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when I dream of dying I never feel so loved

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There will be better days
There will be better days
There will be better days
There will be better days



Here’s the beginning and middle, but not quite the end:

Yang dies on a Tuesday.

The first time it happens, the thought occurs to her fleetingly; she’s never died before (not yet) and she’s entirely preoccupied with the blood seeping out of the hole in her gut, the Grimm ash clogging her throat, the way the world starts to darken at the edges, how she hears (dimly, faintly) someone calling her name.

(If she’d known how many times she was going to experience the exact same sensations, she wouldn’t have bothered cataloguing them at all.)

When she wakes again, it’s Monday, and that’s when it first occurs to her that something strange might be going on.

The first time Yang dies, it’s on a Tuesday. The second, third, fourteenth, twenty-ninth, fifty-third, one hundred and ninety-second, and all the times in between and after, she dies on a Tuesday.

The one hundred and ninety-third time Yang dies, it’s on a Tuesday evening, and she feels terribly pleased about that when she wakes up again (on a Monday). But then, the one hundred and ninety-third time Yang dies is special for a lot of reasons.

(Or, no — not the death, but the moments she spends before it, tucked away, nearly forgetting every death she’s ever died.

Do you think the universe gets it wrong sometimes?’ The whisper catches on the shell of her ear, as soft as the hands on her cheek.)

Yang dies on a Tuesday.

She wakes on a Monday.

And everything is always the same.



Everything is always the same and it always starts like this:

“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to make it to base camp before the briefing starts!”

They’ve pitched a tent just outside the main control hub for the United Forces of Remnant, right along the northern shores of Vacuo. The sand is rocky there, sharp pebbles digging into the mats they’d laid out the night before, and if Yang had gotten more than four or five hours of sleep a night for the past five years, she might have tossed and turned on her bedroll until sunrise because of it. But as it is, she’d been able to find little wrong with the accommodations. The gentle roll of waves against the shore had lulled her to sleep after her watch, the salt and water mingling in the air and creating a unique scent that Yang had always associated with childhood, growing up on an island (almost) untouched by war.

“Great last day before the battle to end all battles,” Yang mumbles, directly into her inflatable pillow, and Ruby laughs, reaching in to poke at the soles of Yang’s boots (so rarely removed, even in sleep, and never when they were outside of a fortified base). “The sun is shining, the Grimm are murderous, and tomorrow, we have to load into airships and head into territory that’s been enemy-controlled for as long as anyone can remember.”

Just another day in p-p-paradise,” Ruby sings, tapping out a rhythm on the tarp (which matches no known song in Remnant, Yang’s pretty sure). “At least it was a quiet night! Maybe that’s a sign!”

Crawling out of the tent, tugging her bedroll and rucksack with her, Yang’s greeted by Ruby’s wide and hopeful eyes, optimistic as always. Over the years, they’ve lost some of their spark and it’s killed Yang to notice every time, silver dimming when their team had gone from four to three to two, but today she makes an effort and she smiles. Yang returns it because Ruby needs her to, because Ruby makes her want to, because it’s better than giving into the mess of emotions that are more easily accessible, being here again.

(They’d been Team ROSY once; Ruby and Olive and Slate and Yang, the finest team of Huntresses that Beacon had produced in the later stages of the war, or so they’d often been told. But then Slate’s throat had been ripped out by the jaws of a Sabyr and — a few hours later — Olive’s skull crumbled in the fist of a Beringel, and Yang came to realize that praise and skill meant shit-all when the waves of Grimm never stopped. When worse and worse things flooded out of the Land of Darkness and whittled away the groups of Huntsman that stood in their way.)

“A sign that fifty billion Grimm are waiting for us as soon as we hit the red shores? Probably.”

She stands and stretches, holding the metal wrist of her right arm overhead with her left hand and pulling upwards, groaning when her shoulders crack as a result. The day before, she’d received a nasty blow to the ribs that had cracked her aura, but today, it’s healed, though the resulting tumble had torn a jagged hole in her tank top, which now flaps in the light breeze sailing in with the ocean waves.

“But before that… hot rations! And a full night’s sleep in beds!” Ruby claps her hands together, the light armor of her gloves muffling the sound. “I don’t care what you say; those messengers we met at the last outpost were telling the truth about how good the fish stew would be.”

They’re not far from the base, a two hour walk at most, but Yang still tugs on what’s left of her battered armor (vest, arm guards, and a single knee pad) and ties her lucky purple bandana just above her right boot as Ruby continues, hanging onto the vivid images of plentiful food placed in her head by the two boys they’d met half-a-continent back, who’d both sworn they were coming from the front-line with a top-secret message for the Shade Headmaster. Yang has her doubts (Ruby does too), but neither mention them.

“Sounds like breakfast to me,” Yang agrees, and Ruby rewards her with a grin, only slightly marred by the large scar cutting down through her lips.

No one’s escaped without damage. Robotics have replaced Yang’s right arm (lost early enough in the war that the injury had been caused by a person rather than a Grimm), dozens of small and circular burns are scattered along the length of her left arm, scars from the claws of a pack of Sabyrs decorate her back and neck, and cutting down her leg, across the kneecap, a jagged line serves as a reminder of her narrow escape at Beacon, should she ever need one. Ruby’s fully dressed by now, but the long sleeves and thick tights hide further injuries: burns all along her left leg from a misplaced grenade, a puckered mark from the fang of a King Taijitu piercing through her wrist, and the perfectly horizontal line cutting through her bicep from the spearpoint of a Mimic’s tentacle (the fastest Ruby has ever been, the most scared Yang has ever felt). But staring at her sister now as she breaks down their tent, Yang knows they’ve been lucky.

At least for another day.

-

There’s a game they play sometimes — on their long treks through woods, mountains, deserts — and it's a game of inanity.

“One day,” Ruby begins, as always, “little Suzy Shoeman decided she would go to the store for cookies."

“Unfortunately,” Yang continues, like she always does, “on her way there, she was stopped by a giant bear, all reared up on its hindlegs in the middle of main street.”

“Fortunately,” Ruby drawls, the long emphasis on the ending syllable, like it always is, “the bear was only asking for directions. His name was Bartholomew.”

Unfortunately, Bartholomew was asking for direction to a place that didn’t exist. And when little Suzy Shoeman couldn’t help him find it, he got agitated, and let out a long, horrible growl.”

