), but clearly she is being led rather naively down a path that could humiliate the entire Empire.

The entire reason Weiss is here, the reason she has been bred to be Blake’s friend, is to keep her from behavior exactly like this. But even with all that in mind, Weiss still considers very carefully whether or not she should report the disappearances of the princess to someone else.

It would not help her gain Blake’s confidence. In fact, it might be as good as admitting defeat. Blake would obviously know it was Weiss who told on her, and any chance of a true friendship after that would be dashed.

Still.

She occasionally does worry about where an Imperial Princess might go and what dangers she might get up to. There are concerns apart from her own family’s plans, after all, and wanting Blake to remain alive is certainly one of them.

She considers confiding in someone that she trusts.

Officer Nikos of the City Watch, for instance, has always shown herself to be loyal as well as considerably wise. She has a calm but rigid composure, seldom shaken by the hectic nature of life in the Tower. With her and the Officer so close in age and growing into themselves at the Tower at nearly the same time, Weiss has often found her presence to be a great comfort, though they do not talk as often as she would like.

That’s fine.

Officer Nikos has so recently been promoted, after all — still so young for her new lofty position — and there is so much that requires her attention. She has training to supervise as well as her own fitness to maintain. She spends so much time training! Weiss has noticed the added hours the Officer keeps, working to hone her fitness in the training facilities late into the night.

Occasionally they will pass each other in the hallways — Weiss on her way to an extra lesson with their tutors and Officer Nikos, still flushed with effort, on her way to the baths — and the Officer will offer Weiss a smile she can almost feel light up the hallway around them. It’s almost ridiculous how good hearted this woman is.

How she leaves a path of warm light everywhere she goes, so that Weiss can still feel it burning at the tips of her ears after they’ve parted.

*

Perhaps it would be alright to tell someone like that — reliable, self-possessed, and particularly kind— about the frequent disappearances of the princess and to admit to the ways that the girl Weiss has felt she knew for so long, however uneven their friendship (if it could truly ever have been called a friendship), is not always there. Even when she’s in the same room, the princess is disappearing.

Certainly Weiss does not have a great deal of information to impart, but perhaps offering it at all is doing her duty. Perhaps once she starts to say all of it out loud, she will better understand the problem for herself. She waits until a day like so many others lately — one where Blake goes missing the moment their lessons have ended — and approaches Officer Nikos on her way to the training grounds.

She is going to instruct new recruits, most likely, and there is a look of calm concentration on her face. Weiss thinks, just for an absurd moment (for no obvious reason), how attractive intelligence and competency can be in a person.

No matter.

“Officer Nikos! If I might have a word.”

The Officer stops mid-stride and turns to face Weiss with a faint smile stretched over her face. “You may have several, in fact.” She laughs softly and opens her stance up, inviting and casual even as her gaze remains focused and intent.

It’s probably the same posture she employs when speaking with the common folk whose trust she needs to gain; it cannot be special or particular to Weiss.

But it is very effective.

“Her Imperial Highness, Blake Belladonna, the first of her name.”

“I am … familiar with her, yes.” The smile on Pyrrha’s face has lessened somewhat. “Is something wrong?”

Weiss knows that it will not make a good impression to fidget, which is why she only allows herself to chew on her lower lip for just a moment, half a heartbeat, before composing herself again. “Well, I certainly hope not.” She swallows. “However, I have noticed… odd behavior.”

“Odd?”

“That is, when I am able to note her behavior at all.”

“I don’t—”

“She’s not in the Tower.”

The calm and open stance of the Officer changes quickly. She is now sharp and she is alert. “Excuse me?”

“I don’t think it’s an emergency! … yet. But she keeps disappearing.” Weiss is chewing her lip again, and she finds it harder to stop this time. “I don’t know that she realizes I’ve noticed, but… she just goes. Somewhere. And she always comes back, but if it were smart or safe she wouldn’t be doing it behind everyone’s back.”

It’s only now that she’s saying it out loud, her voice building with intensity and volume, that Weiss realizes just how panicked she has felt. The queasy sickness she refused to let herself acknowledge — to think about it would be to admit there might be trouble — has been growing in her stomach. Suddenly, very strongly, she almost feels sick.

“I understand.” Perhaps it is that uneasy queasy feeling showing on Weiss’s face that moves Officer Nikos to draw closer, one hand suddenly reaching out to brace against the smaller girl’s shoulder. “You did the right thing telling me.”

Some small stupid childish (pathetic) part of Weiss almost wants to ask if that’s true. She hears the words clearly in her own head, and almost hates herself for them.

She can hear her own father’s words just after, of course, saying: no Schnee ever needs forgiveness or permission.

But that isn’t how it’s felt. Not for some time now.

*

Sharing her concerns with Officer Nikos alleviates some of the worry. Weiss is less afraid when she goes looking for Blake and finds her missing.

Now, more than anything, she feels a sharp sense of annoyance.

Weiss still isn’t certain where Blake goes when she leaves the Tower, but ever since she’s begun making her little trips off into town, she’s become all the more unbearable to be around. Always lecturing everyone on economic inequality and the injustice of what she calls “the machine,” as if her family isn’t the one constructing the very gears of it. It’s comical, really.

Childish in precisely the ways she had always thought even Blake was above.

But it would seem not.

Weiss has suspected for some time that she must be hiding somewhere amongst the people of Dunwall — the particularly poor and uneducated, who would not recognize royalty when it walks among them. Idiots, that is.

Absolute idiots who don’t know what good breeding looks like, no matter how apparent it is.

And as much as her choice in companions can be sometimes questionable, Blake shows her family’s fine breeding in every way! Her features are incredibly refined, her dark complexion unmarked by the damage of the sun as befits one who need not work outdoors. Her keen intellect shows clearly in her eyes.

She is impeccable.

Which makes it all the more shocking, really, when she returns from one such excursion surrounded by a vast array of the City Watch with an unkempt street urchin in tow.

It is only due to her refined breeding and years of careful practice that Weiss is able to maintain an impassive expression as the strange congregation marches itself into the central lobby just before the throne room. “… your Imperial Highness.” There are so many strangers here who could not possibly know of Weiss’s fine breeding, so she takes care to be especially proper now, even offering a curtsey that actually seems to annoy Blake somewhat. (All the better.) “I was so worried about you.”

“I’m sure.”

The disguise she is wearing, if you could call it that, is no more than hand me down clothes — probably borrowed from her stable boy, though perhaps not since this ensemble does in fact include a shirt — and a silly hat. As if placing something on your head is enough to disguise your appearance completely! Ridiculous.

Weiss’s highly critical eye moves from Blake to the woman (if you could really call her that) at her side. “And this is…”

“My hero, in fact.” As is often the case, Blake looks amused by her own observation, laughing at some joke she doesn’t bother to share with anyone else. “Weiss Schnee, meet Yang Xiao Long. Our newest member of the city watch and eventual retainer in my royal guard.”

The woman at Blake’s side fidgets like some kind of agitated animal and clasps her hands behind her back.

She’s strong at least. Muscular. Weiss will give Blake that much in her assessment.

Otherwise, she’s not really sure she understands the purpose in appointing someone like this to such a vital position. She doesn’t even look like she’s bathed recently!

And she certainly doesn’t smell like it either.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” is all that Weiss says aloud, though.

“Yeah, back atcha.”

This is not going to be pleasant; Weiss can already tell.

*

Nearly everything about Yang is abhorrent.

She looks and talks like a sailor and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s because that’s precisely what she is. Not even proper training or background in military service! Why on earth Blake thought someone like that should be brought to court like some kind of circus animal on parade is utterly beyond her.

Her manners are appalling and her skin is rough and tan in a way that gives Weiss a queasy feeling when she looks at her. Like she’s always going to smell like sea salt and whale intestines.

It's not as though Weiss has never interacted with impoverished people before!

In fact, she has considerable experience with sailors in particular. In addition to his role as advisor to the Empire and overseeing the fortunes of the family mines, her father owns a whale oil refinement company. When she is not busy at court, Weiss is often studying their accounts and ledgers.

She has even, on rare occasions, joined her father on expeditions to the factory floor.

The men and women who work there are often truly frightening to spend time with, though Weiss finds it hard to blame them for their own squalor. No one can blame a chair for being made a chair or a man of the slums for looking like precisely what he is.

Still, it can be quite bracing at first!

Most of the workers don’t have all of their teeth. Some of them, on rare occasions, are even missing limbs. How generous, she thinks, that father still allows them to work the factory’s machines with such a clear disadvantage that might get in the way of productivity.

Come to think of it, maybe her Imperial Highness is doing something similar here.

Perhaps it's charity, of a kind. The Imperial Princess is taking pity on the loud, obnoxious girl who laughs at all her own jokes — if you could even consider them that.

One time Weiss even saw her spit in the training yard. Her actual spit, from her disgusting mouth, on the very stones where the royal family walks!

Well, not often. They don’t often walk there.

But sometimes they do, and how would Yang know that day wasn't going to be one such occasion? It's the lack of consideration that galls her.

Everything about Yang happens as though she thinks she's the only person in the room! She even moves too loudly, taking up far too much space with her broad shoulders and swagger.

*

Even if Blake can’t see it, surely there are other people who can.

Officer Nikos, for example.

Surely she must see what a useless waste this Yang person is.

Except that she doesn’t, of course.

“She still has a lot to learn, it’s true, but she’s trying very hard,” Officer Nikos says, a small but incredibly warm smile on her face. “She’s already learned to use weapons apart from her fists.”

“Surely you see how barbaric that is. You just said yourself she prefers striking people with her gun instead of firing it!”

“It is… non-lethal. That’s commendable!”

“It’s reckless. She puts the life of the princess in danger by being so careless.”

“Yang is very good with her fists, Lady Schnee.” Even though her smile is still so gentle, Pyrrha’s voice is almost firm. “If you saw her, if you really got to know her, I think you would see that she does care about protecting this family and this Empire.”

“She cares about her own family and the coin we give her. Nothing more. You can’t trust people like that to have— to have honor. Or self respect.”

For the first time since she’s known her, Weiss could swear that the look on the Officer’s face is one of disappointment, maybe even a little bit of anger. “Yes. You certainly can’t trust people who place family name above all else, can you, Lady Schnee?”

Weiss might not think there’s anything wrong with what the Officer has just said — there isn’t, she doesn’t — but she’s certainly smart enough to know when she’s being criticized. “I never said—”

“My ears are burning,” a far too loud voice exclaims, bursting through the doorway. “Just wanted to give you two a chance to stop talking about me.” Yang has the nerve to actually wink at Weiss. “You were talking about me, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Pyrrha says at precisely the exact same time that Weiss says, “Of course not.”

“You know, living your entire life around etiquette and courtly behavior or whatever, you’d think you guys would learn to be just a bit more coordinated.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I bet you usually don’t actually, yeah, but that’s hardly stopped you before.”

Weiss actually doesn’t know what that particular insult is meant to mean either, and that only annoys her even more. “You’re heinous. Do you know that?”

“If you say so.”

“Do you even know what that word means?” Weiss practically wants to stomp her feet. “You ingrate.”

“Probably the same thing as every word you use for me.” For whatever reason, Yang’s smile only gets bigger. It’s almost all of her face now. “It means you think I’m less than you. But if you don’t mind, I’m here to get a lesson about how to get better at saving your life.”

This feels very much like a conversation that Weiss has somehow ended up on the losing end of, and that’s simply not acceptable. Not against someone like this.

“Well!” Weiss calls after their retreating backs as they depart for the courtyard. “I’m trained in combat too, you know! It’s not as if I need you!”

Yang doesn’t look back, but she does wave, a gesture so casual and condescending that she might as well be offering Weiss a much more vulgar salute in departure. “You’re not exactly my first choice either, Ice Queen.”

It’s infuriating.

And softened only somewhat by the pitying look that Officer Nikos sends back in her direction. “We’ll talk later, Lady Schnee. My apologies.”

But then she’s gone too.

It’s almost to be expected.

*

Ever since Yang’s arrival, the tensions between Blake and Weiss have only increased.

Or perhaps they have remained exactly the same and it’s only in direct contrast with Yang — how easily and openly Blake relaxes around her, even after just a short time — compared with how Blake acts around Weiss, who has known her all her life.

It creates tension in a way that even all the sneaking around never did.

At least before Weiss could pretend that Blake was too busy to despise her. Now she has what almost feels like constant reminders of their strange animosity walking through the very same hallways.

Even when Yang isn’t there, her presence is felt.

Blake is reading one of those books she’s so fond of now — about dismantling hierarchies such as the one her own family belongs to — and making the occasionally pointed sound as though she expects a comment or question from Weiss.

But she will not be baited. “Something caught in your throat?” Well. Not baited entirely. “Perhaps you would like a glass of water.”

“Do you know what sort of things happen in those factories your father runs?” Blake asks abruptly, clearly agitated. “And the sort of things Yang has been doing all her life?”

“I’m certain you intend to tell me.”

“Why bother! You already know everything, don’t you, Lady Schnee?”

“If I have any more wisdom than you, your Imperial Highness—” Blake bristles at the title and Weiss feels a surge of satisfaction. “—perhaps it’s because I’ve always listened when our tutors spoke instead of daydreaming about ships and sailors.” When they were younger, Weiss certainly thought that Blake would be flattered by her full title; now a part of her uses it just because she knows how much it annoys the other woman.

She wonders if her younger self would consider these small acts of antagonistic rebellion unkind and unnecessarily cruel, or if she would have only disliked them because they are so likely to lose her favor with the princess and royal family as a whole.

By now, at least, Weiss has accepted her particular place in the heart of the princess.

That is, quite outside of it.

“Always ready with a clever answer.”

“Maybe because I am willing to discuss the things I’m thinking.”

For once, just for a single moment, Blake almost seems to hesitate. She looks Weiss in the face — she really looks — and maybe that’s why it hurts so much when she looks away again. “I think I will be missing my classes again today, Lady Schnee. I’m sure you are unsurprised.”

And with that, just as always, Blake is gone.

*

Life in the Tower isn’t always — or even usually — anything like Weiss had imagined it would be when she was younger. It isn’t exciting, at least not in any way that she enjoys, and it’s never really very glamorous.

When she was young and her father summoned her home, she would resent it. It felt like an indictment of her and her abilities — that he didn’t trust her time spent at Blake’s side could be put to good use. That he didn’t trust she could make friends with anyone, let alone the daughter of an Emperor.

More and more, Weiss worries that he might have been right.

For the first time in her incredibly accomplished life, Weiss doesn’t know what to do! How can she befriend someone who truly does not seem to value what she would bring to their interactions?

How does she pretend to change the person she is in order to be liked?

If she knew how to do that, she’d probably have real friends; not just a princess she is meant to influence who practically winces when she enters the room.

For the first time she can remember, Weiss begins to wish she were back home with her family. There, at least, there is often peace and quiet. With father so busy with work and Winter so often away, there is only Weiss and her younger brother, who largely ignores her presence.

She can hardly blame Whitley. They barely know each other, after all.

Which would be perfectly fine with Weiss all the same, because the quiet can be exemplary. Unlike here, in the Tower, where there is constant noise from the gunfire, the marching, the clash of swords.

She can often hear her father’s voice, just in the other room, rising to a shout. (He stays in private rooms, where Weiss seldom ever sees him. “The adults are working, darling,” he says, even now that she is fifteen years old herself and certainly almost grown.)

Or like the noise just now, when someone is making such a large commotion in the library.

The library. Of all places.

Is nothing sacred at all? Weiss has half a mind to go tell off whoever it is for causing some kind of disturbance.

Until she remembers, quite vividly. Blake’s old habit of climbing.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. She wouldn’t.

She could not.

Weiss is certain.

But perhaps it would be best for her to go look and see.

*

The princess was not climbing anything, which is certainly a relief.

However.

Yang brought an even louder version of herself to storm through the library and make a mess.

Of course.

Her name is Ruby and she is both louder yet more tolerable than her sister, as impossible as that should be. She has taste, at least, given her obvious interest in Weiss’s rapier.

In fact.

For a moment, however briefly, it really did feel as though someone was more interested in Weiss than anyone else in the room. She can’t quite remember the last time she felt that. Not since Yang’s arrival, certainly.

It’s not a terrible feeling at all.

*

Apparently Yang’s younger sister enjoys reading books, not just climbing all over them, and Yang has taken it upon herself to borrow precious volumes from the library to lend her sister to read. The princess has allowed it, so Weiss can hardly object to the concept, but she does occasionally feel a very strong desire to comment on the actual selection.

It’s not as though Weiss is seeking Yang out, as that would be preposterous, but rather she is already engaged in her studies in the library and Yang is making a mess as she sorts through stacks and tries to find the proper book.

She’s looking very carefully at the topic of geology. Rock formations in Tyvia, to be exact.

And she doesn’t even think to ask Weiss for a suggestion.

Typical.

Though perhaps she hasn’t realized that Weiss is in the room! She clears her throat, just in case, to make her presence known.

Yang looks up at her rather sharply and then resumes her investigation.

“… that’s not the right one,” Weiss sighs as Yang seems to have settled on one of the books. “It’s out of date and filled with inaccuracies.”

To her credit, Yang doesn’t sneer or make a joke. She only looks a little confused, gazing at the spine of the book and then over at Weiss, who sits several tables away. “You can tell just from the cover?”

“Yes.” Weiss stands and draws closer. “I’ve read most of the books here on Tyvia.” She sniffs with a carefully restrained disdain. “There aren’t as many as I would like, but I’m not in charge of the selection.” She plucks the book from Yang’s hand without further discussion and sets it to the side. “You want…” Her eyes skim the nearby shelf, in search of one particular— “Ah-ha. Here it is.”

She hands the book over to Yang who turns it over in her hands, inspecting the cover. “The Mountains of Tyvia.” She frowns the unfortunate look of a simpleton, but Weiss thinks that perhaps she is only uncertain instead of unhappy. “It doesn’t sound as interesting.”

“It is. In fact, it’s better.” Weiss hesitates. “Don’t you trust me?”

“… sure.” The frown disappears from Yang’s face just as quickly as that, replaced with a smaller version of her usual obnoxious grin. “But why are you helping me?”

“I’m helping your sister.” Weiss hesitates again. “She seems… tolerable. Well read. I don’t think she should suffer just because she’s related to you.”

“Oh, she already pays for it, believe me.”

“I’m certain.”

Weiss isn’t sure how, but the two of them almost seem to be making jokes together. She even feels herself starting to smile. “You should come to me the next time you need a recommendation for her.” She turns away then and walks back to her own table. Lingering any longer might make the situation seem uncomfortable. “Or at least with topics I’m overly familiar with.”

There’s that look of uncertainty again. “… rocks?”

This time Weiss restrains her sigh, but only just. “No. Tyvia.” Another pause. “It’s where my family is originally from.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that.”

“You never asked,” Weiss says, much sharper than she means to.

It is never a good idea to show your emotions to the common people. They will use them against you.

Father has always told her that.

Except that Yang doesn’t look smug or triumphant. She doesn’t even look angry, although the expression is a little close to that. If Weiss didn’t know better, she would think she looks just a little bit pained. “You haven’t asked a lot about me either.”

That’s ridiculous! Nonsense.

Weiss knows so much about Yang. She’s a whaler from the slums and she has a sister and a loud laugh and—Oh.

She’s right. Of course, Yang is right.

Everything that Weiss knows about her has come second hand through Blake or through her own (admittedly sometimes cruel) observations. It feels horrible, realizing how wrong she is, so thoroughly and abruptly, and for a moment it makes her angry.

Shame can work like that sometimes.

But she is a Schnee and she is in control of her emotions. (She has to be.) So she lets the anger and the shame run through her, emptying herself out until she is cool and calm. Showing nothing that she feels. Then all she says is, “You’re right.”

Yang nods, turning as if to leave, but then hesitates, her gaze on the table in front of her instead of on Weiss. “Have you been back?”

“… pardon?”

“To Tyvia.” Yang is looking at her now, her gaze gentle but focused. “Have you ever been?”

“Not since I was young.” Weiss stops herself, halting. She should not want to be this honest, not with anyone, but especially not with someone who so obviously dislikes her. “My mother used to like to go there every summer. The winters are very cold there, but… the summers can be quite nice.”

“Is—” Yang swallows. “I’m so sorry, is she—”

Weiss is actually thinking back to those days in Dabokva, the capitol of beautiful Tyvia, with her sister and her little brother. And mother.

She can see it all so clearly.

“What?” She blinks, suddenly brought back in the present as she realizes exactly what Yang thinks she has implied. “No, she’s … quite alive.”

But quite unwell.

Locked away in an asylum on Morley — “for her health,” as father said — for these past nine years.

Yang’s uncertain frown cuts so deep into her features. It looks strange and out of place on a face so used to smiling. “Well. I hope you go back there someday.”

There is a terribly heavy feeling building up in Weiss’s chest. She dislikes it. Greatly.

“Yes,” she says, turning her eyes away from Yang to focus on her meticulous notes in front of her. “Thank you, Yang. Now … if you’ll excuse me. I have a lot of work to do.” She pauses and then, softening her tone somewhat, adds, “And I’m sure you do as well.”

“… right.”

And like that, Yang is gone.

*

They don’t discuss that strange interaction ever again, not directly, but it is only a matter of weeks before Yang comes to Weiss with a request for a recommendation.

The topic is Tyvian wines.

It’s almost too easy a selection. In fact the only problem Weiss has is narrowing it down to an acceptable number of books. “Has her Imperial Highness approved you borrowing more than one volume at a time?”

“… how many good books about wine are there?”

Weiss cannot always tell when Yang is being deliberately antagonistic and foolish, but judging by her expression just now, the question is sincere. However tragic that proof of her ignorance might be. “Don’t be a simpleton, Yang.” She hesitates, and then adds, “It doesn’t suit you.”

Which strangely enough actually feels true.

*

They carry on like this for some time, with Weiss supplying recommendations for some occasions and someone else (most likely Blake) providing the rest.

The other book choices that she sees Yang carrying around are certainly good.

Much better than that trash Blake was so interested in before.

Admittedly, Weiss has taken it upon herself to peruse some of those works since then.

One or two of them might have had a worthwhile point, in fact, though the phrasing and construction was often lacking. Still. It might be worth discussing later.

If Blake ever wanted to.

*

Things have started to change between Blake and Weiss, and for the better. She can’t be certain why, but she thinks it’s possible that Yang has been speaking well of her, as absurd as that might seem.

And Weiss herself, at times, speaking well of Yang.

She finds herself speaking to Officer Nikos about her often, for example, on those very rare occasions when they both have enough room in their schedule to share a lunch.

Today they are on the balcony attached to the bedroom Weiss sleeps in when she stays at the Tower. (She still thinks of it that way, most of the time. Not her own bedroom, but the one she makes use of.) It is a bright and sunny day and the water laps up against the rocks just below them.

Officer Nikos eats slowly and carefully. She moves in an almost regimented way, but her smile is still so easy and natural; so much contrast and complexity in one woman. “I’m glad to see that you and Yang are becoming friends.”

“Well.” Weiss adjusts the napkin in her lap and sits up even straighter. “I wouldn’t say that we’re friends, but we are certainly friendlier than we have been in the past.”

The smile that Officer Nikos is gives her is almost excessively gentle, perhaps even pitying. From anyone else, Weiss thinks she might resent it, but it is… comforting somehow. From her.

“Of course she and the Imperial Princes spend a lot of time together now, and I wouldn’t want you to feel… left out.”

Weiss freezes with a spoonful of jellied eels halfway to her mouth. “… I’m fine,” she says, even as she realizes that saying that sort of thing is practically the definition of not being fine. She hurries to add, “And I’m sure you have more important things to concern yourself with.”

“I have many things to concern myself with, that’s true, but I don’t see why I can’t also care about a friend.”

“A—”

“A friend, yes, Weiss.” Officer Nikos is still smiling, but Weiss is beginning to realize that there might be more emotions behind it than pity. “I hope you don’t mind if I call you that.”

“… that’s fine.” The hand holding the spoon drifts back down to the table for now. Weiss suddenly doesn’t trust her stomach to remain as calm as she would like. “Do—” She swallows. “Should I call you Pyrrha?”

“If you would like, yes.”

“I would,” Weiss says with a heat that first appears inside her voice before settling into the very depths of her stomach, warming her from the inside out.

Just like the officer’s hand, suddenly resting on top of her own, sends a warmth straight through her.

She smiles and thinks she must look like some kind of idiot, the way the expression fills her entire face until it’s almost aching. Anyone would think she’s a fool.

But Pyrrha doesn’t seem to.

*

Perhaps servants and common people are not so bad. Perhaps there is something to be gained through their friendship.

This time, Weiss actively seeks Blake out.

She finds her in the training grounds, her jacket discarded over a railing, her fists held at the ready. Yang is there too, with her sleeves rolled up, standing just at Blake’s back, adjusting the posture of the princess with hands on her hips.

“Like this, see?” Yang squeezes her Imperial Highness on the hips and Weiss tries her very best not to immediately regret everything that she has come to say. At least Yang releases right after, her gaze so intently focused on the princess and her reactions that she doesn’t seem to notice Weiss coming. “You have to be ready to pivot when you block.”

She steps around Blake to position herself just in front of her, as though to demonstrate, and her gaze lands directly on Weiss. She freezes. “… hey.”

Blake turns to see who’s just arrived and a strange mixture of emotions quickly crosses over her face. She looks moments away from dismissing Weiss, but something stops her. “Did you need something, Lady Schnee?”

“To speak with you, Blake.”

It’s that, the use of her first name, that causes Blake’s entire posture to shift. She relaxes and turns to face Weiss. “It can’t wait?”

Yang straightens and looks almost as though she is ready to make her leave, but Weiss answers quickly, “I don’t think it can. And I think you should stay for this.” She nods towards Yang and Blake looks on edge again almost immediately, like she thinks they’re about to pick a fight. Weiss continues, talking quickly, “It’s about her sister.”

“My—”

But Weiss will not be stopped or slowed down. “I think she should come to the Tower.”

Both Blake and Yang looked as though they were ready to interrupt but now neither appears to know what to say. They look at each other and then back to Weiss, almost moving in unison. “You what?”

“Your sister. Ruby, isn’t it?” Weiss folds her arms and tries to seem confident and imperious. “Instead of sneaking all those books out to her and then sneaking back or taking those long day trips together, I think she should come here. To study with our resources or make use of the tutors. They’re certainly not overly occupied with Blake and I anymore and your sister could use them more than we could.”

“My sister is smart, Weiss.”

“I know!” Weiss huffs, trying not to let her exasperation show more than she knows it already must. “That’s why I’m saying she should come here. I don’t make a habit of suggesting the utterly hopeless should receive a formal education.”

Yang had looked so ready to pick a fight, like punching things with her fisherman’s fists is all she knows how to do, and now she just deflates and looks to the princess for guidance (as is honestly proper for someone of her station).

“She’s right. Ruby could benefit from a lot of what we have to offer here.”

“So this is like a real thing?” It’s obvious that Yang’s mind is racing with possibilities she’s never considered before, so Weiss tries not to rush her by feeling overly impatient. Even if they are basically just going over what she already said. “She could just… come live here too?”

“We have visiting scholars and resident intellectuals sometimes. They don’t always live here for long, but it’s possible.”

“It’s only intended for exceptional people,” Weiss cuts in, lifting her posture into something appropriately regal, her head tilted back. “And if even half of what you say about her is true, your sister is one of those. She should be here.”

Yang honestly looks overwhelmed by all of this, and she might even be breathing harder. It’s no wonder really that Blake places a steadying hand on her shoulder, leaning in to say something in a low voice that Weiss can’t hear.

Yang nods at whatever it is, and then Blake looks back at her. “I think we’re going to want to talk about this a little. If you don’t mind, Lady Schnee.”

She does.

It’s stupid and impractical, she knows, but some small part of Weiss does mind being sent away because of a conversation necessitated by her own good deed.

But she will not let it show on her face. Just as with all nobility, she knows how to empty out her feelings and nod low enough to match the right etiquette. “Yes, of course, your—” But then she remembers. Blake would rather be called Blake.

And despite her small feeling of hurt, she does not want to call her anything else out of spite.

“Yes, Blake.” Weiss tries to smile, and she finds that it almost happens naturally. She nods. “I understand.”

She turns to go.

“Weiss.”

She stops and turns back. Blake so seldom says her name around other people, not anymore. Not without it sounding like a curse of some kind, But it doesn’t sound that way now. It’s gentle, like when they were both children gathered underneath the bedsheets in the room that’s almost all Weiss has known of home in so very, very long.

“Yes?” she says, some small sensation of lightness lifting up inside her.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Blake has had every single thing she has ever wanted handed to her since birth.

That’s the job, of course, but does it even qualify as working when you can never fail? Nothing she receives is based on her own merits. It’s not even just the family name and legacy; everything about her is judged based on her parents directly and what they have or have not achieved. She is a shadow that they cast, forever behind.

And Blake loves her family. She does.

But sometimes she leaves the Tower wearing clothing that looks nothing like what the people might expect a princess to wear and the normal everyday people in the streets have no idea who she is. They might still dislike her, of course — more and more she thinks many people in Dunwall dislike most things they come in contact with, no matter who or what they are — but at least then it’s her that they hate.

Somehow that seems … better.

Closer, at least, to how life is when you get to spend every day of it out in the sunlight, even if it’s filtered through the cracked windows and crumbling rooftops of the slums.

Because unlike most people living in the Tower, Blake has seen the slums of their city now.

Up close.

*

The very first time that Blake goes to explore her city the way that the common people see it — from the street level, almost in the gutter — she is fourteen years old and nothing is like she expects it to be.

She goes out into the city expecting an adventure. There will be dangerous and unruly types, of course, but more than anything she anticipates having fun. She’s going to have a story to tell her friend Sun when she gets home.

But that isn’t what happens.

*

Blake starts her journey through the streets by looking for the markets.

She remembers a day when she was very young and her mother took her on a trip into the center of town. They were accompanied by elite officers of the watch, of course, and the people parted everywhere that they went. It wasn’t very different from life in the Tower, truth be told; not in the ways that people acted around them, at least.

But the place itself — the smell of the streets, the noise everywhere — all of that was new.

They had gone to a market and purchased fresh fruits. Blake remembers the way the juice had dribbled down her chin when she took a bite and the way she and her mother had laughed. She goes looking for that now, at fourteen, but cannot seem to find any of the busy stalls overflowing with fresh food.

Most of what she finds is people, walking quickly, offering furtive glances.

Perhaps she’s taken a wrong turn somewhere to the bad side of town. (Maybe there isn’t much of a good side left anymore?) She approaches one man in particular, relatively young, who looks like he might be friendly. She carefully draws her hat down to hide more of her face and pitches her voice lower to ask, “Where’s the market?”

The man’s angular features somehow look even sharper as he turns his head to study her. “… who are you asking for?”

“What?” Blake blinks, confused enough by the question that she doesn’t bother to disguise her voice with her response. “For me, obviously. Who else?”

“The City Watch, maybe.” The young man smiles at her, but there is something mocking about that smile.

Even that is sharper than Blake is used to.

“… is fruit illegal?”

The man tilts his head slightly, considering. “Are you lost?”

“No,” Blake says, far too quickly. She’s pretty sure it’s very unconvincing.

All the sharpness has left the man’s face, though. “I thought you were just messing with me.” This time when he smiles, it is softer, more reassuring. “But if you need help… I can show you around.”

He offers Blake his hand to shake and she takes it, carefully. “… thank you.”

His hand is bigger than hers, of course, and so is the rest of him. The difference in size is more obvious now when he leans in closer so that he can lower his voice; he is much bigger and much older. “Now what kind of market did you hope to see exactly?”

“There are different kinds?” A part of Blake thinks she shouldn’t ask: that it might give too much away about all the things she doesn’t know.

But knowing those things — learning about the city that will one day be hers while she is still young and unknown enough to sneak around in it — was the entire point, wasn’t it? She can’t let herself be afraid to learn.

“Oh, you have no idea,” the man laughs.

He still hasn’t let go of her hand.

“Well, I’d like to. To learn.”

He’s staring at her face again, considering, and then he smiles even wider. “So I’ll teach you.”

When he smiles like that, more open and relaxed, it makes Blake think that he might be younger than she had originally thought. Older than her, certainly, but only by five or so years.

Only just barely a man and she thinks she can still see some of the boy in his eyes.

“Thank you so much, Mister…”

“You can call me Adam.”

*

Adam.

When he comes into Blake’s life, she is fourteen and still like an open book in so many ways; he fills up her pages with his own ideas and ideals, one line after another. She is eager to learn and easily impressed.

She knows that now.

But at the time, so much of what he says makes sense in the context of all the new things she is suddenly learning. There’s a side to the world that Blake has never seen before, and he puts it all into perspective. She had never known such poverty existed in Dunwall, not until Adam showed it to her. She never knew there were children dying in their streets.

But then Adam takes her to them directly; she stands over them as they grow cold.

“All this because of the royal family,” he says, and Blake feels her ears burning with an unpleasant warmth.

Shame.

It is not the only time she feels it with him. There is also the way he looks at her sometimes or how it feels when his hand reaches out to press firmly at her lower back as he guides her down the street.

Blake has seen the way the people in the streets sometimes touch each other; once she even saw a young couple making love in the mouth of an alleyway at night on her way back to the Tower. They are free with their bodies in ways no one is back home. It really seems to be a part of life here; so when Adam touches her, she does her very best not to tense or show surprise.

She cannot let him know her secret.

(Especially not the ways that she thinks maybe she almost likes it sometimes. Almost.)

“Maybe they can change,” is what she says, and his grip shifts quickly, almost automatically, to take her by the wrist.

“It would be foolish to anticipate that.” He squeezes, as though to help make his point. “We can’t live our lives based on what those monsters do. We need to act now.”

“Do you think they’re really monsters?”

“What else do you call people who sleep comfortably in their Tower while children are crying out in pain?”

Blake doesn’t know, so she doesn’t try to answer.

*

There are so many things about the city, the real city that the everyday people see, that Blake did not expect at all, and some of the things she expected are far from the truth. Adam is well read. It’s not as though Blake expected the people of her city to be entirely ignorant, but she did not expect the poor people of the slums she has learned exist to have access to more advanced forms of education.

If anything, it’s impressive. She knows just how hard Adam has had to work to learn.

He tells her that he is part of a collective that has helped him to better understand the world. He makes recommendations of things to read and Blake seeks them out, as many as she can.

She tries to find new books on her own, things that even Adam might not know yet.

She wants to impress him. To be thought of as clever (and adult) for the things she actually knows instead of the title she’ll one day be given. Blake likes that Adam sees none of that; he only sees her, and sometimes what he sees is lacking. So she reads as much as she can, tries to make herself better (smarter and older), consumed by the ideas and the ways that they start to make sense to her now.

When Weiss asks too many questions, she does her best to avoid them.

To avoid her.

*

One day Adam says he is going to take her to meet his collective.

“We’re an organization working together toward a common cause,” he says, speaking evenly but calmly, as though he expects this to be difficult for Blake to understand. They are in what she’s been told is the Distillery District, on the way to one such group meeting. “That’s why we call it the Fang. One tooth in a jaw alone is nothing. You need all of them to take a bite.”

He laughs and Blake does too, although she’s not entirely sure what’s funny about that.

But she wants to know more about Adam and his group, and he’s always more pleasant when he is as relaxed as he is now, and laughing. His shoulders shift into an easy posture as he continues to walk, adding, “It’s just one Fang alone, right, because it’s there to remind you. That by yourself, you’re nothing.” He looks at her then and the smile is still on his face, but the expression is very distant and so are his eyes. “You understand that, don’t you?”

She doesn’t, not really, but his hand is on her wrist, as it often is when he wants to make a point, and Blake wants to meet his friends and hear all they have to say. “Of course,” she says, and Adam smiles.

He lets go of her wrist and they continue on to the warehouse where his friends are waiting.

All along the wall are barrels that Blake expects to have wine or ale, maybe something shipped in outside the legal routes between the other Isles, but Adam tells her that it’s medicinal elixirs that come from Anton Sokolov or his contemporaries that have been diluted by combining them with water, to make each tankard last longer.

“That doesn’t sound safe,” Blake says, trying to wrap her mind around the way the science might still work.

“It’s not.” Adam steps closer, whispering so close to her ear. “But this is what people have to resort to. Because of the monsters.”

That’s all he calls them now, when he talks about Blake or her family (but doesn’t know it).

The monsters.

*

It isn’t long before the room begins to look relatively full. Most of the other people present are wearing masks, not too dissimilar to the kind the Overseers wear. They are grotesque frozen depictions of faces contorted in anger, though they do not conceal the entire face of the wearer as the helmets of the Overseers do. You can still see their jaws and mouths, the impression of a human face underneath the mask.

Adam says that all this is deliberate too.

That you are meant to remember the people beneath the pain.

When it comes to his ideals, he is willing to talk almost endlessly. “And looking like the Overseers, that’s intentional too. Their Seven Strictures, what good are they? All they’ve ever done is protect the powerful and subdue the poor.”

The blasphemy is startling.

Blake has always known that some people feel this way about the Abbey and its teachings, but she’s never heard it spoken so directly. She looks around quickly to see if anyone else notices, but if they care then they certainly aren’t saying so.

“Think about it,” Adam continues. “The first one: wandering gaze? Don’t want things you can’t have. That’s an easy one; they want us to settle for nothing. Restless hands tells you to always stay busy, to never stop working. Roving feet tells you not to travel far from where you were born, to keep your place. And the fifth: don’t be hungry? What do these fools know about hunger?” He shakes his head. “They want you to be satisfied. To accept. Well, I don’t.” He nods toward the assembling group. “We don’t.”

Even in spite of how misguided such blasphemy feels, somehow Blake still can’t help but thrill at the possibilities of it.

The idea you could choose to be something else than the thing you were born to be.

*

Once enough of the other people in masks arrive, a meeting begins.

The woman in charge looks like she is about the same age as Adam, maybe just a little older. She speaks with calm and clarity, about many of the same things that he does. It’s the first time that Blake truly realizes that these ideas don’t just come from him, even though Adam has suggested it before. It’s different to hear it now, in the murmured agreement of the crowd. These ideals are shared by many.

A room full of people, all of them talking about the monsters. If they knew who she was, the title, they would hate her. Blake knows it as clear as anything. They would feel their hatred with the same conviction with which so many think they love her, because of that same title.

Blake does not think that she’s a monster, but she isn’t sure she knows what she is instead.

What is a person who is so close to turning invisible that anyone can see what they like whenever they look?

*

When the meeting ends, Adam guides Blake to the front with a hand at the small of her back, pressing firmly. “Blake, I want you to meet someone.” He smiles at the woman and then back over at Blake. “This is Sienna. She taught me so much of what I know.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Blake says, and a part of her does mean it.

She had wanted to meet more people of all kinds, after all.

To learn more things outside of her own limited perspective and to understand the whole breadth of her city.

But people are so much angrier than she expected them to be. Angry with her, even if they don’t know it.

She had expected things to seem simpler than this.

Fixable.

But a princess knows how to hide what she really feels, and so she smiles.

It’s easy really.

“Adam has told me about you,” Sienna says, her voice a soft purr. The two of them share a smile above Blake’s head and she resents them so much, in that moment, for the way that they make her feel young and small again.

All those things that she had been trying to run away from.

But she hides it in her smile.

“Well, he told me about you too,” Blake says, wanting to sound more knowledgeable than she suddenly feels. Adam has mentioned Sienna before, that’s true, but only in the vaguest terms. He doesn’t like to talk about people who are better positioned in the world than he is, except when he despises them. And he doesn’t seem to feel that way about Sienna, not exactly. “He says you do good work here.”

“The best we can,” Sienna says smoothly. “With those monsters in our way.”

They share another look and Blake begins to wonder what it is exactly that Adam has been telling other people that he does not want to say to her.

*

That first day with Sienna is the first time that Blake begins to question her friendship with Adam, if that’s what you would even call it.

And it’s on the last day with Sienna that it all just falls apart.

*

Blake barely knows how to even think about how it all happened when she looks back at it later.

Thinking back, she isn’t sure if she’s blocked the memory from her mind or if she really didn’t get a better look.

She is fifteen and has known Adam for almost a year. She is a very different girl (almost a woman) than when she met him.

He did that. She has to admit it to herself.

And that wasn’t what stopped her. It wasn’t the changes and how she liked herself less. It wasn’t the way she became short with her father and mother when they asked too many questions. How she looked at them differently (like monsters) or the way she saw herself differently too. (Like a monster.)

It wasn’t the day he backed her up against the biting cold brick of an alley wall and pushed his mouth on top of hers.

She told him to stop, and he did. He did stop.

So that was that and so she let things continue. In some ways, now, Blake blames herself for everything that came after.

Because she let it continue.

*

Blake came looking for Adam that day in the Distillery District, just as she so often does.

When she finds him, he’s with a man she doesn’t know. He has strange dark eyes, grey hair, and a mouth that keeps twisting in a cruel smile. “Thought I should let you know,” he says, like it’s the end to some joke. When he turns to note Blake’s arrival, he even laughs. “We’ve got company.”

Adam is pacing, and he only slows to look in Blake’s direction but doesn’t acknowledge her. He is frantic in a way he has been so often lately. Blake doesn’t know what to make of it.

Sometimes her father gets like this, anxious and agitated with matters of state, but the feeling is different. Even now, with the strain between them, when her father is angry Blake never feels afraid.

But she feels it now, even though she isn’t sure why. There’s a tense ugly feeling in her stomach when she looks at Adam’s face.

A part of her wants to back out of the warehouse, to just walk away and go back to the Tower.

But she’s frozen in place, watching him. She needs to know what he’s going to do.

“Adam,” she says softly, placating. “Are you alright?”

He isn’t and it’s stupid of her to ask. She knows that from the moment he looks at her, all the anger flaring up in his eyes. He closes the distance between them quickly, grabbing Blake by the arm (hard) and pulling her close to him. “Why are you here? Who sent you?”

“What?”

An absurd impulse to laugh springs into Blake’s head. This is almost the exact same misunderstanding from the day that they met. It’s funny, somehow, but she knows she cannot laugh.

She’s afraid to.

“Did she send you?”

Adam shakes her, roughly, and her voice shakes too, asking, “Did who—”

Sienna.”

“No.” Blake is confused, frowning, and somehow that only seems to make him angrier. “No, I’m sorry,” she says, because maybe that is the right thing to say.

The stranger laughs again. “She doesn’t know. She didn’t see me, she won’t have sent anyone.” The amusement slips quickly off his face. “Yet. But you have to move fast.”

The anger drains out of Adam’s entire body so rapidly, leaving something empty and cold in its place.

It’s somehow more frightening.

“Yes, alright,” he says, dropping his grip on Blake’s arm.

She thinks again that she should run, but now there’s fear for someone other than herself holding her still.

She doesn’t know Sienna, not very well, and she doesn’t particularly like the ways that being in her presence has made Blake feel, but that doesn’t mean she wants her to be the focus of Adam’s anger.

Or whatever this is in its place; he moves with a calm that is so utterly detached from all emotion.

He puts on his jacket, black leather, and his own version of the masks they wear in the Fang. It shows so much of his own face and features when he wears it, even more than most.

Vanity, Blake eventually realized.

A surprising amount of what Adam does, even with all his talk of the people, is motivated by self-interest and vanity.

She blames herself really, for not seeing it sooner. For not stopping it.

But when he turns to leave, a blade on his back and a dagger strapped to his side, he looks back at her from over his shoulder and says, “You’re coming with me.”

It’s too late to run now.

*

They find Sienna in another abandoned building. There are too many of these in the city, especially in these poorer neighborhoods. Businesses lost, shuttered, and their remnants gutted.

But now isn’t the time for Blake to be consumed with her guilt.

Not yet.

Sienna is seated at a table in a back room that probably used to be an office. There are only a few guards present, and none of them in the room with her.

The stranger with the infuriating smile waits just outside, leaning casually as if there is nothing to be worried about.

That only makes Blake more anxious.

Sienna doesn’t have her back to the door but it still takes her a moment to notice Adam when he steps into the room. He is so still and contained, every movement is like a whisper. Sienna looks up and she frowns, just for a moment, but then smiles at him right after. “Adam, is everything alright?”

“No,” he says.

It’s all he says.

She doesn’t even have time to reach for the blade on the table before he surges forward and drives the knife straight into her heart.

Someone screams and it takes Blake a moment to realize that it’s her.

It’s fitting, isn’t it. Adam showed her the first dying people she ever saw and now he’s shown Blake her very first murder. This was always where this was going to end up, and she’s an idiot (she’s a monster), for letting it get here.

Sienna’s eyes are still moving, her hands clawing feebly at Adam’s face, smearing the mask with the blood that pours out of her mouth and pumps from her chest.

There is so much blood and Blake feels sick.

Now, finally, she runs.

Or she tries to, but is snatched up by the man waiting on the other side of the door. He laughs in her face. “Where are you going, princess?”

She feels sick, actually sick, and the whole world sways underneath each unsteady footstep as she tries to tug her arm away from this man. She thinks of every lesson she has ever had in combat, every defensive movement, and she aims a quick hard kick at his knee. He stumbles, loosens his grip somewhat, but then Adam is there, his hands slick with blood.

Sienna’s blood smears over Blake’s jaw as he clutches her tight.

*

This is where it becomes fuzzy.

Adam says that Sienna was a traitor and he did what needed to be done. That she was in league with them, the monsters. And when he says it he holds Blake tightly and points her toward the gathering crowd of members of the Fang.

Her. The princess.

They all know. They all boo.

She is sick and she is angry and she is guilty, yes she is, the blood is literally on her hands, but she is not going to die here in the slums of her city with a filthy dagger in her heart. So she fights him as he pulls her through the streets. She resists. And when he has her back against a wall — no, not like this, not again — that’s when she meets Yang.

Like some kind of thunderstorm that crashes in suddenly, an actual force of nature, Yang saves her.

She really, actually saves Blake’s life.

*

“Are you alright?” Blake asks for probably the third or fourth time on that first day as the two of them are escorted to the Tower.

“Sure, but what about you?”

There are traces of blood on them both, but it doesn’t belong to either of them. It could almost make Blake laugh, but she thinks that probably isn’t funny. That laughter might be an impulse caused by her own fear. Even if, logically, she knows that there is no reason to still feel afraid. Something about Yang makes her sure of that.

“I’m fine,” is all she says, though. That and, “I’ve got a new royal protector, don’t I?”

Yang rolls her eyes but she laughs loudly too.

It’s a pleasant laugh, unrestrained and as bright as the sun.

(She really is a force of nature.)

It is only a joke, of course. The royal protector is an elite position at the side of the ruler of the Isles. There is only one and appointment is for life, or at least for as long as your Emperor or Empress wishes to keep you.

Your body truly belongs to the Empire after that; it is not to be taken lightly.

In many ways, it is not so dissimilar from being a princess. Blake is not her own person and never will be. She has duty to uphold and expectations and all of these things, these thoughts, were what she had been running away from and now they’ve all caught up to her again, haven’t they. She feels a sudden, surging sadness so thick she could almost choke on it, but she still tries to smile instead.

Maybe Yang notices the change, that the smile isn’t real (not anymore), since she keeps the joke going now in such an easy and relaxed way, saying, “Is there a try out process or do I automatically win for throwing myself off a building?”

The surge of a twisting sickly feeling roiling in Blake’s gut bursts open like a damn and she laughs a slightly manic laugh, a wet and anxious sound, but it melts into something more natural under the force of Yang’s smile.

She really is charming, Blake will give her that.

“Did you throw yourself?” This time, Blake’s smile is closer to a real one. “I missed it.”

“I guess I’ll have to find more rooftops to jump off of.” Yang actually nudges her once. “If my princess commands it.”

There is another clenching feeling in Blake’s stomach, but it’s very different from the first.

Blake cannot help but think, to some degree, what a horrible person she is for being able to smile and almost enjoy herself just an hour since she saw someone bleed to death. (A monster.) But when Yang smiles again, a feeling that’s so close to something you could call happiness lights up inside of Blake automatically, without thinking. It almost feels inevitable.

Maybe she’s not a bad person if this woman, this absolute stranger she only just met, makes her almost want to relax, to feel alright for just a moment.

Maybe Yang just has that effect on everyone.

*

Important correction: Yang’s charm does not work on everyone.

Weiss hates her the moment she steps into the Tower.

“Your Highness!” To her credit, Weiss looks genuinely concerned about Blake’s well-being as she rushes over to the collective of guards. Even throughout their introductions and Blake’s rushed explanation, things are passable.

But it turns quickly.

“… what is that smell?” Weiss blinks, probably realizing what she has just said aloud, and hastens to add, “Not you, I’m certain, Your Highness. Unless you were…” She coughs, almost gagging. “Is it fish intestines?”

Yang pulls a face and lifts one arm, sniffing experimentally. “… do I smell like intestines?” She doesn’t sound offended or horrified so much as surprised. “I guess you don’t really smell your own smell.”

“You don’t,” Blake agrees. “I mean… people don’t. But you do smell a bit like the sea, yes.” She shrugs, eyeing Yang up and down quickly. “I assume you are a whaler by trade? Or that you were, since you’re a part of our Watch now.” She smiles and the expression is more tentative than she intends for it to be. “Would you consider that a promotion?”

Yang actually gives her a wink at that one. “We’ll have to see.”

Excuse me, but this—” Weiss waves her hand very broadly in Yang’s overall direction. “— this person who smells like fish guts—”

“Whale, actually.”

“—who smells like whale guts is going to be a part of the City Watch? That’s really happening?”

“That’s the gist of it, yes, Lady Schnee.”

Yang puts her hands on her hips and grins. “She’s perceptive.” She holds out one of her hands to shake, but Weiss only blinks at it. So Yang retracts it with an unconcerned sort of shrug. “Like the princess said, I’m Yang.”

“I’m disinterested.”

“If I may interrupt,” Officer Nikos, an Elite member of the Watch, smoothly interjects herself into the conversation with a welcoming smile. “I’ll have one of my men escort you to the showers, if you would like, Miss—”

“Just Yang is fine.”

Officer Nikos nods without missing a beat. “—alright, Yang, they’ll escort you and … Lady Schnee?”

The very annoyed look on Weiss’s face practically melts away and the tension slips from her shoulders. “Yes?” She even visibly perks up, standing straighter.

“I have quite a lot of paperwork I’m going to have to file related to the day’s activities, and I was hoping you might be of some assistance.”

The two of them exchange a knowing glance that Blake is going to have to look into sometime later on, but for now it calms things between Yang and Weiss and that’s sufficient.

“I’ll show Yang the way, if you don’t mind,” Blake says, now that there’s an opening in the argument.

Yang blinks but otherwise doesn’t visibly react.

It’s the lack of a clear response that suddenly makes Blake feel nervous, a bit silly, and she could almost swear she feels heat creeping up the back of her neck. She hurries to add, “I’m sure the Watch’s bathing areas are quite sufficient, but there are nicer rooms reserved for valued guests and… well, you did save my life.”

Weiss looks sharply over at Yang and then quickly back to Blake.

If she didn’t know better, Blake would actually say that Lady Schnee’s expression softens, if only somewhat.

“I don’t—” Yang looks at the crowd of Watch members still surrounding them and then back to Blake. “I can just use the same baths as everyone else.”

“And normally you will. But today I am offering you my hospitality.” Without even consciously meaning to, Blake has slipped into a sort of royal superiority that she uses to get what she wants. Her back is straighter, her jaw raised lightly, and her voice lifts too. It projects calm and even arrogance, but restrained with the specific kind of humility that comes with never actually needing to impress anyone. “You won’t refuse your princess, will you?”

Although Weiss is back to looking outraged about everything that Yang is, the woman herself genuinely looks humbled by Blake’s tone. It’s a little bit endearing, actually, to see all that swagger evaporate into an almost shy grin. “… I’m pretty sure there’s only one answer here.”

“Now you’re catching on.”

*

The usual soldiers of the Watch all share one single bath hall in their barracks, near the training area, but Blake leads Yang to the other wing entirely with its guest quarters and individual baths. She doesn’t summon any servants on the way — doesn’t want to draw anymore attention to her day out and its consequences, even though she’s quite sure she cannot keep both Officer Nikos and Lady Schnee quiet enough to keep her parents from finding out — but for now it’s just the two of them walking on the polished marble floors.

Out of the corner of her eye, Blake could swear that Yang is looking at her own reflection. (If she didn’t know better, she’d say she might even be fixing her hair by looking at the tiles.)

But when she turns her head to check, she’s only met with a confident grin. “So this is how you live, huh?”

“Well, sort of.” Blake points at the western most wall. “The royal family resides that way. Closer to the throne room.” She smiles and drops her hands. “Though I probably shouldn’t be telling you, should I? For all I know you’re a spy sent here to kill me.”

“If I was, I don’t think I’d wait until you’re sleeping with guards outside,” Yang says, apparently without considering how careless her words are in a place like this. The natural honesty is actually refreshing. “We’re alone right now, aren’t we?”

“And you’d what? Kill me with your bare hands?”

Yang grins a little more and looks as though she plans to say something to that effect, but then her eyes fall on the smatter of blood just at the sleeves of Blake’s jacket and the humor dims slightly in her expression. “… no thanks. I already put so much effort into saving your life.” She waves her hand in dismissal. “It’d just be a waste at this point.”

“How noble.”

“Not really,” Yang says quickly. “That’s just slum and sailor logic for you.” Yet again Yang seems to hesitate, to consider, before continuing on with honesty instead. “If I was acting like nobility, I’d want to know what’s in it for me. I’d ask you for payment or a title.”

“And here I am, giving you a new job and repayment anyway.”

Yang makes a show of checking her pockets, slowing her walk as she does so. “Oh! I must have misplaced…”

“The bath!” Blake gestures vaguely around them. “And access to the guest quarters for a night.”

“Oh, stop it, the royal reserves will be emptied out at this rate.” But Yang is still grinning, still good natured and relaxed. “You know, I didn’t save your life because you’re a princess.” She hesitates, “I didn’t actually know that you were a princess until, you know. After.”

Blake had gathered that much. It’s actually a relief, in a way. She’s so used to only being viewed in one way. Even with Adam, apparently, he saw her as her title and what he could get out of it.

Yang is different.

“Really?” Blake slows. They’ve reached the end of the hallway. With nowhere left to walk, she should probably tell Yang to use this bath here and part ways for the day. But first, she has to know: “And who did you think I was?”

The grin wavers, but only slightly. Yang bites her lip and lifts her eyebrows in an almost placating look when she asks, “Honestly?”

Yes.”

Blake wants someone to be honest with her, to tell her exactly what they think of her.

And she thinks that maybe she manages to say it without it sounding entirely too much like pleading.

“I thought you were kind of an idiot.” Yang’s smile is sheepish again, and she ducks her head as she shrugs. Even that gentle evasiveness has a strange swagger in the shifting of her shoulders. “You getting surrounded like that, but… now I’m thinking maybe it was a kidnapping. So that’s less like you being stupid. Overall.”

Which, Blake notices, does not rule out stupidity entirely.

It really is honesty and it’s so refreshing she has to laugh. “Well, thank you for saving me even though you thought I was an idiot.”

“Hey, stupid people deserve to live too,” Yang deadpans without missing a beat before she lets out a loud laugh of her own immediately after. “So… is this me?” She nods toward the door but doesn’t make a move to enter. Not yet.

Blake isn’t sure why she feels disappointed that the conversation seems to be ending. Leading Yang here to the baths was the point, after all, wasn’t it?

“Yes,” is all she says, trying to smile in her most charmingly neutral way.

Yang eases the door open and takes a quick look inside. The shock that registers on her face is fleeting, but her eyebrows remain raised in a way that can only look incredulous. “Is this what… all the rooms here look like?”

“I guess so. Yes.”

Yang appears to take it all in, studying the opulence of the room and reaching some conclusion, though what that is Blake simply could not say. The newly minted soldier turns her head to look at her and her expression is utterly unreadable, although Blake could swear that the grin is less sincere than before. “Thanks for the help, but I think I can see myself from here.” She pauses. “Your Highness.”

It’s a bit early in knowing one another for Blake to presume to correct her on that again.

But.

“Just Blake is fine…”

“Mmm,” is all that Yang says before she pushes the rest of the way into the guest room and gently shuts the door behind her.

*

Blake was right.

She can’t keep her trips out of the Tower secret anymore, even if she doesn’t intend to keep them up.

Her parents are furious, although she can’t tell how much of that is intended for her and how much is meant for Adam.

They don’t yell, not exactly, but it’s worse than that.

They’re disappointed.

Her father says almost nothing at all, and mother just looks wounded. “We worry about you, honey. That’s all.”

“I’m fine,” Blake says, even if it’s entirely unconvincing, given the circumstances. It still feels almost true. Because if she wasn’t fine, she would need someone’s help, right, and she doesn’t. She doesn’t need anything. “It won’t happen again.”

“You can bet it won’t.”

It’s the first thing her dad has said since they summoned her to the throne room. The chamber was completely cleared, probably only moments before she arrived. He looks tired after a long day attending to matters of the Empire, certainly, but there’s an element to the exhaustion that goes beyond the physical.

Blake feels fairly certain that she is to blame for that much.

Even if his building anger is starting to give him a second wind.

“I didn’t mean to lie to you.” Blake is crossing her arms in front of her chest and only belatedly realizes how defensive her posture must look. She lowers her hands by her sides, hanging limp and useless. That almost feels worse, but she won’t fidget any more than that. “To either of you.”

It’s true.

She didn’t set out intending to lie or to gradually begin to hate her own parents (or herself). It’s only now, removed from it all, that Blake can see how it all started to happen. It was a little like sinking, beginning slow at first and then pulling her under.

She thinks of stories about the tide she would read about when she was younger and imagined her trips out to sea. Adventures that were never meant to be her own. She thinks of sailors lost in the ocean, never to see the surface again.

“But you did, Blake,” her father’s voice cuts through her thoughts and she shudders. He sounds so miserable. “You lied to both of us. For how long?”

A part of her wants to lie again, right now, so maybe she hasn’t learned anything at all. (Maybe she’s still a monster.) “Almost a year,” she says, and now her arms are folded again, as if it will somehow help to hold herself together.

Her parents exchange a look, but Blake doesn’t see much of it. She can’t look them in the eye just now.

“We’re going to have to think of a suitable—”

“Solution,” her mother cuts in.

Maybe she’s afraid of what Blake would do in response to a punishment. (The old her, the princess who did what she liked and had never seen real consequence before, would have probably wanted to rebel.) But now Blake thinks maybe she deserves a little punishment.

And maybe that’s why they won’t give it to her either.

“A solution to all of this, yes.” Her father sits forward at the edge of his throne, watching her carefully. “And this girl you brought home with you. Tell me about her.”

Blake startles somewhat. “Yang?” She didn’t expect her parents to ask about a new hire for the Watch.

Why should it concern them?

As if reading her mind, her father says, very slowly and carefully, “You have not shown very good judgment of late, Blake. You can see why we might have concerns about the girl.”

Her mother places a hand on his arm and he stills. Their hands find each other almost automatically, drawn together like magnets. “I’m sure if Officer Nikos evaluates her skill, her temperament, and considers her well suited to the job, then that will be fine with your father and I.”

“Better than that stable boy,” father mumbles, as though he doesn’t realize that they can both hear him. This time her mother’s response is a much more pointed elbow to his side. He shoots her a disapproving look. “Blake knows that I don’t like that boy.” He rubs his face, the exhaustion settling in at every corner. “If he would at least wear a shirt when we have visiting nobility…”

Her mother’s hand rubs up and down his arm again, but her eyes are back on Blake. “Honey, if you think you might want to go rest for the day, we’d understand. But maybe sometime later we can talk about… other things. Things that might have happened or you might have seen—”

“I’m fine,” Blake says again, and this time she thinks it must be more convincing.

Because it’s true. Because she is.

She’s fine.

*

Her parents place her under house arrest, which Blake hardly sees the point of.

Strictly speaking, she wasn’t supposed to run off and leave the Tower before either. If she wanted to get out now, she obviously knows how, and even increased security at the main gates isn’t going to stop her. But she doesn’t want to leave, not anymore.

A part of her — a small part, but there all the same — is even afraid of the thought of going back into her city again. How can she walk through the streets knowing the poverty and anguish just hidden around every corner?

And how can she think about that without hearing Adam’s words?

Or worse than that: hearing Sienna.

She’s grateful to be trapped in the Tower, to have the excuse of being stuck there instead of having to admit fully to herself or to others that she’s scared. It feels pathetic. Selfish.

(So like a monster.)

She is in one of these moods, listless and morose, strolling through the courtyard with her shoulders hunched and head down when she hears a familiar voice screaming, “Watch out!”

The sound of horse hooves clatters against the stone.

Blake turns her head and there it is, moving rapidly and headed right for her. For an instant, she freezes, her eyes going wide with fear, and then the (much stronger) impulse hits.

She runs, darting to the side, and reaches out for the bridle as it whips past. She catches it, but the raw leather nearly lacerates her hand, wrenching her arm with the force of it.

She lets go.

“Blake!” Sun, the infamous shirtless boy who works in the stables, is jogging to catch up, a look of panic etched across his face. “Oh wow, are you okay? You could have lost an arm!”

“I don’t think that seems very likely,” Blake mumbles, even as she massages at the ache gathering in her shoulder. “What happened?”

Sun points broadly with one helpless gesture. “He got out!”

“Oh. Well, yes.” Blake frowns and watches as an array of Watch members have begun to gather around the animal, trying to reign it back in. “I thought maybe you’d have more specific details than that.”

“I, uh.” Sun looks appropriately sheepish. “I might have put the latch back wrong. I guess. Maybe!” He pulls a very dramatic face. “He almost stepped on my chest.”

Blake smiles, despite herself, the ache in her arm and her palm almost entirely forgotten now. “And why were you on the ground?”

“… I might have been napping.”

“Might have?”

“Definitely was, yeah.”

That sounds about right. Blake’s smile is even more relaxed and natural now. “I won’t tell my father.”

“Oh, by the Outsider, thank you.”

“If you promise not to almost kill me or you ever again.”

“What, like… like ever?” Sun rubs the hair at the nape of his neck and then laughs. “Because that’s a really long time.”

Blake laughs too.

*

Somehow in all those days spent with Adam out in the streets, Blake had started to forget how many things she was missing about life at home. The people she was meeting, the members of the Fang, they talk about everyone who lives in the Tower as though they are complicit in some kind of awful conspiracy. As though the only motivation any of them can have is to hurt people.

No one Blake knows is actually like that, and the more time she spends around them again the more she is reminded.

She helps clean in the kitchens for a few days and one of the women offers to teach her basic knife skills. She demonstrates by chopping onions, one after another, and then Blake follows suit. Her lines aren’t very even at first, but she improves.

Her hand becomes steadier.

Sun offers to show her how he tends to the horses. She spends hours helping to groom them and cleaning out their stalls. He tries to object the first time she picks up a shovel, but she gives him her most imperious glare and he goes instantly silent — apart from a few mumbled apologies that just sound like total nonsense.

The stable is near a back doorway into the kitchens and not very far from the barracks either. Blake is able to watch the central goings on of her Tower in ways she never bothered to before.

She sees the kitchen staff taking breaks at the back when they think no one is watching.

Sometimes they play dice or take a drink from a flask hidden in an apron. They chatter with each other and once, late at night when they must have been certain no one was watching, she saw two of the young men kissing just inside the doorway before pulling it shut behind them.

She sees the members of the Watch stumbling back home after a long and grueling day of training, sweat soaked hair in disarray and cheeks flushed. She sees them at the start of their day, rubbing sleep from their eyes, their uniforms a mess as they lazily button and adjust them while walking out in the early morning air.

One morning in particular, she is shoveling hay for the horses when she recognizes the woman walking by with a curtain of hair hanging in her face. “If it isn’t the royal protector…”

Yang slows her walk, but doesn’t look up right away. (She has one of the buttons on her shirt done up incorrectly, putting the entire thing out of alignment, and she seems to be struggling to figure out which one it is before settling on undoing the entire shirt instead.) She blinks blearily as she looks up, her shirt falling open to reveal a slightly wrinkled tank top underneath. She blinks again, but then grins immediately after. “Have you been demoted, princess?”

“I consider this a promotion.” Blake gestures toward the animals penned up in the stables behind her. “These are much better company than my father’s council of advisors.”

“Are you supposed to say things like that in public?”

“I don’t think you’ll betray my trust.”

“That’s a lot of faith in someone you don’t know.”

Blake sets the pitchfork aside and shrugs. “I was just thinking it’s a lot of faith put in someone who doesn’t know how to manage buttons.”

Yang looks down at herself, then quickly up again. She laughs. “Oh, you saw that?” She scrubs at her face with her palm and somehow manages to look a little more alert as a result. “It’s early! I didn’t even break my fast yet.”

“Oh, so you remember how clothing works only after you’ve had a meal?” Blake tsks, but hopefully the smile takes all the sting out of her words. “That sounds dangerous.” She steps away from the pile of hay and rubs her palms against her trousers (gingerly) as she draws closer. “May I?”

Blake’s hands move toward the edges of the shirt, but her eyes are on Yang’s face.

Yang is wearing that same confused expression she had on the last time they interacted. She’s smiling, of course, it almost seems to be her face’s natural state of being, but there is a twist there in her eyebrows — a sort of concerned confusion.

Blake doesn’t know what to make of it.

But Yang nods, and so the princess moves her focus away from the woman’s face to concentrate on the movements of her own hands.

“And where is your jacket, my royal protector?” Blake finds herself saying the words before she realizes she intends them, all of it coming out as barely more than an exhalation of breath. She does not lift her gaze, focused instead on one button, and then the next. (Carefully ignoring the way her knuckles graze against the taut muscle of Yang’s stomach through the tank top.)

“… I was going to get it after I ate.”

Blake tsks again, softly, and casually notes the way Yang’s hands flex at her sides. “Out of uniform.” This time she does look back up at the woman’s face. The confusion has been replaced with something else, much sharper and harder to read. “I suppose I won’t report you. This time.”

Yang licks her lips and Blake feels a strange surge of satisfaction. (It’s fulfilling to replace that confident swagger with something else entirely, even if she isn’t exactly sure what that is.) “Yes, Your Highness.”

“Blake,” she says, finishing off the final button and adjusting the shirt collar carefully at Yang’s neck. “You will call me Blake.”

Yang’s eyebrows lift briefly, almost imperceptibly, and her expression shifts back into something much more natural. There is that cocky grin again. “Well, thanks, Blake.” She winks and slips out of Blake’s grip entirely by taking a step back. “I’ll remember that.”

The distance between them resumes and Blake is instantly left feeling a little bit silly.

Almost foolish.

She doesn’t know what to do with her hands, so she crosses her arms to put them out of the way. She nods and lifts her chin slightly. “You make certain that you do.”

Yang’s grin somehow becomes even bigger. “And I’ll try to remember how to keep my uniform buttoned.” She licks her lips, hesitating. She looks in the direction of the food hall, and then back to Blake. “But maybe you should check on it again sometime. You know, just in case.”

“… what?”

“Tomorrow. We could meet in the morning and you could be certain I’m dressed to code.” Yang is staring at her now, intense and focused, and Blake doesn’t know what it means. “We could talk about why you were out in the city.” The memory of that day, of the things that came before their meeting, must show on Blake’s face because Yang quickly hurries to add, “Or whatever else. I don’t care.”

Blake nods, but doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t really have an answer to anything she’s thinking or feeling.

“Okay,” Yang nods too. “I have to go eat or I’m going to be late for—”

“Tomorrow then.”

*

Tomorrow morning, Blake wakes just before sunrise peeks through her window overlooking the ocean.

She hurries to dress.

She picks something nice. Not too fancy, but better than the rags she’s been wearing to help Sun tend to the horses. Leather boots, finely made trousers, a button-up shirt, and a deep royal blue jacket. She likes the way the collar frames her jawline.

Not that appearances are overly important when she’s only walking around her own Tower.

But still.

When she arrives at the stables, she finds Yang already there. Sun is talking at her and she’s just nodding along. When Yang notices Blake’s arrival, she visibly perks up and straightens from where she had been leaning against the outer wall of the stable.

She gestures down at herself — in full uniform, carefully composed — and swaggers closer with a wide grin. “So do I make the cut?”

Blake smiles. “I suppose I can tolerate your presence for the day.”

“Just today?”

“We’ll have to see.”

*

Blake does mean she will enjoy Yang’s presence for the entire day at least, though. She didn’t bother to tell the other girl in advance (it’s better as a surprise) but Blake requested Yang have an entire day off from training with Officer Nikos.

She reveals the news as they’re walking side-by-side through the gardens in the courtyards.

“What, like the whole day? To do whatever we want?”

“Only as long as it’s here at the Tower.”

Yang raises her eyebrows. “Are you not allowed to go wherever you like, princess?”

“No,” Blake answers simply. “And never have been.”

Yang veers off and leads them down an outer path. At first the choice seems random, but Blake notices that they are moving further away from the people tending to the flowers. They’re almost entirely alone by the time Yang says, “That sounds rough.”

“You don’t have to make fun of me.”

The other girl shrugs, hands folded lightly in her pockets. “I’m not.” Yang squints at her, against the sun, and Blake notices the very small imperfections already there at the corners of her eyes from so many hours spent smiling and squinting.

She feels a strange impulse to reach out and touch just there, fingertips grazing over the woman’s temple and down across her eyebrow.

But Blake’s own hands remain very firmly in her pockets too.

Yang must notice the way she’s staring now, because the swaggering confident grin is back in place. “Do you want me to say it another way?” She shrugs. “If I was going to rule an entire Empire, I’d want to be able to walk in my streets and know the people better.” The smile is soft now but the look in Yang’s eyes is even softer. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

“Don’t you?”

“Not at all.” Just like that, Yang resumes walking, headed further down the path without bothering to even glance back. “But nobody’s asked me.”

Blake takes long strides to catch back up. “I did. Just now, I did.” She tsks, which is becoming a pretty standard part of her interactions with Yang. “Are you even paying attention?” She grins and studies Yang’s face, the amusement that passes over it quickly before the other girl tries to straighten her expression into something a little more serious. “Is this how focused you’re going to be when protecting my life?”

“Yeah, good point. My apologies, Your Highness.”

“Blake.”

“Right, sorry.” Yang makes a face, looking genuinely annoyed at forgetting. “Nobody else in the barracks calls you that, so—”

“Do they talk about me? In the barracks?”

Yang gives her a curious look. “Do the people in the Tower talk about the princess who also lives in the Tower?” She scoffs softly like she must think this is some kind of elaborate joke on Blake’s part. “Yeah. Just a little.”

She wasn’t joking, but she can see now how silly the question was. “… good things?” Blake really hopes the question doesn’t sound as pathetic to Yang as it just felt in her own ears.

But Yang just shrugs, slowing her walk again. “Just things. You know, how our life is forfeit for the sake of yours. Probably normal princess stuff, I guess.” She points at one of the blooming plants. “Can I touch this? Or pick one?”

Blake blinks, very confused and startled by the sudden question. “… the flower?”

“Yeah, do you know what kind it is? Or what it’s called?”

“No.” Blake’s brain is trying to catch up with whatever is happening now, and words come slowly as a result. “I don’t know what it is, but … if you only take one, I don’t see how it would be a problem.”

Yang nods and plucks a single flower from the bush before very carefully and precisely folding it away in her jacket pocket. When she notices Blake watching with an obvious look of confusion, her grin in return is almost sheepish. “It’s for my sister.”

“… oh.”

“She likes to study a lot. Like, a lot of just about everything.”

Yang has a sister. It hadn’t really occurred to Blake to think about this woman’s family and the life she must have had before she came here.

Obviously that was foolish of her. Selfish, even.

“You should bring her by sometime.”

Yang looks genuinely startled by the offer. “Bring her—”

“To the Tower. To see the library and the gardens.” Blake gestures at all the other plants around them. “I’m sure she’d find it interesting.”

*

What Yang neglected to mention is that her sister is even more reckless and wild than she is.

Somehow Blake knows that this girl who thrusts into the library and begins climbing everything must be Yang’s sister, Ruby. She thinks she’d probably know that even if they hadn’t made their abrupt (grand) entrance together.

Something about them fits so well, carefully balanced one against the other.

Lady Schnee doesn’t take the commotion very well, but otherwise the first meeting with Ruby is a relative success, all things considered.

Every subsequent interaction after that is even better.

*

It’s Yang’s idea, of course.

They do not have their “uniform inspection” days as often as they might, but it does become enough of a habit that Officer Nikos simply gives Yang days off built into her schedule. Yang notifies Blake of the dates as soon as she receives them.

It might not be every day that Yang isn’t working — Blake hardly thinks it’s fair to ask if that’s the case — but on the days when they plan to meet, it always begins the same. Blake arrives, makes an elaborate show of inspecting Yang’s uniform (adjusting her collar or brushing at her shoulder), and then they find somewhere to explore in the Tower.

It’s on one of these days that Yang makes the suggestion for the first time: “Don’t you think we’ve seen everything there is to see here?” Though obviously, it’s not framed as much of a suggestion at first.

“I think I’ve seen everything there is to see here since I was six.” Blake shrugs. “It’s fun having someone else here, though.”

But it occurs to her that perhaps that’s why Yang is asking.

Maybe Yang isn’t having fun in her time spent with Blake anymore. She should have known that would happen eventually, and certainly shouldn’t have opened herself up to being so vulnerable. It was foolish to—

“I think we should find something else.”

Oh.

Blake stops mid-stride and turns to study Yang’s face closely. She finds such a direct approach is helpful with Yang especially, even if she doesn’t always understand the shifting layers of meaning behind the casual grin. “… you have something in mind.” It doesn’t really come out as a question at all.

“I do.”

*

It’s probably a terrible idea.

Blake is still under house arrest, not meant to leave the Tower behind, and she dislike even the thought of lying to her parents again.

But if she thinks about it, this is just as much for Yang’s sake as her own, isn’t?

(That’s a lie. Yang makes it clear from the beginning that this is for her, nudging Blake lightly with her elbow when she says, “You should be able to see your city, the way you want to. And who better to show you all of an island than a sailor?”)

Blake doesn’t want to lie to Weiss about it either, but she hardly thinks she has any options.

It’s just the one day, after all.

*

An entire day in the city!

They went to a market. Yang bought her fruit and showed her a market and Ruby could carry on an entire discussion about water infrastructure, even though she hadn’t finished reading the literature yet. She really is just as brilliant and eager as Yang says.

It can’t be just the one day.

Blake was lying to herself before and maybe she already knew that before the day began. She certainly knows it now, even before the sun has finished setting as they sit by the dock, the wind ruffling their hair.

Blake shivers slightly in the cold and, almost as if it’s automatic, Yang pulls Blake’s hat from her head and replaces it with her own knit cap.

It is warmer, that’s true.

And it smells like the sea in that same way that Yang does again today.

*

That first day becomes many, each one building upon the next.

Blake begins to suspect that her parents must know that she is sneaking out from the Tower again. Weiss certainly seems to realize it, but she has made no move to give her away, if so.

She thinks that, perhaps, they forgive her these indiscretion because she is becoming so much like her old self again.

She laughs when her mother wants to tell stories about Blake’s childhood misadventures. In general, she laughs more easily than she had for some time. Blake still makes time for Sun and the horses, and she finds herself even relaxing in the company of Weiss when they are both together in the library.

Some days she and Yang don’t go outside the Tower for their adventures. On some days, Yang shows her how to fight in close range combat. She puts her hands on Blake’s hips or presses here, then here, against her shoulders or arms.

“Here, like this,” she says, with her mouth close to Blake’s ear.

They go through the movements at half-speed, never really at risk of injuring one another, even when Yang grins (and winks), saying, “That was a close one, Highness. You should be careful.”

Yang only seems to call Blake by her title instead of her name when she’s being particularly cocky.

On some days, Blake threatens to teach Yang how to properly use a sword.

Judging by the bemused look on Yang’s face, it really qualifies as a threat. “Do wooden ones count?”

“I… have no idea what that means. Wooden swords?” Blake blinks at her. “No? They’re not very effective as weapons, I’d think.”

“You haven’t seen how I use them.”

*

It’s on one of those days practicing in the yard that Weiss comes to them with the idea that Ruby should move into the Tower. It’s such a good idea, so good for all three of them, that Blake is genuinely surprised to hear it come from Weiss.

That doesn’t feel fair. Weiss has been changing a lot these past few years.

Sometimes Blake even remembers what it was like when they were children and she trusted Weiss more than anyone outside of her own family. (Before Jacques Schnee gained such a firm grip on the advisory council to Blake’s father, and an even more steady hand on the perspective and moral compass of his daughters.) Some days now, Blake actually thinks she might be able to have an honest conversation with Weiss about the Empire and the direction it’s headed in.

Not to mention the Schnee family’s responsibility in all of that.

Certainly they’re not there yet, either of them, but perhaps Ruby’s presence will help in some way.

She does seem to make an impact wherever she goes.

*

In fact, Ruby is only in the Tower for less than a week before she begins asking questions about the very council that Weiss’s father is the head of.

They are in the library, just the four of them, and Ruby is speaking at her usual volume as though she is projecting to a much larger crowd. “So your father is the advisor to Blake’s father, but he’s also the head of the advisors. Is that— Am I getting that right?”

Weiss looks tense in a way she so often is when her father is under discussion. “The Emperor’s advisor leads the council in discussion, but his word is usually given greater weight. It’s a credit to his wisdom.” She pauses and then adds, “Or hers. It’s not a role that necessarily has to be a man.”

Of course not.

Weiss expects the job to be hers next; that’s a fact that Blake has known for at least nine years now. “The same with Emperor or Empress,” Blake says, speaking carefully. “The roles are more flexible than people think.”

“Not… really.” Yang has been quiet so far, browsing through a book on weapon maintenance and mechanics — paying particular attention to the blueprints at the back — but she looks up now with a carefully impassive look on her face. “Whoever ends up in charge always comes from nobility. The same kind of background for the Empress or their advisor.” Her gaze shifts from Weiss over to Blake. “If you think that counts as flexibility, you might want to look into some early morning stretching exercises, Highness.”

There’s just the tiniest hint of an amused grin in the way Yang shifts her eyebrows at Blake, but there’s something else there too.

Sometimes Yang really actually seems to be annoyed with the princess, and refuses to say so. But the fact that it’s there anyway, that she can’t entirely hide her truth from Blake, is still so intriguing.

Yang looks back down to her book and doesn’t say anything more.

“Okay, but.” Ruby waves her hand in the rapid gestures that usually seem to accompany her changing the subject. “My point! Which is still important, by the way, because I had one and— and the point is I don’t know how one person, or even one family — no offense, Weiss — can have all that power and be trusted to be objective.”

“… what are you saying about my family, Ruby?”

Ruby blinks at Weiss, a look of genuine surprise on her face. She actually doesn’t seem to have realized just how much she offended Weiss with her question. “Nothing! They seem great, I mean you do, you all do. But even Blake’s family too, you know, so many generations of Belladonnas with all that power, you kind of have to split it up, right, so that’s the point of the council. It’s like when they first built carriages and they had to figure out the weight distribution across all the wheels so that they would stay on the tracks instead of flipping over and crushing people to death. Because technically, Weiss, if your sister is on the council too—”

“She’s never home,” Weiss cuts in, and Blake thinks she might detect a tinge of sadness there, alongside the obvious annoyance.

“— even so, that’s two Schnees. That’s not a good balance.” Ruby spins her fingers as if to demonstrate gears or wheels of some kind. “The carriage is going to tip! We’ll all be crushed. Or more likely some really nice, I don’t know, fruit stand or some place that sells stringed instruments for a few gold coins. It’ll be crushed! Smashed in half.”

“Are you done?” Weiss waits until the wiggling hand gestures have stopped. “Because I’ll have you know that Blake could easily attend the council meetings as well, should she so choose. And then there would, of course, be two Belladonnas present.” She sits up straighter. “Now certainly, it could be said that the Belladonnas are expected to have more of a presence in matters of state, but—”

“Why don’t you?” Yang is looking up from her blueprints again.