“Fortunately, little Suzy knew just what to do, and gave Bartholomew the Bear a big, friendly hug.”

“Unfortunately, a man passing by misunderstood, and thought the bear was lunging towards Suzy in an attack! He drew his rifle and aimed it at Bartholomew’s head!”

It’s hot, because it’s always hot in Vacuo, but they keep to the shores, where the ground (more rock than sand) is less likely to sink underfoot and — more importantly — the seabreeze keeps the temperatures bearable. Ruby hops along the stones, kicking the occasional loose one into the sea as she spins their tale of fortune and woe. By the time the gates of the northern UFR base come into view, Bartholomew the Bear has gained a jetpack and lost an eye, and Little Suzy Shoeman has made the transformation to indestructible robot after an unfortunate incident with a wood chipper and subsequent fortunate encounter with a famed Atlesian scientist. Towards the end of it, Ruby had taken to acting out her scenes, and she’s in the middle of one of these performances (a tearful reunion of Robo Suzy Shoeman and her long-lost mother, who’d become a fearsome bear hunter after losing her memory in the tragic explosion of her Shoe Shop), when she realizes they’ve made it, halting with both of her hands raised in the air and a foot dangling off the ground.

“Food! I smell — ” She spins around, finds the base instantly, and lowers her arms, only to raise them again, this time in triumph. “I smell breakfast!”

“You smell smoke and assume it’s related to cooking,” Yang corrects, but only lightly, only with a crooked smile. “Don’t get your hopes up thinking about — ”

“Pancakes! I think it’s pancakes! I bet they have syrup. Don’t you think?”

Yang highly doubts there are pancakes or syrup, but when Ruby takes off at a jog, energy not so much renewed as it is endless, she follows at the same speed. There aren’t many things that Yang places much certainty in, but one is this: wherever Ruby goes, she’ll follow, as long as she’s able.

The land around the base has been flattened and cleared of obstruction, increasing sightlines and optimizing training space, and as they make their approach, they pass more people than they’ve seen for quite some time. It’s almost overwhelming, seeing the throngs, platoons of soldiers and smaller (and far fewer) packs of Huntsmen, usually distinguishable, but not always. When Atlas had first developed the Combat Jacket, when they’d figured out a way to blend technology and natural ability in a way that didn’t rely too heavily on one or the other, many people had thought the end of the war was in sight. The Kingdoms had come together — each leader ratifying a new treaty to create a military force that would stretch across Remnant, united against the Grimm — and it felt like the tide had turned. Thousands had signed up for the United Forces of Remnant then, spurred on by the new peace pact between the Kingdoms and the technology that (Atlas claimed) would turn even the most common farmer into a deadly machine with only weeks of training.

And there’d been a point, a couple years back, when it’d looked like it would all pay off, when it had looked like they would win.

Battle after battle had been won, mismatched Huntsmen fighting alongside the shining, grey metal of soldiers in their Jackets, thick steel exoframes wrapped around flesh boosted with clever concoctions of drugs that could energize, strengthen, bolster. They had the numbers, the cohesion, and the Grimm thinned, pulled back, retreated, over and over until only the final push was left. One last journey across the sea, a dive bomb into the Land of Darkness — where the Grimm emerged, seemingly endless — to extinguish the source. Yang remembered the celebrations, the revelry, the almost manic reaction to the thought that end might (finally, finally) be near. (She’d drank a pint of a grainy alcohol that’d burned her throat, ended up in bed with a redhead with a bad attitude but pretty, olive eyes.) Everyone had thought the same; the next day would be the end. The next day would bring victory.

They’d been wrong, of course.

ROSY had been on the first airships that’d gone into the LoD, they’d seen the new Grimm that had been born, and two of the people that Yang had considered family had been killed alongside those bubbling pools.

It’d taken the UFR over three years to recover from that day, from losing nearly two-thirds of their force in a slaughter that’d nearly been the end of mankind. And watching this new force now, the charges are obvious: more metal, more Jackets, more people, more desperation. Even certain Huntsmen (fewer in number than ever before) had adapted their styles to use the Atlesian technology, and Yang catches flashes of metal in the random packs of four she spots, fighting antiquation but hanging onto tradition. She’s seen a wide variety over the years. Huntsmen in full Combat Jacket who relied on their own aura rather than the standard drugs; those (like her) who incorporated the technology into their very flesh, when pieces of themselves had been lost but the fight had continued; or those like Ruby, who went without the heavy pieces of steel — finding that it hindered their semblance or style — wearing only select pieces of the light armor worn underneath the exoskeleton of the Jacket.

She sees every variation of it now, walking towards the base entrance, and hopes it will be enough.

(This time, it has to be enough.)

“I’m going to eat twelve pancakes,” Ruby says, flashing her Huntsman license as they reach the gate, waiting for Yang to do the same before they’re admitted in, thirty foot gates rolling open with a clang louder than any alarm, and shutting again with a similar sound, as soon as they’re past the threshold. “No, thirteen. I’m going to put them in the middle of the plate and then make a moat of syrup around them and then the skies above them will open up as I pour the syrup over the top and then each brave pancake will slip into syrupy bliss, never to be seen again.”

Yang makes a face. “Grim.”

“I said syrupy bliss. That’s like, the opposite of grim. And also — ” Ruby looks around, spins in a full circle. “Hold on. Where are we?”

They hadn’t asked for directions upon entry, and clearly, that’d been a mistake. The base is huge, row after row of building, some reaching several stories, and though there are more than enough people present — far more than they’d seen outside, and now packed together even closer — everyone looks busy; platoons marching in synchronicity, individuals rushing around, imposing guards posted at the doors of the larger buildings. Ruby, upon realizing that breakfast wasn’t quite as close as she’d imagined, reaches out for the closest source of help, a woman decked in the pristine uniform of an Atlesian Specialist, but the woman merely narrows her eyes, the anger built into the action only highlighted by the deep scar cutting through her left eye, and pushes past them, white hair swishing just above her shoulders as she rushes away.

There’s something familiar about her, a soft ping bouncing off of random memories, but Yang can’t be bothered to dig for it, and only shrugs, putting an arm around Ruby instead.

“Hopefully people will be less bitchy around the food,” she drawls. “Time to use that nose, Rubes. Which way?”

She’s humoring her; the base is full of sounds and smells and everything else that might serve as a distraction, making it impossible to navigate on olfaction alone, but Ruby pauses, sniffs, and points in a random direction, and Yang follows. As always.