Blake blinks at her. “Why don’t I—”

“Attend the meetings. With your dad and Weiss’s dad.” Yang’s eyebrows dip and raise. “To see what they’re saying about your city.”

“They don’t… want me there.”

Blake realizes how pathetic the excuse is the moment it’s out of her mouth.

“So?” Yang lets out a huff of laughter. “Weiss didn’t want me here in the Tower to begin with, and now look at us.”

“Oh, please, we’d all rather not consider it.” Weiss sighs a very long suffering sigh, but there’s a bit of a smile there, somewhere just underneath, and it only helps to make Yang’s point for her.

Why isn’t Blake attending the meetings?

*

Ruby has been living in the Tower for exactly eleven days when Blake arrives at the first council meeting she has bothered to attend since her father gave up asking her to come at age thirteen.

If she allowed herself any amount of time to really consider it, Blake might question the easy (positive) influence the two sisters seem to have had on her. But she is much too busy feeling anxious about the start of the meeting, however.

It’s silly.

These are her father’s friends and advisors, and Blake has known most of them all of her life. Perhaps that’s the problem, though. When they look at her, they don’t see a princess; they see a child standing in their way.

She paces in the hallway just outside, unable to look Yang at the eye as she watches her.

She’s not really sure why Yang is even here.

They weren’t scheduled to meet this morning, no pre-arranged uniform inspection or walk through the garden; but when Blake stepped out of her bedroom first thing in the morning, there Yang was, standing relaxed but alert in that very particular way she has.

“I didn’t realize I had an official Watch escort today?”

“What else is a royal protector for?” Yang had murmured with an amused grin, obviously self-satisfied.

When Blake gave her uniform a quick once over before nodding her approval, that smile had only grown bigger.

But now neither of them are really smiling. Blake paces in front of the door, worrying her lower lip, and Yang watches without any comment. That is until someone else turns the corner at the end of the hallway and Yang offers a softly hissed, “Blake,” apparently to draw her attention.

She stops mid-stride, blinks, and looks first at Yang and then down the hall in the direction she indicates with a small nod.

Lord Tyrian Callows and Doctor Watts are approaching from the end of the hallway, deep in conversation. They don’t seem to have noticed the two girls, but Yang has certainly recognized one of them.

Blake knows right away that it must be Watts.

He’s the man the three of them saw that day at The Golden Cat. It’s only now, watching the way Yang’s entire posture shifts (grown taut), that Blake realizes she must not have seen him in the Tower otherwise.

Yang’s eyes jerk back toward Blake’s, and there’s an unspoken question there. (Or is it an accusation?)

Blake only nods, almost imperceptibly.

Her father’s council think of her as a child, only underfoot and in the way; perhaps that is why they don’t yet realize she does not look at them at all the same way that she did when she was a little girl.

The two men make a great show of acknowledgement as they draw closer, but only for Blake.

Neither even spares Yang a glance as they step through the door.

It annoys Blake in a way she can’t quite describe, but it must show in her posture, the tension she didn’t realize she was holding in until Yang’s light touch at her lower back causes her to release it all with a long breath out. “You’ve got this,” Yang whispers, close to her ear.

Blake nods.

She really thinks she does.

*

The first approximately 23 minutes of the meeting are occupied with ledgers and figures.

Blake feels a creeping sensation that they are trying to bore her into submission as a sort of preemptive strike, and what comes next only further cements the theory. It begins with Lord Tyrian commenting that his servants are particularly lazy of late. “You can’t trust that sort, of course.” He giggles in a particularly upsetting way. “They’ll rip the clothes clean off your back if you let them. Maybe the skin too.”

“Quite,” Doctor Watts agrees. “I have noticed it with my own people. That is why I wish to make a proposal, to the benefit of all.”

Blake can feel herself perking up but tries not to let it show as any unusual amount of interest; this feels like what this has all been leading to, and she doesn’t want to stop their momentum until all the cards are played.

“Please, Arthur,” Lord Schnee chimes in too. “Let’s hear it.”

“A tax,” the Doctor says, his voice whisper soft. “On cheap liquor.” His eyes quickly scan across every face at the table. “Not the good Tyvian wine, mind you, but the kind of things that a servant might drink. If they cannot afford to, they will not over indulge.”

“You wouldn’t believe the filth they let themselves live in.”

“Parents ignoring their children.”

“The workings in my factories risk injury or even death and yet they arrive to work inebriated.” Lord Schnee shakes his head and scoffs. “The people are stricken with a sickness and we must find them a cure.”

Blake’s eyes are on her father now, trying to judge whether or not he’s falling for any of this. (She’s not entirely sure she knows the angle just yet, although she wonders if any of the good lords on the council have investment in Tyvian wine companies.)

Her father’s face is just impassive and unreadable enough that Blake can’t hold back any longer; she cannot risk him offering open agreement. “I’m not sure that I understand,” she says, speaking loud enough to talk over any more of their moral outrage. “If the people are so sick they can’t control themselves, then what good is a tax going to do? Won’t they just find their alcohol through other means? Through the gangs or with wine they can’t afford?”

Doctor Watts chuckles softly. “My lady, if your argument is that we cannot fix all of societies ills, so we simply should not try, I can’t say that I agree with such a defeatist attitude.”

“No,” Blake answers, quickly and firmly; she will not allow another one of these men to speak over her. “I think we should look for the root of the problem.” All of them are staring at her now, their expressions empty and emotionless masks altered only by the occasional false smile. The only one of them whose expression is genuine is her father’s, smiling with soft encouragement. It helps Blake’s voice stay firm and even as she continues, saying, “If the people are overindulging in drink, there must be a reason: it’s their poverty. We should be trying to alleviate it, not increase it.”

“You would have us reward laziness and ingratitude.”

“No,” Blake says again, even louder this time. “I would have us act as an Empire ought to. To care for our people.” She ignores the rest of them for the moment and holds only her father’s gaze, steadily. “It is the duty of an Emperor, to provide a place for everyone. Every citizen deserves a chance at the best life we can offer.”

She hears one of the men scoff, just to her right. Blake can’t be sure which one of them it is, but when she turns her head, her eyes land on Jacques Schnee first. “Lord Schnee, if your workers are at such great risk, perhaps an agent of the Empire should inspect the mechanisms at your refinery.” She blinks at him, expression carefully impassive. “I’m sure you wouldn’t object.”

His jaw flexes, briefly; it is the only hint of emotion the carefully practiced man allows to pass over his face. “Of course not, Your Imperial Highness. I am but a humble servant to the crown.”

“Well.” Doctor Watts clears his throat. “I think we have had… a very productive day.”

Blake resists the impulse to smile. She won’t give any of them the satisfaction of their own petty outrage, although she’s almost certain she can see a ghost of amusement on her father’s face.

“I agree,” says Ghira Belladonna, ruler of all the isles. “That’s enough for today.”

He stands and so does everyone else.

Lord Schnee is the first to depart, walking at a brisk stride.

*

The next several council meetings, the others are much quieter than they had been at Blake’s first time back.

She gets the sense that they are biding their time for now, working toward some other (new) plan, and unwilling to provide her with any openings. Lord Schnee, after all, is having to invest in considerable improvements on equipment and safety at his refineries. From what Weiss has said, it’s going to be very expensive. (Weiss does admit, quite eagerly, that she thinks it’s for the best; although she does seem to be laboring under some strange impression that her father is making these changes voluntarily.)

The point is that the other lords seem to have learned not to offer Blake so obvious an opening.

It’s enough to make her want to smirk, although she obviously doesn’t do so in open council meetings.

Blake saves all of her amusement for the recounting later.

Even Weiss seems impressed, so long as the target for mockery and derision is not her own father. “Doctor Watts gave up on his tax then? Completely? He hasn’t mentioned it since?” Weiss is almost smiling. “Very well done, Your—” She falters, but recovers quickly. “Well done, Blake.”

Blake returns the smile much more obviously. “Thank you, Weiss.”

“It’s a good thing too. Uncle Qrow might have bankrupted the whole family!”

Ruby waves her arms dramatically and Yang lets out a good natured laugh. “I’m not totally sure he buys that stuff through legal means.” Weiss coughs and Blake lifts her eyebrows rather pointedly at Yang who just shrugs. “What, it’s true. I thought you wanted honesty out of me, Highness.”

“How come Yang gets to call you by your title without being corrected?”

Blake rolls her eyes. “Because Yang says it like a smartass.”

“I say everything like a smartass. Because I’m really, really smart—”

“No comment.”

“Weiss!” Ruby huffs. “You literally just commented.”

“—and I have a nice ass.”

Now Ruby is the one to make a face. “Ew, no comment.”

*

Life has started to become nearly perfect really. It shouldn’t have been possible, not after everything that has happened, yet here it is.

There is really only one thing still missing.

*

Blake means for the day to be a surprise intended specifically for Yang, but she invites Ruby and even Weiss to come along too. It takes weeks of planning, but the effort feels like it’s worth it. Hasn’t her favorite member of the Watch done so much for her so far?

It’s the very least that she can do.

The instructions are very clear. Blake Belladonna and her friends will have full run of The Golden Cat for the entire day.

They are not to be disturbed and are promised the utmost discretion.

Even Madame Prudence has been paid to leave the premises. That took quite a bit of extra coin, but Blake thought the only way that everyone — the courtesans especially — would be able to stay at ease is if the woman who owns the bath house wasn’t present watching over them from her little balconies and other hidden doorways.

She suspects there will still be something: some secret means of capturing their images on silvergraph to use as blackmail if they engage in any indiscretions, but that isn’t the point of the day.

They are going be the most pious visitors the Cat has ever seen.

*

If Yang thinks it’s strange that Weiss is joining them on this particular outing, she doesn’t say so.

Weiss and Ruby have become closer, ever since Ruby began living in the tower and they discovered that they both cared a great amount about creating and evolving paper filing systems for note taking and reference. Blake’s pretty sure that even Yang thinks listening to them ramble on about it is endearing, even if she might not admit it.

Blake had considered, briefly, sneaking out of the Tower again for this trip, but the logistics were too difficult.

She has to tell her parents.

She decides to present the argument (carefully) in a written letter rather than look her mother in the eye when she asks for permission to spend the day visiting a brothel deep in the heart of the city. She receives a letter back, almost promptly, saying only, “You’re a grown woman now. But please take care.”

So they make their leave directly through the front door dressed nicer than is the norm for their trips into the city.

Blake allows herself a moment to brush her fingertips over the curve of Yang’s shoulder, checking the line of her jacket. “Very straight,” she murmurs and Yang lifts an eyebrow without comment.

They walk side-by-side through the streets they’ve gone down so many times before. Through Clavering and past the warehouses. They draw up to the gaudy gate outside The Golden Cat and Yang gives Blake a curious but confused look.

“What are we…”

“I thought last time was a bit ruined by the other people,” Blake explains, very matter-of-fact. “We have the building to ourselves for the day.”

She turns her head to smile at Yang and is pleased to see the look of utter shock register (briefly) on the other woman’s face before she masks it behind a (still slightly incredulous) grin that only grows wider. “No one else?”

“Well, the courtesans are here, but our two groups can avoid each other, I think.”

Yang might actually be distracted enough not to notice Ruby edging her way closer to the door where she tries to get a better look at the menu for once.

Weiss follows and, if the horrified look on her face is any indication, Yang was probably right to always keep the contents of the list hidden. “You can pay for what?”

Now Yang does turn her head, finally pulling her gaze away from Blake. “Ruby!” She sighs. “What’d I say?”

“That this is immoral and disgusting, I would hope.”

Yang shoots Blake a quick look and says, in a soft murmur, “Are you sure inviting Weiss was a good idea?”

She is.

This days is just for them, but it’s for all four of them.

*

Yang takes Blake by the hand and leads her up the plush staircase that they had avoided during their first visit to the Cat. Weiss purses her lips and studies the railing very closely before she risks putting her hands on it — maybe she thinks she’s going to catch some kind of terrible sex borne illness just from the furnishings — but she does follow them up.

Ruby lingers near the side door that they’d used before and points once in its direction. “Aren’t we—?” But then she shrugs and follows. “I didn’t know we could go in the real stairs this time, like a couple of real paying— oh, oh right.”

They are the customers today, even if they have no intentions of partaking in the usual product.

The courtesans are waiting for them at the top of the stairs. Their hair perfectly in place, makeup carefully applied. They are wearing more (and better) clothing than Blake had glimpsed on them during her first and only visit in the past.

They are dressed like women who wish to bed a princess.

She feels the slightest hint of guilt having to dismiss them so quickly. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t tell you earlier, but I did not want Madame Prudence to hold anything against you for it. I won’t be engaging with any of your services today.”

The girls are smiling a ready and compliant sort of smile, each and every one, but in that moment they exchange a quick glance.

They look uncertain.

“It’s nothing to do with you! And I intend to tell Madame Prudence that I had a thoroughly wonderful time here today.” Blake honestly feels like her hands are sweating. She’s more nervous than she’s been when speaking to the council. “You’re beautiful. Each and every one of you is, but—”

“Wrap it up,” Yang whispers gently in her ear, a hand pressed to the small of her back for a fleeting moment in what she imagines is meant to be encouragement.

“—but I only wanted to give you a paid day of relaxation. You have obviously worked very hard for a very long time and you deserve a good day of rest.” Blake gives them her very best encouraging smile. “Now… if you’ll excuse us, my friends and I—” She looks back at Ruby and Weiss, the former of which offers a quick wave while the latter is crossing her arms to avoid touching anything; “—are going to look around your lovely facilities.”

The girls look at each other again, none of them wanting to be the first to walk away.

“Actually, uh.” Yang genuinely appears to be avoiding eye contact with more than one of them and Blake is resolved not to ask any questions. “There’s some wine for us, yeah?”

The girls hesitate only a moment before all breaking apart in a flurry of movement. This was a directive, or at least nearly so, and that is something they seem to be certain they can do without risking anyone’s anger.

The rest they’ll all have to ease into.

*

With a bottle of Tyvian red for each of them in hand — though Yang quickly takes Ruby’s as a second for herself (“you’re way too young”) — they begin their day in a plush room filled with overstuffed sofas and lounging chairs.

Weiss spends a full six minutes inspecting the fabric before she deigns to sit, muttering, “I should not have worn white.”

“Do you own any other color clothing?” Ruby asks, her eyes still very obviously on her former bottle of wine. “Not that that’s a bad thing, mind. I think it’s cool how you’ve got your own, you know, vibe going on. It shows commitment.”

Yang pops her first bottle open by using the dagger that she never actually seems to use in combat and pours a glass for Blake, one for Weiss, and then finally one for herself before sitting down just near Blake’s side.

She clinks their glasses together quickly and then moves the bottle to a spot between their legs — and further away from Ruby. “So, uh. Why are we here, exactly?” Yang drinks so fast she drains half her glass in just a few gulps. “… if you don’t mind my asking.”

Blake watches her with a faint sense of bemusement. “I don’t mind. And I just thought… well, I don’t know.” She swirls the wine around in her glass to allow it to oxidize before taking a small sip and sucking air through the back of her teeth. (Weiss taught her how to drink Tyvian wine the proper way and she’s exhibiting a masterclass in technique just now, with Ruby watching closely and even asking the occasional quiet question now that she thinks Yang isn’t listening.) “Did I not explain it well enough to the ladies? If you don’t understand then I’m sure they don’t.”

“I… don’t understand, you’re right.”

Blake glances back over at Weiss and Ruby. They’re both too occupied with wine tasting to be listening — and yes, Ruby just took a sip out of Weiss’s glass and Yang clearly hasn’t noticed — so she thinks it’s safe to answer with the kind of absolute honesty that they sometimes employ with each other. “This place matters to you, doesn’t it? It matters to you and I … want to help people.” She flexes her hand against the side of her glass. “I know I’m a princess, but there’s not a lot I can do yet. I can’t change the laws or even influence as much as I’d like, but I have the coin to buy out the Cat for a day so that everyone here can just… be happy.” She takes a drink and doesn’t bother with any of the proper procedures this time. “I guess I could have done that without bothering to come, but I wanted you to know the I did it. Maybe that’s selfish.”

“… why?”

Weiss is pouring Ruby her own glass this time and Yang definitely does not notice because her eyes are locked on Blake’s face. Blake shouldn’t notice either, but she can’t quite look Yang in the eye, not right now, and so her gaze is drifting. She feels so anxious, and afraid of the kinds of answers Yang might give her. “Why what?”

“Why did you want me to know?”

“Because we’re friends.”

“And so you wanted Weiss to know too.”

“What?” Blake does turn her head now. She turns to see that look on Yang’s face that’s impossible to describe or even fully understand. It’s the open one like sunlight. The expression that says she wants answers and would gladly offer them too if you only dared to ask the right questions. It’s a face that feels like looking directly at the sun. It hurts, but it’s almost irresistible. “… Weiss is here too,” Blake says eventually. “So is Ruby.”

Yang doesn’t even seem to blink. “So you also wanted them to know. Just like me.”

“No,” Blake says, the air just compressing out of her. She feels oddly weightless. Breathless. “Not just like you.”

Yang nods.

And she is the first to look away, although Blake suspects that Yang could have continued with whatever this is, or was. That Yang did not have to flinch and avert her eyes, but that she did so out of kindness. To spare Blake … whatever this is.

Or was.

“Do you two want to come see what they mean by electricity?” Ruby chirps at them suddenly and the spell is broken.

Because Yang has just noticed the glass of wine in her sister’s hand. She groans. “Weiss, she does not handle her liquor well.”

“Untrue!” As if to demonstrate, Ruby quickly tosses the glass back and forth, from one hand to the other. “You see! Handling like a pro.” She slurps the remainder of what’s in the glass down quickly and then flings the actual glass up into the air, watching it spin end over end, before catching it. “Hand feel!”

Yang can only sigh but Weiss looks utterly alarmed. She blinks, staring fixedly at where the glass had just nearly grazed the ceiling fixtures before her eyes jerk back down to Yang. “And you let me serve her alcohol, knowing she can get like this?”

“I don’t know how you can call anything I did letting you—”

“Don’t fight, guys!” Ruby jumps up from her seat and slaps Weiss hard with the pillow she had been leaning against. “Not unless it’s a pillow fight.” She laughs a very loud and almost maniacal laugh before another pillow (this one from Yang) flies directly into her face.

The laughter stops suddenly and Ruby’s entire expression transforms into one of abject horror. She points at her sister. “You will know my wrath.”

And it is actually a whole lot of wrath. There’s just about nowhere to hide once the two of them start tossing pillows at each other, but Blake and Weiss actually do their best, ducking behind one of the chairs near the corner to wait it out.

*

Yang and Ruby both declare a tie aloud, but each one of them insists to Blake individually later that she was the actual victor.

All that matters is the throwing is over and Blake is, luckily, no longer cowering with Weiss on her knees when a familiar voice calls to her from just behind. “Your Imperial Highness?” And then, just moments later. “Blake?”

She turns and she recognizes the face instantly, although it takes her entire body (the mind especially) a moment to realize that this is really happening. It’s not a dream. As soon as that full realization sets in, her mouth catches up to her head and she shouts, “Ilia!” And she rushes toward the woman, offering her a quick but heartfelt embrace.

Ilia Amitola had been a member of the Tower staff for much of Blake’s early childhood. She worked in the kitchens, and then cleaning the halls. Blake had always felt a kinship with her, a closeness. When one day Ilia was suddenly gone — “out to find her fortune, I s’pect” the man chopping onions for dinner had told her — Blake had felt so betrayed.

It wasn’t fair, she knew. The Tower staff are servants, not friends. They are paid to be there, not by choice. If Ilia could find more payment elsewhere, then what did she owe someone like Blake?

Absolutely nothing.

But she can still feel a sort of joy at seeing her old friend. (Or whatever they were to each other.) And it can still be a genuine feeling that radiates out from her as she release her grip on the other woman but still continues to smile. “How are you?” Her eyes quickly survey the woman’s painted over expression. So much makeup, it is a wonder that she recognized her at all.

“I’m alright.” Ilia laughs in a way that is so unfamiliar to Blake. It’s very close to the practiced false laugh of nobility, the kind you use when you don’t feel any merriment at all. Maybe it’s something they have to practice here, working so closely with those they do not actually adore.

It turns something in Blake’s stomach to realize it, and she moves a small step further back, giving the woman her space. “I didn’t know you were working here.”

“Of course you didn’t, Highness.”

“Just Blake is… fine.” She swallows. “If you’d like, of course.”

Ilia blushes, and Blake can’t be certain that even that is real either. (She hates herself for thinking these things. For not knowing anymore who is real and what can be trusted.) “I think that ‘Highness’ is probably for the best. There are so many ears here, even today.”

Blake nods, but says nothing else in response.

Even the way that Ilia’s studying her face now feels so calculating. “Well. I should probably go enjoy my day of rest by taking a nap for myself.” Unprompted, Ilia reaches out to gently touch her elbow. “I am so glad to see the woman you’re growing into.”

And just with that, she’s gone.

Back to that side stairway, no doubt, and the private bedrooms it must lead to, or back into the very recesses of Blake’s memories; it might as well be there she’s left for.

“You okay?”

Blake turns to find Yang is standing there, watching her. How much of that did she see?

“I’m fine,” Blake says, and now Yang is closer, one hand at the small of her back.

“Oh, yeah?”

Yang knows that she’s lying and maybe she expects Blake to keep that up. To not tell her the truth. Blake turns her head enough to meet the other woman’s gaze. It’s almost a challenge. “… no. But I will be.”

Yang nods and takes a step back almost instantly. Giving her room. “Ruby and Weiss are going to go look at some electricity room. It sounds real awful.” She grins and there it is: that confident and relaxed wink that says everything is just fine and as it should be. “You wanna come?”

*

Yang was right. It’s real awful.

They carry their wine bottles in to inspect the room and one of the courtesans hurries in after them, saying, “You really don’t want to get this thing wet…”

Luckily Ruby is the only one that seems very interested in examining the machine up close, and she already abandoned her glass long ago. “What is it? No! Don’t tell me.” She toys with the wires that are strung around this high backed chair, leading toward a sort of metallic helmet. “No wait, I take it back, do tell me.”

The courtesan looks as uncertain as most people do when they first interact with Ruby.

“Please humor her or she will never stop.”

“That’s right! I will not.” But Ruby does stop midway through poking at the seat’s padding to look at the woman expectantly. “This is a sex thing, right? A sex chair. Motorized.”

Yang makes a face and takes a very deliberate step back.

Even as Ruby continues to poke the fabric.

“… some of our clients do find sexual pleasure by receive a mild shock while seated in the chair.”

“A sex chair,” Ruby reaffirms to herself in a very soft whisper, her eyes back on the wires.

“Abbey give me strength,” Weiss says, just as softly, but doesn’t otherwise intervene.

By now Yang has backed up so many times that she’s almost outside of the room, just barely visible beyond the arch of the doorway where Blake can see her taking another very big drink of wine, this time directly out of the bottle.

“Why would electricity make a guy feel sexy?”

The courtesan stares at the chair as well, but in a very different way from Ruby. It’s like she can see someone sitting in it, and maybe she does. Maybe one man or woman in particular, or perhaps it’s many. “It doesn’t take much for the people who come here to want things. That’s not their problem. They want everything they don’t already have and they think they deserve it. That enough coin can buy you… anything.” She blinks and lifts her gaze to Blake, suddenly almost shy and uncertain.

As though Blake would disagree with anything she’s just said.

“Wealthy people can be quite…” She struggles to find a word that can contain all of it: the dead, the dying, and the people whose bodies are no longer their own in part or in whole. Eventually she settles on: “Unjust.”

“Not all of the wealthy, your Highness, if we’re being fair, but… all the ones who come here.”

With her shoulder braced against the door frame, Yang takes another long drink.

*

There is a wading pool in the lower floor that’s only accessible through a single staircase.

There are steam rooms advertised by signs mounted on the wall of the stairwell and throughout the lower corridor itself. But nothing warns you of the small pool filled with fish and ladies’ undergarments that appears before you suddenly.

It is strangely beautiful, especially in contrast with the overblown gaudiness of the rest of the Cat.

The light here is a cold and eerie blue and the ripples in the water cast reflections on their faces as they draw close to the water’s edge to sit.

“What’s this one?” Blake asks as she points at the fish circling near the edge of the water.

“Oh! Oh, even I know that.” Ruby beams, looking pleased. “It’s a hagfish. They’ve got a real strong bite, so watch out if it hasn’t been fed, but they also taste good too, so I guess it works out okay in the end.”

Weiss crinkles her nose. “These things bite? What’s the point of even having them here!”

Yang sits down right at the edge of the small pool and begins busying herself with the removal of her nice leather boots. “Oh, I bet some of the clients are into that kind of thing.” She pops one shoe off and then the other, carefully placing them off to the side but well within reach. Then she starts on the socks. “Anyway. They only bite if they’re underfed and I bet this place doesn’t do that unless requested.” She wiggles her eyebrows at them before sticking her feet into the pool, pants legs already quickly rolled up close to her knee even though the water barely stretches over her ankles.

Blake could almost gasp in alarm.

She trusts Yang, of course, to understand enough about fish physiology that if she says this is safe, it must certainly be safe.

But. Well. These fish do appear to have very large jaws.

“Only you would stick your feet in with possible predators.” Weiss sighs one of her especially long suffering sighs. “Do you not even want your toes anymore? They’re vital, you know, for maintaining good balance and poise in combat. Not that you are someone I would ever consider an example of poise under pressure, but—”

“I’m calm.” As if to make some kind of point, Yang wiggles her toes in the water. “Cool as an eel, see?”

“Cool as a Yang!”

Ruby plops right down at her sister’s side, one foot with a shoe still on it dangling right in the water; it seems like she probably got into more of the wine at some point when Blake wasn’t looking.

“Sure thing, sis,” Yang says, carefully studying Ruby’s slumping posture to make sure that she’s okay. “But not as cool as you.”

“No one is!”

Blake comes over to join them, sitting down right at Yang’s back so that she’s close enough to the pond to watch the fish swimming around, without actually risking her own feet (or fingers) anywhere inside the water.

Yang waits until Blake is settled in, knees pressing lightly at her back, before she says, “Still don’t trust me, huh?” It’s almost a whisper, and Ruby doesn’t acknowledge it.

Blake leans in closer to return her answer, just as softly, her chin nearly grazing over the ridge of Yang’s shoulder. “You know that I do. But I don’t trust those fish…”

“Sneaky little fish.”

Yang doesn’t move, not even the slightest bit, and Blake takes it as permission, of a sort, to keep her weight in close for now, almost leaning into the other woman’s back.

If Ruby or Weiss think anything of it, they don’t say so.

It’s nice, just like this.

That must be why it couldn’t last.

*

When it happens, they hear it before they see anything.

They are still in the basement of The Golden Cat when the foundation shakes. Three out of the four of them are immediately on the alert, then Ruby tenses moments later.

“What was—”

And then again. The building shakes, more violently this time.

Blake is on her feet in an instant and Yang is struggling to put on her boots as quickly as she can, her socks immediately soaked in her frantic rush.

The others are already standing, looking down at her, and she huffs in frustration. “Go! See what’s going on. I’ll be right behind you.”

“But—”

When Yang looks up at her, there’s a fire in her eyes that Blake has seldom seen. She is tense and on edge, not angry but focused, like the way she was that first day that they met. “It’s my job to protect you. Let me do my job, Blake. Go.” Ruby looks ready to interject with something too, but Yang doesn’t even wait for it. “Weiss, take my sister.”

The building shakes again and this time there is some falling debris.

“Go!”

And they do. They hurry up the stairs to where girls are screaming, falling all over themselves and each other in a frantic stumble toward the door.

“Quickly!” Blake calls to them. “Out the door, you don’t have to stay here. You’re free to go—” From what Blake understands, many of the girls consider this their home. They live here and have no where else to go to; they might not have a place to run to. “— just go for now, until it’s safe to return.”

Ruby is leaning some of her weight onto Weiss who is even paler than usual and so it is up to Blake to take charge and lead the girls to the front gate, then beyond — into the streets where more people are screaming all around them.

Blake rushes over to the nearest member of the City Watch, a member of the Elite guard dressed crisp bright blue with a red undershirt that denotes his proper position. He should be able to maintain some calm. “You, sir! Hello.”

“What do you—” He rounds on her quickly, looking ready to rebuke whoever this is that dares interrupt a member of the Watch on duty at this most vital time — but the recognition quickly shows in his face. “— Your— Your Highness, I am so—”

“Sorry, I’m sure you are, and we don’t have time for it. What is happening?”

“Explosions, Miss. All across the city.” He points down the street, toward Clavering and beyond. Toward the Tower. “And even—”

Blake does not need to be told more than that.

This is something she has dreamed of since she was a child. Nightmares.

Horrible, terrible dreams about the city torn apart and her parents crushed beneath the ruins while a man — whose name she knows and will not say — watches with impassive black eyes and does nothing but smile at the smoldering wreckage.

She is running.

Weiss and Ruby must be close behind her, with Yang shortly after that, but it does not matter. It doesn’t register in Blake’s mind.

All she can think about is her father and whatever stupid last conversation they had. That it might have actually been the last.

She cannot remember, just now, if she told him that she loves him.

What kind of monster would walk away from someone, maybe for the very last time, and not tell them that you love them?

*

She would. She has.

Monster.

*

Blake is halfway up Clavering when another sound, louder than any of the others, shudders through the air.

It came from behind her and she knows in an instant without even looking.

But still she turns. She looks.

There is smoke rising from the direction of The Golden Cat.

Somewhere close by, she hears Ruby’s voice, high and frantic, calling out, “Yang!”

Someone screams and it takes Blake a moment to realize that it’s her.

 

 

Chapter Text

*

Yang has no idea who the girl is, but Blake obviously knows her.

She must be new to the Cat, or at least she’s new enough that she started only after Yang stopped coming by. It has been a few years now, after all, and most of the girls she knew well have all gone.

Hopefully they’re working someplace else, gone back to the farms and small towns they come from. Most of the girls at the Cat came here as an extra mouth their family no longer wanted to feed, looking for shelter. It’s the only job a girl with no prospects can get sometimes, but maybe some of them found work as servants somewhere else. Cleaning toilets is probably better work.

A more honest way to deal with the shit of the nobility.

Whoever the girl is, Blake knows her well enough that they’re standing close together. There’s an ease and comfort between them, the way it is with old friends. Yang isn’t sure why it makes her feel more alert, attentive, but it does.

There’s something else there too.

There are lines of concern on Blake’s face when the woman steps away, and Yang finds herself strangely annoyed with this girl that she doesn’t even know. Like it’s her job to keep the princess, not just safe, but happy.

It does feel that way, though. Sometimes.

No, that’s not it. Not a job exactly.

It’s more than that — and less too.

“You okay?”

Yang asks it before she fully realizes that she’s going to say anything at all.

When Blake turns to look at her, Yang can’t quite read that expression on her face, even as she steps closer. “I’m fine.”

“Oh, yeah?”

It’s not true.

Blake isn’t fine, but Yang isn’t sure why. She’s not sure it’s her place to know either.

“… no. But I will be.”

That’s more of an answer than Yang expected.

A lot of things about Blake Belladonna are more than she expected.

*

Yang drinks too much too fast. This is nicer stuff than she’s used to, not watered down like the filth they sometimes drink at sea when the water’s not safe enough to keep consuming and they’re still days from landing.

This stuff is strong.

She’s aware, very dimly, that if she was sober she wouldn’t just sit there while the princess — her employer, her friend, and whatever else she is — puts her chin on Yang’s shoulder and rests there like that. Like this is how things are now — with no questions, no point of confusion.

But Yang has had just enough wine to feel warm and almost lazy from it. More things seem possible and consequences feel entirely far away, like a separate destination.

Until suddenly consequences are reverberating in the very stones underneath them.

“Go!”

Yang is shouting at them, struggling to get on her boots and cursing herself internally for removing them in the first place, for relaxing at all, for taking even a moment for granted. She is a sailor — she is a whaler and a member of the Watch — and she knows to never let herself relax into the calm she might feel, no matter how she wants to.

The sea can turn at any moment.

*

When she gets up the stairs, she finds some of the girls still straggling behind — stumbling over themselves as they try to get dressed and run for the door — but one of them stands out more than the rest.

It’s that girl that Blake knows.

She’s talking to someone dressed in a full Whaler’s uniform. The whole thing: slicker, mask, and hood up to hide every other detail of their identity.

Whoever they are, they weren’t here before.

They shouldn’t be here now.

Yang reaches for her dagger before she remembers that it’s not there. She used it to open one of the wine bottles earlier — stupid and far too relaxed. Her eyes scan the room, the scattered pillows and their personal debris — Blake’s jacket, left abandoned in a mess on the floor, alongside the half-eaten fruit plates and empty glasses — and there she spots it.

It’s much too far away to reach in time.

But the gun is still ready at her side, and whoever it is in the doorway is looking directly at her now.

This narrows her options by a lot. Really, there’s only the one choice.

Single choices — action, and nothing else — are really what she’s used to. It’s almost easy.

Across the shortening distance between them, Yang could swear she hears whoever it is laugh. It’s a low sound, so perhaps a man.

She takes a step closer.

He pulls back the hood to reveal a shock of red hair. Then the Whaler’s mask comes off.

Bizarrely, there is another mask gleaming underneath, a horrible grimace carved into metal. Yang recognizes him without seeing any more of his face after that. She knows the way that mouth is sneering.

And from the way he’s staring, he knows her too.

“Oh, this is lucky,” the man says, softly. “Where is she?”

Yang eyes him up and down, carefully.

He has a gun too. Of course he does. It’s on his left side, just out of Yang’s line of sight.

But it’s the right hand, carefully positioned behind his back, that has her more than a little bit concerned.

“I don’t know who you mean.” Yang takes a long stride closer. “You weren’t here for me? Maybe we could catch up.”

“Where is Blake?”

He spits her name out in a way that makes it sound vulgar.

Yang thinks about her gun at her side and how much faster she could probably draw it than he could reach for his.

She could beat him. She feels certain.

“Not here.” She grins and lifts her eyebrows slightly. “And… you’re not going to go after her.”

“Aren’t I?”

“Like I said.”

The man laughs, and there is no humor in it at all.

The girl, the one Blake knew, is standing to the side watching this all play out carefully. Something about the anxiety on her face — the way her eyes keep moving to his right side and whatever’s there that Yang can’t see — is making her start to doubt how in control of things she actually is. But Yang isn’t about to show it.

She continues to grin.

“Who’s going to stop me?” The man laughs and Yang is still grinning when he holds his right hand out to reveal the charged spring razor at the ready. “You?”

There’s only half a heartbeat before the man throws it right at Yang’s feet.

One second.

A sailor is ready. The hull can shift and you have to adjust.

She takes a quick step back.

Two seconds.

The weapon locks into place, stuck firmly to the ground. It mounts, lighting up a vivid and threatening red. Three seconds. Yang tries to remember the radius from when Ruby would pull them apart when they both were younger. It’s wide.

Very wide.

She takes another two steps back.

Four seconds. The light changes. She’s still too close.

It’s going to go off and all Yang can do is try not to let the scattered barbed wire slice clean through her throat. She raises her arms to shield her face instinctively.

The sound of it is so familiar. She’s heard them spring a dozen times before, maybe more.

The wires shoot into the air all around her — sparkling in the scattered light — and her heart is beating so fast she doesn’t feel anything at first, not through the adrenaline. And then suddenly, sharply, she is cold.

The man laughs, a low soft chuckle, and Yang looks up at him. She realizes she has fallen to her knees and the ground is slick with something.

It’s her blood.

She blinks, blearily, at the place her arm used to be.

“I’ll give my regards to the princess,” he says, his voice and his laugh so far away, even before he turns to go.

The carpeted floor is slick with so much of Yang’s blood, but she tries to pull herself across it with the use of her left arm, crawling because it feels like it must somehow be faster than remembering how to stand.

There is a glint of something, someone, out of the corner of her eye, wearing a mask similar to that man’s.

No.

It’s darker. Made from interlocking pieces and parts, like something her sister might design one day. A mechanical face that stares at her from across the room and just as suddenly is at her side, hovering over her. But this person doesn’t have red hair. It’s long and dark black, hanging around them in waves that spill out from behind the upward arc at the crown of the mask.

Yang reaches for it — for them, for (something small inside of her says) her — with blood slicked fingers, the only ones she’s got left now, and she feels arms lifting her up. Something about the sensation is strangely familiar, like a far off memory. Trying to pin it down, to pull the memory back into the light feels like walking down a dark hallway at night, reaching out in the blackness, fingers scraping against the walls like her fingertips scrape across the edges of metal, clumsy and unsure. “You,” she says, more a breath than a word really, in precisely the same moment that the earth pitches and shifts all around them.

The ground explodes, rising and falling underneath and below and above.

There is rock, rubble, and dust everywhere.

There are people screaming and there is smoke and all Yang can see is darkness.

It’s so familiar.

*

There is nothing but black in front of her, but it is not like shutting your eyes.

It is heavier than that.

Yang remembers when Ruby spilled a pot of ink on the table in the middle of taking some of her many notes — the way that it contaminated everything it touched, soaking up over the edges of the paper until it was everywhere. Everything.

The darkness here is like that.

And so is he. He is everywhere even as he stands directly in front of her.

He sees everything, even as his gaze remains steady. Yang can feel him looking into the place where her arm used to be, even though his eyes are locked directly on her face. “We keep running into each other like this.”

“Help me,” she says, because there is nothing else to say.

“Is that what you really want?” He takes a step closer, and the air shifts around them like flowing water. Like the endless possibility of the ocean and all the dark things that lie underneath. “You’ve been avoiding me, Yang. A lesser man might be hurt.”

“You aren’t a man.”

“There you go again. Trying to hurt my feelings.” He almost seems to smile, but with his eyes so empty and black it’s hard to tell. “But you’re right. I’m not a man. And I hardly have feelings.” Now his head actually does turn to face her right side. His fingers pass through the space where there should be muscle. Bone. “You, on the other hand… are going to feel that very soon.”

She does already.

Not a pain, not exactly, she’s not sure if there’s anything like pain here in the Void — because that’s where she is, not thinking it isn’t going to keep her any safer — and maybe she’s dead, or maybe she’s dying and it shouldn’t matter at all. But she stares at that space where a part of her has gone missing and she can feel screams and the searing sound of snapping bone and grinding flesh aching behind her teeth. She looks at the place where there used to be more of her and thinks about the eyes of whales mounted and hung up for their dissection on ships that carry them far from their own home.

The pain is there suddenly, even if it’s only an illusion, all in her head. It’s dizzying, sickening with its force and how it collides against her skull, pulsing rapidly. It feels like swimming, or maybe more like drowning. Yang isn’t sure she can stay standing for long, but she’s afraid of what will happen if she allows herself to sit.

She doesn’t trust herself to relax, ever again — however much time there is left.

“I can help you with that,” he says.

Yang isn’t entirely certain what he’s referring to, but a part of her suspects he might have actually read her thoughts. She’s not sure if that’s a thing he does, but it feels possible.

A lot of things feel possible now.

“Like I said,” Yang repeats, her voice raw and rough, as though she really has been screaming for hours. “Help me.”

The Outsider blinks at her slowly, almost passive. That’s a disguise, she’s sure of it.

Nothing about him is as detached as he wants to seem.

“I choose. Not you.” He takes another step and now he’s right there. She is overwhelmed by the blackness of his eyes and a stench like the depths of the ocean; the rotten filthy things from the city left to decay in their watery graves. “But lucky for you,” he continues; “I prefer left hands anyway.”

He takes her by the hand (the only one she has left) and his palm burns against the back of it.

It actually burns, searing flesh. There’s a soft sizzling sound that makes Yang think of days out at sea, whale flesh being burned and cut away. The sting of salt water lashing up over the bow. The wind in her hair. Someone’s voice in her ear.

She winces but does not allow herself to flinch away from him completely.

When she looks at her remaining hand after he’s released it, there is a rune etched into the flesh, glowing angry red.

“My mark,” he whispers. “You are one of my chosen now. I choose. But what you do with the gifts I give you… that is your choice.”

Yang curls her fingers and feels something surging deep within her, rising like a tide.

She flexes her hand open and the rune burns even brighter.

Yang holds her hand out, pointed away from herself, and it feels like even the air is reacting to her touch. She curls her fingers and the world curls around her, bending to her will, literally bending around the shape of her as she’s propelled through space in an instant.

First she’s here and then she is exactly where she was looking, a huge distance further along the black rocky surface they’re standing on — the black rock of the Void itself.

The Outsider watches her with a faint smile. “You’re learning quickly.” He appears again right next to her, studying her face. “Not as quick as I think your sister would, but—”

Yang’s turn to face him is even quicker.

“Don’t talk about her.” At the very center of her being, she feels a new great burning potential for almost unimaginable violence. It ripples at the edges of her and she wonders — if she were only to reach out to it, to carve a new place for herself within this added layer of anger — could she actually take this man apart. If she wanted to, could she dismantle the Outsider with the same gifts that he gave her? Something about the thought doesn’t seem so ridiculous when the heat rises into blinding anger, red hot rage right behind her eyes, pounding in her temple, but Yang holds it back. She takes a deep breath. “I gave you me. Leave her out of it.”

“So you do understand?” He touches the mark on her hand and it burns again, even more than it glows. “You’re mine. And… I prefer my toys unbroken.” His face twists in a mocking imitation of a smile. “I hope you’re not offended.”

He doesn’t wait for Yang to answer.

He runs his hand through the space where her arm used to be, but this time something follows at the edges of his fingertips.

Suddenly, it starts to burn, to really hurt, much more than with Yang’s hand.

It feels like he’s dragging his touch through the very nerve endings that should still be there, reattaching and carving out bone inch by inch as scattered fragments of dark black Void rock form around his fingers, stretching and attaching to the space where Yang’s arm used to be, forming a new one out of the darkness.

This time, Yang can’t stop her own scream of total agony and he nods, his expression one of pained concentration — and maybe something more, maybe actual pain, maybe some part of him is in this rock that he’s shoving directly into Yang’s body, tearing pieces off to make a new part of her — and when he’s done there is a new arm there, shimmering black like the Void. It stretches from the jagged remnants of her flesh where her upper arm still meets with her shoulder and ends in a skeletal hand that she could swear looks like it might be carved from her own bones.

Yang sways on her feet but will not allow herself to sit.

She cannot relax. Because—

“Blake,” she says the name so softly, like a sigh, but instantly regrets speaking it aloud in a place like this when he smiles at her with such hideous recognition.

“Oh, don’t worry. She’s still alive.” Yang feels the coldness radiating out from him as it reaches out towards the very center of her. Wrapping around and strangling her heart. “For now.”

“I need to— I have to go.”

“You do. And at least one of my other followers will be with you soon.” The Outsider’s eyes scan the edges of the darkness, to a place beyond where Yang can see. “I can feel him coming. You’ll know him. Don’t question it. He’ll see my mark and know what you are now.”

“… Uncle Qrow.”

“Oh, so you do remember?” The Outsider chuckles. “I was beginning to feel a little hurt that you were pretending we’d never met before.” He wipes his hands together and shrugs. “But time is not on our side right now. We’ll talk about this later… assuming you survive, of course.”

“Assuming I—”

*

Yang blinks and opens her eyes. She is on her back in the street outside of The Golden Cat.

Or what once was the Cat.

It’s collapsed into nearly nothing, shattered bricks and stone littering the carefully tended grass. Even some of the bushes were uprooted, turned on their heads.

Yang isn’t sure exactly how she got here or how much time has passed since the world turned itself inside out, but when she looks to where her right arm should be there is the black rock of the Void gleaming back at her instead. It’s almost blinding in the direct sunlight, even through the smoke.

Yang blinks.

She doesn’t know entirely what’s going on or what she should do next, but some basic instinctive part of her — the one that’s kept her alive for so long on the streets — knows in an instant that she can’t leave such an obvious mark of the Outsider’s influence visible on her body.

What do the Overseers even do with someone bearing actual signs of the Void on them? Would they take more than her arm as recompense? Would they consider this the kind of blasphemy you kill for?

She isn’t interested in testing it out.

Kneeling in the gutters, she tugs a dirty brown jacket off the body of a man caught up in the explosion. He looks like a factory worker passing through this side of town, on the way to somewhere else. She checks his pulse, feels nothing, and mumbles a quick apology before tearing off the sleeves of his shirt as well to make bandages to hide her hands. First she covers the Outsider’s mark on the left hand and then what’s visible of her damaged arm, wrist, and hand on the right.

All this in just a matter of moments.

She has to hurry.

Yang stands and feels an aching sensation shooting up her left side, all that power anxious to be let loose. She flexes her palm and points up to the rooftops she’s run across so many times before.

She clenches her fingers and it’s like she’s pulling the world down around herself. In an instant she is hoisting herself onto the roof. She points again and pulls. She is further along, racing over the rooftops and barely making a sound. Again, she pulls.

And again.

She is running over Clavering when she sees the princess in the streets, kneeling on the ground. Blake looks like she’s shaking.

Something must be wrong. Ruby and Weiss are with her, speaking to her urgently. All three of them look panicked.

Yang points her hand at street level, ready to land right at the side of the princess, but someone grabs hold of her fingers before they can close. She turns her head and there are cold metallic eyes looking back at her from behind curved interlocking pieces forged in an imitation of a bird’s beak.

“You don’t want to do that.”

Even filtered through all that metal, Yang knows her Uncle’s voice. “Don’t I?”

“You can’t let them know what you are now.” He goes silent for a moment, his mask pointing directly at her in a way that gives the impression of staring though it’s hard to know when you can’t actually see his eyes. “… wait a minute.” He reaches around inside his jacket pocket and removes a handkerchief. “Cover your face, okay? Don’t be such an amateur.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve never signed a pact with an ancient immortal being before.” Yang gestures angrily back down to the street below. “Something’s wrong! I have to help them.”

Qrow looks down and studies the scene for a moment before he shakes his head. “Ruby will handle it.”

“But—”

We need to save the Emperor,” Qrow cuts her off sharply and points off to the Tower in the distance.

There is smoke there too.

Yang feels her heart pounding hard in her chest.

“I doubt your princess will be happy with you if you let her father die.”

She’s not my princess, some stupid irrational part of Yang’s brain actually has the nerve to think before the rest of her common sense catches up, shutting that off for now. She can’t think about anything except what to do next, right now.

Yang stands quickly.

She races down across the roof, over a railing, pulls herself one flight up, runs up along the tiles, and then leaps out into nothing.

For a moment, Yang feels weightless, but when she lands she is heavy.

Most of her weight lands on her (new) right arm, and it catches her easily enough. There is only a small pain in her shoulder.

She grimaces and keeps going.

*

Soldiers and guards run through the streets below, never once looking up.

In the distance, running far ahead of them across the rooftops, Yang sees other Whalers dressed in full uniform with blades in their hands, the sharpened steel winking in the dimming sunlight.

Her heart pounds louder until it’s nearly all Yang can hear, even over the thudding of her footsteps. She accelerates, ripping through the fabric of time, propelled through space. The world blurs around her as she charges forward, and the rune on her hand burns red hot.

She catches up to one of these Whalers just a few streets away from the Tower. He must be some kind of lookout left to patrol, but he’s not a very good one if so. His back is turned away from her, watching in the direction of the docks, but he starts to turn when he hears Yang and Uncle Qrow charging closer.

With a twist of her wrist, she is just inches from his face, and her fist covers the rest of the distance, slamming into his jaw.

He screams in pain as his body is sent flying, skittering over the side of the roof toward the street far below. There isn’t a sound of impact, no horrible thud, but Yang doesn’t have the time to stop to consider his well being either way.

Maybe the man is dead, maybe he’s not, but there is no time to worry about guilt.

She’s already pulling herself onto the next rooftop, then up one story to the ledge overhead. Qrow is just a short distance behind her, a hand braced against her shoulder. “I go left. You go right.”

“But—”

Yang.”

She nods.

No time to stop and consider. If there were, she might actually feel terrified.

*

There are bodies of members of the Watch lying in the courtyard. Yang doesn’t allow herself to look at their faces for too long; she’s certain she would know most of them if she did.

She cannot stop to feel anything now.

It’s just like being on a ship in the storm. Everyone has a task and they cannot concern themselves with the work of someone else. When one of the injured (dying) figures reaches out to grab her ankle as she passes, she points across the courtyard and rips herself away from his grasp.

Her left hand shakes, but she ignores it.

The adrenaline is so sharp now that almost all of her is shaking. She feels like she can taste the bitterness at the back of her tongue. Or maybe that’s remnants of her own blood?

Gunfire rings out to her right and she pulls herself out of the line of fire. This trick is wearing thin; what else can she do? Yang really isn’t sure, but she has to try something. Fast.

She holds her palm out, feels the fabric of reality bending under her fingertips, and clenches her grasp sharply.

Time stops.

The air is almost visible, shimmering in a muted grey.

Yang turns her head to the left; she can see a stream of bullets headed right at her. She steps to the side and precisely strikes them with the butt of her gun, redirecting the trail of bullets back to the person who fired them.

She turns her head to the right and there is another Whaler about to draw their gun.

Time still crawls around them as she charges at potential shooter, striking with her right forearm directly at their gun hand, pivoting them with the force of it so that their aim is directed back at a companion.

She ducks and rolls and flexes her hand again.

Time resumes and the bullets find their marks. Bodies fall and Yang stands up.

The smell of musket fire is sharp in the air and so are the startled and confused screams of the Whalers, trying to make sense of what’s happening.

She grins grimly and propels herself, fist first, into the face of the closest one still standing.

The added force sends them flying.

Yang turns, flexes her hand into the seams of reality, and time stops again.

A pattern of five bullets are headed her way with a corresponding five Whalers at the other end.

Her grin just gets bigger. So what else can she do?

Only one way to find out.

*

Five more bodies litter the ground at Yang’s feet. Her left hand shakes again, but she tries to ignore it.

But it’s not just the hand. Her entire arm, most of her, she’s shaking; the adrenaline is wearing out and the pain is crashing in hard.

She has to work faster.

Uncle Qrow is suddenly at her side. His movements are wider, looping gracefully, and his landings look lighter. Lower impact. “You see them, don’t you?”

Yang’s overtaxed brain can’t even begin to comprehend what he means. She just blinks at the empty eyes of his mask.

“Close your eyes and focus.”

She’s not sure what she’s meant to be focusing on, but when Yang closes her eyes all she sees is pulsing red from her racing heartbeat against her eyelids. She can feel the Outsider’s power surging through her, burning outward from her left hand all the way through the rest of her, pumping harder with every beat of her accelerating heart. And when she opens her eyes, she can still see the pulsing blood.

But it’s not her own. She can see heartbeats pounding on the other side of walls.

Just as clear as the gutted remains of a whale, Yang can see the insides of people, their nervous systems and veins, through layers of brick and steel.

She breathes in sharply — the image is that unsettling — and Qrow nods beside her. He must see it too.

“Look there.”

He points in the direction of the throne room, where Yang recognizes the pronounced silhouette of the Emperor, but something else too.

She can see the burning sigil of the Outsider as clear as day, on the hand of someone else.

There’s a new bitter taste in her mouth and Yang thinks that maybe that’s fear, but Uncle Qrow’s hand is firm on her shoulder. “Now let it go. You can’t hold that in you the whole time or you’ll be exhausted.” He gives her a sharp squeeze followed by a push that’s almost a shove. “Now, come on.”

He lunges into the air, sailing skyward with an arcing leap that has him on the rooftop in seconds. He looks back expectantly.

Yang follows, but with far less grace. She lands heavier, louder, and grunts once at the pain of impact. Whatever skill she had been developing in traversal is less steady now, as exhaustion sets in.

They really need to finish this. Fast.

*

When Yang and her Uncle drop down into the very heart of the Tower through windows close to the rooftop, she takes the lead. She knows these hallways better than he does and easily finds a route into the rafters overlooking the throne room.

Down below there is a sea of Whalers, standing at the ready, but Yang notices something strange about them.

She blinks, allows her mind to focus, and sees it clearly in an instant: only one of them has a heartbeat. The others must be copies of some kind, near perfect illusions. She points to the only authentic Whaler at the center of them and Qrow nods in understanding before pointing to where his own attention is focused.

The Emperor: backing away from a woman who has pulled her hood back to reveal a shock of jet black hair as she raises her left hand, the rune burning so bright that they can see it from across the room.

Yang isn’t going to wait to see what she intends to do. She jumps.

And for an instant she is almost weightless before she lands with a heavy thud, the full force of her weight hitting the back of the only Whaler in the crowd who was real — causing the others to dissolve into smoke when the woman loses consciousness on impact with the ground.

There’s only one of them left standing.

“Stop!” Yang shouts at the back of the woman advancing on the Emperor. She freezes where she is, turning her head just slightly to acknowledge Yang, but does not turn her back to her prey. “Stop or I’ll…”

Yang is in the process of pulling off the hood and mask of the woman she is sitting on top of, and the words die in her throat in an instant.

She knows this girl.

She’s known Emerald since they were both children.

The woman hisses. “Or you’ll what?” She turns her full attention back to the Emperor and extends her left hand, one single fluid motion, as sparks appear around her fingertips. A red hot trail of power traces its way from her palm to his face, lighting up like a fire behind his eyes. The rage and fear disappear from his expression in an instant. He goes slack, emptied out.

The woman turns her wrist and pulls, heat waves of energy rippling out from the places where her hands move through time, through the fabric of the Void itself, and the Emperor takes a step closer, as if drawn by invisible strings.

And another step.

“Stop or— or I’ll kill her!” Yang shouts back, wishing she could hide the fear she knows is in her voice. Unsure if she can sound convincing when she’s not certain if she believes it herself.

“So kill her,” the woman snarls and she gives her hand another sharp twist. The taste of the Void is crisp in the air, as sharp as the edge of the blade the woman has drawn in her right hand.

Yang stands quickly but the Emperor takes another step and then another, moving faster.

The knife is in his side in an instant, plunged deep. He moves further, pushing himself onto it, and it’s only then that the look on his face starts to waver into something like real emotion. And that emotion, the only one there at all, is pain.

The woman draws her knife back, readying it to lung again, and Yang yanks (desperately) on the air, like she’s grappling for a rope before being tossed overboard.

She pulls herself forward into space and does the first thing she can think of: she hits the Emperor of all the Isles hard in the face, as hard as she can, and sends him flying backward away from the woman and her knife.

He lands in a heavy heap, not moving, blood pooling around him, and Yang feels herself nearly swaying on her feet.

Did she just help to kill the Emperor? (Did she help to kill Blake’s father?)

She doesn’t have time to stop to think because there is a knife swinging in toward her and the air around her ripples with waves of heat. She feels something inside her, pushing against her mind, trying to take hold, and the Outsider’s mark on her hand burns.

She flexes her hand and the air stills; the woman is moving slower, but not as slow as the others had.

Yang only has enough time to deflect the knife with her right arm, black sparks flying as the steel slices through the strips of fabric and hits the sharp Void rock underneath.

Their eyes meet and the woman sneers. “He gave his gifts to you?”

The air ripples again and Yang is sent flying back as a wave of heat strikes her in the chest.

She lands hard, sprawled on her back with the air knocked out of her. She hears, more than she sees, the sound of Uncle Qrow barreling into the woman’s back when she must be distracted.

Yang hears the sound of their blades clashing together.

She hears her Uncle’s voice, shouting, “Kid! Get up!” Followed by a sharp grunt that sounds more pained than she would like. She hears her own heart beating loud, overwhelming so much of the other sounds.

Somewhere in the distance, she hears whales singing.

“Get up.”

Bracing the new hand that both is and isn’t hers against the tiles, Yang slowly pushes herself back to her feet. Her ears are ringing, or maybe that’s all of her skull. She is so tired and wants nothing more than to lie down and sleep.

Maybe she doesn’t even want to wake up. The pain is everywhere now and all of her nerves are on fire.

Fire.

The woman traces patterns through the air, rippling, and a scalding heat arcs from the tips of her fingers to the edge of Qrow’s shoulder, searing straight through the fabric to flesh. He grunts and Yang can hear him gritting his teeth. Their eyes meet across the room, just over the woman’s shoulder.

The woman notices Qrow looking this way and starts to turn her head.

This is all the time Yang has. She charges, pulling herself through the air, ripping through the waves of burning heat, and this time she leads with her right arm.

The power of the Void ripples out on impact and the woman snarls more than she screams.

Without waiting (or thinking), Yang hits her again, this time with the left, and Qrow slashes across her with his sword.

Then Yang follows with the right.

It’s a bit like being a kid again, she thinks dimly — as much as she can think at all now. Like playing games in the street, or practicing with Uncle Qrow.

It’s easy. Just say you can do it and you can.

Easy.

The woman twists and curls her hands and another wave of heat strikes Yang dead center in her chest. It knocks her a few short stumbling steps back, but she catches her balance faster this time. It hurts, but everything hurts right now.

She hardly notices.

There is nothing but the next hit — another one pulled across space, plunging through time — and then the next.

She is singularly focused on pain. Receiving and administering it.

That is until the moment Yang’s next hit causes the woman to disintegrate in the same pattern of smoke that all the others had disappeared into before. That’s why she knows instantly to turn and look for Emerald.

Gone. Both of them.

Yang notices a door slipping shut out of the corner of her eye, but when she turns her head the other way there is an Emperor bleeding on the floor. He is a far greater priority.

“… he needs somebody. Fast.” Yang takes an unsteady step toward the body of her Emperor — Blake’s dad — and feels her legs almost give out underneath her.

She sways and Qrow catches her with a steady hand. “I’ve got this, kid. You need to get out of here.”

“But—”

“Consider that an order, sailor.”

Yang blinks at the mask that stares back at her without any sign of emotion.

She hesitates, but then she nods.

She runs.

*

She isn’t sure where she should go — where it’s safe for someone whose entire body is now such an obvious sign of blasphemy — but she knows at least to avoid the other members of the Watch on her way out.

She focuses and through the pounding in her head — the screaming far off sound she knows must be the call of whales — Yang can see the heartbeats closing in on them, and knows where not to run as she plots her escape through the Tower.

She is in the rafters of the long stretch of hallways outside the throne room when a familiar voice down below stops her midway through her next jump.

“Have any of you seen my sister, Yang? Do you know her?” Ruby is talking to one group of Watch guards and then quickly moves on to the next, further down the hall. “She’s sort of loud, but funny and really nice. Lots of hair!”

The Watch members, for the most part, are ignoring her. One even pushes her roughly aside as they march past.

Another stops and turns to look at her suspiciously, one hand reaching for his weapon. “What are you doing here?”

It’s true. Ruby shouldn’t be in this part of the Tower, not without an escort of some kind.

Especially not during an emergency or attack.

And judging by the look on her face, Ruby knows that too. Her eyes grow big really fast and she actually takes a step back, which is about as suspicious as you can get. “Oh, sorry! Looking for my sister, like I said—”

“Your sister.” The man flexes his grip on the weapon, not so casually. “And what was her name again?”

This could escalate, and quickly.

If word gets back to this side of the building that the Emperor is bleeding on the floor of the throne room, Ruby’s intrusion is going to go from suspicious to treasonous at a much faster rate than it will take a guard to pull his weapon or plunge it into her.

Yang scopes the room out, quickly, and zips toward a corner nobody seems to be watching so she can land a little out of sight. The impact is still louder than she’d like, but by now the guard is raising his voice — at her sister — so nobody seems to notice.

“Hey!” Yang shouts, which is probably a real bad idea. The other members of the Watch all turn at once, most of them with weapons drawn. She holds up her hands. “Hey, guys, I work with you.”

She doesn’t recognize any of these faces, though, not right away. Maybe they’re new? Or higher ranking?

Or maybe it’s panic causing her temporary face blindness?

The woman closest to Yang actually nudges her with the end of her pistol. “Then where’s your uniform?”

“I was off duty today,” she answers, trying to keep her voice even and cool.

She’s fine.

This isn’t terrifying at all.

“Then why are you here?”

Good question, and Yang doesn’t have Ruby’s excuse where she can just pretend not to know the protocol. (In Ruby’s case, it’s probably actually true; she doesn’t pay attention to protocol she doesn’t think applies to her.) Yang shouldn’t be here and there’s no good excuse she can give.

That doesn’t mean she’s not going to try.

“There were explosions. You might have noticed?” Yang resists the impulse to go with a confident grin, since that probably wouldn’t go over well right now. “I thought I should come check on the Emperor.” She notices a few of the guards exchanging looks and she really can’t tell if they’re buying it or not. “Kind of the whole job description, you know.”

“Well.” The first man who was confronting Ruby has grabbed her by her hood and Yang has to resist all her natural impulses — and a couple of new and much less natural ones too — to stay perfectly still instead of laying him out like he so clearly deserves. “Why don’t we go check on the Emperor now? All of us. Together.”

This is not going to go well.

And Yang isn’t sure if she should be relieved or honestly more afraid — the primal kind that’s consumed with self-preservation of more than only your life — when the door opens at far end of the hall and Blake comes striding in. Yang can see every member of the Watch standing straighter once they realize, a progression of improving posture.

She feels herself react too, but it might actually be a small flinch.

Yang is pretty sure being able to tell the future isn’t a part of her new collection of powers, but she can still see how this is all going to play out pretty clearly. Blake is going to acknowledge, at least on the inside, that Yang doesn’t belong here.

Then she’s going to find her father bleeding just a few doors down.

She’s a smart girl and she’ll start doing the math.

It won’t give her the right answer, but enough to know that something’s wrong.

Just like right now, when their eyes meet, and Yang can see a whole series of emotions passing through Blake’s eyes as she tries to work this out. Yang doesn’t know what all of it means — she sees panic, fear, relief, and something that might even be anguish — before Blake quickly settles back into that removed and royal look that the princess sometimes wears.

Weiss has it too, but hers never unnerves Yang the way that it does when Blake is the one doing it.

“What’s all this?” the Imperial Princess asks in a voice with a sharp edge to it. Her eyes snap around the room quickly, taking in each armed member of her guard. “Is there a reason you’re detaining my friends?”

“Your—”

“I’m certain you heard me the first time.”

“… yes, Highness.”

The first guy is at least smart enough to immediately let go of Ruby, who looks very pleased with herself.

Yang tries to match her sister’s beaming smile with at least a small grin of her own.

She’s not sure it’s actually convincing.

“Took you long enough,” she says, and almost hates herself for how easy it is to say something like that, to pretend this is all going to be alright.

“When I told you to run ahead, I didn’t realize you were going to be that fast.”

That answers surprises Yang enough that she nearly drops the fake smile completely.

Blake is lying to protect her.

These over eager idiots are hanging on every word she says, so it’s probably not even necessary. She could just tell them to go and they would, but the lie is an added layer of protection that Blake is offering without any hesitation.

As if Yang needed any reasons to feel worse.

Stop wasting your time on me, she’s thinking; Your dad could be dying.

But on the outside, she just grins. “Maybe we should keep looking for—”

The door bursts open at the closer end of the hall and the guards swing their weapons around the other way to face the newcomers.

It’s really no wonder, is it, that the city’s in the shape that it’s in with so much of the watch this incompetent.

Yang has the vague inclination to giggle, but she thinks that’s probably just the exhaustion rubbing all of her nerve endings raw. She bites it back for now.

Officer Nikos is the one charging into the room with Weiss right behind her.

Yang knows from the instant she sees their faces that they’ve just come from the Emperor’s side.

Even Blake seems to know somehow, in an instant, that something is very wrong. The smile that had started to form on her face when she first saw Yang freezes in such a horrible facsimile of both happiness and misery twisted up together that Yang has to look away. It’s suspicious, she knows that, but she can’t watch Blake’s pain right now and not say anything.

And speaking could maybe get her killed.

“Princess,” Pyrrha begins, trying to sound gentle despite the obvious strain in her voice. “Your father…”

Weiss is even more pale than usual, her features drawn and her arms folded in front of her like she’s trying to hold herself together. “He’s not dead,” she interjects, abrupt but uncharacteristically direct. She’s so overwhelmed that she becomes obvious. “But he’s injured, Blake.”

Yang’s attention is all on Weiss and Pyrha. She can see so much of Blake’s reaction from the look in their eyes as they watch her taking it in. Just that alone is already too much.

Blake’s voice is almost unbearable.

“… take me to him,” she says with a carefully composed calm that she can’t stick to for even that long. Her voice cracks on the word him and Yang feels something lurch inside her.

She could be sick, but maybe that’s just the dizziness ratting around in her head and down to her chest.

The room seems to spin as everything changes so abruptly.

Yang sways and Ruby is at her side, the concern obvious on her face. “What actually happened?”

Blake, Pyrrha, and Weiss have gone, taking nearly all of the guards with them.

It’s just the two of them and for the first time since the world blew apart, Yang lets herself relax.

More than that, she lets herself fall apart just a little bit.

“A lot,” she breathes out, sinking to the ground with a heavy sigh. She lands on her ass and is pretty sure she’s not going to get back up anytime soon. She breathes in again and realizes, sort of distantly, that she’s started shaking, mostly concentrated around her shoulders. She blinks up at Ruby and tries to force herself to focus. “… I think I need to rest.”

Ruby nods with a resolved look of total understanding, even if that isn’t possible. She doesn’t know what’s happened, almost none it, but she trusts her sister instantly. “Come on.”

Yang feels an overwhelming surge of protective affection. If she wasn’t already on her ass, it might knock her right back there. She swallows and stands, very slowly, swaying on her feet before she steadies. “… what now?”

“One of the guest rooms. I’m sure Blake won’t mind, and you can wash up.”

Ruby’s wrong, of course. Blake might not mind yet, not now, but she will. When she finds her father, any moment now, and begins to think about everything that’s happened and why Yang was where she shouldn’t be.

She’s pretty sure that Blake is going to mind a lot of things very soon.

But she doesn’t say that.

What she says is simply, “Yeah, okay…”

And when Ruby slips in closer at her side, puts a hand along her back for added support, Yang doesn’t object. She wants to, sure, she feels the impulse right there. To say something about how she’s the big sister, right, and that’s her job.

But she really doesn’t want Ruby to pull away just now.

In fact, Yang thinks maybe she needs this if she’s going to be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other for the long walk to the guest corridors.

*

The guest room is just as ridiculously lavish as Yang remembers the first one she stayed in.

That was her first night living in the Tower and, she thinks faintly, this could end up being her last. It’s like one of those sea shanties the whalers sing on long voyages: about how life twists in on itself, circular and sad.

The sheets, Yang already knows, are going to feel too soft. The bed too.

The last time she could barely sleep. Anything that makes you sink that much should involve a good amount of water.

She laughs now, thinking it, and Ruby gives her a startled look, but doesn’t say anything. Maybe Yang already seems delirious enough from lack of sleep that Ruby isn’t going to question any of it.

“I need to bathe,” Yang announces to the room at large — even if it’s only her and Ruby there to hear it — before realizing that she needs some other, clean, clothing to change into at the ready.

She can’t exactly risk anyone — not even or especially her little sister — seeing the marks that the Outsider has left.

Yang doesn’t trust Ruby not to have all of the wrong kind of questions, after all.

As the much older and more mature sister, she will have to take it upon herself to shield Ruby from these harsh realities. Just as soon as she gets back up from where she’s sitting again on the floor.

Yang rubs her face and frowns at her own palm. The bandages are fraying on her right hand and she could swear that she can see bone, pitch black and charred — as though left for days in a fire to sear off all of the flesh.

She swallows.

“Heads up!”

Yang startles out of her reverie when she’s hit right in the face with a small stack of recently folded clothing that tumbles into disarray when it smacks against her head. She pulls the shirt off from where it landed on her shoulder and peels away the bottoms too. “What…”

“There’s extra clothing, in the dresser.” Ruby points behind her and then points at Yang. “It should fit you! And you’re filthy, so when you finish cleaning you should change. Into those, if that somehow wasn’t already clear.” She smiles. “It probably was, though. Do you want me to get the water ready?”

“No,” Yang answers quickly, hiding her right hand under the pile of fabric. “Nah, I got it.”

And she does.

As soon as she gets up.

Any second now.

*

Yang peels the jacket off first, then her shirt, and finally the layers of bandages wrapped around her arm and hand.

She stares at her naked torso in the mirror mounted to the wall. Bruises mark her tanned skin like demarcations on a map. Blossoms of purple sprout up her side, tangling together with lacerations of bright red.

Other places where the spring razor snagged against flesh must have bled, clotted, and then bled some more when she pulled the healing wounds back open in her exertions. She is a mess, and that’s only the flesh.

The arm is something else entirely.

Its blackness is so vivid, so totally its own thing. It’s like it draws all the light from the room into itself, dimming everything around it, especially the usual vibrance of Yang’s smile.

She isn’t smiling just now, though.

Her expression, as she catches herself in the mirror, is slack and resigned, if even a little horrified. She sees the way the Outsider’s mark burns against the back of her own skin when she drags the fingertips of her left hand over the solid black and jagged rock of her right arm.

She doesn’t feel anything there, not in the arm itself.

But somewhere at the back of her eyes, like something pulling on the other end of a very long string, she can hear him calling out to her.

Yang quickly looks way from the mirror and prepares the water to wash off in.

*

Yang removes her boots, one and then the other. She tries not to think about just hours ago — how many would it have been now — when she did the same thing. How much has changed since then.

She braces both hands against the edge of the tub, her right hand groaning softly against the material, before she steps inside.

The water is warmer than she expects.

Even all this time later, Yang is so surprised by how warm the water is that the wealthy have so available to them. She sinks into the rapidly darkening water — black with dirt and run red with thin trails of blood.

Some of the wounds along her right side reopen, weeping in the water.

She does her best to scrub the filth off, although the water becomes murky so soon that she’s not sure how much of a difference it makes. She scrubs until her skin begins to feel raw, a different bright shade of red than the water.

When Yang drains the filth from the bath, it all disappears.

The only remaining signs that any of it even happened are the marks left on her body.

None of that is going to disappear.

*

When Yang finally falls asleep, it’s in a pile of sheets assembled on the bedroom floor.

Ruby tries to object, to offer up the bed, but Yang insists.

She’s slept on plenty of floors already in her lifetime, though usually the cabin was swaying when she did.

It takes a little longer now.

Every time she closes her eyes, at least at first, she sees something she doesn’t want to. Visions of the Emperor gazing up at her with unseeing eyes, broken and bleeding. Dead, by her hand.

Weiss and Pyrrha, their throats cut out like so many of the men and women Yang saw in the yard when she arrived. The ones she walked away from without helping.

Quick images of Uncle Qrow, blade at the ready, slicing through bodies without even thinking. Even easier than gutting a whale.

He makes it seem so easy.

It is so easy.

Yang closes her eyes and she can see Blake’s face, not as she’s ever known it, but as it will be. The disappointment mixed with growing hatred.

She sees it clearly and she feels sick.

When she finally drifts to sleep, she dreams of men and women dying, bleeding, writhing in the thick black waters of the ocean while she watches without feeling.

The water in her dreams is as dark as the Void, but she doesn’t feel as cold as it was there.

If anything, she is comfortable.

And then, quite suddenly, she is awake — but without really waking.

She is still on the floor in the guest room, or at least something like it. There’s only a shadow where Ruby should be and the wall is fractured at the southeastern corner. The brick, wood, and paint are ripped away, as if pulled apart by a giant hand. Yang thinks of ships she has seen wrecked up on reefs when out to sea — the way their hulls split in two, both ends lifting up to the sky like hands in desperation.

Or a rib cage pulled apart.

Yang rips the sheets back and feels a cold chill wash over her.

More of the wall crumbles away, drifting into dust, and she is walking on slick black Void rock. The whale song is closer than usual, but that’s because she can see one just there in front of her, soaring through the air.

It turns its massive head and its mighty eye is looking right at her.

Without even thinking about it, Yang takes a quick step back. The mark on her left hand aches and the world around her shifts. The rock formations ripple and burst, forming spiraling staircases and branching paths.

At the end of one, high overhead, sits the Outsider on a makeshift throne of uneven rock.

It really doesn’t look very comfortable.

He turns his head and it feels not entirely unlike the way the whale is looking at her too. But unlike the whale and its silent accusations, absolutely nothing in his gaze actually makes Yang feel any guilt.

If anything, she’s angry.

She extends her hand out in front of her, fingertips reaching toward the outcrop of rock where he sits, and she pulls, tugging herself along, hopping over and across one rock, then another, moving over a lifting step that twists, and then she’s hauling herself up to land somewhere near his feet.

Yang stands quickly.

She is not going to kneel for him.

“I see that you survived.”

All of her earlier exhaustion, frustration, and even the fear pools inside of Yang’s chest, transforming instead into hot rage. It’s like when metal is melted down to become something pure. Liquid heat. An anger that can boil and fuel her.

Her hand flexes, but maybe that’s just to keep it from shaking.

“You already knew that,” Yang says, her voice soft but slightly strained with the effort of maintaining some semblance of calm. “You were watching us. Me and my friends.” Oh, but some of the anger is starting to creep through now, the way her words clip when she says, “You knew everything that was going to happen to us.”

The Outsider’s dark eyes blink at her and he shifts in his chair. “I know of possibilities and what might be. But it isn’t my responsibility what you do with my gifts, child. Or what you don’t.” He shrugs. “You chose not to stay with your friends and to protect an Emperor instead.” When he laughs, the cold ripples out from him in waves. “Or… you tried to.”

It almost makes Yang shudder. “That woman, with your mark. Who is she?”

“Cinder is a problem,” the Outsider answers after a long pause, clearly choosing his words very carefully. “For me as well as for you.”

That answer actually surprises Yang.

She didn’t think that the Outsider had any problems, except for the Abbey maybe.

“If she’s such an annoyance, then why not take her powers back?”

“What has been given cannot be taken away.” The Outsider’s smile is thin and strangely amused. “No matter how troubling the one who bears my mark turns out to be.” Yang feels a sharp pain shoot up her left arm, tracing a path from the brand on her hand all the way up toward her heart, but she refuses to flinch or acknowledge it — even if the look in his eyes makes it seem like he can still see the pain anyway. Like he’s got a direct view of the nerve endings under her skin. “You are mine now, Yang. Whether either of us wants it or not.”

“Sorry,” Yang answers quickly, a practiced grin slipping right onto her face. “My body already belongs to the Empire.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“You ever think maybe this attitude is why she’s trying so hard to annoy you?”

In an instant, the Outsider is standing again.

The air ripples, shifts, and he is directly at Yang’s side. “I think you are trying to hide your fear with arrogance, but there’s no need.” His hand touches the mark and the ache surges through her. “I know you, Yang Xiao Long.”

He doesn’t.

If he knew anything about Yang at all, he would know that he’s pushing all the wrong buttons and only making her resent the man and his gifts even more. Maybe he’s only worked out what he’s seen on the surface, watching her with the others. With Weiss, Ruby, and Blake.

How Yang acts with her friends isn’t exactly a strong indication of how tolerant she is of other people’s shit.

“Why did you bring me here?”

He steps behind her, but she refuses to turn her head.

The whale is circling nearby, producing a sound that makes the very rock vibrate underfoot.

“I prefer those bearing my mark to remain alive.” His voice is slightly further back. “It’s more entertaining that way.”

“Is that what we’re for?” This time Yang does turn. He’s gone, but she tries not to show any surprise. “Just something to keep you from getting bored?”

He’s at her shoulder again, the right one, fingertips tracing the Void rock. “Among other things…”

She rotates quickly, evading his touch as quickly as she can. “Back off, man.”

“I’m not a man.” He chuckles. “As we have established. But… fine.” He folds his hands behind his back, posture more erect now. “You seem unresponsive to this conversation tonight. I know it’s been a… difficult day for you.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“Some other time then.” With a shrug that seems to suggest that he really is bored now, the Outsider turns his back on her, walking back to his throne. “Just a word of advice, though, Yang. Something to consider.” He pauses as if he expects her to ask, but she does not prompt him further. Once he seats himself again, he carries on without any urging. “You’ll do better at this if you have someone you can confide in. Someone else with my mark.”

Uncle Qrow.

She does have a lot of questions for him.

But the Outsider smiles, as though reading her mind, which is still pretty unsettling. “Not only your Uncle,” he says. “There could be… others.”

There’s a twist to his lips when he says it, an amused playful smirk not entirely unlike the way he’d looked at Yang when he forged a new arm onto her flesh without asking first. It makes her stomach twist. “Others,” she says, her voice carefully flat.

She doesn’t actually want to make it into a question, because she doesn’t think she wants to hear his answer.

“Your sister is intriguing.”

Every part of Yang is on edge in an instant. She takes a step closer to him, the air rippling around her hand as it moves. There is untapped potential still inside her, desperate to be let out, boiling over with her rage, but unfocused and undirected. Instead it aches inside, like a pressure in her bones, and she doesn’t notice, not really, because the pain buzzing at the back of her brain is almost the default now. And she doesn’t care because all she can really think is she would rather rip the Outsider’s arms from his body than let him place his mark on her sister’s hand.

“You—”

It’s all Yang manages to say before the Void rock slips away from her feet.

She is falling, quickly, and tries to catch herself on the edge as she slips past. Her shoulder hits hard, sharply, and her head rings out with the impact before she slips further down, continues falling.

In the distance, she can hear his voice, saying, “Perhaps I will answer the next time she calls.”

And then the darkness consumes everything.

*

Yang wakes up in the room, still cast in shadows filtered through moon glow, and this time all four walls are in the right place and Ruby is right there in the bed.

She stands to get a better look at her sister and just barely resists the impulse to reach out and touch, to make sure she’s really there. Instead Yang settles on something in between, slipping into the way too comfortable bed to spend the rest of the night sleeping just a few inches away from her sister.

If Ruby stirs too much in her sleep, as if drawn to somewhere else through her dreams, Yang thinks that she’ll probably notice.

Yang doesn’t get a whole lot of rest after that, and it’s not just because the bed is too soft.

*

The next day, Yang is up close to sunrise, and still a part of her expects for a faction of guards to burst into the room at any moment.

She dresses quickly with that in mind.

If they come for her, she doesn’t want to be with Ruby. Her sister would probably try to intervene.

And maybe this is all just irrational. Some fear that comes from too many years spent on the street, running from the Watch that she’s now a member of herself. There’s no reason, not really, to assume that they’re coming — that this, now, is finally the arrest that had felt so inevitable nearly two years ago — except that the only thing that ever kept Yang safe, really safe amongst people she never belonged with, has been Blake.

And Blake is going to hate her now. She knows it.

Unless maybe Blake doesn’t.

This sense of uncertainty is the only possible reason that Yang goes looking for Blake this next morning. She could tell herself, easily enough, that she’s looking for word of the Emperor’s health. That is a factor, but it’s not her priority.

It should be. As a member of the Watch, sworn to defend the Empire against all her enemies, Yang’s first thoughts should be of the wounded Emperor. But when she thinks of him, of Emperor Ghira bleeding on his own throne room floor, she thinks of it in the context of Blake standing there.

Or worse, kneeling at his side, her trousers stained in his blood. She had abandoned her jacket all the way back at the Cat, so it would be her button-up shirt with blood all the way up the arms from the wrist. So much blood and Blake’s eyes so wide.

Maybe it was never actually Yang’s duty to keep Blake happy, not at all times, but certainly she wasn’t meant to be the cause of such devastation.

This is something she should want to resign for.

So why is she looking for Blake now?

*

Yang is on her way to the royal quarters in the distant wing when she rounds a corner and sees the utterly unexpected there: Blake Belladonna, Imperial Princess of the Isles.

There is less blood on her than Yang expected.

It looks as though she made an effort to scrub some of it off in the night. She’s wearing a different shirt now too. It’s formal, the sort of thing she might wear to a council meeting, in a pale grey that matches the dark circles under her eyes.