-

They find the mess hall eventually, not so much through Ruby’s nose as through the help of a kind and young Faunus, UFR uniform polished and unworn, eyes lit up in excitement and optimism about the upcoming battle. He and Ruby get along well, and chatter fills the walk and — after they invite him to join them — throughout breakfast. It seems to make up for the lack of pancakes for Ruby, who shovels spoonfuls of oatmeal into her mouth without complaint, lets out an excited squeal when the soldier offers her his packet of sugar with a light blush on his cheeks.

“I can’t believe how much I miss sugar,” Ruby sighs.

“I can,” Yang returns, and gets a laugh out of the boy sitting with them, then brings on another blush when she winks at the sound. “You should have seen her when we were kids. Cookies? Not nearly sweet enough, time to sprinkle them with sugar. Brownies? They look so much better with sugar sprinkled on top! And don’t get me started on the breakfast foods. Even if we hadn’t gone to war, Vale would have ended up enforcing rations just because of Ruby’s sugar habits.”

“Hey!” Ruby flicks a bit of toast — a discarded piece of crust — at Yang’s face. “Don’t listen to her. She exaggerates more than anyone.”

“Says my sister, exaggerating.”

The boy across from them scratches the back of his head in between the sheep horns protruding from his skull, and smiles, a little bashfully. “I’ve never been to Vale, but it sounds nice.” He sighs. “A time without rationing… I can’t even picture it. I think Menagerie has always had shortages of the things we don’t make locally. But if you want some fish, you’re in luck!”

“Oh, it’s so beautiful though! Me and Yang always wanted to visit Kuo Kuana!” Ruby pauses, shoulders slumping as her enthusiasm drains. “Or, we did. Before… everything. I don’t know what it looks like now. After the attack.” Rubbing her fingers across the ridges of her spoon, she looks up with a frown, only just keeps herself from reaching across the table, where their host is looking down at his plate, face carefully composed. “I’m sorry, Mateo, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No, it’s okay. Everywhere has its own Kuo Kuana now. And the attack was a long time ago. Before I was born. My mom survived. She even says — ” Mateo brightens, head lifting back up. “Okay, this is the coolest story. Our house has a basement — one of the few in the area that did — and my mom always told me that she and my brother were hiding there during the attack when they heard a little girl outside. Mom ran out and grabbed her and brought her inside. Saved her life! And years later, Mom tells me that she’s pretty sure that little girl grew up to be the Hero of Haven!” The boy slaps his hand on the table, lifts a little out of his seat. “Can you believe that! My mom saved the Hero of Haven. The Hero of Haven! And now she’s here, helping lead the charge against the Grimm. She got in last week and I’ve been trying to get a look, or even ask her if my mom’s story is actually true, but she’s always in one of the guarded areas.”

“Thank the gods the person who’s supposed to save us all has protection from us,” Yang drawls, ignoring the kick Ruby aims at her shin.

“Well, she’s probably just busy. My buddy Arnie says she’s always in the training center. You know her and her partner don’t use Jackets at all?” Mateo shivers, like the idea keeps him up at night. “He says she works all day on combos for killing Mimics specifically. They’ve got some fake ones in there, apparently. I think I’d need to work on just trying not to run from one of ‘em.” A shiver traverses his frame again, violent in its intensity and duration. “I don’t care if it makes me a coward. I never want to see one of those things.”

Yang wouldn’t call it cowardice. She’d call it survival instincts, she’d call it common sense, she’d call it a smart move. Because she’d faced her own death a thousand times, confronted the things that made her hands shake, but the first sight of a Mimic — crawling out from a pool of darkness, tentacles emerging with bone points at the end, red eyes gleaming with an intelligence not before seen in a Grimm — had haunted her since.

“Not everyone has to kill a Mimic,” Ruby says, words kind, though Yang can hear the undertones (inflictions of memory). “Sometimes it isn’t the big actions that matter. Not everyone is the Hero of Haven, but everyone plays a part.”

And she means it, despite everything they’ve seen. Yang isn’t as sure, but likes to believe, likes to think that even the small things — the smallest actions — can turn tides. It’s a kind thought, after all, that no one gives all of themselves for nothing. On her good days, it’s an easy thing to put stock in, especially watching Ruby now, smiling at this boy — probably only just eighteen and unlikely to last longer than the first charge — like he could be the most important soldier on the field.

Today is a good day, and so Yang spends a warm moment thinking she might be right.

“You probably won’t see one at all,” Yang adds, and Ruby rewards her with a smile. “Maybe your Hero will take them all down before they get anywhere near us common folk. And anyways, plenty of time for thinking about all that tomorrow. Isn’t today supposed to be all about having a good party before diving into the LoD?”

Yang, the briefing.” Ruby’s mournful tone probably has more to do with her reaching the end of her bowl of oatmeal rather than Yang’s willful slip in memory, and when Yang pushes the remainder of her bowl over (sugar packet dumped on top in preparation) and Ruby immediately perks up, her hunch is proven right.

“Yeah, yeah. The briefing. I’ll be there. I’m all about a good briefing, don’t worry.” She watches Ruby stare at the gifted bowl for another second longer. “Well? Eat up, then! So we can be responsible and make it to the briefing in time. Zero eight hundred hours, hup hup!”

“Are you sure you don’t — ”

“I’m pretty much stuffed,” Yang lies, the ease of it carried by love rather than malice. “I think they gave me a bigger portion than you. Probably because of my winning smile. You see the way that soldier on kitchen duty was staring at me?”

Yang,” Ruby groans, but Mateo laughs before standing, looking a little better than before, a bit more color to his cheeks.

“You’ve still got a little time before all the Huntsmen have to assemble. My platoon leader will be there, I think, but they’ve got the rest of us going through normal drills until dinner.” He points towards the side mess door, middle and index finger stretched outwards. “Just head out that door and turn right, follow it towards the big command building at the center of the base. Can’t miss it.”

“You say that,” Yang tsks, leaning back and stretching her legs on the seat Mateo’s just vacated. “But once Ruby got lost in a one story building with four rooms.”

“They were big rooms!”

“There were four of them.”

Mateo laughs again, and stretches out a hand, which Ruby takes without hesitation, pout disappearing in favor of a wide grin. Yang does the same, grasping the unmarked palm of the boy with her own hand of metal. To his credit, the boy doesn’t flinch, only nods in something that might be thanks.

“Hopefully I’ll see you both again before tomorrow. Maybe at that good party that you think will happen.”

“It always happens,” Yang says, confidence of the statement slipping into her relaxed posture.

“And we’ll definitely see you there!” Ruby chimes in, throwing in another cheery wave as he leaves.

Always the optimist, Yang thinks, and because it’s a good day, she leans into the feeling.

-

They make it to the meeting with little time to spare, sliding into the back row of seats in the large room, each line descending towards the center of the room like an amphitheater. On the central dais, General Ironwood waits, which explains why the room is already quiet, with none of the chatter a person might expect from the reunion of Huntsmen across the continents, as large a gathering as there’d been in years. They’ve met the General on multiple occasions, but he looks worse than he ever has, unmoving and unseeing as he stares out at the subdued crowd, a thick beard in place, lips pinched in a thin line. He’d survived the First Mimic Battle, but only barely, and if Yang had to hazard a guess, she’d say the metal-to-meat ratio of his body would land around 5:1 now.

“He looks — ”

“ — Tired,” Ruby finishes, and Yang raises an eyebrow at the generosity of the statement.

“Yeah, okay, we can go with that.” She stuffs her pack between her legs on the floor in front of her, and shifts in place for several seconds trying to make the fit comfortable. “You see anyone?”

That’s always the question, at every gathering, with less and less of them present. The room is fuller than Yang would have expected, given their losses over the years, but it’s filled with new faces, rookies and recent graduates from the Academies.

“Team CFVY’s down by the front!” Ruby points. “They look pretty good!”

“Nothing much going to slow down Coco Adel,” Yang agrees, though she notices the wear and tear; Velvet’s missing an ear, Fox has shaved off his bright red hair and a long scar traverses the back of his skull, and Coco’s arm is wrapped in what looks like three rolls of gauze. It’s comforting, though, in a way, to see that a few people from Beacon made it out when so many others didn’t. Slate and Olive and Jaune and Nora and Pyrrha and Ren and dozens more. Sometimes, the sheer numbers blocked her view of anything else.

“I think that’s Flynt down there. Though I don’t… see Neon. Or Kobalt.”

Ruby’s voice dips at the end, shoulders slumping enough that Yang reaches out to put an arm around them, to give her sister a bolstering squeeze.

“She was never really a fan of formality,” she suggests, too low to be anything other than an attempt at comfort, giving her true thoughts away just as well as if she’d voiced them. “Maybe she dipped out to let the adults on the team do the listening.”

But Ruby nods, ignores the obvious. “Maybe she — ”

If I could have your attention.”

Ironwood’s voice is calm and flat, as though the increase in robotics infused into his flesh has leveled him out further, removed the ability to express his own fears. To Yang, the phantasmas of them shine through anyways; they’re in the deep lines of his face and the lack of crease in his slacks, in the curl of his fingers into his palm and the perfectly stillness of his form, the grey of his hair and the slick of it against his skull. In every way he can, the General demands control, clings tightly to the idea that he can impose it on the world around him, even as the little things slip through the cracks. But his tone is not one of these little things, and he speaks with care. Not loudly (because he doesn’t need to, even without the microphone clipped to his high collar, not with the heavy hush pressing down on the room), but in a monotone. Clear, plain, emotionless.

Yang — who remembers the sound of that control snapping, the screams over their comms — wonders if he’ll manage to pull it back this time, once everything is lost.

“On behalf of the United Forces of Remnant, I thank you for joining us today. I’m sure many of you look around and see the armies we have amassed, the thousands of soldiers in Combat Jackets, and you wonder what your place is in the fight to come.” Ironwood spreads his hands out on the podium before him, gloved hands resting lightly on the wood. “The world has changed, this is indisputable. This is true in every conceivable way, but most importantly, the Grimm have changed. And so has the way in which we fight them. But one thing has not changed and that is this: Huntsmen are critical in the fight against the Grimm. This has been true for as long as Remnant has existed.”

He pauses, careful and practiced, and his gaze flicks towards the back of the room, barely discernible. Yang follows the motion and catches on two figures in the back corner, barely visible in the dim light. The crisp white uniform and asymmetric white bob of the one closest is clear enough, along with the pale skin that’s nearly fluorescent in the shadow, and Yang — connecting many things at once — finally realizes why she’d seemed so familiar when Ruby had bumped into her earlier.

Sometimes, Atleasian propaganda made its way out into the far reaches of the Valean forests and the Vacuan desert where Ruby and Yang had spent the majority of the past two years. Pamphlets drifting on the winds and stomped underfoot until they became a part of the earth, worn posters stapled to notice boards, clippings of the official messages of hope that some placed their belief in. Yang and Ruby hadn’t paid any of them much mind, but there’d been one that had warranted comment, a stray flyer in the middle of a dusty bar in Feldspar, time and distance smudging the colorless nature of the hair, coat, and skin of the woman featured in the call to arms, but not quite removing her dramatic posing: thin sword lifted in the air, foot planted on the (fake) skull of a Mimic.

(“Do you think they added the scar in during post?” Yang asked, and Ruby sniggered into her beer, uncharacteristically uncharitable in her tipsiness.)

“Two years ago, we as a people were pushed to the brink of our extinction,” Ironwood continues. “A year after our defeat at the First Mimic Battle, it was Huntsmen who held the lines, rallied to places they’d called home: the four Academies of Remnant. At Beacon, we lost everything: the communication tower, the very walls of the Academy itself, and the man who’d led us in the first charge against the Grimm, successful up until the very end. But still, students and alumni defended the people of Vale, set up camps and pushed back. In Atlas, the Academy came crashing to the ground, but our operatives stood firm, Mantle rose up, and we came together as a Kingdom to force back the darkness. At Vacuo, tribes came together, joined to create a force never seen before, and pushed the Grimm away from the walls of the only institution the desert hadn’t worn away. And at Haven, we witnessed a miracle. Though they hadn’t met before that fateful battle, an Atlesian Specialist partnered with a Faunus far from home and they both found a strength in themselves that astonished all that witnessed it. We saw the difference a single life could make, and the people found a Hero.”

(“Atlas is always saying that girl is the one that was with the Hero of Haven. That this girl was her partner,” the bartender cut in, wearing a similar grin. “Always sounded like stale bullshit to me. All that talk of coming together to fight and they still want an Atlesian front and center, am I right? But we know who our Hero is, don’t we?”