Blake looks up at Yang and blinks slowly, barely seeming to process what she’s seeing. The pupils of her eyes are so expanded that the gold almost disappears inside it; like a grain of sand in a surging ocean. Yang feels such a strong impulse to reach out for her, words curling at the back of her tongue, but nothing is big enough to compare with what she did.

What Blake must know she played a part in.

“Oh,” Blake says, and then pauses. “… Yang.” Another pause, this one much longer. There is something in her eyes, and Yang cannot read it, though she wishes she could. “Sorry, I don’t really have time to—”

Yang quickly steps to the side, averting her own gaze just as rapidly as she makes way. “Yeah. Sure.”

Blake is heading in the direction that Yang just came from.

Their paths are going to cross, inevitably, but when Blake moves so close to pass her by all of Yang’s best intentions just evaporate. She can’t help herself. She turns her head to look.

And it must be some similar impulse inside of Blake too, because their eyes snag on each other and Yang feels her breath catch sharply in her own throat. The guards trailing just a short distance behind Blake honestly seem to disappear, everything just falls away for a moment and it’s only the two of them — it almost feels normal, like their walks through the garden.

Yang realizes that she’s staring, unable to look away.

She watches the way Blake is frowning, the dip in her mouth and the tension along her jaw. How her hands curl at her side, fingers tensing then releasing.

“I … have a council meeting,” Blake says softly, with a pained look of uncertainty, as though she only just decided to say the words the precise moment that they were coming out and almost instantly doubts she was right to share them. She freezes mid-stride, her back to Yang. “We should talk,” she says eventually, without looking back. “About yesterday. Sometime soon.”

And with that, Blake is gone.

Even as she’s still visible, walking away until she reaches the end of the hall, the real her — the one that is engaged and in the moment — disappears completely, leaving only the shell of nobility in its place.

Chapter Text

When the world tears itself apart, Blake isn’t ready for it.

She always thought that she would be. She has been raised with an understanding that things can change in an instant. It can happen to anyone, but especially to a future Empress. Her role, the entire point of her, is to one day assume a throne that will be hers only once her parents are dead.

It’s not the kind of thing you can ever completely forget.

Somehow, she thought she would be more prepared for all of this, or that a calm would descend on her, the way that it might with Weiss. But she doesn’t feel calm, not at all, and it’s Weiss whose hand is on Blake’s shoulder, pulling her back to her feet. “Your Highness,” she’s saying, squeezing not too gently. “Blake. Focus on my voice.”

She turns her head slowly and nods, because it seems like the right thing to do. “Weiss…”

“Everything is going to be okay.” Her other hand has taken up its place on Blake’s opposite shoulder; her grip is less firm now, but just as resolved. The next squeeze is softer, almost like a hug though with much less direct contact, still keeping Blake mostly at arm’s length. “But we need to act. Fast.”

It’s the necessity that does it.

This is what they need, and especially what Blake needs to be right now. She is able to blink, to refocus to a place just outside herself.

She cannot exist inside her own feelings, not now. She empties them out, like water leaving a shoreline, and is calm enough to take command. “Weiss, I need you to go to the Tower. Speak with Officer Nikos or anyone you can find. Tell them what’s happened here and do what you can to help. Ruby…” She turns her head and finds the other girl staring, stricken with horror.

Blake and Weiss both converge on her at once, blocking her view of the smoke rising from the direction of the Cat.

“Yang,” Ruby says, barely even a whisper, her voice cracking, but it’s as if the name alone is enough to reset something inside of her brain. She straightens, “I have to go help—”

No,” Blake cuts in, much sharper than she means to be.

It’s not that Yang is dead. She obviously isn’t, she’s fine, but if she’s injured (badly bleeding) then Blake doesn’t want Ruby to see that. Blake can’t stand next to Ruby’s frantic concern and not feel it herself, and she needs to be calm right now.

She tries to smile and hopes that it’s reassuring or convincing enough. “Ruby, I need you to stay here and help these people.” Blake points to some of the injured limping through the streets. “Don’t consider it a command from a princess, alright. It’s a request from a friend.”

Ruby’s wide eyes blink as she takes all of them in, and it’s obvious that she is fully processing now, trying to comprehend this much pain. It’s like she’s allowing herself to really feel it, all of it, and Blake just can’t understand how she does that and still stays standing.

“Ruby.”

“… yes. I can help them.”

“And I’ll go get Yang.” Blake lifts her head to meet Weiss’s gaze. She nods without saying anything else in return.

The three of them split apart and Blake begins walking toward the smoke.

*

She isn’t prepared for what she sees.

The wreckage that was The Golden Cat is completely caved in on itself. The few remaining walls only emphasize the destruction by providing a clear outline of what once was. There in the rubble she can see a woman’s arm, protruding at an odd angle, reaching out for help that never came.

Without pausing to consider, Blake is running to the ruins. She falls to her knees, much harder than she means to, but she doesn’t care that it hurts. Her fingers struggle for purchase in the jagged edges of shattered stone, scraping skin raw as she heaves the rocks off of the woman.

She gets as far as revealing a naked shoulder and black hair matted with thick red blood before she stops.

It’s not Yang.

Blake isn’t sure why she had felt so certain, in that instant, that it was. She’s not sure why she thinks Yang must be here, somewhere in the rubble, when she had worked so hard to convince herself (and Ruby) just moments ago that she would be fine. Maybe she was expecting to see those golden curls and that bright smile the second she rounded the corner into the street — to find Yang right here, digging in the rubble, delayed by her impulses to help others.

The moment that Blake found the street deserted, she knew.

Even if her heart, pounding in her chest, won’t admit it; or maybe it’s the brain that refuses to acknowledge the clear realization. The only obvious answer. She crawls to the next pile of rocks with snatches of fabric protruding from underneath it, scrambling over the wreckage on all fours, and begins to dig. Not her.

And the next one too. It’s not her.

There’s blood on Blake’s hands, and she isn’t sure if it comes from the bodies she’s uncovering or the splitting of her knuckles as she digs and digs, faster and faster, with no concern for her own safety, slipping and sliding across uneven and rough terrain. She is breathing faster now, heavier, but she is so focused on the task at hand, on clearing more rock (as much as she can), that she only realizes that she’s crying when her tears fall to the dirt, leaving dark pinpoints just before her hands rake through.

“Yang!” she screams, her voice cracking. As if that’s all it might take, just some misunderstanding and Yang will round the corner, laughing. Smiling.

But she doesn’t.

Blake has already found so many dead bodies — girls whose names she doesn’t know and whose faces she can hardly recognize — but none of them are Yang.

The only trace of her that she discovers is Yang's dagger, handle damaged beyond repair.

Now Blake knows that she’s really sobbing because it halts her progress entirely. Her shoulders shake and her body heaves, too overwhelmed by too many feelings to keep moving.

She doesn’t know what she expected to find, or why she’s so desperate to find it. Hauling Yang’s body out of the wreckage won’t bring her back, but at least she would be as safe as Blake can make her now. She doesn’t deserve to stay there, under the rocks, but Blake is too small (too weak) to find her on her own, and there isn’t any more time.

Her tears slow and then stop completely.

She is a princess, a future Empress. Her duty is to all of the people of the isles, not to herself or anything she might want. She cannot sit here and feel sorry; she has to feel nothing at all. Empty herself like a pretty vase, just as exposed and fragile at the edges. Blake stands, the final shudders running down her spine and then she’s calm, or at least a close facsimile. She casts one last look at what remains of the building and is relieved to remain composed at the sight.

It’s pointless, useless, but Blake hooks the dagger to her belt to take it with her; she can’t (won’t) leave this last trace of Yang behind.

Not again.

*

For a brief instant as she’s running, Blake could swear she sees someone watching her from the far end of the street — a Whaler, dressed in a blood spattered slicker — and she even calls out to them, asking if they need help.

They turn and walk away without acknowledging her at all. That’s fine. She doesn’t have the time to consider any more of the wounded. Blake continues on to Clavering, and the first thing that she sees is the crowd that’s started to gather around Ruby.

Ruby is making splints out of fragments of wood and torn shirts. She has ripped her own shirt sleeves into small strips and is wrapping one around the arm of a child when she sees Blake approach.

Her face lights up, until she realizes that the princess is alone.

“I didn’t find her,” Blake says, quickly; she wants to cut off the panic that she can already see in Ruby’s eyes before it can grow. “I think she must have gone ahead. She knows the back alleys better than I do, so…”

If Ruby doubts the lie, she doesn’t let it show. The concerned frown lines sketched across her face release in an instant and she smiles. “Oh, that makes sense!” She ruffles the hair of the child she had been helping and straightens fully. “So now we go find Weiss?”

“Yes,” Blake says, as simple as that.

Any more elaboration and she thinks her voice might betray her.

She is grateful, in fact, that neither of them attempt to mention Yang directly by name in that very brief discussion.

Blake isn’t sure that she would have been able to retain her composure.

*

And then she sees her.

Ruby had only just ran ahead while Blake oversaw the members of the Watch gathering in the courtyard. She directed one force to clear any remaining insurgents from the lower hallways of the Tower buildings and another was sent to re-secure the gate.

A third force was directed to find the injured, and to save anyone that they could. They were to report the casualties back to her later.

Perhaps Blake should have questioned her impulse to take command, to direct that all orders carried out should be reported to her and not her father, but it feels so natural in the moment. That’s the calm, or the illusion of it, taking control.

But then she sees Yang, and all of it falls away.

It’s like water in a storm washing over her shoulders, pouring down her rigid back until she feels herself start to give. Yang is and always has been a force of nature, even when she’s standing perfectly still.

She’s not dead.

Blake had been so convinced, so certain, that she would never see that smile again, would only glimpse the face it belongs to one final time, damaged beyond all recognition. It’s too much really for her to even begin to process, which is why it takes Blake a little while to realize that there’s something entirely different in Yang’s eyes.

Like there’s some small part of her now, something she saw, that makes Yang a little more like a stranger.

It frightens her. But fear isn’t the kind of emotion Blake can afford to have right now. The truth is, she can’t afford any emotions at all.

They wash away from her, just as quickly as anything else.

“What’s all this?” Blake strides further into the hall, taking in the face of each and every member of her guard with their weapons drawn. “Is there a reason you’re detaining my friends?”

“Your—”

Blake looks to this man, the one with his hands on Ruby, and she offers him a very insincere smile. “I’m certain you heard me the first time.”

“… yes, Highness.”

He releases Ruby and stands at attention. That’s better; Blake clears her expression into something more neutral, at least for now.

“Took you long enough,” Yang says, casual like this is some joke between them.

There’s still that thing, that detached and distant something, settled in Yang’s eyes that gives Blake pause. She knows that Yang shouldn’t be here, not this close to the throne room. Not when she should still be lying in the rubble at The Golden Cat. It doesn’t make any sense, but it has to. These men and their guns will want answers, even if they don’t realize it yet.

Sense has to be made and Blake has to be the one to do it.

“When I told you to run ahead, I didn’t realize you were going to be that fast,” Blake says, smooth and easy. Lying hasn’t been a habit lately, but she finds it as natural as it used to be.

That almost frightens her too.

The door at the other end of the hall opens and in marches Officer Nikos with Weiss at her side.

“Princess,” Pyrrha begins, and it’s only then that Blake fully takes in the looks on both their faces. It is that moment — the way Weiss looks so drawn and pale — coupled with the strain in the Officer’s voice that makes Blake automatically take a quick step forward. “Your father…”

“He’s not dead,” Weiss says. “But he’s injured.”

He’s not dead.

The fact that the words would need to be said at all tells Blake everything she needs to know about his current condition.

He is injured, gravely. It had been the first thought on her mind before the explosion of The Cat as well. But she had been so easily (stupidly) distracted by that one blast, and for what? Yang is fine.

But her father is—

“Take me to him,” Blake says, feeling her voice crack, a betrayal of all the emotions she is working so carefully not to feel.

The emotions she cannot feel.

But Blake’s resolve is tested once she steps into the throne room.

There are already physicians gathered around her father, tending to his wounds and obscuring much of him from view.

But what Blake can see is enough. His body is turned at an odd angle and his breathing seems labored. She can hear him — a faint (wet) gurgling sound of ragged breathing — as she draws closer, moving faster.

She is at his side in what feels like moments, just a few quick heartbeats, and her heart is beating so very fast now.

Blake knows better than to push the physicians aside, to clear a path, but one makes way for her all the same and she doesn’t stop to question it. She sinks to her knees at her father’s side and takes his large — pale, he’s gone so pale — hand in her own.

“Daddy,” she breathes, and she realizes that her own breath has drawn thin too. That she can barely breath at all, despite the heaving in her chest. “It’s okay now, dad, I’m here.” She squeezes his hand and kisses his knuckles, over and over. It leaves streaks of deep red blood across her cheeks, she can feel it, or maybe that’s the tears.

One of the physicians slips back into the space beside her and another is reaching for her shoulders. “Princess, please… we need space to work.”

Blake understands.

Even this, her pain, isn’t for her. She shuts it off, quiets her rapid breathing, even as the tears continue to fall.

She stands and simply watches as they work.

*

Different men and women enter and exit the throne room for the next hour, or maybe it’s two. Blake loses track of all means of measuring intervals of time except for the unsteady rhythm of her father’s ragged breathing.

Eventually, he is moved (on a gurney) to the royal quarters.

Normally the room seems so empty when mother isn’t there, but tonight it’s filled with strangers. Blake allows only the guards that she recognizes close by. She takes note of all the physicians working on her father. Every time his breathing seems to change, she draws closer to his bedside, watching carefully.

Weiss joins her sometime in the night, standing quietly at her side.

Blake isn’t sure how long Weiss is there before she realizes she should acknowledge her, smiling thinly and unconvincingly. “Do you know where Officer Nikos is?”

“No, but I know where to look.” Weiss tentatively places a hand on Blake’s elbow. It’s not the sort of gesture she makes a habit of, and that somehow makes it almost worse. Pitying in a way that makes Blake pull back, force her own smile even harder. It must not be any more convincing, judging by the look on Weiss’s face. “Should I go get her now?”

“Yes, I think so,” Blake says, working hard to focus her thoughts on anything other than her father’s limp body lying in the bed just a few feet away. She swallows. “Hurry back, though. Please.”

“Of course.”

Blake hears Weiss leave rather than sees it. Her eyes are back on her father’s face, watching him sleeping.

The physicians say that he shows no signs of waking, not yet, but that it does not mean he will never recover. “The body is very resilient,” one of them says, as though it’s the kind of thing that should bring Blake comfort.

It does not.

*

Mother is away on business in Morley. It’s a fairly routine political envoy to continue peaceful relations with the island that once — famously, brutally — made war with the Empire and slaughtered an Empress. She won’t be back for at least another week.

At least, that was the plan.

Now every effort must be made to reach her with news, as quickly as possible.

It isn’t likely that these insurrectionists now are Morleyan. It would be prejudiced, certainly, to think so. They are a frequently impoverished people, but that does not necessarily make someone a criminal. Mother is almost certainly fine. Safe.

But still, she must come home.

When Officer Nikos returns with Weiss at her side, Blake indicates that Weiss should stay with her father — nothing more than a careful nod is needed to communicate that with someone she’s known for so long — before pulling the Officer to a corner of the room to speak in relative confidence. “I need a message delivered to Morley. Using our fastest vessel.”

Pyrrha nods, but doesn’t say anything. Her features are more drawn and strained than usual and it’s only now, during this pause, that Blake notices the way she is favoring one leg over the other.

She is injured.

“Officer Nikos, are you certain you’re alright?”

“Of course,” she answers much too quickly. “I am much better than many others.” She forces herself to stand more erect, and Blake almost regrets even asking the question. “You were saying, princess.”

Blake thinks to object — to remind Pyrrha that she’s still Blake (just Blake) — but tonight isn’t the night for it. “Yes, I need a message delivered to my mother. As soon as possible. She has to return home.”

“… I believe Lord Schnee has dispatched a messenger already.”

Blake blinks, the shock registering on her face before she can stop it. “He—” She realizes and forces the expression to slip away, standing taller. Her instinctive impulse is to force a smile too, to pretend everything is okay, but it clearly isn’t; it would be the wrong (false) signal to send. “Did he? I wasn’t aware he had already taken such… initiative.”

“Yes. I believe it was an hour ago, maybe more.”

Her mind is racing now, so fast she can barely process the thoughts. “Do you know if any other members of the council have made use of our messengers?”

Pyrrha looks genuinely surprised by the question, and unsure. It’s as though she thought she had prepared for anything her princess would ask, and now she’s come up short. She looks more distressed by that than whatever pain is lodged somewhere in her side. “Oh, I’m not sure. Probably. There has been so much chaos, so many people in and out.”

“I thought that I ordered the front gate be secured.”

Pyrrha blinks and it’s obvious that she is trying to wrap her head around the response, to determine Blake’s next move so that she can anticipate and act on it accordingly or even in advance. “… certainly, Highness, but the council—”

“— has no reason to be here just now.”

Blake shrugs, as if that might take some of the sting out of her words.

Pyrrha hesitates, but then nods. “I will make certain the members of the Watch are aware. Does—” Her gaze moves quickly to Weiss at the side of the Emperor’s bed. “Does that include—”

“Lord Schnee should be with his family in this trying time,” Blake answers smoothly. “But his daughter may remain here, if she likes.”

There is something that passes quickly through Pyrrha’s eyes that Blake can’t quite pin down. It’s there for just a moment, and then gone. She nods. “Yes, Your Highness.”

The Officer starts to leave, makes it halfway to the door, when Blake remembers. “Oh, and Pyrrha.”

“Yes?”

“Tell the council that I will want them in the morning. You can send messengers.” Blake turns to offer a very thin, very strained smile. “Maybe they’ll feel better about leaving for the night with that in mind.”

At least this way she’ll have some control over their interactions and how the message is spread. Although for all Blake knows, the council members will leave the Tower and go meet somewhere else in secret right now.

It’s strange, after all, how quickly they’ve all acted. How ready they were for an Emperor to be injured, almost killed. Unless it isn’t strange at all, and Blake is the only one with such lofty responsibilities left totally unprepared.

Maybe Blake is the problem.

“Yes, Your Grace.”

Pyrrha slips out of the room quickly and Weiss glances back to watch her go with such a brief turn of the head that she must really think that Blake doesn’t even notice.

Of course she notices, but she doesn’t say so.

“How is father doing?”

“He looks… peaceful, to me.” Weiss’s hands are joined in front of her, carefully folded. “They said that people wake up from things like this. All the time.”

“I’m sure they do.” Blake looks away from her father’s pale face — the way that all of him already looks so much smaller, frailer, without his laughter or his smile — and watches Weiss instead. “Did they also say how often people don’t recover?”

“… no. They left that part out.”

“I thought they might.”

*

Sunrise comes surprisingly fast.

Blake is seated in a chair close to her father’s bedside, holding his hand as he sleeps. As for herself, she’s barely lost consciousness, not really, though she vaguely remembers drifting in and out a few times in the last three hours, after most of the other people had left the room.

Now that sunlight’s filtering in through the windows, she thinks it must be time for the council meeting soon.

She lays down her father’s hand, gently, and rolls the stiffness out of her neck before standing, slowly. The sudden movement draws the attention of two of the guards stationed in the room, but she only smiles at them — wan and unconvincing, she’s sure — before rotating her torso until her back cracks.

Blake groans, very softly, and takes heavy steps toward the door.

“Good morning, princess,” one of the guards says and Blake offers him a half-hearted departing wave without bothering to glance even once in his direction.

The door closes behind her and she wishes she could allow herself a moment (just a small moment) — to rest her back against it, take deep breaths, and compose herself — but there are guards posted on the other side too, watching her expectantly.

She smiles at them, even less convincing than the last one. “Good morning.”

*

It’s like that, over and over. Servants and soldiers, all looking at her with carefully worried expressions, like she’s a valuable but delicate piece of pottery on display in the east hall that could break at any moment.

Blake smiles at all of them, each and every single one.

She wonders vaguely (distantly) if that’s the right emotion to convey; if she should be smiling when her father might be dying — no, injured only, merely resting, the physicians say — but she is too worn down and raw to be able to settle on any other emotion.

Forced pleasantry it is.

Until she rounds the corner and — Yang.

It’s almost too much to take in all at once, and Blake really didn’t know that she could still feel anything new at this point, after the night that she’s had.

But it’s there in Yang’s eyes, or maybe it’s in her own chest when she looks into them. “Oh,” she says, almost like an exhalation, or perhaps it’s realization. This isn’t over or easy. All those feelings that she’s never had a name for are still there, ready to be felt, even when every inch of her (inside and out) is well past the point of numb. “… Yang.”

And there, mixed together with that unknowable something that twists in Blake’s stomach and practically coats the roof of her mouth, nearly choking her with its truth, is something else. It’s cold and coiling, frighteningly sharp at its very edges.

Uncertainty.

Blake has never questioned that Yang would tell her the entire truth, even when she didn’t want to hear it. That is, until now. Why else does she stop herself from asking the difficult questions?

Where did you go? Why were you here? How are you still alive?

And the last one, louder and more jagged than the rest: Did you see the person who hurt my father?

But Blake can give voice to none of these. Instead she feels her heartbeat rattling underneath her words, straining them, when she says, “Sorry, I don’t really have time to—”

“Yeah.” Yang moves to the side and averts her eyes, completely out of character. “Sure.” Somehow that avoidance is even worse than the silence drawing itself out thin between them. It feels awful.

But then, just as they’re passing (in an instant), they lock eyes again.

Blake doesn’t know what those emotions burning behind Yang’s eyes mean, couldn’t begin to guess, but it’s like staring into the sea and watching it start to boil. She doesn’t know why she still wants to reach out, find the depths, let herself burn if she has to — just to find what’s waiting underneath — so long as it’s only herself who gets hurt.

But Blake is never only her own person.

“I have… a council meeting,” Blake admits softly and continues walking past. But looking away from Yang doesn’t break the tension between them; it only amplifies it. She slows to a full stop, heart beating so loud that Blake thinks it must be visibly pulsing at her temple. “We should talk,” she says, keeping her voice much steadier than she feels. “About yesterday. Sometime soon.”

She doesn’t look back to see if Yang agrees to it. It’s not up to her, after all.

None of this is really up to either of them now.

*

Blake changes her shirt and scrubs her face before the meeting. She lost her favorite jacket in all the chaos yesterday, but settles for a different one for now. It’s deep purple instead, something formal and composed.

It gives the illusion of calm and certainty.

She is careful to already be in the meeting room, documents spread out on the table before her, when the others arrive. Doctor Watts enters first with Lord Callows close behind. They’re talking about something, laughing to each other, but freeze in the doorway when their eyes land on Blake, seated in her father’s usual chair.

She looks up and blinks at them, almost passively disinterested. “Good morning, gentlemen.”

It takes a moment for the surprise to leave Watts’s face, but he recovers with a wide smile. “If you can say so, then I hope you have some good news for us, princess.”

“I have a lot of news, of different kinds,” Blake answers without missing a beat. “But let’s wait until Lord Schnee joins us before we begin.”

With that, she looks back down to her papers, scribbling a few notes in the margins. She doesn’t actually have much to write or consider, no important notes to take, but Blake has no desire to let them think that they are worthy of her time and attention as they wait.

And they do have to wait.

Lord Schnee is considerably late when he finally bursts into the room, only slowing his stride somewhat when his eyes land on Blake; it’s obvious by now that none of them expected her to be here. “… Your Imperial Highness,” he greets her smoothly.

“Lord Schnee.” Watts and Callows are both standing, but Blake remains in her father’s seat. “I’m glad that you remembered to join us, eventually.”

His expression twitches, just briefly, but resumes his stony composure, nodding gravely. “I was talking with the guards at the front gate. They said that you hadn’t spoken with them at all since last night.” He pulls his chair out with a loud scrape and sits down just to Blake’s right. “It’s understandable, of course, princess. You must have been so overwhelmed by so many things.”

Blake watches him, her expression utterly blank.

If he was expecting some kind of a response — an affirmation, agreement — he doesn’t get it. Lord Schnee hesitates, his gaze jerking over to the other two men (briefly) before he smiles back at Blake. “Never fear. Your mother will be on her way soon, so put your mind at ease.”

“Your concern for my mental well being is admirable.”

“Thank you, princess.”

“However,” Blake cuts back in, speaking rapidly but evenly. “I will be just fine for today as we evaluate all of the information we have and determine how to proceed.” She collects the papers scattered in front of her into a neat pile and begins going through the documents, one at a time.

*

It takes hours to reach the end of the stack of papers.

There are budget adjustments and new guard schedules that must be taken into account. They need to increase fortifications throughout the Tower, find a means of paying for the added manpower, and then consider all the repairs that will have to be made throughout the city. People must be sent to examine the damage, to assess the cost, and to find capable people who can work quickly.

That doesn’t even begin to take into account all the unfinished orders her father was still going over — reports to be clarified and finalized with one of the members of his council — that Blake needs to be caught up on.

Lord Schnee recommends, more than once, that all of this could wait until her mother is home.

“No, we’ll handle it now,” Blake says as she looks back down to make more notes. It really seems to annoy them, every time she looks away. She does it even more once she realizes.

“But Your Highness, surely we’re only wasting valuable time if we have to repeat all this to your mother when she—”

“Is fulfilling your obligations to the Empire very taxing, Lord Callows?” Blake does look up this time, watching him with a carefully neutral expression. “I’m sure now would not be the easiest time to find volunteers to replace you on the council, but I could have someone draft up a list, if you would rather attend to the affairs of your own estate.”

Callows cannot hide his instinctive aggravation, his features pinching together in a sharp and hideous annoyance, though he quickly replaces it with a very false smile. “Of course not, Highness. We are all just… so very worried about you.”

“That is why we have a proposal,” Doctor Watts says, his voice low and grave. “A temporary solution.”

“Do you?” Blake folds her hands very carefully in front of her. “All three of you? Impressive that you would have found the time to plan this together.”

Callows and Watts exchange a look, but Lord Schnee remains entirely impassive. “No— apologies. I misspoke. This was only Lord Callows and I—”

“A discussion we had in the hallway, only once we arrived.”

“Quite.”

Blake blinks at them. She hums a soft noncommittal sound, suggesting that they should continue while offering no clear indication as to her level of either interest or annoyance.

“We think that, perhaps, for the good of the Empire — and everyone within it, of course—” Watts coughs, but continues quickly. “We should appoint Lord Schnee as temporary Lord Regent.” He’s very obviously staring at Blake’s face, hoping for a reaction.

He doesn’t get one.

This is far from the most surprising thing Blake has heard, especially from one of her father’s advisors. She would be more surprised if they weren’t trying to use a lapse in stability to try to wrest some control from her, especially with her frequent recent objections to their tax and spending plans.

Blake just blinks at them before turning her gaze to Jacques Schnee, Weiss’s overbearing and honestly bullying father. He’s been relatively quiet, at least for the last half hour.

He obviously requires an extra nudge to say what he really thinks.

“And you, Lord Schnee?” Blake asks, studying his face. “Do you want to occupy the throne so badly?”

“I have no aspirations toward power, Your Grace.” It’s a miscalculation for him to say something so obviously untrue. The confidence with which he says it, the ease, gives too much away. Blake has always known that he can lie, but the smooth calm and confidence with which he does it (after a night like the last one) gives her pause. “I am merely here to serve.”

“And serve you shall continue to do.” Blake only looks at him — directly at him — when she says, “As advisor to me: the new temporary Lord Regent.”

Callows and Watts don’t even bother to disguise their quick looks at each other this time.

Blake gives them a smile, and it isn’t particularly friendly. “Now if you gentlemen will excuse me. I need to speak with someone from the carpenter’s guild.”

She stands and walks out, without even bothering to look back.

The three of them make no effort to hide the fact that they fall into a chaotic (loud) discussion the moment that the door shuts behind her.

*

It shouldn’t be possible for time to move fast and slow simultaneously, but that is how the next several days go.

Merchants from all corners of Dunwall form a long line at the gate, each with a claim for reparations. Either their buildings were damaged, or supply lines were delayed, all of it costing them several days worth of profit or wages to pay their employees. The guards inspect each and every one.

There aren’t enough guards left, of course.

So many were killed in the attack. There is barely enough time to hold the proper funeral services and it’s not as if they can let the rest of the staff abstain from work in order to attend. Services are planned as a part of morning duties; there is no such thing as training or exercise anymore. Everyone, no matter how prepared or senior, is put on patrols.

The council recommends that they should consider installing one of Sokolov’s so-called walls of light at strategic check points throughout the city. They actually offer Blake a demonstration they seem to think will impress her — throwing a bird directly into the shimmering surface that stretches across the engineered doorway and gasping in admiration as it disintegrates into dust.

Blake is horrified, but does her best not to register the reaction. (She’s beginning to think that compassion and empathy are considered weaknesses by most of the leadership surrounding her.) “I don’t see how we have the financial resources to install these and pay for proper maintenance,” is all that she says.

Lord Schnee smiles an incredibly condescending smile. “The Schnee Mining Company would gladly offer the crown a loan, princess.”

“How generous,” Blake drawls, watching as the wall of light is turned off and one of Sokolov’s assistants sweeps up the scattered remains of bird into a dust pan. “Anton, is this what you have spent most of your time on recently?”

The scientist straightens, his instinctive frown at what he perceives as criticism only somewhat disguised beneath his large beard. “I have a lot on my plate, Your Highness.”

Blake tries to appease him with a courteous smile. “I’m sure. But I think just now we need to concern ourselves with improving infrastructure and foundational stability more than weapons that could potentially be turned against us.”

“This technology could not be used against us, Your Highness, of that I can assure you,” Sokolov responds, not bothering to hide his clear annoyance from his voice or even his pinched expression.

*

“Oh, it would be really easy,” Ruby confirms Blake’s suspicions just later that same day when the four of them are examining the (thankfully disabled) wall of light. “It looks like the whole thing is controlled just here.” She walks over and flips open a control box without asking for permission to inspect it first. “I’m sure Yang could help me weld together something that could go right—”

“Please don’t touch it.”

Ruby huffs and just barely stops herself from touching some of the wires. “—well it would go here! And that should reverse the really basic instructions that run its operations.” She shuts the panel again. “How did he say it determines who is supposed to be in the Tower and who isn’t?”

“He avoided going into details on that.”

“Convenient,” Yang says, but almost seems to regret it as soon as Blake looks her way.

They’ve been like this for days.

Every time that Blake goes to find Yang, to finally speak to her, she finds her busy with patrols — genuinely busy, following up on reports of suspicious people dressed as Whalers, or carrying rubble to help shop owners with repairs — or she’s with Ruby. Today as well, Blake had hoped to finally (finally) have their talk, but Ruby was already there.

A fact that Yang looked especially pleased with, watching Ruby expectantly as if Blake couldn’t simply ask that she leave so that the two of them could speak.

But she didn’t ask. Maybe Yang already knew that she wouldn’t.

Instead Blake made up some excuse for the four of them to come look at an invention she’s already planning to forbid, pretending that she needs their expert advice before outlawing the dismantling of any of her subjects, even the potentially disloyal.

At least Weiss now seems appropriately horrified. “My father thought this was a good idea?” She walks closer to the wall, but stops nearly a foot away from it, as if she’s afraid that it might suddenly turn on and disintegrate her — which is admittedly still a possibility. “There are so many things that could go wrong. If Ruby’s actually right—”

“I am!”

“—then it would be ridiculously easy to just reprogram it to injure those who do belong in the Tower. It could be instrumental in starting a coup.” Weiss frowns. “What is my father thinking?”

Yang shoots Blake a quick look. Her instinctive reaction to Weiss finally catching up to reality as the rest of them have seen it for some time appears to actually outweigh her current desire to ignore Blake completely. Blake smiles back at her — even as Yang (quickly) looks away again, back to Weiss. “I don’t know, he’s usually so calm and rational.”

“He is,” Weiss answers sharply. “He must be overwhelmed by the stress of the last several days.”

This is the best chance Blake is likely to have, and she’s going to take it. “He also recommended that the crown take out a loan from Schnee Mining Company.”

Weiss can only blink at first. She looks stunned — almost as surprised as she was when bombs were going off. “… but that’s a terrible suggestion.”

“Mmm.”

“The crown shouldn’t go into debt like that, not when things are this tumultuous. It could be disastrous.” She can see the way Weiss’s mind is racing, trying to find a reasonable answer for why her father would make such terrible suggestions to the throne. “It’s a catastrophically bad idea.”

“Yeah, but.” When Yang interjects, Blake is careful not to look her way; she’s genuinely afraid that a single look from her (with the way things have been) might be enough to shut Yang up and Blake really needs the help right now. “It sounds like it could be good for your dad’s company, yeah? So maybe he—”

“There is no need to slander my father, Yang.”

“Sounds a bit like he’s slandering himself.”

Trust Yang to say the things Blake herself must avoid because of decorum. Her smile at Weiss is incredibly sympathetic. “Yang’s right.” (There is a reaction from Yang, just out of the corner of Blake’s eye, but it’s subtle. Her body responds almost automatically, tensing in response to hearing her name on Blake’s lips.) “I don’t know why — maybe he doesn’t trust my leadership in the interim — but your father is being very outspoken.” Weiss looks ready to interrupt, so Blake pushes forward quickly, adding, “In his own interest, not the interest of the Empire as a whole.”

It’s obvious that Weiss doesn’t know how she should respond to all of this. A war between conflicting loyalties for friends or family wages over her face, but it’s unclear who’s winning higher ground.

Blake decides to give the conflict a small nudge (maybe more like a shove) in her favor. “That’s why I was hoping you could join us on the council.”

Ruby is so excited on Weiss’s behalf that she surges up onto the balls of her feet, gasps, and then claps her hands together. “Weiss!” The shout is presumably just in case it was somehow unclear precisely who she’s totally thrilled for.

For her own part, Weiss just looks stunned, but at least that’s the new emotion replacing the conflict on her face. “… you what?” Perhaps there’s a bit of outraged annoyance too. “You realize that this is serious business, don’t you? You can’t just run around assigning your friends to the council the moment there’s a power vacuum! It looks very, very bad.”

“Weren’t you always intended to be my chosen advisor?” Blake answers without any hesitation. She’s considered this part of the conversation many times before, even if she didn’t expect it to happen today. “That’s why your dad brought you to court before either of us could walk, isn’t it?”

“But!”

That’s all Weiss says, and then another huff.

It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t have a real argument, probably because Weiss can’t convince herself that placing her into a position of leadership and authority is in any way a bad idea.

“I’m giving your father what he wants, just not when he wanted it.”

“So I’m an appointment out of spite instead of merit?”

Ruby gasps. “Of course not, Weiss! You’re brilliant.” She puts her hands on Weiss’s shoulders and gives her a small shake from side to side. “And everyone knows it!”

“What is…”

Weiss flails her hands as Ruby continues to tug her back and forth.

“Say yes, or Ruby will shake you to death.” Blake laughs. “Say yes so that I’m not the only woman on the council anymore.”

“Alright, fine—yes,” Weiss sputters and Ruby does release her, just to raise her arms over her head and cheer. “At least until your mother returns.”

Blake smiles and so does Yang. For just a moment, things are almost back to normal.

“Good. I’ll introduce you at the council meeting this afternoon.”

Today? But I don’t have anything set aside to wear!” Weiss frowns down at her white suit that looks very much like most of the other white suits in her wardrobe. “How am I going to look competent and capable in this?”

Yang laughs and looks between Ruby and Blake — though her eyes, somehow, very carefully avoid looking directly into Blake’s. “Should we tell her?”

*

It can’t continue like this.

Blake needs to talk to Yang, to force her to hold still long enough to answer questions — some about that night and Yang’s role in it, but also, very simply: are you okay, why don’t you seem okay?

But that will have to come later.

For now Weiss really does convince Blake to spend over an hour in her very busy schedule going through almost identical suits to find the perfect one to prove to her father that she is capable and in control.

The one she decides on in the end has a slightly different jacket color than the first. It’s more like ivory than egg shell.

That’s it. That’s the difference.

*

This time Blake makes certain to be late enough to the meeting that everyone else on the council should already be there when she and Weiss stride in, one just ahead of the other.

The other men look varying degrees of surprised when they look up, but certainly not as shocked as Lord Schnee himself. “Weiss…” He blinks and quickly hides his look of uncertainty. “Is something the matter?”

Weiss smiles in a very carefully restrained fashion. “Of course not, father.”

Blake takes her seat at the head of the table — her father’s usual seat, but hers for now (temporarily) — and Weiss lingers just at her side. “Lord Callows, if you don’t mind…” He’s seated himself at Blake’s left hand side, directly cross the table from Lord Schnee. It seems the perfect place for Weiss to sit, even if it takes the others a moment to realize that is what’s happening. Blake continues to smile at him as he tries (and fails) to hide any outrage or disgust.

“… of course, majesty,” he grimaces and makes an excessive show of standing, bowing, and vacating the chair.

Weiss only gives him the most cursory of nods before sitting down in her new seat, carefully avoiding looking too long in her father’s direction. That’s to be expected, of course — for now.

“I’m sure you were already busy making plans when we arrived,” Blake says, so casually. “Would you care to fill us in?”

*

Council meetings are even easier when the three men at the table spend most of the time looking like they’re afraid they’re going to be caught saying something they’ll regret. They take their time now, choosing each and every word with care. That’s probably how it’s meant to be in front of the ruler of an Empire, but the behavior is still entirely new.

Blake isn’t offended that they only bothered once Weiss joined her, though she thinks maybe she should be annoyed. That maybe this is a sign that they never respected her or her future rule — not in the same way that two of the three fear the Schnee dynasty and the third wishes to preserve it — but she can’t bring herself to be overly upset.

This is the point of having friends, isn’t it? The way they give her strength.

Like now when Weiss is so busy making arguments about budgetary concerns and shipping schedules that Blake doesn’t have to make the points herself. It’s simply handled, with more razor sharp efficiency than she probably would have used.

Even Lord Schnee doesn’t look interested in arguing. Perhaps that’s just because he does not wish to undermine the woman he one day intends to have succeed him, but nevertheless it’s effective.

Things are going well, even if the three men don’t seem to think so.

If Blake is entirely honest, their thinly disguised annoyance is part of what makes this feel like success. She’s in the process of ending discussions for the day — with a promise to meet again tomorrow early in the afternoon — when a servant bursts through the door without even knocking. They all look startled, jolting at the sudden sound. Loud bursts of noise aren’t received well in the Tower these days.

“You imbecile!” Doctor Watts harrumphs after regaining his composure. “Knock before you—”

“Your Highness.” The guard doesn’t even glance at the rest of them, his eyes locked on Blake’s face. “I am so sorry to interrupt, but—”

Blake is standing in an instant. “What is it?”

“Your mother.”

Weiss is right beside her as she hurries out the door. Lord Schnee follows them close behind, moving at a much more dignified stroll.

Blake doesn’t care about her dignity or proper decorum. Not right now.

She’s running down the halls, guards turning to look to her in obvious alarm left and right. A few voices call after her, but she doesn’t slow down.

She needs to see her mother.

Right now.

*

Mom looks tired. It’s the first thing that Blake notices, even from a distance as she rushes toward her.

She’s wearing traveler’s clothes, might even blend in with the people of the city if it wasn’t for the entourage of guards that surround her, but more than that — more than even the circles under her eyes that Blake notices as she draws closer — it’s the slump to her shoulders. When they hug (when Blake barrels into her at full force), it’s more Blake wrapping her arms around her mom than the other way around.

“Oh, honey,” mom says, her hands curling in Blake’s hair, grasping the back of her neck to keep her close and just like that, almost in an instant, Blake lets go, at least a little. She shudders, all of her, with the tears that she’s not allowed to actually cry, not with so many strangers present. “I know. I know, it’s okay.”

The Lord Regent can’t cry in front of rank and file soldiers, but maybe it’s still okay for Blake to hold her mom, to squeeze her even tighter until she squeezes back. To take her by the hand and lead her to the nearest room where they can be alone (guards left posted outside the door) so that she can slump down into the nearest chair to finally actually cry.

It’s only once she starts, the tears coming so fast and so hard that she shakes, that Blake realizes she hasn’t cried since she was digging through the ruins of the the Cat that night.

It feels like it might as well have been a year ago, even though it’s been just slightly over a week.

“Your father is strong,” mom is saying, stroking Blake’s hair back from her face. “He’s going to recover, better than ever. And in the meantime, you’re going to do just fine.”

Through the volume of her own sobs, the haze of her blurry tears, it takes Blake a moment to realize what her mother has just said. “… you mean helping you?”

When Blake looks up at her, Kali smiles and shakes her head. Somehow she looks even more upset and sad than she did just moments ago. “No, baby. You’re Lord Regent. I’m helping you now.”

The tears stop just as suddenly as they began. She wipes her wrist against her face roughly (resentfully) and stands so that they’re the same height again. “But you’re the Empress.”

“I am.” Kali folds her hands very carefully in front of herself. She stands erect, all traces of her exhaustion disappeared. This is careful and exacting, as though she spent time practicing during her voyage home. “And I may appoint whoever I like to rule in my stead. If I were to claim the throne, it might seem more permanent. But your father is going to get better, so your temporary leadership will be reassuring.” It’s said with the kind of demeanor that the Empress might normally use with political allies (established or potential) and not her own family.

It makes Blake bristle with resentment. Even now, in this, she has to be more her title than herself. “And if I don’t want it?”

In an instant, her mom’s expression softens. It’s the look she used to wear when Blake would ask similar questions — about her future, her duty, the parts of herself she has to give up for the sake of everyone else — and it’s still there, curling at the edges of her soft smile, even as her voice remains firm and resolved, saying, “You know we don’t get those kind of choices.”

“You did! You chose to marry dad.”

Blake is raising her voice, she realizes, even though she doesn’t mean to; this isn’t the kind of homecoming she wanted for mom.

“I did.” The softness in her mother’s smile is starting to look strained, even pained. “And we chose to have you, the light of our lives. And in exchange for making something so perfect, we have to give some of you up.”

Blake had been hoping that mom would come back and take this all away from her. She realizes it now, though she had not admitted it to herself. Not until this very moment.

Blake wanted to be herself (with her friends) just a little while longer. It took her so many years to figure out who that girl even is (was), and now she has to give her up again. Nothing is the way it should be — not with her father, with the council, with her friends (with Yang especially) — and she had so hoped that mother was going to be able to fix it all. That’s the way it works when you’re still a child, isn’t it? You fail or you cry and mother comes to make it all better; she explains the darkness and the pain away.

But Blake isn’t a child anymore. Maybe she never really got to be one.

“What do I have to give up?” Blake asks, her voice so soft.

“Too much. I know. It’s not fair.”

When her mom reaches out to touch Blake’s face, to cup her cheek so gently, she wants to swat it aside. She wants to be resentful, to be forceful, to reject the tenderness.

Instead, she sinks into it. The crying starts again.

It doesn’t stop for some time.

*

When it’s finally time to leave the room, Blake takes some moments in the mirror to compose herself again.

She wipes her eyes and scrubs her face to try to work out the blotchiness.

Her mother comes up behind her. She adjusts and strokes Blake’s hair. They smile at each other’s reflections, allowing a few more moments of tender vulnerability before they have to turn back to unrelenting steel and face the court again.

She feels oddly shy, uncertain, until her mom gives both her shoulders a squeeze that is firm and filled with an infinite tenderness at the same time. “You don’t need me. But I’m going to be right here.” She kisses the back of Blake’s head and winks at her reflection in the mirror. “Now come on. Your Empire awaits.”

Blake takes a deep breath (several in fact) and then pulls away from her mother’s embrace.

Her smile back over her shoulder is fleeting but sincere.

And then gone in an instant, replaced with the dignified calm needed for court. When they step through the door, Lord Schnee is waiting on the other side with Weiss beside him.

Both of them look instantly alert when the royal family members join them in the hallway.

Weiss moves closer, as though to reach out and offer Blake some kind of physical comfort, but she hesitates. “You okay? You two were in there a really long time.”

“I’m sure they have important matters of state to discuss, Weiss,” Lord Schnee says, chiding and smug. “Those can certainly take some time.”

“They can,” Blake agrees. “Which is why you should set aside very many hours in your schedule tomorrow for our council meeting. We have a lot to discuss.”

Both Schnees are very obviously surprised that it’s still Blake scheduling the meetings, and both make a (failed) effort to hide that shock.

It’s Jacques who recovers first, practically stammering, “I look forward to all we will accomplish during the many hours.” He looks over at Kali, his mustache twitching with anxious uncertainty. “Now that we have our Empress back, we can make real strides.”

“Actually,” the Empress interjects. If Blake thought her mother’s manner seemed practiced and composed before, this is on an entirely different level of faked calm. “I’ll be joining the council in an advisory capacity, much like yourself, Lord Schnee, but Blake will be retaining her position as Lord Regent until our Emperor awakens.”

His mustache twitches again. “… I see.”

He looks ready to say something more, which is why Blake cuts in, smiling with a swagger and confidence she doesn’t entirely feel (not just now), saying, “This is what we’ve just finished discussing for so long, so as you can imagine I’m no longer interested in hearing debate.”

“And neither is your Empress.”

The confident smile and grin, Blake realizes, is something she’s borrowed from Yang. It suits the whaler so much better. Still, she tries to hold it as she walks away down the hall. “Come on, Weiss. We have things to discuss.”

“And a throne to look at.”

Mom laughs.

So does Blake, but she doesn’t feel it, not really.

She’s thinking about the throne.

*

Blake hasn’t sat on the throne since she was a child.

It felt very different at eight, or even younger. She would sneak away from her tutors, from Weiss, and find the throne room completely empty for once.

The throne was almost too big for her to even sit on then. Her legs dangled over the edge and she thought about the little Empresses and Emperors she has read about before, the ones who took the throne so very (very) young and inexperienced, and wondered what it felt like to sit in a chair that was so clearly built for someone else.

It used to seem fun. She would sneak off to sit there until she reached an age where people might talk if they saw her sitting in her father’s seat. (And they did. Some of the servants, even her friends, would whisper about her when they thought she was not listening.)

So Blake didn’t try it anymore, she didn’t even make believe.

She wanted them to know how much she did not want it. Has never wanted it.

And now it’s hers, and she has no choice.

She has never had very many choices to make for herself.

After father’s injury, his body bleeding on the very same tiles, Blake has avoided the throne room entirely. She has held meetings everywhere else in the Tower with any sense of authority that she can think of.

It does not create a good impression for the current ruler of the Empire to avoid the greatest signifier of her power. She knows that.

But that throne belongs to her father. Sitting in it feels like admitting something she still can’t think to herself with any honesty, let alone say aloud or act on.

Given a choice (any choice), Blake would not sit on that throne.

But it’s not her choice. Not this one either.

*

The blood has been cleared from the floor.

There’s a small part of Blake that wants to kneel down, to carefully examine the imperfections and cracks along the marble, for any traces left behind.

But mom didn’t see it, has no memories of what their Tower looked like on that night, and Blake doesn’t want to ruin that comforting ignorance for her. It’s a kindness, isn’t it, to be the one to carry a burden on your own.

So Blake doesn’t break her stride as she walks past the place where her father lay bleeding; she only spares it a brief glance as she goes.

Instead her eyes are on the throne, with its high arched back and sleek silver sides that slope down into long points, a strange sort of triangle. The cushion looks well worn, but not to the point of disrepair. Her father has had it repaired and renewed many times throughout the years. The throne must look like the station it represents — regal and refined. Somewhat imposing.

The seat is comfortable enough, from what Blake remembers, but her father always said otherwise. “The fabric is fine, but the seat itself is damn near unbearable.” And then he would laugh.

When she listens now, she can almost hear the sound of his laughter as it would reverberate against the high ceilings of the throne room.

Blake runs her fingertips along the right most arm rest. The surface is cool to the touch.

No one has sat in it for days and days.

It sends a chill all the way up her arm, from the tips of her fingertips. She’s not sure if that’s the actual sensation of the cool metal or the feeling of isolation and loneliness that’s settling into her chest as she considers it.

It’s still her father’s seat. She’s only borrowing it for now.

But one day it will be hers.

Nothing can ever change that except for death.

“Are you going to sit?” her mother asks, voice so much softer than the echo of her footsteps as she draws closer.

“… no.” Blake turns to face her, a practiced smile already set on her face. She’s sure that mom won’t mistake it for a real one, but she’ll understand its purpose at least. “Not yet.”

*

In a few days time they will open the Tower to the common people again. They’ll come by the dozens, to register their complaints and make their concerns known. There are set hours in the day when the Emperor sits on his throne and hears the concerns of his people.

That’s Blake’s job now, for as long as it needs to be.

The security needs to be reinforced and fully evaluated. They won’t be installing any walls of light that might be accidentally tripped and result in some innocent evaporating, but General Ironwood has assured her that his newly trained recruits can take over street patrols while the more experienced and senior members of the Watch report back to the Tower to keep an eye on the people coming in and out.

Blake hates the idea of being suspicious of her own citizens, but weren’t the people who attacked her father citizens of Dunwall?

She cannot allow herself to trust anyone or anything now, not fully.

Not even—

*

With the Tower filling up with people soon, this is going to be Blake’s last chance to find Yang on her own. She isn’t actually alone, of course, but it does not matter.

Blake finds Yang when she’s returning from patrol, her jacket half-unbuttoned, surrounded by other members of the Watch. “You’re out of uniform, soldier,” Blake calls, wishing she could ignore the way that her voice cracks.

Yang slows but doesn’t stop. She doesn’t look back.

Yang.”

There are bandages still covering Yang’s hands, all these days later, and she still won’t talk about what she saw. What she feels.

What she did.

It’s too much, and it can’t go on. Maybe Blake’s voice had to crack so that the rest of her could grow firm with resolve. She stands straighter and her voice is more level now, evening out, as she draws closer to the gathered collection of soldiers. The rest of them quickly back away, leaving Yang all on her own — an island. “You won’t walk away from me again.”

It’s not a question and she knows that Yang won’t treat it as one, not with so many other people around to see. If they were actually alone it might be different, but Yang has brought this on herself by refusing to be found anywhere outside a crowd.

She turns slowly, redoing her buttons one at a time, but never breaking eye contact. She doesn’t flinch. “Yes, Highness.”

“We’re going to talk. Now.” Blake doesn’t bother to acknowledge the rest of the Watch members, even as they quickly retreat. A part of her knows that she should; she ought to offer the dismissal in the form of a wave or a smile. But her eyes are locked on Yang. “Alone.”

“You have somewhere in mind?”

Blake turns and walks away, and she expects Yang to follow.

Which she does. Of course she does.

*

Blake leaves a collection of guards waiting outside of the library and then carefully shuts the door. She walks past every aisle with Yang following an ever increasing distance behind, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be lingering amongst the shelves. It’s empty.

They’re alone.

“So.” Yang perches on the edge of the closest table. “You want to talk.” Her eyes are focused on Blake’s face, so intent she’s barely blinking. “About what?”

“… you know what.”

“I guess I do.” Yang’s hands seem to flex on the edge of the table, but it’s impossible to know how hard she’s gripping it through the bandages. “That night?”

“I thought you were dead.” Blake isn’t really sure if she says the words aloud or simply breathes them out, a heavy exhalation of air and feeling. She hasn’t said it to anyone before now, not Ruby or Weiss. She thought that Yang was dead and admitting it makes her feel a little like she’s drowning. “I dug through what was left of the Cat and—” Blake hiccups over her next words, choking on building tears.

Yang jumps up from the table and steps closer. She reaches out but then her hands retreat just as quickly. “I’m fine now.”

Are you?” Blake spits out the words, more angry than she realizes until it’s pouring from her, radiating out.

Yang actually takes a step back. “I’m always fine.”

“What’s wrong with your hands, Yang?”

She doesn’t answer. Of course she doesn’t.

Blake takes a step closer. “You’re always honest, right, that’s what you’ve said.” She’s breathing quickly now, which is at least better than choking. “I want honesty from you. It’s all I’ve wanted.”

“It’s not all you’ve wanted.”

Yang’s hands are shoved deep in her pockets, shoulders tense, as though she’s afraid of what she’ll do with those hands if they aren’t hidden out of the way.

“It’s all I can have.”

Yang blinks. She doesn’t look surprised, not exactly that, but a little caught off-guard. Unprepared. This time it’s her voice that cracks; “You’re a princess. You can have anything you want.”

“You know that I can’t.”

“Do I?”

“Why are you avoiding me, Yang?”

Yang blinks again and looks away, very much avoiding Blake’s gaze. It hurts more than it ought to, which is why she isn’t even thinking when she steps closer again to cup Yang’s jaw and pull her face back toward her.

“… I’m not.”

“You are.”

Yang swallows. “I am.”

“What did you see that night?”

Her heart is beating so fast that Blake can feel the pulse throbbing under her fingertips, but she doesn’t let go. “That man with the red hair. The one from the day we met.”

But then, she does. Blake lets go, almost instinctively, and takes several retreating steps back. Yang follows, like an echo (just as many steps forward), but her hands stay at her side.

“And my father?”

“It was someone else. A woman.” Yang is breathing heavier now too; Blake can hear it in her voice. She wonders if Yang also thinks of this feeling as though it’s like drowning, or does she know the real thing too well. “I’ll give you a description. Anything. I’m sorry, I’ll—”

“You’re sorry?”

Yang goes very still. She swallows. She nods. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t enough. Not for this.”

There is a mixture of fear and resignation in Yang’s eyes that Blake has never seen there before. This woman, who on the first day that Blake met her fought off a crowd after throwing herself from the rooftops, looks genuinely terrified at the idea of Blake not offering her forgiveness. “… then what?”

“You’re going to tell me everything.”

The answer doesn’t come as quickly as Blake wants or expects. At first, Yang just stares at her, wide-eyed in a way that doesn’t make sense. Uncertain and scared, yes, but something else too.

And then she begins unbuttoning her uniform.

“Everything,” she says, and peels away the jacket before dropping it on the floor. Yang takes several retreating steps back, moving in between two shelves until she almost disappears from view. Blake follows, moving quickly.

Blake’s heart is beating so very, very fast that she’s sure Yang must see the pulse throbbing in her forehead. She must notice the way Blake’s breathing grows even more audible, pronounced, when Yang starts unbuttoning the shirt as well, stripping down to the tank top underneath.

Only that and the bandages.

But there’s something strange about those bandages and Blake feels herself pull her gaze away from the rest of Yang — the curve of her muscular shoulders or the tautness of her left arm as she moves, the rotation of her hips and back — as she begins to unravel the wrappings to reveal—

Blake doesn’t know what it is she’s looking at.

Darkness like the back of your eyelids. Emptiness like a festering wound. Where Yang’s arm should be, there is solid rock, unyielding and unnatural. Blake can’t look away from it, can hardly blink, even as she feels a slick sickness setting into her stomach at just the sight of it.

She doesn’t know how much time has passed since Yang revealed this to her, showed her a glimpse of the darkest parts of the universe, but eventually Blake finds her voice again, rasping softly, “Yang, what—”

That’s all she can manage. And it has to be enough.

It is, it must be, because Yang is drawing close again, though she carefully keeps both her hands far back, away from touching Blake. “You know who did this.”

“That night?”

There is no answer at first, so Blake has to (finally) look away from Yang’s arm to watch her face, to see her nod, and to register all the pain that’s there. All those feelings she must have been keeping inside all these days are there, clear in her eyes. It’s like staring directly into the sun, or sinking deep underwater.

Yang is still so much like drowning.

“What has he done to you?”

“I don’t know.” Yang is staring down at her own arm now. A frown locks in place on her features, set just as firmly as the rock itself. “Nothing good.” She laughs, but it sounds so horrible; not her normal laugh at all. “I didn’t want you to know. You don’t need any more burdens. I’m supposed to help with those, and I—”

“You are not a burden.”

“Nah, just a blasphemy.”

Yang begins to reapply the bandages, but Blake moves to stop her, one hand on top of the other. They both still. “This isn’t a burden you should carry alone.” She tries to smile, to pretend that things are still a joke; that they’re still the kind of young where they can make jokes about anything at all. “You don’t know that I would help you with this? Some monster you must think I am.”

Yang’s grip on the bandages goes limp under Blake’s touch. Blake peels it off again. She drops it to the side.

For a moment, however briefly, Yang’s grin almost seems sincere. “I’m the worst.”

“You are.”

“Really out of uniform too…”

Blake’s eyebrows raise. She stakes a small step closer and her hand moves along with it, drifting higher. “I can’t believe you thought you could keep this a secret,” she says, her fingers hovering just above the solid black Void rock of Yang’s arm. She begins at the wrist and travels all the way up until she reaches the soft flesh of her shoulder and the varied firmness of the muscle underneath.

Yang lets out a huff of warm breath, a sound that’s a mixture of exasperation and fondness. “The alternative is actual death.”

Blake’s fingers touch down now, feeling over the rough edges. It’s so cold, which is strange when the rest of Yang feels so warm it’s like she gives heat off in waves extending outward from the denseness of her torso.

Blake looks up and she frowns. “From who?”

“From the Abbey! You know, the one you technically serve.”

“I don’t serve anyone. I’m the Lord Regent and one day I’ll be the Empress,” Blake says with no small amount of heat. She isn’t sure who she’s trying to convince more: Yang or herself. “They’re the ones who serve me.” Her fingers settle even more firmly against Yang’s arm — it is her arm, after all, however different — and encircle it firmly, grasping at her wrist and even pulling, just a little. “You understand that, don’t you?”

Yang’s eyes jerk down to Blake’s mouth. Blake definitely notices that.

Then they drift even further down, to the way Blake’s hand is on her arm. “Do I understand service to the future Empress?” Blake licks her lips and Yang licks her own reflexively, like a mirror. “Is that what you’re asking me, Your Highness?’

Blake takes a step forward and Yang takes a step back. She collides with the bookshelf behind her.

They should be careful. This is all too public.

Yang needs to put her arm away and Blake needs to take a step back.

Instead she takes another step forward, right into Yang’s personal space — right against Yang entirely. “I’m asking—”

She cuts herself off. One hand is on Yang’s right arm, the other is on her left hip. They both know what she’s asking. She doesn’t have to say it, does she?

She can’t say it. (Can she?)

There are so many emotions on Yang’s face, fighting for a position. She’s always fighting, never resting, and even now there’s something almost strained to her voice when she finally says, “Yes.”

Blake doesn’t wait any longer for Yang to change her mind.

With another step that’s more like a lunge, she’s kissing Yang, pushing her back into the bookshelf. It rattles and Blake’s hand moves from Yang’s hip to grip the shelf instead, steadying herself as she pushes up onto her toes.

Like an echo, following after but delayed, both Yang’s hands are on Blake’s hips. She grips her (firmly) and even lifts a little, pulling Blake further into the kiss.

Their weight shifts, just slightly, and they sway against the shelf again.

Yang laughs and mumbles against Blake’s mouth, “Shit, that— wait, hold on.” They break apart for a moment and Yang grabs the book directly behind her, a bit too large to fit the shelf, and puts it on its side further down and out of the way. “There.” She turns back to Blake with a grin. “Sorry about that. Where were we?”

It’s so endearing.

“I think we were at your mouth…” Blake wishes that Yang was still in her jacket — the uniform she has always looked so very good in — so she could use it to pull her closer. She settles instead for a hand tugging at the back of Yang's neck, curling in her hair. “… and my mouth.”

Yang grins from ear to ear. “Important meeting. Right.”

“Critical importance. The fate of the Empire depends on it.”

“Wow, I knew I was good, but I didn’t know that good.” Yang wiggles her eyebrows and kisses Blake for a second time.

It’s even better than the first.

*

Blake has never dreamed of anything like this happening before. She’s never allowed herself to really consider or want this for herself, to want much of anything just for her in a way that’s entirely selfish. The entire realm will one day be hers, but none of it is meant for her and her alone, not really. It’s all for the Empire, isn’t it, and anything she claims for herself is something she’s going to have to let go of one day.

After Adam and everything that she saw, daydreaming felt selfish, like the ambitions of a child. Instead she tried to focus on the future of the Empire. It was the mature response, wasn’t it, to set her own wants and ambitions aside.

All of that cold and calm resolve just slips away so fast, pulled out with the momentum that Yang carries with her, like a swelling tide. Doesn’t Blake deserve to want something, if only for a little while?

Because Blake realizes it, clear and sharp: she wants Yang.

Not only as her friend, but as something all her own. This moment, right now, is entirely its own thing, belonging just to them. They are sailing into uncharted waters of ignored responsibilities, claiming another destiny. Even if it’s (inevitably) brief, it’s beautiful.

Now all that earlier avoidance feels almost brilliant. Because now that this is happening — whatever it is, she doesn’t dare think about it for too long, thinking would only give her reasons to stop and she does not want to stop — Blake realizes that it’s better that her imagination hasn’t had any part in this. Because Yang is better than she could have dreamed her to be.

She’s better than anything.

Blake takes a small step back and Yang follows, but leaves her room. It’s like dancing, and Blake can’t help but wonder if they dance the same kind of dances in the slums as they do at court. Or has Yang learned these movements, this physical sort of partnership, some other way?

Blake blushes (deeply), but hopes that Yang doesn’t notice. “Come on.” She takes Yang’s left hand and gives it a firm squeeze. “I have somewhere we can go.” She laughs at the slightly startled look on Yang’s face. “To talk, I mean. I want to know everything else there is to know about…” She nods in indication of Yang’s arm and the mark on her hand. “All of it.” She pauses, considering. “And then I would like to kiss you more.”

Yang licks her lips and leans a little closer, like she intends to skip right to the end, but Blake takes a step to the side. She scoops up Yang’s jacket in the same fluid movement, tossing it behind her (and right at Yang’s face). The shirt follows after.

“And you’re out of uniform, my royal protector!” Blake tsks and purses her lips in mock concern when she looks back at Yang over her shoulder. “You will not disgrace the crown like this again.”

Yang’s attention is focused on buttoning her shirt, taking great care to completely conceal the markings, but she takes a moment to look up at Blake. She grins the kind of knowing grin she loves to use. Yang bites her lip and shakes her hair back from her face. She cocks her hip out and raises her eyebrows in a concerned look exaggerated enough to match Blake’s own. “As you wish, Your Highness.” She hesitates and the eyebrows begin to drift back down, settling into an expression that’s much more overtly amused. “But… I might do better with your help.”

“Might you?”

Yang looks down at her mostly buttoned shirt and then back up again. “… yes?”

Blake doesn’t really need to be asked twice. She doubles back to Yang’s end of the aisle and gently sets the jacket aside so that she can focus on buttoning one article of clothing at a time. “What would you do without me?” she chides, teasing, but there’s a look that passes over Yang’s face that says she’s thought about it before — that she has an answer.

But she bites it back.

Finishing the remaining few buttons on the shirt happens quickly enough, despite Blake’s best efforts to linger. From this close, she can smell that distinct aroma that always makes her think of Yang, like it’s forever caught up in her hair. Maybe it’s only her imagination, but Blake could swear that she smells sunshine and sea brine.

She finishes the button at Yang’s throat, but allows her touch to remain a little longer, so close to the other woman’s pulse point. Despite the grin, the swagger, and teasing, Yang’s heart is pounding so hard right now.

Blake can’t resist her impulse — in fact she does not want to try — to press a relatively chaste kiss against the corner of Yang’s mouth. Then another (and another) all along her jaw. Making a path with her tongue and then just the very edges of her teeth, she traces the way to Yang’s ear and giggles softly, an exhalation of warm air.

“That’s better, isn’t it?” Blake whispers.

When Yang actually gulps, Blake can feel it under her touch. Her entire body feels the way that all of Yang reacts to her touch, how they sway slightly against each other. “… yes, Your Highness,” she rasps.

Yang flexes her hands but doesn’t move otherwise.

She licks her lips, but doesn’t say anything more, even once Blake begins putting on the uniform jacket as the final touch. One button and then the next, she puts it carefully into place, straightening the collar with a few light tugs to adjust. “You know what you’re meant to call me.”

They lock eyes and they both smile, almost instantaneous. “… yes, Blake.”

“Come on. You owe me answers.”

Yang nods and takes a very small step closer, leading with her hips so that they bump into Blake as she moves past. “And you owe me a couple kisses, right?”

“A pretty fair trade, I think.”

“It seems to me like you might be getting the better end of the bargain.”

Blake smiles at Yang, mostly soft but just the slightest bit wicked. “Well, if you really think that, Yang, I could always repay you in some other—”

“Nope!” Yang turns to walk away quickly, like that will make this the final word on the matter. “We already decided! Verbal handshake.”

“But I could pay you in all sorts of things, if you’re interested.”

“Not listening!”

“Would you like to hear a list?”

*

There is a secret room hidden adjacent to Blake’s bedroom.

Secret, that is, except to members of the royal family. It has belonged to the Belladonnas for generations. At times, the room has served as a sort of panic room, to escape insurrection. More often than not, it’s a private place to escape from the difficulties of leadership.

A place to go and hide when you want to pretend to be a girl like anyone else.

The door only opens by a special mechanism activated by a ring bearing the family crest that Blake wears on a necklace. The reveal of the crest, its purpose, and the complex mechanics of the door opening was intended as a grand surprise and Blake was genuinely looking forward to watching Yang’s reaction.

She did not anticipate the response that the bedroom itself would elicit.

As soon as they’re through the door, Yang is backing up into it. “… this is your bedroom.”

Blake blinks at the room and then over at Yang. “What was the first clue?”

“The bed!” Yang points. “It’s right there.”

“… it is.”

“You didn’t say the secret place where we were going to behave and mostly talk is your bedroom.”

“I never said behave.”

“It was heavily implied.”

Blake really wants to make sense of this objection and what exactly is bothering Yang. She folds her arms and frowns in thought. “Have you really never seen my room before?”

“No more than a couple glimpses from the hallway.”

“It’s just a room.”

“The room where you sleep.” Yang gestures at the opulence around them without breaking eye contact. “And it’s way different from anywhere I’ve slept before.”

Suddenly it all clicks into place.

The room, its extravagance and many indicators of vast wealth, is a clear signifier of who Blake is and why they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. It didn’t register that way with her because she’s so used to the silk sheets and the overflowing mound of far too many pillows, but obviously it’s a sticking point to Yang.

They are very different, in so very many ways, and they shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s not the room, the wealth, or even the title that tells Blake how much of a mistake this all is. It’s the way that she feels when she looks at Yang, even now. Especially now, after they’ve kissed and she can’t stop noticing the way that Yang’s mouth moves.

That’s how she knows she’s in so much trouble.

“Well… we’re not sleeping,” Blake continues on, as if this isn’t a terrible idea. “And we’re not staying in here either.”

“Is that deliberately this ominous or is it just a coincidence?”

Blake sighs. “Could you just— I was going to show you something really cool, and I still want to, but I think the moment’s a little ruined now, and—”

Yang instantly straightens and steps away from the door. “Hey, no, you should show me.” The grin fits back onto her face so quickly — and Blake is not staring at her mouth, no she’s not (but she is) — when she says, “How cool are we talking? Like as cool as me?”

It’s clear that this is mostly a gesture, the kind of thing that Yang does all the time to make other people feel good (especially when people means Blake, it seems), but how transparent and obvious it is only makes it more endearing.

“Oh, only almost,” Blake says, walking back toward the door to take Yang by the hand.

She had planned this as a dramatic affair — walking ahead to reveal the location of the hidden exit, the panel that unlocks it, the crest, and finally the door opening as one exciting surprise after the other — best viewed from a distance. But now that idea seems absolutely absurd.

It’s so much better to be holding Yang’s hand as the gears begin to turn.

Considering the age of the hidden door and its robotics, it’s still incredibly impressive. From one look at Yang’s face, Blake can tell that she’s thinking how Ruby would appreciate and then spend hours deconstructing this. She gives Yang a small nudge with her shoulder. “Thinking about Ruby?”

“Definitely.”

That’s so endearing too.

Blake is in so much trouble.

*

There’s a comfortable bed, some chairs, and a few decorations hung along the walls. There are drawings she made as a young girl of all sorts of things: Dunwall’s winding streets, her father’s smile, and even Weiss’s most exasperated expression. The drawings that once hung there of Adam, she burned long ago. Alongside the art are posters advertising various events at the museums and concert halls across the Empire.

“Did you go to all of these?” Yang asks, her eyes scanning the walls.

“Only some.” Blake shrugs. She realizes that she’s spending more time looking at Yang (her reactions) than she is the posters themselves, but tries not to think too much of it. She’s seen the room so many times before, but Yang’s response to it is entirely new. That’s all this is. “Some of them were on the other islands, when mother and father were traveling.”

“You didn’t travel?”

“It isn’t safe for more than two members of the royal family to travel together at the same time at sea,” Blake says, realizing how ridiculous it sounds before all of the words have even finished leaving her mouth. “But sometimes I went,” she adds quickly, not at all liking the look on Yang’s face that clearly looks (and feels) like pity. “Usually when father was busy with court. Mom and I spent half a summer in Serkonos once.”

Yang isn’t looking at the wall at all anymore. Her eyes are locked on Blake’s face. “I’ve never been,” she says, almost casually. Her posture is open and relaxed, elbows out and hands in her pockets. She smiles and tilts her head. “What’s it like?”

“Sunny all the time. I think you’d like it.”

“Yeah?” Yang laughs softly. “And why’s that?”

“Because you’re sunny all the time.” That’s not true and Blake realizes it the instant she says it. Yang isn’t always as bright as she seems, isn’t always happy, even discounting the blackness of the Void rock that’s now a permanent part of her. “Or, well—” She shrugs, feeling a little helpless in search of the right words, but Yang is still so relaxed (even leaning into the wall now). “That’s how you make me feel.”

“Like how it hurts when you’re squinting right into the sun?”

Blake laughs, and it’s just so easy. She can see something start to unravel inside of Yang, in response to her laughter. A tension that’s releasing. “Something like that.” She moves toward Yang, one step after another. “You still owe me explanations.”

“I thought I was getting a tour first.”

“Do you want one?”

“I do, actually.” Yang pushes away from the wall. “But it can wait.”

They’re only a few steps apart now, and Yang moves to meet her halfway through the rest. They stop just inches away from one another.

Yang’s gaze darts quickly from Blake’s eyes to her mouth, then back up. She smiles. “This room’s not as fancy as the real bedroom.”

“Yeah.”

“So why is there an extra bed in here?”

Blake honestly can’t tell if Yang is expecting some kind of a flirtatious response or if this is intended as part of the tour; she decides to settle on honesty. “If there’s a lengthy coup, I’m supposed to live in here for a while.”

Yang’s eyes leave Blake’s face long enough to take the room in one more time. “… it’s a lot smaller when you put it that way.”

“Yeah.”

“So I guess we’ll just have to keep you safe and in your much nicer bed.” Yang’s eyes land back on Blake’s. They actually do look brighter when she smiles at her like this — so much like the sun. “Even if I think I might like this room better.”

“It suits you more.”

“Oh, yeah?” Yang licks her lips. “Why, because it’s crappy?”

Blake shakes her head and tries very hard not to look down at Yang’s mouth. (She does anyway and Yang grins like she notices.) “No,” she says, feeling heat rise in her cheeks. “Because you’re comfy.”

“Like an old shoe.”

“My favorite shoe,” Blake says, her entire voice feeling warmer now too, to match the heat rising in her chest.

“Wow, such a compliment.”

“I don’t flatter you, my royal protector.” Blake reaches out to very carefully and precisely make adjustments around Yang’s jacket. “Only the truth.” First it’s the sleeves, carefully adjusting the length of each to match. Then the buttons along the front of the coat, running her fingers over each and every one. “… you deserve the truth.”

Yang makes a noise deep in her throat. It’s part grunt, part half-expectant sound. Like an unvoiced question.

Blake finishes at the jacket collar, fingertips lingering on the skin of Yang’s throat. “We’re always honest with each other, aren’t we?”

“… not about everything.”

The words vibrate directly under her touch and Blake swallows. “No?”

Yang shakes her head, but only a little, like she’s afraid of pushing Blake’s touch away.

“You can tell me now, you know.” Blake’s hand starts to move again, drifting up to the sharp ridge of Yang’s jaw, along the planes of her face. “It won’t leave the confines of our safe room.”

“Our—”

“The royal family’s, I mean,” Blake answers (much too quickly). “Obviously.”

“Mmhm.” Her hand continues its slow inspection of Yang’s face and Blake giggles once she reaches the nose and begins sliding down it. Yang’s nose actually wiggles in response. “Okay, that… tickles.”

Blake’s eyes narrow. “Are you ticklish?”

“I guess my nose is.”

“But not the rest of you?”

Yang lifts a lazy eyebrow and Blake sketches a finger over it, once and then a second time until Yang laughs. “You can try to find out.”

“I thought there was going to be more kissing.”

Yang looks surprised, both eyebrows lifting now. “Well, you know. You’re still… a princess.”

“I do know that.”

Yang nods, like that means something.

So Blake prompts further. “And because of that?”

“… I’m trying to be polite.”

Blake lets out a laugh that’s tinged by a huff of faint exasperation. “Your service to your Empire has been duly noted.” She studies Yang’s face for an instant, finding the same amount of want there that she feels inside herself. She doesn’t hesitate. “Now shut up, and kiss me.”

Her hands move back down to the jacket, taking hold of Yang by the collar and pulling just as she wanted to before.

It really is best when Yang is properly in uniform.

*

Eventually they get back around to the conversation about that night before, lying on the bed a careful few inches apart to avoid further temptation. The details are important and Blake wants to be able to focus.

Apparently Yang’s entire idea of hiding her identity so far has consisted of wearing bandages for the rest of her life and hiding her face with a bandana. “So you haven’t actually thought it through,” Blake concludes. “At all.”

“I was really stressed!”

“You have so much hair.”

“Is that an insult or a compliment? Because I can’t tell.”

Blake laughs, only a little bit exasperated. “It’s a fact, Yang! You can’t just cover your jaw and expect nobody to recognize that hair.” She hesitates, trying to picture it. “… you have really nice eyes too.”

She doesn’t have to look over to know that Yang is grinning from ear to ear. Blake can hear it in her voice when she says, “Yours aren’t so bad either, Highness.”

“Shut up.” Blake feels warmth in her cheeks and thinks Yang can probably see her blushing. “You were really holding yourself back before, huh? So many compliments now.”

“You could hold me back, if you want to,” Yang says, her voice suddenly so low that Blake can barely hear her over the sounds of the bed creaking softly. “Or I could hold you—”

“We’re supposed to be planning!”

Blake abruptly sits up, as if that’s somehow safer.

It feels like it is, being upright and in control and at least a few more inches away from Yang’s mouth and the way she’s making her voice dip like that — in a way that Blake can actually feel in her stomach.

Yang looks like she wants to say something else, to make some small joke, but then she’s watching Blake’s face and holds all of them in. Blake must look even more panicked than she means to, because all Yang settles on is, “So no to the bandana.” She sits up now too, very lightly (tentatively) nudging Blake with her shoulder. “You got a better idea, princess?”

“I might.”

Yang’s version of events doesn’t entirely make sense. Some of it is clear enough: Adam was there. She explains all of that quickly, as if speed will make it feel lighter when it strikes Blake squarely in the chest. It doesn’t, not at all, but she appreciates the care Yang is trying to take with her.

Even if it’s impossible to not feel some (a lot of) guilt when Yang told her that Adam is the one who did this to her.

When she spoke about it, Yang’s left hand had clenched into a fist. Blake took it in her own, gently, their fingers twining together, and she could feel Yang relaxing at her side. When she resumed talking, her voice was softer again, calmer.

But this is where it becomes confusing. Yang was rescued from the blast by someone in a mask, who she didn’t recognize. Then an entirely different someone, also in a mask, decided to assist her in storming the Tower and fighting off so many heavily armed invaders.

Blake finds it a little difficult to believe.

“The man in the mask,” she finally says, studying Yang’s face for reaction. “Did you know him?”

“… well, I said that I didn’t.”

“I know.” Blake doesn’t even blink. “But was that true?”

Yang draws her knees up toward her chest. Her bandaged right hand picks (idly) at a spot on her pant leg. “… you think I’m lying?”

“I think you’re protecting someone. That’s what you do.” She reaches out to put her hand on top of Yang’s, stilling the movements. The rough edges of the faintly skeletal hand can still be felt through the bandages, but Yang’s movements are so gentle, so tentative and soft, as she turns her hand to take hold of Blake’s. “And I like that about you, Yang. But you can trust me.”

They sit in silence, just like that, for what feels like a very long time. Blake doesn’t mind it really. She does trust Yang, even after everything — more than before, if that’s possible — and she knows she’ll come around to the truth eventually.

In the end, it doesn’t even take that long.

“… it was my Uncle.” They squeeze each other’s hands almost simultaneously. “I think the Outsider claimed him a really long time ago.”

Blake wonders what a long time is to someone like the Outsider or how time even passes in the Void. She wants to ask so many more questions about the Void and what it’s like to walk through the darkness beyond human understanding, but Yang does not seem to be in the mood to discuss it now or even anytime very soon.

All that she asks aloud is, “Do you know where he got the mask?”

“… no.”

“But you can ask.” She pauses and then, off Yang’s blank look, repeats, “You can ask, right?”

“I hadn’t thought about it.”

Blake lets out a fond but flustered sigh. “Yang! This is serious.” This time she nudges Yang’s shoulder first. “Well, what did Ruby say?”

Yang looks surprised by the question. “She doesn’t know.”

Blake quickly realizes what that means. “I’m the first person you’ve told.”

“Well, yeah.”

“But you told me so easily.”

“It’s been a whole week.”

“I asked and you told me,” Blake keeps pushing. “The first time we were alone, you told me.”

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“I’ve never lied to you,” Yang says, like it’s a simple answer. Like it’s everything.

“That can’t be true.”

But it feels like it is. In all the time that Blake has known Yang, everything she says feels like the entire unguarded truth.

Almost everything.

“It is.”

“There are things you don’t say.”

Yang meets her gaze and it’s so clear in that moment that they’re both thinking about precisely the same thing. Those things that Yang doesn’t say. “Not speaking about things isn’t the same as a lie.”

“It can be. It’s close enough.”

“Then I’m sorry,” Yang says, softly, like it’s simple.

They both know that it isn’t. It’s never been that simple. “So say it now.”

Yang doesn’t answer this time. At first, she doesn’t move at all. Her eyes are locked on Blake’s, only staring. Eventually, she shakes her head, just the slightest movement.

“Why not?”

“You’re a princess,” Yang says as though that’s the end of the conversation.

And it is.

Blake can’t push her anymore than that, not with this. “You should tell your sister,” she says instead. “She’d be a big help, and she deserves to know.”

“I’m not going to risk her life.”

She nudges Yang again. “But you’ll risk mine?”

“That’s different.” Yang waves her hand dismissively. “There’s no way they’re going to execute the princess. And besides, I’m already worrying about you now. I don’t need two of you.”

Blake shakes her head, almost automatically. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Too late. It’s been two years already.” Blake must make a face, without even realizing, because Yang quickly adds, “Oh, come on, you probably worry about me too.”

She does. That’s true, and the realization registers as a small shock. “… yes. I guess I do.”

“So it’s fine. We can worry about each other.”

Yang gives her another nudge, and Blake lightly sways with it, away and then back. When it’s Yang, she always comes back. “Sure.” It’s like that. Easy. “But you should still tell your sister.”

Yang groans but doesn’t continue to argue, at least not out loud.

*

That night when Blake goes to bed in the very bedroom connected to her escape room, she can’t help but stare at the wall that conceals it.

She usually doesn’t think about it there on the other side, but now it’s all that she can think or see. She looks at the antique wood paneling and pictures what she knows exists just behind it. She can see it all so clearly — but more than that, she sees Yang inside there with her. Not just the posters and the small mementos from her childhood, but Yang walking amongst them, reaching out to gently touch.

For a whaler, she is always (still) so gentle when she touches, fingers running over the edge of the spare bed, twisting over and around the folds of the sheets. Dipping along the soft curve of the mattress.

Blake can just see her now, the way Yang’s body had uncurled, those taut muscles more relaxed than she’s ever seen her when she had unbuttoned the front of the jacket again and grinned, saying, “I’m trying not to get any wrinkles,” before spreading out along the bed.