He gestured, and there, painted against the far wall of the bar in stark black and white, highlighted with sparse purple, was the image Yang had seen countless times since the reclamation began, since they’d begun the slow push back towards the Land of Darkness. It was a woman — a Faunus — her black ears always visible among the dark, short curls, her white coat flowing in an imagined breeze, a black ribbon circling the sleeve as she held her blade, not raised but at her side, the end of a final strike. And the words, always the same, always bold: The Hero of Haven.)

Another dart of Ironwood’s gaze towards the same corner, and Yang has a pretty good guess who the other figure is. Her ears are obscured by a hood, her weapon is strapped to her back, and her coat has changed to a plain black utility jacket, but the rest is the same. And when their eyes meet, Yang’s guess turns to certainty, because the golden irises of Blake Belladonna hold just about as much weight as Yang’s always figured the savior of the world’s might. But there’s none of the accompanying ego, none of the triumph; more than anything else, Yang thinks she looks tired. It’s not in the same way as Ironwood (whose exhaustion looks mild in comparison), but something bone-deep, a sucking chasm she’s constantly fighting against, stretching miles down or maybe just endlessly, and Yang has the overwhelming and bizarre desire to press close and let her fall, wait as long as it takes to catch her.

And maybe some of that shows in her face, because Blake doesn’t look away. Not when Ironwood praises her contribution to the war, not when he continues with his formulaic inspiration, not even when the woman next to her mumbles something under her breath. Only when the Specialist — tired of being ignored — nudges her with a sharp elbow does Blake look away, and Yang is left wondering if her heart rate will ever recover, if the sweat pricking along the back of her neck will ever cool.

The exchange, such as it is, solidifies one thing in Yang’s mind; the Hero of Haven had earned her title, and — if Yang had to guess — she spent most days wishing she hadn’t.

But still. She’s here. And that confirms something else.

This woman would fight. To her last breath and maybe beyond. And given what Ironwood says next, this would be expected of all of them if they were to have a chance at winning.

“An Alpha Mimic has been spotted on the shores. I tell you this not to scare you, nor to remind you of the gargantuan task that killing one is, but to be frank about the challenges that will await you as soon as we cross the waters and drop onto land we have not set foot on in three years. There are hundreds of Mimics, tens of thousands of Grimm, but the Alpha is our main concern. The task of defeating it will fall to the people in this room. And it can be defeated, by the right people at the right time.”

This time, Yang doesn’t find the gaze of the woman across the room, doesn’t even look for it. Instead, she finds Ruby’s hand and holds tight. For the first time, soft whispers break out all around them, but neither of the sisters finds a single word to put forward. The news isn’t a surprise, after all, and there isn’t anything to be said that they haven’t covered already. Much of their trek towards the front line had been spent discussing strategy for eventualities, and the presence of an Alpha Mimic was an eventuality that’d come up more than any other.

Mimics were horrifying on their own: stronger and smarter than a normal Grimm, and — worst of all — in possession of an aura of their own, black and opaque and nearly endless, through even the most dedicated Atlesian scientists had not yet figured out how such a thing was possible. When they’d appeared on the battlefield for the first time, a solid hundred in force, they’d decimated hundreds of Huntsmen, thousands of soldiers. But the presence of a single Alpha Mimic was worse. A single Alpha meant that — with one notable exception — the battle would be lost, and every person present would die. They brought a ruthless organization to the Grimm, a level of tactics the humans and Faunus of Remnant had never faced. These Mimics were commanders, and the presence of one among the legions of Grimm the UFR would be facing tomorrow isn’t a surprise, but the notion still curls around Yang’s throat and squeezes, and the lack of air makes nausea coil in her stomach, hot and unpleasant.

(She thinks of Blake Belladonna, the only person who’s ever managed to kill one, but keeps her gaze forward. Enough eyes will be on her tomorrow, and Yang figures the woman doesn’t need any more weight added to the heavy stare.)

“As you leave the briefing room, you’ll be directed to a UFR personnel who will assess your credentials and assign you a zone on the field tomorrow. For those of you who no longer have a team of four — ” For the first time, Ironwood pauses, an exhale that’s almost, but not quite a sigh escaping him. “ — We honor the loss of your companions and will suggest other Huntsmen who you might join forces with. We’ve found that a group of eight huntsmen, surrounded by four platoons, is the most effective strategy, though there are, of course, exceptions. Our lieutenants will work with you to find where you’ll do the most good and you will be assigned a state-of-the-art holoroom to train in for a block of time. I suggest you use this time to adjust to fighting alongside your new team.”

Yang exchanges a quick glance with Ruby, finds that her discomfort with the idea isn’t mirrored there, but there’s understanding in its place. In the years since they’d been cut in half, from four to two, they’d remained that way, becoming each other’s partners rather than replacing either of their own. That wouldn’t change today, but Ruby’s clearly more at peace with the temporary adjustment. Yang swallows back her own feelings (doesn’t think about the pool of blood at Slate’s throat, spilling out so fast and thick it’d nearly covered the entirety of the wound), and nods.

“Tomorrow, the fate of Remnant will be decided. This is not an exaggeration. This is not a piece of propaganda. This is the truth. We will win or we will die.” He touches the breast of his coat with the tips of his fingertips, something close to a prayer, as though despite all evidence to the contrary, the gods that abandoned them might still be watching. “Tomorrow, let’s live one day more.”

It’s as good of a dismissal as anything, though its sentimental nature (hardly Ironwood’s go-to) pings Yang as more worrisome than the facts alone. She hides the concern with a smile — knocking Ruby in the shoulder with her fist as the people around them start to filter out — because it’s all she can do.

As always, Ruby takes what she offers and builds, a grin instead of a smile, a fist pump instead of a fist bump. She’s genuine when she speaks, too, bright in a dim room.

“Time to meet the crew!”

-

The sunny disposition fades in the face of reality, though Ruby fights against it. The UFR lieutenant they meet with is perfectly cordial and complimentary, but something about his clipped admiration of their ‘successes’ (such as they were) in the First Mimic Battle tastes like ash, flaking and dry in her throat. There’s a brief moment of uplift, when he assigns Flynt and Ivori to fill out their team, until the implications of that sink in, and the reunion is bitter. When they’d last met the two men, they’d been Team FNKI and ROSY, but now both groups were split in half, and it felt gauche, Frankensteinian, to attempt to merge the two amputated halves.