Shut her eyes even now, and Blake can see the curve of Yang’s neck when she gazed up at the ceiling and how her hair fanned out against the pillow. She opens her eyes again and stares at the empty pillow lying beside her.

The room feels so large, so empty now, as it never has before.

Blake knows that she is in trouble, very big trouble, and worst of all she’s not sure that she cares. Eventually, she falls asleep and she dreams of sailing out to sea with Yang and the others at her side, the wind in their hair. In her dream they sprawl out on their backs above deck and watch the sky change color as the sun slowly sets.

Yang touches her arm, fingertips drifting (gently) along the crook of her elbow and then points to the stars in the sky, explaining which ones can be used to guide you home in the dark. Blake hears a sound, low and distant, like a single drawn out groan, but imagines it must be the wood beneath their heads creaking.

Buried deep within her own dream logic, she doesn’t consider the fact that the sound seems to be coming from somewhere high overhead in the darkness of the night sky itself.

*

The next day, Blake wakes to very early morning sunlight streaming through her windows and the sound of activity in the hallway. She dresses quickly, fighting off a yawn, and steps out her door as she’s still shrugging her long jacket on.

Servants move quickly through the hallways, some carrying sacks of food and supplies and others burdened by many sheaves of paper. Blake steps into the way of one of those quickly moving past, intercepting him with a faint smile already on her face. “Excuse me…”

He looks very alarmed, which is probably to be expected. “Your Highness!”

“Yes, good morning.” She forces the smile even wider. “Could you tell me what all the commotion is?”

“The Empress, Miss.”

He points back down the hallway to her parents’ bedroom door, behind which her father’s unconscious body still rests.

Where is mother sleeping?

Blake had been so caught up with her own concerns — not even concerns, her own fun and desires really — to consider what her mother must be going through in these first twenty-four hours back in Dunwall. “Yes,” she murmurs, a feeling of sinking resignation settling deep into her bones. It’s almost a familiar friend by now. “Thank you.”

The servant nods, then adds on a hasty bow, and quickly retreats back to his work.

She doesn’t bother to turn her head to watch him go. Her eyes are fixed now on the doorway she’s walked toward so many times before. Blake knows every imperfection in the paint by heart. The carpeting in the hallway has one particular divot, faint but there, from the way the toe of Blake’s boot has worn it down with frequent pacing or stubbing her toe against it over and over as she anxiously waited for her parents to finish discussing some punishment. Usually for climbing something she shouldn’t or trying to sneak out.

It’s familiar.

Even the guards at the door are men she recognizes, though they don’t seem to acknowledge her presence with the same light smile that she’s used to. Nobody is treating her like a little princess anymore. (Nobody except for her father’s council, of course.) Blake isn’t that. Not now. She doesn’t get to be that girl again, and maybe she never really was her. Just the illusion of it. A temporary resting place.

But now she’s set off on her life’s long voyage, destination inevitable.

Blake had always wanted to set out on adventure, but this isn’t the kind of thing she’d had in mind. She stops in front of the door and notices the way both the guards avoid looking at her too directly. They nod, then retreat several steps to the side and out of the way.

They want no part of this particular kind of family reunion. It’s as if they’re concerned with even being somewhere in their eyeline once the doors have opened, for fear the negative associations might stick.

Blake allows herself a few moments to catch her breath. To remind herself how to breath.

She takes a long breath in, then out.

She opens the door. It’s just a crack at first, but the momentum carries it the rest of the way, pulled out of Blake’s hand so that she’s left standing there, blinking and unprepared.

There is nothing that could have prepared her.

Not to see her father, still looking so strangely fragile, with his massive hand clasped between both of her mother’s much smaller ones. His eyes are still closed, but it looks so oddly peaceful. Like a very long dream.

When mom turns her head to look it seems clear from the shadows under her eyes that she hasn’t slept at all. She blinks, squinting in the light from the hallway. The curtains are all drawn and the bedroom is so terribly dark.. “… Blake?”

“Mom.”

She lets the door shut behind her and the room plunges further into darkness.

There is only the candlelight beside the bed and a small amount of filtered sunlight that passes in through the thick curtains. Blake wonders for a moment — more than that, for several seconds at least — if she should be worried about both parents instead of only one.

But then her mother stands. She smiles. Although obviously still exhausted, her demeanor seems natural enough. Believable. “I’m sorry, honey, I just couldn’t sleep.” She brushes the hair back from Blake’s face, her smile shifting into something smaller but with greater tenderness. “I thought I’d be useful, as best I could, until I could doze off. But I guess we woke you with all the commotion, huh?”

“Mom, it’s … morning.”

Mom frowns and looks over at the window as if only now realizing how late it is. So late, in fact, that it’s become early. “… oh.”

“I think you need some rest, mom.”

She purses her lips and looks back over at Blake. (Her eyes very carefully skip right past father’s unmoving body when she turns he head.) “I can’t do it. I can’t sleep in that bed with him, like everything is normal.”

“So use my bed, mom.” Blake reaches quickly, almost impulsively, to give her mom’s elbow a squeeze. “It’s fine.”

“I’m not going to leave him.”

“So we’ll have someone come by. Weiss or someone.”

It’s as if she’s already considered all of these options, and found them wanting — maybe she really has — because she answers again so quickly. “No, you’re going to need her to advise you today.” Mom shakes her head with almost too much enthusiasm, swaying slightly. Her hands move out, quickly, to take hold of Blake at the elbows. It’s only then that Blake realizes just how much exhaustion her mother is fighting off. “I was going to help you too.”

“I know, mom. And you really are!” Her voice is so strained, but she hopes it only sounds that way to Blake’s own ears, not to her mother. She doesn’t need anything else to worry about. “But that’s why I need you to get some rest.” Not just strained, but pleading. Blake knows that her voice sounds like she’s pleading. “I’ll have someone else come by.”

Who?”

“Yang,” Blake bursts out before she even realizes she’s considering it.

But it does feel right somehow.

So right in fact that even mom doesn’t question it. She only nods, leaning even more of her weight on Blake’s shoulder.

“Come on, mom.”

She’ll have to inform Yang of her duties for the day in a moment. For now, Blake leads her mother back the way she came: down the hallway to her bedroom, where she draws the curtains until it’s as dark as their room had been and prepares the bed to tuck her mother in.

*

Blake decides to carry out the rest of the day as she and her mother had planned.

First she has to locate Yang.

Blake finds her with Ruby, the two of them talking about something complex enough that it requires Ruby to use a book as further illustration and explanation. They both look up when they hear Blake coming.

Both of them smile, but Yang’s is a little (a lot) more wicked than Ruby’s.

It sobers slightly when she catches something slipping through in the look on Blake’s face. Yang stands up straighter, tilting her head. “What’s up?”

“I’m sorry, are you off today?”

Ruby shoots a confused look between them but Yang doesn’t acknowledge it. She steps away from the book and draws closer to Blake. “Whatever it is, let me help.”

“I thought you were on duty,” Blake explains, apologetic. “I was going to reassign you, but—”

“Stop being difficult.” Yang stops right in front of Blake. Her eyes are so open and trusting, but tinged with the same concern that’s there in the rest of her expression. Her head tilts again. “Tell me what you need.”

“Someone to watch over dad while he’s sleeping.”

“Done.”

Ruby jumps up, waving her book back and forth. “Oh, I can come too!” She folds the book shut, using her index finger to mark her place. “Do you think your dad would be interested in hearing my thoughts on gas emissions from the use of whaling oil? I think it might be having an overall impact beyond air quality.”

“It’ll definitely help if he needs something to keep him asleep.”

Blake grabs Yang’s hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. “I’ll speak to someone about adjusting your schedule. Make sure that you’re paid for today.”

“I’m not doing this for work.”

“Yeah, Blake! Friends help each other out for free.” Ruby pauses. “Or for food. We also help for food.”

Blake’s smile is so sudden and genuine, tender in a way that matches the swelling of affection she feels whenever she’s with them. “I’ll make sure someone brings food by for both of you. Extra cookies.”

Ruby pumps her fist in celebration and Yang gives Blake’s hand one more squeeze before departing.

Maybe the whole day will be this easy.

*

It isn’t.

But it could be much worse.

Weiss is there for support and suggestions. They discuss the flow of foot traffic and how it will proceed from the gates to the throne room. They anticipate more citizens than usual on those first few days after reopening the gates. So many are going to want reassurance after the chaos and the panic, and certainly there are going to be people with vital concerns, economic or otherwise.

There is also the risk of someone being inspired and emboldened by the attack.

Weiss leads Blake and Officer Nikos on a tour of the halls, pointing to locations that she considers particularly vulnerable to exploitation or attack. “This door here,” she says dramatically and points as if it were somehow unclear that she means the only door that they’re facing. “It leads to a stairwell down into the kitchens.” Blake and Officer Nikos exchange a look; neither really seems to know what Weiss is getting at. She sighs, one of the long suffering ones. “There are knives in the kitchen. Many, many knives.”

“… oh.” Officer Nikos looks at Blake again, but then quickly back to Weiss. “You think we should station someone at every possible kitchen entrance? Because of knives.”

You were stabbed,” Weiss says with a heat in her voice that surprises Blake. “Yes, I think we should guard the kitchen.”

The Officer shifts so quickly. Her stance relaxes and her expression softens. “I wasn’t stabbed by a knife from our kitchens. No one here is to blame.” Her smile is tender (reassuring) in a way that makes Blake think suddenly (sharply) of how Yang looks at her.

Oh.

Blake looks from the Officer, to Weiss, and then back again. Oh.

“… blade safety is a very good idea, Weiss,” Blake manages to say, eventually. “I’m sure that Pyrrha appreciates the suggestion. The two of you should talk about it more. Sometime later today.” Weiss looks ready to object, so Blake hastily adds, “After the council meeting.”

Weiss purses her lips and says nothing else. She doesn’t have a good argument for that, and they both know it.

Blake manages to at least hide the pleased smile from her face.

For her own part, Blake thinks that Pyrrha might be turning redder than usual, but she is careful to walk just ahead of them now, so it’s impossible to be sure.

*

The council meeting in the afternoon drags on much longer than anyone would like, but Blake takes comfort in the knowledge that the three men are so clearly annoyed by having to go over all these details at length. Blake has come to realize that they are accustomed to their ideas going unquestioned at meetings like this. Ever since she started attending, their moods have become increasingly antagonistic.

Now that she’s in charge, their annoyance is barely contained at all.

There is something strangely satisfying about knowing that, Blake must admit, but it doesn’t make for a very productive schedule and certainly she would prefer to trust the people who are meant to be advising her. It’s strange to think that her father has been receiving suggestions about how to run his Empire from these men for so many years. So much of what they believe seems self-serving rather than working toward the benefit of all.

Is it any surprise that the city is the way that it is?

When her dad wakes up, Blake is going to have a long talk with with him about the members of his council. She considers whether or not she should have someone compile that list of possible replacements after all. Perhaps even before her father wakes up. In fact, after a few more meetings listening to Lord Schnee’s suggestions about labor practices and budgeting, Blake thinks that Weiss might offer to make that list herself.

When Lord Schnee speaks, Weiss listens, and there is a sharp and focused quality to her expression that grows increasingly strained with every word. It’s obvious to Blake that Weiss is weighing his words — evaluating their worth and intent — and that she appears to find all of it terribly disappointing.

In the first meeting Weiss attended, Lord Schnee had been uncharacteristically restrained in his suggestions, careful and calculating.

By the end of this especially long second meeting, his daughter’s presence has become almost unremarkable — strangely so, since Blake suspects he has spent very little time in her company through the years — and he has begun to settle back into familiar patterns. He talks more, making suggestions that are just as selfish and self-serving as they usually are.

He laughs as he speaks, and Weiss watches.

Now that the meeting draws to its close, Blake allows them to carry on with very little interruption. They are only making proposals now, for measures to be voted on at the next meeting or even further beyond, so there’s no need to start a debate.

The men are chatting together, laughing.

When Weiss and Blake don’t speak, don’t interject, it’s almost as though they allow themselves to forget that the girls are there are at all. They seem to prefer it that way.

Doctor Watts coughs in a way he obviously intends as punctuation and wraps his knuckles on the table. “The work at Clavering is of utmost importance.”

There was barely any damage at all there structurally, but the wealthy residents of the neighborhood have complained endlessly about what they consider to be an unsightly mess of rubble in their streets. It’s so unimportant that it didn’t even make Blake’s list of topics for the day, but the three men all grumble in a unified agreement. “We need more workers to help with maintenance and repair,” Lord Schnee says gravely. “The Schnee Mining Company can provide quality labor, of course, but we would have to replenish that work force somehow. Bodies don’t grow on trees. Yet!”

The three men laugh and Lord Callows smiles sharply. “The mines in Tyvia should be filled with skilled laborers. They only require ships to transport them.”

“Criminals, aren’t they?” Doctor Watts nods in agreement. “Free labor.”

“Satisfying for them, I’m sure. To finally be put to good use.”

They laugh again and Blake does her very best not to show her disgust.

She is watching Weiss who is watching all of them closely, her mouth thinned out into such a sharp line that she looks almost unable to speak. Like she’s choking.

“Well,” Blake cuts in and Weiss blinks, remembering herself. She relaxes, or at least tries to, but the tension remains in her shoulders. “That certainly is a thought. But I believe we’ll have to discuss it more at our next meeting, gentlemen.”

The three men look instantly less amused, their eyes shifting to Blake with some suspicion, even something of an accusation. It really does feel as though they had completely forgotten she was even there and are annoyed to be reminded.

She only smiles in return. “Tomorrow then.”

*

The men file out, one at a time. Lord Schnee lingers in the doorway, his eyes on Weiss who refuses to look back at him. Her gaze is locked on her own hands, resting carefully on the table.

She barely even blinks.

Eventually, he leaves. The door swings shut as he goes.

“… labor camps,” Weiss says, her voice so low that Blake can barely hear the words. “I know my father isn’t perfect. He probably isn’t even very… good. But I didn’t think he was bad.” Blake places a hand on Weiss’s shoulder and can feel the way that the other girl stills beneath the touch, breath catching in her throat. “… I didn’t know that all of Tyvia was bad.”

“It’s not all bad.” Blake squeezes her shoulder, so very gently. “And even if it was, Tyvia is one of my islands. It would be more my fault than yours.”

Weiss looks up at Blake sharply. “No.” She stands just as abruptly. “This is our responsibility now. It’s on all of us. We can’t just sit idly by and let this happen.”

“Of course not.”

Weiss straightens to her full (not too impressive) height and purses her lips together in aggressive annoyance. “Where are Ruby and Yang? They’re going to help.” She turns and marches out of the room without even glancing back. “Whether they like it or not.”

For only the second time since the world fell apart, Blake thinks that things might start getting better instead of worse. And the first time, what had that been? Well.

Blake feels a lightness in her step that she doesn’t allow herself to consider too hard or too long when she imagines Yang there at their intended destination, waiting for her. Even knowing that her father is there too — injured, but only getting better, isn’t he, every day there is only room for improvement — she can imagine the way that Yang will sit up straighter and smile when they come through the door.

How excited she will be, to see both of them.

The way that she wears excitement like something tangible she carries with her into any room. Blake thinks of Yang, her soft (warm) smile, and it does feel like things might be getting better. She thinks of Yang, the way her mouth had tasted, and it feels like so much.

Blake thinks of Yang and feels.

Chapter Text

Pyrrha Nikos has been a fixture at the Tower for nearly as long as Weiss can remember.

She began training as an assistant to the armorer as early as ten years old, helping to prepare and clean his tools, or sometimes washing down the work room at the end of a long day. Even at such a young age, Pyrrha was already well-muscled and tall. She seemed so much older, Weiss thought, and strangely wise in a way that could only come from hours spent in hard labor. It was certainly not the kind of thing that all impoverished people who sweat and shout for a living manage to acquire in exchange for their effort, but even then Weiss could see how Pyrrha was different than most.

She was a prodigy. Everyone said it.

By twelve she had moved on from these simple (safe) tasks to working with the metal directly. Soldiers would bring their damaged weapons to the forge and Pyrrha would hammer away — sweat on her brow, her shoulder muscles straining — until the job was finished. Weiss remembers occasionally watching her, curious about the gangly girl from Serkonos who the men Weiss would sometimes spar with all said could make the metal sing like no one else.

Members of the Watch and poor people in general are often known for these kinds of exaggerations. They speak on every topic as if it’s a twisted kind of poetry, though Weiss isn’t certain that most of them are very well read. (She no longer assumes that all of the impoverished people she meets are illiterate, of course. Just look at Ruby.) Still, there is a certain element of folklore and fantasy in the way the common people talk that can’t always be relied upon for its accuracy, though it certainly can be useful.

Winter used to tell her that there are kernels of truth to be uncovered in most of what other people say, even if it’s sometimes in realizing that they mean exactly the opposite. (Winter’s assessments of human behavior are startlingly accurate the majority of the time.) But the way the soldiers speak of Pyrrha — have always spoken of her — was different. She was exceptional in a way that needed a little of their absurdist poetry.

You could hear her working all the way from across the training yard and it had a distinctive sound compared to when the armorer himself was at the forge. With Pyrrha, the metal really did seem to reach a different, higher sound. Ridiculous, of course, but it was the truth.

She could make the metal sing.

Even then, even as children, Pyrrha had an uncanny ability to see into the center of something — to understand what makes it work and how to make it better. She could not only repair damaged weapons, but improve upon them.

She could fix things before you even thought of them as broken.

*

Weiss had noticed her, of course. That was perfectly natural.

Even then, Pyrrha had the kind of presence that drew every discerning eye to her, and Weiss has always had refined taste. She is an impeccable judge of good character and skill — always has been. She had realized the true potential in Yang, hadn’t she?

But with Pyrrha, more than that distant acknowledgement of her skill took time. They didn’t speak for quite some time, and of course such distance came to them naturally. Weiss did not normally take it upon herself to consort with the staff. She has never behaved like Blake with her stable boys and whispered conversations with maid staff. (One day in particular, Weiss had felt very certain, for a single preposterous moment, that she had walked in on Blake kissing one of those girls in the hallway. She had written it off as ridiculous at the time, but now she is less certain, truth be told.)

The point, of course, is that Pyrrha and Weiss were never meant to socialize; but then neither were Weiss and Ruby and especially not Weiss and Yang. Some of society’s rules can be bent, even to a considerable degree, when necessary.

Even so, it had been Pyrrha who made the first move across that divide.

She had smiled at Weiss, facing toward the sunlight but hardly seeming to mind the glare of the sun, and held out her hand. “Are you alright?” she’d asked with a tenderness that did not match anything that Weiss had expected from the well-muscled girl who toiled all day over the fires of the forge.

It had taken Weiss more than a few moments to remember herself well enough to answer.

“Yes,” she had lied. “I’m fine.”

Pyrrha had not seemed to believe it, but did not interrogate Weiss further.

It was the first of many kindnesses.

*

As a child, Weiss had never allowed herself to acknowledge when things were beyond her control or understanding — nothing, she had reasoned, could ever be so fully beyond her grasp that confidence wouldn’t be enough to overcome it. But as she has grown older (wiser) alongside her friends, she has learned that there is maturity and wisdom in knowing one’s self better and admitting to one’s true feelings.

Like fear.

On the night of the attack, Weiss has never felt more afraid.

It’s almost ridiculous to try to quantify it. Of course she’s afraid. She’s terrified. She has never experienced anything like this before, never seen people screaming and running through the streets of Dunwall. No matter how many times she imagined scenarios that would require her expertise and cleverness to save the Emperor or Empress, nothing came close to this feeling.

Weiss is afraid, but so is everyone else around her.

Somehow knowing that helps. It gives her something to hold onto when she literally takes hold of Blake and forces her to refocus on the present. “Your Highness. Blake,” she says, squeezing the princess by her shoulder. “Focus on my voice.”

And also: “Everything is going to be okay. But we need to act. Fast.”

There is no way for Weiss to know that things are going to work out, but there is nothing to be gained from panic.

It is her duty, as a Schnee, to save the Belladonnas from themselves. Her father has always said so, and these moments of vulnerability (weakness) from Blake are certainly one of the things he must have meant. Of course Blake cares enough about Yang to be concerned. Weiss does too! But she can’t allow herself to feel it.

Not fear or worry or any of those other emotions that can weaken a person. Not when they need to be strong enough to serve as a foundation for a city that’s literally crumbling.

Blake orders Weiss to go find Pyrrha.

She appreciates the directness of the instruction. If Blake is giving orders, she is back in her right state of mind, ruled by reason instead of emotions. That’s the only way they’re going to survive this.

Because whatever Blake might say to Ruby to try to reassure her, their very survival is on the line. As a Schnee, Weiss has prepared for this day since childhood. Winter used to warn her of the possibility of unexpected attacks. Father always told them to prepare, to harden themselves to the thought of being hated. That hatred was inevitable when you are surrounded by inferiors.

She had tried to prepare herself for the thought of death. Not it happening, of course, because Weiss always knew she would be able to outsmart any attacker. But facing it, challenging it, those were things you had to prepare for emotionally.

She thought she was ready, but when the ground itself began to scream along with all the people in the streets — she’s thinking like a common person again, so poetic and pathetic — all Weiss can think about is her friends and the terrible very real possibility of their deaths. It feels so much worse than anything she had ever imagined before.

She wants to feel nothing but the same calm she sees wash over Blake, to be the reasonable person she was raised to be, but Weiss thinks of Yang gone missing and Pyrrha completely out of sight and the fear takes hold completely.

It’s almost suffocating, but she breathes through it and runs faster.

They will be alright. They have to be.

*

There is so much blood and screaming as Weiss draws closer to the Tower. The guards at the gate are in chaos. Some of them are bleeding, but there are no remaining attackers in sight. Civilians are rushing for the gate, hopeful for a means of escape from the violence and death in the streets, but the guards wave their blades and try to drive them back.

One man recognizes her and shouts over the noise, calling, “Lady Schnee, this way!”

She runs faster, her heart pounding. Hands claw at her from all sides, but she keeps her rapier firmly in its sheath to resist any temptation to use it. They are just afraid. Reasonably, Weiss knows that. She should not hate and fear these simple people who have just had their world ripped out from underneath them, but she is just as afraid as they are. The impulse to lash out — to make certain of her own advantage and preserve her own safety over anyone else — is incredibly strong. They are all looking for an escape, but she is the only one the guards let inside the gate before it shuts.

“The princess is close behind me,” Weiss says, her voice much more calm than she feels. “Be sure to let her in.”

Somewhere further into the courtyard, gunfire rings out and Weiss feels an instinctive desire to duck or to hide, and yet she remains standing.

She will stay firm and resolved, or as close to it as she can get.

*

All of the years of lessons, tactical and combative, were intended to prepare Weiss for precisely something like this. She thought she was ready for it. But when she finds Officer Nikos bleeding in the hallway, all the carefully composed regulations and preparations fly right out of her head. Weiss runs to her, heart pounding hard in her own ears. There are people screaming close by and she can’t hear a word of it.

Pyrrha,” she shouts, a sound pulled from the center of her chest, bursting from inside. It goes against all proper protocol to ignore the Officer’s rank and title in a moment of crisis like this, but Weiss isn’t even considering her own breach of etiquette. She is much too busy trying to remember the proper way to stave off bleeding, pressing her hands firmly over the wound.

Weiss feels the pump of Pyrrha’s heart still beating fast as the blood washes over her hands, over and over, perfectly in rhythm.

“Lady Schnee,” Pyrrha gasps, her own hand firmly in place on top of Weiss’s. “Where did you come from?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Weiss insists, remembering enough of herself to regain some (small) composure. “Officer Nikos, I need you to keep your hand here, firmly. I’m going to slow the flow of blood.”

She has trained for this as well.

Basic medical responses were a vital part of the lessons General Ironwood gave to both Weiss and Blake. She wonders for a moment if Blake is doing something similar for Yang, just on the other side of the city. It helps, somehow, for Weiss to imagine herself less alone in this moment. This is more than just Pyrrha, Weiss, and her own fear. The princess and the faith that she places in Weiss — to send her running ahead, to have her rally the forces — makes it almost feel easy to focus. She will manage this, and it will be easy.

Because there is no acceptable alternative to their success.

With some effort, the bleeding is stopped, but Pyrrha’s complexion remains distressingly pale. Weiss pushes the hair back from the Officer’s forehead to check her temperature while counting the heartbeats that she can feel pulsing at her temple.

“Lady Schnee,” Pyrrha says, her voice still strained but growing stronger. “You need to seek shelter.”

“I’ll do nothing of the sort.”

The pulse is strong, steady, but not too rapid. She should be fine; the science supports that entirely reasonable conclusion. That does not prevent Weiss’s own heart from racing with what is certainly a logical degree of fear as a result of their circumstances.

“But—”

“Officer,” Weiss cuts her off sharply, but then quickly softens. “Pyrrha. The princess sent me ahead to notify you that there is danger within the city, but obviously you know that already.” She licks her lips, mind racing through possibilities. If Pyrrha is injured in the east hallway, then there are only a few directions that the enemy could have come from. “How many attacked you? Do you know where they were going?”

Pyrrha grimaces and forces herself up onto her knees. Weiss is startled and moves to stop her, but the Officer (gently) swats her hand aside before she slowly — with considerable effort and a lot of grunting — rises back to her feet. “… I believe they are headed for the throne room.” She takes several deep (labored) breaths in, her eyes locked on Weiss’s.

They both know what this means.

Either they save the life of their Emperor, or they must die trying. These are the only options to a loyal citizen of Dunwall. The fear is still there, pressing on her heart, swelling up at the back of Weiss’s throat, but she will not allow herself to be swayed by it. She feels a strange calm overtake her, driven by necessity, as she wipes the blood on her hands against her white trousers.

This is, in many ways, exactly what she was born to do.

“Where is the rest of the Watch?”

*

The throne room is empty when they reach it, except for the twisted body of their Emperor bleeding on the floor. Pyrrha runs to his side, struggling against a limp and her obvious fatigue, but still moving much faster than anyone recently bleeding from a stab wound ought to be able to.

Weiss pulls off her jacket as she hurries to join them, tossing it at Pyrrha so that it reaches her before she does. “Hold that tight.”

Pyrrha nods. There were probably many injuries in the forge or the training fields, and she clearly knows what she’s doing. She moves with the kind of deft competency that is present in all of her actions, holding the white jacket in place as it is quickly stained dark red.

It isn’t enough. He is bleeding much harder than Pyrrha herself had been.

“… I need to find someone.”

“You do,” Pyrrha agrees, her voice rough with barely contained worry. “I can’t run.”

But Weiss can, and she must, even if it’s difficult to manage in these shoes.

She runs back down the length of the hallway to the massive doors at the front of the throne room and barely loses momentum — nearly wrenching her shoulder out of its socket — when she tugs the great door open and yells into the hallway beyond. “Someone, bring a doctor, quickly! Your Emperor is dying!”

Weiss charges out into the hallway, listening closely for sounds of activity in either direction and prays to the Abbey itself that whatever she hears is not the person or persons who so recently injured Ghira Belladonna in his own home.

Down one hallway she can hear shouts, the frantic running of soldiers, but in the other direction there are low groans and rabid voices. It would make more sense for anyone administering emergency aide to produce sounds more in line with the latter.

Weiss takes the risk and rushes off in that direction.

She finds a man there, bent over a soldier who is slumped on the floor — a trail of gore tracing the path his body took when sliding down the wall. The boy hunched over him barely looks old enough to be an apprentice to a physician, let alone fully qualified himself, and he doesn’t even bother to look up to acknowledge Weiss as she draws closer.

He must not have heard her. “You there. Are you a doctor of some kind?”

“Does it not look like that’s what I’m doing?” the man asks, still obviously distracted as he wraps bandages around the limp body before him. His voice is higher than she expected and it makes him seem even more (terrifyingly) young.

He is obviously far too young, in fact, but their options are clearly limited. Weiss sighs. “As much as I am sure this man deserves your aid, unfortunately there is someone more important in need of attention. Now.”

The blond does look up this time, with obvious annoyance. “No one person is more important than another, so unless the Emperor himself—”

“Yes,” Weiss snaps at him.

She hopes her eyes convey her anger appropriately.

“… what?”

“The Emperor is bleeding in the throne room, you absolute dolt.” Weiss waves her hand in a frustrated but pleading gesture, in the general direction of the throne room itself. “Go! Help him and I’ll handle this one.”

“But I—”

“I’m sorry, does it seem like I’m asking? Because that’s not intentional.”

The man stands in such a clumsy hurry that he drops a handful of his supplies. They scatter on the floor and Weiss thinks, just for a single instant, that she hopes Blake is emotionally prepared to ascend to the throne. “Right. I’ll just— I’m only an apprentice see, so—”

“So I gathered. Now hurry.”

“—what I mean is the woman I’m training under should be right—”

He points further down the hall.

Weiss takes in a deep breath and allows herself just a single second to look down at the man who has finally lost consciousness at their feet. “… I’m going to have to leave him here and find her. You know that, don’t you?”

The man swallows, a quaver in his voice when he says, “Yeah.” He doesn’t just look too young. He is too kind, like the sort of person who could be crushed under the emotional toil of seeing so much death up close. “I get that.”

He clearly doesn’t know how to empty himself of feeling, for his own good or the good of his patients.

Weiss will have to do it for him.

Stop it, right now.” She points at him. “I can see you look right on the verge of crying, but our Emperor needs you and you’ve already wasted too much of our time.” He blinks at her, obviously startled and uncertain, so she decides to double her volume. “I mean now! Go.”

“Right!” The man jerks to attention and offers a sloppy salute, one that looks as though it’s simply the result of a panicked impulse rather than actual recognition of her rank and title, before darting down the hall. “Sorry, ma’am— uh, Lady— I mean—”

“Faster!”

Weiss watches to make certain that he turns the right direction down the hall before she looks back to the man at her feet. He has already stopped breathing; that’s a fact Weiss isn’t certain the apprentice even noticed, which only makes her more certain she needs to find his master physician — and now.

But she does allow herself just the briefest moment to close the man’s eyelids, which had fluttered open again with his final heavy breath out.

It has been a long night already, and it’s only going to get worse.

*

No part of the night is easy or pleasant. Weiss has known Blake for a very long time — most of her life, in fact — and she has never seen her look so defeated. Even Yang, in the brief time Weiss spends with her, seems nothing like her usual self.

Looking death directly in the face is something Weiss had tried so hard to prepare for. She knew that she had to be ready and able to grow emotionally cold and detached in all those ways nobility should be when death came for her; but it wasn’t enough.

The trouble was that she had never practiced with the understanding she would have friends to worry about as well. The ways that Pyrrha, Blake, and even Yang all suddenly seemed drastically changed by the night and its events is more frightening than any duel. Weiss has always known her own skill with a blade. She does not fear enemy combatants. But the potential loss of her friends, or just the things that make them exactly who they are, is terrifying.

Of course it’s expected that Blake might be unsettled, concerned, but the hollowed out look in her eyes is frightening. She was not ready for the reality of the threat that has always loomed over her life, had not fully prepared for the eventuality of violence that is an inevitable part of life within the nobility. Yang has spoken at times about her life lived in poverty; she is evasive and makes crude jokes, as is her nature, but it’s obvious that aspects of her childhood were difficult. She has most likely seen violence many times, up close, yet somehow she still seems shaken by tonight.

In fact, none of them really seem as though they were actually ready for anything they encountered. Maybe danger of this kind isn’t actually something you can prepare for, not in the ways Weiss and thought. Her father certainly seems to always be ready, to feel nothing at all in the face of such loss or possible violence, but perhaps that is a skillset unique only to him.

Even tonight, in the midst of disaster, he is calm and carefully planning.

Pyrrha informs Weiss later that her father is sending messages, making plans, and speaking with guards about patrols in the east wing. How astute, she thinks, that he realized the weakness in their defenses that had led to Pyrrha’s injury.

He’s almost certainly already sent word ahead to her sister, but Weiss decides to write a letter for her too. It cannot wait until the morning, despite her exhaustion.

Pyrrha offers to stay, to stand watch in her room and keep her company while she composes herself — and her thoughts — well enough to compose the letter also, but Weiss graciously declines her offer. The Officer is injured, after all, and unlikely to take the time for herself if not essentially forced to do so through Weiss’s repeated insistence.

“Oh, please. I insist.”

“But—”

“You should be sleeping. Right now.” Weiss takes Pyrrha — gingerly and carefully — by the wrist and leads her down the hallway. “There’s a guest room just here that you should do just fine in. It’s much closer than the guard barracks.”

The look on Pyrrha’s face reminds Weiss of Yang the first time she tried to refuse a similar offer of generosity from Blake. Something about loyal soldiers make them particularly resistant to even the most basic offers of assistance.

Off of that look, Weiss adds, “Consider that an order, Officer. Your Empire needs you well rested.” She has a strange (childish) impulse to stomp her foot, but of course she resists.

There is something about Pyrrha that makes Weiss feel almost like a child again.

Perhaps it’s that sense of familiarity — there from the first day they truly met — when Pyrrha had first shown her a small kindness. Surely she can allow Weiss to return the favor.

“Of course, Lady Schnee,” she says eventually, the strain obvious in her voice.

It causes Weiss considerable discomfort. “Just… Weiss is perfectly sufficient tonight, Officer.” She swallows. “Pyrrha.”

There is a strange twist to Pyrrha’s mouth that Weiss cannot begin to decipher, but her voice is more confident — more resolved and composed — when she answers, saying, “Of course, Weiss. Thank you. I will concentrate on recovery.” The expression, very similar to a smile, grows even larger. “For the good of the Empire.”

“Well. Good.”

They linger in the hallway a little longer, just watching one another. Weiss is the first to retreat back to her bedroom but Pyrrha quickly follows her lead, disappearing behind one of the other massive doors. Weiss hears it seal shut and tries not to think about the other woman any longer. She cannot afford to exhaust herself worrying over every single person in the Tower.

It had been true, what she said to Pyrrha. Their Empire needs them all well rested.

*

That being said, Weiss still spends close to another hour carefully composing her letter to her sister.

There is no way for Weiss to know precisely what assignment Winter is off on right now. Their father most likely knows, of course, and the Emperor certainly would have. Given her time at council meetings, Blake might as well; Weiss feels foolish for not asking about this when they were together, but she can’t help but feel that Blake has enough to worry about for one night.

The specifics aren’t necessarily important.

Everywhere that Winter goes, the utmost discretion is required. She often has to ingratiate herself with a variety of social circles and it is sometimes necessary, certainly, that the Royal Spymaster seem to befriend the disloyal and the underhanded. She must know what the wicked are plotting in order to undermine them, for the good of all.

It is impossible to know with absolute certainty who will read this correspondence.

Even if Weiss is to assume it will make it directly into the hands of her sister, that doesn’t mean she can be careless. Winter would hardly accept anything less than the utmost care. The message should be coded, but in a way that does not draw undue attention. It’s impossible to know how quickly the word of the Emperor’s injuries will spread. It is best not to cause panic throughout the Empire unnecessarily. Blake needs all the time she can get to prepare her strategies, to reassess, and to counter.

Father has always spoken of courtly intrigues and dangerous threats as though they were something of a game. Weiss had thought things like this — quashing the rabble rousers and uncovering a coup— could be all in good fun. It isn’t, though, not at all. Weiss feels the strain of it even now, alone in her room, tugging and twisting in her stomach and as a pressure in her chest.

Still, the strategies remain similar. Weiss can’t help but think of a game of chess. Winter is the one who first taught her how to play it properly. Weiss had always considered herself careful and cautious — wise beyond her years, of course, as befits a Schnee — but playing against her sister was a humbling experience.

However careful and considered Weiss thought her own game was, Winter was always more prepared. When Weiss seemed brash and impulsive, Winter was measured and patient. When Weiss was slow to act and uncertain (as she so often was), Winter was self-assured and confident. She could play the game any way she wanted and seemed to almost bend the rules to her own will. When Weiss made a plan or set a trap, her sister would outwit it every time. More than once she had even captured Weiss’s Emperor in less than eight moves. (Winter had counted them aloud as they went, while Weiss grew uncomfortably hot.)

“It’s about understanding your opponent,” she had said, and Weiss had the absurd — simply childish — thought that her sister should not be able to understand her so well when Weiss still didn’t understand herself at all.

Perhaps it was exactly that, those childish flights of fancy, that made her such an easy target in games intended to replicate warfare. No matter how she has tried to prepare, Weiss still isn’t as ready to face death as any of her family. She is not the Schnee she ought to be. But in these moments alone in her room — her back slowly starting to ache with the exhaustion of the day as she remains hunched over a typewriter at her desk — she can be the person she likes to pretend.

She starts another draft of the letter to her sister.

Dear Winter,

I was challenged to a surprising game of chess tonight. My dear friend and her family joined in. I am afraid to say that I almost lost this round, but the game is still ongoing. I think that it will be easily won, but I do regret sending the Rook ahead alone when she is needed most.

She stops, considering. Perhaps she is being too subtle. Winter is clever, of course, but she and Weiss do not always think the same. What is obvious to her might not be clear at all to her sister. Does Winter even see herself as a Rook? Weiss had considered calling her an Overseer — a piece requiring more care and planning when in play, in Weiss’s estimation — but there are no female Overseers. Such an abnormality would seem obvious to any outsider reading the correspondence, so Rook it had to be.

She continues, elaborating.

The opponent nearly claimed the Emperor, but left the Empress untouched. It’s a common mistake to ignore the more powerful woman in play, I’m sure you agree, but there is still a chance that I might lose. I won’t give up the Rook in the next game. I very much wish to have her back with me.

I’m sure that Father believes that is the soundest strategy as well. Certainly, the Empress would want the Rook to return.

Weiss is now verging much more dangerously close to being too obvious. It’s best to end it here and send the letter off with a messenger. But she hesitates, her fingers hovering just above the keys.

What is a proper farewell between sisters?

Weiss has been a younger sister for all seventeen years of her life, and still she isn’t certain. Saying that she loves Winter, to be so maudlin in written word, feels totally absurd.

But after the night she’s just had with so many dead and dying all around her, the thought does occur to Weiss, however briefly. She loves her sister. She absolutely does, and she can’t recall the last time either of them said it to the other. She used to believe that sort of familial distance was perfectly normal, until she met Ruby and Yang.

Now Weiss can’t be certain which of them is the anomaly, but she often thinks that she envies the two girls raised in Dunwall’s slums for at least that one thing — the ease that they have with one another.

Her hands still haven’t moved over the keys.

This is ridiculous and only going to become more foolish the longer she delays.

Goodbye.

That’s almost as good an end as any other. There’s a real sense of closure there that suggests dignity and refinement. But also:

I do hope you are well. Please write back soon.

Weiss hesitates.

A plea like that feels uncomfortably close to begging.

She pulls the paper from the machine and starts again, copying it over word for word, but striking the last line. She finishes with a simple your sister and then the flourish of her signature. When she finally pulls back from the desk, all of her body is aching in a way that she hasn’t since childhood sparring matches with her father. He never believed in holding back. It was for the best, Weiss knew, to prepare her for the harshness of the world.

She never questioned it at all until now.

What good was it, exactly, if she still feels unprepared in the face of all of this? Perhaps it’s best not to think of such things when she is too exhausted to focus on anything but a nagging sense of resentment.

*

Weiss decides to wait to send the letter until morning. She would rather entrust it with Pyrrha — to make certain that she finds the right person for the job — and even though there is a lingering impulse to walk down the hall to her bedroom and speak with her, Weiss knows that the Officer does need her rest.

So does she, as a point of fact.

When she finally allows herself to fall into bed, Weiss Schnee falls asleep in mere moments.

*

The next week passes unnaturally, moving too fast and too slow at precisely the same time.

There is a usual rhythm to life in the Tower and it has been completely disrupted. There are fewer people working in the kitchens, so breakfast is always late. They still wake just as early — earlier than usual, in fact, since there is so much to be done — but the meals aren’t ready until they have been working several hours. Weiss makes a point of requesting that a small contingent arrive earlier to prepare Blake’s meals well in advance. Their princess is already so exhausted, emotionally and physically, that they cannot allow her to become undernourished and risk falling ill. The Empire needs her healthy (if not happy) and leading the isles. She takes care not to let Blake know of the request. She might actually refuse to accept the offer — the very least a future Empress is owed — due to pride or modesty.

It remains the duty of a Schnee to protect the Belladonnas from themselves, and this is also the very least that Weiss can do.

She inspects the entire Tower carefully and takes note of each entry and exit. Weiss would prefer to have Ruby with her, cataloguing and taking notes. She is very good at sketching amateur blueprints — another thing she says she read in a book somewhere — for buildings as well as weapons, and Weiss thinks the skill would be useful. But for another day in a row, Ruby is apparently too busy assisting her sister.

With what, Weiss simply could not say, but Yang is so uncharacteristically quiet, so eerily calm, that she does not press the matter for now. Her own written notes will have to do. Perhaps Pyrrha, after so many years in the armory, knows someone who she would trust to transfer these bulletpoints into an artist’s depiction?

There are blueprints on file, of course, but they are highly restricted and kept locked in the Tower vaults. The actual layout of the Tower is not intended to be known by most. There are hidden rooms and hallways, passages that only the royal family and their closest advisors — not even Weiss herself yet, but certainly her father and even her sister — are meant to know about, but it would seem that someone untoward must have found some of these hidden entryways as well. These are security breaches, clear risks, and Weiss would trust Winter with a discussion about this but she does not feel comfortable presenting it to her father until she has gathered more information.

He is just as overwhelmed as Blake is.

The last time Weiss saw him, passing each other in the hallway, he snapped at her when she tried to ask a question about the state of the Schnee estate and her brother Whitley’s health. It has been a very, very long time since her father had raised his voice to Weiss in public, at the Tower no less. He usually employs much greater discretion when in front of common people.

He must be on his very last nerve, and Weiss should have known better than to push him.

*

So she goes to see her brother on her own.

Of course, she’s not really alone, not completely. No member of the court goes anywhere without their own entourage at the moment, so she brings an armed guard for the journey. Officer Nikos offers to join Weiss herself, but her talents would be wasted on such a minor venture. She is needed overseeing the training of new recruits — there were so many who were injured or killed in need of replacement — and besides that, Weiss does not like to invite friends to her family’s estate. For all she knows, father will already have made his way home and he is even less discreet in such a setting. Perhaps the presence of the guards, in this case, will serve as a useful deterrent for something other than scalawags.

Normally Weiss would take a rail car to the Estate District — it is quite a journey after all — but some of the rail lines were damaged in the attack and have not been deemed safe enough for travel, so the entire system has been shut down.

It’s another one of the many things the merchants won’t stop complaining about. Their concerns are valid, of course, and entirely understandable, but it’s not as if Blake is just ignoring their requests! There is a long list of complaints and concerns and most of the repairs are already underway, but they must be thorough when overseeing the many areas of damaged infrastructure. It would not do to reopen the rails and have something else go wrong because they were too concerned with angry merchants to do the job well.

Father is angry about it. Weiss knows that much too. Blake mentioned that he has brought it up at council several times. As far as anyone knows, the rail lines near Dunwall’s mines were not damaged in any way, but the order has gone out to cease the use of all rail cars across all of Gristol until they can be thoroughly inspected.

“Your father,” Blake had begun, speaking carefully; “seems to think that it’s a deliberate slight.”

Weiss had done her best to explain, saying, “You weren’t thinking of him when you made a decision. He absolutely considers that a slight.” A younger Weiss might have agreed with him. The Schnees are invaluable to the throne and worthy of some consideration when decisions are made that can impact the entire Empire, certainly, but in particular when it will hurt those who must remain well positioned enough to be of great assistance.

Now Weiss knows better. The only family of paramount importance over the rest is the one with the Emperor still in a coma and his daughter preparing to sit his throne.

The chaos at court has become a constant din. They have yet to reopen the doors to the public, but petitions for assistance still arrive at every hour. Work orders in need of inspection before being carried out are passed along until Weiss snatches most of them up for herself. Blake doesn’t need another request for more lumber in front of her when there is so much already weighing on her mind. Weiss can balance the budgets just fine.

She knows that she ought to pass some of these messages on to her father, but his terrible mood of late gives her pause.

If he is especially angry about the mines and the rail cars, Weiss does not think it wise to remind him of all the other merchants receiving assistance — monetary and physical — in this trying time. Of course he would still put the Empire’s needs above his own, but the annoyance would remain, clouding his judgement. He is only human, after all, and great men are often burdened by an aggressive need for validation through constant improvement.

The Schnees have always been like that.

It’s the same impulse that drives Weiss to take to the streets on this sweltering afternoon, walking through the crowds of the city with her personal vanguard leading the way. Whitley had better appreciate the effort she’s put in to check on him.

*

It turns out that Whitley is unlikely to be appreciative, since he isn’t even home.

Weiss realizes now it was foolish not to send a messenger ahead, but she had felt such a surge of stubborn pride when she decided to journey to the estate on her own — without the need or desire for her father’s assistance — that any delay felt unthinkable. Clearly, it was the not thinking that caused her problems now.

Luckily, she has left the Tower guard at their front gate so they aren’t here to register the embarrassing disappointment. The estate has its own security force, more discreet but also less impressed with her as a whole. Weiss does not feel the need to retain her composed Tower demeanor when she is in front of her father’s staff, since they won’t appreciate it anyway.

She hardly has to do anything around them, since they take such great pains to remain out of sight. Father prefers it that way — long hallways completely empty apart from the occasional decorative touch etched in stark white marble or perhaps a painting that costs a small fortune dominating a large stretch of wall. Father is enamored with art history, perhaps because it is such an indulgent pastime. Most people will never own a home large enough to display such works, let alone find the time to study them.

It is a gentleman’s hobby, as he is so fond of openly saying in conversations he begins himself. He enjoys discussing topics on which he is a primary authority. Weiss used to take all of this at face value. Her father was correct in most things when it came to courtly etiquette, and this was just another example, even if Blake would sometimes mock him behind his back for such statements. (Now the princess antagonizes him directly to his face.)

His favorite painting in the entire household depicts a ship lost at sea in a storm, the waves rising up over the edge of the railing. Weiss has never taken the time to truly consider it until now, apart from the artistry of the brushstrokes or the specific use of color. She knows the era it comes from and the artist’s fortunes at the time. She knows his relationship and history with the art of sailing — that his father had been a whaler, earning the funds to send him away to study under masters of the craft — but this is the first time that Weiss takes the time to really look at the small figures that appear to be manning the ship.

Little shadow people line the deck, gazing up into the eye of the storm. A few of their bodies are flung in the air, propelled forward in the direction of the raging waters, their lives almost certainly lost. Weiss doesn’t know how she’s managed to see this painting so many times throughout her lifetime and the fate of the people depicted never occurred to her before, not even once.

Suddenly, it’s all too vivid.

“Miss Weiss!” a familiar voice calls from down the hallway and any concerns Weiss had begun to feel building — such as how to explain to the guard that she just wasted their valuable time when there is so much work still to be done — are so thoroughly and immediately dispelled that she doesn’t even care about the lack of proper title.

More than anyone else Weiss has ever known, Klein could be excused such an indiscretion. He has served the Schnees since before Weiss was even born. He was there to see her very first steps and he tended her when she was ill. He has always listened attentively as she progressed in her studies — attempting works just beyond her reading level that she was too embarrassed to undertake in front of her (many) tutors. Klein would never laugh at her. He never had.

She hurries across the corridor and throws her arms around him in such a tight hug that it produces a startled breath in from the older man.

Weiss has not seen him in months, and certainly has not heard from him since the attack. She had asked after him, of course, requested that father send word along, but if he wasn’t willing to relay messages to Whitley then he certainly wasn’t eager to converse with staff.

Their father still sees Klein as an incredibly well-trained member of the staff, and nothing more.

It occurs to Weiss — not exactly for the first time — that her relationship with Klein is not entirely dissimilar from Blake’s own infatuation with the serving class. The distinction, Weiss always told herself, was a clear difference in age and steadfastness. That’s what she used to think, at least.

But then she met Ruby and Yang.

Weiss thinks to herself — still holding on tightly — that Klein would like Ruby very much.

And Yang too. They have similar laughs, that come from deep in their chest. He’s doing one now, holding her just as tight and laughing as he strokes her hair gently. “Are they feeding you in that Tower? Tell me the kitchen didn’t collapse?”

Weiss laughs. His gentle humor is so familiar that it’s a relief. She loosens her grip slightly, squeezing his arms as her hands trail down to his elbows. Another squeeze, and she’s smiling more than she has all week. “There’s nothing like what you make here.”

“I believe there may be some biscuits nearly ready,” Klein says, his voice low and conspiratorial. “Your brother was feeling partial.”

Oh, yes.

“Klein, where is Whitley?”

Something passes very briefly over Klein’s expression, and then he’s smiling again (just as quickly), and even winking once; he is more like Yang than Weiss has fully realized before. “He just stepped out, but he should be back soon.”

Weiss barely resists the impulse to sputter, since it would be terribly undignified. “What, stepped out? On his own? When the city is still in chaos?” She blinks. “But he’s just a child.”

Klein’s mustache twitches with a quick expression Weiss thinks might be a frown. “I’m sorry, that was unclear. He’s not alone.”

“But—”

“He and your father are out lunching together.”

Father and Whitley, out dining together, casually in the midst of all the chaos in the city. Her father meeting with Whitley when he had refused to deliver her message.

Lunch plans not disrupted by the events of the past week, which suggests a regularity and consistency within the relationship between her father and her younger brother that Weiss has never known with either. She feels heat rising throughout her body, tracing up her spine and settling warm and wet — and oh so heavy — just at the back of her skull, pounding behind her eyelids and swimming at the back of her brain.

“Do they do this often?”

Klein remains still, very much looking like he would rather offer her biscuits again. “My Lady—”

“It’s a simple enough question.” Weiss has let go of his arms, carefully folding her hands in front of her instead. She knows her proper courtly posture and adopts it now — shoulders back and eyes forward. “I was merely unaware.”

“For at least a year, yes. They eat most meals together.”

Weiss can’t remember the last time they all ate together as a family — not mother, of course, but the rest of them — and she had always assumed that it was her father’s schedule, his long hours and emotional labor, that kept him away.

Now she suspects, quite suddenly, that it had been something else all along.

It had been her.

*

Weiss does not intend to wait for her brother and father to return from their lunch, but she does take a biscuit for herself.

It’s the very least she’s owed.

It’s just as good as the ones she remembers from her childhood — the small fraction of her childhood she actually spent at her family’s estate instead of living forever down the hall from Blake — back when mother would join Klein in the kitchen and they all made their biscuits together.

Winter would always volunteer to pull the tray from the oven when it’s ready, but mother insisted that she was still too young. (She was right, of course. They were all so young then.) Instead mother encouraged her to watch the timer, which she did with rapt focus and attention, while Weiss stirred the batter and Whitley offered to lick the spoon.

Whitley.

Always licking the spoon after the rest of them have done the work.

It’s lucky her annoyance can banish any sentimental feelings Weiss might have felt creeping in, because she doesn’t have the time for them, and she has plenty of annoyance now. She can hold it inside herself and use it to channel her anger into productivity; she has a great deal of practice in that.

Still Weiss thinks that some of that frustration must still be there in her voice when she steps back outside. The guards look genuinely anxious when she calls out, “We’re returning to the Tower. Right now.” She thinks that perhaps she ought to feel some guilt for that — they already have so many other things to worry about — but instead there’s a feeling of slight satisfaction.

This must be what it’s like to be her father, to be feared (and respected) everywhere that he walks. Weiss isn’t sure why the thought annoys her, but she tries to focus on something else for the rest of the walk home — to her real home, in the Tower. She considers the path of the rail cars by watching the tracks overhead. She listens to the call of the laborers busy with their repairs, their boorish shouts that echo through the streets. She thinks about budgets and how they’ll pay to train the new recruits they so desperately need.

By the time she’s home, she’s almost forgotten her anger, but only just.

*

Blake is in yet another council meeting when Weiss returns to the Tower, and Ruby is still busy doing some unnamed thing with Yang. What else should she have expected? Certainly not for anyone to be available to assist or spend time with her. Surely Weiss must be the furthest thing from their minds with so much at stake.

“Lady Schnee!”

The annoyance that had begun creeping back in instantly falls away, and even the tension releases from Weiss’s shoulders, when she turns to face Pyrrha. (Her eyes take note of the limp, quickly. It’s still there, but fading gradually.) She looks healthy, almost happy again. Her very specific smile is back on her face, and Weiss finds herself mirroring it almost automatically.

“Officer, Nikos. A pleasure to see you, as always.” That’s true. It is a pleasure, always.

“You look… deep in thought.”

For that single moment, Pyrrha hesitates when asking her question — as though she’s considering asking more, really asking Weiss what’s wrong — and in that instant Weiss can’t help remembering yet again that first day that they spoke. The pained hesitation on Pyrrha’s face at the time had been nearly identical when she resisted her impulse to ask more.

”What’s wrong and can I help?”

Weiss can almost hear it exactly how she imagines it would sound in Pyrrha’s voice. But that generosity of spirit, the impulse toward assistance, is the old habit of an armorer turned instructor who now serves as a sort of emotional wet-nurse for someone who obviously ought to know better by now. Pyrrha wants to ask because she thinks it’s her obligation to the throne to keep Weiss composed. It has nothing to do with Weiss herself, clearly.

“… yes,” Weiss eventually says once she realizes she’s just been standing there staring since the statement was made. “I’ve been thinking about budgets.” Or at least she had been, on the way home. For the last several minutes — nearly a half hour now — she’s just been pacing around in the hallways feeling sorry for herself. It’s not exactly a productive use of their limited time before the Tower is opened to petitions again, but at least Weiss has the decency to be annoyed with herself for it.

She’s feeling a lot of annoyance today.

But Pyrrha clearly does not realize that Weiss has been wasting her time so completely, because her entire expression brightens at what is primarily a lie. “Oh, I’ve been thinking about the numbers too.” She steps to the side, as if to indicate that they should walk the hallways together, side-by-side. Her hands are clasped behind her back somewhat formally, but her posture remains relaxed. It’s amazing how easily Pyrrha slips into these other demeanors that signify entirely different modes of being.

She’s comfortable in her own skin in a way that Weiss finds completely foreign, such as now when she turns her body outward slightly, shoulders pointed away from Weiss to seem extremely non-confrontational, but still questioning and curious.

It does provoke a natural response, Weiss realizes, saying, “Let’s discuss.” She begins to walk with the confidence that Pyrrha will fall in at whatever pace is set. (She does.) “How is training coming along?”

“We need more time, but that’s not something we can purchase or manufacture.”

“Not yet, at least.”

Pyrrha smiles, just a little more. “I think we should request guards from the other isles to assist while the new recruits are still in training.” She pivots slightly as she walks, adjusting her posture again. This time she is pointed, direct, but still with that same gentleness when she pushes verbally, saying, “And we need to do it now. The safety of our princess cannot wait.”

“It’s Lord Regent, for now.”

The correction comes automatically, but Weiss feels some guilt immediately after. She doesn’t intend to reprimand.

“Is that a higher position?”

“Technically, yes.” The Lord Regent, after all, might rule on behalf of a princess deemed too young or unfit to claim the responsibility. (Blake mentioned that Weiss’s father had shown some small interest in taking on the role of Lord Regent himself, but Blake had obviously declined his kind offer.) “Being princess is a promise of power in the future. Lord Regent is power in the present.”

Pyrrha looks as though she considers saying something, but then thinks better of it. Weiss so wishes that she hadn’t — that she would say what she thinks, at least some of the time. Instead she seems to settle for simply stating the obvious. “Either way, we must keep her safe.”

“And you think we need to call on the other isles to do that.”

“I think we need to act as though another attack could happen at any time, including today.” Pyrrha abruptly stops and the way she shifts her weight (somewhat) gingerly as she turns reminds Weiss once again (vividly) of exactly what happened to the Officer in that last attack. “And we are not ready.”

Pyrrha looks concerned, but in a way that’s unsettlingly close to fear. Weiss has only seen it on her face once before, on the night of the attack.

It stirs up something inside her and she finds herself blurting out, “I wrote to my sister, telling her to come home.” Weiss has told no one else of this decision, not even Blake. “And I know I probably should have waited for a command from our Lord Regent, but I didn’t want to wait.” She swallows, thinks she should stop just there, but continues speaking anyhow. “I was scared, I think. So I wanted family close.” Other than her father, and Weiss could almost swear that Pyrrha’s expression says that she knows that part too. “But if we need someone to convince the isles to send their best reinforcements, perhaps it ought to be her.”

Pyrrha is silent for a long while, watching Weiss very closely. Her hands are still carefully folded behind her back, but it’s only now that Weiss begins to notice the strain in her posture, the tension in her spine, and the ginger way she moves her weight. It’s been there the whole time, but everything looks different with the weight suddenly lifted off her own shoulders. “Perhaps you should tell the Lord Regent.” Pyrrha pauses. “And if not her, then you should tell your friend. Blake.”

Weiss quickly glances to make certain no one is there in the hallway to overhear them.

No one. They are alone, but somehow Weiss still cannot relax.

“Perhaps,” is all she says.

And Pyrrha allows her to leave it at that — for now.

A part of her wishes that she wouldn’t. Some small part of Weiss still wishes that Pyrrha would push.

*

That first day that they spoke, when Weiss denied that anything was wrong and Pyrrha accepted that answer without question, it had been a kindness. But sometimes Weiss thinks that Pyrrha is too kind for her own good. It is even possible, she thinks, that Pyrrha might be too kind for Weiss’s best interest either. She does not often allow herself to think of what might have been different if Pyrrha had insisted on that day, if she had followed up with more questions.

Probably little Lady Schnee would have been outraged that a servant dared to question her answer. She was a hotheaded little idiot back then.

But maybe not.

Maybe things would be very, very different.

*

Small things can make a very large difference.

Being on the council should hardly change a thing. Weiss already knows much of what happens in meetings — Ruby asks so many questions and Blake happily provides the answers — and Weiss already takes it upon herself to do budgeting and maintain paperwork. She is doing half of the duties she would on the council already, and she is too young for the men there to take anything she has to say seriously.

It should not make a difference, but it does.

Right away, Weiss can see that Blake had been incorrect in her assessments of father.

The Lord Regent was being far too generous. Weiss is almost embarrassed that it has taken her so long to fully realize the extent of his behavior. Once she is there to take note of the boorish, selfish decision making, however, the almost overwhelming evidence against him begins to mount.

Her father is no longer fit for his role as advisor to the throne. Never is it more apparent than when he plots — openly, treasonously, right in front of Blake and Weiss — to install forced labor camps into his own mines for profit. He brings shame on the family name. Weiss had always sworn to him that she would do everything within her power to maintain her family’s legacy and dignity.

How fortunate that she can do exactly that while still assisting her friends.

*

The day that Pyrrha first spoke to her, Weiss had been crying in her bedroom just moments earlier. Her eyes were puffy and red, but she hadn’t expected anyone to notice. The princess and Empress had been away from the Tower for nearly a month, and Weiss was so often invisible when she was wandering on her own. She had lived most of her life up to that point inside the shadow of the princess, but somehow once outside it Weiss was even harder for people to see.

She did not necessarily resent it, of course. This is just the life intended for loyal servants to the throne. That wasn’t why she had been crying. The problem had never been her loyalty or her status, but rather failure (on her own part) to maintain it.

Father had been furious, though he had tried to hide it in the beginning.

He first raised the topic at dinner, swirling a Tyvian red in his glass. “The princess journeys to the other end of the isles, and she chooses to leave you behind.” He sips his drink and sucks air in against his teeth. “Why is that, Weiss?”

Weiss was spending more time at the estate that summer, without Blake to keep her occupied elsewhere, but she suddenly wished she could be anywhere else. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t what?”

She could have sworn Whitley was almost snickering at her from behind his own glass.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Of course.” Her father had laughed, but he did not seem amused or pleased. “Why would you?” He sat down the glass and watched her carefully. “It’s not as though it’s your job to know what the princess thinks. Is it?”

He hadn’t let it end there.

The question returned days later when he oversaw her lessons with Whitley’s usual tutor. He allowed the man to drone on for some time about the disruption of trade routes at least sixty years ago before he interjected, asking, “And travel to Serkonos? It’s very far, certainly, but do you think it would benefit a young mind desperately in need of shaping?”

Weiss carefully paused in her note taking, but took great pains not to show too much interest in the question. She did not want to seem upset or especially defensive. Father hated that kind of weakness in a Schnee.

“Yes, of course,” the man had said. “There are some things that can only be learned through tactile experience, though books are a fine substitute in the meantime!”

“There is no substitute, I think you’ll find, to real direct knowledge gained in the company of dear friends who trust and care for us.” There was no pretense anymore; father was openly staring. “Of course that kind of friend would have to care about you first, wouldn’t they? You would have to matter enough for them to remember you exist.”

The tutor was obviously lost. “Pardon?”

“A change of lesson plans, I think.” Father had stood abruptly, ready to leave the room just as quickly as that, but not before calling back over his shoulder, saying, “I want you to teach my daughter all about Serkonos and absolutely nothing else — for the rest of the summer.”

And still, he wasn’t done.

At her fencing lesson three days later, he watched for a while with an expression of pointed boredom on his face before he intervened. “I think you go too easy on her. My daughter is very capable.”

Weiss had been so much of an idiot that she almost smiled at the praise.

And then he added: “Remove your mask, Weiss.”

It took her several moments to realize what he meant. “But, father—”

“This is not a discussion.”

She did as she was told, of course. Weiss had always done exactly as she was told.

*

But that had been the final straw. Weiss isn’t sure even to this day if he meant to drive her off from the estate or just to teach some kind of lesson, but he got his way all the same. She left, returned to her room in the Tower just down the hall from the empty bedroom of the princess who had forgotten her, and she learned the value of her own mistakes.

Alone in an almost empty Tower, she cried against her pillow until her eyes were red and her cheeks were blotchy and raw. Only one eye was visible, though. The other was hidden behind a bandage to cover the wound her instructor had left. Weiss had blamed herself for that too; she had been far too slow, too emotional and easily distracted.

And then Pyrrha saw her — noticed Weiss, even when she felt most invisible — and she asked, “Are you alright?”

No. She wasn’t.

Weiss wonders how things might have been different if she had known enough to tell the truth.

*

It isn’t much of an effort to look for Yang and Ruby. Apparently Blake has left them at the Emperor’s side on guard duty. Weiss would normally knock, of course, before entering the bedroom of the rulers of all the isles, but Blake pushes in without any hesitation.

At the sound of the door opening, both Ruby and Yang jerk into the alert, but in very different ways. Ruby is startled from her book — that she appears to have been reading aloud from — but Yang is up from her chair in an instant, tension rigid through her entire body, though she immediately relaxes when she realizes that it’s them.

“You scared me.”

“I didn’t know anything could scare you,” Weiss says, wanting it to sound teasing, but feeling oddly serious once the words are out. She really used to think that Yang wasn’t afraid of anything, but now she’s not as sure.

Yang says, “More than you’d think.”

And Weiss finds that she isn’t surprised, not really, so she changes the subject instead. “Are you sure you should be reading in the dark?”

“It feels rude to have the sunlight just pouring in when someone’s sleeping.” Ruby is perched in the windowsill at least, her book angled toward the small stream of sunlight still peeking through the edge of the curtains. “Even if they’ve been doing that for a while now. His body obviously still needs the rest, so I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“More than with your reading aloud.”

“Well— yes. But that’s just soothing.”

Yang snorts softly, but the look she gives Ruby is so very fond. Weiss realizes that she looks happier — more relaxed — than she’s seen Yang since the night of the attack. She isn’t sure what happened, but she’s extremely glad it did. A swelling feeling of gratitude settles firmly in her chest as she watches them.

“What are you reading us, Ruby?” Weiss is briefly startled as Blake brushes a hand over her back on her way to the Emperor’s desk, but the princess doesn’t break her stride for even an instant. She pulls open a drawer quickly and finds papers within, loading one into the typewriter. She looks up again. “Anything we’re all going to be smart enough to understand?”

Yang raises a hand. “Oh, I’m definitely not!”

She grins over at Blake who smiles back very softly, despite the serious topic they’d come here to discuss. “Oh, I really doubt that.”

Weiss blinks and takes the opportunity to clear her throat. “We actually had something we came here to discuss with—”

“The rail lines.”

Really, Weiss can only blink some more. She’s not used to being so rudely interrupted, especially when she’s preparing to make a very good (and admittedly dramatic) point. “… excuse me, what?”

“I was reading about rail lines,” Ruby says again, a little slower as though she thinks Weiss might be too simple to have understood it the first time. It’s a very good thing they’re friends, or Weiss might find that annoying. (Because it is. It’s very annoying. From anyone other than Ruby, it would be unbearable.) “When Blake showed us that wall of light earlier that murders all kinds of things and is a very bad idea even though your dad was in favor of it—”

“I remember, yes, go on,” Weiss says with undisguised impatience.

“—well I got to thinking how obviously that murder wall isn’t a solution, but there probably needs to be a solution. And then I started thinking about other security vulnerabilities.” Ruby stands abruptly and walks over to a middle ground between Blake and Weiss, holding the book out in front of her. “Some of the rail lines run very close to the Tower. I wasn’t sure because I’ve never been in one of those rail cars before—” Weiss must look visibly surprised by the statement, because Ruby hastens to add; “— a lot of poor people haven’t, it’s not a big deal, but I didn’t know the route because of it.” She points to the map on the page she’s holding open. “But it’s very close. And right now the—”

“The power’s turned off,” Blake finishes for her. “Which means anyone could walk along it, if they were careful enough, and stay hidden.”

“Exactly.”

Yang suddenly looks much more alert, back to tense again. “How much longer is it going to stay off?”

This conversation is moving both incredibly fast, and also rapidly away from the topic of Weiss’s father and the mines that bear her family name that he intends to fill with forced indentured labor. She huffs in obvious annoyance, cutting in, “I don’t think I’m following. You mean this is another way an attack could come into the Tower?”

Blake nods, her eyes locked on Yang’s now, as though focused on some unspoken question. “Ruby’s right. It’s another vulnerability we haven’t considered.”

Weiss allows herself a small moment of satisfaction, at least, that she had been correct in wanting Ruby at her side while she surveyed the many hallways and entrances of the Tower in search of vulnerabilities. (Even if she doesn’t totally appreciate this distraction getting in the way of the very dramatic justice she was hoping to enact.)

“I’ll handle it,” Yang says, as she tenses her — still strangely bandaged — right hand, then releases it. “I think my uncle probably knows some people who can help.”

She and Blake are staring at each other again, but whatever secret they share, Ruby doesn’t seem to be in on it either. She looks very openly confused. “Uncle Qrow knows people who can guard rail lines?”

Yes,” Yang answers sharply, which is about as suspicious as anyone could possibly be. “He does.”

She turns her head to stare Ruby right in the eye, and after a very prolonged silence Ruby finally says, “You’re right, he totally does, and I’d just forgotten about his rail line friends.”

“… I’m not an idiot, but if Blake is fine with whatever this is—” Weiss glances briefly in Blake’s direction, receives a nod, and continues, saying, “—I have more pressing matters we should concern ourselves with at the moment, since it isn’t nighttime yet and workers are still on the rail lines, so they can guard it just fine at the moment.” Yang doesn’t look very impressed with the declaration, so Weiss pushes on. “My father is out of control and, for now at least, I need to take his place on the council.”

Ruby and Yang quickly exchange a look. They definitely seem more impressed now.

“Weiss, that’s—”

“It’s what’s necessary.”

Even Blake looks slightly surprised, and Weiss realizes that they never really spoke about the specifics of this during their walk here. Weiss had simply assumed that her new position on the council meant that she would replace her father if they had to remove him. But that’s all it was, of course, an assumption and an incredibly presumptuous one at that.

She hastens to correct her mistake, saying, “Of course, I mean that my father should be replaced, not that I’m necessarily the best person for—”

“You are,” Blake interjects, using a tone that makes it clear she will not accept any disagreements. “I’m only… thinking.”

At first none of them says a word in response to this declaration of focus from their princess, but eventually it’s Yang who makes the first move. She takes a very small step in Blake’s direction, then stops. Her hand flexes again. “What about?”

Blake has begun to stare at the end of her father’s bed, but her eyes jerk back to Yang’s with a small smile. “When father wakes up, he’s going to have a very big surprise with a new royal advisor waiting for him. I’m not sure it’s what he would want for himself.” She takes a deep breath in and Weiss thinks that she can see Blake’s shoulders shaking slightly. (Very slightly.) “But I think… it’s what’s best for the Empire.”

Yang nods. “Then that’s what he would want.”

Blake smiles even more, or at least Weiss thinks she does. She is suddenly very distracted from the conversation in the room by the very loud sound of her own heart beating. Blake is talking about much more than Weiss originally realized. This is not just a place on the council temporarily, but making Weiss advisor to the throne as a permanent appointment, just as she’d always imagined she was destined for. But now that it’s at hand, almost inevitable in its own way, Weiss can hardly comprehend it.

She suddenly feels very unfit for the position.

“Weiss?”

This utterly juvenile and extremely emotional response must be obvious on her face, because Ruby is suddenly right there at Weiss’s side, touching her elbow.

Yang and Blake are looking at her too.

Blake stands from her place at her father’s desk and Yang guides Weiss over to sit.

Their concern only makes her feel more inadequate, undeserving, and especially foolish. She places one hand, firmly, against the aged wood of a desk generations of Belladonnas have sat at to shape the history of their Empire, and somehow that is more calming than it ought to be. Blake is just as young as she is, just as unprepared for this duty, but look at her.

She’s still standing, still breathing calm enough.

Weiss will too. She must.

“… I’m sorry. I was a little surprised, that’s all.” She sits the slightest bit straighter, more composed. “I wasn’t going to faint or anything.”

“It really looked like you might.” Ruby leans closer to give a very exaggerated stage whisper. “If you want to say no to Blake’s offer, I can think of less dramatic ways to do it that might not potentially lead to brain damage. Just give the signal, okay? It’s a wink.” Weiss blinks at her benignly and Ruby huffs in exaggerated consternation. “No! That’s a blink, and I clearly said—”

“So you’ll say yes?”

Weiss nods and then, fully realizing the significance of this moment in the greater course of her lifetime, says it aloud as well. “Yes, Your Grace. I would be honored to serve my Empire at your side.”

Something about the way Blake smiles at her after that makes Weiss think distinctly of their childhood nights — before the trip to Serkonos, before the scar, before Weiss resented what she was and was not in Blake’s life — telling stories under the covers about the lives they wished they had instead.

But these are the women they were always meant to be, and maybe they aren’t so bad at being them after all.

*

They all sit down together to write the letter to Weiss’s sister, though it’s Weiss herself at the typewriter since she’s already seated. (She offers, several times, to let the princess resume her seat, but Blake quickly declines, saying, “I’m going to be sitting plenty after I take the throne. I’ll stand for now,” and Yang lightly elbows her so that they sway one against the other.) Now they’re all more focused together, careful and considering.

Blake explains that there is a process in place for contacting the Royal Spymaster. Weiss had assumed as much, of course, but she didn’t know that the princess was already informed of its intricacies. “Dad showed me once when I couldn’t fall back to sleep at thirteen,” Blake says, taking what seems like great care not to glance even once in his direction. “It’s every other letter that starts a new line and then every third end of a line, alternating, to form the sentence.” Weiss tries to picture it without an example, but the concept is too unwieldy. “It makes more sense once you’ve started.”

Ruby doesn’t seem very impressed. “Was this one of Sokolov’s ideas?”

“No, this came from his predecessor.”

Weiss tries not to frown. “Are you sure you don’t want to be the one typing?” A part of her thinks that her clumsy chess metaphor would still be sufficient, but she finds it difficult to argue with clear protocol.

“This is what you’re signing up for, Weiss,” Blake teases her, almost gently. Yang bumps into the princess again, murmuring something so close to her ear that Weiss can’t hear it but Blake laughs and answers loud enough for everyone to hear, saying, “Yes, I am sure.” She gives Yang a very pointed look but says nothing else.

The two of them are acting even more ridiculous than usual, and it’s something Weiss will have to look into after she’s finished with the world’s most ludicrous puzzle box of communication. As soon as she is officially installed in her role as advisor — and her sister is home to receive the news — they are going to change the way that these top secret communications are written.

*

After almost an hour’s worth of attempts, Weiss finally stands from the desk. “That’s it. Or it better be, because I’m not trying it again.” Ruby pulls the paper from the typewriter and reads it over first as Weiss tries to remove the cramp building in her back with careful stretching. “… does my father usually write these?”

“I believe so.”

“No wonder he’s always in such a terrible mood,” Weiss mumbles, but she grins in response to Yang’s vaguely horrified reaction. “I am joking.”

“I’m still not sure. Lady Sneer finally realizing her dad’s a dickhead?” Yang shrugs with a quickly relaxing grin. “Still seems too good to be true.”

“Lady Sneer?” Weiss scoffs. “That’s not even clever. Since when do you call me that?”

“Since a lot, usually behind your back,” Ruby answers without a glance up from the letter.

Weiss turns sharply on her heel to face Yang whose mouth is gaping like a fish.

“That’s— I mean, haven’t— not in years—”

“Except for right now.”

“It seemed like a well timed joke?”

“I’m dying laughing. Oh, oh, my sides.”

“… are you really, because I don’t know, maybe the way you do laughter is really, really small and totally quiet.”

“Done!” Ruby holds the letter in the air. “Somebody else check it too, but I think it works.”

Yang snatches the letter out of her sister’s hand very eagerly. “My turn.”

It’s quite a convenient way to avoid the conversation, but Weiss doesn’t say anymore about that as Blake slips in closer, lowering her voice to a more confidential volume. “You’re sure that your sister will choose the Empire over her family?”

“Over the family name, no,” Weiss answers without hesitation. “But over our father? Certainly.” She turns her head to meet Blake’s gaze, and is genuinely caught off guard by the look of surprise she sees there. “… the only thing my father and sister have ever agreed on is an assessment of her abilities.” Blake nods and Weiss continues. “When he suggested her appointment, he probably thought she would be easy to control. Obviously she was… very young when she left home.” She clears her throat. “I’m sure that he regrets his decision now, or that he will once we’re done with him.”

Yang whistles low and hands the letter off to Blake. “Remind me to never get on your bad side.”

“What side do you think you’re standing on right now?” Weiss asks dryly, just barely suppressing a strange impulse to grin.

“Your left side?”

Weiss doesn’t dignify that with even a laugh, but Ruby does.

*

The letter passes every inspection and Blake promises she will make certain it makes it to Winter safely. It’s much more clear and direct than Weiss’s last message and she can’t help but feel relieved to have given up some part of the responsibility, even if Blake already has so many other concerns weighing her down.

“Do you know how far away she is now?”

Blake looks as though she’s thinking back to a much earlier meeting, before Weiss was in attendance. “She was in Karnaca days ago, but now she’s moving to the northernmost end of Serkonos.”

Weiss considers this. “Do you think she’s already headed home to Dunwall?”

“If she is, I think we should do our best to prepare her.” Blake stands a little taller, hands carefully clasped at her back. “It’s her duty to protect the throne, but she can only do that with the information at hand.”

“Isn’t finding information supposed to be her whole thing?”

Weiss doesn’t resist her impulse to sigh. “Still on my left side, Yang?”

“It’s the truth. Your sister didn’t see this coming, did she?”

“She wasn’t even on the island.”

“But then what’s the point of a spymaster who can only sort of spy?”

Weiss isn’t sure why she’s so annoyed by the question. Yang brings up relevant points, but Weiss knows that her sister has done everything she could to keep the Emperor safe.

And it still wasn’t enough.

“We don’t need to fight,” Blake says, a bit sharper than Weiss expects. “Winter is on our side.” She looks carefully at Weiss, holding her gaze for a moment, and then back to Yang. “And we need as many people there as we can get.”

“What we probably need,” Weiss cuts in, offering up something that has been on her mind since the night of the attack; “is to appoint a new royal protector.”

“That is… something to consider.”

That’s all Blake says, at least aloud.

If she and Yang think that all their quick glances go unnoticed, then they’re being very naive, but Weiss doesn’t have time to worry or wonder about it, not when her entire world could be turned upside down at any moment.

Will be turned upside down.

If they succeed in their plans, then Weiss will have fulfilled her lifelong purpose, while turning her father thoroughly against her. If they fail, he will do everything within his abilities to keep her away from any future position of power or authority. Either way, this is life changing.

Their future is coming fast, and it’s inevitable.

Weiss cannot allow herself any more upsets or distractions, internally or otherwise.

*

But she does have one promise to keep.

*

Weiss goes to find Pyrrha at the training grounds. It’s the same courtyard where Weiss used to stand and watch Pyrrha working in the armory, when they were little girls, before they’d ever even spoken. No one is working in the forge today; the only sound that rings out in the yard is the grunting of the soldiers and Pyrrha herself calling out orders.

The new recruits don’t seem nearly as sloppy as Pyrrha had made them sound; her instruction is much more effective than she allows herself any credit for. They are improving rapidly and it shows in the way she smiles watching them. She’ll make soldiers out of each and every one of them yet.

But then she notices Weiss, and the smile grows even bigger.

(Guilt. That sudden crushing feeling at the back of Weiss’s throat — it’s guilt. She’s never felt it around Pyrrha before, not exactly, and she strongly dislikes the change.)

Pyrrha dismisses her troops a whole six minutes early and hurries over to speak to Weiss. “Hello, Weiss.” She smiles, relaxed and easy.

Which really is making none of this easy. “I—” Weiss swallows, then tries again. “I know we had plans to talk later, but I needed to come by to tell you that I… can’t. I can’t have this conversation, not with you, not now.”

Pyrrha blinks in surprise, her expression registering confusion and then (quickly) a sharp disappointment. “You came to talk to me about how you can’t talk to me?”

“I— well, no, when you say it like that I know it sounds absurd.”

“Good.” There is a very slight sharpness in Pyrrha’s voice that Weiss cannot fully recognize. “Because it does.”

“Pyrrha—”

“Officer Nikos is just fine when we’re in the training yard.”

Weiss isn’t certain if that look on Pyrrha’s face is one of hurt or anger. She’s not sure that there is entirely a difference. “… I want to talk with you. I do. But things are complicated now.”

Even now, even to herself, Weiss cannot admit to everything she wants. She cannot allow herself to even think — not for a moment — what she would like to do other than talking or even what they might talk about if they were ever entirely honest. (Which they aren’t. They never are.)

“Your life is always going to be complicated, Lady Schnee.”

“But that’s exactly it,” Weiss says, a strain appearing in her voice that she doesn’t want but cannot disguise. “My life is too complicated to wish it on anyone else.” That’s closer to the truth than she would normally allow herself. It almost feels daring, so she continues. “I’m going to receive a promotion very soon, I think. And I cannot have anything else on my mind but the good of the Empire.” Weiss studies Pyrrha’s face closely. It isn’t anger; she’s sure of that much. “Do you understand?”

Pyrrha’s hands are still behind her back. She hesitates, as though there is so much she wants to say, but Weiss knows that she won’t. Maybe this time the act of kindness through silence isn’t intended for Weiss after all, but for Pyrrha herself.

And that’s good. (Weiss knows that she doesn’t deserve it.)

Eventually, Pyrrha says, “I am very happy for you, Lady Schnee.” She swallows. “You’re going to get everything you ever wanted.”

Said like that, in this way, it very suddenly doesn’t feel anything like the truth.

Weiss wonders (again) what it would be like if either of them ever said any part of their truth, but before she can even think to ask — not that she would, not that she’s ever been brave enough — Pyrrha is turning to go.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” she says, without looking back; “I have weapons to tend to.”

*

Hours later, deep into the night, Weiss swears that she can hear the hammering at the forge even from the distant hallway of her bedroom. She knows that specific sound all too well.

The singing of the metal. Weiss wonders if it’s at all similar to the whale song Yang has spoken of so often.

Chapter Text

The Tower will reopen to the public in just four days.

Yang knows exactly how much time they have left, nearly down to the minute, because Weiss can’t stop talking about it. For whatever reason, she’s even more tense than usual, following everyone around with a stern look on her face and a pocket watch she checks regularly “to keep her Majesty on schedule.”

It would almost be endearing, except that it seems to be making Blake anxious.

Yang likes that part less.

There’s already enough on Blake’s mind without the reminder of the deadline looming. That’s why every time Weiss starts to discuss it, Yang brings up a distraction, even if it’s brief.

She asks about meals and when they can expect breakfast to actually happen on time again. She asks about training schedules and if they’re taking any bets on when the new recruits stop injuring themselves and each other. She asks about the rail line repairs and how much longer they’re expected to take.

That last one is a mistake because it only leads to the wrong kinds of questions from Weiss in return.

She obviously wants to ask more about Yang’s particular night time solution to that security problem, but Blake is the one to change the subject this time. She brings up some kind of security protocol in the hallways that would stop merchants from getting their (constant) complaining heard on time, and Weiss is distracted again.

Which means Yang doesn’t have to find explanations for things that are so much larger than herself that she can’t even pin down what the right questions are, let alone their answers. At least for a little while longer, she can ignore what all of this means — to them, to her, to her future existence in the Tower just a few streets down from the Office of the Overseer, where even her existence would be branded heretical.

Blake rescues her, as she has so many times since that night when she lied to her own Watch just to keep Yang safe.

When she didn’t even know what she was saving her from.

Before Blake knew about the Outsider and his gifts — although Yang sometimes thinks they’re more like a curse — she was already saving Yang. But it goes the other way too sometimes. Yang is there to save her, when she can.

It’s a kind of partnership.

They’ve found a rhythm that works, and Blake always catches on.

She smiles a little and gives Yang a small nudge or presses fingertips against the small of her back when no one else is looking too closely. Even if it feels impossible that no one else would notice when Blake’s touch sends a jolt all along Yang’s spine so that she’s standing straighter, rocking onto the balls of her feet, then back again.

They give each other a look and this time Weiss definitely catches it.

Once she brings up the looming deadline (yet again), her voice grown hard in that very Weiss way, Yang resists her impulse to change the subject (yet again). Blake is clearly listening now, focused in on something. What the exact topic is, Yang honestly doesn’t know — her attention has drifted to the small crease in Blake’s forehead that appears when she’s really focused and how it somehow makes her eyes seem even brighter. They’re like the bright stained glass on the windows at the top of the throne room, glowing bright gold like the sun.

Now Blake is turning her head, eyebrows lifting slightly in question, and Yang realizes they’re all waiting for an answer from her. For a question she definitely missed.

“… sure?”

She’s got even odds of being right with that one, but Weiss just scoffs. “Were you even listening?”

“Not at all,” Yang answers instantly, her eyes right back on Blake’s face — ready to catch the growing smile of acknowledgement when Yang tells the truth, just like that.

“Left side, Yang. Still very much on the left side.”

*

It shouldn’t be this easy.

Yang has said so many things in her life were going to be easy when she knew that they wouldn’t be — the kind of compulsive lie that felt comfortable, like a really nice old jacket — but this isn’t supposed to be easy.

No part of it should be simple.

She steps inside Blake’s bedroom on the way to their secret place — and even that part’s wrong, she knows, she shouldn’t think theirs, but she does it anyway — and every single inch of everything that even exists inside Blake’s bedrooms tells Yang that she doesn’t belong here. The bed looks too soft, like the wrong kind of person would soil the sheets just by standing too close, and Yang knows that she’s exactly that type. The too wrong, too loud, too poor type.

The desk looks like it took the kind of skill and craft that only comes with an impossible number of hours. The kind of thing no one in her family could earn in an entire lifetime. Even the curtains are made from some kind of expensive fabric that makes Yang’s skin itch just looking at it.

It’s all wrong.

But Blake isn’t.

She takes Yang’s hand as soon as they’re alone, no hesitation, and pulls her across a divide she doesn’t even seem to know is there. She doesn’t pause for a single second.

But it’s only once they’re through the door — on the other side, in their room (there Yang goes again) — that Yang puts her hands on Blake too.

Sometime in the past, when Yang was younger (angrier) she might have thought about it more directly. This is the Imperial Princess, someone too pure for someone like her to even look at, let alone back into the wall to kiss her (firmly). A young and spiteful Yang might have had some satisfaction in that knowledge.

But the thought doesn’t cross her mind, not in the moment. This isn’t a princess or Lord Regent or any of the other titles everyone in the Tower is so interested in using properly.

This is Blake, who sighs so softly (beautifully) when Yang kisses her.

The door shuts on their room and in an instant Yang pushes into Blake and their mouths are drawn together. Yang thinks about the rail lines she’s been guarding at night and the way the wheels latch onto the tracks so securely. They’re built that way.

Made for each other.

Blake feels like that too — made for her — when she braces one foot back against the wall and tugs Yang (by her jacket) even closer somehow, pulled until she’s flush against the princess, feels Blake’s breath against her neck, and Yang has to catch herself, bracing her hands on Blake’s hips.

It’s only then she pauses.

It’s weird, probably, but Yang really prefers not to touch the clothing for as long as possible.

Blake’s mouth, her jaw, neck, hair — literally anything else other than her clothes — is easy, but the fabric is still too nice. Yang touches the fine jacket — carefully stitched by hand for hundreds of hours — and in an instant she’s reminded that this is a princess she’s touching too fast, too rough, too eager and all the other things that Yang has always been: Too Much, all of her.

Her hands go still, although her mouth doesn’t. Not quite.

It reacts when Blake’s mouth opens and her head turns, because what else can Yang do — she’s very reactive. (You have to be at sea, on the Watch, and also when you’re touching princesses. All equally perilous adventures.) So when Blake turns her head, Yang’s mouth is there, careful to not do anything that would leave any marks, any trace she was ever here, but she is.

She’s here.

And just when it’s starting to feel wrong — Too Much in every way — Blake laughs.

It’s a low sound with something else there too — something that’s also Too Much, like want — but it’s still so her, more Blake than Lord Regent, and it relaxes everything inside of Yang that had started to coil in on itself, tightened around the feeling of wrongness and being out of place.

She finds her footing.

Somehow she settles, into her skin and into her place against Blake, pushing just a bit with her hips. Like testing her weight, experimentally.

This time the sound is less a laugh, but the look that Blake gives her is mostly amused. “I think we should…”

Yang nods and takes a step back, removing her hands.

Removing her hands from the royal person of the future Empress of all the Isles, Yang reminds herself, but this time it isn’t frightening or anything but absurd — because there is something still there in the way that Blake is grinning at her as the princess begins removing her far too expensive jacket.

“By the Abbey, you’re like a furnace…”

Yang could be wrong, but she could almost swear that her entire right arm throbs at that — the mention of the Abbey — but she very pointedly ignores it. She’s not going to look away from Blake now.

Once the jacket is gone, the lightly rumpled shirt underneath is something closer to what Yang imagines when she thinks of Blake. Refined, but still rough at the edges.

Here she still is: the princess who tries to slip away into her own city to go on adventures, but is really far too beautiful to ever go completely unnoticed.

Yang is staring.

She knows that she has to be just from the look on Blake’s face, the way she lifts her eyebrows curiously as an unspoken question.

“… yeah, I’ve always run hot,” is all Yang says, her grin growing pretty wide.

“Oh, trust me, I know.”

This time, it’s Blake who winks.

*

This bed is better than the other one, not as soft.

It feels right for someone like Yang.

Nicer than the thrown together bedroll on a plank she’d sometimes lie down on when they were out to sea, sure, but not all that much better than her small bed at home — which was admittedly the nicest thing her family could afford, but not the kind of thing you imagine a princess sleeping in.

It seems old, like maybe it’s the exact same bed Blake’s great, great, great grandmother once slept on —

And maybe that’s a weird thing to be thinking about when Blake is giving her that look that says she doesn’t want Yang to fall asleep just yet. Because sleep is technically the plan, and the chance to be alone — to kiss and touch Blake, even briefly — is just a (really nice) bonus.

Because really, Yang is bone tired.

Every night for almost a week now, she and her Uncle have been patrolling the rails.

Blake doesn’t ask too many questions, and Yang doesn’t offer too much unless pushed — her princess already has so much on her mind — but when the night is done and the sun starts to rise, Yang hasn’t had a single second of sleep.

She’s exhausted, pretty much always.

But it’s not like she can ask for time off to rest when all of her bunkmates in the barracks definitely saw her go to sleep at the appointed hour just like anyone else — no late night sneaking around with magic powers for her, no ma’am — so Blake has had to intervene. She changed Yang’s schedule to place her on princess guarding duty, which means no one else should be looking for her. Then Blake leads her off to their secret room to sleep for a few hours. That’s the plan, at least.

It doesn’t usually go that simply.

A few of the days, they’ve spent just about half that time kissing or talking about anything — genuinely anything other than the current state of the Empire and all the pressure coming down on Blake’s shoulders.

Usually, they talk about Yang. Her home back in the slums that Blake’s never seen.

She says she likes to imagine it from the way that Yang and Ruby talk about it, but Yang thinks it’s probably nicer in Blake’s mind than it ever really was. Maybe some of the real imperfections are there — Yang tells her about the time Ruby cut herself trying to learn knife tricks and the blood that worked itself into the cracks of their table, never fully cleaned out, so Blake probably pictures small things like that — but overall Yang is sure she sees something that never was.

Blake always seems to see things better than they are.

Probably she imagines Uncle Qrow more muscled and heroic, not so tired and drunk.

Yang thinks that Blake must picture her wrong too, when she props herself up onto one elbow and stares as she listens. She bites her lip and her eyes keep dipping down away from Yang’s face to drift all over.

What she’s picturing is probably better than what’s there.

Muscle, sure, but not so many scars, thick like rigging rope. They climb up her right side like a ladder, or sign posts leading the way to her arm, burning deep black. There are other imperfections too, scars that mark the stories of a life lived in Dunwall’s streets.

But the arm still might be the worst of it.

Blake says she doesn’t mind it and pushes for Yang to take the bandages off when they’re alone.

“You don’t have to hide when you’re with me,” she says and Yang always relents, removing them one loop at a time.

When Blake touches the Void rock, Yang doesn’t feel it, not the way that her actual skin does, but something inside of her reacts to it. It coils inside, sharp at the edges but thick underneath: want, and Yang isn’t sure that’s all just from her.

She feels her left hand burning.

“I’m still not so sure you should be doing that,” Yang starts her protest, but there’s going to be more words to follow.

There were going to be more words.

Except now Blake’s mouth is at her left ear as she shifts above her, whisper soft when she says, “All those unpaid nights working so hard, my royal protector.” She chuckles and Yang feels it deep in her stomach. “Won’t you let me repay you?”

Yang grunts. It’s all she can do to keep from letting a small whine escape. “… I’m supposed to be sleeping.”

“You are.” Blake actually bites her earlobe, very lightly, and starts kissing down Yang’s neck. “… so I can stop.” When she licks her lips, Yang can feel Blake’s tongue graze against her jaw. “Do you want me to stop?”

“Not at all.”

Yang half-grunts, half-laughs, and very quickly shakes her head before flipping the princess of all the isles onto her back and kissing her soundly.

This bed is nice, just the right kind of soft and firm for Yang, but Blake is even better.

*

When Yang wakes up in Blake’s second bed, the room is empty.

That isn’t the norm at all. The last few days, Blake has busied herself in the room, of course, reviewing notes or going over ledgers, but she’s never left before.

Yang isn’t even totally sure that she knows how to get out on her own, without the family crest on the ring around Blake’s neck.

She stands quickly, rubbing at her face.

She takes two steps toward the exit and remembers (belatedly) to rewrap the bindings on her arm. She doubles back to the bed where she finds Blake’s jacket, still discarded.

It’s odd.

Yang could have sworn Blake left it over a chair near the door.

She turns her head and there, seated in that very chair, is the smiling black-eyed bastard.

He’s not, of course. Not really.

This can’t actually be Blake’s room, not if he’s here.

It’s just a very convincing and invasive illusion, and Yang knows better than to let her anger show. People with power, they don’t like to see you considering resistance.

She’s learned that lesson well enough in her life out on Dunwall’s streets.

If he can sense any of her feelings for him, it doesn’t show on his face. If anything, the smile is only getting wider. “… you haven’t been sleeping in your own bed, Yang. And I wanted to speak with you.”

“You don’t belong here,” she says, already well aware that she’s giving too much away. She can’t hide the frustration — and yes, even the fear — from her voice, even as she forces herself not to look around again for Blake.

She wouldn’t be here. This isn’t real.

“Neither do you, good little soldier.” He stands in a single movement, fluid like black ink or the sudden rush of blood from the side of a whale after it’s first speared and the water runs red. “But here you are, just the same.” His smile grows even sharper (bright white) and Yang thinks of whale bone left to dry in the sun, fashioned into charms in his honor and stitched into clothing. (She’s never worn one, and she never fucking will.) “You’re not so special as you think, you know.”

“Really? Because you sure seem invested.”

He laughs, a soft sound that vibrates across the rock of her right arm. It aches, but Yang refuses to flinch. “You’re right about that. You’re entertaining for now, but I’m talking about the entire flow of time. The history of everything.” He draws closer, moving across the room that belongs to Blake — not really, not here, but it looks exactly the same and he doesn’t belong here — and the air around them ripples with energy. Yang doesn’t have to look down at her own hand to know the mark is glowing. It aches. “Do you know how many Empresses have brought a royal protector into their bed?”

“Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?” Yang takes a small step back, opens her posture in a careful shrug, and tries to look disinterested instead of enraged. (It’s very difficult.) “Kind of creepy, kid. Do you spend a lot of time watching what people do in their beds?”

“Do you always laugh at the things that frighten you?”

Yang does laugh at that and knows (instantly) that it’s a mistake. The sound isn’t convincing, not even to her, and any more smartass remarks she has ready just die in her mouth.

“… I thought so.” The walls begin to peel away, falling into the blackness of the Void that swells up to surround them. “Is this better? I do want you to be relaxed while we talk.”

“I never got that feeling from you.”

“I am a bit theatrical, that’s true, but it gets boring here alone.” He waves his hand vaguely in Yang’s direction. “That’s where people like you come in. You are special, I just think you should be prepared.” There’s a faint glimmer of light somehow visible in the back of his pitch-black eyes that makes something within Yang feel suddenly sick.

She remembers herself bent over on the deck, throwing up her guts and half the ocean. The feeling is suddenly very vivid, almost more than a memory.

The rock underfoot seems to shift, just like the sea.

“It’s not just a matter of poor breeding, is it?” He tilts his head, just the slightest bit. There it is again, that brightness in his eyes. “Breeding at all. That’s the issue for an Empress. A successor to the throne.”

He misunderstands it. Everything.

He doesn’t know what Blake and Yang are or what they’re doing, because he doesn’t understand (or care) about people. He’s just trying to make her angry.

And it’s working. Of course, it’s working.

But Yang doesn’t want to let that show, even as her voice starts to waver, saying, “Why are you here? Why right now?”

“I want to speak with you about Cinder. We still haven’t discussed.”

“Maybe you should have started there, instead of pissing me off.”

Fine. She admits it.

It’s not like he can’t tell.

The mark on her hand is burning such a vivid red that Yang could swear it starts to light up the Void around them.

“I’m sorry that the truth can be hurtful.”

The tone of his voice almost seems sincere, but that doesn’t help. If anything, Yang hates it even more. She does not want his pity.

She doesn’t want anything from him.

But it’s much too late for that.

“Because I have your mark, you can just show up anytime? Is that how this works?”

He’s started to pace, circling around her.

Yang deliberately does not look to track his movements.

The Outsider smiles his bright white shark smile. “More or less. I choose, not you. As I’ve told you.”

“But if the point is entertainment, there has to be some compromise.”

He’s behind her now, but Yang doesn’t turn to look. She can’t be sure that he’s still smiling, not absolutely certain, but she would be willing to place bets on it. “You wish to make a deal.”

“You don’t come here, ever again. Not when I’m with her.”

“Oh, but you’ll be with her so many nights, won’t you, royal protector?”

That stings, somewhere buried in her chest. He’s trying to provoke her.

Yang’s left hand flexes, just once, and ripples of flame drift from her fingertips. “I don’t think I was unclear.”

“It’s a large request.” He stops, right next to her left ear. “What will you give me as repayment?”

It’s familiar.

A voice in her left ear, and promises of repayment.

It’s too familiar.

The Outsider says that he watches.

Yang swallows down the rage and the hate — yes, it’s hate — she feels hardening in her heart. “… what else can you take from me, bastard?”

“Such language.” Suddenly, he is in front of her again. “I will have to think about it. In the meantime, I will come to you however I like. Be ready next time.”

Yang is ready, prepared to protest, but then his hand rushes out suddenly, a wave of energy striking her dead center in the chest. Energy pulses.

The world goes black.

*

When Yang wakes up, she is in Blake’s second bed, stiff and sore and more than slightly afraid.

She must have made a noise too, because Blake looks up from her reading, visibly concerned. “… Yang?” She sets the book aside and moves closer. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Yang hates this feeling.

She must look afraid, small and in need of some kind of saving — sweat on her shoulders and the sheets clutched tight in her hands — because Blake is so concerned and she crosses the distance between them so quickly, moving almost as fast as he had. Yang hates it.

She’s up from the bed just as fast.

Her body still has to catch up with her head, movements clumsy and stiff as she reaches for her bandages.

“Nothing,” Yang says. It’s a lie, of course, and Blake knows it.

Yang knows that Blake knows from the look on her face when she finishes wrapping up her arm and their eyes meet.

The tension almost slips away, just with that one look. (The way Blake makes it easy.)

“… not nothing, but I’m fine now. It’s not something the Lord Regent has to worry about.”

Blake moves in closer.

Her eyes are wide, moving quickly as she scans Yang’s face, but her smile is small. Soft. “Then what about a friend?”

“I want to worry her even less.”

Yang starts buttoning up her jacket when Blake stops her, gently, and begins to do it for her. Yang’s hands fall back to her side, mark still burning bright red. She hopes Blake doesn’t notice.

She doesn’t seem to, too focused on her task. Something to do, to help with. Yang understands that feeling. Wanting to be useful when you feel so small. It’s almost funny to think a princess can feel that way too — because of her.

“When you’re ready to talk about it, whatever it is, you know that you can tell me, right?”

Yang’s jacket isn’t even half as nice as Blake’s, but with the delicate way that the princess smooths it down once she’s done, you might actually think otherwise. She touches the material with such a gentle reverence, so much more care than Yang is used to.

She has to very carefully resist the anxious impulse to flex her hand — still thinking about the flames that had swirled around it in the Void. Yang might still feel anxious, angry, and even afraid, but none of that is because of Blake.

She won’t bring it here, into a space he’s already invaded.

“I know.” Her princess deserves a smile, even if it’s tentative. So Yang does it. She tries. “But it’s my duty to protect you, Highness.”

“Not when we’re in here,” Blake insists, softly, her fingertips grazing very lightly over Yang’s jaw. “Not from you.”

There’s a lot to resist there too, in that touch.

“Especially from me.”

When Blake kisses Yang this time, it is softer than she wants it to be — more tentative. Yang wants something more — she wants — but she isn’t going to take it.

Not now, like this.

“I disagree.”

Yang licks her lips, savoring, but doesn’t do any more than that. “It’s something we’ll have to figure out.” She tilts her head. “Maybe not when it’s four days away from opening up the Tower again.”

Blake immediately groans and gives Yang a light shove that she uses as an excuse to take a small step back — putting distance between herself and the princess’s mouth. “By the Abbey, you’re conspiring with Weiss!”

“She would really disagree with that.” Yang laughs. “But I hope you know I’m counting the days too, just for less official reasons.” She watches Blake’s face closely, waiting for the reaction when she says, “I’m going to be right there when you sit on your throne for the first time, Your Highness.” She winks.

“Oh, I expect you there.” Blake scoffs and feigns being scandalized, but there is a giddiness to her smile that’s infectious. “My royal protector belongs at my side.”

Even with that great big smile, when Blake’s eyes dip back down to Yang’s mouth — even for a moment — there is something else at the edges of her grin that makes Yang reflexively lick her lips again.

“You going to tell Weiss you’ve already filled the position?” There’s a pause no longer than a single heartbeat and now it’s Yang looking at Blake’s mouth. (She’s licking her lips too.) “Maybe don’t mention this conversation.”

“I don’t think I will.” There’s another pause — where Blake’s mouth parts, hanging open like an invitation that makes Yang almost step closer, but instead she looks up. Blake is obviously waiting, watching her with something close to concern. “… are you really not going to sleep any more?”

“No.” Yang straightens. “You have a lot to do, but so do I.”

Blake looks uncertain, but the ledger she’d abandoned is still just there on the table waiting for her. “If you’re sure…”

“I am,” Yang answers smoothly. “I’m fine.”

She has never told Blake so many lies before.

Yang hates it.

*

This night on the rails feels a lot like all the others, except that Yang is even more exhausted. She had lied before, of course. She did need more sleep.

And it’s not even as simple as that, because even the lie has left her feeling sick and uneasy. She doesn’t like to keep things from Blake, even when she imagines it might be for her own good. The princess is supposed to know everything, right? To be allowed to be the one to make the decisions.

But Yang doesn’t like to think of her as “princess” anyway. It only complicates things.

The night is going to be a long one, Yang can just tell.

Her body feels heavy, like the Void rock is actually starting to weigh her down and wear her out. She gets to their meeting spot along the track before her Uncle does, perched crouching on the rails themselves and peering out over the rooftops.

She takes the moment to herself to assess, watching all potential approaches to see if she can spot Qrow coming. Yang knows that if she taps into the energy and reaches out, she’ll be able to see more clearly — to literally see the bodies through the walls, entire systems of nerves and guts and the pulsing of their heartbeats sending blood flowing.

But every time Yang uses her powers, she feels weaker. She isn’t getting enough sleep to replenish the strength the Outsider’s gifts drain from her.

And she doesn’t know who or what they might face if the worst comes true and someone does step out of the shadows one night to attempt an assault on the Tower using the rails.

It’s better to maintain all the energy that she can. For now, at least.

So it’s no surprise really when Qrow alights at her side undetected until the precise moment he appears.

He’s still wearing that — admittedly very sleek — metal mask every single night and it distorts his voice when he says, “You’re getting sloppy, kiddo. I could’ve killed you.”

“You could have tried.”

Yang’s own disguise has only slightly improved, because Blake genuinely wouldn’t permit her to go out at night, as she put it “running around on rooftops using forbidden magic looking like no one else but Yang Xiao Long” so she’s taken to pinning up her hair and wearing a hat.

Still with the bandana, of course.

So now she looks more like a magic wielding street urchin, which is still pretty in line with the whole Yang Xiao Long look, but at least it’s not as obvious (and epic) as the hair.

Uncle Qrow’s metal robot eyes do some kind of refracting and twisting thing that Yang assumes is really advanced and would make Ruby go “ooh,” but sort of just seems annoyingly like showing off when she doesn’t know what’s happening.

He probably smiles or smirks, that seems likely, but she still genuinely can’t tell. “One of these days, I’m going to knock you right off this rail line.”

“And then I’ll hit my head and die, asshole.”

“No,” he grunts. “You’d catch yourself. With your powers.”

“You better hope so.” Yang does smirk, but it’s covered by the bandana, so she pulls it down to make sure he knows, looking right at Qrow when she says, “Dad would kill you.”

“Tai can barely kill a whale.”

“That’s not what he’s said.”

“Come again?”

“He said he’s kicked your ass. Plenty of times.”

Even behind the mask, Yang knows that Uncle Qrow’s face is a mess now. “He has not— plenty of times?” He scoffs. “How do you even quantify ‘plenty’? That’s not a real measurement.”

“A whole bunch.” Yang grins. “Like so many.”

She finds that riling her Uncle up is a good way to feel awake again after a really long day at work, although there’s just a little bit of guilt there too. Even if she can’t see Qrow’s face, she knows these nights are getting to him, even more than her.

He doesn’t have any excuses to miss his days out on the whaling ships, so he’s really just running on about an hour of sleep per day, for a whole week. He doesn’t have a Blake, and it’s starting to show. Like Yang is pretty sure that if she gave him a light push right now, he might take so long to react that he could actually break his neck and die.

And she doesn’t want that.

“Well tell your father that he’s not remembering right at all.” Qrow honestly sounds amused, though, even through the echoing of his voice. “Guess it comes with old age.”

“Aren’t you two exactly the same age?”

He stills. “… well, yeah. But he seems older. Ladies have always said so.”

Yang’s whole body cringes.

Her immediate instinct is to swear against the church, just like you’re supposed to when someone says one of the worst things you’ve ever heard in your whole life — the words “by the Abbey” are right there on her lips — but she can’t.

It’s almost like the words themselves taste like putrid saltwater.

The kind you puke up after almost drowning.

She isn’t sure if the fear is that somehow the Abbey would know — like they can hear a heretic invoking their name from miles away — or if it’s the Outsider (apparently always listening) that she’s more afraid of. But she is afraid. That much she can admit.

The alternative, of course, is to say his name — to swear upon him of all things — and that’s something Yang will never do again, not by choice.

Maybe Qrow can see all of this clear on her face, because he picks up the conversation again, all on his own. “You better say goodbye to your dad first thing in the morning, because I’m dumping him into the sea tomorrow.”

“He lived a good life and will be missed.”

“You think I’m joking.”

“I don’t think you’re funny enough to make jokes.”

Qrow chuckles and they’re silent for a little while after that, watching the smoke that curls from chimneys and drifts over the roofs of Dunwall at night.

*

The city is beautiful in the dark.

Yang has been climbing all of her life, but she has never spent so many long nights up on the rooftops. Everything about Dunwall is different from above — that much she’s always known — but at night with no one really watching you it’s even better.

It’s almost like the daytime world just melts away.

No responsibilities. No nobility.

You can almost forget that things like class or money even exist.

Even if, admittedly, she’s gone full street urchin this time, which carries its own kind of nostalgia. But there’s nobody shouting or swinging their fists at her head like they did when she was an actual urchin running through the slums and strangers always thought she was trying to steal their money right out of their pockets.

Like she’s ever needed anything from those kinds of people.

This is probably the exhaustion talking, showing up as vague resentment.

She and Qrow split up about an hour ago to walk the full stretch of the rail line by heading off in opposite directions. It had seemed like a good idea, at the time, to split up to cover more ground and give each of them a little time alone with their thoughts.

That was a mistake.

Ever since the Outsider came to her in Blake’s other bedroom — inserted himself into that place that means so much to Blake and her entire family — there’s been something like an itch just under Yang’s skin, and lingering at the back of her mind. Like his fingers are pressing into her brain, pushing up against all the rough edges that have ever annoyed her.

She’s reached the water’s edge, as far as the rails will take her.

There are small boats visible close to the horizon. She recognizes them as whaling ships coming home to dock. There will be men and women on those boats, working deep into the night without rest for themselves either — and no princess to offer them relief.

They are bone tired too, listening to the dying sounds of something so much bigger than they are and pretending they don’t know how to feel anymore.

And all around them, the water sparkles like jewels more expensive than anything she or they will ever own.

That.

It’s like that. That uneasy and unusual resentment.

His voice is still there, sneering about breeding.

It makes something inside of Yang’s chest twist and ache with so much uncertainty that she’s never felt before. It sets her teeth on edge.

She turns and begins the long walk back toward their meeting place at the Tower.

*

As Yang walks, the mark on her hand burns, glowing ever brighter.

The more she thinks of him, she realizes, the more it aches.

The light now is almost bright enough to show through the bandage, so she shoves her hand deep inside her pocket as she walks. She won’t use the powers to traverse, not for now.

She is ignoring his gifts for as long as she can, even as one glows from underneath her skin.

It is not at all like the light of a jewel, Yang thinks.

This color is much closer to mud.

*

The night drags on like an actual touch, a pressure drawing weight across Yang’s shoulders.

It’s not the bone deep fatigue that makes Yang feel clumsy and slow, though that’s definitely something.

It’s him too.

His greedy hands — the ones that ripped into the seams of time and space and pulled the tatters of her skin into something else completely, stitching a piece of himself inside her where she can’t reach to rip him out — pushing further now into every remaining corner of her life. Even her nighttime thoughts of Blake — the way she looked forward, every night, to seeing her princess again the next day — are interrupted by him.

Yang thinks he must be laughing somewhere.

She is drawn so thin and worn down by the time the sun starts rising, Yang feels like the light’s rays should probably pass right through the pointed edges of her tensed up shoulders. She is a fully transparent person, worn down and prickly like a jellyfish. All vague edges and menace.

Yang laughs at the thought, all alone on the rail line, as the sun starts to warm the back of her neck. She convinced Qrow to leave just a short while ago, to catch some sleep before he has to take to the sea.

If the idiot drowns due to lack of sleep, Yang would actually blame herself for that.

She feels stranger, though, alone there when the sun is coming up and the city starts to wake again. It’s so close to her old life, but still not the same.

Yang is not the girl she used to be.

Maybe she never was that really, not the way she pretended. Maybe none of it was actually easy. Or maybe it was and she just doesn’t fit there now, doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She holds her (glowing) left hand out — it isn’t as bright in the daytime sun. Yang feels the power ripple over her fingertips and up her arm. Her hand tenses and she pulls herself to the ground — landing (hard) in a spot just inside the Tower walls that remains empty this early in the morning.

Back here on ground level, Yang looks up to the tall stonework overhead. The gates are designed to be imposing, cutting the inner world of the court off from the rest of Dunwall. She used to be frightened and a little angry when she looked at it.

Now it strangely (almost) feels more like home.

That slow sinking sick feeling hasn’t gone away yet, but Yang hopes it might be gone by breakfast.

Whenever that happens.

*

Blake is waiting for her along a garden path they used to walk together in the mornings. She has a Watch uniform jacket draped over one arm and a soft smile stretched over her lips.

Yang finds herself spending a lot of time lately cataloguing every way that Blake moves her mouth.

She is very, very emotive.

Yang peels the bandana off and lets down her hair, shaking it loose to spill over her shoulders.

Blake looks like she just barely resists the impulse to roll her eyes, but her smile gets bigger. Just like that, the sick and unpleasant feeling is slipping away from Yang — pulled out from underneath and inside her, like a riptide, leaving behind only a soft and pleasant numbness that accompanies lack of sleep.

Yang smiles at Blake and hands over the plain brown tradesman’s jacket that she’s wearing. “I’ll trade you.”

“I mean it, when are you going to tell your sister so she can make you something better than a piece of cloth?”

“There is a lot happening right now.” Yang huffs and realizes that it makes her sound petulant and young in a way that is not very convincing at all. She clears her throat and tries again, dropping her voice lower — which she somehow associates with being an adult and therefor Correct. “I will tell her. Eventually.”

“If I order you to talk to Ruby, do you think that will make a difference?”

Yang makes a face, working at the buttons on her jacket. Blake watches closely, but makes no move to do it for her. “I think if you tried to order me to do anything, that would make me want to do it less.” She pauses a moment and then smiles an extra large smile. “Your Highness.”

“Of course.”

There’s a fond exasperation in Blake’s tone that tugs Yang closer even without the princess having to touch her at all.

Yang takes a step, and then another.

“Maybe if you learned to ask for things nicely.”

Blake’s eyes definitely glance down at Yang’s mouth at that, but then back up again. She smiles but doesn’t make a move.

No one else is here in this part of the garden (for now), but they’re still in public.

And Blake is still a princess.

They both know that. Even if Blake almost seems to forget some days.

(Even if Yang is certain that she forgets it too.)

“Honestly,” Blake says eventually, her voice so low that Yang has to take another step closer to even hear her. “There aren’t many things that I’ve wanted that I had to ask for first…”

Oh, and that step closer was obviously a mistake because now Blake’s eyes are lingering on the (very rapidly beating) pulse point in Yang’s throat, right there at eye level.

“… oh, yeah?”

Blake’s fingertips catch on the sleeve of Yang’s jacket.

Yang gulps. She actually audibly swallows.

“But I think I could learn.”

“You are… very clever.” Yang realizes her voice sounds very strained, but it’s too late to back out now. She clears her throat and continues, saying, “I bet you can learn anything if you try. Really, really hard.”

Blake hums very softly. “I think there’s a joke here. Somewhere.”

“I don’t—”

Yang does.

But this is not the time — the place — to be saying these things.

She isn’t even thinking about the night before, the sick feeling she’d felt overwhelmed by all night long that was completely forgotten in the face of Blake’s smile, or even the Outsider’s promise to continue watching her like a creep. None of that even occurs to her, because Yang is barely able to remember enough about propriety to keep her hands to herself in public.

Because this is very public — that’s the problem, isn’t it — but it still takes all of her strength and resolve just to take a small step back. Away.

But only a small one, because Blake’s still got ahold of her sleeve.

Yang grins, and starts to say something else, but then.

She stops.

Yang smells the storm coming even before she sees it on the horizon.

It all happens in an instant, just like she’s learned to expect.

“… Your Highness,” she says, so automatic, but Blake just stares at her in confusion. She doesn’t know the signs — the way the wind changes before the bright morning turns dark. But Yang is already shrugging her jacket off again, stepping in close, before the first cloud has passed across the sun. That’s when Blake looks as though she starts to realize.

Her eyes shift away from Yang’s face and travel skyward.

The first drops land on the flowers beside them and across the cobblestone walkway just as Yang lifts her jacket over their heads as a sort of makeshift shelter.

Oh.” Blake lets out a startled but excited gasp as she leans in closer. She laughs and looks up into Yang’s face, so close now. “My hero…”

The rain starts coming down harder, and the jacket doesn’t do nearly enough to stop it, but she still maintains the effort even as it starts to soak through.

Blake doesn’t actually look like she minds, not from the way she’s smiling and leaning in closer.

“What else is a royal protector for?” Yang asks, a little bit breathless and not exactly sure why.

She swallows and notices the way that Blake’s eyes are back on her mouth.

If there was anyone else around in the gardens before, the sudden storm has sent them running inside. They can hear people shouting in the distance, calling to bring in the horses or change delivery plans.

Life in the Tower goes on all around them, but just for this one moment they are alone (completely) in the garden — Blake’s family’s garden — out in public on their own, so close that they’re breathing each other’s air, in and out.

It shouldn’t seem sweet, the way Yang’s entire back is suddenly soaked through or the flush on both their cheeks as they laugh right in one another’s face. But the small curls of Blake’s hair close to her neck turn to small ringlets in the damp, curling against her cheek.

Yang wants to touch them. So much. (Too much.)

And it’s not as though there’s any point in resisting the rain anymore. They’re already drenched.

So Yang shifts her grip on the jacket to just the one arm, braced over their heads — barely covering them at all now really — and moves her other hand to grasp the princess at the back of her neck and pull her into a searing kiss just there, in her gardens, close to the roses that have been in the Belladonna family for generations.

If Yang had any doubts at all that this is what Blake wanted too, they disappear the moment that she shoves the jacket aside and takes hold of Yang’s face in both her hands, pushing up onto the balls of her feet to match her enthusiasm.

This storm won’t last forever, Yang knows, but for now — just now, and maybe never again — she can kiss her princess outside and not care about the consequences, even as the rain soaks through her shirt and the Void rock starts to show starkly against the fabric. The rain falls harder and Blake sways against her, laughing just loud enough to be heard over the drumming of the droplets against the stones.

“We need to get you inside!”

“I’m not the one whose illness could bring an Empire to its knees, Highness,” Yang murmurs, close to Blake’s ear.

She laughs and kisses her one last time and feels so much warmth pass between them that she half expects there to be steam rising off their bodies where every raindrop lands.

They pull apart again, but their hands find something to latch onto. Blake grabs for Yang’s right arm this time, touching the rough rock face so gently.

And Yang’s left hand — the one that’s marked and glowing again — lingers along Blake’s jaw, drawing a thumb against her mouth one last time. Before she pulls apart completely.

This storm won’t last forever.

They need to find their way indoors. Now.

“Come on, my royal protector,” Blake says, gently chiding as she slips off her own jacket. “It’s my turn.”

It’s the expensive one — too nice to even touch — but Blake slips it over Yang’s soaked shoulders and slightly filthy shirt before she even has time to object.

Not that it stops Yang from trying. “But—”

“Not an order, Yang.” Blake’s hand is there at the small of Yang’s back, pressing lightly. “But I’m asking. Please. Come inside.”

There’s such a painful earnestness in Blake’s expression that Yang honestly stares at it for a moment before she remembers she’s supposed to answer — then she nods, just that — and she doesn’t even notice the way the water draws the fabric so close and stark against Blake’s breasts.

At least not until they’re inside.

*

Once they are inside the Tower, Yang does notice.

She definitely notices and Blake absolutely catches her staring.

The princess scoffs, stepping closer again. So close, but without touching. (Yang barely disguises her disappointment.) “I could have your head for that, you know.”

You could have head anytime you ask nice enough, Highness, Yang thinks to herself in an instant and feels a surge of almost wicked satisfaction, hot and certain.

She could say it, she thinks. She nearly does.

But there is still that something there, stopping the words in Yang’s throat, just like she has to stop her hands now when they itch to reach out for Blake again.

To touch. To take.

The rain storm was dangerous. It’s washed away too much of her inhibitions and common sense.

What she says instead is, “I hope you find better uses for me than that, Your Highness.”

It’s close enough, or will have to be.

At least it still makes Blake blush, just a little, but that’s nearly worse.

Yang so wants to touch her cheeks — to kiss them, one and then the other — but instead she straightens into something she thinks resembles proper attention during training with the Watch, hands carefully folded behind her back.

Officer Nikos probably wouldn’t approve of her form or posture, but Blake looks satisfied enough as her eyes — very slowly and carefully — rake over the entire length of Yang’s body.

The rain has definitely left fabric clinging to a few places on her too.

It’s possible that Yang takes the opportunity to flex. Just a little.

Maybe.

“I think I might be able to come up with a few things you’re good for.”

“Is one of those being incredibly attractive?” Yang fixes an easy grin on her face. “Because I’m pretty sure I’ve already nailed that one.”

Blake huffs softly. “It’s a good thing you’re pretty.”

“… I know.” Yang blinks in feigned confusion. “I just— I literally just said that.”

With another soft exhalation of air, Blake turns and walks away without another word.

It’s not like Yang needs to be told anyway. She follows.

Of course she does.

*

It’s fine.

Whatever this is — this unnamed thing that neither of them talks about directly — between Yang and Blake, it’s going to be fine.

They’ve managed worse things before, both of them.

At least half of those happened when Yang was still at home, of course, in the slums that Blake talks about very differently than they really were. That just comes from the way that Blake is herself, and how she cares about her friends.

She can’t picture either of them coming from anywhere that didn’t deserve them.

But Ruby at least never really belonged in the streets of Dunwall.

Sure, she could take care of herself — always could — but there’s a kindness to her that was out of place there. Softness was seen as weakness, so Yang learned to be rough and rude. It’s a habit she still isn’t always certain she’s lost, the instinct to be harsher than the other person.

It’s there when she butts heads with Weiss and knows that there’s no reason — they aren’t even really mad — but she can’t resist the impulse. Wants her friend to know all the things about her that Yang sees and knows.

The only people she’s ever easy with are Blake or Ruby, but for very different reasons.

With Ruby, Yang just knows better.

Push too much and her sister will absolutely push back, and she has plenty of ammunition.

*

“You look terrible,” Ruby says for about the fifth time in just over an hour.

“Oh, thanks.”

They’re reviewing Ruby’s book about rail lines together, making certain there are no long abandoned pathways that no one’s thought of taking into account. For her own part, Yang is concentrating. Focused.

This is difficult enough to fully wrap her head around — picturing these printed images as though they’re actually running over the streets that have changed so much since the book was first written — and Ruby interrupting every several minutes with another question isn’t making it any easier.

Even if the questions are mostly to be expected. They’re the same ones she’s been asking since the night of the attack, with ever increasing frequency.

“Did you maim yourself so badly that it keeps you awake at night?”

Yang sighs without looking up from the book. “I didn’t maim myself.”

“Well, someone must have, if you won’t even take your arm out of those bandages.” Ruby points, as if the bandages she means might not be entirely clear. “The wound isn’t bleeding anymore. I don’t think it’s ever bled. They’ve been clean the whole time.” She reaches for the arm in question, but Yang quickly jerks it away — which is probably suspicious. Judging by Ruby’s face? Very suspicious. “… so if it’s not for clotting blood, you must be hiding something. Or protecting it from exposure to the air.” Ruby nods. “A maiming if I ever saw one. Even though I didn’t.”

Another sigh, but Yang still refuses to look up. “Didn’t what?”

“See it. Or have not seen it. Since you won’t show me.”

This was obviously a mistake, and Yang really should have known better. Once Ruby’s mind is set on something, it’s impossible to get her to stop the fixation. The last time the family tried to deny her something was when Ruby was just seven years old and had developed a fascination with sea life.

Uncle Qrow and their dad still forbid both of them from spending time on the docks at that point, until one day Ruby came home with a mischievous grin and a fishing pole taken from some unknown place.

At least, it was unknown for a few days.

That is until the owner found their father — who he recognized as the man that the scrawny girl with too many questions belonged to — and demanded a replacement for the pole and the five lobster traps Ruby had apparently dismantled to the point that he thought they were beyond repair.

After that, she was at least allowed at the docks, while heavily supervised by their now very vigilant father. Even then Yang couldn’t help but notice how most of the fisherman watched Ruby with added caution, even once she was older.

That was probably for the best.

“Uncle Qrow looks really bad too,” Ruby announces with the same abruptness all her statements have had this entire afternoon.

Yang grunts in a mostly noncommittal way, but it’s obviously not enough to satisfy her sister.

“I mean worse than he usually does.”

“When did you see him?”

Yang tries to keep her voice carefully neutral, but she can tell from the way that her sisters leans across the table, much closer to her face now, that it didn’t have the desired effect.

“Around.”

“Not where. When?” Yang looks up this time and as soon as her eyes lock onto Ruby’s, she realizes that was the point. There’s something triumphant in her sister’s eyes that makes Yang uneasy, as though Ruby can suddenly see the mark on her hand perfectly clear. “… what?”

“Is there something you want to tell me?”

“No.”

Ruby’s another person Yang doesn’t make a habit of lying to, but at least she’s had more practice over the years.

When mom died, for example. She told a lot of lies then.

Like how things would get easier and that very specific ache would ever leave their chests completely. Those were lies, and they were easy to tell, because Yang wanted them to be true.

This is harder.

“No there’s nothing you want to say to me, your sister who loves you dearly and knows when you’re lying because you’re not very good at it actually for someone who has done it for so long? That kind of no?”

“I guess so.” Yang shuts the book and stands quickly, the chair scraping loudly across the polished marble floor. “I’m taking this.” She waves the book at her sister, who narrows her eyes in a very specific way like she’s in the middle of a drawn out calculation. “… we can talk about everything else later, okay? Really. Just— not right now.”

“You’ve been saying that since you were maimed.”

“I’m not—”

“You were something, and I think a small maiming is a lot better than most of the alternatives.”

The thing about Ruby’s calm and calculating looks are that they can hide how much of a kid she still is. Just there, underneath the careful scowl is still Yang’s pushy and annoying little sister, looking worried. That’s all this really is.

She’s scared.

“I’m fine. Or I will be, at least.” The frown still hasn’t left Ruby’s face — if anything, it’s deepening at the start of an admission without anything more behind it — so Yang sighs and forces the rest out all in a rush, “And I’m going to tell you more, I promise, it just has to be later, okay?”

“Because Blake needs you.”

That had actually been the excuse Yang was about to use as she left the table, yeah.

But not quite an excuse either. It’s probably the truth.

Blake is somewhere else, without her Yang.

It stands to reason.

But hearing it aloud like that, with something that feels a little bit like an accusation undercutting Ruby’s words, Yang falters. She can’t say it now. “… we’ll talk. We will. I promise.”

“All four of us,” Ruby says, and it doesn’t sound like it’s a question. Not even close. “Soon.”

“Yeah. Promise.”

This one, at least, Yang doesn’t intend to be a lie.

She really doesn’t.

*

The princess should just be finishing up her council meeting, so Yang waits for her (and Weiss) in the hallway just outside the sealed door. She can hear the sounds of angry men just on the other side, but their exact words are muffled.

It reminds Yang of some of the rooftops on Clavering and the distant sounds of other lives. There’s a very distinctive way that people with lots of money talk, like they always know they’ll be heard but still need to be the loudest.

Even over all of that, she hears Blake clearly.

Her voice is quieter than the rest, but they all drop silent when she talks.

Yang feels that (sharply) in her chest. Pride. That’s her friend, her princess, and — what else?

Her Blake.

The door opens suddenly and the first one out is Jacques Schnee. He doesn’t bother with so much as a glance in Yang’s direction as he hurries off down the hall in a smooth yet brisk stride. He nearly collides with a servant rounding the corner from the other direction and Yang can hear his reprimand all the way from this end of the hall, just as clear as anything.

Rich people voice.

Next is the man from the brothel and his even more unpleasant looking friend.

They take turns sneering at Yang as they pass, but continue their conversation without any interruption. It’s about taxes, and “soft-hearted people.”

Yang bristles internally but she hides the disdain from her face easily enough.

She’s used to doing that.

She focuses for a moment, shifts her gaze into the other side and keeps an eye on the two of them as they round the corner — and stop just along the next hallway to have a conversation with the clear silhouette of Jacques Schnee.

Interesting.

“What are you doing here?”

Weiss’s voice isn’t quite an accusation — she sounds more concerned than anything — but it’s enough to jerk Yang back to the physical world right in front of her. She blinks quickly, refocuses her vision, and smiles what she hopes is her most charming smile. “Looking for her.” She points as Blake steps through the doorway.

Weiss sighs. “Please do not point at her Imperial Majesty, Yang.”

“How come? Is it a hanging offense?”

“Of course not. It’s just… tacky.”

“Weird.” Blake gives Yang the sweetest little smile that seems like she might be amused by this back and forth with Weiss, and that’s really all the encouragement Yang needs to keep going. So she does. “That’s almost my middle name.”

“Oh, that’s funny. Because last week you said that your middle name might as well be fencing when you tried challenging me to a duel—”

“—which I still can’t believe you declined!”

“And before that, it was knife tricks.” Weiss sounds almost as tired as Yang’s body actually feels. “And before that—”

“It sounds like you don’t believe me, Lady Schnee.”

“Oh, good. Because that’s how I want it to sound.”

Blake moves in closer and nudges Yang with her elbow.

She turns her head, just a little, so she can grin right at the princess. “Your Highness? Did you have something to add?”

“Oh, I was just wondering if these were all family names.”

“They are, in fact. Passed down through generations.” Yang lets out a wistful sigh and slings her arm over Blake’s shoulder in the same casual way that she often would when they snuck around in the streets together with her and Ruby as tour guides. “You should ask Ruby sometime about our great, great, great grandmother Knife Tricks Xiao Long.”

While Blake relaxes into the touch, Weiss looks a little less certain at the casual posture in public. She’s tensing now, and takes a step closer. “… maybe not here, Yang.” It’s not that she suspects — probably not, at least — but Weiss has always been nervous about what other people might think of their friendship.

Not just any people.

It’s what the nobles on the council and the others in a position to challenge or disrupt aspects of Blake’s rule think — people with more power and influence than Yang will ever have, even with all their years of friendship.

What those people will think makes Weiss tense, and Yang moves away before Blake can.

There’s enough on her mind without Yang forcing her to make that kind of choice.

Yang can slip away with a casual grin and a shrug, make it all still seem like a game as she gestures broadly around them. “What, you don’t know about the naming traditions from Morley?”

If Blake is uncomfortable with the brief moment that passed between all of them, she hides it pretty well with a quick grin. “Aren’t you born and raised here in Dunwall?”

“Family names, didn’t I say? And one side is from Morley.”

Yang realizes in an instant that she’s said too much. She should know better. Even to the poor people in the slums, “Morleyan” can sometimes sound like a vulgar curse.

If nothing else, it doesn’t make Weiss seem any less tense.

She sighs, the words practically hissed through her teeth as she draws closer. “Yang, I appreciate that you are very proud of even the made up parts of your heritage, but maybe it would be best not to spread around that one of the closest friends of the princess and our current Lord Regent comes from the island that people still largely associate with treason.”

Blake straightens instantly to a more regal height — which she manages even in just a simple button up shirt, without her usual formal jacket — and tilts her head so that she can more obviously look directly down at Weiss. “That is quite enough, Lady Schnee.”

There it is. The princess voice that makes other people silent.

This time Yang doesn’t feel as proud. The ache is something different, when she sees it from up close.

It’s Blake, but not.

Some other girl is inside her body for the moment, being colder than she ever is.

There in her eyes, it’s someone else completely.

Even Weiss must realize that this isn’t their friend, because she’s standing formally too. Yang is starting to wonder if she should move into attention herself. “… Yes, Your Highness.”

The moment is there and then it passes.

The stranger leaves Blake’s body behind, and all of her relaxes. She smiles. “Sorry, I just… need to stay in practice.”

“Tomorrow,” Weiss says, as though any of them needed the reminder.

The days have passed and tomorrow the doors of the Tower will open to the public again.

Blake smiles thinly and nods.

Yang wants so very much to put her arms around her again, but Weiss is right. Of course, she’s right. She knows the Tower and the people of the court better than Yang does — better than most — and this isn’t the place.

People can’t always have what they want all the time, not even princesses.

From the look Blake’s face just now: maybe especially them.

*

Ever since the visit from the Outsider in the middle of the day, Yang’s been making excuses to take her naps anywhere else other than Blake’s second bedroom.

If he comes for her again, it won’t be there.

The place he desecrates won’t belong to Blake.

She takes comfort in that, even if Blake seems suspicious of the requests and excuses every time. More lies, but necessary ones.

Today her excuse for sleeping in a guest room down the hall is that Blake has so many things to discuss with Weiss and she doesn’t want to distract her with worrying about unlocking Yang from the hidden room close to nightfall.

Blake doesn’t question it, not exactly, but she still looks uncertain when she leaves. Frowns are starting to collect on her face like gathering storm clouds and Yang knows that so many of them are her fault.

She never wanted to be this thing, the one who causes Blake any pain or worry at all.

There are lots of things she never wanted, including the arm that’s welded to her or the man that it still feels like it belongs to — that a part of Yang, if not all of her, belongs to. And that’s what she’s afraid of, isn’t it?

That’s why she lies in the bed that’s too nice for her for hours and barely sleeps at all. Every time she dozes off, she wakes up with a jerk and checks the room for signs of whale song.

He isn’t here.

She should relax. But she can’t.

*

There’s a knock on the door and Blake waits for Yang to open it before coming inside, even though this is her Tower and by now she owns most everything — in some ways everyone — inside it.

But she won’t acknowledge it and waits for Yang to step aside before coming into the room.

She’s still just dressed in a shirt and trousers, no jacket.

No fine jacket since the day they were caught together in the rainstorm, which was also the very last time that Yang allowed her touch to linger on Blake. They’ve been so busy since then, and mostly in public.

But they aren’t now.

The sun has already set and Yang feels strangely disoriented and out of place. She didn’t think that she was sleeping so soundly, but shouldn’t she have been up hours ago?

She has a rail line to walk along and guard all night while feeling increasingly annoyed with everything about her existence and —

Maybe it’s okay to just stay here for a little while longer.

If her princess thinks it’s alright.

And maybe Blake can read all of that in her face because she steps inside and shuts the door with a soft click and an even softer, “Yang.”

“… I think I overslept.”

The words feel strangely helpless and Yang doesn’t know what to do with the hands she’s very carefully keeping away from reaching out for Blake. They hang sort of limply at her side, as they so often do when she’s resisting the (very strong) urge to touch when she knows that she shouldn’t.

“You didn’t.” In the faint moonlight, Blake is harder to see, but Yang knows every feature so well she can imagine it all from memory. She knows the corners of the smile that she can hear, saying, “I told you I would come get you.”

“Right,” Yang says, just to fill the space between them with words instead of her hands.

Blake moves closer, slowly, but Yang stays still.

She waits.

Only days ago, this had seemed so easy and Yang isn’t sure what’s changed, not exactly, or even how. He was always watching after all, wasn’t he? It shouldn’t have to matter so much now.

But it does.

“… your jacket,” Yang says, still occupying the air with words. “Did I ruin it?”

“It’s with the tailor,” Blake answers, gently. Another step closer. “It’ll be ready in time for tomorrow.” She stops just a single step away, close enough to reach across. “I told them I was caught in the storm.”

It’s that easy.

All traces of Yang can be washed away, just like that.

That might be as it should be.

“My Uncle is waiting,” is what she says.

But Blake shakes her head. “He can wait longer. I … want you here with me.” Just like that, she crosses over the distance and her fingers wrap around the harsh rock of Yang’s wrist.

“Your Highness?”

Yang can’t ask anything more directly than that. Maybe she’s afraid to know. (Not maybe. She is afraid.)

“When I wake up in the morning, I really will be Lord Regent,” Blake says, squeezing Yang’s arm again, gently. “I know that I’m that already, technically. The title and the work, but— for the people. I’ll be on the throne for the first time, and—“ Her eyes are so wide, more innocent and young than Yang ever remembers her looking. “What if I’m not ready?”

It isn’t right.

Not the question itself — although Blake is very wrong about that too — but the way that she’s holding onto Yang. The Void rock isn’t comforting enough, it’s not what her princess deserves, so Yang makes the move herself to insert her left hand into Blake’s grasp instead — so she can squeeze back, firmly.

Blake blinks and looks down at their hands.

Yang squeezes again. “You were born for all of this and you’ve been doing it already. It’s like me with whaling, Blake. Some things are just in the blood and you don’t have to know or think.”

“It’s different, though.” Blake laughs a softly self-deprecating laugh. “I’ve never done it from the throne.”

“… wait, hold on.” Yang very lightly bumps her forehead into Blake’s. “Is the thing you’re this worried about technically just your ability to sit?” There is a long moment where Blake doesn’t answer, so Yang laughs and pushes on. “Oh, wow. I had no idea this was a problem for nobility. Did you have to take lessons?”

“Why do I even like you?”

“Because I’m really, really great.” Yang kisses the crown of Blake’s head quickly — lightly — and then pulls back to look her more easily in the eye. “But I’m joking, Blake. I know the throne thing matters.” She grins. “I listen, honest. But I just don’t know why it has to be tomorrow.”

“The people will probably object if I answer all of their petitions standing just slightly left of the throne.”

“No, that part I understand.” Yang shrugs. “But why not just go sit in it tonight first? Get used to the feeling.”

Somehow, this thought must not have occurred to Blake before, at least judging by the look on her face. She blinks. “… now?”

Yang shrugs again and backs into the door to push it open. “Why not?”

Blake’s eyes are always more golden than brown, but especially when she’s excited about something. Like now, when they burn brighter than the mark on Yang’s hand.

“Come on, Highness.” Yang offers Blake her arm with a small wink. “An escort to make it official?”

There is just the slightest hesitation before Blake takes hold of Yang’s arm.

She squeezes it (gently) through the fabric of her clothes.

They can both feel the pulsing heat of the Void underneath, but for the moment it’s almost something that Yang can forget.

There’s just here and now. And Blake.

*

Yang hasn’t spent much time in the throne room since that night.

It hasn’t felt like her place — not that it ever did before.

But with Blake beside her, it’s easy. She pushes the doors open without even thinking and actually enjoys the way that their footsteps echo on the floor. She points to the high ceilings and the rafters overhead, saying, “I came in that way.”

Blake gives her arm another squeeze, leaning her weight into her whaler’s. “Are you going to show me?”

“Do you want to see?”

Blake nods eagerly and releases her grip on Yang only after another gentle squeeze.

She takes a small step back.

Something in Blake’s expression makes Yang think that maybe this is just another way to delay — a few more moments that she doesn’t have to sit and accept the new changes in her life — and if that’s what Blake needs from Yang right now, she’ll give it.

She points directly at Blake with a small snap of her fingers before shifting her aim skyward and pulling with a twist of her wrist. She soars overhead, flung at the rafters, and lands hard with her fingertips firmly gripping the edge.

From down below, she can hear Blake’s excited applause.

“It’s so much better than you’ve made it sound!” she calls up, louder than is probably wise, but she is going to be the Empress one day and right now, laughing like she is, Blake makes Yang feel invincible too.

Is this what it’s always like to be a Belladonna?

Yang stands up and pushes herself through the frayed edges of time, pulling at the pace of reality until it slows and she can be there, already waiting right at Blake’s back when time starts up again.

“Do you like it, Highness?” Yang asks in a murmur with a very deliberate sort of heat just underneath.

Blake starts to turn, slightly startled, and Yang is there with her mouth right against the back of the princess’s neck. That stops her from changing their positions.

“… yes,” Blake admits, her weight shifting back into Yang.

“I can show you more, if you like. Later.” Yang kisses over Blake’s neck again, and then up along her ear. “… I’m starting to think you might really know how to ask nicely.”

Blake is flustered now and it comes through in the way her voice cracks when she answers quickly, saying, “The throne. We’re— not now.”

Yang grins.

Not now definitely means sometime, doesn’t it? She withdraws with a hand trailing over Blake’s spine, very lightly, and takes a careful step back. “Okay.” And she means it. No resentment or games.

This is what Blake needs from her right now, and that’s fine too.

Yang tilts her head a little and watches the princess turn to take in the throne. Blake hasn’t spoken about it very often, and Yang realizes for the first time how strange that really is. It’s always been here, after all, a part of Blake’s childhood and her future too.

Maybe that’s why she’s avoided it for so long — some inescapable something that’s part of her beginning and her end. The port you have to come home to, even after all the changing you’ve done while you’re away.

The way that Blake looks at it now, it’s like she’s seeing it for the first time.

She doesn’t seem to enjoy what she sees either.

Yang steps up behind her, back straight and her voice low but resolved. Steady. “Take your time,” she murmurs, and places a hand right at the base of Blake’s spine, like she’s steadying a ship in the storm.

It’s easy, and maybe Blake can believe that too (for now).

“You have somewhere to be,” Blake says, voice apologetic and soft, like she’s afraid to admit to what she’s thinking.

Yang hates to think of Blake as being afraid of anything — ever, at all — so she laughs and pushes at her back now, a gentle but firm shove. “This is where I’m supposed to be.” Her palm flexes against Blake’s back. “He can wait.”

With nothing between them but the thin fabric of her shirt, Yang can feel the warmth of the princess radiating against her touch.

Somehow, she seems to get warmer when she looks back at Yang and smiles. “Is that so?”

“The royal protector belongs at the side of the Empire’s ruler.” She pauses and grins. “I’ve been reading up.” That’s more than a joke — she really has been reading about royal protectors through the years — but plenty of the things Yang has read aren’t very reassuring, so she hopes Blake leaves it at that (for now).

Which she does.

Blake’s face shifts into a faint smile and her eyes move back to the throne where they remain locked. Yang recognizes something in that stare. It’s the way it feels to watch the horizon when you don’t know what might be ahead but you can imagine (clearly) a thousand different ways to die. Perched up top amongst the sails, you learn to keep your nightmares to yourself. No one wants to know about the bad things that might happen when they already have so many worries of their own.

Maybe being a princess is more like whaling than Yang knows.

If Blake has her fears and she wants to keep them to herself, Yang is going to give her the space for it. If that’s what Blake needs from her right now, she can give it.

But.

If there’s any chance that Blake wants to talk, or needs her royal protector — her friend — to ease some of this off of her shoulders, she is eager to do that too. So she stays close, watching Blake’s face for any sign that she wants the feelings clouding over her expression to be acknowledged.

Not just yet, Yang thinks, as she watches the way the princess approaches the throne.

Her fingers hover just an inch away from touching, and Yang thinks it’s not so different from the way she had reacted to the Void rock in Yang’s arm at first. Close, but not quite touching.

It’s as if Blake needs to adjust to knowing and accepting something before her touch can make it real. It makes sense, somehow, with the way that Blake’s touch feels — it does seem to make things more present, more real. Blake’s touch has, after all, transformed Yang completely. It’s not just the physical, but the very presence of the princess in her life, that’s made Yang into an entirely different person.

She can never be the same girl from the slums that met the princess those years ago, not exactly.

And she doesn’t want to be.

Blake is still silent, still so very still and composed, when her fingertips touch down along the arm of the throne, grazing across its surface. Yang watches as she drags her index finger across the long curve of the arm and up the back before turning suddenly, and slipping down into the seat.

It suits her. That much is clear in an instant.

Blake Belladonna was born to sit this throne. Even now, slightly stiff and unsure, her body sinks into a different posture.

It’s not relaxed, not really, but belonging.

Yang takes a deep breath in and a very small step closer. “… should I be kneeling?”

Blake’s eyes jerk to her — wide and worried at first — but she softens once their eyes meet. She laughs and shakes her head, hair falling around her face. “Don’t be stupid, Yang.”

“That’s going to be a hard one, but I can try, Highness.”

“Consider it an order to try being less of an idiot, yes.”

When Blake starts to actually relax, she shifts, favoring one side of the throne over the other. Yang wonders if it’s a mirroring of the way her father sat, or something entirely different, all Blake’s own. She wouldn’t know, of course.

People like her aren’t permitted in court while it’s in session.

“I wish I could see you tomorrow.” Yang takes another step and then another. There are small stone steps that lead up to the throne, draped in cloth. The better to kneel on, Yang thinks, but she stays standing as she advances. “The people will love you.”

“Maybe we should make it official then.”

Yang stops just in front of the throne — so close that Blake has to lift her gaze to look up at her.

“Make what?”

Blake’s fingertips are shifting along the arm of the throne again in slow, drawn out movements as though she wants to keep her hands busy. Her eyes land on Yang’s mouth and then away again. “My royal protector. We should make it official.”

“… are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Are you?”

Yang considers making a joke, deflecting the question away, but Blake’s expression is too sincere — too earnestly concerned — to dismiss her. “Of course I’m sure.”

Blake sits forward again, leaning away from the back of the massive chair she’s meant to rule from, and Yang realizes for the first time how uncomfortable it actually looks. The back is stern solid metal, with no padding to speak of. It demands erect and precise posture, as well as a sort of prolonged awareness of being there, forever present.

“I didn’t ask to be a princess, Yang.” Her hands are clasped lightly in front of her and her eyes carefully avoid looking at Yang for too long. “But you are choosing this life. You don’t have to. I would understand.”

“I don’t want it to be anyone else,” Yang answers so immediately that it’s almost instinct.

It is. It’s just instinct, because she doesn’t bother to think about it.

It’s just that simple. Easy.

Blake nods.

There’s a small smile that’s settled onto her face, but she still doesn't relax back into her seat after that. “Then I’ll handle it.”

*

Blake needs someone to remain at her side and Yang needs it to be her.

Simple. Easy.

If Yang tells herself often enough, she might even start to believe it.

*

Here’s something that Yang has learned in her reading: The position of royal protector was first created because of the Morley Insurrection that left an Empress dead and both islands on their knees. It was a bloody conflict that cost many lives and ships.

The people of Morley are often sailors by trade, so most of the fighting took place at sea, at least in the beginning.

But Gristol has always had more resources and money, so their ships were larger and better staffed.

That’s how the fighting began in the first place. The poor people of Morley resented the wealthy nobility of Dunwall who came to their island, took from their land, and made their people into servants (or worse). The way that Uncle Qrow has sometimes talked about it — though not often, never sober, and not when he thought that Yang or Ruby were really listening — it was a fight for the right cause done in all the wrong ways.

What began as a war waged on the oceans between two forces that could see each other clearly turned to spies infiltrating the city of Dunwall and creeping through its sewers. With fewer resources to make use of, the Morleyan forces employed deception and stealth.

Yang had always known about the conflict. For almost as long as she can remember hearing any stories about the islands or their history, this had been one the people in Dunwall’s slums would tell: the story of Dunwall’s nobility and the deceptive thieving rats of Morley. Most of these poor people were not the kind to side with nobles, of course, but many would still say “Morleyan” like it was no better than a dog.

Worse, even. Dogs they actually liked.

Reading this further account, Yang starts to understand. It wasn’t the cause, but what they saw as cowardice. Someone from Morley struck a blow into the very heart of the Empire, crippling the central power of the court, and they did it in the dark of night with no one to even see it. They snuck into the Tower itself and killed the Empress in her own home.

No one had ever been so daring before, and very few would attempt it after.

The next Empress created the role of royal protector to remain in the Tower, at her side, and always ready to prevent that very thing. Yang isn’t entirely sure why there wasn’t someone already in the role on the night the Emperor was attacked. She’s been afraid to ask Blake that obvious question, out of fear of any added anxiety it could cause.

But now it’s one of the only things she can think.

That and: a half-Morleyan girl is going to hold the life of the future Empress in her hands, and the council is going to have a fit about it.

Not that any of them need to know about Yang’s family.

Given a choice, she won’t tell them, of course, but she has a feeling it won’t be that simple. Or easy.

*

By the time Yang meets Qrow on the rail line, he does nothing to hide his annoyance at being made to wait.

“Busy with your princess?”

“She’s Lord Regent now, actually.”

“She’s trouble for you.”

This time they’re on a rooftop overlooking the tracks, with a well lit view of the Tower itself. Yang has spent time during the last few nights calculating which curtained window far off in the distance she thinks might belong to Blake.

She resists the very strong impulse to look over at it now, since she knows Qrow will be watching her (and wondering). “You know plenty about trouble.” She sits down on the roof, close to the edge, and lets her legs dangle out over nothing but road far below. “Did you tell the Outsider my name yourself, or did he come looking through the whole family tree?”

He doesn’t answer that and Yang feels a surge of satisfaction, like she’s just won something.

Eventually, he crouches down beside her instead of sitting.

His mask points toward the Tower. With no way to be certain, Yang has to assume he’s actually looking that way, so her eyes refocus on the rail line instead.

“What were you two talking about?”

“What makes you think I was with Blake?”

“Because you came here with a stupid grin on your face.” His head turns toward her, but Yang refuses to look. It doesn’t feel fair, the way that he can see her eyes and she can’t do the same. “You like her. I get that. I’m not blind. But— she’s a princess, or a Lord Regent, or whatever. And you’re just a girl from the slums. No matter what else you become in that Tower, you’re still going to be that. And that’s how they’re going to see you.”

“This is a really good pep talk.” Yang doesn’t know what she’s done to deserve this. Her night was going so well — at least better than most of the ones she’s had in weeks — and he has to try and ruin it. It stings, and Yang wants to do the same, so maybe there’s heat in her eyes when she finally does look his way, even if her voice remains mostly neutral, asking, “Did my mom like it when you talked to her like this?”

He doesn’t answer again.

After a moment, he stands up and walks to the other side of the roof.

Yang feels like she’s won again, but it’s not satisfying this time. She glares out over the city. She can see so much of it from here. In the distance, the streets near the docks — the ones she’s known all her life — and the ones here close to the Tower that she still feels out of place in, even years later.

Maybe he’s right and that’s why she’s so angry. She can feel the heat burning the back of her hand and clenches her fist to avoid any impulse to use that (pulsing) power.

“I’m going to be royal protector,” she says, not exactly to her Uncle at all so much as to herself.

As though it’s an answer to the new nagging feeling of not being good enough that’s settling into her chest.

“That’s a stupid idea. And I think you know that.” His voice is far away, from the other side of the roof, but without turning her head Yang can hear him coming close again. “That’s why you’re telling me, that’s why you’re late, and that’s why you’re acting like a child. You want me to tell you you’re wrong.”

Whatever Yang might have wanted him to say, it’s not that.

That’s definitely not the right thing.

The heat pools in her chest and she’s back on her feet in an instant.

She’s not sure if that was drawn from the Outsider’s powers or all her own anger, but she’s in her Uncle’s face in an instant, jaw clenching and untapped energy pulsing through her. “I don’t want you to say anything, because it’s not your decision.”

“Right.” He actually laughs, and the sound echoes faintly within the mask. “You’re all grown up now, ready to make your own grown up mistakes, just like your mother.”

“Shut up.”

The very tips of Yang’s fingers are on fire. She can feel it throbbing without looking, the faint pain and strange pleasure that accompanies the rush of power.

There’s a smell like the Void in the air, sharp between them.

Qrow’s head tilts, just slightly. He’s looking down at her hand. Good. Maybe he knows that he’s made the mistake.

“Seems to me, if you can’t keep that under control when you’re angry—” He nods toward the flames. “—you haven’t got any business standing in court with the Overseers watching. You like the attention too much. Maybe that’s why the Outsider chose you.”

Yang feels her breath catch and the fire sizzle out.

She’s not sure that she did that by choice, but suddenly she feels so drained. The anger has left her, but so has something else — some extra resources of energy and power just slip out of her body like water flowing from a bucket.

She takes a small step back, swaying too close to the edge, but Qrow moves quickly to grab her by the right arm.

Yang steadies, embarrassed, and shrugs him off.

He doesn’t object, but his gaze seems to remain fixed on her, as best as she can tell. Eventually, he says, “I think you should go back to your Tower and sleep, kid. If you’re going to be in court tomorrow, you need rest.”

“But—”

“Do you want to keep your princess safe or don’t you?”

Yang realizes how transparent she must be, because yes. Of course the answer is yes.

And she can’t argue against it.

Even if all she wants to do right now is prove her Uncle wrong about something — everything. “What about you, old man?”

He is silent for a little while longer, and when he answers the words seem strained in a way that Yang can’t really make sense of. “I’ll be fine,” he murmurs, chuckling faintly. “I feel like I just got an extra wind.”

Yang doesn’t know what that means and despite her current annoyance with her Uncle, she wants to. But it’s obvious he won’t say more.

He’s in one of those smug and mysterious moods that he and Dad slip into sometimes, talking knowingly about their past.

She’ll have to get it out of him later, when she feels less like knocking him off the roof.

“Yeah, okay.”

Yang doesn’t wait for another response. She turns, holds out her hand, and feels the world peel past in a rapid series of flashes. She is inside at ground level in the Tower in an instant, landing heavy and almost stumbling to her knees.

She does feel tired.

More than she has in days, even.

*

Yang takes an especially long, circular route to get back to the guest room she’d used before, making sure that nobody spots her roaming the hallways near the royal family’s quarters at night dressed in her very anonymous street clothes.

She starts to open the door to let herself in, but hesitates.

Blake is going to be in the garden early in the morning with Yang’s uniform, ready to meet her there. By that time, Yang’s chances of sneaking out down this hallway will be drastically reduced by the number of servants that are going to be running around. She needs to tell her about the change in plans.

It’s simple. Just knock, tell Blake to meet her in this room instead, and then go to bed.

Easy.

But for some reason, Yang still stands there in the hallway for way too long — it’s still the middle of the night in the royal quarters and she’s still very suspicious looking — before she moves to knock (so lightly) on Blake’s door.

No answer.

So Yang knocks again and spends the moments waiting in the hallway in silence starting to regret her decision. Surely there’s going to be a patrol passing through here soon.

Why isn’t there a guard on duty right now, in fact? Blake’s door is completely unguarded.

It’s convenient for Yang in the moment, clearly, but it’s also insanely dangerous and by the time she hears movement right on the other side of the door, Yang is genuinely annoyed.

“Who’s there?” Blake says, her voice carefully neutral yet commanding.

It makes Yang grin, in spite of her growing frustrations from throughout the whole night. “Royal protector to the Lord Regent, dropping in to wish you a good night, Your Highness.”

There is no hesitation after that.

Blake quickly opens the door and pulls Yang inside — which Yang absolutely did not see coming, so she actually stumbles (once) stepping over the threshold in the dark.

There’s only the moonlight filtered through the curtains, casting long shadows over the rumpled sheets of Blake’s bed that Yang is trying very hard not to notice.

And her.

Blake Belladonna, princess of all the isles, lord regent who rules over all that she surveys, with her hair spilling around her in thick waves that drape across the thin fabric of her nightgown. Yang is so unprepared for all of it that she doesn’t catch herself in time before staring. Her eyes travel all the way down to Blake’s bare feet fidgeting on the floor.

She grins again. “My apologies, Highness. I really didn’t mean to—”

“Is everything alright?” Blake cuts in, obvious concern coating her voice. “Did you see something?”

Yang is an idiot.

It didn’t even occur to her how much Blake would panic. “Yeah, everything’s fine.” She should have led with that. “My Uncle offered to keep watch by himself the rest of the night so I could get some sleep before tomorrow.”

The tension eases out of Blake in an instant.

She even laughs, although it’s short. “Oh. Already bragging to the family about your promotion, I see.”

Yang works very hard not to show any part of the unpleasant conversation in her smile or her tone when she says, “Something like that.”

“Well, come on.” Blake threads her fingers through Yang’s and gives her hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ll take you to your room, my royal protector.”

Blake tugs, just a little, and starts pulling Yang to the secret side room, but Yang doesn’t move. She doesn’t quite pull back either, but staying stationary is enough to make Blake pause and turn back, an open question on her face.

“… sorry, I wasn’t clear,” Yang says, feeling strangely sheepish. “I’m going to sleep down the hall, I just wanted you to know that I’m there.”

Blake blinks at her, quietly taking this in.

Her hand in Yang’s is very still, but also very warm. Eventually, she tilts her head. “Why not stay here?”

Yang could swear she feels heat at the back of her hand too, warm enough that Blake might feel it also.

Does she? If so, she doesn’t show it.

“I just don’t think I should.”

There’s a faint frown on Blake’s face, but it’s obvious she won’t ask more. She doesn’t push too far (or too fast) for Yang, and never has. Instead she gives their joined hands another light squeeze before placing a relatively chaste kiss on Yang’s cheek.

It’s enough to make her start to reconsider this whole not staying here tonight thing, so Yang quickly changes the subject. “Why aren’t there guards in your hallway?”

Annoyance.

Maybe that’ll strengthen her resolve, or at least serve as a distraction.

“They patrol the entire wing now, on regular loops.” Blake laughs very softly and presses another soft kiss against Yang’s neck. “You should probably memorize their route if you’re going to be sneaking around near my quarters from now on.”

Yang makes a face. “You make me sound really creepy.”

“Oh no, only invited sneaking.” She gives Yang’s neck another light kiss before her head turns away to check the clock on the nearby desk. “They should be back in another five minutes, so you should probably go.”

Her hand gives Yang another squeeze before they separate.

Even with a deadline looming, Yang allows herself a few seconds to just gaze at the princess in the moonlight — which provokes a lot of fond eye rolling from Blake. “Would you go?”

“As you command, Your Highness.”

As Yang backs out the door, her wink is illuminated by the lamp light of the hallway, but so is the (slightly furtive) way she licks her lips when she forces herself to stop staring and, yes, go.

*

Just as Yang collapses into the spare bed, she hears the commotion of the guards passing down the hall.

Blake was right. Of course.

As usual.

*

All night, Yang is restless.

She wakes up in her bed feeling strangely flustered and convinced she must be in the Void.

Still half-asleep, she tosses a pillow at the window just to make sure it’s really there. It thumps against it and then slides down to the floor.

She grunts and rolls back over. Repeat at least five times until the bed is emptied of pillows.

The first time she wakes up and there’s sunlight creeping in, she gets out of the bed in an instant. It reminds her a little of those early mornings back home, getting ready for a day at the docks or out to sea. Waking up so early that you can’t manage the energy to speak, but feeling confident in the knowledge you’ll soon be among the people who matter and understand you without words.

When Blake knocks, Yang’s already there at the door with her shirt half off and a smile plastered on her face.

Blake’s cheeks flush and she turns away while holding out the fresh change of clothes.

It’s not Yang’s normal uniform. This is much nicer and Yang hesitates just an instant before grabbing the shirt and pulling it on. The fabric is softer than any part of Yang’s skin, let alone any clothing that’s ever touched it before.

Even the buttons are fancy.

They’re made from some kind of shell — looks like something you’d find off the coast of Serkonos, if Yang had to guess — carved and polished until it’s smooth to the touch.

She nearly fumbles with the top one, but recovers before Blake turns her head to smile at her.

“Don’t you look dashing?”

Yang glances down at herself and back up again. Her grin is lopsided but self-assured. “I’m only half-finished. And the pants are next.” She removes the belt first and winks. “So do whatever you want with that.”

What Blake wants (for now) is to blush some more and look up at the ceiling.

“I’m trying to focus on the day ahead.” Even her voice sounds flustered and Yang can’t resist the impulse to put the new trousers on slowly, shimmying a little as she pulls them up. “You are … not helping.”

Yang slips on the new belt — leather as soft as her boots, which are the finest thing she’s owned until now — and tilts her head. “Do you want me to stop?” She means it, too. Just one word from Blake, and she’ll be back to serious.

But when Blake’s eyes are level again, she’s smiling (softly).

She shakes her head. “Just put this on and stop trying to make me forget everything I have planned today.”

Blake tosses the jacket pretty close to Yang’s head, but she catches it easily.

It’s a deep blue with violent accents in the same shade as Blake’s usual coat. There’s a carefully embroidered symbol over the left breast that Yang recognizes as the Belladonna family crest. The same one Blake wears.

Yang looks up to meet the steady gaze of her princess. She smiles.

The jacket slips on so easily, like it was tailored perfectly for her. Yang wonders, in an instant, if maybe it was. That sounds like something Blake would do without drawing attention to it.

She lifts an eyebrow, half a question, but doesn’t ask.

“… oh my,” Blake practically breathes the words and instantly draws closer. Her hand reaches out to press lightly against Yang’s neck, tracing over the line of the jacket collar and then adjusting it.

She definitely looks distracted now from whatever she had been thinking before.

But Yang lets her touch for now, just watching the princess’s face as she does. Yang smiles and thinks how beautiful Blake looks when she’s focused.

Eventually, Yang clears her throat, and she feels Blake’s fingertips vibrating against the sound.

“For the record?” She laughs. “You did this one to yourself…”

“I really did,” Blake murmurs, the words barely more than a whisper before she tugs at Yang’s jacket to pull her into a brief — but forceful — kiss.

*

A day inside the court at the Tower is both more boring and eventful than Yang had ever expected.

People come in and out all day long, a mixture of nobles and common citizens, each with complaints and concerns. No one that stands before the throne is happy with the current state of the Empire, and so they all seem equally displeased with the woman leading it.

It makes Yang feel tense and anxious, to hear so many criticisms that feel like they’re aimed explicitly at Blake, but the Lord Regent herself takes all of it in stride.

A look of calm concern settles on Blake’s face and stays there most of the day.

If people wonder what the street rat from the slums is doing standing in the throne room, they don’t question it out loud — at least not where the Lord Regent will hear.

By the time the fourth person has come to ask about the condition of the rail lines, Yang is feeling restless. Her eyes begin to wander, but Weiss catches her gaze and shakes her head. She nods towards something across the room and Yang notices (for the first time) that Jacques Schnee has arrived to watch the proceedings.

How long has he been there? He wasn’t here at the start of the day.

Yang’s annoyed with herself for not seeing him earlier.

It’s her job, isn’t it, to pay attention to the things surrounding Blake and make certain nobody dangerous gets close? Given all that, she should be allowed to escort Lord Schnee out of the room herself — but not before breaking his arm for good measure.

It’s almost like he can hear Yang’s thoughts, since his eyes are suddenly right on her.

His face shifts into something that might look like a smile on anyone else. But suddenly all Yang can think of is that ornamental death mask that redhead street punk wears to make himself seem more important than he is and how his own smile underneath had seemed just as cold and lifeless as his mask.

Yang thinks of him — just for a moment — and her vision fills with blood. She breathes in, sharply, and thinks she can see Blake tensing on her throne.

How loud was she? Did other people hear?

Her eyes move quickly around the throne room, judging for a response — for threats, for danger — and her right arm aches with a sudden throbbing feeling. Yang doesn’t have to look to know that her left hand is starting to burn, but she knows with just as much certainty that it won’t be visible.