“Neon and Kobalt?” Ruby asks softly, less of a question than confirmation.

“Kobalt didn’t make it through the last time we were here,” Flynt says, as flat as his attire, all his trademark flair — from the trumpet to the bow-tie — stripped clean. “Neon, we lost at Atlas. Mantle. Whatever we’re calling that crater now. Slate and Olive?”

The returning question doesn’t have Ruby’s warmth, but few do.

“LoD. Three years ago.” Yang’s words clip against themselves. “Same as Kobalt.”

“Same as the majority,” Ivori murmurs, as quiet as Yang remembers, but similarly subdued in appearance, throwing his previous careful dichotomy of tone and fashion sense completely out the window. The loss of vibrancy feels like another death, one far more subtle and not nearly as gut wrenching, but significant in its own way.

“Which is why we mostly use Jackets now,” Flynt continues, scratching at the beard he’s grown since they saw him last. “Found out they kept us alive more than our aura alone. Though we’ve modified the hell out of them; Ivori’s got a wicked electro-whip in his, but I’ve switched to seismic waves rather than sound. Little more forceful, it turns out, and easier on the lungs. Semblance still works too, Jacket and all.”

Ruby hums, sadness slipping from her expression, replaced by the vacant stare she wears when she’s working through various scenarios in her mind, the briefing room around her fading away as she visualizes the possibilities, combinations of abilities and weapons and semblances. One of Flynt’s brows lifts, but Yang cuts him off before he can speak, a wave of her hand and shake of her head. Another minute later, Ruby has it, eyes clearing, hardening in satisfaction.

“Okay.” She looks around, offering each member of the newly formed squad a smile. “We can work with that.”

“That means she has a plan,” Yang explains, short laugh conveying her fondness rather than humor. “Our slot in the training room isn’t for another hour, so why don’t y’all grab your Jackets and meet us there. We still need to settle in and find our lodgings for the night.”

“Right. Gotta make sure we make use of our assigned time,” Flynt rolls his eyes, and Ivori sighs, shakes his head before his partner can continue, as though what’s to come next is not only expected, but something he’s heard many times before. “Biggest battle of our lives and we get two whole hours to prepare strat for the Mimics we’re supposed to be killing by the dozen. All while Atlas’s chosen gets a whole holoroom for herself, empty when she’s not using it. Even at the end of the world, the elite stay the elite.”

“Um.” Ruby blinks rapidly, eyes darting over to meet Yang’s. “Sorry, but — ”

“ — We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Yang finishes with a rather unapologetic shrug. We’ve spent most of our time in the Wilds the past couple years. The whole Atlesian politics stuff kind of passes us by.”

“Flynt isn’t a fan of the Schnees, and Weiss Schnee is close enough in proximity that she becomes the focus of his ire.” Ivori says, wrapping the fingers of his right hand around his left wrist, thin enough the digits circle it completely. “Even though the sisters of the family seemed to have distanced themselves considerably from the father when they joined the military. From my understanding, they participated in his arrest, several years back.”

“A new form of the same thing,” Flynt sneers. “Only the best for a Schnee; still getting the perks, without the sacrifice! The UFR propaganda machine touts her as the blueprint for every Atlesian, but where was she when the whole place was crashing down? Off in Haven, apparently. Making a name for herself while we watched Neon get shredded to pieces!”

“Flynt.”

The soft reminder — clearly part of the familiar dance — cuts off the rant entirely, though Flynt doesn’t appear to like it much, throwing his hands up in the air and spinning on his heel. He takes several paces towards the door before he responds at all, shoulders too tight.

“I know.” He pauses, straightens, and continues without further reference to the outburst. “We’ll see you two in an hour. I remember those Team ROSY moves. Looking forward to being a part of the magic.”

He’s gone after that, leaving Ivori to apologize, and only in his faint smile, his light shrug.

“He doesn’t like it when I remind him it’s not quite so black and white,” he explains, releasing his wrist to let his arms dangle at his side. “You remember how it was — every Academy hit at once. Weiss Schnee happened to be in Mistral when it happened, out on assignment. And she became Ironwood’s poster child for everything she did there. But by the time she found a working aircraft and made it back to Atlas, the battle there was over. Her sister had already died in it.” He finishes the tale over his shoulder, already following his partner out the door, like he knows he won’t get a response. “That’s always seemed like an awful lot of sacrifice to me.”

He’d been right to assume; there’s nothing to say.

It always surprises Yang, how poorly equipped she is to deal with the stories of loss, given how much practice she has hearing them.

 

By the time they make it to the training room — as impressive as promised — the mood’s boomeranged into something far more productive, and much of that has to do with four welcome additions to the group, a full Team CFVY, looking even more battered up close, but only on the surface. There’s something comforting about a team remaining intact despite it all, and the remnants of ROSY and FNKI drift towards them, pieces of long-dead planets circling a sun. Even with Ruby’s planning, there’s little the patched team of four can do to match their cohesiveness, but they’re an impressive group of eight, regardless. In the face of Ruby’s beaming smile, Coco’s ever-stylish attire, and the success of (the newly christened) FIRY’s base moveset, Yang feels a warm optimism settle low in her chest. It’s not that she’d assumed they would all die, not that she considered the upcoming battle hopeless, but more so that she hadn’t considered it to be anything at all, merely an eventuality, a necessity, a fixed event that would not be altered by her opinions on it. It would happen and she would be there and then it would be over, for the last time, one way or another.

And it’s still that, but with the dangerous addition that there might be something after, too.

The party helps with that feeling, just as it’s meant to.

The invitation comes from Coco first (of course), though by the time they’re heading to the mess for an early dinner, everyone they pass pushes out the word; no booze, but dancing, lights, and the promise of a crowd that wanted to get everything out before the next day, just in case. It’s a different sort of celebration than they’d taken part in before their last launch into the LoD, but that’s good; confidence hadn’t helped them then, and finality suits them now, when mixed with the slightest dose of tentative hope.