The final part of Blake’s gift was thick leather gloves — softer than the boots or the belt — to hide the marks of the Outsider’s touch on her body.

Even so, Yang places her hand inside her pocket to hide something else entirely: the way it starts to shake.

She takes several deep breaths in.

Weiss leans closer, lowering her voice. “Are you okay?”

It’s not an accusation, but concern. Even so, Yang can’t accept it.

Her eyes move quickly to Weiss’s face and she nods, just as quickly. Too quickly.

“… if you’re sure.”

“I am,” Yang says, harder than she means to, and she instantly regrets the way that Weiss looks a little abashed. “It’s fine,” Yang lies. “I’m just hoping lunch is soon.”

She forces an easy grin onto her face and absolutely does not think about her Uncle’s warnings.

*

By the time the first council meeting rolls around, Yang has managed to compose herself enough that she can smile casually in Jacques Schnee’s face when Blake introduces her as the new Royal Protector.

He doesn’t offer to shake her hand, but that’s probably for the best given everything.

He sniffs a very dignified and put upon sniff. “I certainly hope you do a better job with the Lord Regent than any of your kind did with the Emperor.”

Anger flashes through Blake’s eyes just for an instant before she restrains it into a more neutral expression. “I trust her with my life, Lord Schnee. Obviously.”

“And your judgement is impeccable, naturally, princess.”

“You mean Lord Regent, father,” Weiss chimes in as she steps into the room. “Somehow it seems you keep forgetting.”

“Yes, well. I have known little Blake Belladonna since she was a child who could not stand on her own.” He levels his gaze on Blake and there is a cruel twist to his mouth that must be more of that excuse for a smile. “It seems like it was only yesterday that she was so helpless.”

“The Lord Regent is certainly not that now.”

Yang hates him. She thought she already felt that way before, but whatever that emotion was is nothing compared to it now.

She hates Jacques Schnee.

Which is why she keeps an overly sweet smile plastered on her face as she walks right past him to the head of the council room table and pulls out the chair she assumes must belong to Blake. “Your Highness, I believe you said you wanted to keep to the schedule.”

She even bows a little for good measure.

But still lifts her gaze quick enough to see Blake fight not to roll her eyes.

“Oh, yes, of course.” No eye rolling, but she still gives Yang a small nudge as she moves past. “Thank you, Yang.”

Blake and Weiss sit almost in unison — Blake at the head of the table and Weiss just to her left — but Weiss’s dad remains standing (and fuming). “Lord Tyrian and Doctor Watts still aren’t here.”

“I’m sure they will be soon, and there is business to attend to.” Blake gestures around the room. “There are four of us here. That’s enough to begin.”

Jacques Schnee does not like that. His mustache twitches with annoyance. “I was not aware your personal guard would be a member of the council.”

“She will provide me with her counsel, when I require it.” Blake blinks at him calmly. “I hope you are not questioning my judgement, Lord Schnee. I would be very hurt.”

There’s that fake smile again. “I would never do anything to hurt you, Highness.” He moves to take his seat and gives Yang a very pointed look as he does. “I imagine your pet would not allow it.” He chuckles, as though he’s so used to being humored that he expects everyone else to join in on his laughter.

But the room stays quiet.

Until Blake turns to Jacques Schnee and gives him a very large smile. “Apologies, Lord Schnee, but I do believe that the Royal Protector will serve me best seated at my right side.” A single moment the length of a heartbeat passes, and the smile begins to slip from her face. “I hope you understand.”

His mustache twitches again. “Of course, Your Highness. I wouldn’t dream of taking the seat of—” He looks at Yang sharply, every movement stiff and tense. “What was your name again?”

Yang hesitates. Something about this feels like a trap, but she’s pretty sure she can’t outright deny a request from the man that’s still technically the royal advisor. “Yang Xiao Long.”

“Ah, yes. Yang of noble house Xiao Long.” He stands and moves exactly one chair down. “However could I forget?”

The two remaining council members arrive just as Yang takes her seat.

“Now then,” Blake begins without waiting for any greetings or questions from either of them. “We have quite a lot to discuss.”

*

The meeting begins with topics that Yang knows very little about, and honestly finds pretty boring. Budgets, of course, but also dignitaries from the other islands that require immediate response or some kind of special treatment when they visit in three months time. The schedule for the next meeting and an upcoming banquet have to be arranged around kitchen staff availability. If this is the kind of thing that Weiss spent her entire childhood preparing for, Yang now finally understands why she was so unbearable when they first met her.

When the discussion (finally) moves on to the rail line, Yang is relieved to hear about a topic she actually has some small opinion on.

Even if it’s already been discussed endlessly today.

“The people cry out for your leadership, Highness,” the other annoying man with a mustache says. “In this most trying time, they look to the throne for a sense of normalcy and security.”

“I agree with the good Doctor,” says the man next to him who has been agreeing with him all afternoon. “We need to reopen the rail lines as soon as possible. For the good of everyone.”

“If you two are in agreement, then I certainly think we should strongly consider your guidance.” Jacques Schnee places his hands flat on the table, as though that added pressure will add weight to his words. “And you, princess?”

Weiss looks ready to respond, but Yang is the one to cut in this time. “She’s the Lord Regent.” She can see Schnee bristle out of the corner of her eye, but doesn’t bother to turn her head. “And since you were in the throne room today, I think you already heard a lot of what the Lord Regent has to say on the matter.” She finally turns to look his way, feigning vague confusion. “Unless you forgot somehow?”

Jacques Schnee’s mustache twitches and his eyes darken. “Doctor Watts and Lord Callows were not present in court today.”

“So you’re asking on their behalf.” Yang can see Weiss sitting up straighter in her periphery, but she’s made no move to stop her. Not yet, at least. “That’s so generous of you.” She turns to face Blake this time, her expression carefully neutral. “Your Highness, Lord Schnee is interested in hearing your thoughts on the rail lines for the sixth time today, but only because two of the members of your council didn’t bother to show up to court on the first day it reopened.”

Weiss coughs to have an excuse just to cover her smile — Yang could swear it — but Blake keeps her own expression very composed. “How very generous.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Lord Schnee, as you heard, I told every petitioner today who inquired about the rail lines that they would open only when repairs were finished.” Blake leans in closer, her hands folded carefully in front of her. “I don’t think it’s wise to go into specifics about our repair schedule in open court, given the possibility of any security vulnerabilities. But if you would like me to spend the next hour outlining the schedule for you, I would be glad to help.”

“No need, Lord Regent,” the thin-faced weasely man answers for all of them. “Another topic, certainly.”

Weiss turns her papers over. “We have a request for research funding—”

“What, now?” The man who is apparently a Doctor guffaws. “What kind of incompetent fool would dare—”

“As I was saying,” Weiss smoothly cuts back in. “Research into diseases spread by the bloodflies of Serkonos.”

“Done.”

“But— Your Highness—”

“My apologies if I have at all been unclear about the role this council serves, but I am only interested in advice on matters where my mind is not clearly decided.” Blake’s gaze is level, calm, but Yang knows her posture well enough to see the tension in her shoulders clearly. “Am I absolutely clear?”

The men exchange a look and this time it’s Jacques Schnee who speaks for all of them. “Absolutely, Highness.”

It goes on like that for a while, with the men never quite learning to hold their tongues as well as they ought to and Blake and Weiss carefully — and obviously, though maybe not to the self-involved nobles — cataloguing each and every slight.

They mention the labor for the mines that Weiss told Yang about, and she notices the way that Weiss grips the stack of papers she’s reading from especially tight. The topic is tabled until the next meeting.

“Any more business?” Blake finally asks, several hours later.

Weiss turns over the final page. “A request from the King of Morley.”

All three men sneer at once.

Yang is careful to show absolutely no reaction, but she can’t help but notice the way Blake almost looks in her direction. Instead the Lord Regent’s gaze stays fixed on a spot on the table. “Yes?” Finally, she looks up at Weiss.

“Given the attack on your father’s life, he fears for his own and asks that we send some of the members of our Watch for added protection.”

“It’s a trap,” the sharp-faced man sneers. “No fool would trust anyone from Morley, beggar or King.”

“I hardly think there’s much of a difference.”

“Quite. He comes to us begging for aid, after all.”

“A begger king fit for the people of—”

“That is quite enough.” For the first time all day, Blake’s patience sounds worn thin. “Morley is one of our islands and we will assist the king who rules over her in my stead.” She turns to Weiss. “We will speak to Officer Nikos later today.”

Something passes over Weiss’s face, but Yang can’t quite place what it is because it’s gone almost as fast. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Blake stares back at her three less favored advisors again. “Let me be clear. If I find out that any of you are speaking ill of one of my islands or its rulers again, I will not take kindly to such an obvious act of treason.”

“But—”

“Do I look as though I am finished speaking?”

Yang’s heart beats faster, harder. She has never seen Blake like this before and doesn’t know how to feel about it at all. It’s not exactly the same cold and different person she had been in the hallway before with Weiss. This is something else. This is a ruler, a future Empress, but also a protective friend, pushed on by loyalty more than anything else.

“I will not tolerate disloyalty in my council.” Blake stares at all of them, carefully. “And be certain, this is my council so long as my father remains unwell. Understand your place here.”

Yang doesn’t even bother to glance at the men to see their struggles to maintain composure. She honestly doesn’t care.

She only has eyes for Blake.

“Parliament won’t care for this attitude, Your Highness.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Blake doesn’t even blink. “But you can tell the Prime Minister that if she wishes to address her concerns with me, she can do so directly instead of using you as a go between.”

“… yes, Your Grace.”

The way the princess settles back in her seat and flicks her hand dismissively, almost casually, makes Yang’s entire heart swell with a strange kind of pride. “You may go.”

The men hesitate before Yang hears the sound of scraping chairs, one by one. They are reluctant to be ordered by her, even though she is their ruler.

They should know better.

Eventually, they must realize their place, because they all file out. Yang only turns to watch them leave as an afterthought, enjoying the feeling of seeing Blake — her friend and whatever else she is — ordering these awful nobles around and watching them have to obey.

The door shuts after them and at last the three of them are alone.

Weiss sighs. “That wasn’t very wise.”

“But it was fun.”

“By the Abbey, Yang, did you see my father’s face when you spoke to him like that?”

“I didn’t think he was really worth paying attention to,” Yang drawls, her eyes right back on Blake — where she’s rewarded with a faint smile.

“They hate you already.”

“Of course. I’m here to be in their way.”

Blake tilts her head. “I thought that was my job, actually.”

“We’ll share.”

“If you two are quite finished, I thought we should speak about my sister and—”

The door opens again and they all immediately fall silent. But the person entering the room again isn’t any of the terrible council members.

It’s Blake’s mother, the Empress.

Yang and Weiss both stand instantly, with Yang carefully at attention.

Blake’s whole face lights up. “Mom.”

“I didn’t want to sit in on the meeting, today of all days, and take away from you, darling, but I did want to check in.” She lets the door shut softly behind her. “I didn’t realize your friends would still be here.”

“Mom, you know of Yang, of course, but I’m not sure you’ve really…”

The Empress strides across the room quickly and holds out her hand. Yang stares at it a moment too long before reaching out to shake it. “It’s my understanding you’re to be our new Royal Protector.” She squeezes Yang’s hand suddenly, firmly. “I hope you understand that I take this position very seriously.”

“I—” Yang glances over at Blake, but quickly back again. “I do. Ma’am. Your Highness— ma’am.”

“You seem young.”

Yang very much wants to glance over at Blake again, for some kind of reassurance, but she finds it impossible to look away from the Empress’s direct stare. “I am?”

“I hope you understand why that worries me a little.”

“I do.” She swallows. “But I promise I will give my life up for your daughter’s if I have to. No question.”

Even if she hadn’t done that for the Emperor.

Yang swallows and really, really hopes that thought somehow doesn’t show on her face at all.

“I trust Yang completely, mom.” Blake is standing now, right at her side. “She’s a lot stronger than she looks.”

“Smarter too,” Weiss deadpans from the other side of the table.

That makes the Empress laugh. “If you got Weiss to like you, that’s always a very good sign.” She finally releases Yang’s hand and lowers her voice in a sort of conspiratorial whisper. “She’s very hard to impress.”

This time, Yang does glance back over at Blake, like she’s not sure it’s allowed for someone like her to be playful with an Empress. But Blake just smiles.

So Yang leans in as well, her own voice a low drawl, saying, “Sure, but I’m very impressive.”

Weiss rolls her eyes at that and Blake’s laugh is a little more enthusiastic than Yang would have honestly preferred in response to a comment like that.

But you know what, she’ll take it.

*

Blake and her mom have barely had any time to talk at all in the past few days, so Yang leaves them alone and goes looking for her sister.

She did make a promise, after all.

Yang finds her at the gates, dressed as though she’s ready for a long daytime trip into the city, but Ruby stops entirely when she sees Yang approaching.

“You look like you’re going on an adventure.”

She has an extra sword strapped to her back and a satchel that appears to be almost overflowing with food. “I haven’t taken Zwei on a walk in ages, but you keep saying the city’s still dangerous, so I thought, be prepared.” She pauses. “Are you finally ready to talk? Because Zwei can wait.”

Yang glances around them quickly, but nobody seems to be paying attention to their conversation. “Yeah, I think so.”

Finally.” Ruby drops a second satchel that Yang hadn’t originally noticed from her shoulder — it’s twice as big as the other one. “… help me with this? It’s heavy.”

“You don’t even have this many stomachs.”

Ruby rolls her eyes and tosses the bag at Yang. “That sounds like a dare.”

“It wasn’t. I’m sorry.” Yang slings the bag over her shoulder. “Please don’t make your stomach explode by eating too much.”

Ruby rolls her eyes but marches off toward the upper courtyard that overlooks the training yard below, where Yang took her that first day in the Tower.

It’s too public for the conversation Yang wants to have, but she can hardly say so loudly now that Ruby’s already rushed far enough away it would take volume to reach her. Instead, she follows, content with this ease that’s settled back in between them.

Maybe things will be this easy to settle with her and Uncle Qrow too.

But somehow, Yang doubts that.

*

Officer Nikos is training new recruits down below. She’s going harder on them than usual, and Yang doesn’t know why.

Her voice is firm but somewhat detached, cold in a way that isn’t like her at all.

Yang can hear the shouts from all the way up here, and that’s out of character too. Her voice during training is usually composed but soothing as well.

She makes a note to ask Weiss about it next time they talk.

Right now, she has to refocus entirely on Ruby, who’s already a little distracted by the people down below. At least, it looks that way.

But when she turns her head back to face her sister, it’s clear: she’s ready to hear this.

Even if Yang has no idea where to start.

“Um, so you were right about me being maimed, I guess.”

“Obviously.”

Ruby huffs with such a sweet impatience that Yang suddenly can’t believe that she’s kept this secret for so long. Of course she needs to tell her sister.

“So don’t freak out, because I’m fine now—”

“Did you die? Are you dead?” Ruby gasps. “Show me your arm!”

“Not… here.” Yang firmly places both her hands inside her pockets to keep Ruby from shoving the sleeves up too easily. “You going to let me finish?”

“… sure, but are you going to show me your arm?”

“Later.”

Ruby nods, apparently satisfied.

“Um, well so… I got hit by a spring razor.” Ruby’s eyes grow about two sizes bigger, but she doesn’t interrupt. “And then there was a bomb, but I didn’t actually blow up or anything. Obviously. But my arm is kind of…” She swallows. This is a lot harder out in public where she can’t just show her. “You know how people are always talking about the Outsider?”

Ruby stares for a long moment. She blinks. “Yang, are you telling me that—”

There you are.”

They both turn at once to see Weiss striding across the courtyard, a look of barely restrained panic clear on her face.

The conversation is completely forgotten as Yang straightens, hands out of her pockets and held at the ready. “What’s going on?”

“Do you know where Blake is?”

*

They find her in the royal quarters and it only takes one look at Weiss’s face for Blake to excuse herself from her conversation with her mother. They reconvene in the guest room just a few doors down.

Yang hastily tries to arrange the sheets so that it doesn’t look like she leaves the bed completely unmade every morning — although she does. She gives up (quickly) and turns to see the others staring.

“… so what’s up?”

“There’s been an explosion,” Weiss starts and every one of them looks ready to interrupt so she pushes on quickly; “It happened at one of my family’s mines outside the city. It was the middle of the night, so no one was injured, but that’s—” She hesitates, watching their reactions closely. “That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Bombs don’t usually just happen, so yes, it’s very strange.”

Blake blinks and looks from Ruby, to Yang — where her gaze lingers a little too long — before shifting back to Weiss. “I don’t want to seem disrespectful, but … if no one was injured, this is a good thing, isn’t it?”

Weiss doesn’t seem to know what emotion to settle on, so her face just sort of distorts into a mess. “Explain.”

“Your father. Isn’t he going to want to tend to this?”

“He’ll have to leave court,” Yang blurts out once she realizes.

Blake nods at her, continuing, “He might not want to at first, but maybe with your urging, Weiss.”

“I’ll do better than that.” Weiss smiles thinly. “I’ll offer to go and oversee the repairs myself. Father won’t be able to stand the idea.”

“It’s perfect,” Ruby concludes. “Almost too perfect, am I right? Like it feels like— Bombs really don’t just happen, so someone had to do this, and this is exactly what we wanted to have happen, plus nobody was injured.”

“It’s going to cost my family a fortune.”

“It’ll cost your dad you don’t like a fortune.” Ruby pauses. “Sorry about your brother, I guess.”

“He’s not my favorite at the moment either.”

“And your sister?”

As soon as the question leaves Yang’s mouth, a thought occurs to her.

It’s the exact same realization that seems to be hitting all of them at the same time, but only Ruby gives voice to it. “Hey Weiss, do you think your sister might be back in Gristol already?” At some point in the middle of a discussion about a bomb going off, Ruby’s opened her satchel and begun eating grapes. She holds one out to Weiss as a kind of peace offering in return for the very heavy sigh she just caused.

Weiss takes one and chews in silence.

“I’m sure we’ll know soon enough,” Blake eventually says.

Ruby eats another several grapes, mumbling around the mouthful, “I think we already know…”

*

The rest of her conversation with Ruby about the Outsider and everything else will have to wait.

Weiss goes to speak with her father right away, in the Estate District.

Yang offers to come, but Weiss says she thinks it will go better if her father doesn’t see Yang twice in one day.

Which is fair enough.

Blake actually looks relieved enough once it’s clear that Yang is going to stay that she makes some excuse about official royal protector business and needing to stay at Blake’s side.

“You understand, right?” Yang asks Ruby in a low voice while Blake politely pretends not to overhear.

Ruby rolls her eyes. “A lot more than you think.”

Wait, that — actually, that is very worrying and it’s something Yang is going to have to come back to later.

*

Much, much later when she doesn’t have an afternoon to spend with a future Empress curled up in her arms on a bed that was very clearly only ever meant for one person.

Yang doesn’t like naps in the secret bedroom, but she thinks laying down and holding the princess while she sleeps is just fine. Except Blake isn’t sleeping.

Her breathing still hasn’t evened out and although her eyes stay firmly shut, it’s clear she’s still awake.

Eventually, Yang asks. “You want to talk about any of it?”

“No,” Blake answers automatically, but then hesitates. “I don’t know.” Her eyes open slowly, and Yang just barely resists the impulse to take in a deep breath at the sight — she’s so beautiful. “I was so happy when Weiss said that a bomb went off, I don’t know if I even registered at first that no one was injured if it meant he would finally leave and I wouldn’t have to do it myself.” Yang’s arm loops around Blake automatically, pulling her back closer to Yang’s front, but she doesn’t interrupt otherwise. “… I’m a monster.”

Yang scoffs.

She knows it’s not the most sensitive and intelligent response, but she can’t help it.

It’s the most absurd thing that Blake has ever said.

“You are not.”

Blake blinks and shifts just enough to turn her head. She looks genuinely surprised, like she never expected anyone to disagree with a thing like that. “I’ve done a lot of awful things.” She stares like she expects Yang to challenge that or to falter.

But she doesn’t even pause. “So have I.” Blake’s golden eyes blink slowly, taking that in. Yang is quiet for a little longer, and then adds, “I don’t know what you think you’ve done, but you made my life better than I ever thought it could be. You did that. You’ve done more good than you give yourself credit for, because it just happens. You don’t try, you just… are good.”

Blake watches her in silence for a little while longer before she turns away again, her eyes slipping shut. “… you aren’t a monster either, Yang.”

“Oh, I know that.” Yang presses her grin against Blake’s cheek and kisses it lightly. “I’m great.”

“And so humble.”

“That’s another one of my best qualities on a very long list.” Another kiss. “… you should rest, Your Highness.” She can feel some small part of the tension along Blake’s back releasing in her next long breath out. “I’m going to be right here. And I’m not going to fall asleep. It’s fine.”

“Won’t you?”

“Nah.” Another kiss, this one to the very back of Blake’s head. “I’m protecting you. Royally.”

“Oh,” Blake murmurs, her voice already just that little bit softer.

Within another few minutes, she is fast asleep.

It’s only then that the tension finally releases from Blake’s shoulders.

*

There are things that Yang still feels too young, too small, to protect Blake from completely. Not the physical, but those other things — the weight of expectation and the distances between them that are only going to grow as time moves on.

But here. Now. If this is what Blake needs from her right now, Yang can give it.

*

That night she walks the rooftops near the rail line on her own.

She doesn’t expect Uncle Qrow to be there.

But when he comes spiraling out of the sky, Yang is ready and alert. He won’t catch her off guard again.

That’s what she thinks, at least.

But then he pulls off the mask. “Kid. We’ve got a problem,” he says, breathless in a way that almost makes Yang feel a strange surge of concern — the kind of panic she hasn’t felt since she was a child.

Or the day she was pulled back from the sea, black water in her lungs.

“Yeah,” she says with a soft laugh, trying to keep it light enough to will this moment into something it’s rapidly seeming like it’s not. “But if we talk it out—”

“Not we as in you and me and our stupid fight problem, Yang, listen to me.” Qrow charges closer — so close that Yang can smell the alcohol on his breath — and she doesn’t know if it’s fear or anguish on his face when he says, “It’s your sister.”

Chapter Text

Mornings in the Empire start at different times for different kinds of people.

If you work at the docks, that’s usually before the sun comes up. Some people even say that the sun rises in the east because of all the workers who start their mornings there, yelling and causing commotion as they ready to set sail. People in Morley also say that the whole island is already awake and working before the first citizen of Dunwall has even opened one eye.

One day, Qrow will know how untrue that is, but as a child it sounds fair enough.

Back then he and his sister are two of too many, all children from the streets that find a home with a man every one of them calls Uncle, though none of them are related to him through blood. He smells like whiskey and sea salt and is always quick to anger but just as slow to move. He takes swings at your head that it’s easy to avoid, and maybe that’s a deliberate part of the game of learning to live in his house. He takes a swipe at the back of you and you learn how to be quicker on your feet.

Maybe it’s so that you’ll know better how to avoid the traps along the path, to sneak your eager hands into places they aren’t meant to go and come away with more than you started with. Qrow has been skilled enough at taking what he wants — or usually needs — on the streets his whole life, but Raven has always been better. The best.

She might come home at the end of a long day with some shiny new something around her neck, dangling like a prize in front of everyone else, and the first kid that tries to take it from her reels away with a broken nose and blood down his chin.

Qrow laughs, saying, “Serves you right.”

Raven looks pleased with herself, but never says anything more. The injury is enough. The other children have always known to keep clear of her when she’s angry, as she so often is.

There is plenty to be mad about.

Sure, the two of them might sometimes take things that technically aren’t theirs, but that’s no reason for the nobles fresh off the ships from Gristol to try to snatch them in the street; any kid knows not to linger too long at the docks watching the ships come in if they’ve just made port from Dunwall and aren’t rigged up for whaling. Those boats carry nobles looking for labor. Not that it’s them doing their own dirty work, of course, but their help — big burly men and women who might grab the people they want by the scruff of their jacket or twist at their arm and never care how you squeal when they bend it past where it should turn at the elbow.

“Now then, boy,” they might say, their words dripping with disdain. “Wouldn’t you care for a business opportunity off this disease-ridden rock?”

One solution is to slip out of the sleeves of the jacket — Qrow has lost more than one nice coat that way — but another is to kick or to bite. That one could land you with a black eye (or two) but the nobles never want you after that.

“Feral,” they say. “Just like a dog from Morley.”

Wrong, of course. There aren’t actually many dogs left at all on Morley. It’s another resource they’ve lost to the years of ships and sailors.

Not that the truth has ever mattered to nobility.

Somehow Raven is never caught by any of those bruisers, but she’s always right there at Qrow’s side when it’s done. She pats him on his back and ruffles his hair, as though she likes the chance to watch him fuss to fix it after.

“You’re a mess,” she says.

He wipes the blood from his nose with the sleeve of his shirt and retrieves his jacket from where it’s been trampled in the mud. “Still prettier than you,” he says, pushing his hair back into place.

She rolls her eyes, but doesn’t answer.

*

The Morley Insurrection.

Spend any time at all in the back room of any bar across the island and you’ll hear it spoken of with sweet reverence.

The time the dogs fought back.

No one would admit it in front of anyone from anywhere on Gristol, especially if they’re from Dunwall herself, but there’s a pride associated with the rebels and their descendants. Anyone who wants to impress a girl will confess — with hushed voices, earnest glances — to having a grandfather or other distant relation who threw off the shackles of tyranny and took to the high seas of liberation.

Say it flowery like that and it works every single time.

Qrow has seen it with his older brothers — not brothers by blood, but by trade — who would meet girls in the marketplace. One of the benefits to a life in Wynnedown, the capitol city, is how many people there are. If one girl didn’t like you, which happened often enough, there was always more. It was exciting, to see new things and hear new voices around every corner, not just the ladies.

One of his brothers would swat the back of his head, rough with his excitement, and say, “There’s a show starting soon, come on.”

They never dare to strike at Raven, but she always tags along too, quiet and intent at his side. They dart through the streets, running faster to avoid the swings from one another, fast swipes with a fist or even a few thrown rocks that clatter against the alley walls.

Steal a snack of roasted rat from a passing cart, ducking under it and crawling through the mud — weaving through the feet of passing people — just to land in the middle of the city square, where a poet is reciting a new tale of Insurrection.

The people cheer at all the best parts and Qrow pumps his fist along with them, juice from the fresh meat dribbling down his chin until Raven snatches the rest for herself. She smiles when she eats it, so he doesn’t really mind.

Life is simple. It’s sweet, in its own way.

Like those rare mornings spent at the docks when the whalers are readying to set sail. Qrow watches as they carry their cargo aboard: long spears sharpened so they glisten in the sun, thick coiled rope, and slick whaling suits. They wave to him as they pass by, ruffling his hair as they go. He doesn’t dare to fix it after, as he would when his sister tousles him. These are men and women of the sea, and he wants them to think he is one of them, just as rough and ready to go.

When they pull away from the dock, he feels a pang of longing.

He watches each new ship sail until it’s just a speck on the edge of the horizon, a needle point of regret. Then he goes home, to his family, and the bedroll on the floor between his sister and a brother five years his senior. Always there are other people in so many places through the city’s streets, but only one family — and sister — to come home to at the end of every day.

He likes it that way.

*

Another thing that Gristol has brought to Morley, alongside its nobility: the Abbey and its Overseers.

The poets and the artists that have thrived in the slums of the northern most island for so long did so, in part, because of their freedoms. They were allowed to view the world as it is, or even might be unlike the Abbey with its obsession with the cosmos — reading signs in stars and promising an inevitable end of days that they thought the whole world should be consumed by. But none of that matters to a people whose use of the stars has always been to travel best at sea. In Morley, the Abbey meant nothing.

People who ply their trade out on the waters all know that you need protection that only one man can provide, although he’s not really a man at all. Black eyes and unfeeling heart, just like the sea. He knows the end awaiting all of us and how to keep it off a little while longer.

Every good whaler or sailor knows to bind bones into your jackets, stitched carefully into the lining, and whisper words of compromise to the Outsider to come home safely again from your voyage. They talk about it at the docks of Morley without fear or uncertainty.

But Gristol is another thing.

Their Abbey forbids all talk of the Outsider. No shrines, no pleas, and no runes made of bone.

That’s in addition to their seven strictures they vow to uphold and expect others to abide by too. Qrow doesn’t bother to learn them — he doesn’t know anyone who has — but he knows that there are seven because the Overseers love to say so.

Uncle says that Overeers never used to be found in Morley, until the revolution. There were changes after that, a kind of punishment to make them more like the rest of the Empire they must kneel to. The seven rules and the men who enforce them was part of that.

They arrive by the boatload, grim masks and an even grimmer mood.

They stand on the corners in the market, promising to bring ruin upon anyone who dares to disobey. The end is always soon, and the consequences brutal.

Their power this far from Dunwall is limited, but so is any oversight.

More than once, he’s seen someone pulled off the street by a crowd of Overseers, never to be heard from again. Burned alive, some would say. Others were certain that it was drowning. Bodies sometimes washed up at the docks that folks swore had been taken by the Overseers. Men and women with their faces unrecognizable except for the brand clear on their skin: a farmer’s pitchfork struck through a large half-circle, the mark of the Abbey.

Whatever effect these Overseers thought they might have on persuading the people of Morley away from their favorite black-eyed bastard, all they managed to do was drive most of it underground. But only most. The whalers still speak openly, of course, and no one has ever cared. Overseers walk right past their runes displayed in public or their comments about him without so much as turning their heads.

“They need us,” one grizzled whaler tells Qrow by way of explanation. “Can’t burn people alive without fuel, eh?”

Somehow, that makes it worse the next time he sees an Overseer hoisting a man to a post in the square for his public penance. What rule did he break that hasn’t been broken so many times before? Who did it hurt and what will this stop?

So much reverence for their seven truths that only apply to the people who can’t make the wealthy even richer.

*

Is it any surprise that the two of them wanted out?

As children they had their run of the city — pockets right there at eye level — but as they got older it all became harder. Not just the thieving itself, but the punishments for such crimes. It’s the kind of city, once you’re grown, where they expect you to only take what you’re handed, and nothing more.

And what you’re handed is less than nothing.

So they still try and take, even as the risk keeps rising. One day a merchant catches Qrow taking a hunk of cheese and threatens to cut off his hand.

“The whole hand?” He grins. “Couldn’t you just start with a finger? I don’t need all of them.”

The man looks pretty obviously confused by the response, which is useful. He’s too focused on Qrow’s smiling face to notice Raven sneaking up behind him. “… this isn’t a discussion, boy.”

“Come to think of it, could you take an ear while you’re at it?” He can see his sister rolling her eyes just over the man’s shoulder. His smile only gets bigger. “That way I don’t have to hear your annoying voice.”

“You insolent little—”

His words are cut short by the back of her blade, but at least she chooses to use the blunt end. Not everyone who annoys Raven is so lucky to walk away without any blood loss.

“I had it under control,” Qrow lies as he settles into a run at his sister’s side.

Raven doesn’t answer at first. She prefers to run in silence, conserving her energy.

Qrow isn’t like that — not at all. “Maybe next time you hit the guy first, then we’ll take the food with less effort.”

“Maybe next time you’ll listen,” is all she says, sharply.

They don’t stop to speak again until they reach the sewer tunnel that leads to the home they share with twelve others — all of them growing so fast that they barely fit inside it anymore. Most of the older brothers and sisters have all moved on, as will be expected of them soon.

Raven’s only become harder to put up with as they age, always wanting to show how much more adult she is. “I told you not to try it without a distraction.” She huffs, stalking around Qrow in a slow circle and shoving him once (hard) in the shoulder. “Next time I’ll cut you into tiny pieces myself.”

“You could try it.”

“Maybe I will.” She smirks and stands back, spreading her hands wide in a challenge. “It’s not like you’d see it coming.”

“Just because you can outsmart our other brothers, that doesn’t mean you should underestimate me.”

The threats from her, he knows, is a kind of fondness.

The people she actually dislikes, she doesn’t bother to warn first.

*

Time has always moved too fast for Qrow. It’s even faster than his sister.

They are sixteen when Uncle says they’re too old to be kept — too old to bring enough wealth in and too big to feed — and so he will offer them one last gift. He secures them employment, of a more legal kind, aboard a ship.

“It leaves tomorrow, before dawn,” Uncle says through puckered lips. He takes a swig from his whiskey flask and grimaces. “Say your goodbyes to your brothers and sisters tonight. I don’t want you to wake them so early in the morning.”

“What’s our job, Uncle?”

“You will be whalers.” He takes another (longer) sip. “Your sister is good with a blade and does not mind the sight of blood. You’re always talking endlessly about those ships at the docks. Now you’ll be on one.” He chuckles to himself. “You see? Uncle knows.”

“And if we don’t want to?”

The laughter leaves his expression in an instant. His eyes are cold when they look at Raven. “You can sleep out in the gutters for all I care. You won’t be my problem come tomorrow morning. Not ever again, do you understand me? This is a final kindness to ungrateful children.”

Qrow steps closer to his sister, as if his proximity might calm her down — though it’s not likely. “We are grateful, Uncle. It’s just a lot to take in.”

“Where does the ship hail from?”

His eye twitches, but there is a little less anger in his voice already when Uncle answers, saying, “Dunwall, of course. I thought you wanted someone who could pay.”

“You expect us to be servants on a Gristol ship.” Raven lets out a sharp scoff. “‘Yes ma’am’ and ’no sir’ to people from Dunwall? We’ll be no better than the servants and slaves who began the rebellion.”

Qrow had been hoping to mediate, but he can’t help but agree with Raven on this. It’s like being handed everything he’s ever wanted, but having it twisted somehow. “At least the soldiers in the rebellion were sailing their own ships against a common enemy. We’ll be serving ours.”

“Children today.” Uncle sets the flask down sharply. “You think the rebellion was something to be proud of, don’t you, but what did it give us? Can pride put food on the table to feed so many hungry greedy mouths? No.” He points a bony finger in their direction. “You will get on that ship, if you know what’s good for you, and you’ll swallow all of that stupid pride you both think makes you better than you are. You’ll learn your place.” He stands quickly at that and turns to leave the room — taking his flask with him. “Because it isn’t here anymore.”

“Thank the Outsider for that,” Raven murmurs, only once Uncle is far enough away that he isn’t likely to overhear.

*

The whaling ship is bigger than many that come into port, but still seems smaller than Qrow had always imagined. Maybe because most of his daydreams began when he was just a young child, and he’s grown too big for such small ambition. Something like that which, said out loud, would only make Raven roll her eyes at him and ask if he’s been listening to too many Overseers and poets. But if they’re about to board a ship and head to Gristol, the poetry is the last bit of Morley he’s going to make sure he doesn’t lose to the nobles and their Abbey — or even to his sister and her constant disapproval.

At least today she looks a little excited, even if she tries to hide her pleased expression by pulling her knit cap down low to hide half her face as they climb aboard. If Qrow were to point it out, she’d probably say that it’s because of the biting wind, but there’s a smile on that face all the same.

Qrow’s pretty sure his own expression mirrors it once they land in front of the ship’s captain, rucksacks at their feet and standing (somewhat) at attention.

The captain stares for a moment and then laughs. “Oh, you’re Sergey’s children, aren’t you?”

The two of them exchange a look. They’ve never known Uncle’s name, but that seems just as likely as anything else.

As usual, Qrow is the one to speak first. “Yes. He said he spoke to you.”

“We worked a whaling ship together for a few years. That was some time ago.” The man eyes them up and down, carefully, and Qrow does the same thing in return. The man has more scars than anyone he’s ever seen from Dunwall before — one even cuts right across his left eye, milky white but still searching — with an upturned scar along the corner of his mouth to match. “But I suppose this means it’s in your blood.” When he smiles with that mouth the wound puckers, extending the expression. “What has he told you to prepare you for the sea?”

“Bone charms and prayers to the Outsider,” Raven says without any hesitation.

“But about the harpooning, he said nothing?”

“He didn’t have to.” This smile she doesn’t try to hide. “I already know how to gut things.”

Qrow’s eyes grow wider all on their own and he hurries to clarify, for both their sakes, saying, “She means fish.”

Raven shoots him an annoyed look.

If she only meant fish then she would have said so, and she looks like she’s considering saying exactly that right now.

But the man laughs and carries on. “As long as you don’t kill the other crew or attract the Watch onto my ship, I don’t care what you do.” He nudges Qrow lightly. “She’s a frightening one. She must get that from Sergey.”

The man has an accent that makes Qrow think of Uncle’s. Tyvian, maybe. He’s not sure. There’s almost no one from Tyvia that makes the long journey to Morley without already being the kind of nobility that has removed all traces of their own home island from their voice to sound like any other well-bred man of Gristol.

The Gristol accent is something else; he knows it well. It’s a bland and nasal sound that Qrow often finds unbearable.

And it’s everywhere on the ship. He can hear the men and women all around them, chattering away in their thick Dunwall accents. Better than the high pitched droning of their nobility, but not by much. He tries to focus again on what the captain is saying, but it’s hard over all the terrible noise.

Raven is answering him, whatever it was, and they’re both laughing.

That’s new.

Maybe the change of scenery is going to be very good for all of them, but especially his sister, more than he anticipated. She might even make some friends.

*

Three hours later, Raven’s already punched one of the other boys they’ve been assigned to work with. He’s a tall kid with a voice that’s half-Dunwall and somewhere else Qrow can’t pin down, and a smile as bright as his shock of blond hair.

Qrow walks in at the end of the altercation and finds the boy laughing as he picks himself off the ground, wiping blood from his chin and giving Raven a look that honestly seems impressed more than anything else.

But Qrow is not as easily affected. He’s seen this exact scenario play out, so many times before, and he really hoped they could avoid it for at least the first week. “What now?”

“It’s fine. I’ve handled it.”

“I can see that, but we’re supposed to be working with this—” Qrow sighs and turns to the boy. “I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

“Tai.”

“Right, Tai, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and see, Raven—”

Tai looks incredibly pleased. “So that’s your name.”

“Qrow, like I said, I’ve got this.”

“What, you just weren’t going to tell the guy your name? Indefinitely — the entire time we’re on this ship together?”

“It was working so far.”

“It’s only been a couple of hours, and you already hit him.”

“He tried to touch my sword.”

Tai holds his hands up. “She’s right, I did, and I apologize. I deserve to be hit.”

“You do.”

“Yeah, I said that.” He crosses his arms in front of himself and grins. “So Raven, do you accept my apology?”

“I don’t accept you saying my name.”

“I could just call you beautiful.”

“Are all men from Dunwall this wretched?” Raven huffs, the most flustered Qrow has ever seen her. Usually she would have punched the guy again for something like that. Instead she just scowls. “Or are you exceptionally poor?”

“I am exceptional at everything, and that includes being the worst.” Tai grins such a large and radiant grin. “Do you want me to show you the harpoon rigging now, or would you like to swell both eyes first so that I can’t see to teach you?”

Qrow’s gaze shifts to watch his sister’s face; she might actually be smiling.

“I really doubt there’s anything you know that I don’t already.”

“I like a challenge, beautiful.”

Like some kind of suicidal maniac, the blond actually winks at Raven.

But she just rolls her eyes and gestures to the rigging. “What’s this part here?”

It takes all of Qrow’s energy to remain focused on the explanation when his sister is humoring this guy from Dunwall — and wherever else — with his wretched lines, his winks, and the way he licks his own busted lip so much that he circles around past aggressive flirting to just a simple and sincere explanation that she seems entirely attentive to. She asks questions and the two of them lean in close to examine and discuss, all while that smile still lingers on her face.

If Qrow didn’t know better, he’d think that his sister might actually like another person, as absurd as that sounds.

*

By day three, Tai has given up on calling her “beautiful” because Raven’s finally permitting him to use her real name.

Qrow isn’t actually sure which is more disturbing.

*

By the end of the first week, Qrow has learned — and mostly forgotten — the names of every crew member on the ship at least twice over. Not that he’s an exception. Most of them just seem to call him and Raven “the twins” when they want them.

Usually something that involves butchery.

Even this early on, with so many in the crew much older than the two of them, word has already gotten around that Raven is good with her blade. They haven’t caught a whale yet, but there’s plenty of fish hauled in by the net that need to be gutted and de-boned to eat later. She does simple (fast) work of it, while Qrow mops down the blood off the deck.

“Don’t bother,” one grizzled old whaler says with an unkind laugh. “It’ll just be more blood in a few hours.” He points out at the horizon. “We’ll be catching one soon, mark my words.”

Tai walks past, carrying a heavy coil of rope looped around one arm. “Ignore him. I think it’s nice you care for the ship. Unlike most of these piss heads.”

Raven looks up from her bucket of fish with a smirk.

Qrow is ready to say something more — like why do the two of them insist on batting their eyes at each other where he has to watch it — but a shout from the crow’s nest alerts him.

“Whale on the horizon.”

Suddenly the whole ship is active, everyone rushing to their positions, with the twins the only two who look like they don’t know where they’re meant to go — because they don’t.

Tai must notice because he drops the coil of rope and grabs them by their shoulder, one in each hand. “Come on, you two.”

He drags them over to the harpoons, which is familiar at least, although Qrow is starting to think he really was too distracted on that first day of explanation to remember anything. Raven doesn’t seem to have that problem. She starts loading them without any urging at all, head down and expression tense as she focuses in.

Qrow tries to do the same, but all around him people are in chaos. At least, it feels that way.

Tai smiles at him and says, “It’s not as much of a mess as it seems. Next time you could sleepwalk through it, it’ll be so easy.”

“There she is! Just off the port bow!”

All three turn their head at once just in time to see the massive creature rear up alongside them and then come crashing back down so hard a wave lifts up over the side of the railing and nearly knocks Qrow off his feet completely. Instead he sways against Tai, who grabs him firmly.

“You might want to tie yourself to something.”

“What, like—”

Before he can ask the question, another wave floods the deck, washing away any remaining traces of blood from before.

Qrow is practically soaked through and his limbs feel strangely stiff and unwieldy as he feels a rope being tied around his middle and secured firmly on the railing.

“There.” Tai loops it one more time, just to tighten, and then knots it off. “Try not to drown your first week out.”

Qrow brushes strands of damp hair out of his face just in time to see Raven manning the harpoon. A bolt shoots out with a sharp crackling sound that makes him think of lightning, accented by the way the water still rushes up over the sides. There’s a thick and low sound of impact, sharp like the collision of a fist, and the ship sways (just a little) as the rope grows taut.

All along the bow, people are firing more harpoons into her side. The water is thick with red but just there, through the magenta mist, he sees a single great eye blinking back at him.

Another harpoon lands and the eye closes.

*

This time the whale is too large to bring all of it back the rest of the way to Dunwall. They hear the others talking about it in quiet, anxious voices, but Qrow doesn’t ask what it means; he doesn’t want to show off any ignorance in front of these other (generally older) whalers. He’s one of them now, and wants to seem just as grizzled and seasoned, even with only traces of stubble so far.

“It weighs more than most,” Tai explains unprompted over dinner, which must mean the confusion is showing on his face.

Qrow does his best to seem totally neutral and maybe disinterested. “Oh, yeah?”

Nailed it.

“We’re sailing into the wind too, so it’s hard to know how much it’s going to slow us down.” Tai is still talking around his next mouthful of fish, and Raven doesn’t bother to hide her look of disgust. At least he notices, because he puts a hand over his mouth — but keeps talking. “The point is, we might have to lose some of the weight.”

“What, like cut it in half?”

“Noooo, like gutting it now.”

Qrow squints. He might not know a lot about whaling yet, but that doesn’t make any sense. “Even if we move its insides to its outsides, it’s going to weigh the same.”

Finally, Tai finishes chewing his current bite and lowers his hand to reveal a big grin. “You’re right! But once we begin the butchering, we’ll be able to toss the parts that aren’t worth as much coin overboard.” He tsks and sucks some lingering food from the front of his teeth. “Shame about the bones.”

Raven perks up at that. “So you believe in it?”

Tai hesitates.

He only looks at her without answering, so Qrow cuts in. “You being a Dunwall man, I wouldn’t have guessed you’d believe.”

“I’m not originally from Dunwall,” Tai says, an uncharacteristic caginess to his voice. “And there’s not a whaler worth their wading boots who doesn’t take any luck they can get.”

“You think it’s just luck?” Raven doesn’t bother to temper her resulting sneer. “Never seen his works, have you?”

Qrow blinks and his eyes jerk over to his sister, but he doesn’t say what he’s thinking aloud, which is very simply: has she?

And if so, why didn’t she ever tell him so?

“I’ve seen myself through enough storms that should have drowned me to believe in it.” Tai shrugs off his jacket and tosses it at them across the table. The patchwork of bones stitched into the shoulders and carefully tracing up the back like a strange sort of vertebrae are familiar enough, but still unusual; they arrange the runes differently in Dunwall. “Not to say that I don’t keep their strictures too.” He wiggles his fingers at them. “Keep my hands to myself and all that.”

Tai’s gaze lingers on Raven a bit longer than Qrow would like, but he thinks it’s better not to say so. Not that it even matters anyway, when her first instinct is to glance over at her twin.

Restless hands. That’s one of the seven, and every thief knows it.

Somehow it’s not the taking of property that a citizen of Dunwall cares about — don’t their nobles, after all, take whatever they like from whoever they please — but the fact that you did it with impoverished, anxious hands that should have been put to some other, better use. Probably in service to a noble who is more deserving of your efforts.

“Do you know all seven?” Raven’s smile can be unsettling, even when that’s not her intention, because it’s so infrequently used for anything but threats. “Do they sing it as a lullaby in Dunwall?”

Tai laughs into his drink. “I told you, I wasn’t born there.”

“Some other city in Gristol then.” Raven shrugs and waves her hand dismissively. “Nobody outside that mossy rock knows their names.”

Tai doesn’t answer until he’s finished guzzling down his whiskey and slams it down on the table. “Not there either.” He holds out his hand. “My jacket, please.”

Raven’s smile is somehow softer now as she stares at Tai’s face. She pulls the jacket from Qrow’s grasp without asking and hands it back to him. “Another foreigner.”

“We’re all one Empire,” Tai says as he slips the jacket back on, added layer of bones settling in around his shoulders.

This time it’s Qrow’s turn to laugh. “You’re more Dunwall than you think, mate.”

When he shrugs, there’s a soft sound of rattling that Qrow never noticed before. “I know what I am. It’s my city now, just as much as anyone else’s. One day it’ll be yours.” His massive grin is back, glistening as vivid white as the bones had been. “It happens when you’re not looking.”

“Good thing I’ve always got an eye out.”

Tai gives Raven a long (lingering) look, but his smile only grows. “We should start the cutting in a few hours. Don’t stay here too long; you’ll have to get a slicker of your own and there won’t be many in your sizes.” He gestures to his feet. “Nothing worse than falling down in the guts because your clothes don’t fit.”

It sounds as though he speaks from experience.

*

Even though they’re twins, Raven hit her growth spurt just a little earlier — and fine, Qrow still hasn’t caught up. So the slicker of identical size for both of them looks better on her. So does the mask: cascade of hair coming up all around when she pulls the protruding snout down over her face to hide from Qrow repeating the same question for a third time.

“You’re not going to tell me what you meant about seeing the works of the Outsider?”

“Just because you’re my brother, it doesn’t make everything I do your business.” The only matching pairs of boots they could find are a little tight on her, and Qrow feels some small surge of satisfaction watching Raven struggle to put them on. “… we had a whole family of brothers. I didn’t tell them either.”

“I’m different and you know that.”

“Are you?”

“Yes!” Qrow huffs in frustration and pulls his own mask on (quickly) to try to keep her from seeing the obvious annoyance on his face. “Of course I am.”

“You and I might not know all of the same things, brother.” She stops right in front of him, mask pointed right in his direction, but he can’t tell if she’s really looking at him or just past him to the stairs leading back up on deck where the rest of the crew is beginning to gather. “That’s fine. Twins doesn’t mean we have to live our lives together.”

“Good luck with that on a ship.”

He turns and stalks off so that he can have the dramatic exit before she does. Except that his sister is faster, always has been, and she pushes past him — not too gently — on the stairs, darting up into the sunlight first and heading straight over to stand right at Tai’s side. Qrow knows that it’s him from the blond hair sticking up in every direction under the thick leather strap at the back of the mask.

The two of them appear to be laughing about something as Qrow draws closer. He’s never known his sister to make a habit of laughing with instead of at other people, not the way she does now with Tai. It’s unnerving.

They both stop once he’s closer, but it sounds like the smile hasn’t left Tai’s face at least, even underneath the mask. “You know how to use a blade, Qrow?”

“He thinks he does.”

Qrow scowls and hopes it isn’t just as obvious in his voice. “I do just fine. Most people aren’t as good as Raven, and she’s very proud of it.” Tai offers him a vulgar looking curved blade, which he accepts before continuing, asking, “Is that another one of the seven? Anything about pride?”

“No.” Tai answers simply, a similar blade in his hand. “There’s a stricture for lust and one that says not to be hungry.”

Raven is using her own blade, of course, much larger and deadlier than any weapon anyone else on deck seems to be using for the task. She sniffs with disdain and appears to glance (just the once) at Qrow’s blade — even though it’s identical to Tai’s. “Of course. I doubt those Overseers have ever missed a meal in their life.”

Even through the mask, he can see the way Tai’s attention seems to linger on Raven every time she speaks. “I suppose I was wrong before, when I said I haven’t broken any of them.” His focus shifts to Qrow now. “There’s the one about wandering in other people’s lands.”

“But then hasn’t every Overseer that ever stepped on Morley broken their own code?”

Even as he asks it, Qrow knows that’s not how this works. It’s like the sailors who go unpunished when invoking his name just a few streets away from artists being whipped for the same crime. The Overseers and their rules only exist to serve their own aims.

But it’s Raven who answers, saying, “We’re foreign, not them. All of the empire belongs to the citizens of Dunwall, if you ask them, but Gristol’s only for them.”

The words land hard, like some kind of actual weight, and they all just stand there for a moment with weapons in hands.

Then the winds change, the ship shifts underfoot, and they have to react to that instead. They refocus. Tai takes charge, stepping forward with his weapon out. The whale is hoisted upward by much more experienced whalers who know how to work the rope. Buckets have been placed all along its side in what look like deliberate intervals; they must be there to collect the oil that is the most valuable part of the whale.

“The buckets fill up quickly, so keep an eye on them as you work.” Tai gestures with his blade. “There are more all along there. Swap them in early instead of late, understand?”

Raven tosses and catches her blade in a gesture of casual boredom.

Tai chuckles softly, watching her. “Alright, we’ll all start at the same time.” He gestures again. “Qrow, you come here. Raven, do you want right or left?”

She takes up position to the left of Qrow without answering beyond that.

A whistle blows and somewhere further toward the bow, they can hear the captain’s voice — distorted by his own mask — shouting to be heard. “Alright, you filth! Let’s send her home.”

Another whistle sounds and close to thirty blades descend on the whale’s hide all at once. The sound is like nothing Qrow has ever heard before — dense, but repetitive like a drumbeat — a sort of throbbing pulse that builds and builds.

Just at the edge of his vision, he realizes that the whale is watching him. Her eye has opened again and there’s a low sound coming from her — beyond the beating of her flesh as it gives way — and Qrow can’t help but think that there, on top of the drumbeat of death, it sounds strangely like someone singing a very long, very old, and very sad song.

He is grateful for the mask because his eyes feel oddly bloodshot and strangely damp.

*

The first time they dock in Dunwall is the first time either Branwen has ever seen a port outside of Morley. They see the chimney stacks pouring smoke from the factories first — faintly blue from the whale oil burning inside — and then as they draw closer there’s the looming buildings far beyond it.

“Office of the Overseer is just there,” Tai says as he points. Raven and Qrow both spit at the word, an old instinct, but Tai just laughs and leans in closer, elbows perched along the railing. “Maybe don’t do that once we make land, though.”

It’s a fair enough suggestion that Qrow has to laugh too. He’s in good spirits at the promise of landfall. Being on a whaling ship is all he wanted for as long as he wanted anything real beyond a single night’s warm meal, but now that he’s got it he’d like the occasional rest from the tossing of the waves.

“What’s there beyond it?”

“The tallest one?” Tai stands again, straightening. “That’s the Tower. Where the young Emperor lives.”

Qrow stands more alert too, a strange tension suddenly all the way up his spine. He’s heard about the new Belladonna who recently took the throne, of course. They’ve been talking in the streets since the old Emperor fell ill.

The boy prince who would suddenly rule, they said, and Qrow had thought it absurd at the time. The Emperor, after all, is several years Qrow’s senior with Qrow himself already a man grown — even if it doesn’t always show in the stubble — but now as they draw closer to the massive city that serves as the Emperor’s seat of power, he can’t imagine it belonging to anyone but the oldest wisest man and not being used incorrectly.

That feels true, at least, and what he always pictured in an Emperor — someone not quite deserving.

Raven spits again, just herself this time, but continues leaning against the railing. Eventually, she says, “Belladonnas must be compensating for a lot, with a building that big.”

She’s probably right, but Qrow can’t help but think that the way the light glints across the many windows of the Tower looks sort of beautiful as the sun rises over the city they’re going to call home.

*

By the time they dock, Qrow realizes that what he’s always believed must not really be true: the people of Dunwall are very awake, and not just at the dock. Only halfway down the gangplank, he can already hear the shouting from the markets a few streets down as merchants prepare to sell their wares at dawn.

The bustle — the pushing, the ever changing crowds and their rapid talk — is even more than he ever knew in Wynnedown. There’s an energy that crackles through the people and their city and it’s almost infectious. Qrow finds himself smiling at the citizens of Dunwall as he walks past. His eyes might even linger perhaps a little too long on some of the ladies, but he refocuses again when he feels Tai’s hand on his shoulder, gently squeezing, saying, “Let me show you to my house first and then you can see all the other beautiful sights of your new home.”

Sometime in their week long journey together, Tai had suggested that the two of them come live with him, at least until they found some other lodgings in the city. To Qrow’s surprise, it was Raven who had agreed without any hesitation, though perhaps that makes more sense now when she answers him with only, “Home is a place with a bed. Nothing else.”

“Well, unfortunately, there’s just the one actual bed for now, but there’s matts enough to sleep on.” Tai gestures, as though to make his point more clear. “The roll out kind, you know. At least as comfortable as the ship, and we can take turns with the bed.”

“It’s your house, Tai.”

“For a little while, at least, it can be our house.”

“Do you always talk like a poor salesman?”

Tai shoots Raven one of those many grins he always seems to have ready for her. “You should know by now that isn’t true.” He turns off down a side road and they follow. “I am an excellent salesman.”

*

On the way to the house, they pass through the market where Tai buys an apple from a girl close to their age working a fruit stand. Her smile is almost as bright as his, even if her hair is much darker. Seeing what must be ravenous looks on both their faces, she offers Raven and Qrow an additional apple each for half the price.

“Should I be offended?” Tai asks with a wink.

The girl shakes her head, hair falling around her face. “It’s only because they’re your friends.”

“Do I still get the apple if I say we’re not really friends with him?”

“More like casual roommates.”

She laughs. “Isn’t that even closer than friends?”

“I see you’ve never roomed with anyone.”

“Please ignore both of them,” Tai cuts in. “But only after you’ve given them food to shut them up.”

She accepts their coinage from Morley but hesitates when she sees the stamp. It’s nearly the same as anywhere else in the Empire, just with a different crest on the front.

Tai notices her looking but waits until they’re further away — out of earshot — before he says, “Might want to change that coin out for Gristol mint as soon as you can.”

Raven spits again, all by herself, but Qrow feels a familiar tightening in his stomach. He nods, saying nothing. For all he knows, they have plenty more roads to walk until they’re home, and he doesn’t want to pick a fight.

*

Luckily, they don’t.

They reach the house soon enough, just a few streets after the crowds begin to thin out and the people on the street seem less interested in selling than they do standing around drinking whiskey from flasks or rolling dice for coin. Not a business district, but a sort of small community, the kind of place you’ll find homes in a poor state with even poorer people inside them.

They know the look of that all too well.

That’s why it’s almost surprising once Tai actually shows them into his house. Beyond the creaking of the front door, it’s surprisingly charming.

Once they light some candles, there’s a warmth that fills the entire room. In other parts of the city, the lights are all run off electricity powered by the whales, but here their oil is used to burn in candlesticks. It costs less but casts longer shadows. It should be unnerving, to have so much darkness in every corner of the room, but the flame fills it all up with a glow that lights up their faces warm and pink.

It casts a ripple of flaming light against the yellow of Tai’s hair as he laughs and walks from room to room, lighting each and every candle in his path. “Come on. Let me show you the one bed.”

“I wonder if we’ll even be able to find it in such a vast estate,” Raven drawls, but Qrow can see from the rapid movements of her eyes that she’s just as impressed as he is.

The house isn’t that much bigger than the one they grew up in, of course, but it’s only the three of them here now; it feels enormous. The bed is unspeakably large for just one person. It’s almost wasteful.

Qrow tries very hard to keep his voice neutral, disinterested, but the fires of the candles must have lit some spark in him too. It’s burning there, just underneath his words, saying, “Is this how poor people live in Dunwall?”

“I like to think of myself as rich of heart.”

“So that’s a yes.”

“I suppose it is.” Tai sets his last candle down and points to the doorway just across the hall. “The other bedroom is just here.” He points to the bedrolls folded in the corner. “I’ve had other whalers stay with me, just for a little while. Usually they pay a fee, but I’m offering you this as a friend.”

Raven’s eyes dart around this room quickly too. “No,” she says, taking it all in and then turning to look at Tai. “We will not owe you anything.”

“That isn’t really how friendship works.”

“Is friendship ignoring what we would like completely?” When Tai doesn’t respond, she nods. “We will pay you with our next coinage.”

For the first time all day, Tai looks almost wary, but he just nods. “Alright. That sounds fair.”

One look at his sister, and Qrow knows exactly what she’s thinking, because it’s the same thing he is. Poverty in Dunwall looks like a merchant’s house in Morley. So much of that easy comfort that had grown between them in their week at sea closes off now so completely once ashore on foreign soil; even if Tai himself is too unaware to see it happening. Tai doesn’t even know what it’s like to be poor, really poor, and must not know hunger at all. No wonder it’s so easy for him to laugh. How can a man like him — a self-styled landlord — expect to be on friendly and equal terms with the people housed under his roof?

Qrow sees it all clearly on his sister’s face too: the people of Gristol are different from us, and always will be.

*

It carries on like this for some time, and time moves quickly.

At sea, they forget who they are. Every time, they become whalers of no nation instead of impoverished dogs from Morley. But on land, in the city, they can never forget where they come from. Even if they try, the people of Dunwall never let them.

His own ear doesn’t hear it, but Qrow knows he has an accent of some kind. The people in the street — those who aren’t Tai or his girl in the marketplace, Summer — sneer when they hear him speak, and Raven laughs instead of offering comfort. “You used to say it was my mistake for not talking more, brother. Now who is the fool?”

He talks less and less in the city and finds it only means he has more to say once they’re at sea. All that tension and frustration — the uneasiness that even Tai has started to act aware of — slips away like the drifting of the waves.

He is free out there, more himself than ever before. It creates an aching that only amplifies in between voyages, a burning desire to stare into the horizon and plunge blades into the center of mighty beasts some whalers say have existed since the very dawn of time. On days when they only travel out for a few hours just to turn right back again, Qrow feels almost sick with the wasted anticipation; it’s a gnawing feeling deep in his gut that goes unfulfilled.

But on longer voyages, he is made whole. It’s worth it. Every other anxious second leading up to it is worth it.

The city disappears behind them, wrapped up in fog and smoke, and all that lies ahead is possibility — an endless anything. He climbs the rigging — it’s his turn at watch — and enjoys the way his jacket clinks lightly as he goes. Those bones are gifts from Tai and his sister, both sewing them in only when they’re at sea.

“It’s better,” Tai had said. ”If they’re put there by someone who wishes you well, it’s more effective.”

Neither twin had heard that before, but they don’t argue. Who would have been there to wish them very much of anything before except each other? No reason for them to have heard of things they could never even have. It was pointless before, but now it’s something else.

Something more like confusion, because when Tai hands him the jacket — when they’re at sea and there’s no one to scoff or to scold Qrow for how certain parts of words sound in his mouth — he is grateful for the man he thinks so fondly of. He can forget all the things that don’t line up well, in their friendship and in himself.

But back in the alleys, with the drunks and their dice who call him a cheat and a scoundrel if he rolls too well, Qrow starts to resent the friendly foreign man who made him think that Dunwall might be a home for him as well. The lie of his friendship only makes Qrow feel all the worse in its absence.

It is confusing, but the sea is so simple.

*

But it can’t last.

Nothing lasts and time never stops.

*

They have been whaling together for nearly two years when everything changes. It happens so quickly. The storm picks up suddenly, without warning, and everyone knows exactly what they’re meant to do.

The sea and its storms are simple; but on this day, something goes wrong.

Lightning splits the sky in half, reflected back across dozens of concave black eyes as every whaling mask on every face turns to look upward. The rain traces muddy red trails through the blood that coats the deck.

Raven is the only one who keeps cutting, even through the next crack of thunder.

The whale begins to thrash, its massive tail pulling against the binds that hold it in place. Lightning cracks again, this time much closer. There is a sound coming from very close — too close — and Qrow can’t be sure if it’s the whale or something else screaming, but it is so very loud. Thunder strikes again, a drumbeat heavy in his skull, and now Raven isn’t cutting at anything except a twisted piece of metal that just fell from the mast, pinning another whaler to the deck.

Qrow blinks. For the first time since their first week at sea, he doesn’t know what to do.

“Brother!” Raven calls, anger and maybe even fear sharp in her voice as she uses her blade to leverage the steel off the man’s legs, but he cannot stand. He crawls.

Lightning strikes and Qrow kneels on the deck to offer the man his hand. Thunder rolls.

Someone screams, or maybe that’s the whale’s groan — or could that be the ship — and when Qrow looks up the only thing reflected against the eyes of his mask is a shard of metal plummeting down, down, down to graze his jaw but pierce deep into his chest.

He gasps, only once, and the air comes back out in a sudden burst of blood. He chokes on it, blood filling up the inside of his mask, before he rips it from his face and falls to the deck.

Everything that happens next moves slower, time stretched out thin like the river of blood drooling down his chin. Lighting strikes but he does not see it reflected in his sister’s mask; she’s taken it off and is kneeling at his side, hands clenched on the metal lodged into his chest. The ship rocks beneath them, comforting somehow (even now) like how he always imagined a mother’s arms might feel. It rocks and Qrow hears the faint sound of bones cut into his jacket rattling. It didn’t do enough to save him, did it? He didn’t do enough — and which of them is he blaming now? He isn’t sure.

Thoughts running together, over and over, just a mess of no, no, by the Outsider, this hurts too much — and even worse, the realization that (slowly) it’s starting not to hurt at all — and his sister’s face so frightened overhead. She’s never been frightened before.

“Don’t you leave me, stupid,” she’s saying, palms bright red with blood that must belong to Qrow.

I’m sorry, he says. Or he tries to.

The words don’t come out. His eyes close.

*

There is darkness deeper than any kind of night, more complete than the back of your eyelids and worse than time alone with your own thoughts.

There is pitch black rock all around him, just out of reach, and only a small patch of land underneath to keep him from falling. As Qrow floats alone on a sea of nothing, he thinks how comforting the rocking underneath him feels, and it’s easy not to fight it. If his foot slips off the edge, just an inch past the rock, and the weight of it starts to drag the rest of him down, down, down — would it really be so bad?

No more running, no more hunger, no more anything but —

No sister either.

He hears her voice, somewhere far away. Calling him names, calling him stupid, but calling to him — calling him home.

He stands and the small patch of rock grows wider.

“Raven,” he says, and there is no blood in his mouth. “Where am I? Where are—”

*

Qrow’s eyes open on the deck of the ship.

He can see the dark storm clouds overhead drifting away. The rain has ended, the storm has passed, but he can feel the blood still matted in his hair and his throat feels like he’s been screaming for hours.

Tai is there — just there, at his shoulder — with the deepest frown that Qrow has ever seen on his face. “By the Outsider, don’t frighten us like that.” He turns his head to call to someone just out of sight. “He’s awake.”

Qrow starts to sit up, but another set of hands pushes him (roughly) back to the deck. He knows that not even slightly gentle touch: it’s his sister. He smiles, despite everything that’s just happened — and especially the parts he doesn’t begin to understand. Some things, like Raven, stay exactly the same.

And somehow, just now, her touch is comforting.

In fact, Qrow feels better than he had just moments before. He swallows, and his throat feels fine. He blinks and puts a hand on top of Raven’s. “Can I sit up now?”

They lock eyes and she seems to consider the question.

Eventually, she relents, settling back into a crouch but removing her hands.

When they go, so does some of the energy (strangely). It’s like unplugging a patch from the side of a ship. He starts to feel himself sink, hand rubbing at his eyes.

“… no,” Raven apparently decides, putting a firm hand back on his shoulder. “You nearly died, so you’re going to rest now.” She doesn’t wait for him to answer before pulling him up by one arm and leading him to the bunks.

Even as confused and fuzzy as his thoughts are now, he can’t help but notice the way his energy drains without her touch directly on him. Judging by the way that Raven keeps her hand just there — right at his back, or here on his shoulder, always moving but always touching — she must have realized it too.

It doesn’t make any sense, but neither does the fact that Qrow no longer has a hole in his chest.

Tai is with them still — a worried frown etched on his face that Qrow can’t help but feel oddly grateful for — so he can’t ask his sister any honest questions, not now. Not yet.

But it’s obvious that something has happened, and didn’t she say she had seen proof of the Outsider’s work before? Could this be something like that? When Qrow lays down to sleep — practically pushed into the bed by his over eager sister and friend — the dreams take him quickly and all his questions are forgotten.

*

And in these dreams, a darkness.

And out of that dark nothingness, floating rocks slowly appear.

Qrow walks from one to the next, a path that leads twisting up into the sky.

“Outsider,” he calls into the nothing. “Was it you?”

A voice right next to his ear says, “Why do people ask questions they know the answers to? Is it just to be told how clever they are?”

When Qrow turns, a young man — no, a boy even younger than him, freckled and small with shaggy black hair — is there, smiling. His eyes are as empty as the darkness around them, and not just because of their pitch black color.

“I don’t feel clever just now. Mostly slow and very confused.”

“You were slow, that’s true. You died. Well, nearly.” The man who can only be the Outsider shrugs. “For just a few moments, but your sister brought you back.”

“I gathered that much.”

“So I ask again: why do you people want answers you already know?”

“It’s not the who I need, but how.”

“Me, of course.” The Outsider shrugs and the world around them ripples with waves of his apathy. There is so little menace in his face or even those empty eyes. Boredom. Qrow recognizes it from the face of his Uncle on the nights when he would drink the hardest and try to hit the most. Boredom can be more dangerous than hate. “But I’m sure you could have worked that one out, Qrow. You’re more clever than this.”

“No, that’s my sister’s thing.”

“Well.” The smile on the Outsider’s face grows larger. “Now it’s both your thing. I have linked you together. Forever.”

“You’ve what?”

Qrow blinks and the world around him vibrates again. Or maybe that’s his head? He breathes in deeply and every pinpoint of his vision is suddenly the dark and inky depths of the Outsider’s eyes. He is standing so close — or is he? Is that an illusion?

“… I think your body is still adjusting. You’re not ready for this discussion.” The Outsider turns abruptly and an ascending staircase appears just in front of his every step. “Some other time, when your mind is ready.”

Through the pulsing pain behind his eyes, Qrow squints. “When I’m ready for—”

The ground drops out from underneath him and he is grateful suddenly that the Void is so completely empty that no one is there to hear his shout of genuine terror as he plummets.

*

When Qrow wakes up in his bunk, it’s night time and the room is completely empty, except for Tai, who perks up instantly, a strained smile back on his face. It doesn’t feel natural, not his usual broad grin, but it’s an effort and Qrow can’t help but appreciate it — some small semblance of normalcy in the midst of everything else that doesn’t make any sense at all.

At least there’s Tai and his efforts to be kind. “There you are.” Qrow reaches for the bandage on his chest — perfectly clean, no blood from a wound — but Tai stops his hand. “Best to leave that for now, I think.”

“Who—”

“Raven did it. She’s getting dinner now. Enough for all of us, I think.” Tai remains perched just at the edge of his seat, alert, until Qrow relaxes back into his bed and whatever anxiety Tai was still carrying in his shoulders releases. “She’ll be glad that you’re awake.”

“How long was I out?”

“Nearly six hours, I think.”

Qrow blinks and tries to understand that. It doesn’t make any sense. His dream within the Void — not a dream at all, was it, but a visit with the Outsider — had felt so completely real, as though it happened perfectly in sync with their own reality and its sense of time, and that had been so brief.

It doesn’t make sense.

“And Raven, does she seem—” It’s the wrong question. Any question at all — just now, about this — would be the wrong question, but especially one that points toward whatever passed between his sister and the Outsider. If it was too secret to tell even him, then it’s none of a Dunwall man’s business; not even one like Tai. So instead he changes course — away from does she seem strange to you — to settle on, “She’s not too worried, I hope.”

That, at least, might have some answers.

If his sister isn’t panicking about whatever this is, this strange something, then maybe it’s fine. Not that Raven’s always a good judge of what is and isn’t worth worrying over.

He’s starting to feel some concern.

Especially when Tai just frowns, watching him in a drawn out silence, before finally saying, “She’s more anxious than usual. But you’re awake now. I’m sure that will help.”

Qrow sits up again and swings his legs out over the edge of the bed — and the floor swims up to meet him. He sways and reaches for the nearest wall to steady himself.

“Steady.” Tai puts a hand on Qrow’s shoulder and nudges, as if to steer him back to bed. “She’s coming right back. You can rest.”

“I think six hours was long enough.”

“A fucking piece of metal went through your chest, you stubborn bastard,” Tai says, a hardness in his voice that Qrow has never heard there before. “You should be dead. Six hours is not enough, so stop fighting me and lie back. I could take you right now, if you make me.”

Qrow blinks. He can feel Tai’s grip on his shoulder tensing, tightening. So he doesn’t resist. He relents and lays back down — slowly, awkwardly — right as he can hear his sister’s familiar footsteps on the stairs.

They’re light. Most people wouldn’t hear her at all, but Qrow has a lifetime of listening for it. He turns his head and starts to smile as soon as she comes into view: three bowls of stew carefully balanced in her arms. “You’re awake.” She stops in her tracks, just openly staring. “… good. You need to eat, you idiot.”

“I’m glad to see you’re alright too.”

“I didn’t stand in one place long enough to have a pole stuck in me.”

Qrow’s hand moves for his bandage again and both Raven and Tai tense, but he only scratches the fabric. “It’s funny. I don’t really feel like I had anything stuck inside me either.” He blinks passively at his sister. “Not anymore.”

Raven’s eyes move to Tai and then back again. “Have you two been talking about that?”

Tai doesn’t seem to understand what they’re discussing, not in any way that matters; so she didn’t tell him.

“Not yet.” Qrow isn’t sure if that makes this conversation easier or harder. “There are some things family just understands better.”

Tai glances back and forth between them before tensing his grasp on the arms of his chair. “If you two would like me to— I can just take my stew up on deck for now.” He stands quickly and takes two bowls from Raven, offering one to Qrow before moving for the stairs. “Just scream if anything else goes horribly wrong and one of you starts to die, alright? I’ll be right back.”

Raven waits until he’s up the stairs before turning back to Qrow. “Why does he make everything into a joke?”

“I think it’s to balance out that thing you do.” He shrugs and slowly stirs his spoon through the thick liquid that almost looks edible. “You know. Very serious. Like you know when each of us is going to die.”

He stops suddenly.

This is a joke that Qrow and Raven have made before — well, he makes the joke, and she tolerates it — about her generally pretty dour demeanor and the idea that she’s already seen his death well in advance. But it feels very different now, today especially, and he almost regrets saying it.

There’s a look on her face, like she’s upset — but at what or who, he honestly doesn’t know.

“Look,” he starts, trying to work backward from there. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Today.”

He swallows. “What?”

“You died already. Today.” Raven watches him without blinking. She hasn’t even glanced at her stew, which she sets aside now as she sits down at her brother’s side on the bunk. “You were dead. Everyone else is going to say it was near death, but you were. Your heart stopped, and now you’re fine.”

“How can you be sure?”

“He told me.”

“Who—”

“You know who.”

He does. He knows who. The bastard with his black eyes and empty heart. The little boy who looks as though he’s seen too much and too little at the same time. Too young and too old.

“What did he ask from you?”

“From us.”

“From—”

“He said that he would speak to you about it later,” Raven interrupts quickly. “I’m surprised he didn’t do it now.”

“He tried. I think that’s what that was.” Qrow frowns and looks down at his stew. “My thoughts were still… disjointed.”

“Maybe that’s a side effect of dying.”

“Maybe.”

He takes a bite and then another. His sister is still watching him (closely), but she doesn’t intervene.

Not at first, at least. Eventually, she nudges him. “Are you going to ask me anything else?”

“The Outsider talked with you. Of course I’m curious.” He taps the spoon against the side of the bowl once, twice, rhythmically. “But if you don’t want to say what he told you, that’s fine too. I’m not going to push you of all people. I know better.”

A third time.

“You’ve finally learned restraint, after all these years?” Raven stares at his face so closely, and Qrow can’t help but wonder if she’s still seeing that moment — when the blood poured from his mouth and his eyes shut — and maybe that’s why she suddenly looks away. “What do you want to know?”

“Anything you’ll tell me.”

“You were dead. He gave me the power to bring you back.” She pulls her whaling glove off the left hand and reveals the symbol of the Outsider etched into her flesh. Somehow, he isn’t surprised to see it there. “More than that too. At least, I think so.” She flexes her hand and the mark glows faintly. “I haven’t had much time to do anything other than save your life.” She laughs humorlessly and slips the glove back on.

“Oh, is that all?”

She smiles at him, faintly, but doesn’t respond to the question. Instead, it’s: “He’s going to mark you too.”

“I don’t have any say in this?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s my hand,” Qrow says, more anger in his voice than he would like. “If I don’t want it, what’s the point?”

“I made a deal to save you, idiot.” Raven stares at him again. From the look in her eyes, she’s definitely still seeing the blood that isn’t there anymore. “Not just my life for yours. Both of us.” The anxious worry etched around her eyes fades away as she hardens, resolved. “Stop being ungrateful. Finish your meal then go back to sleep and take his mark. You’ll like it more once it’s inside you.”

“When what is?”

“The power to be anything.”

With that, Raven stands quickly and departs. A short moment later, Tai peaks his head back in with a faint and bashful smile. “Are the two of you done being weird?”

“Not at all.”

“I could join you being weird, I guess.” Tai settles back into the chair near the bunk. “Silently watch you eat. Sound good?”

“My favorite.”

Without another word, Qrow resumes his meal and tries to ignore the faint scraping of the spoon on the bowl, sure, but also the anxious pit of worry inside his stomach that grows more and more as he feels exhaustion settling in.

It isn’t long before he’s drifting back again, with Tai pulling the bowl from his grasp. “That’s alright, buddy. Now seems like as good time as any to rest.” His gaze lingers on the bandage across Qrow’s chest but quickly moves back up to his face. “The best time, even. It is night after all.”

“… g’night, Tai,” Qrow practically slurs.

Faintly, blurred by the drooping of his eyes, Qrow sees the way the other man smiles (soft but sure) when he whispers, “I’m glad you’re alright, pal.”

*

The Outsider doesn’t come the very next time Qrow dreams and Raven doesn’t bother to hide her annoyance the next morning when she catches a glimpse of her brother’s hand — completely unblemished and unmarked.

“What did you do?” she hisses under her breath.

“Nothing,” Qrow says, feeling defensive. “Nothing at all. He didn’t show up.”

Raven scowls. “Then you must have done something to annoy him.” She bumps her shoulder into him as she moves past, carrying netting down below to be mended. “Try to think of what it was. Put that head of yours to good use.”

*

Qrow cannot begin to guess what he’s done to anger the man who knows everything.

There are so many possibilities.

Whatever the reason, the Outsider doesn’t make himself known for the next several days. Maybe he’s only doing it to push at Raven, who becomes more visibly anxious with each passing day.

"Maybe he's testing us," Qrow finally says aloud, as the two of them tend to mopping the deck. "And it's all just a game to him."

"I am no one's toy."

Qrow isn't sure what that really means or what Raven thinks she can do to settle a score with the Outsider, but his eyes drift down toward her hand. “Not a toy then. But his weapon.”

“I am not that either.”

“You’re sure?”

Her mop stills and he notices the way her grip flexes on the handle. “If that’s what he intends for us, he will regret it.” When she looks at Qrow now, Raven’s eyes are burning hot. “You might play nice with people when you think it will get you your way, brother, but I am not that. I won’t bow to him. He is no Emperor.”

It is so like his sister to not only discuss the Outsider openly, but to speak specifically about treason against him. Qrow grins; he can’t help himself. “I doubt you would bow to the boy Emperor either.”

“… if it was necessary.”

“For what?”

“For keeping my head.” Raven lifts and lowers her eyebrows rapidly and nudges her brother with her shoulder. “Come on now, enough talking. You’re not keeping up with your half of the deck.”

“I am!”

“No, your legs are not that short. Move faster.”

Qrow huffs but does pick up his pace. He has trouble denying his sister almost anything.

But only almost.

*

When the Outsider finally comes for him, they are only half a day away from returning to Dunwall. Whales are moaning up on deck — their sad dying song settling deep into his bones — but Qrow is content to stay up on watch. Raven insists, however, that he take the rest. He half-suspects she’s offering it, not to be selfless, but in the hopes that he will finally come to speak to Qrow again.

And she gets her wish.

The Outsider is there, in his mind, before he even sees him or the Void. Just a voice at first, whispering, “Are you finally ready for me?”

“I never said that I wasn’t.”

“Not with words,” the Outsider says, appearing from the depths of darkness at the back of Qrow’s eyelids. He steps forward and the world is dragged along with him, inky black nothing with accents of light almost like far away stars filtered through the depths of the ocean. “But I could see your heart, you know.”

“I didn’t. Know that.”

But he supposes that it makes sense. And from the look on the Outsider’s face, he knows that he’s thinking that too. “Well, not everything. I can’t read minds, not exactly. But generations of watching people run around in the streets, you learn a few things about behavior.” He smiles, and Qrow still can’t tell if the expression is cruel or kind. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. “You show your feelings more than most.”

“No one’s ever told me that before.”

“Not even your sister?”

Without thinking, Qrow can feel his hand tensing, almost clenching. It’s the left one — where the mark is meant to go. “I don’t usually like people talking so freely about my sister.”

“Why is that?”

“She’s blood. And you’re—”

“Something much more than that now.” When he moves closer, something inside of Qrow stirs, like yes even the blood itself is drawn to this man. The parts of him the Outsider saved, gifted from the Void, eager to return home. “I am inside what gave you life. Don’t be ungrateful. Your sister isn’t.”

“I am… not ungrateful.”

“You’re frightened.”

He wants to deny it, but there isn’t any point. “Wouldn’t you be?”

“I don’t remember how.”

Suddenly the ground underneath Qrow tips and he is sliding forward the remaining few feet between him and the Outsider — whose hand is on his arm, then on the back of his palm — and his touch burns like nothing else that Qrow has ever felt before. “What—”

“I’m sorry,” the immortal boy with eyes like pure nothingness says, and Qrow thinks that he might actually mean it. “I would prefer to give you some small choice, but it’s already been done.”

And it has, because as the Outsider is speaking his mark is etching itself onto Qrow’s flesh. Qrow is marked; Qrow is his.

“If you have complaints, perhaps take them up with your sister.” Whatever sympathy Qrow thought he had noticed on the boy’s face is completely gone. He looks something more like a man now, rugged and tired. “She begged me to spare your life.”

“Begged?”

“Yes.” His smile now is much more like a smirk. “I doubt she would want you to know that.”

“… no,” Qrow agrees, a heavy feeling settling over his heart. “She wouldn’t.”

“A pity.”

“But you wanted me to know. Because she didn’t.”

The Outsider’s smile grows, but he ignores the implied question. “My gifts are different for everyone who wears my mark. I don’t know everything you will be able to do, and it’s more fun this way, I think.” He starts to walk and flickers out of view, as though enveloped in a dark mist, only to reappear several feet further along his path, circling around Qrow. “But there is one thing you must know now. Your powers — and understand me now that you will have power — but it will be forever tied to your sister.”

Qrow turns to watch the Outsider circling him. “Connected in what way?”

“You will only be able to use your abilities when you are close to one another.”

Raven having to be close to anyone — even him — as a means for more power?

Qrow can’t help but scoff. “Are you trying to provoke her into fighting you?”

“This wasn’t a choice,” the Outsider answers, sharply. “I told you, the mark is different for everyone. She gained an ability to sustain your life but it cost her some part of herself. It’s inside you now. It’s what’s keeping you alive, but it needs to be fed.” He chuckles. “No, maybe not needs, but wants to be.” He points at Qrow’s mark. “Be careful with that. It’s going to be very hungry.”

“Hungry? For what?”

“For parts of other people,” the Outsider says, so matter-of-fact. He shrugs. “You’ve already consumed a part of your sister. You want more.”

The Outsider takes a step closer, and Qrow takes one back. “But what if I don’t?”

“You can’t deny what you are.”

Qrow laughs with his best faked cocky confidence, gesturing broadly. “Well, my mom always told me that it’s never too late to change who you are.”

“You have no mother. You don’t remember a word she said — not her face either.”

The fake smile slips from Qrow’s face in an instant. “I thought you said you couldn’t read minds.”

“No, but I have seen your past. You and your sister.” He takes another step and this time Qrow doesn’t retreat. “So empty and alone. Aren’t you hungry after all?”

For the first time since being pulled back into the Void tonight, Qrow doesn’t feel ready with an answer. The Outsider seems satisfied with that, nodding to himself, before snapping his fingers.

The world goes dark.

*

He and Tai begin the next day alongside the whale, keeping an eye on the rope rigging that holds it in place. The winds pick up as they draw closer to port, and the giant beast sways slowly. She is still alive, but not for long — if she’s lucky.

Qrow is too focused on their task to notice when Raven appears suddenly at his side, a thin smile traced over her face as she snatches up his hand. The mark burns in response to her touch and he looks around (quickly) to make certain no one has noticed.

“Raven.”

“You should hide that.” She tilts her head slightly. “Even if you’re proud.”

“Is that what I am?”

Aren’t you?” The smile slips, but only slightly. There is nearly a sneer in its place, and it suits her face more. “That is how people are meant to respond to power when it is given to them instead of taken from them.”

He pulls his hand away and shoves it into his trouser pocket. “Maybe I’m just unfamiliar with the feeling.”

“I’m sure.”

They both turn their heads at the same time to see Tai watching them; somehow Qrow had nearly forgotten he was even there, and Raven seems not to care. But his eyes are now fixed on Qrow’s hand, even after it’s disappeared into his pocket. He blinks. “… not just bone charms for you anymore, I see.”

“Something like that,” Raven says, and there’s something of that smile back on her face when she studies Tai’s reaction. “When we get to land, maybe I’ll show you some of what it can do.”

Raven.”

What could she possibly be thinking? Whatever the Outsider has done for them is treasonous by Dunwall standards. Even if Tai won’t hand them over to the Abbey — and there’s reason to be entirely certain he won’t — it’s still not smart to parade it out in the streets so close to the Overseers.

Wasn’t she just scolding Qrow for not hiding the mark on his own flesh? And now she wants to show off in the streets.

Not that either of them take note of Qrow’s annoyed scowl or his sharp reprimand. They both only have eyes for each other.

Tai smiles; it’s not as certain and sure as his usual one, but it’s there. “You have one too?”

“Perhaps I do.”

Raven.”

“It’s much better than anything my brother has.”

“Oh, I definitely believe that.”

Qrow huffs and casts his eyes back up at the ropes — anything to distract himself from the idiots down here with him.

*

After they make landfall there is still another hour or so of unloading their haul onto the docks and settling affairs before the three of them are making their way deep into the heart of the alleyways they know so well.

“Here? We’re going to do it… just here?” Qrow is annoyed with himself for how plaintive he thinks he sounds. All his cocky swagger is disappearing in the face of his sister’s much broader certainty — as it so often does. “What if someone sees?”

“What are they going to do? Cry to an Overseer?”

Yes.”

Tai looks around them; this side alley is empty for now, but crowds are still passing close by at the mouth of the street. “… what exactly are the two of you planning to do?”

Raven grins at him, and there’s a sharpness in her expression. “Show off.” Without waiting any longer, she extends her hand out in front of her and wisps of misty red smoke begin to curl around her fingertips.

Qrow blinks and takes a small step back while Tai completely freezes. Whatever he expected, from the look on his face it wasn’t this.

Even Qrow is caught off guard, unsure what this power is or how much else his sister can do — what he can do as well — but as for Raven, her grin only gets bigger. “Do you want to feel it?” She waves her hand through the air and the smoke trails after. “Well, you shouldn’t.”

Tai’s hand stops midway through reaching out and a small, slightly strangled sound escapes his throat. “… why?”

“It burns.” She tilts her head and watches the patterns of smoke twist around her fingers. “Just the same as fire.”

“How do you know?”

“I tested it.” She blinks. When Raven’s gaze refocuses on her brother, the red smoke disappears. “On the side of the whale.”

Somehow, that isn’t comforting at all.

Qrow thinks maybe he should feel afraid, but he draws closer instead. “What else can you do?”

Tai’s eyes have grown so big, Qrow is left with the strange feeling that they’re taking up more than the usual amount of his face. He moves closer to them, quickly. “What, you mean there’s more?” His voice is strained and so is his breathing, but there’s a brightness in his eyes too. “Did you speak with him?”

“Yes,” Raven says.

None of them need to say who it is they mean; they all know.

“And he gave you… all this.”

“More.” Raven’s smiling more than Qrow has ever seen her — really ever, even more than when she would win fights in the street or snatch jewels from the pockets of Dunwall nobles. “Let’s find out what. All of it. Together.”

*

And they do.

They spend the next hour becoming more and more careless.

Raven seems happy and free in her newfound power and Qrow can’t help but think that a part of her might want to be caught, to have some stuffy Overseer try to talk about his seven now when her touch can burn through so many things it could probably set his own resolve alight. They test her out on so many different kinds of material, learning that she can burn straight through thinner fabrics, scorch leather, and heat metal over time.

“What do you think it would do to flesh on a person?” Tai asks, his voice high and slightly strained.

Raven’s smile hasn’t wavered, not for the full hour. “Find me someone to test it on and we’ll know.” The flames dance along her hand. “A noble, perhaps.”

“Funny,” Tai says.

But Qrow feels sure that she isn’t joking.

*

She can do different things too. Fly from one end of the alley to the other and back again in just the blink of an eye, moving so fast she is only a blur of crimson through the air. She forms blades in the air made from the same ebony substance as the rock of the Void, and when she stops right in front of Qrow with a strange look in her eye she claims she can see (clearly) how fast his heart is beating.

“Are you frightened, brother?”

He swallows. “I guess I don’t know what I am. This is all—”

“An incredible gift.”

“Sure,” Qrow says, carefully. “I suppose it is.”

She steps closer. “Focus your vision into the other side. You can do it too.”

Another big swallow. His hand almost shakes, or — no. It burns. Qrow breathes in deeply and his gaze refocuses. He sees more clearly suddenly, even as everything becomes concave at the edges, like glass over a porthole. “… oh,” he breathes and when his sister smiles Qrow can see the shifting of muscle just below the skin.

He turns his head and he can clearly see Tai gazing at him, eyes like beams of bright light, filling the alley up with a soft glow when their two eyes meet.

Oh,” he says again, feeling his own heart rate picking back up. He looks down and he can see it thudding in his chest. “You weren’t kidding.”

Raven shakes her head and places a steadying hand on Qrow’s shoulder. “It’s a lot at once. Pace yourself.”

“You did just fine.”

“I’ve been practicing while you were healing.”

Tai has been mostly silent except for sounds of admiration this entire time — no interjections or objections — but now he draws closer. “You died, didn’t you? Before.”

His eyes are still burning bright and Qrow can see how fast his friend’s heart is beating. Maybe that’s why he lets himself be so honest, even though his voice feels so small (so pathetic), in a whispered, “… yes.”

Tai is silent for a long moment that stretches out between them.

Qrow blinks and his gaze shifts back to the now — the normal outline of his friend — and he can see the way Tai is grinning. Like this is all almost normal again. “I’m glad you made it back with us,” he says, and puts a hand on Qrow’s other shoulder.

In an instant, the smile slips from Tai’s face.

It drains, like all of him — his posture shifting and slumping, his eyes going blank as he falls to the dirty cobble road — sprawled out on his back.

Raven blinks and her own smile falters for the first time that day. “… Tai?”

From his place on the ground, Tai can only wheeze in response.

Tai,” she says again, more frantic and concerned as she drops to his side on the road, knees in the filth, and presses a (strangely gentle) hand to the man’s forehead. “Come on,” she says, a hard edge in her voice that isn’t there at all in her expression. “Don’t be stupid. Come on.”

Qrow burns. From the mark on his hand to the very tip of his toes, he feels energy coursing through him. It has been there, pulsing, from the very moment that he saw Tai’s eyes go blank.

Drained from one and shot straight into another. That has to be it.

Whatever’s happening to Tai, it’s his fault. It’s his hunger.

Raven seems to realize it too because when Qrow starts to kneel down at Tai’s other side she shoots him a hard glare and gestures to move aside. “I’ve got this. You stand back.”

And he does. He takes (several) steps back and deep breaths in. “Is he—”

“He doesn’t have a spear through his chest like you did,” Raven says, her voice still hard like a clipped edge of a broken off blade. “He’ll be fine, so long as you stay back.”

Qrow takes another step further — back and away. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I know,” she says, but the edge is still there. The small retreat doesn’t calm her anger; most things never do. “But— just let me do this.”

So much of their life, Raven’s asked him to step aside, to just let her have the things she wants. Usually it’s violence and theft, something that would put them both in danger. She has never asked permission before to help someone.

“Of course.”

It happens so quickly; almost as fast as Tai was drained, left twisted on his side and gasping, he looks almost like himself again. He blinks and the thin veil across his vision seems to clear.

He coughs and starts to sit up, but Raven stops him. “Rest a while, you fool.”

Tai looks ready to argue but stops at the look on her face; she is worried in a way she so rarely is. Qrow remembers it as the same look on her face when he seemed close to death. Maybe this was the same thing again for Tai. Maybe in more ways than one.

“I didn’t mean—” Qrow starts to say again, uselessly, his hands flexing at his sides, but when Tai’s eyes meet his he goes silent.

He knows that look on his face. It feels so familiar, reflected back at him.

“Your heart,” Tai whispers.

It’s beating fast. And Tai can see it.

*

Whatever it is that Raven can do, healing or something more, it leaves traces of her powers inside of other people — inside of Tai, at least — for the next few hours, lingering, after her touch. Maybe it could all last for longer, they reason, if she wanted it to. If she learned.

They test it slowly, first the sight and then the flames. Tai learns to move through space quicker than anything else. He points and there he is, laughing and warm with all the life that had so quickly slipped from him. They try everything they can think of for hours, but all the while Qrow hangs back.

Whatever it is that Raven gives, Qrow seems to take the same away. More.

She had given strength, added powers, and he was taking life. Thinking back now, it’s as though he can remember exactly what it felt like at the heart of him — who Tai is and what he hopes to be — and that his fingers had brushed right against all that hope and left it clouded with uncertainty. Dirty fingers dragged across an entire future.

Now that the two of them are shining with so much possibility, laughing and eager, he hangs back. He flexes his hand, feels it burn, and waits for the powers to wear away.

But he does not touch Tai easily after that. Not this day and not later.

Nothing is as easy after that, except for the trust. Now they are all foreign in their own specific way — people belonging to the Outsider, more than they do any one island. That, at least, can join them together.

*

They work to learn their powers more and more in the coming months — the twins with their own, and Tai with his borrowed from Raven. They learn a sort of rhythm, and Qrow eventually learns how to dampen the powers that seek to devour and consume.

It’s easiest with whiskey, he realizes.

A lot of things are.

Qrow learns the right amount to drink to still skip across the rooftops with grace but keep his touch from hurting someone — not just his friends, his family, but strangers on the street who stand too close — and it’s easy. Believe enough, anything can be easy.

And they do learn how to believe. That’s easiest with whiskey too, but his family as well.

Tai is family now, in his own over eager way; at least as much of a brother as the ones they’ve left behind. More than that even.

When the three of them sprawl out on the rooftops after a night spent running just for the thrill of it — breathing heavy, lungs burning, but feeling so alive with all that pain — Qrow can laugh easily with the two of them and share his flask without concern.

It’s more than he’s ever felt with any two people before.

More than he remembers feeling ever before. And that’s even through all the whiskey.

*

Time moves. It’s still too fast, even now that he knows how to slow it.

The years pass, and Qrow can’t remember why he used to think someone like Tai could never be anything like them when now he’s more like a family than any brother he’s ever known.

They are a set of three, for years. And then suddenly — or maybe not so fast, maybe time just passes — they are four. When Summer starts to come to their small house for dinners, more and more, that’s easy too. Three becomes four, just like that.

One day Raven shows her the rest of it. She doesn’t ask permission from the two of them — never has — and they only know she’s done it when they walk in to find Summer playing with sparks that dance across her fingertips.

Her powers are different from the rest.

The power she summons isn’t like flames, not exactly, but still thick crimson and misting like smoke. She leaves trails of it where she touches. She can charm anyone, even Overseers who stare too long when they see them in the streets. Just the lightest touch from her — gentle and soothing, just a single hand on an elbow — is enough to calm the rage that’s always there in their eyes. They forget what they saw.

Raven can conjure a ball of flame in her palm and Summer will make the Overseers smile and look away; it becomes something of a game for the two of them.

It’s easy.

It’s so frightening how easy it is, how quickly he makes a place for the other two in his heart. More than that: the way that Raven bends. He has never seen his sister smile so easily before. Not for anything or anyone.

Not the way she is with those two.

*

It was always going to change. Nothing good lasts.

Uncle taught them that.

It’s Summer, not Raven, who insists first that things must change. These things they can do are good for more than games.

“Think of all the people we could help,” she says.

It begins small and simple. They see an Overseer alone — no crowd or extra eyes to concern themselves with — and he’s cornered some poor slum rat. He’s lecturing her on the strictures — restless hands, in particular.

Probably stole some food to survive, and now she’s meant to suffer.

But Summer steps in — for the first time for someone that isn’t one of their four — and puts a hand on the Overseer’s shoulder. “Come now,” she says softly. “I think the girl’s learned her lesson. Don’t you, sir?”

Very suddenly, he does think so. He releases the girl who stumbles off quickly on unsteady legs.

But they aren’t finished yet; Raven makes sure of that.

“What was he going to do with her?” she asks Summer, not even glancing to the others.

Without even a moment for the others to object or to question, Summer takes the man’s head between her hands and carefully lifts off his mask. Once revealed to the light, Qrow can see the way the man’s eyes have glossed over.

He stares off into nothing, perhaps looking into the Void itself.

Summer cups his face, almost tenderly, and closes her own eyes. “He was going to lock her in a cage and dump that into the river,” she whispers, words careful and deliberate.

It’s true. Qrow doesn’t need to understand exactly what she’s doing — or even how — to know that this is the truth. Summer wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t. So all he can do is ask a single question: “Why?”

“If she survived, it would mean she was saved by the Outsider, and would burn for it. If she died, she would be cleansed.” When Summer opens her eyes again, they are alight with a furious glow that Qrow has never seen there before. It’s beautiful and terrifying, exactly in the same amount. “Either way, Dunwall would be better off.”

There is a long moment of silence in which Qrow thinks he can hear each of their heavy heartbeats, even without looking into the other side.

His palms sweat, and he clenches them into fists, but says nothing.

It’s Tai who speaks first, which surprises him — even if it’s to say what every one of them must be thinking. “He can’t live.”

“He won’t,” Raven says, her voice whisper soft and eyes as sharp as the knife she slides straight through the man’s heart. His eyes remain clouded, face cradled in Summer’s grasp, until the life slips from him completely and he collapses.

That’s how it starts.

*

It’s Summer, not Raven, who decides they should do more of it, but with preparations the next time. “We shouldn’t show our faces.”

“Maybe then we can let one of them live, mm?”

“Only if they deserve it.”

“Not going to be a lot of those in Dunwall among the Overseers,” Qrow says with a wry smile.

“I hope there are.”

It’s no surprise really that this sentiment — tender and sentimental — comes from Summer too, even if she is often disappointed. At least they save more lives than they take, faces concealed behind vapor masks and garbed completely in anonymous whaler’s uniforms.

With their added secrecy, they grow bolder. Not just killing Overseers one at a time, but sometimes stopping an entire group of them at once. Summer darts quickly from one to the next — pulling herself across space and time so rapidly the eye can’t follow her — and places a gentle hand on each. They go still, soft, and then the rest of their work begins.

Not all of them die, but most of them do.

“Butchering these monsters is cleaner work than killing whales,” Raven finally says one day when Summer isn’t around to hear it.

Qrow agrees, but thinks it’s better not to say so; he only grunts.

*

The streets are safer for the poor now, but the nobles have started to become more afraid. The Overseers tell stories about masked worshippers of the Void who come out of the darkness of the alleyways and snatch the good believers from the street.

They speak about them on their corners, screaming to the passing crowd to beware. The Whalers might come to get you.

It doesn’t have the intended affect.

If anything, the poor folk of the city start to toast these Whalers who come to their rescue. What begins as a mission to stop Overseers quickly extends to all other forms of injustice. It’s Qrow’s idea to give the nobles something greater to be afraid of, but Summer who insists on leading the way through touch.

It’s easier than you might expect, the way some of them recoil or slap her when she brushes against them in the street. “You filthy street rat,” says one man as he strikes her across the face, but there are too many members of the Watch around him, even for them. He belongs to the Tower.

The young girl at his side — no more than five years old — watches almost impassively, as though she has seen all this before.

Once he walks away, Qrow is there to offer his hand. He’s had enough whiskey today that he doesn’t hesitate to touch Summer, even if he can see the way she scans his mind at a touch.

If she dislikes whatever she sees, she doesn’t say so.

Instead, what she says is, “That man knows people are dying in his mine and he doesn’t care.” Her eyes shift from Qrow’s to take in the other two who have joined them. “He hates his Emperor, more than any one of us ever has.”

“I doubt that,” Raven drawls, but with a grim sort of smile. “But fine. Let’s kill him.”

“Too many innocents around him all the time. That’s by design.”

Raven looks unconvinced, but Tai nods. “So we find someone else. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

“It won’t be,” Summer agrees, her voice tinged with deep regret.

*

The Overseers and the nobles begin to travel in ever larger groups, often with members of the Watch paid to walk alongside them. By order of the Emperor, the good people of the Abbey and those who provide the Empire with coin are to be kept safe.

It isn’t as easy as it used to be. Most days, they have to walk away without engaging, and Qrow can see the ways that it’s started to weigh on Raven.

She is angry again, all the time.

In front of the Office of the Overseer, just down the street from the Tower where their Emperor rules, worshippers of the Outsider are put on display for punishment. As the fear increases within the Abbey, there is a new worshipper every single day. Some of them are left to starve to death and some succumb to the beatings.

A few survive, but they don’t know how many. They can’t risk passing by so many times to keep count.

One night Qrow dreams that it’s Raven held in chains there, and when she tries to use her powers to escape the Outsider abandons her. He leaves her there to die.

“Do you really think so little of me?” a voice whispers in the back of Qrow’s mind and the vision fades.

He is standing in the Void, for the first time in so many years.

“I don’t know what I think,” he says, and it’s the truth. “Not about you. Not anymore.”

“You think you’re doing good now. Don’t you? That came from me.”

“No.” Qrow shakes his head. “That came from Summer.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

The Outsider moves closer and Qrow turns his head to watch him. He doesn’t seem any older than Qrow remembers, even after all these years. Still just a boy — is that all he’ll ever get to be?

“Why am I here?”

“I wanted to see you again.”

Qrow is suspicious, of course he is, but he tries not to let it show. “Why now?”

“The people call out to you, you know.” The Outsider’s dark eyes almost seem to glow. “In their prayers to me. ‘Send your Whalers to protect me,’ they say.”

“And are you jealous?”

The Outsider laughs at that, but does not answer, not directly. “You have built so much in these few years,” he says instead. “Take care not to lose it.”

“What does that mean?”

When the Outsider shrugs, the world shifts with him, rippling with uncertainty. “Perhaps you should ask Summer, if she knows so much.” In that instant, Qrow regrets ever saying her name here, even if the Outsider already knew it. He smiles as though he knows what Qrow is thinking. “Why do you always look so miserable?”

“You made me a monster who sucks the life from people if I’m too careless. Maybe that’s it.”

“Then don’t be careless.”

“What did I do to make you hate me?”

Another shrug and this time the rock shifts slightly under Qrow’s feet. “I’ve never hated you. I don’t care about any of you enough to feel hate, Qrow. I hope you can understand that.” He blinks at him slowly. “But you do intrigue me. I wish you wouldn’t be so pathetic all the time. It’s not very entertaining.”

“So that’s why you made me—”

“I don’t make you anything,” the Outsider cuts in. “You are what you make yourself. I only make it easier.”

In a single instant, the world shifts again, and Qrow is standing in the plaza from his dream, his sister shackled in front of him.

But when he moves to release her, to set her free — even if it’s foolish, even if he knows this is just a dream — with just one touch to her shoulder, he feels her go limp in his hands. All the life drains from her in an instant, but the hunger is still there inside him.

It burns.

*

When he wakes, Qrow reaches for his whiskey.

If Summer, Tai, or even Raven notice how much more he drinks in the coming weeks, they don’t say a thing. Maybe they don’t even notice.

Maybe it’s not so abnormal after all. Not by now.

*

One day, it all begins to change, just as the Outsider said that it might.

The Empress is pregnant with child — the first of many, the Overseers promise at every street corner, to anyone who will listen — for she has kept the strictures and will be rewarded with plenty. The city swells with anticipation in the months ahead; people speak eagerly in the streets with strangers. There is a sense of shared joy amongst the people, looking toward a brighter future and all the promise of possibility.

When a new ruler is about to be born, there is a sense of the unknown. Of opportunity. The Empire waits to see how the world might turn differently, one distant day, under her rule.

Then one day, she is here.

All across the city bells ring out and music blares from high pitched speakers stuck to the sides of buildings. A successor to the throne is born: princess Blake Belladonna, first of her name.

All throughout Dunwall, from the highest tables to the lowest of the slums, the people raise their glasses in toasts to their future ruler — long may she reign. Some of the bars offer discounts to drag in eager passersby or visitors from the other isles who hope to catch a glimpse of the princess in the coming days.

Every round, there’s another toast.

Tai starts it off, as he so often does. “To her future wisdom and kindness in command of our Empire.” He lifts his glass. “Long may she reign.”

Second round, it’s Qrow’s turn, saying, “To the princess’s health and a long life.”

“To her happiness,” Summer answers back, and they clink their glasses together.

To her common sense, her family’s health, her clarity of vision.

It’s by the seventh round or so that they’ve run out of ideas, so that Tai even nudges Raven, jovially, and asks her to do a round.

In an instant, just from a single look at her face, Qrow knows it’s a mistake. But it’s too late now.

She’s already sucking at the back of her teeth and sneering into her glass of whiskey before holding it aloft. “To her parents, who can afford to feed as many mouths as they like. What a blessing and a gift.” She downs the liquor in one go and stands abruptly, jostling the table as she does. Summer reaches for her, but Raven swats her hand away, snarling, “I am fine.”

Qrow’s gaze travels quickly between his sister and his friends. She doesn’t look fine, clearly, but he hopes that the other two both know better than to say so.

And they don’t. They all just watch her leave.

*

It’s only another three days before Raven tells them that she is pregnant. Has been, for some time.

How long, she isn’t sure.

“Long enough,” she says.

Summer looks ready to congratulate her, but the coldness in Raven’s eyes stops the words in her throat. “… don’t you want it?”

“Another mouth to feed?” Raven sneers. “Someone too helpless to defend herself in this terrible world?”

“How do you know it’s a girl?”

Raven ignores her brother — the one to ask the question when Tai is too cold and terrifyingly still to even speak — and looks at Summer instead, asking sharply, “Well, isn’t it?”

Summer hesitates, glancing at the rest of them first — as though seeking permission — before she reaches out for Raven to take her by the hand. “It is,” she says after a long moment. “She’s a girl. I think… she’s going to be so much like you.”

Raven jerks her hand away and takes several steps further back, pulling her power along with her, ripping it right out of Summer’s veins. “All the more reason not to want her,” she snarls.

“No,” Tai cuts in, finally saying his first answer at all. “You’re wrong.” His eyes are hard and even slightly damp as he looks at Raven with something like an accusation. “She’ll be perfect.”

*

And by the Outsider, she is.

In spite of everything — the days with less food and the cramped house they live in — Yang is the happiest baby Qrow has ever seen. She laughs easily, just like her father, but she watches everyone around her closely just like her mother.

She sits in Summer’s lap and coils her fingers through her hair, chewing on it experimentally, and then laughing with pleasure. When she’s passed to Qrow next, she begins tugging on the (extremely) short whiskers of the beard he’s finally learned to grow. Tai watches it all with warm affection clear on his face.

But the way that Raven stares for so long, with something in her eyes like fear — the kind he hasn’t seen in years — Qrow thinks later that he should have known what was coming before it did. He should have used his years at sea to smell the changing in the wind.

Raven stops coming home.

Just like that, she slips out of their lives, like shrugging off an old coat. It starts with one strange night they’re all too afraid to comment on. Then another, two weeks later. The trips away become longer, more frequent, and the accusations in their eyes are more obvious.

Tai tries to start a conversation — his voice low but firm — but she just walks right back out the door.

Eventually, she doesn’t return.

She does not go with them out to sea anymore either. Where she is, they couldn’t say, but only that she must still be in Dunwall because sometimes they still feel her power throbbing inside all of them.

It isn’t only Tai and Summer that lose their gifts now that she’s gone away. Qrow cannot summon it either, not when his sister is too far from him.

Sometimes he thinks he can still sense her, when pain pricks the back of his hand as he passes a certain alley or lingers too long at the docks. She is somewhere, close and watching, and he carefully avoids looking up — though which one of them he is protecting, he really couldn't say.

Maybe it’s just himself. Maybe he’s a coward.

When he comes home to see Yang curled up tight in Summer’s arms, he can’t look at her for too long; there’s too much shame.

The whiskey helps with that too.

*

With no more powers of their own, they stop their journeys out into the streets with masks and whaling suits. It’s too dangerous, after all, if they can’t really defend themselves.

The Whalers are no more, but the Overseers still speak as though they are. They still round up people for their plaza, though fewer than before. Qrow notices them, every one, and looks to be certain he doesn’t see his sister’s face among them. He walks close and waits for the feeling, but there is nothing.

It bothers Summer more than any of them, or at least she’s the worst at hiding it.

She waits until Yang is put to bed to say what they’re all thinking, “Your sister is a coward.”

“I used to think that was me.”

“It’s always been who she is,” Tai says, his eyes focused on the table. “I don’t know why I didn’t see it clearly before.”

“A lot of things, we don’t see right away,” Qrow says, noticing for the first time the way that Summer reaches for Tai’s hand underneath the table.

*

Time moves even faster now that Qrow can’t touch it.

At least this time he’s prepared when Summer says that she is pregnant.

In every way that Yang takes after her father, Ruby is Summer’s daughter. She is sweet and soft, never crying, and Yang watches over her with such affection and care. For as much as she had loved her family’s attention and time, Yang makes way for her sister eagerly and shows her every single inch of their home in detail.

Most of it is done by pointing, or handing her things to explore through taste — though Summer intervenes quickly there. Tai laughs at the look of disappointment on both their faces and ruffles Yang’s hair until she swats it away, just like she’s seen her Uncle do so many times before.

They buy the second bed this house has ever seen and intend it for the girls to share together once they’re older.

It starts to feel like a home again, almost normal.

Maybe even closer to normal than it was when everyone was there, even if Qrow hates to think it.

They set out to sea, just the two of them, and the children wave from the doorway as they watch them go: Yang struggling to remain upright on her own and Ruby held high in Summer’s arms. “Come back safe, you two,” Summer calls and Ruby burbles with excitement.

“No one is more careful than us!”

Tai elbows Qrow lightly and grins. “We’ll be back as soon as we can, I promise.”

And they are. For once, Qrow doesn’t regret the short voyages; he hopes for them. When they return to dock, set foot back in Dunwall, he feels happier that way. Content, for once.

This is where he belongs. Here.

And if his vision sometimes slips to the other side and he feels the mark on his hand burn bright when someone (roughly) brushes against his shoulder in passing, he doesn’t have to turn to see who it is; she doesn’t deserve that satisfaction.

*

Like anything good, it would never last. He knows it. Deep down, he knows, but he tries to keep that knowledge at bay. Like running from a storm on the horizon.

But it happens anyway.

Summer is home alone with the children for days at a time, so when she says she wants to try to help people again, to feel useful in other ways again, it’s hard to deny her anything. She is raising two little girls, mostly on her own.

Tai won’t deny anything she asks for that he can give.

“We can’t be sure we know where she is long enough to keep the power,” Qrow tries to argue, but neither of them are really listening.

“I only need it long enough to read them.” Summer bounces Ruby on her hip, rocking her to sleep. “And I think I know. Where she is.”

Tai looks up from his meal but doesn’t say anything. He is very (very) still.

“… you know?”

“When I take the girls for walks in the city, I feel her in the same direction every time. In the marketplace, near where I used to work.” She strokes Ruby’s hair back from her face and lowers her voice. “There are houses back that way. I used to live in one, as—” Summer hesitates, her eyes locked on Tai. “Well, she’s seen it too. I took her there, once.”

Qrow takes several long drinks from his whiskey and pretends not to see the looks the other two are giving each other. When he finally looks up again, Tai is standing.

“I’ll go look,” is all he says, throwing on his jacket and hurrying out the door.

*

It’s several hours until he makes his way back home, with blood on his shirt collar and a bruise over his right eye.

“Tai—”

Qrow moves toward him, but is lightly pushed aside. “I’m fine,” Tai lies, and disappears into the other back room — not the one where Summer is lying down with the kids. It’s the room the three of them used to share, those ten years ago, when housing was only going to be temporary.

It’s fine if he takes the only other bed, really. Qrow isn’t going to sleep at all.

Not tonight.

*

Tai has found the spot. He explains it over breakfast in the morning, still pretending no one can see the swelling across his eye. “It’s just like you said.” His smile is strangely painful in how close it seems to sincere. “Just in that spot in the marketplace. If we stay near there, we still have the powers. I tested it.”

“We can see that.”

Tai ignores him, but the smile wavers.

“Did you hurt yourself?” Yang asks, her legs kicking because they can’t reach the ground.

“Oh, this?” Tai gestures to his own face and laughs. “Don’t you worry about it. A whale did this.”

Yang looks unsure, but carefully admits, “They’re really big.”

“Yeah. So big.” Tai reaches out to ruffle her hair, but she swats the hand away with a giggle. ”Like you’re going to be one day!”

Yang lifts her arms in celebration. “Big as a whale!”

“We’ll have to buy a bigger house,” Summer says, laughing, and even Qrow begins to relax.

He smiles. “Maybe something down by the market.”

Both of their smiles freeze and they glance at him. Yang is the only one who doesn’t really notice, and Ruby’s too distracted by her food. It was the wrong thing to say.

Qrow’s good at that, and only gotten better without his sister there to say something even worse.

“… we’ll go look after breakfast.”

“I want to come,” Summer insists. “Qrow, will you watch the girls?”

That gets Yang’s attention again. She scowls, face scrunched up with obvious annoyance. “But I want to come.” It’s obvious she doesn’t even know where they’re going, just that it’s a family adventure.

“How about I take you two to the docks?”

“I’m not sure—”

Tai shakes his head. “They’ll be fine.”

Qrow nods and sips his coffee — mixed with whiskey. “I know it like the back of my own hand.”

“I know exactly what’s on the back of your hand,” Summer says, very softly. “That’s what worries me.”

But apart from that, she doesn’t argue.

*

Ruby is almost able to walk all on her own, but seems to prefer being carried still so that she’s taller than Yang. Not that Yang notices or cares from her position close to street level, tugging on her Uncle’s trousers right before running off into the crowd. It’s terrifying.

Is this what it’s like for Summer all the time?

“Wait, hold on—” Qrow almost stumbles trying to keep up, and sticks a leg out in front of Yang to keep her from darting past him. “Let’s just walk slowly so we can see everything.”

Yang gives him that face — the suspicious and skeptical one — but then Qrow nudges her with his knee, so that she sways, and she breaks out into a big grin and starts to giggle in a way that reminds him so much of her father. The way he used to be all the time and now only really is with his girls.

“Can you slow down for me so your sister can see everything too?”

That sobers Yang up quickly. She’s still grinning, but she nods, so earnest as she blinks up at Ruby. “Sure!” She holds up a hand, and Qrow ducks down so that they can push their tiny hands together in some kind of sibling affirmation. “I want her to see everything.”

“Oh, she’s going to. Someday.”

Ruby laughs when Qrow stands again and her tiny fists grip the collar of his shirt so tight she scrapes some of the skin on his throat underneath.

The girl is going to be a fighter one day. She gets that from her mother.

*

Whatever Tai and Summer did alone, they come back smiling brighter than they have in some time. Qrow doesn’t mind that he was apart from it, if that’s the result.

They ask him to watch the girls again a few days later and he agrees. It’s fun, in its own way.

Yang loves it at the docks.

It reminds Qrow of himself when he was younger. Ruby doesn’t seem to care in the same way, but she smiles watching Yang run up and down along the pier, pointing to each and every new ship and asking so many rapid questions.

Qrow tries to answer them all, as best he can.

The next time he's out to sea, he plans to ask more, about the ships and how they work, so he can tell his girls anything and everything they want to know. The feeling he has when he looks at these girls -- whose faces remind him so much of the people he has cared the most for in his life -- is unlike anything Qrow has known before. He wants to keep them safe from everything, their own reckless impulses too, while still giving them anything they ask for.

It's a contradiction, but when Yang laughs it seems like it should be easy.

Time keeps moving, much too fast, and it's the first time he really hates it. He drinks less, tries to remember more. Some days, passing through the market, he reaches out to tug against the edges of time, just to feel it slow. He watches the way Ruby's face changes when she laughs at Yang's antics, running circles around Qrow's ankles in the streets.

This one time, just this once, he looks up. He looks.

And just there, reflecting the glare of the sun, he thinks he sees a figure in a Whaler's mask looking down at them.

Just like that, the figure is gone, and time resumes.

*

Things change. They always will.

One morning Summer and Tai are preparing to leave, but Ruby won't stop fussing, reaching out for her mother.

“She's scared of the man,” Yang explains, matter of fact. “From the nighttime.”

Tai strokes Yang's hair and she doesn’t push him away. “There isn't any man, sunshine.”

But Qrow is less sure. “You saw him?”

Yang shrugs. “We both did.” She hesitates. “He said he knew my other mother. Is that true, do you think?”

Summer is the one who looks over at Qrow first, tension straightening her spine. “You know not to talk to strangers, right baby?”

Yang looks only vaguely chastised, rubbing her nose against her arm. “Sure, but I thought I knew him. He seemed really familiar.” She is watching them intently now, so very like Raven when she begins to lay her argument out, saying, “And if he knows my other mom, then maybe—”

“He was lying, sunshine.” Tai frowns into his coffee, but when he looks up again there is a smile on his face. It’s a lie; even Yang seems to know that. “Listen to your real mom, alright? No more strangers.”

Yang looks set to argue even more, but a gentle touch from Summer placed lightly on her shoulder quiets her. She’s never pulled away from her (real) mother’s touch, even when it’s been to ruffle her hair. If anything, Yang presses closer. “Maybe we should do this some other day,” Summer is saying to Tai directly over Yang’s head, her voice low and soothing.

Qrow knows how much of a compromise the offer is. They picked their target out a week ago: a noble who snatches young girls from small villages to sell them to The Golden Cat. The longer they wait, the more risk there is of him taking someone else.

They all know that, and it’s there on Summer’s face, just as clear as anything.

Which is why Tai is shaking his head, frowning again. “No. Let me stay with the girls. You and Qrow can do it.”

“You don’t trust me with them?”

Tai’s gaze is harder than Qrow expects when he looks at him. “I’m trusting you with Summer instead.”

*

When it comes time to make their goodbyes, Yang and Ruby cling to their mother longer than usual. Ruby is sniffling, and nobody knows why.

“Hey, come on,” Qrow says, with a fond little laugh. “I’m going to bring her back to you all in one piece. I promise.”

Yang rubs her nose and nods, firm when she says, “You better.”

*

But he doesn’t.

*

Qrow will never know exactly what happened, even though he plays it over and over in his mind every night for the rest of his life. Things are going just as planned. It works just like it used to, so many times before, although this time it’s just the two of them.

He’s never been alone with Summer before. He’s never been this sober before.

He isn’t ready when the noble who had seemed to take the bait turns on her so quickly, weapon drawn. Neither is she. It’s unclear to him, looking back, if their powers were still there or if Raven must have moved too far away. He really isn’t sure why Summer is suddenly bleeding out on the pavement.

He doesn’t know if it’s his power or a lack of it that drains the life from her so fast. Is that just the blood loss, or is it him?

She’s fading, so fast, and he’s calling her name, distorted by the Whaler’s mask, trying to will the life force back into her the way that Raven did so many times before. If his sister was still here, still with them, this wouldn’t be happening.

If he was Raven and not himself, this wouldn’t be happening.

But it is. It happens.

Time doesn’t stop; he forgets how to slow it. He forgets everything except the look in Yang’s eyes, the tears on Ruby’s face, when they had left them this morning.

He never forgets the emptiness on Summer’s face when he peels off the mask and sees her cold and lifeless expression underneath.

Never.

*

When Qrow turns to run, to flee, when he hears the Watch coming, it is so familiar. Running away, just him and his sister, only caring about themselves. Leaving Summer’s body behind because he cannot carry her. They will have nothing to bury, and he will always know that it’s his fault.

It has to be.

Because when he runs, when he’s afraid, he reaches out and remembers how to pull himself onto the rooftops. The power is there, pulsing against the back of his hand.

He has his powers. He knows. He should know.

But when he thinks about it later, he can’t remember how any of it went.

The whiskey helps with that.

*

Time moves on. Years follow, one after the next. They bleed together — like Summer had, blood in the gutter — and soon the power fades completely from them both.

Raven can’t possibly be in Dunwall anymore. He doesn’t feel it.

He almost never feels anything.

*

Another five years and Qrow almost convinces himself that the Outsider never existed. Maybe it was just a dream and not a memory.

Until the day Yang almost drowns and he sees it clearly, the power that pulses at the edges of her.

He can almost feel it burning on his hand.

That night he counts the bones on the back of his jacket and whispers summons into the dark and the Outsider is there, real, when he closes his eyes to sleep.

“It’s been so many years.”

“You leave her alone,” Qrow says, without any preamble. “She’s too young. She’s too good.”

“And what am I?”

“I don’t know. But I know what I am.” Qrow feels drunk, even in his dreams. Sloppy and obvious in his anger. “But she’s not like me.”

“Neither was her mother.”

Qrow laughs, a sharp and unkind sound. “Which one?”

“Which one do you think I mean?” The Outsider blinks, impassive. “I told her that I knew you, but didn’t mention that she and I had spoken before. Do you think she’ll remember any of it?”

“I think you already know the answer to your own questions.” Qrow sneers. “Do you just want to be told how clever you are?”

The Outsider actually laughs at that. “I’ve missed you, Qrow.”

“I haven’t.”

“Missed me or yourself?”

Qrow huffs, a heavy exhalation of air that sinks straight through him. It’s like the rock under his feet actually gives way slightly. He feels it cracking, like a part of himself. “Either. Both.”

“Why did you call on me?”

“Leave my family alone,” he says eventually, almost pleading. It feels pathetic, small, but that feels right too. Exactly as he knows himself to be. “Please. Haven’t you done enough?”

“Haven’t you?”

He has. He knows it. It’s why he doesn’t try to answer when his vision slips to black.

*

When Yang is offered a place at the Tower, Qrow is almost relieved.

Sure, the royal family is the ultimate kind of nobility — the very kind of people they used to overthrow and rebel against — but at least there she will be far outside the Outsider’s grasp, carefully placed so very close to the Office of the Overseers and the center of their power. He wouldn’t dare touch her there.

Even if Yang grows distant from him — even if she’s so seldom home that Zwei eventually stops taking naps in her bed, whimpering softly, because he doesn’t expect her to return anymore at all — it’s really for the best. It has to be.

Once Ruby goes too, that’s even better.

Even if Qrow sometimes misses the sound of their laughter, it’s better this way. They are far away from the Outsider, and from him. The only person in this household who hasn’t figured out what’s best for himself yet is Tai, and he hasn’t looked as if he cares in years.

Which is easier to forget now too, without Yang’s smile there to remind Qrow of what his friend used to look like. How he used to laugh.

It’s easy. Anything can be easy if you just let it happen.

Time moves on. It always does.

And then one day, his hand starts to burn.

*

It could be someone else, Qrow reasons. Some other person with the mark, perhaps, could be on the island and fueling his powers. There was never any proof that this only came from Raven.

Except the feeling is strongest when he stands in the marketplace. This time, he looks up.

He looks.

And up there, on the rooftops, there is a new sort of mask, watching him. Glinting in the light. He doesn’t hesitate, or even consider if it’s possible. He reaches out and pulls himself to the roof.

He expects her to run, but she doesn’t.

“Who do you think you are?” Qrow snarls to the mechanical mask that covers his sister’s face. Even if he didn’t know already, her hair spills out from the sides in such a familiar way — immediately recognizable. “After all this time? Not even to see your own daughter?”

“I came back because of her,” Raven says, cryptic as ever. She points to the metal case at her feet. “And this is for you.”

“I don’t want anything from you.”

“That isn’t true.” She tilts her head. He can’t begin to imagine what her expression is behind the mask, but somehow Qrow thinks that it might be just as emotionless. “You want an apology.”

“I deserve one.”

“Why do you always want things you know you’ll never have?” Her voice sounds softer than Qrow remembers, somehow. “It can’t be a happy way to live.”

“Since when do you care about our happiness?”

There is no answer at first, and the only sound comes from the streets below and the commotion of the midday marketplace.

“Take the gift,” Raven says eventually. “You’re going to need it.” She begins backing away. “When the time comes, when you feel the power again. Follow it.” At the very edge of the rooftop she hesitates, lingering. “Please.” Another pause. “Get back down below before I leave. I don’t want you to fall and break your neck.”

“So now you care about what happens to us.”

She doesn’t answer, even though he waits for one.

He takes the case, reluctantly. She nods and darts one rooftop away. Already, the power in his hand dims, weakening. She moves as if to leave again, and he knows better than to wait any longer. He goes, just like she said to.

Qrow has always been too easy.

*

The mask inside the case matches the one his sister wears. He doesn’t know what it’s for until the night the city turns upside down. He follows the feeling in his hand, yes, but also the smoke rising from the streets.

It’s there that he finds Yang — Void rock fused where an arm should be — looking nothing like the small girl he remembers except for the way she worries so much for everyone else, especially her sister.

“Ruby will handle it,” he tries to assure her, to keep Yang focused on the rest of the task they face together now.

“But—”

We need to save the Emperor now.”

It’s nothing he ever expected to say. But things change. That’s the way life works.

“I doubt your princess will be happy with you if you let her father die,” he says, noticing the look on Yang’s face as he darts off ahead in the dark.

A lot of things, Qrow doesn’t see right away. But this, he does.

He knows.

It’s no surprise the way that Yang falls apart in the coming days or how she wears herself thin trying to keep her princess safe and protected — from everything, but especially the truths of who she is. Until it’s obvious, from her calm and entirely changed demeanor, that she’s given that away too. Given all of herself away, just to keep a Belladonna safe.

It’s the way of the world, isn’t it? The nobles are protected by the sacrifice of the small.

It doesn’t make it any easier to see Yang give so much of herself away willingly. For what? A girl who is going to marry some noble from another island to strengthen the bonds of the Empire, just like every Emperor and Empress before her.

Yang deserves better. She always has.

Even now, with the darkness of the Void leaving its marks on her body, she is better than the four of them ever were. It’s what you hope for with children, but Qrow feels it strongly now. Clearer than ever. Even if he can feel the same pull from Yang that used to come from her mother. When they are close together, the power pulses through him again. When he stands too close, and he can see the energy draining from her eyes.

He can see Summer, clearer than he has in years.

He pulls back. Suggests they split up.

He drinks more, but worries he won't be focused enough to keep her safe. It's Yang's safety he cares about really, and the Outsider take her princess.

He worries. In a way he hasn't in years, Qrow feels things, but all of it is concern. Almost all.

There is something else too. When the power surges through him, he remembers that other feeling too. The thrill of it. The way he used to love the power, how it felt to bring Overseers and rich lords to their knees; their blood looks just the same as anyone else’s once it’s flowing.

Qrow goes home and hopes that Tai can't see any of it in the smile he can't keep from his face or the lightness in his steps. He can’t let his friend know, that his daughter has been lost to the Void too.

He has the dreams again, but now the person he sees chained up in the plaza is always Yang and her princess never comes to save her. They cut off her arm and mount her head on the city wall. He wakes up in a cold sweat and knows better than to say anything about it, no matter how much Tai stares.

No matter what else happens, Tai can’t know.

So Qrow does his best to hide the questions and the fear, or the feeling that buzzes through him all day and even once they’re out at sea. It lingers sometimes, longer than it ought to. The burning is still there even far away from the Tower and through the center of the town. He looks to the rooftop, but knows he won’t find Raven there.

This feeling is different.

It’s—

*

The fight is when he realizes. When he grabs Yang (too) roughly and feels her power drain from her, he knows that this isn’t the sensation he’s felt throughout town. This is something else.

Someone else.

Far away but familiar, he knows, and maybe that’s why he calls to him again.

It’s been so long, so many years, but the Outsider answers quickly when Qrow spreads the whale blood out on an empty whaling warehouse floor, etching out runes the way they used to in Morley. The flies will gather here quickly, but he does not care.

The bastard is always faster.

“Do you only call on me when you’re angry?” He smiles, faint and insincere. “A man might start to take offense.”

“You’re not a man.”

“Lucky for you, I suppose.”

The whiskey boils inside his veins and Qrow wonders — not for the first time — if he were to reach out and touch this ancient everything who wears the face of a young boy, would he be able to draw the strength from him too? What would it feel like, to taste such power through his fingertips?

He stays perfectly still, just to avoid the temptation. “Who is it?”

“You’re not as playful when you’re angry,” the Outsider says eventually, his voice carefully level. “It’s a shame. More and more like your sister every day.”

“She’s not here, though. In Dunwall.”

“She’s not.”

“Then who? The other one with your mark. It’s not that woman, is it?” Qrow’s mind is racing, rushing, like a frantic dash through the streets and even the way it stumbles over itself is familiar, like when he was still growing into his gangly legs and couldn’t keep up with his sister. “The one from the Tower. I know how she felt and this is—”

“Yes?”

He can’t say it. His mind circles around it, stalking over and over. A careful game of skipping over breaks in the pavement. Land too close and you’ll be cursed, the children say, but he always felt the urge to run around it — just so close — over and over.

The Outsider steps closer, a boot trailing through the bloody runes on the floor.

The foundations shake and the whale hung up overhead — ready to be carved in the morning — opens its great eye. The walls shift, start to crack, and it almost sounds like singing.

“This is what?”

“I told you to leave them alone.”

“They came to me,” the Outsider says, whisper soft. “They wanted the power I could give them. Just like you, just like your sister. Just like their mother.” He smiles, but it doesn’t quite stick on his face. It twitches, like the aftermath of an animal that has already started to die. Once, twice. “She is so much like her mother. Maybe don’t lose this one, mm?”

It’s beyond thought, beyond reason, when Qrow lunges for him.

Maybe he’s hoping to drain the bastard — to take every last ounce of his strength, consequences be damned — or maybe he just wants to feel his fist strike something that deserves it. Instead, he slides through nothing, turns at the last moment, and feels the bastard’s hand clutching his wrist.

It burns, right where he touches.

“Don’t be an idiot, Qrow. You’re not as stupid as your sister thinks.” He twists, sharply, and Qrow’s entire arm feels like it’s on fire. He drops to his knee. “Are you?”

Just as quickly, the Outsider releases him, but all sensation is gone from his entire left side.

Entirely numb.

“What—”

“You’ll be fine in a few hours.” The Outsider waves his hand dismissively, flickering in and out of existence. “Try some more whiskey. That’s always helped you.”

He’s gone, like that.

All that’s left is the blood and the flies. Overhead, the whale’s eye is shut.

Qrow is alone, with his pain and regret.

But the bastard is right: the whiskey does help, at least a little.

Chapter Text

When the bombs go off across the city, everyone is afraid.

That makes sense; they should be.

These were attacks, not just on a specific place or a single building, but the sense of security and safety that most citizens of Dunwall have in their own city, no matter how many challenges they might face. Even living in poverty, it’s still not the the kind of place you expect to just be murdered in broad daylight, at least far enough away from the alleys.

You especially don’t expect it to happen on Clavering, where doctors stroll down the street with their families. That means children too.

Some of the people that Ruby couldn’t save were children.

She makes a list, all on her own, of the people lost in the bombing.

Ruby doesn’t talk to Yang about it — there’s already enough on her sister’s mind that she’s been acting really weird, which is its own other problem. She tracks these families down herself to offer a small payment from the Tower. It’s not much, and obviously it’s not nearly enough, but it’s what she can give from a small stipend that she already has access to on her own.

It’s not like Ruby thinks Blake wouldn’t pay more. That’s the problem, really.

She absolutely knows, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Blake would pay beyond what she can afford to right now. Because security is of the utmost importance and especially repairing the rail lines. Ever since Ruby pointed out that it’s a pretty obvious vulnerability, the need to finish repairs (and quickly) is almost all anyone can seem to talk about.

Yang especially is acting pretty tense, even telling lies about some rail line friends that their Uncle has. Which he does not.

Ruby lies too — of course she does, because it’s obvious that’s what Yang wants her to do — but shortly after that particular lie she decides it’s probably a good idea to follow it up with a visit to Uncle Qrow at their house just a few days later.

She is extremely covert in her approach.

*

“Who do we know that works on rail lines?” Ruby asks very suddenly as she bursts through the door. Zwei leaps up from his mat on the floor and charges into her legs, repeatedly bouncing off her knee. “Or more specifically who do you know, Uncle Qrow?”

He looks up, his eyes wide but somehow blurry at the same time. He’s just about as obvious when he’s lying as Yang is, if not somehow worse. “What do you mean by work?”

“Like a job.” Ruby blinks back slowly. “Something you’re paid to do. Like work, like for money. Or I guess the goodness of your heart, but usually for money.” Her eyes narrow. “I know you can be lazy, but you know what a job is.”

“Yeah, I guess I just don’t understand the question.”

“I used really small words.”

Qrow huffs and takes a long drink from his flask as Ruby sits down at the table across from him. “Try me again.”

“Yang said you know rail line people.”

He swallows and screws the cap back on slowly, focusing his eyes on the task instead of looking back up. Also pretty suspicious activity, overall. “Is that what Yang said?”

“It feels like you’re avoiding answering my question by asking me really pointless questions instead.”

“Does it seem that way?”

“I could just ask dad.” It’s almost cheating, and Ruby knows it. The way Uncle Qrow looks up at that — his features sharp and tense — she knows it’s the kind of move she should have held in reserve. Now he’s annoyed and she’s lost her chance to act like some neutral observer who isn’t going to try to agitate. Might as well double down on it instead then. “Does dad know your rail friends?”

“What are you asking me exactly?”

Zwei leaps into Ruby’s lap and wriggles around in a quick circle, kneading her legs with his paws. She looks down at him and scratches behind his ears so that his tail starts to thwack quickly against her side, over and over. “Are you two going to do something stupid?”

“Not much more than usual.”

“And if you aren’t telling me, there’s a good reason, right?” She looks up and when her eyes land on her Uncle, it feels a little like tripping over an uneven cobblestone in the road. She’s so sure of where her foot should land, but it doesn’t go where she expects. He looks more exhausted than she’s seen him in years, worn down and drawn thin, but there’s still the smallest hint of a smile there too that she didn’t anticipate. She’s more than a little afraid to know what it means. “… Yang doesn’t keep things from me.”

“Her secrets aren’t mine to tell.” He leans closer across the table, and for just a moment it feels exactly like she’s a kid again, living under this roof, and she half-expects Yang to come storming out of their bedroom any minute now, full of life and laughter — just the same old sister. But that doesn’t happen, and there’s only Uncle Qrow with his slow strange smile. “But you know that. I never told your dad when she would get into fights.”

“Yeah, but I’m not dad.”

That makes him pause, and there’s something in Uncle Qrow’s eyes that Ruby can’t quite read. She doesn’t recognize any part of it, and she’s not sure that she wants to. “Yeah, kiddo. I know you’re not.” He licks his lips and very carefully keeps whatever words he’s thinking still inside.

“… so you’re not going to tell me.”

“I’m not.” Qrow settles back into his seat, and the wood creaks softly beneath him. “I’m sorry.”

Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t.

Sorry isn’t a lot of help when Ruby’s been worried half to death and her sister won’t tell her anything about what’s going on. Not just the night she should have died — disappeared in the rubble and the chaos and came out covered in bandages and acting really weird — but the way everything between her and Blake has suddenly shifted and they act like no one else is smart enough to notice.

It’s exhausting, not just having to almost play dumb, but knowing your sister actually seems to buy it. Whatever it is between Yang and Blake — what do you call it when your big sister is in love with the future Empress and doesn’t even seem to know it yet — has been there for a while now, and crisis really does seem to make people extra frantic.

Everything’s accelerated now.

That could almost explain all of it. Things just get rattled up in an explosion, like the dust that took days to fully settle back to the street, and now people have to find their new place to land.

Except knowing that doesn’t stop how awful it all feels or answer any of Ruby’s pressing questions.

But she knows someone who might.

*

Ruby’s spent plenty of time down at the docks.

She’s talked to whalers — even the ones who apparently had some preconceived notions about her and kept a careful distance — long enough to know about how to approach saying prayers to the man who knows all, even if sources vary on the subject. Some insist that calling him the black-eyed bastard is almost a kind of affectionate nickname between friends, but Ruby doesn’t think she knows him well enough for that.

Can you know an immortal being? Can you slowly learn to be friends, the way she did with Weiss?

Not that Ruby really gives Weiss a lot of nicknames either. That’s more Yang’s thing.

Yang would probably call him bastard.

The thought occurs to Ruby and she can’t help but laugh, to herself, while carefully chiseling a rune onto a bone that she really hopes belongs to a whale. She found it washed ashore close to the docks. Old books on the subject say that is how the earliest common folk first learned of the power of the sea — through whale bones washed ashore.

It’s just broad and sentimental enough to probably only be folklore instead of fact, but it had enough of a ring to it that Ruby walked down by the water and found just what she was looking for just when she needed it. So maybe there’s something there too.

This all feels so familiar.

Maybe that’s why she doesn’t feel totally ridiculous when she’s quietly carving a piece of bone in her bedroom at the Tower — no candle or any other source of light to give away her late night activities — and she starts to think she might actually see something moving in the dark.

“Outsider?” she whispers at the shadows on the other side of the room. “… is that you?”

While Yang has had to share a bedroom with the other members of the Watch in the barracks for years, Ruby was promoted to her own small bedroom late last year. Her position at the Tower is considered one of scholarship more than anything else, and somehow the royal family has been left with the distinct impression that she’s a genius who is going to create drastic change throughout the whole of the Empire, if only she has a bedroom to herself for study.

Or late night whale bone carving, whichever comes first.

And obviously pounding this piece of bone until it looks more like the sketches she has for reference is going to come first.

The point is that her room now is bigger than any bedroom she’s ever really seen before she came to the Tower, and definitely bigger than anywhere she’s ever slept until this. The size can be almost unnerving on even a normal night, when she’s not also planning to call upon ancient beings to ask about the course of their entire Empire, sure, but especially about her friends and their place in it.

If anyone can give suggestions on what to do about Weiss’s dad, for example, it’s probably the Outsider. Hopefully he suggests something more than talking with Weiss’s older sister, since that’s already underway, and it would be nice if spending literally hours cutting marks into bone with a small knife resulted in a strategy they couldn’t think of on their own.

So maybe she’s just hoping to see something so badly that she’s imagined that a shadow in the corner of her room just took a long breath in.

Maybe there’s nothing really there at all when she leans further, squinting, and says it again in a very soft whisper: “Outsider, is that you?”

No answer.

*

Until there is one.

Ruby honestly doesn’t know if her eyes have slipped shut or if she’s been awake the entire time. She doesn’t know exactly when she notices him and knows — with certainty — that it is him.

All she knows is that a boy that looks even younger than her is watching from the corner of her bedroom, and that she isn’t afraid. She thinks that maybe she ought to be. But this isn’t a real boy. It’s something else entirely.

Not a boy at all, but infinite.

“Took you long enough,” Ruby says, setting the rune aside. “I’ve got bone dust all over my night gown. Is this bad for my lungs if I breathe it in?” Like some really ill advised instinct, she takes a deep breath in and immediately coughs. “… oh, it feels so bad. It burns a little.” She waves her hand in front of her face and coughs again.

The Outsider just watches.

“No, it’s fine, it’s okay.” She waves her hand back and forth, rapidly, to clear the dust. “I’m just choking to death.”

He moves closer, stepping out of the shadows completely, but the sunken darkness where eyes should be remains just as empty as it’d looked without any light cast over it. “You won’t die. Not tonight.”

“Is that something you actually know?” Ruby blinks at him slowly and the redness in her eyes is forgotten for a moment. “Like all the time, do you actually know when people die?”

“Call it a guess.” He smiles and Ruby immediately decides she doesn’t like the way it looks on him. “But I am very good at guessing.”

“Like cheating at dinner party games.”

He moves closer and the traces of bone dust still hanging in the air swirl aside, parting like a rippling tide. It makes her think about the way she’s read that grass can bend ahead of an oncoming storm, but there aren’t any fields like that near Dunwall.

His smile is larger now. “You don’t like those kinds of games either.”

“I like games just fine.”

“You like correcting me, I’ve noticed.”

“I think that’s what you’re doing more than what I’m doing.” For the first time, his smile is less mocking and almost feels sincere. “Maybe you’re just not used to the truth at all.”

“You are very different from your sister.”

Before she even realizes it, Ruby is up on her feet. “You know my sister?”

“I think you know that I do.”

She does. The very second that he says it, Ruby feels certain of all she knows, even if it’s disjointed. Yang has met the Outsider before, but not only that: Ruby has met him too.

She remembers the way he’d smiled in the darkness and how frightened she had felt; she remembers the day that came after it too, when their mom didn’t come home again, and all the days and nights directly after that.

It’s strange. She’s never remembered it this clearly before. Most days, she can’t even actually remember her mom’s face, not how it actually was, and the real sound of her voice is gone completely.

But this man, she can remember, and not just because she’s looking directly at him now.

She really hates that smile.

“What did you do to my sister?” Ruby asks, her voice hard with the last twelve years worth of a resentment she only recently remembers. “Don’t lie to me.”

He tilts his head, considering her.

His empty eyes blink.

“I don’t deceive you people the way you must think I do. That’s all your own kind.”

She blinks and thinks her eyes feel damp, but it only makes her voice come out sharper, faster, saying, “That wasn’t my question.”

“I saved her life,” he answers quickly, and his voice is almost as sharp. “Not that she’s grateful. Not than any of you ever are. Your entire family has been… difficult.”

Ruby blinks. That part she wasn’t expecting, not any part of her. “My entire—”

“None of you talk to each other at all, do you?” He sighs and the room ripples around them. The walls collapse and a cold wind rushes in, twisting through the fabric of Ruby’s night gown. She shivers and folds her arms across her chest. “Your Uncle, and his sister.” He waves his hand vaguely through the air and rocks begin to form out of the darkness of the Void, a mismatched staircase ascending higher and higher. “They wear my mark, just like your sister does.”

Ruby moves to follow him up the path, but when she blinks he’s already so far ahead — like someone who cheats at even the smallest tasks. She huffs and trudges faster, calling after him, “What do you mean Yang wears your mark?”

“The one you were carving into that bone is cut into her skin.”

He says it so casually, like a comment on the weather, and something about that makes Ruby’s heart pound faster. It makes her blood feel like it’s boiling to hear him talk about her sister that way — like Yang is just the same as the decayed remains of something long since dead, but maybe that’s all any of them are to someone as old as he is.

Even if he looks like a child who is too stupid to realize how much he annoys the people around him.

Ruby smiles grimly at the thought, but she waits until she’s nearing the end of the stairway before speaking again, all traces of humor slumping away from her shoulders on the ascent. “Did you hurt her?” she finally asks, barely calm and contained.

“No more than I had to.” His expression shifts quickly from smiling to earnest, then back again. Ruby blinks and he’s returned to looking somber. “Pain isn’t what interests me.”

“So what do you find interesting after all this time?”

“People like you.” Suddenly, he’s only a few inches away from her. “You’re not afraid of me at all, are you?”

Ruby can’t help but think that the question is a bit ridiculous — so much so, in fact, that it feels like ridiculous might even be the point. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that he’s trying to goad her into laughing. Maybe he wants something to retaliate against, or maybe he thinks it would be charming, to have a human who’s kind of small overall — still bigger than him, though — laugh in his immortal face.

But Ruby has no interest whatsoever in charming him, so she only blinks slowly instead. “Should I be?”

He breathes, just as slowly, blinking at her. “Fascinating.”

“Am I?” Ruby blinks again and then shrugs, feigning a total lack of interest. “I guess I am.”

He laughs and turns to go, but Ruby grabs hold of his arm — and her grip actually works, which she’s a little bit surprised about.

Shouldn’t her hand just pass right through him or bounce off or send a jolt of terrifying energy coursing through her, something like that?

But none of that happens.

He just stops, like a normal person, and turns back to look at her with his eyebrow slightly raised.

“… you haven’t answered any of my questions.”

“You haven’t really asked many.”

He’s right, Ruby realizes with a sudden and startling clarity.

It’s actually a little annoying how right he is. “Okay, well what does your mark do?”

“It grants power to those who wish to wield it.”

“Like my sister and my Uncle.”

There’s something very specific in the Outsider’s eyes that Ruby can’t really understand. If she didn’t know better, she would think he almost looks sad. “And others, in their time.”

“So what about me?”

He turns the rest of the way to face her again now, and there really is a surge of energy that seems to radiate off of him. It’s not a shock or a jolt, but it’s enough to make Ruby draw her hand back to her own side. “What about you?”

“What if I want this mark and this power?”

The Outsider watches for a long time, as though considering. “I made a promise to your Uncle. He’s less pleasant when he’s angry.”

It’s actually a little bit difficult to picture Uncle Qrow feeling any strong emotions other than sadness, although Ruby’s pretty sure they must have happened in the past. Maybe it’s another part of her childhood she can’t remember, like her own mother’s laughter in their house they all shared together.

But she remembers this stupid smile, and a feeling comes back to her quickly. It’s unfamiliar and hard to grab hold of, like a rock slick from seawater, even in the way its all jagged at the edges.

She thinks maybe this feeling is a little bit like hatred.

“Shouldn’t I get a say in what happens to me? More than him?”

He watches her for a long time, and thankfully there’s no trace of amusement anywhere on his face. When he steps closer again, Ruby’s careful not to flinch or even blink, and when he takes hold of her by the wrist she watches every movement without comment. He turns her hand over, and studies first the palm and then the unmarked back. “… you are still very young.”

“Not as young as the first time we met.”

He’s still looking down at her hand when he says, softly, “Your Uncle was this age, you know. And he’s a very different man now.” He looks up again. “You have to be sure that you want this.” She can almost feel what he means — that promise of power — just slightly out of reach, but flickering achingly over the edge of her palm, across the tips of her fingers.

It’s a feeling like fire, but also something else. It’s almost —

But then he lets her go, and the feeling disappears just like that. It’s all over in an instant. “What—”

“Next time,” he says, before she can ask any questions. “I’m giving you a choice. But if you call on me again, I’m going to leave my mark.”

He points down at her hand and Ruby feels a pulsing sensation drifting between them. It settles into her bones and fills up her nostrils, like the smell of salt at sea. A promise on the horizon. All the anger from before has emptied out of her, and she feels so exhausted. “How do I find you next time?” she asks, careful not to start swaying on her feet. “Do I have to carve another bone?”

“I’ll know when you want me.” He laughs. “I always do.”

And there’s that smile.

The feeling comes back, just as fast as the power had left, and Ruby feels like this could almost be a second wind. She doesn’t have to sleep, and she could definitely start listing a few more questions, spurred on by half a lifetime of resentment. “Why did—”

But he snaps his fingers, and the rock falls away beneath her.

Ruby plummets, hard and fast, and a scream almost rips from her throat but she’s dropping too quickly, too breathless, to produce any noise at all — until the heavy impact with her bed when she’s startled awake, breathing fast — too fast — and tangling up in her own sheets before she trips and stumbles to the floor in a chaotic mess.

It’s really true what they say: he is such a bastard.

*

Ruby doesn’t know how she manages to sleep the rest of the night.

Her body just shuts down from exhaustion and then restarts again at dawn, like a well designed machine — like the kind she would make, and not Sokolov. The moment the sunrise starts to shine in her window, she’s blinking awake and crawling out of her bed.

There’s a thin layer of bone dust coating the sheets where she tossed and turned all night.

So that was real, at least. It happened, and there’s the rune to prove it. It vibrates with a soft energy that hums when she steps closer. Probably best to hide it somewhere, just in case the cleaning staff actually inspects her room.

Although that isn’t very likely to happen. The last time a maid came in uninvited, Ruby had left a few spores incubating — it was an extremely basic analysis of microbiotic decay, nothing dangerous at all — but apparently the smell was unnerving enough that several members of the guard were alerted until Yang realized what was happening and called off the rest of the Watch.

It would have been a relief, but Yang has never let it drop any time the two of them are speaking about anything even slightly spore adjacent, which is more frequent than you might guess.

The last time it came up, Yang laughed so hard she nearly doubled over.

It hasn’t come up lately, though. Not a whole lot has.

Just rail lines and special princess guarding duty. As if Ruby can’t guess what that means, with the way the two of them practically giggle when they look at each other now.

Yang used to be the reliable one that Ruby could talk to about anything. The one exception there ever seemed to be — since that day at sea where Yang almost didn’t come home — was the Outsider. She would tense up at just the mention of his name or try to change the subject.

Ruby didn’t understand it then, not completely, but at least now she has some added context.

He’s kind of an ass.

*

After stashing the rune in an upper drawer of the dresser Blake gifted her last spring, Ruby very casually and calmly makes her way through the Tower in search of her sister. She moves at a normal pace and doesn’t run, although some people might describe her walk as brisk.

She doesn’t break a sweat and only a few guards turn to look in alarm as she passes by, so it seems pretty normal, all in all.

Ruby eventually finds Yang examining the book on rail lines — always, it’s the rail lines — and settles down to help.

It’s not that she doesn’t trust her sister’s understanding, of course. Yang is actually a lot smarter than people generally seem to realize. Hitting things is just easier and more efficient, and Yang has the body mass to do it.

It’s not a bad strategy at all.

If hitting things — hard and repeatedly — was all it took to solve their security problems, then Ruby would consider it a viable solution worth considering.

Except that come to think of it, that’s exactly what Sokolov is doing with his murder wall of light. So maybe Ruby doesn’t actually agree with the only hit and never think philosophy.

Not that Yang doesn’t think! She clearly does.

That’s why she’s here alone, reading, and then looking up with a cautious smile on her face when she sees her sister approaching.

She sure looks like the gears in her head are turning then.

It stings, just a little, the way Yang still seems like she draws back in on herself when she sees that it’s Ruby approaching instead of Blake. At least now Ruby might know the reason, assuming the Outsider is telling the truth — about his mark and his powers.

Without really meaning to, Ruby realizes her gaze is lingering on Yang’s bandaged hand.

Something’s definitely wrong with it.

That’s why eventually, after a lot of time skimming through the book and actually trying to be helpful, Ruby comes right out and asks.

Or at least she comes really close.

“You look terrible,” she says, and it’s not the first time she’s said it today, so maybe Yang will start to take the hint.

Or not.

“Oh, thanks.”

“Did you maim yourself so badly that it keeps you awake at night?”

“I didn’t maim myself.”

“Well, someone must have, if you won’t even take your arm out of those bandages. The wound isn’t bleeding anymore. I don’t think it’s ever bled. They’ve been clean the whole time.” The lies are coming easier than they ought to, and it annoys Ruby more than it should. Maybe that’s why she reaches for the arm in question, even if Yang jerks it away from her way too quickly. The lies come fast, but they’re still really unconvincing. Ruby stares at her. “… so if it’s not for clotting blood, you must be hiding something. Or protecting it from exposure to the air. A maiming if I ever saw one. Even though I didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“See it. Or have not seen it. Since you won’t show me.” Yang won’t look at her, probably because she knows how transparent her lies are. Look too long and she might just cave, which is why Ruby barely dares to blink. If her sister so much as glances her way, she’s going to catch her. “Uncle Qrow looks really bad too,” she keeps pushing, and only earns a grunt in response. “I mean worse than he usually does.”

“When did you see him?”

There’s something there in Yang’s voice — something important — but Ruby can’t quite place it, even as she leans in closer, studying her sister’s face. “Around.”

“Not where. When?” Just like that, Yang looks up. Their eyes meet, and Ruby knows it’s all true. In an instant, she just knows. The Outsider wasn’t lying, not about any part of it, and there’s something new that burns inside Ruby’s sister that she’s never seen there before. It’s large and it’s sprawling, like the dark emptiness of the Void. It’s frightening, or it would be inside anyone else. With Yang, it just takes Ruby’s breath away, just for a moment, and it must show in the way she stares because suddenly Yang looks unsure. She hesitates. “… what?”

Ruby breathes. She has to remind herself to breathe. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

“No.”

“No there’s nothing you want to say to me, your sister who loves you dearly and knows when you’re lying because you’re not very good at it actually for someone who has done it for so long? That kind of no?”

“I guess so.” That something — vast and slightly terrifying — that rests behind Yang’s eyes shimmers for a moment. It’s like watching the waves rush against the dock. Yang shuts the book and stands so fast her chair scrapes harshly against the floor. “I’m taking this.” She waves the book vaguely and takes a few quick steps back. Ruby watches the retreat tactically, considering all her options. “… we can talk about everything else later, okay? Really. Just— not right now.”

“You’ve been saying that since you were maimed.” Or whatever else it was that needed the Outsider to intervene and save Yang’s life. Maimed or something much, much worse — words that Ruby’s brain refuses to settle on, she keeps slipping right past the idea of something so absolute and final.

“I’m not—”

“You were something, and I think a small maiming is a lot better than most of the alternatives.”

The words feel rough in her throat, all of her so close to cracking that it comes through in her voice, and that must be obvious by now because Yang just stares. “I’m fine,” she starts, speaking slow and careful. “Or I will be, at least. And I’m going to tell you more, I promise, it just has to be later, okay?”

“Because Blake needs you.”

“… we’ll talk. We will. I promise.”

“All four of us,” Ruby says. “Soon.”

“Yeah. Promise.”

*

Ruby’s certain that Yang plans to keep that promise, but she doesn’t have time to wait for her.

If whoever maimed and almost murdered both her sister and the Emperor is still around — and there’s no reason to believe that they’re not — then the four of them are going to need all the added fire power they can get, no matter where it comes from. Ruby will be sure to explain her carefully thought out reasoning when they finally have a conversation together, after she’s solved every single one of these problems all on her own.

There are questions of morality, sure, but questioning is what Ruby does — she’s always been inquisitive. But someone as unstable and overly ambitious as Sokolov has been allowed to steer the course of the Empire’s technology for such a long time now, and he’s easily as untrustworthy as the Outsider is. He might even be worse.

At least the Outsider can be relied upon to act in pretty carefully catalogued ways that have existed since the beginning of recorded time. Sokolov, on the other hand, does stupid and unpredictable things like making a murder doorway that can easily be turned against the people it’s meant to protect, all for the sake of advancing his own name with the biggest spectacle. Someone like that shouldn’t be trusted as the final line of defense for anyone.

Ruby will gladly take magically appearing rocks over a single nobleman’s vanity any day.

At least the Outsider has already advanced his own name and reputation about as far as any being could reasonably expect to go. That’s what makes this next step extremely simple and very hard at exactly the same time. Research — necessary before any drastic decision — is harder when there’s an over abundance of available information.

Where do you even begin when studying the history of the Void and the Outsider?

The Tower library isn’t a very helpful resource.

It’s frustrating, but at least that makes sense. There’s the whole Abbey situation and their pretty well documented hatred of the boy with his black eyes and overly sarcastic disposition.

The first few books that Ruby even finds on the topic in the Tower library — several shelves up, which means a little bit of climbing but without slipping or falling at all this time — are all written by Overseers, which should be expected. Unsurprising, it also takes a while to get to the good stuff.

Brevity is not their strong point. Just listen to any one of them on a street corner and you’ll know that.

They all like to talk a lot about the night without end that awaits anyone who doesn’t keep the strictures well enough, and maybe they’re trying to evoke that sense of unending agony in the way that they write.

It goes on and on.

Ruby tries to stifle a yawn but it quickly turns into a groan.

You definitely don’t become an Overseer because of your skill with the written word.

Actually, if the description in this particular book is to be believed, it sounds like you become an Overseer by being kidnapped from your house as a child, undergoing some kind of aptitude test to see if you’re worthy, and if not —

Well, this very unbiased account says the children found to be unfit are “put down,” so that doesn’t sound great.

Does the royal family know the Abbey is murdering children? Even if the alternative option is to become an Overseer, that’s still probably better than death.

Probably.

That’s something to discuss later maybe, but it definitely clarifies where Ruby stands on the whole question of who is worse — the mysterious Outsider who sometimes saves people’s lives or the Abbey that murders children?

The Outsider might be a jerk, but this is a higher level of awful. This might even be up there with Weiss’s dad in terms of how much any reasonable person should dislike them.

Ruby keeps reading, and it doesn’t get a lot better.

The world, they believe, is corrupt and destructive at its core and everything — people, plants, animals, the stars in the sky, you think of it and it’ll make the list — is circling back toward the Void that birthed all of it.

Chaos created life, including all of humanity, and we are all drawn back to our own destruction.

It says so right here on the page.

In fact, the inevitability of destruction is just about the only point they get to fast. It’s there on page one and then again on page two through infinity, over and over. People are evil and bad and they will destroy themselves or be destroyed by the evil darkness that made them, and on and on.

Some of that is at least based on human behavior, but mostly it just seems like bad people making excuses for their own terrible impulses.

The kind of impulses that lead to murdering children when you can’t control them.

The more Ruby thinks about the Outsider and his place in direct opposition to all of that — the structures that have tried to control and contain all of them for all of their lives — the more it starts to feel inevitable.

Maybe there is something that draws people to the Void.

Because there’s nothing else she can do — it really feels that way — but slip out a side door at the Tower and make her way through the side streets she knows so well.

She’s going to have to take note of that unguarded exit to tell Weiss about later.

But just now, it doesn’t feel like it matters.

It was there, when she needed it, the same way the whale bone was.

The way the bastard ought to be too, if he knows what’s good for him.

*

Ruby’s not sure why she knows with such certainty that her Uncle and dad aren’t going to be home, but she doesn’t try to be quiet on her approach. She pushes the door open with all the momentum of her pent up anxiety, bursting through.

It slams on its hinges and makes her think of the way Yang always sounded coming home.

Her sister carries her certainty with her, everywhere she goes, leading with her left shoulder, closest to her heart. Ruby thinks about Yang, the way she used to light up this house, and feels steadier somehow.

Like her sister’s standing right beside her.

“Are you here?” she says to the empty rooms.

The only response at first is a bark as Zwei comes running, paws skittering across the floorboards.

But then the air shifts and it can’t just be Ruby’s imagination, because Zwei slides to a very abrupt stop in the doorway. His ears flatten back and he snarls at the figure standing in front of Ruby.

The Outsider smiles and points. “He doesn’t like me, does he?”

“Good guess.”

“Pity,” the boy whispers and for one absurd second Ruby thinks he’s going to do something about it — snaps his fingers and snap Zwei’s neck, something like that — but he just turns back to Ruby with a wide and slightly wicked smile. “But you called me.”

He steps closer and the air vibrates with possibility.

For just a moment, Ruby feels like she can’t breathe — like she’s drowning — and she feels her whole body shudder with the effort to draw breath in.

And then it’s passed, and they are standing in the Void.

“Zwei!” Ruby takes a single startled step forward, but stops. The Void rock drops off abruptly and in front of her there is nothing but black emptiness.

She turns to face the Outsider, who has reappeared behind her. “He’s fine. Just somewhere other than we are.”

“Which is—”

“I think you know.”

“I’m inquisitive.”

The boy smiles and Ruby tries not to let any anger show on her face. “You are.” He sweeps his hand in a broad gesture. “This is the Void. The endless nothing.”

“Is that all you know about it too?”

The amusement leaves his face entirely, but his mouth is still stretched in a hideous grin. “I know more than any human could understand. It would break your pathetic mind to try to comprehend.”

Ruby straightens, just a little. She’s taller than him, at least. “Try me.”

“I don’t think so.”

Very suddenly, she starts to burn. She groans, nearly a snarl, and clutches the back of her hand, but the skin gives way all the same. The sharp hiss of air drawn in across the edge of her teeth makes Ruby think of the way meat sizzles as it cooks.

She flexes her hand once — twice — and there it is.

His mark.

Her next breath in is quieter, but sharper somehow too. She feels it — right to her center. “… what now?”

“Now everything.”

The words come from the Outsider, but almost feel as though they are a part of her, under her skin. Ruby isn’t certain she actually heard him speak out loud.

She blinks, looking up, and he is gone.

Almost.

She holds her marked hand out in front of her and can feel him somewhere — off in the distance. She extends her fingertips, reaching, and then twists.

The world rushes forward underneath her feet, and she could almost stumble.

Almost.

But she doesn’t. If anything, Ruby gains more momentum. She rushes into the darkness, plunging out over nothing, trusting herself to stop her own fall.

And she does — over and over. She reaches into the dark, catches hold of something and pulls herself onward.

She can hear the Outsider somewhere close by, his laughter.

It echoes all around, louder than her own footfalls when she lands softly on Void rock.

She blinks once, and he is there. “You are already better than anyone in your family.”

“Yang and Uncle Qrow, you mean.”

The Outsider’s expression flickers. One moment it’s something else — something like sadness — and then it’s gone. “I mean what I said. You don’t always have to argue.”

Ruby blinks at him, considering what his words could even mean. “Neither do you.”

He considers her for a silence that feels infinitely long but brief at the same time. His smile is back, but Ruby doesn’t hate it the same way this time.

“My gifts are different for everyone. I hope you’ll test your powers out. Soon.” He nods toward her hand and she can feel it pulsing. “Try touching other people. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy the results.”

“That sounds really creepy.”

He shrugs. “I don’t have the same barometer for that you do.”