She loses Ruby in the press of people or, more accurately, to a friend they’d thought dead: a grinning Penny Polendina who tackles Ruby to the floor of the field they’ve congregated in, red hair and green jumpsuit as vivid as always, no shine lost in her apparent reincarnation. Instead of fighting the push of the crowd, she waves to them both, a goodbye for now, and lets herself get swept away, falls into the moment. She dances with a stranger (a soldier with green hair and a piercing through her lip), takes a kebab from a man keeping his grill light with his semblance (a spiral of flame pouring from the tip of his finger), and toasts with lukewarm water among a platoon that’s somehow stayed together for the past four years (not a single member lost).

Yang has always been happy to slip into a riptide, confident in her ability to thrive wherever she’s pulled, but she’s still surprised when the drift takes her somewhere new, to the very edge of the bubble of revelry, on the outskirts of the base. Here, it’s darker. Quiet. It’s almost cool, the desert night no longer kept in check by the sweltering warmth of bodies crushing together when she’s left all of that so far behind. Solitude can be a pitfall, but when she looks up and finds the stars bright, she’s surprised again, pleasantly so, and steps into it further, finds a handhold on the nearest building and climbs, compelled by forces once again outside her control, but different this time (an enticing whisper rather than a forceful current; she follows rather than being pulled).

She should be surprised one time more — thrice lucky — when she reaches the top and Blake Belladonna is sitting there. And she is, but not in the same way. She’s not surprised that something had been waiting for her, but that this something had been better than expected. Because she’d expected something conceivable and instead, she’d gotten a deep breath of the forest outside her childhood home, the first three notes of a song whistled tunelessly through her mother’s lips, the press of an impossible galaxy in her palm. It’s outside of her scope of possible, and so she doesn’t react, merely sits down alongside the woman and mirrors her posture, tossing her legs over the edge of the command building, facing away from the thousands below and out towards the sea.

“Do you think it’s true that ninety-four percent of all life lives down there, under the water?”

It’s an incomprehensible question, but then, it’s an incomprehensible setting, so Yang rolls with it.

“I don’t know, but I hope it is.”

There’s just enough light — from the distant party, the stars, the moon — for the small curve at the corner of Blake’s lips to be clear, to highlight the pocket that forms at the very edge when she smiles. This is a woman who appreciates a novel response, apparently, and Yang aches to give her more.

“Why’s that?”

“I guess I’ve always hated the idea that we might run out of new things to discover. It’s nice to think that even after a million years of people being on this planet, we’ve still got a bunch left to find.”

“And when will we find the time to do that?” Blake asks, though the curl of her mouth is still there, more pronounced than before.

“Later,” Yang says vaguely, and because she wants it to be true, she adds, “After all this.”

“After.” Blake repeats it like she’s pressing the word against her palette, trying to determine if she likes the taste. “What if there isn’t an after?”

Yang laughs, lifts her legs, points her toes towards the dark waters, stretches as far as she can go. “There’s always an after. Maybe not one we’ll like, but it’ll be there.” She turns to the woman next to her, takes in the pronounced cut of her jaw and the faint scar running alongside it. “That’s the whole point.”

“If there isn’t an after, there isn’t a meaning?” Blake turns too, a half tilt of her head, and Yang’s caught on her eyes again, a softer gold now, but still a trench (all undiscovered forms of life might be found there rather than the ocean and Yang wouldn’t be surprised).

“It’s like this party, right?” A blind gesture over her shoulder gets the point across, and Blake nods for her to continue. “We have it because of what’s going to happen after it’s over. Because we want one last thing to boost us before we go. Or like this war. It feels like forever, sure, but if we don’t have an after, then what’s the point of it all?” She shrugs. “I’m all about living in the moment, but the moment gets weight because we don’t know when it’ll turn into something else. So even when you’re not enjoying something specifically because of what’ll come, you’re enjoying it because it won’t last forever. Because something will always come after. Eventually. Don’t you think?”

“I think,” Blake begins slowly, but then stops, gaze tracing over Yang’s face like she’s looking for something in particular, though Yang couldn’t begin to guess what. “That’s a very logical way of thinking.”

The unexpectedness of the response makes Yang laugh, which makes Blake’s smile grow, though there’s confusion there too, in the slight pinch of her brows.

“Sorry, I’m just — ” The laugh dies down, but the half-grin remains in place. “That’s not something people accuse me of very much. Or at all.”

“Seems like they’re underestimating you, then.”

Yang shrugs again. “People do that a lot.”

Behind and below them, the sound of the crowd swells again, a new round of toasts for something inane and beautiful, Yang’s sure. It’s been so long since she’s been with a group, so long since she’s celebrated in mass, but somehow, she finds she doesn’t feel as though she’s missing out. Not while she’s here, watching the breeze pick up the short strands of Blake’s hair and press them against her cheek, black curls dark enough to contrast against the brown skin. Here, it’s quiet and strange, but Yang settles into it easily, always comfortable in new worlds.

“I can never decide if I like that better than people expecting too much.” Blake doesn’t sigh or drop her shoulders, nothing so obvious as to express the burden that is precisely that.

“Is that why you’re up here then? No one around to estimate you at all?” She offers another smile, this one wry. “Until me, but I promise I’m not estimating.”

Blake doesn’t appear to mind, lips tilting in amusement as she shifts her legs off the ledge and under her thighs, until she’s sitting cross-legged. Yang would have to be blind to miss the way the muscles of her arms ripple with the adjustment, gloved hands pressing into the roof and supporting the rest of her weight nearly effortlessly; she’s wearing a simple, black training vest — despite the cool desert night — and it hides little. The close observation might make her a liar (though her estimating is of an entirely different sort), but Blake lets it go without comment, only the slight crinkle of her eyes — still entertained rather than displeased — giving away that she’d noticed at all. She also doesn’t move away when the motion places her leg directly against Yang’s, the canvas of her pants rubbing against the bare skin above Yang’s knee (so maybe there’s more to it than courtesy).

“I think I’ve tried everything when it comes to the night before a battle.” It’s not really an answer to the question, but Yang figures that’s fair enough. “This just works best for me.”

“That’s pretty bold. To think you can try everything. There are only so many opportunities.” She nudges Blake’s leg with her own, overly familiar but only rewarded for it when Blake laughs (though not with as much humor as she’d like).

“You’d be surprised.”

Yang hums, considers the multitude of options. “So you’ve done the whole giant party thing?” She doesn’t wait for Blake’s nod. “Even the illegal version containing way too much alcohol?”

“Yes and, unfortunately, yes again.”