“Well, take it from me then. Just touching random people is really creepy behavior.” Ruby hesitates, then adds, “So please don’t do that, even if you are an all knowing and all powerful being.”

“I don’t know everything.”

“Oh, yeah?” Despite herself, Ruby laughs. “Like what?”

“If I could answer that, then I would know.”

He flickers again, his expression changing rapidly. Somewhere far away, Ruby thinks that she can hear Zwei barking.

She turns her head in the direction of the sound, and when she looks back the Outsider is gone.

Even as his voice lingers on the air all around her, saying, “We’ll talk again soon.”

Ruby blinks once but the darkness behind her eyelids is nothing compared to the Void all around her. She blinks again, and the barking is louder.

A third time, and she is back inside her childhood home, standing very still, while Zwei whimpers and paces in front of her.

“Oh!” She kneels down and slaps her legs, which he takes as just enough encouragement to barrel into her, bounce off once, and then try again. “It’s okay, Zwei.”

Ruby rubs between his ears vigorously and then — she sees it.

All in an instant, she sees it.

A rat is running through the alleys, scared out of its mind and screaming, and she rushes after it, catching it triumphantly in her jaws. Dad comes in through the doorway and carefully scoops an empty flask off the floor before helping a mostly unconscious Uncle Qrow to his bed. She sniffs the air and paces.

She rolls around in the gutters and sniffs her own fuzzy butt.

She’s Zwei, or at least close enough to it. She sees through his eyes and feels his own vague thoughts — all jumbled into a mess — until the precise moment that her hand moves away from his fur in startled shock.

Just as quickly, it all drops away and Ruby’s brain is her own again.

She blinks at Zwei and he blinks back, big pink tongue lolling out of his mouth as he wags his tail so fast that it wiggles his entire fuzzy butt in both directions, back and forth.

Ruby blinks some more.

“… oh, this is a whole lot,” she says to nobody in particular except for Zwei, who obviously understands the nuance of communication both more and less than she’d previously realized.

Oh, this is a lot.

*

After slightly more than an hour of putting her hands both on and off of Zwei, Ruby has come to a few conclusions. First: this new ability requires direct contact, at least for now, but after contact is made some essence of her understanding from the other person can linger. It takes her a little while to fully overcome the impulse to sniff the air with her mostly inferior and very human nose, for example.

That’s definitely still a dog impulse lingering.

But more than that, she starts to think that whatever she’s seeing might not be memories so much as impressions of reality, interpreted through the eyes of her dog.

This would probably be easier to analyze if she was testing it on someone who could talk, but someone who could talk would have the obvious capacity to run and tell the Overseers. Ruby doesn’t have to touch one of them to know what they’d do with something like this.

If it wasn’t for the glowing mark on her hand, she might at least be able to keep this somewhat under wraps.

Under wraps!

Oh wow, the bandage on Yang’s hand actually makes a lot more sense once you know that the immortal entity living in a black pit — probably located in the sky somewhere, but frankly it’s difficult to say — who brands your body for life also makes it light up every time you use his powers because he’s genuinely never heard of subtlety.

It just seems a little excessive, especially considering all the people who react poorly to this particular mark.

This is fine, though.

Ruby can just borrow one of her Uncle’s slightly stained — hopefully from whiskey and not anything else — shirts to wrap around her hand, for now. She can talk to Yang about a better solution later.

And honestly, she can probably talk to her Uncle about it too, if Zwei’s assessment that he recently saw Uncle Qrow darting across the rooftops, first one spot and then another, leaping through the moonlight with all the subtlety of— actually there isn’t a very good metaphor for something as unsubtle as a grown adult man using special powers to appear and disappear outside in the middle of a city filled with people who sometimes look out their windows.

So the Outsider wasn’t lying about that either.

Ruby’s not sure why she still doubts it. Maybe it’s the whole mysterious being in the Void being vague and not providing any concrete answers thing. Or it could be the fact that he looks like he’s still the right age where he’d lie just because he thinks it’s clever.

Seriously, is he twelve? Thirteen?

Ruby imagines looking that young and precocious forever and she actually feels herself shudder.

She’s so busy being distracted by the horrors of an eternally delayed puberty that she doesn’t notice whatever exact series of events precedes Zwei suddenly barking, darting in a small circle, and then leaping toward her. Obviously something has happened, but it moves so quickly and the only thing that registers is the noise.

First it’s the barking, then it’s a very startled yelp as Zwei leaps in Ruby’s direction and is just as abruptly flung back across the room.

She blinks and Zwei barks.

“Oh no!” That has to be a power, right? Not one she used deliberately, obviously, but that has to be her and not some previously undiscovered capacity for Zwei to propel himself through space. “Zwei, bark twice if you’re okay!”

He barks many more times than that, but also wriggles back up onto his feet. So he’s fine.

Probably.

Actually, there’s one clear way to find out: Ruby hurries over to his side to kneel down and scratch between his ears. “I’m so sorry, buddy!”

The chaos of the moment isn’t a lot better from Zwei’s low angle, but at least now Ruby sees the skittering mouse that had proceeded it. Zwei gives chase, so focused on his target that he doesn’t realize he’s flung himself right into Ruby — only to fly back with equal force. He lands in a heap, knocking over some of Ruby’s own books.

For the first time all day, she realizes that maybe the small home she shared with her family isn’t the right place to practice world bending powers.

Probably better to take this into the streets.

*

The plan is pretty carefully devised. Ruby is going to take Zwei out into the city, using him as a pretense to explore, when really she’s just going to collide with as many people as she can and learn to understand her newfound ability to know all the terrible things that other people are thinking or doing.

Once you think about it that way, it actually doesn’t seem like a good idea, but she’s already packed her satchel full of food, so it’s reasonably too late to turn back now.

That is, until Yang.

Yang who has been avoiding Ruby all this time — and now she knows why, of course she does, but it doesn’t take away the sting. Yang who very suddenly isn’t running anywhere but toward her.

Yang who touches Ruby briefly when she takes the second satchel from her, and in that instant Ruby sees so many things.

There’s so much screaming. A man with a cruel mouth and blood red hair laughs and the world rips in half. The earth rises and it falls and through the smoke and ruin, Blake pushes toward her, surging like a tide, reaching out until their mouths meet and—

Ruby is so grateful that the contact ends.

She blinks and tries very, very hard not to picture her sister and the future Empress doing literally anything else together.

And also she tries not to touch any part of Yang again.

That is, until the truth starts coming.

Spring razors and explosions. Yang’s arm, whatever it looks like now, and that mysterious man. It’s all a jumbled mess of an explanation that only pulls the images she saw earlier even further out of focus. If Ruby just had a little more time to look inside her sister’s head, she might understand.

Or she could just listen to her, like a normal person, as the words come pouring out of Yang — who looks so relieved.

“You know how people are always talking about the Outsider?”

Ruby stares for a long moment. The truth, however Yang understands it, is finally coming. No need to read her sister’s thoughts if she’s willing to just share them. “Yang,” Ruby starts. “Are you telling me that—”

There you are.”

Weiss interrupts and the look on her face is so concerned that Ruby can’t even find it in herself to be annoyed.

*

Ruby would probably be just as serious and concerned if her sister was bombing mines, even if nobody comes away injured. It’s so obvious that Winter is the one who planted the bomb, even if nobody else wants to say it.

She doesn’t even have to read minds to know that one.

Ruby is increasingly starting to think that maybe her special power turned out to be mind reading because she’s already more perceptive than anyone else in their small group of close friends actually gives her any credit for.

Like do Blake and Yang really think that she needed to see them kissing from a weird forced perspective to know what was already happening?

Obviously they don’t think exactly that because there’s just no way — probably — that either of them knows any of this is happening to her, but the point is that they both really seem to think they’re keeping this whole thing under wraps, which is just crazy.

When Yang says she’s going to stay with Blake and they’ll have to talk about things — life changing, Empire altering things like gaining powers from the Outsider — another time, she actually has the nerve to ask, “You understand, right?”

Ruby rolls her eyes.

It’s the only reasonable thing any person could do.

“A lot more than you think.”

She very carefully avoids touching either of them because she really doesn’t currently need to know more than that.

*

There are so many people Ruby would rather test her powers out on than her sister and the Lord Regent her sister is probably kissing right this very moment. Just so many other people. Literally an entire Tower full of people are preferable to touching Yang and seeing another close up view of the inside of Blake’s mouth.

She goes to the council chamber first, but nobody’s there.

That makes sense of course. There wouldn’t be a meeting without the Lord Regent, but at this point Ruby is genuinely willing to bet on the other members of the council holding their own secret meetings in different places, where they plot all kinds of awful things. Bombings, the overthrow of the Empire, and also increased taxes on basic goods and food.

All equally awful things.

*

With no chance of stumbling into Weiss’s dad and getting any answers there, Ruby directs her attention to the next best thing.

Strictly speaking, actually, he’s the only thing better than the advisor or Lord Regent.

The entire hallway leading to where Blake’s dad is still asleep in his royal bed chamber is lined with anxious guards who all stand at attention when they see Ruby drawing closer. More than one of them reaches for their blade, but none of them make a move to attack.

Not yet, at least.

They look more than ready and able, though.

Lucky for Ruby that she spots a familiar face amongst their ranks.

“Nora!”

Shouting in the hallway doesn’t do anything to make the members of the Watch like Ruby anymore than they already do — which, not so much really — but at least it gets her friend’s attention.

Nora almost definitely counts as a friend, even if it’s sometimes complicated. She grew up in the same streets they all did, and sometimes that was every man or woman for themselves. She and Yang got into very minor brawls once or twice, but she spent way more times than that helping Yang knock the crap out of Mercury Black — and he always deserved it.

That was before Yang left for the Tower and Ruby followed after.

She hasn’t seen this face in years.

“Nora,” Ruby calls again, picking up speed to collide into the guard with open arms.

(She sees quick glimpses of their childhood spent together: Yang laughing with sunlight in her hair and blood trailing down her chin; Nora’s best friend Ren, quiet and earnest, as he stands between a cowering dog and the people tossing rocks at it; the feel of the brick and uneven stones as she careens through the streets, Overseers just a few steps behind.)

The members of the Watch on either side of Nora move as though to draw their blades, but she waves them off. Of course she does!

“Wow, you’re so big now.” Nora grunts once. “And squeezing me… very hard.”

Oh, that’s probably true. Ruby relents and releases all in one go, before taking a sharp step back. “Oh, sorry!” She smiles, and it’s entirely sincere. Even if Ruby can’t see through Nora’s memories anymore, her own version of their past is still playing vividly through her head as she studies her old friend’s smile.

It’s so much like she remembers.

"Did you … need something?”

Ruby’s eyes travel quickly between the swords that definitely still have hands resting on their hilts. “I would like it if all your friends in the Watch didn’t skin me alive. Just, you know, as a start.”

“I think we can manage that.”

None of them really look ready to take Nora’s word on it, but that makes some sense. There’s no way she’s been a member of Watch for very long without Yang rushing to tell Ruby first thing.

Oh.

Wait.

“Have you seen Yang?” Ruby asks, all in a rush.

She remembers the last time she saw Nora and her sister anywhere together and is very careful not to graze any part of the guard in front of her right after asking her that question. Because it’s obvious from the look in Nora’s eye that she’s thinking of it too.

“No, not yet.”

“That’s a shame,” Ruby says, not meaning it really. “But you’re a part of the Watch now! So I’m sure you’ll run into each other. Some.” She pauses, just long enough to catch her breath, but then realizes her mistake. “Or maybe not. Yang’s sort of just been made the official Royal Protector, so she’s probably not going to spend a whole lot of time in the barracks anymore.”

Nora blinks and appears to take all of this in — that Yang, the girl from their slums, is the one and only official protector to the crown, but also the comment about the barracks. She blinks again. “She hasn’t been staying there anyway.” She pauses, mouth opening then closing. It opens again. “But tell her congratulations.”

If Nora is on duty in the hallway so near the Emperor’s chambers, she must have gone through all of her training already, even if she joined after the attack — which does seem most likely. If she hasn’t seen Yang in the barracks at all since then, Ruby’s sister must have been sleeping somewhere else.

Ruby tries not to register any of her emotions on her face.

But she is definitely feeling a lot of them.

“Okay, so— Well, uh.” Ruby pauses, tries to collect herself, and begins again. “I’m actually here to check in on the Emperor’s condition. I’m good friends with his daughter, the Lord Regent, and she wanted me to report back to her on how he’s doing.”

A lie like that shouldn’t come so easily.

Probably.

But it does anyway and Ruby smiles for good measure.

Nora’s back to blinking. “I’m not sure I have the authority to do that.”

“Well, no, probably not, but you could relay the message to somebody who does.” Preferably not someone who would just run and ask the Lord Regent directly if she expects Ruby to waltz into the Emperor’s bed chamber today. Best friend or not, Blake still might find this kind of behavior suspicious. “I don’t mind waiting,” Ruby continues, faking a confidence she doesn’t feel.

But this is just the way it has to be. Obviously Ruby could have asked Blake directly for permission to visit — and, weirdly enough, touch — her father, the Emperor, but then she would have had to explain her reasons.

Telling the future Empress of all the Isles that you are branded by the Outsider, marked for all eternity as an enemy of the Abbey, doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Only an idiot would do something like that.

*

Eventually, Nora returns with Officer Nikos, the two of them talking casually as though they’re friends. It’s likely that Pyrrha’s the one who trained and recruited Nora, so that does make sense. Since the bombing, training up and preparing the new members of the Watch is almost all Pyrrha’s had any time for — too busy, even, to talk to Weiss, it’s seemed like.

It’s such a relief to see her again! Ruby’s really only had brief glances at her from a distance — across the courtyard or near the training ground — but now that she’s coming closer, it’s obvious that Pyrrha has been wearing herself thin.

She looks even more exhausted than Yang does, but that doesn’t stop Ruby’s smile from lighting up just at the sight of her.

For her own part, Pyrrha registers a look of genuine surprise when she sees Ruby, but it shifts into a tentative smile. “This is the person who wants to see the Emperor?”

“Blake asked me to check in on him.” Her eyes dart along the rows of guards lining the halls. “I don’t remember there being this much security the last time Yang and I were watching him.”

“It seemed like an obvious weakness.” Pyrrha straightens, standing taller and more formal than Ruby usually thinks of her. “So I corrected it.”

It’s weird, actually. Something about Pyrrha seems off, but she can’t place it.

Maybe it’s just the exhaustion.

Ruby smiles her most encouraging smile. “Oh, well it’s great that you’ve already made such a difference!” She gestures toward Nora standing just behind the Officer. “With all the training too!”

A genuinely pleased smile tugs at the corner of Pyrrha’s mouth before she pushes it away with a clearing of her throat. “It’s not all my efforts, obviously. But the General puts considerable trust in me. I hope to repay that with effort.”

“General Ironwood,” Ruby says, not quite a question so much as proof that she understands the inner workings and power structure of the Tower. That makes her more trustworthy, right?

Or does it not? It might actually do the opposite, come to think of it.

Is it really really suspicious for an average scholar to know who the General is, even if her sister is the new Royal Protector?

Probably not, judging by Pyrrha’s entire response, which is really just to nod and step to the side, gesturing down the hall. “Right this way, if you don’t mind. I have another round of training in an hour and I’d like to eat first.”

There are bags under Pyrrha’s eyes and even with all the work she’s doing — the kind of thing that should be building muscle mass — she looks thinner than Ruby remembers, at least in the face.

They need to figure out who’s responsible for the night of the attack, before all the good people left in the Tower run themselves into the ground trying to keep everyone else safe. It’s all very noble, but no longer necessary.

Assuming this works.

The guards in front of the Emperor’s bedroom door step aside when indicated by their Officer Nikos. She smiles, and places a hand on Ruby’s shoulder.

A lifetime in the shadows passes quickly through Ruby’s mind. Pyrrha is in court, in the hallways of the Tower, always just off to the side, her eyes on the royal family. She is keeping an eye on the princess, the future Empress — as is her duty — but her gaze always lingers just to the side after — on her friend. Watching Weiss from across the training grounds, having lunch together on the balcony, watching her walk away for what feels like it’s somehow a final time, and then some strange and pounding sound — like the hammering of a heart, or a hammer against stone — and is that sweat in her eyes or is it tears?

From very far away, Pyrrha’s voice comes to her, saying, “Please give the Lord Regent my regards in these hard times. I haven’t been able to speak with her in some time.”

Her hand withdraws and the quick flash of Weiss as a child — blood in her eye, but jaw set in defiance — goes with it.

Ruby blinks and tries not to look overwhelmed, but she must not hide it well. Pyrrha is frowning at her, worrying. “Are you alright?”

No, not really, she’s not, but neither is Pyrrha and now Ruby at least has a pretty good idea why.

“I’m fine!” she lies way too loudly, because it feels like the best thing to do.

Even if Pyrrha doesn’t look like she believes it. She nods, at least, and takes a small step back. “Please let the guards know when you’re finished.”

“Right!” Ruby answers with too much enthusiasm while ducking through the door, eager not to let Pyrrha reach out to touch her again.

For someone who enjoys showing her friends affection in pretty physical ways — hugs, sure, but also hair ruffling or occasionally even climbing up on someone taller’s back just for the fun of it — Ruby is either going to have to figure out how to turn this off sometimes, or at least work to make her friends’ lives less tragic overall.

She thinks she’ll have better odds with just the one of those.

*

The bedroom where the Emperor lays sleeping remains pretty much like it was the last time they were here. It’s dark and a little gloomy, and Ruby’s very first action just as soon as she’s through the door is to go open up the curtains closest to the bed.

He might not be awake to see the light, but she thinks the improved atmosphere must help even him, somehow.

It definitely makes her feel better about what she’s about to do.

Ruby crosses around to the chair at the side of the bed. A long, silken robe is draped across the arm, and she thinks she remembers seeing Blake’s mom wear it once. Maybe she’s left it from the last time she was keeping watch at his side, or maybe she plans to be back soon.

That’s just another reason Ruby should hurry.

She sits down slowly, shifting the fabric to the side to avoid sitting directly on it. She’s really not sure how easily something like that wrinkles or is otherwise damaged — nobody in her family has ever owned anything made from silk or whatever this is — and she doesn’t want to make even small things any harder for the Belladonnas than they already are. It’s the little things, right, that can make life more bearable.

These are the kind of thoughts that are spinning in circles through Ruby’s head, distracting her from what needs to be done. Maybe her brain is taking pity on her, in its own way, delaying the inevitable.

But it’s too bad. She still has to do this, because nobody else can.

She reaches out to take the hand of Ghira Belladonna, Emperor of the isles, and closes her eyes.

Nothing.

At least, at first, it’s nothing. Just black.

And then suddenly, Ruby sees it all in scattered flashes: Blake as a little girl running through the Tower hallways; the Empress smiling at him with such sweet affection; an endless stream of meetings with council and Lord Schnee’s gentle whisper in his ear; a single night alone in his throne room where a woman appears from the rafters alongside a large group dressed as whalers.

Ruby tries to focus on this moment — to direct his attention somehow. She feels a slick queasiness settle in her stomach. It reminds her of the way it felt to stand at the edge of the Void rock and gaze out into the vastness below. Hair prickles at the back of Ruby’s neck and she pushes on past the feeling, past the resistance in the Emperor’s mind.

She thinks a brief apology, but doesn’t stop there. She draws the memory out, slow and careful like unraveling a very old scroll from the library and trying to make sense of the half-faded markings.

She sees her sister there, in the memory — it has to be her — bright blonde hair and her face just barely concealed. It’s unclear to Ruby if the Emperor recognizes her too, but that’s a problem for another day. For now she focuses — past Yang and past the person who is so obviously her Uncle Qrow — to the woman in the lead.

Something about her is so familiar, but it isn’t until she turns to look at Yang — who has just unveiled Emerald from the slums, of all people, as the hidden accomplice — and Ruby sees a very specific haughty smirk cross the woman’s face that she realizes.

She’s seen this woman before, in the alley outside of Granny Rag’s home.

Ruby releases her grip with a surprised jolt and is abruptly pulled back into reality. She coughs and feels a slick metallic tang on the back of her tongue, but ignores it for now. It can’t matter.

She has something she has to tell her sister, right away.

Ruby thinks she knows where to start looking for the woman who tried to murder the Emperor.

Chapter Text

When Yang was very young — before their mom left home with Uncle Qrow and never came back — she thought that death was something that only happened to fish. She’d seen them caught, gutted, and strung up all kinds of ways, for as long as she could remember. At four years old, her Uncle taught her how to use a knife for the first time by sliding it along the center of a freshly caught hagfish and twisting until its insides spilled to the outside.

“Now you try,” he’d said, before mom suddenly slipped between them.

Even though she couldn’t see her face, Yang could tell how angry she was with Uncle Qrow just by studying his frown. It was the same as Yang’s whenever mom was mad at her. He made some kind of apology, clumsy but sincere, and Yang was led away.

The fish was already dead, and she’s not sure who cleaned up the mess after.

The next time Yang’s Uncle puts a blade in her hand, her mom is long dead and buried. No one stands between them and there’s nothing to stop Yang from practicing knife tricks in the back alley until her knuckles are bleeding.

Her blood, she realizes, is the same color as a fish. Because before all that, before she’s allowed a knife again, Yang can still help with catching. She dangles a line on the edge of the dock and studies the way it moves with the shifting of the waves. She watches dad’s expression and mimics the exact same manner that he uses when squinting out to sea.

Maybe the thing he’s looking for is something she will manage to spot first.

She learns patience, but something else too.

The way that fish move when they’re already caught, jerking like they think they might still escape, had been frightening at first. The harder the fish tries to fight, to pull away, the deeper the hook goes in. Once it’s caught itself on your line, it’s too late.

People can be like that too. Yang learns that eventually, along with the fact that death isn’t only for animals.

You always learn that lesson in the slums of Dunwall, sooner or later.

The first death Yang sees that isn’t a wide-eyed fish on a hook also happens at the dock. She’s with mom and Ruby, waiting to welcome dad and Uncle Qrow home, but the men and women streaming off the ship are all in such a hurry.

There is red on their hands and down their arms. There’s panic in their eyes.

Mom tries to make her look away by pulling Yang close to her side, but she still catches a glimpse. The man being carried down the gangway is almost torn in half. Gutted, just like a fish.

“What happened to him?” Yang tries to ask, but the words catch in her throat, bubbling up in a hiccup of anxiety. She doesn’t hear her mother’s answer, and isn’t even sure that she gives one.

Yang is too distracted by a brand new kind of fear: the chance to be the prey instead of predator.

She didn’t know that people could be both. But Yang learns.

The hardest lesson — even worse than losing mom, somehow — was the first time it was Ruby’s life that seemed to be in danger. She was four years old so Yang must have only been six and there her little sister was, coughing so hard it would shake the small bed they shared together. She looked so small curled up on herself and shivering all night long, no matter how much Yang tried to warm her.

Ruby was sick. She was really, really sick, sweating straight through the layers of sheets that Yang piled on top of them. Small ringlets of hair stuck to her temple where her rapid heartbeat looked close to bursting from her chest, and Yang couldn’t be sure if holding her sister tighter all night long was only making all of it worse.

She didn’t know what to do. Not at all.

Until the day their dad and Uncle Qrow return from a trip to Endoria Street and say that everything is going to be fine now, no matter how unlikely that seems. Even worse than the sweat and the shivers is the fact that the only sound to come out of Ruby’s mouth in days has been her rattling cough.

She’s not even asking questions anymore, but that’s just fine. Yang has plenty to ask for the both of them.

“Why now?” she says from her perch at Ruby’s back, unwilling to move. “What did you do?”

It sounds more accusing than she means for it to, but maybe it ought to be. Everyone this side of Dunwall whispers about that old lady who lives down on Endoria and how she has magic powers. But people in the slums say all kinds of things. Mom had always told them not to believe most of what they hear.

But she isn’t here to say anything now and all Ruby can do is cough.

Dad and Uncle Qrow exchange a look so long and worried that it only makes Yang angry. Why are they looking at each other instead of acknowledging her questions? Why won’t they trust her with anything?

“What about it is fine?” she asks again, even louder than before.

Uncle Qrow is the first to speak, after a long drink from his flask. “Sometimes the only storm on the horizon is the one we make ourselves, kiddo.”

Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

It’s not enough and Yang wants to ask more, but the two of them leave her and Ruby there alone, curled up in bed. She sleeps, or tries to. It’s restless and unpleasant.

But just half a day later, Ruby already looks more like herself.

Her eyes are alert and she’s back to asking all her questions. It’s such a relief to have her sitting up straight in bed and demanding that Yang explain everything she knows about fish gills and how they work. Which, for the record, clearly isn’t enough. Yang runs out of facts pretty fast, but she’s willing to learn.

By now, she’d do just about anything for her sister.

Just that one time, age four, Ruby is saved by some unknown force. But the rest of the time, it’s family.

Ruby is seven years old and making enemies with men down at the dock, but their dad is there to stand in the way. When he’s not around to keep his eye on her — he’s out to sea or buying their food — Yang keeps close and glares at anyone who looks too long or too hard. If people try to talk to her sister, she slips in first. She stands between them, ready and sharp as a knife.

Ruby is ten years old and being shoved around by Mercury Black, who twelve year old Yang hits until her knuckles bleed and dad sends her out to sea as punishment. Ruby is fifteen and the entire Tower guard is dispatched to her room until Yang steps in the way. Blake laughs about it for days later, but Yang sometimes wonders what might have happened on a day when she wasn’t around to tell them that her sister isn’t really a threat to the safety of the Empire.

Ruby is sixteen years old when their Uncle shakes Yang so hard she feels like her bones are rattling and he says, “It’s your sister.”

But somewhere, beyond all of that, her blood is already setting itself on fire. Yang breathes in and she can feel it — all those years of standing guard between her sister and every living thing in the world that would try to hurt her — and all of it whistles high and hot like whale song.

“Where is she?”

Qrow blinks at her.

He sways slightly but slaps her hand aside when she reaches out to help. “Not taken,” he exhales, his shoulders sagging. “Worse. It’s him.”

Yang wants to ask, but she knows she doesn’t have to. It’s there in his eyes and maybe somewhere deep under her skin she can even feel it too.

“Outsider,” she breathes the word and feels the familiar heat again, prickling over the back of her hand.

She could almost swear that she hears him in her ear, laughing softly.

Yang is eighteen years old and she is so fucking tired.

*

It takes longer than it ought to for Uncle Qrow to explain everything he knows, especially since it turns out that isn’t a whole lot of anything.

Ruby has been marked by the Outsider, possibly for days now.

Her little sister has his gift and his curse and the man who welded a part of himself onto Yang forever has wedged himself even further into her life, peeling up the seams along everything and splintering himself deep underneath.

If Yang thinks about it too long, it starts to feel like she can’t breathe.

It’s obvious from the way that Qrow’s voice shakes that he feels it just the same. The black eyed bastard has won another round in this game where he makes up all the rules.

Yang’s hand clenches almost automatically, and she feels his mark burning hot over the taut skin. She releases and tries to remember how breathing works. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing we can do,” Uncle Qrow says, sitting down heavily at the edge of the roof. “He’s won. He always wins.” He reaches for the flask at his waist and Yang barely resists her sudden strong impulse to knock it out of his hand into the street below. “It’s the thing with being immortal. He can really play the long game.”

“Well, I’m not playing.”

He takes a sip and shrugs. “He doesn’t care what you’re doing.”

“And I don’t care about him,” Yang says, the words tumbling out way too fast. She feels breathless with a strange kind of momentum, but certain somehow. More sure of herself than she’s been in some time. “Where’s Ruby?”

“Look for the mark,” Uncle Qrow says, the words half-snarled around the mouth of his flask. “You should be able to find her anywhere now.”

It didn’t occur to Yang on her own, and the thought settles into her chest like a weight.

Ruby is marked now. Forever.

Yang thinks about holding rocks to help herself sink faster when she first practiced how to swim and surface again before the long voyages to sea. She thinks of bone stitched into jackets and runes carved with his mark the same way that it’s now burned into all of their skin.

She thinks of the black nothingness of the Void that seethes just beneath her jacket, all along her right side, and she doesn’t want to let herself touch the Lord Regent ever again.

But she doesn’t have time to be so self-pitying. Ruby’s out there somewhere with more power than she’s ever known and she’s still the same girl who made enemies with half the men at the dock just from not knowing when to stop asking questions.

“Get up, old man,” Yang says, her words hard and clipped. Sharp like the edge of the dagger she hasn’t seen since the night the bomb went off. “You’re standing watch here.” She blinks and looks into the other side — hundreds of heartbeats in the city stretched out beneath her feet — and tries to ignore her own heart pounding in her chest, vivid at the edge of her vision.

“You trust me with that?” her uncle asks without standing up.

“Do I have any other choice?” Yang holds out her hand without looking — without even thinking — but she feels him hesitate before taking it.

There’s a strange sensation when their hands meet, but it’s fleeting. It passes. Yang feels her vision flicker, but it returns.

The veins and pulses under everyone’s skin still shine terrifyingly bright.

She swallows and continues to scan every part of the Tower until—

There.

Ruby’s just there, in her room, like it’s any other night. Like she and everything else haven’t been entirely changed forever. It’s a game of pretend that Yang has been more than willing to try to commit to — the only game she’s interested in when it comes to these marks — but now it feels too late. They aren’t going to win this.

So okay, new rules. Fresh start.

Uncle Qrow puts a hand on her shoulder and Yang blinks back into the now.

She can still smell the liquor on his breath, but his eyes feel more focused when he looks at her. “You need to help her understand what this means. How it changes things.”

It’s not a conversation the two of them have ever had, but somehow Yang knows exactly what her Uncle means just as clearly she understands why he thinks Ruby won’t get it on her own. She’s too good, too kind, too trusting that things will work out like they should. She’s been protected for too long by the rest of them, always trusting that she’ll find her footing — and that if she falls, someone will catch her. Yang still wants to be the one to be there, to catch her, but Ruby can fling herself around the city’s rooftops now with a sister there or not.

It’s a strangely awful feeling, to know how much they’ve both been replaced by that single black-eyed bastard and his sneering stupid face.

“I’ll talk with her,” is all Yang says, turning away so that she doesn’t have to consider the pain she thinks she detects in her Uncle Qrow’s face.

She doesn’t want to know what it could mean.

Yang doesn’t like the idea of her sister with these powers — the thought of her alone in the Void with that fucking asshole, for one — but the way that Uncle Qrow looks now, it’s like he’s terrified by something even further out beyond the blackness of the nothing. He talks about Ruby, about the way things will be now, and it’s like he’s looking at death itself. Yang turns to leave, as fast as she can, because she can’t stand to look any longer. She reaches out into the dark of the night and pulls herself back inside the Tower’s walls.

Blake will be there come morning — ready, waiting — but Yang doesn’t have time to consider or to worry about that yet. She has to see her sister.

Now.

Without thinking — without even allowing herself the time to hesitate — Yang points a path toward the window that she’s always known is Ruby’s and travels in several quick practiced movements up the side of the building, over and in.

The window slides open without any resistance.

And in an instant, Yang is flung back out again. She dangles in space, for just a moment, before plummeting fast.

“Oh!” a startled voice calls from the other side of the window before Ruby sticks her head out and gasps. “Oh,” she huffs again, almost frantic as she climbs up onto the window’s ledge. This is exactly the kind of impulsive and terrible thinking that Yang was on her way here to make certain doesn’t happen.

The ground rushes up to take hold of her — reaching to make impact with her spine — but in a moment that’s only a few brightly pulsing heartbeats long, Yang reaches her hand out even faster. She takes hold of the fabric of time and she twists, curling it in on itself.

Everything is slower, even and especially Ruby dangling one leg out into nothing.

Yang’s whole body turns, contorting in midair, as she reaches back skyward toward the windowsill — and her sister.

She makes contact with so much forward momentum that it sends both of them flying, flung back inside the Tower bedroom. The entire process lasts less than half a normal minute.

When time resumes, Yang is sprawled face first on the ground with Ruby standing over her, brushing off her sleeping pants.

It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s happening anyway.

Yang blinks and fights every impulse in her body to just consider staying down for now and maybe even taking a nap. Instead, she sits up slowly and groans.

“I was going to tell you,” Ruby says, without missing a beat. “But then you took your time with telling me anything, so if any one of us gets a chance to be angry or panicked, I think it ought be me.” Yang opens her mouth to say something — anything at all — but Ruby continues, saying, “But none of that matters now, because I know who tried to kill the Emperor.”

Well. That’s got Yang’s attention.

*

Most of what the Outsider has given her so far has only been a name — Cinder — and obviously Yang also knows what the woman looks like, but Ruby has a location to narrow things down. She saw her once, screaming for Granny Rags outside her home on Endoria, along with Emerald.

So it’s definitely the same pushy and violently impulsive lady with the sort of manic demeanor that Yang saw stabbing the Emperor.

“She has the mark, but she isn’t one of his favorite people anymore,” Yang explains as she paces, because movement helps her think. After so much time at sea, the constant shifting is soothing in its own specific way. Or maybe it’s just the way her adrenaline pumps as she turns quickly, saying, “The Outsider wanted me to help him with her.”

“Help how?”

“We haven’t actually discussed that far yet. He’s really—”

“Annoying,” Ruby says, not at all like it’s question.

“I was going to go with evasive, but that too.” Yang resumes her small path, back and forth past the window, over and over. “He says he wants my help, but he doesn’t give straight answers.” She stops abruptly. “I guess it’s our help now.”

The thought is almost distressing.

She looks at her little sister and all she can see is how young Ruby is. Yang still remembers her crying on the day mom didn’t come back. It’s so clear, like it was yesterday, even when Ruby is doing her best to look indignant and probably aiming for older too, asking, “If you’ve known who hurt the Emperor all this time, why not tell me?”

“How was I supposed to explain any of this?” Yang asks, weeks worth of exasperation coming through in her voice. “I wasn’t even supposed to be back in the Tower.” She scoffs very softly, an exhalation of air that settles into the tension of her shoulders. “I should still be digging myself out of the basement of the Cat.”

“Okay, but then no more secrets,” Ruby cuts in, her gaze and her voice equally firm. “We both have the mark now, so there’s nothing left to hide.”

No more secrets.

If Ruby actually means it, then there’s one really big secret she’s still holding onto. It isn’t really only Yang’s secret to tell, but this is her sister.

“Okay,” she breathes, feeling the way her shoulders slump and release again when she exhales. “There’s something else I should probably tell you.” Ruby’s eyebrows lift, but she remains quiet. “Things are becoming complicated. With Blake and I.”

Ruby laughs, which isn’t exactly the reaction Yang expected.

She’s not sure what she expected actually. Maybe an accusation, or confusion. Maybe she thought Ruby would be concerned that a change between her and Blake would shift the dynamic for all four of them.

What she gets is a laugh — high and slightly manic — before Ruby drops off abruptly.

And she blinks.

“… there’s maybe a little more of something I need to tell you real quick, Yang. Just a little something.” Ruby licks her lips. “Just in terms of this whole honesty thing. There’s something I haven’t told you about my powers.”

Yang’s mind is racing, trying to come up with something that would explain the sudden progression of this conversation, but she’s got nothing. “… okay?”

“I can read minds. I mean, sort of.” Ruby is standing now too, also pacing, but at a slightly different rate than her sister. “I think it’s more like I can see what people are thinking mixed in with their memories. It’s very visual, but I’m not sure it’s always totally accurate to what happened.”

Yang is trying to follow this, but it’s a lot to take in.

Even with the whole time-bending, rooftop-racing scope of her own abilities, this feels almost beyond anything she can imagine. Ruby’s always been pretty perceptive in her own way, but mind reading is on another level.

“You know what I’m thinking.” Yang blinks. “What, like right now?” She’s not even entirely sure herself what to make of the mess of her thoughts, so if Ruby can pull that off it’s pretty impressive.

“No, I have to be touching you.”

Yang’s heart thuds hard in her chest.

“So do it,” she says, without thinking it over — barely thinking at all, so maybe there’s not even a point to this experiment — but she isn’t going to let herself slow down long enough to worry. “Read my mind.”

Ruby whines and makes a face. “Do I have to?” She squints in what feels like exaggerated concern. “Could you at least not think any inappropriate things about Blake while I’m doing it?”

The full weight of what Ruby just said only hits Yang right then. It’s like having a whaling ship charge over her while she’s submerged.

And then having it sail right back over her a second time.

“… oh.”

Ruby can see what Yang is thinking when she touches her — it’s very visual — and it’s hard to know exactly how long that’s been the case, but they’ve definitely made brief contact since Yang’s thoughts about Blake have become a little, let’s say, singular in focus.

The more Yang tries not to think about it — any of it, but especially the exact texture of Blake’s skin — the more it plays across her mind, larger than life, over and over. Somehow it must be there even without the touch, just obvious on her face, because Ruby is staring from further — and further — across the room, looking mortified.

The bastard really hates Yang, doesn’t he?

“You know what—” Yang moves back closer to the window, as though she might just dive out of it to make a quick escape at any moment. It’s definitely worth considering as an option. “I think I’m convinced without a demonstration.”

“Thank you.”

Yang’s heart is still pounding in her chest and her brain keeps tugging her back — to Blake curled up in her arms, how her princess’s chest rises and falls when she breathes slower in sleep — and it shouldn’t be this hard to focus back on the pressing matters of her safety, but suddenly there’s only one thing Yang can think.

All of it only one thing. The only thing.

Blake.

The woman who tried to kill the Emperor — who might one day return to try the same with Blake — has a name, and now they have a location. It’s all that matters. The drumbeat of memories are still circling quickly through the back of Yang’s mind, but the urgency crests up over it like a wave about to fall. She feels it with such sharpness. So many things have been going wrong these past few weeks, it’s felt hard to even focus.

Somehow this rush of everything Blake — the feel of her mouth and the way that she laughs — is bringing some new clarity along with it, like debris left on a shoreline.

“Your power,” Yang feels herself asking, certain that she already knows the answer. “It works when you touch anyone?”

Ruby nods.

“Tomorrow morning. We go find Granny Rags.”

*

When kids in the slums were too rough with Ruby, there were always options. Yang could hit them or trick them. The smart kids knew when to bend. The others Yang was content to break.

It was harder with her tutors.

Ruby met with them all on her own, in lessons Yang never cared to qualify for. The books had always been of greater interest to Ruby.

Yang enjoyed more practical application.

So that the one time Ruby returned with her eyes red, refusing to say anything, Yang took it upon herself to track down the man who had made her sister feel stupid and small. Even Uncle Qrow and dad never knew about that.

Yang had explained — in very calm but clear terms — that the family paid good money for him to teach Ruby lessons she couldn’t learn anywhere else. “Plenty of other men can teach her disappointment, I think,” Yang had said, speaking smoothly with just the slightest hint of violence in the way that she smiled. “Nearly all of them, I bet.”

It would be a bad idea, she told him, to take advantage of her family’s good nature and assume they didn’t care about getting their money’s worth. The man was meant to be teaching fundamentals of science that were probably too basic for Ruby at that point anyway. She was bored, if anything. Well beyond him and his sneering incompetence.

There was at least one thing he’d got right, when he stammered and offered Yang all of their money back, apologizing over and over until the words started blending together. He was so quick to make amends after that.

It might have been the way that Yang came in through his window.

The point is there was always an answer.

Until the exact moment that the problem really was Yang. Is Yang.

She brought the Outsider into their lives and now he’s stuck, like some kind of fungus. Maybe he’s been there for years, caught in her lungs with the remnants of salt water she never fully managed to cough up onto the deck.

If the infection has been here all this time, it might already be too late for Ruby, for Yang, for any of them.

But that’s no reason not to try.

Granny Rags saved them once before. Maybe she can do it again.

*

Before the morning and any oncoming disaster arrives, Yang has one more thing to do before she can sleep.

It’s becoming its own sort of ritual, her visit to Blake’s bedroom.

At least now, in the uniform jacket of the newly appointed royal protector, she can walk down this hallway without worrying about guards stopping her. She belongs here now, somehow. Not just the tower, but the royal quarters.

Not that anyone else is around to see her.

She makes another mental note to address the patrols outside of Blake’s room. They are worryingly infrequent, and it’s no longer convenient. The Belladonna crest on Yang’s jacket reflects the lamp light faintly as she passes, but otherwise the hallway is empty. Everything is still.

Unhurried by the lack of commotion, she allows herself a moment at the bedroom door to consider.

She is here to tell Blake not to look for her in the garden, and to alert her of a plan in the morning. But is that all?

Blake is on the other side of the door, but so is the entrance to the secret bedroom.

The room that Yang has been avoiding sleeping in to keep the Outsider away from the people she cares about. But that didn’t matter.

It didn’t stop or even slow him down. She has denied herself for no reason at all.

The thought is there, just at the back of Yang’s mind, as she knocks on the door and calls out, “It’s only me, Highness,” before stepping inside.

It’s the only time she’s entered Blake’s room without greater hesitation, and she instantly regrets it. She isn’t ready for what she sees on the other side, even as it takes her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Her breath catches.

The sheets are rumpled, bathed in moonlight and the harsh edges of long shadows. Blake almost drowns in it, too small for her bed.

It’s meant for two, Yang thinks, her eyes traveling over every soft edge of her future Empress as if there might be any blemish there to snag on.

But she’s perfect.

Yang has seen Blake sleeping before, but never quite like this. Her hair spills across her pillow and the top of her night shirt has been left slightly unbuttoned. Yang can glimpse smooth skin, shifting with each long breath in, but she averts her eyes back to Blake’s face. She seems so still. Untroubled in a way Yang has never seen her, even when they’ve napped together.

It feels like such a shame to wake her, but it’s pretty weird to be in her bedroom uninvited.

Even if that’s technically her duty now.

Yang takes a single step closer to the bed, keeping her voice low and carefully unobtrusive, saying, “Your Highness.”

Blake stirs, and the calm slips from her face. Yang regrets it, instantly, but it’s inevitable. This is what it is to be royalty, isn’t it?

It’s there in the way Blake sits up quickly, alert and almost afraid, but rapidly hiding that too. It’s the fixed look of contained calm that sets on Blake’s expression in an instant, stern and sharp, saying, “Who goes there?” Before her eyes land on Yang, and then it softens again. Her shoulders relax. She smiles and shakes her head, hair falling down her shoulder. “… Yang. Don’t you know how to knock?”

That’s royalty, isn’t it? The way she can slip in and out of that other skin — the someone else Blake wears to court — like it’s a familiar coat.

But it’s Blake, too. The way her smile twists at the corner of her lips and she bats her eyes a little, teasing Yang with her expression just as much as her words. That’s all her.

Just Blake.

Yang’s mouth is strangely dry, so she licks her lips. “I tried, Highness. I don’t think you heard me.”

Blake sits up the rest of the way and draws her knees up toward her chest, still underneath the sheets, to rest her chin. She’s still smiling at Yang from just behind her cascade of hair. “It seems like I didn’t.” She drums her fingers against her shin and Yang finds herself watching the way Blake’s skin looks moving against fabric. The bed is so soft, but Blake looks even softer. “… is there a reason you’re here? In my bedroom at night?”

Yang’s eyes go back to Blake’s face. Quickly.

“Isn’t that my duty now?” She swallows. “Royal protector things, right?”

“Something like that.” There’s just the small beginning of a frown creeping in at the corner of Blake’s mouth, no matter how much she tries to hide it. Maybe other people — the kinds of people who haven’t spent hours studying that mouth — wouldn’t notice, but Yang sees it right away. “But why now?”

The plan had been to talk about all of this now. Ruby, the Outsider, and the trip to Granny Rags in the morning. Just lay it all out in front of them with honesty.

But Blake had looked so soft and at peace. Yang can’t be the one to trouble her.

Let it wait until the morning.

“My Uncle is handling the guard duties, so I thought I might get some sleep.” Yang gestures to the secret door behind her. As if Blake needs further clarification.

Maybe she does, because her eyes travel to the wall and just stick there for a long silence. As though she’s considering.

And then.

“I think a royal protector should be kept close.”

Yang isn’t sure that she follows what that means, and Blake’s still studying the wallpaper, making it hard to read in her eyes. So she sticks with something neutral for now, saying, “Exactly.” Maybe it’s even more false bravado than neutral.

But then Blake’s eyes are locked with hers, and she gets it. “Closer than that, I mean.”

Oh, Yang gets it.

“… Highness.”

“The bed is big enough for two,” Blake says, repeating Yang’s own thoughts back to her.

If this was already in her head, it shouldn’t be enough to make Yang’s ears burn.

It shouldn’t, but it does.

Blake is kind enough not to comment, her expression still carefully neutral as she pulls the sheets down on the other side of the bed in one single smooth motion.

It looks softer than anything that’s ever touched Yang’s skin, apart from Blake herself.

“I’m filthy,” Yang finds herself murmuring, the excuse feeling paper thin on her strangely parched tongue. “If I’d known…”

If she had known what? Even Yang isn’t sure what she means. She would have washed herself off after crawling around rooftops if she’d only known to expect to be invited into the bed of the future Empress?

One who is studying her face now, and carefully hiding any disappointment that might otherwise be in her voice, saying, “I would like to be held by my royal protector while I sleep, but if you would prefer sleeping alone I’ll unlock the door. This isn’t an order, Yang. It’s an invitation.” She pauses, only briefly, but there’s a more imperious confidence easing itself back into her voice. “Or I can join you in our room, if you’re more comfortable there.”

“You deserve to sleep in your own bed.” The sentiment feels as though it deserves the use of a title, but Yang can’t bear it now. Not with the way Blake’s looking at her with all that soft honesty clear on her face. “Blake,” she says instead, like the single syllable can contain everything else.

Like it can match the pounding of Yang’s own heartbeat that she can almost taste on her tongue.

Put all that feeling directly into Blake’s ears, and maybe it does, because she is smiling so much more now, almost coy again. “And you?”

“You deserve a lot more than me, but I’m what’s here.”

Blake laughs. It’s not loud, not really, but it still cuts through the quiet of the Tower at night.

It sets all of Yang’s insides on fire.

“That’s not what I meant,” she’s saying, smiling so much now that her mouth must almost ache. Yang’s thinking she could soothe that mouth — thinking that and feeling both soft and wicked at the same time — when Blake continues, saying, “And I disagree, but I meant that you deserve to sleep in comfort too.”

“I do just fine.”

“I want you to want more than that,” Blake says, her voice becoming almost firm for the first time since she thought Yang was an intruder.

And then princess Blake Belladonna, Lord Regent and future Empress of all the isles, shifts across her plush bed to make more room for Yang of the slums. She holds out her arm and gestures, just once, almost with impatience.

“Are you sure it’s not an order?” Yang asks as she steps closer. “It sort of feels like it might be an order.”

“I order you to care for yourself half as much as you do me.”

That sounds off somehow, because Yang is confident and sure, almost too cocky.

Everyone says so.

But still she slows just at the edge of the bed. All that silk looks delicate.

“Take off your jacket, Yang,” Blake says, words as soft as the curtains rustling in a light breeze.

It’s easier than it ought to be.

Yang removes her jacket carefully and folds it across the back of a nearby chair before sinking into the bed. And sink she does.

It’s even softer than she thought it would be.

Yang feels a startling and familiar sensation close to swimming, even in how she swings her arm out across the great expanse of sheets. “How do you not drown?” she laughs, tugging Blake closer in one long pull.

That helps. The warmth and smell of Blake is so familiar.

Even if the way it lingers on the sheets, all around her, is almost overwhelming. It’s almost too much, but Yang still buries her nose against Blake’s shoulder, flush and warm, and tightens her grip when she feels her princess shiver.

“That’s funny, coming from you.” Blake’s words vibrate from this close. It’s like Yang can hear them pulsing inside her own head, especially when she feels her eyes slipping shut.

This day has been longer than most. It feels like half a lifetime since she slept.

“By the Outsider,” Blake’s voice says from far away. “You’re so warm.”

“That’s not from him,” Yang murmurs through the grin pressed against Blake’s neck. “I’ve always been… really hot.”

“Oh, that’s bad.”

Yang lets out a long yawn. “Great, actually.” And another. “The ladies love it.”

There is quiet at first. It’s a stillness that settles over them, gentle as the blankets on the bed of royalty. Yang feels Blake’s touch, stroking lightly over her wrist, before she hears her voice again. “I’ll have to ask you about all these other ladies sometime.”

“Mmm.”

“Some other time.”

The soft pulsing of Blake’s heartbeat in her arms makes Yang think of waves along the shore.

Constant. Steady.

Yang falls asleep and doesn’t think at all of the void rock arm pinned between Blake and the bed.

*

In the morning, Yang wakes to the sound of a guard knocking at the door.

“Lord Regent, madame?” a voice calls from the other side. “Are you awake, Highness? And decent?”

Waking to the sound of someone else’s idea of your schedule has been a part of Yang’s life for as long as she can remember. As a member of the Watch, she would wake with every other guard in the barracks to a chorus of boots being pulled on and chairs scraping over the floor. Before that was her life at sea — either tugged from her cot to help gut a whale or waking before the sunrise to make her way to the docks — and even before all of that she would wake up to the sound of her family leaving every morning.

Sleep was something that happened only when other people allowed her to have it. She didn’t think it would be the same for a princess or especially a Lord Regent.

It seems she was wrong.

Blake stirs in her arms, and Yang feels herself frowning at no one in particular. It’s morning, sure, and they all have things they need to do — Empire saving kinds of things — but couldn’t Blake sleep just a little while longer? Doesn’t she deserve it?

Another knock at the door and the voice calls again. “Lord Regent, I am very sorry, but Lord Schnee is asking for you.”

Of all the people to steal Blake’s rest from her, it would be him, wouldn’t it?

If Yang wasn’t worried about being seen in the future Empress’ bedroom first thing in the morning — Royal Protector or not, she’s not sure what the rules are with this yet — she would go right to the door herself and tell whoever’s knocking on the behalf of Jacques Schnee to piss off. She would say it in precisely those vulgar terms too.

Lucky for her, it’s not necessary. Suddenly, there’s another voice at the door, speaking quieter than the first. Yang thinks — more from the sudden panic in the voice of the first guard than anything she can identify in the second — that it’s probably Pyrrha.

“I’m sorry,” she hears the first voice stammering. “I was just—”

The second voice cuts him off, but Yang isn’t sure what else is said after that. Whatever it is, it’s convincing enough that it’s followed by a drawn out silence, broken only by Blake’s softly murmured, “If I stay very still, do you think we can both pretend that I’m still asleep?”

Blake’s face breaks into a slowly spreading smile, but her eyes stay shut.

“Is that by royal decree?”

The smile fades into a carefully blank expression. For a moment, Blake doesn’t answer and she really does start to look like she’s fallen back asleep. But then. “… would that be necessary for you to let me rest?”

Yang’s own smile is just growing. “If you want me to, I’ll ban anyone else from talking to you for the rest of the day, but I don’t think that’s what you really want.”

“You’re sure?”

“… no,” Yang admits with a soft laugh. It’s that sound that causes Blake’s eyes to flutter open. Their gazes meet and Blake is smiling again. Yang completely forgets what she was about to say.

“No what?” Blake has the nerve to ask, as if her smile isn’t making it impossible to think.

Yang laughs again. “I don’t remember.”

It was something about Blake and being willing to face the day, but just now Yang is thinking there’s no possible reason anyone could give her to get out of this bed. It’s not even the aching everywhere in her body from so many days and weeks of exhaustion. That’s a factor, sure, but the real pain is the twisting feeling in her chest.

Blake places a hand on Yang’s chest, close to the pounding of her heart, and the sensation only intensifies.

“Are you always this beautiful in the morning?”

The words happen before Yang can even think about how they will sound.

But the answer is: true. They sound like everything she thinks.

They sound like the truth.

“Are you always such a flirt in the morning?” Blake asks, the curve of her smile as soft as her skin.

“Yes,” Yang says, because that’s the truth too. “But only with beautiful women.”

“Oh,” Blake starts.

She begins to say more.

But Yang’s mouth brushes against hers, almost like an accident, and she stops again. Yang turns her head, and Blake is there. She breathes in, and Blake’s tongue is there too.

One hand moves to trace the jaw of her princess and the other braces itself on the headboard. It’s made of wood — something old and hand carved — and just like the skin of a princess, it should probably be handled with care.

It is with incredible care that Yang kisses her princess slowly, almost reverently.

The way Blake’s hands slip into Yang’s hair to tug, pulling her mouth back in close every time she tries to pull away isn’t nearly as gentle, not in any way, but a Whaler is made for rough handling at sea. She is ready.

Yang knows how to follow a rhythm and where Blake leads, she will follow. If her princess wants to keep kissing her all morning, they’ll do exactly that.

Jacques Schnee, Granny Rags, and the whole rest of the entire rotting Empire can wait.

For now at least, everything can wait. All that exists is the island of this overly plush bed and the feeling of Blake’s fingertips scratching over her scalp.

*

The next time someone comes to the door to knock, both of them are finally dressed and ready to leave.

Which is a good thing too, since Weiss doesn’t wait for an answer before pushing her way in.

“Blake, I am sorry, but—” She stops midway through her next confident stride in and all that careful composure drops right off her face. Weiss blinks. “… Yang. Good morning.”

Yang stands even taller than usual in this uniform, or at least it feels that way. Probably all the crisp lines — or maybe the way Blake’s eyes linger on her when she’s wearing it. “Morning.”

Weiss’s gaze travels from Blake, to Yang, and then carefully back again. She looks like she half-expects some kind of explanation, but when neither of them start to give her one, her expression slowly sours.

It makes Yang think of the way a sail can sag as soon as the wind drops out of it.

“I thought you might still be in bed,” Weiss says in Blake’s direction, very carefully not looking at Yang anymore. “Since my father’s been asking for you, and we’ve all been so concerned with making sure our plan works.”

Now she does look back, and the accusation in her eyes isn’t subtle. At all.

“Yang has informed me she has other matters to deal with this morning, actually.”

It’s a conversation that happened while Yang carefully studied the curtains as Blake got dressed behind her, but she hopes that part doesn’t show on her face when she nods.

Weiss’s lips purse and she looks ready to start on one of her usual rants — probably something about how there’s nothing more important than the safety of the Empire and its Lord Regent, especially not when someone’s job is to protect both those things — but Yang cuts in before she can get started on any of her relentless momentum, saying, “That’s alright. We can do this first.” Off Blake’s uncertain look, she adds, “I think Ruby’d like to be there too.”

That’s enough to at least get Weiss to loosen up a little.

Literally, her shoulders shift and the annoyance starts to melt right off of her as she draws closer, lowering her voice. “Your plan this morning is something with Ruby? She didn’t mention it.”

There’s a lot of that not mentioning things going around lately. It’s something they all need to take care of.

As soon as possible.

“I think the four of us should talk, actually,” is what Yang says, keeping her voice carefully neutral. Or at least, she tries to. Judging by the look on Blake’s face, some of her rapid heartbeat must be audible in her tone. That doesn’t stop her, though. “Maybe after we settle things with your dad.”

“If something’s wrong, you know you can tell us, right?” Any of the anger that might have been left on Weiss’s face has disappeared now. Her voice is even lower and her posture shifts. “You might be royal protector, Yang, but we’re all in this together.”

“I know.”

She does. Whatever else might be happening, Weiss means it, and Yang knows that.

Even if Weiss knew that it was the bastard standing in their way — that they’ll all be turning against the Abbey and its strictures, all those things it seems like Weiss might actually believe — she would still mean it. It’s not just that earnest look on her face. It’s everything that Yang has known for years and never had to put to words until now: Weiss chooses them.

More than her dad, her Abbey, and probably even her title.

Maybe more than the whole of the Empire even, but Yang wouldn’t push her luck too much there.

“Alright,” Blake says with the kind of practiced certainty that cuts through all of Yang’s other rambling thoughts and refocuses her on the now. “Let’s go run your father out of Dunwall.”

“Finally.”

Weiss rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling too as she moves to open the door and gesture for Yang to cross first. “Ruby is waiting for us just outside the royal quarters. With breakfast pastries I think she must have stolen from the kitchens.”

Yang holds the door for Blake and receives a small smile in return before the princess refocuses her attention on Weiss. “She’s allowed to take from the kitchens whenever she wants to.”

“Enough to feed a small army isn’t really what any of us had in mind.”

When they were younger, Yang would have felt defensive. Now she knows better than to think Weiss is actually upset with Ruby, for almost anything. “I’m sure she grabbed each of our favorites about ten times over.”

“No one can possibly be that hungry.”

“I am, sometimes.”

“You’re a glutton, Yang.”

“Yeah, for punishment.” Yang winks and sidesteps directly across Weiss’s path, causing her to come up short with a mildly indignant huff of air. “That’s why I’m still friends with you.”

“Please try to contain at least some of your delightful commentary when we’re with my father.”

“You sure? I’ve saved some of my best material for exactly this moment.”

From the end of the hallway, they hear the sound of footsteps approaching before they see them. Several Tower guards appear first, flanked by soldiers wearing the Schnee family crest.

Lord Schnee is the only member of the nobility in the Tower who insists on his own personal family guard to patrol even when outside his own Manor house. The members of the Watch resent every single one of them for their crisp white uniforms and overly smug expressions. They take liberties they shouldn’t be allowed, not legally, but who’s ever going to question the word of the Royal Advisor?

Former, that is. Even if he doesn’t know it yet.

But judging by that look on his face, he might. Because Jacques Schnee is storming down the hallway like he really intends to pick a fight with the Lord Regent right here in the open, with so many people to see them.

Just behind him, Yang catches a glimpse of her sister jogging to catch up.

Ruby looks haggard and startled, like she was distracted by something else — probably a book or her food — when this mob of heavily armed men and women overtook her position in the hallway. She’s hurrying to keep up now, one hand wavering in front of her with an exaggerated hesitation. As though she’s considering whether or not it would be suspicious — yes, but maybe still worth it — to reach out and touch a member of Schnee’s guard, or even the man himself.

Yang jerks her head quickly in the negative, in the hopes that Ruby will take the hint.

And she seems to! At least for now, that is, when she grabs hold of a muffin from inside her own pocket instead of a soldier’s elbow.

“Lord Schnee,” Blake greets him smoothly. The way she ignores his bluster and unnecessarily large entourage only seems to annoy him more. She doesn’t acknowledge that either. “I heard you wanted to speak with me.”

“I sent that message quite some time ago, Highness.” His eyes drift over Yang with all the consideration of a man studying a stain on a very expensive rug before settling — like a heavy weight — on top of Weiss. “I’m sorry if my daughter did not bother to impress upon you the urgency of my situation.”

“A tragedy at the mines, I heard.”

Somewhere at the back of the crowd of guards, Ruby is talking to the youngest one among them. The conversation is quiet — too quiet for anyone else to take notice — and seems to involve her offering the girl one of her many pastries.

Lord Schnee clears his throat with so much enthusiasm it sounds like he might choke himself, and Yang refocuses her gaze in his direction. “Your concern is appreciated, as always, Your Highness.”

“If there is anything the Tower can offer you, I would like to hear it.” Blake’s frown is such a perfect illustration of concern for Jacques Schnee that it shouldn’t be convincing, not for anyone who actually knows her. That’s why Lord Schnee doesn’t even seem to blink. “Of course, there is the issue of our budget.”

His mustache twitches, but otherwise Lord Schnee’s face remains perfectly still. “Highness?”

“I’m aware that parliament will be voting on budget regulation soon, including how much control will continue to remain allocated with us in the Tower in these trying times.” Blake sighs and folds her arms across her own chest, as if to contain back a wave of strong emotion. She is very good at this. “If I felt sure we would retain control, I would offer you my aide. But I don’t know enough people within the voting block to make any promises.”

She is very, very good, and as far as Yang knows this wasn’t part of the original plan, unless it’s something Blake and Weiss have discussed on their own. Admittedly, it’s also possible that very specific budget details were a part of the plan discussed right in front of Yang’s face and she didn’t bother to retain it, but that seems less likely.

Probably.

Whether it’s totally spontaneous or part of some earlier plot doesn’t really matter when it lands so perfectly. Lord Schnee’s mind is calculating so many variables that you can practically see the gears turning rapidly in his cold mechanical brain. “Oh, Highness. I would gladly have a word with Doctor Watts and Lord Callows on your behalf.” Yang can almost hear a shift in Blake’s breathing, but otherwise her expression is unreadable. “Once I have returned from dealing with matters at the Schnee mines, of course.”

A single second of hesitation is the only sign that things aren’t going as Blake wants, and even that falls in line perfectly with her startled sounding exclamation of, “You’re going yourself?”

“Father, please. Let me go. I can oversee the business at the mines.”

Lord Schnee tries to disguise his huff of indignant annoyance as a cough. He almost seems to think he hides it with the twisted smile creeping underneath his mustache, but Yang’s seen too many nobles looking down on her with that exact same coldness in their eyes.

It’s the way they look before they reach out to smack you with the back of a hand, or something even worse.

Men like that, it’s usually worse.

“No, Weiss,” he says with another labored cough. “Whitley will join me at the mines. You will remain here, with the princess.”

Even through her fine leather gloves, Yang can feel the mark burning with concentrated annoyance. “Lord Regent,” she says, before Weiss has a chance to. The plan relies on Weiss seeming contrite and beaten down. It wouldn’t do at all to have her seem even half as defiant as she’s probably feeling.

“Yes, of course,” is all Lord Schnee says, not even acknowledging Yang with a glance. His eyes are still on his daughter, whose shoulders are slightly stooped. This isn’t all acting. When her brother came up, something shifted in Weiss. It’s a weight, pressing down, and her father’s words just apply further pressure. “Your place is here. It always has been.”

“That is certainly true,” Blake says, each word coming with slow and deliberate care. “You are very wise, Lord Schnee. Your counsel will be greatly missed at the Tower.”

“We will struggle without you, father.”

It takes all of Yang’s strength of will not to offer to escort him to the door as quickly as possible. Instead, she smiles a too thin and probably unconvincing smile, saying, “Sometimes the only storm on the horizon is the one we make ourselves.”

The speed with which Lord Schnee’s face shifts from a polite smile to a sneer when his gaze moves back to Yang is almost impressive. “One of your quaint whaler sayings, I take it.”

“Something like that.” This time Yang’s smile is much more genuine when she spots Ruby at the back of the crowd, sharing a biscuit with the youngest soldier while resting a hand casually on her elbow. “It means we’ll be anxious for your safe return.”

Or something like that.

*

The most logical place to have a clandestine meeting to discuss betrayal of the Abbey and most of the overly righteous beliefs that the Empire was founded on is obviously the secret room attached to the bedroom of royalty, where no one else is going to stumble in or interfere.

A part of Yang regrets it, no matter how reasonable it is.

This room was theirs, hers and Blake’s. Even though she gets to enjoy taking in the look of excitement on Ruby’s face watching the mechanics of the door as it opens, it feels like some small and fragile thing has been lost.

It aches in a way that she doesn’t have words for.

And that’s before Yang realizes that this space is way too small for Weiss to be able to pace as much as she apparently wants to.

Because right now, after hearing it all laid out, Weiss is walking so quickly she’s almost spinning in a circle. “None of this makes sense!” she shouts, and Yang is incredibly grateful for the soundproof room. “The Outsider just chose you of all people to rescue from a collapsing building?”

“You don’t have to sound so disappointed.”

“Shock!” Weiss waves her hands around and almost smacks a shelf mounted to the wall. “This is shock.” She points at her own expression while Blake moves quickly to remove anything overly fragile from the nearby walls. “If it’s unclear, I am not mad, or— Well, I’m a little mad too, actually. I can’t believe you kept this from me.” Her eyes move quickly to Blake, who freezes midway through retrieving a small potted plant from the highest shelf. “You kept this from me.”

“It wasn’t my secret to tell.” Blake directs her answer to the leaves more than Weiss. “I knew Yang would get to it, when she was ready.”

“Oh, well as long as we’re doing things on Yang’s schedule.”

Ruby stands far back near the door, for now. Ever since she bumped into Blake on their way to the royal quarters, she’s avoided moving too close to any beds — and Yang is honestly pretty terrified to consider the possible reasons why — but she’s slowly moving back toward the center of the group. “Let’s not fight.”

“I’m not fighting! I’m expressing my annoyance.”

“Loudly.”

“It kind of sounds a lot like fighting. And we don’t have time for that right now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you mean you’re too busy declaring war on the entire Abbey to have a conversation with me, your friend, about what’s been going on here lately?” Weiss is moving in tight, angry circles again. “‘Oh, Weiss. We know you’ve been working so hard to keep us safe, but did you know that Yang has special powers and she could give us a physical description of one of the attackers that we could have easily handed over to the Watch to keep all of us safer weeks ago?’”

Blake and Yang exchange a glance. “Weiss…”

“I’m not finished!” Weiss spins back around and points a finger in Blake’s face. “Pyrrha could have died that night, you know.” Out of the corner of her eye, Yang spots Ruby looking fixedly at the ceiling, her expression so carefully blank that it stops being covert and loops right back around into wildly suspicious. “Lots of people could have,” Weiss hastens to add, but it lacks the same conviction. “If Yang’s known something all this time and never bothered to tell anyone—”

“I told the current ruler of the Empire, and now I’m telling you.”

“—that’s not good enough.” The volume of Weiss’s voice keeps getting higher, sharp as the edge of her rapier. They all very politely ignore the way it also starts to crack under the strain of the tears gathering at the corners of her eyes that she refuses to let fall or to even wipe away. She won’t acknowledge them at all. “I’m the royal advisor now, but I’m also your friend.” Weiss takes a long breath in, her shoulders shaking with the exertion of staying still and pretending to seem calm. “No more secrets. Promise.”

“I said the same thing!”

A Weiss in a better mood might take the chance to roll her eyes and tell Ruby that now is not the time. Yang considers how serious this all seems now when, instead, Weiss doesn’t say anything at all.

She just holds her gaze.

Yang does her best to return the courtesy, but she blinks once. Twice. “… yeah. A promise.” She glances over at Blake, who only nods.

But the princess, Yang notices, doesn’t volunteer a specific category of information.

Not yet, at least.

She’s less worried, it seems, of what Weiss will think of blasphemy and betrayal of the foundational beliefs of the entire Empire than she is admitting to kissing Yang. It would almost be offensive if Yang wasn’t equally sure that the whole thing could potentially make Weiss’s head explode.

All that can wait, for now.

In the meantime, it’s Ruby raising her hand, a sheepish little smile on her face. “Actually, I have my own secret to share too.”

*

Weiss doesn’t explode, not really, but she does raise her voice — several times — and she swings both hands around so much that Blake looks visibly relieved that she moved the plants and photographs away already.

“This is absurd!” Weiss huffs and flings her hands up. “The both of you have made a pact with the Outsider?” Her gaze swivels around to Blake. “And you too, I suppose?”

Yang feels the hairs raise on the back of her neck.

Even the suggestion that Blake might be visited by him makes something twist inside her gut.

Maybe that’s why she immediately looks in Blake’s direction, even if she already knows the answer. Or at least, she thinks she does.

But there’s still a slow sense of relief that crashes over her, the way the tide rises against the sides of a whaling ship, when Blake just shakes her head and even smiles, just the slightest bit, taking all of this in stride. “I must not have his interest.”

“I doubt that,” both Weiss and Yang say, at nearly the same time. They look at each other and frown.

But it’s Weiss who continues, saying, “Obviously, I would assume you’re his primary target, of the four of us.” She pauses, exasperation starting to creep into her expression and her tone when she adds, as though it’s even necessary, “You’re going to be Empress, possibly even soon.”

Yang tenses, even faster than Blake does. “Weiss.”

“I don’t mean like that,” Weiss corrects herself, hastily. She does look genuinely apologetic, and it’s not like her to say something so cold. Not in several years, at least. “But the Emperor can abdicate his throne and the earlier you ascend, the better it will be for the stability of the Empire.” When she doesn’t get a response right away, Weiss scoffs in thinly disguised annoyance. “I can’t be the only one who’s considered this!”

“What’s your point, Weiss?” Blake asks in the tone of someone who has spent a lot of time considering exactly this — and a thousand other problems — and doesn’t want to discuss any of them right now.

But Weiss still looks put out, her eyebrows knitting ever closer together. “My point, Blake, is that no matter how much he might pretend to want to save or protect us, the Outsider isn’t on our side. He’s working only for himself, and that means that anyone he claims as his, he sees as working for him too.”

“Sounds like other people we’ve known,” Ruby mutters and then, as soon as the rest of them glance her way, she adds, “I’m talking about Weiss’s dad.”

Weiss clears her throat.

Ruby just shrugs. “I mean, if it wasn’t clear.”

“It was. May I continue?”

From somewhere deep in the depths of her backpack, Ruby’s produced an entire loaf of bread that she’s now eating at the small side table. “Of course.”

The food — and Ruby’s overall calm demeanor, probably more than anything else — has really taken away from whatever momentum Weiss was building up. She looks extremely put out, even if she’s trying hard not to show it.

Blake must pity her, a little, because she chimes in next, saying, “I understand your point, Weiss, but I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”

“If they could just give this power back, I think they should.”

“But—”

“However,” Weiss continues, speaking sharply. “Of course I assume that isn’t a real option. The Outsider is too clever to allow anyone who falls under his thrall to recuse themselves, even in the gravest of circumstances.”

“Like how I almost died? That was pretty … grave.”

Yang means for it to sound playful, but the way that both Ruby and Blake frown makes her instantly regret saying the thought out loud. Maybe jokes about your near death experience are still too soon when it only happened a few weeks ago.

Or maybe they’re always too soon when you say them to people who care about you?

Hard to know. Ruby never seemed to find Yang’s jokes about almost drowning all that funny, and some of them came years after it happened. She wasn’t even there to see it!

Not that anyone saw Yang lose her arm.

From the way their eyes all seem to have drifted toward it now, you would have thought they had.

Weiss is staring more than the rest of them. She almost doesn’t blink. “… that actually brings me to one of my ideas.” She straightens, suddenly very composed, projecting calm and confidence. This is the way she acts at council meetings, when she’s about to challenge her father. Even if Yang knows that Weiss’s heart is secretly close to pounding out of her chest, it’s still a pretty good act. “Can I see your injured arm, please?”

“Weiss—” Blake starts to object — out of a sense of obligation or sensitivity — but Yang waves her away.

“It’s fine,” Yang says, and she almost means it. Looking at the rock welded to her skin almost doesn’t bother her anymore. Not the way it did that first night, at least, and isn’t that progress? “Not really injured, though, so much as…” She unwinds the bandages quickly. It’s down to a science at this point, and in moments the void rock is glittering brightly in the light of the oil lamps. “It’s not there. Not my arm.”

If Weiss finds it unnerving, she does a good job of hiding it.

There’s that practiced calm. She moves closer and holds out her hand, but hesitates. She makes direct, careful eye contact before she asks, “Is it alright if I touch it?”

The directness is almost awkward in its own way, but Yang nods and holds her arm out as a gesture of good will.

This is fine. It’s all very, very fine, and she doesn’t want to flinch away from the touch.

At all.

Weiss is quiet for some time, inspecting the rock face that makes up Yang’s arm and looking entirely lost in thought. It reminds Yang of how she remembers Weiss looking when she would select exactly the right book to lend to Ruby for study. It’s the same as the careful way that she crossed that gap that originally existed between them.

Her hand withdraws. When she speaks, her voice is surprisingly gentle given the carefully detached neutrality of her expression. “If you can’t return his mark, I think you should give this back, at least.”

“Give…”

It doesn’t make sense. Weiss can’t really mean what it’s obvious she’s saying. It’s impossibly cruel and—

“You can’t carry his imprint on your entire arm, Yang.”

The memory of the hot scent of flesh burning strikes her like a blow to the head. Like waves cresting over the side of the ship, pulling her down. It stinks like boiling black liquid ripped straight from her lungs.

She takes a single step back and feels herself sway. She reaches out a hand to steady herself — on the ship’s railing, or no, on the wall — but Blake is there first. She places a firm hand on Yang’s shoulder, and she squeezes. “Weiss.” That’s all, just one word, and it’s enough to sound like a warning.

Some small part of Yang thinks she should resist. She’s meant to be the one doing the protecting, right? But one glance at the look on Blake’s face, and she can’t say a word to stop or intervene. All she feels is grateful. Not just for the actions of a future Empress, but to have found her. To have known this woman for so long, who knows what Yang needs even when she can’t put it into words herself.

Especially when what she apparently needs is someone else to stand in front of her, metaphorically speaking. Or very literally speaking, in the case of Ruby, who is suddenly right in between Yang and Weiss, tugging at Yang’s shirt collar much too aggressively.

“… um?”

“Oh, sorry,” Ruby says, not sounding at all sorry. “Do you mind if I look?” She doesn’t wait for a response before pulling even more, apparently trying to expose the exact spot where the arm is welded to skin.

Yang huffs and begins to unfasten the top buttons to pull more of her shirt aside. “Well, I might.”

“What?”

“Mind.” She pulls the shirt back and frowns, staring fixedly away from her own right side. “What are you looking for?”

Ruby is quiet at first, which isn’t unusual. She’s talkative, but not always when her mind is racing. It just means what’s coming next is going to be big. “I need to see how it works,” she says eventually, carefully putting Yang’s shirt back in place. “Where it’s attached, I mean. For when I make you a new one.”

“Make—”

“—you a new arm, yeah.” Ruby’s face is focused, studying some imaginary blueprint that nobody else can see, but when her eyes catch on Yang’s she lights up in a huge smile. “One that’s just yours. That’s got nothing to do with him.”

Yang blinks.

She knows she should have something to say to that, but no words come out. Not at first.

Nothing at all but a long exhalation of air. Her shoulders sag, like she’s deflating and finally, quietly, she adds, “… thanks, sis.”

Maybe that’s all that needs to be said. Ruby’s touch was so recently tracing the edge of Yang’s wounds, gentle but sure, and there’s a look in her eyes like she can still tell every single thing that Yang is thinking. And maybe she would know all that even without the Outsider’s power, just from a look at Yang’s face. Because she is grinning, so much.

This time, at eighteen, it’s Yang getting saved by her kid sister.

*

The plans for a new arm will have to wait because they still have to track down Granny Rags. But that’s only the physical plans, because right now Ruby is considering all kinds of odds and angles as they gear up to go into the city. Every once in a while she says some random — at least, random to Yang — thing aloud, like, “I’ll have to calculate that density later,” and then goes right back to steady concentration and unintelligible mumbling. She almost runs into a wall, just one time, but Yang grabs her by the straps of her pack and steers her away from danger.

Weiss, who has agreed to join them in the city, looks uncharacteristically unsure. “… I’ve never seen her this way before.”

“It usually happens in her room, where she can take notes.” Yang presses a hand against Ruby’s shoulder and nudges her around a very stationary side table that she’s close to tripping over. “But we have somewhere to be, and we need her…” Her voice trails off, very aware of the patrols of guards they might still pass in the hallway. Eventually, Yang settles on, “Talents.”

Weiss nods, although she still looks uncertain. That’s been the look on her face ever since they told her they would be going into the slums — in search of a woman, as Weiss put it, “named for her wretched appearance, oh she sounds perfectly lovely” — and it was decided that Blake shouldn’t join them on their trip this time.

As good as her disguise could be, there are more people on the lookout for Blake now in the Tower, and her absence would only draw unwanted attention their way.

That doesn’t mean that Yang isn’t going to take an extra precaution, of course.

“Just one more thing,” she says. “Before we head out.”

Weiss must realize that they’re headed toward the barracks, but she doesn’t say anything. No objections. She’s too good at her job, too loyal, but out of the corner of her eye, Yang can see the way she tenses up.

Okay, new plan.

Because the stables are in the same direction, on the way, and it’s easy for Yang to head off on a quick detour where she finds exactly what she expects to: a shirtless stable boy asleep in the hay with a very unimpressed horse watching him from one stall away.

It’s almost too easy to slip right into the stall where Sun is sleeping and hit the wall incredibly close to his head.

As hard as she can.

“Wake up, soldier, on your feet!”

Sun screams. The horse neighs.

From the other end of the stable, Yang spots Weiss rolling her eyes, but all Yang cares to do is double over in laughter.

It takes a few seconds for Sun to realize what’s happening and finally stop screaming. “… Yang.”

She’s on her knees now, and the laughter doesn’t feel like it’s going to stop anytime soon. It’s just bubbling out, all the stress she’s felt for weeks let loose all in one go. “I’m—” She guffaws again. “I’m so sorry, Sun.”

She continues to laugh right in his face, like someone who isn’t sorry at all.

“… yeah, I can see that.” He stands slowly, with a lot of put upon indignation, and brushes down his dirty trousers. “Did you want something other than to humiliate me in front of—” His eyes travel to the other end of the stable and he almost chokes on his own tongue. “Oh, crap.”

Yang’s finally able to breathe enough to string together a full sentence, so she says, “I see you know each other.” She takes a deep breath and stands up slowly. “No need for introductions.”

Weiss still hasn’t stepped inside, but Ruby has dodged past her — careful not to bump into any part of her friend on the way — and hurried just close enough to come to a full stop right beyond hand shake distance. She waves instead. “Hi, we haven’t met. Somehow. I think I’ve seen you around, though. You stand out, with the whole not really wearing your uniform thing.”

“This is my sister,” Yang says, gesturing. “And you know Weiss. So that’s everyone, and now for the favor.”

Sun scoffs. “You scare me half to death and now you want something from me?”

“It’s for Blake, not for me.”

He shuts his mouth at that, but he still can’t help but send another cautious look in Weiss’s direction. “… okay,” he says finally, looking back at Yang. “What does she need?”

“We need something to put Weiss in, actually.” And if Weiss isn’t going to walk in by her own free will, Yang can take her by the wrist and gently lead her closer, her grin getting bigger by the second. “A disguise, to blend in with other parts of Dunwall.”

“What!”

Weiss is so outraged, the exclamation doesn’t really come out as a question.

“Exactly,” Yang says, as though they’re in agreement. “I thought who better to come to. You must have a lot of extra shirts and jackets lying around in perfect condition, since you never wear yours.”

If Sun looked skeptical before, he’s downright suspicious now. “What’s this for?”

“It’s for Blake. Like I said.”

“You’re going to have to give me more than that.”

“No, actually.” Yang lets go of Weiss’s wrist and reaches for the collar of her dirty whaler’s jacket — a usual part of her city disguise — to flash the crest of the Belladonna house that Blake affixed to the inner left side, just above Yang’s heart, before they all set out together. “I’m the royal protector, and I don’t have to tell you anything. I’m just being nice, because we’re friends.” Sun’s suspicious look somehow gets even more pointed. “Okay, well Blake is your friend and I know you just fine.” She gestures toward Weiss. “And we need her to get through the city without everyone knowing there’s nobility walking through the slums.”

It’s obvious from the way that Sun and Weiss are watching each other that there’s some kind of history here, and Yang almost regrets her detour — but only almost. The original plan was to recruit Pyrrha in helping to dress Weiss, but the more Yang thinks about it the more obvious it is that would have been a different kind of disaster.

At least this feels more like thinly disguised annoyance and not whatever it is that Weiss has been feeling around Pyrrha.

Even if Sun is barely hiding a smirk when he says, “I think it’ll be a lot easier to pull this off if we can dirty her up a little.”

Excuse me? What’s that supposed to mean?” Weiss says, openly indignant and speaking in complete sentences for the first time since they walked into the stables.

“Exactly what it sounds like, my Lady.” Sun points to her cheek. “You’re too clean for the slums. A little dirt would go a long way.”

Ruby squints, but nods. “You’re kind of impeccable, Weiss.”

“Just because I can eat an entire breakfast without leaving blueberry stains all over my cheeks—” Sensing that this isn’t just an example pulled from thin air, Ruby rubs her hands vigorously against the corners of her mouth. Weiss continues, smiling faintly, “—that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of subterfuge. Fine. Make me filthy, if you must.”

“Oh!” Ruby bounces on the balls of her feet. “I have a few thoughts.”

There’s a giddiness in her sister’s eyes that Yang knows to retreat from. Quickly. “While you three