“The all-nighter training session? The trying-and-failing to go to bed early ploy? Going out into the middle of the woods and screaming into the darkness until you lose your voice and have to drink some nasty concoction made of camel’s milk and spoiled fish the next day just so you can talk with your teammates?” Blake raises an eyebrow at the last one, but Yang just shrugs. “Second-hand experience with that one. But I can tell you that drink smelled worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, even from a distance.”

“I can’t say I’ve had the camel and fish drink,” she admits. “But a variation on the experience, yes. I wasn’t exaggerating; I’ve tried it all.”

She doesn’t think before offering her next suggestion (though even if she had, it would likely have been the same).

“How about the one where you take a charming stranger back to your bunk? Ever give that one a try?”

Blake blinks, but there’s no blush to her cheeks, at least not one Yang can see. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but not a loss, not when Blake takes a moment to traverse the full length of Yang’s frame with a long glance.

“A few times.”

“And you’re still here?” Yang grins, pushes her luck. “Maybe you haven’t found the right stranger.”

“Maybe not,” she admits, and in the long pause that follows, Yang holds her breath. “But you’re here as well, aren’t you?”

“Guess I haven’t found the right stranger either,” she exhales, finally, but Blake only shakes her head, as though attempting to dispel the moment.

Yang would let her, if she had any control over the vibration of the molecules around them, the heat forming in the spaces between. (But she doesn’t and so it builds, the point where their legs continue to touch like an epicenter.)

Blake knows this and so she swallows, looks away (but doesn’t pull back). “Why did you come up here, really?”

There isn’t an easy answer to the question, mainly because there isn’t an answer at all. Following Blake’s lead, Yang looks away, out towards the sea, and says the first thing that comes to mind.

“Pulling on a thread, I guess.”

It turns out to be the right response, but only because it has Blake looking her way again, gold eyes peering intently, searching once again.

“Of what?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Yang waves her hand in front of her, tracing out a vague figure eight with metal fingers. “The universe. Sometimes a bit of it unwinds and if you don’t follow it, you miss out.”

Blake can’t tell if she’s serious or not — that much is clear from the deepening crease in her brow, the continued weight of her stare against the side of Yang’s face — but that’s only because Yang’s not sure either.

“Fate, you know?” Yang continues, a crooked smile tossed to the side. “Or something like it.”

“Is this all leading up to a cheesy pick-up line about destiny? Because I feel like I should tell you I don’t believe in it.”

Yang laughs and Blake looks pleased at the sound, despite the roll of her eyes.

“Ouch! A hard pragmatist?” She tsks, but leans in a little to brush her shoulder against Blake’s, no hard feelings intended, but hardly minding the closeness either. “No afters and no fate. That’s a tough way to live.”

“It’s a tough world to live in,” Blake says simply, and Yang feels her shrug, wishes her jacket was off so Blake’s skin would slide along her own rather than the leather. “But I trust myself more than fate. Anything can change if you work hard enough to change it.”

“Well sure, but it’s not about outcomes, it’s about opportunity. Think of it like this; there’s an infinite number of choices you can make every single day, but sometimes you still end up in the right place at the right time.” She leans her head back and grins. “Like you said, anything can change. But despite all that, that opportunity still drops in front of you. You get to decide whether to tug on that thread or not. But whatever you decide, the universe is still calling. Dangling itself in front of you.”

She turns to find Blake bemused at the end of it all, though it’s tempered by a slow smile that spreads after a moment’s pause.

“You really believe all that, don’t you?”

“On my good days.”

“And today is a good day?”

“So far.”

“Which makes this an opportunity.”

“Would you disagree?”

After the rapid back and forth, Blake finally falters. There’s something new in her expression, a curious sort of lightness that hadn’t been there at the start. Yang recognizes it and understands. She’s gotten used to saying things with the hope that they might be true, but Blake has taken the opposite approach; Blake says things with the hope they won’t be. Funny, how the middle ground for each was entirely the same. Funnier still, that it’s exactly where they found themselves, for just this moment in time.

“No. Not today.”

In the pause that follows — Blake staring at her like she’s something unprecedented — Yang wonders if Blake’s interested in women, if she’s interested in her, if she’s single enough to act on it. She wonders what might happen if she skips asking any of these questions and just kisses her, bold enough to find her answers through action. She wonders a lot of things about Blake Belladonna, too many things to be harmless, and thinks maybe that means her choice is already made.

(Today, she will pull on the thread the universe has offered, and keep tugging until it runs out.)

When she kisses Blake, it’s easy; not quite familiar, but not foreign, either. Yang’s found herself here before, after all (everyone has, the night before), and she recognizes the desperation, falls into the ready openness that Blake offers. Her mouth (yielding under Yang’s, but tongue darting out, anything but), legs (shifting again, this time around Yang’s waist, knees hitting either side of her hips as she slides into Yang’s lap), and hands (fingers no longer pressed tight to her palms or against her thighs, but tangling into Yang’s hair, tugging in the way Yang doesn’t normally like, but groans into now). It always goes like this: a little too forceful, with teeth and nails and marks the day after; Yang’s never really known otherwise, but can’t find fault with it, has always considered it a preference, besides. She follows suit, teeth finding Blake’s bottom lip, thighs lifting to slide the woman closer, palms sliding under the tight fabric of her vest and pressing flat against hot skin.

But there are differences too, small but significant. Blake’s lips are soft, impossibly so for the desert, for this war, for someone so clearly trained to push any kind of gentleness out of her life. And though her fingers roughly intertwine into thick strands of blonde, with each sharp tug, a soothing scrape at Yang’s scalp follows, a ready balm. Even the movement of her hips — reflexive, perhaps, but most certainly present — feels somehow more careful in walking that line. When Blake presses close, it’s not when the intention of erasing or overwhelming or devouring or even controlling, and this — Yang realizes — is what’s new. (And better.)

Maybe that (those small changes, the bits that are new) is why Blake stares at her with wide eyes when she pulls away. They’re blown, of course — the black of her pupil spilling into the gold — but threaded with something more than lust, a mirrored surprise to Yang’s own.

“Okay,” Yang breathes. “I was kidding about the whole right stranger thing, but — ”

She can’t finish her thought, but the meaning is clear; Blake’s laugh — a breeze against Yang’s lips — can hardly be called a laugh at all. Rather, it’s an exhalation of surprise, the tilt of her mouth a side note. Even then — before Blake’s smile turns sad, before she gracefully scoots off Yang’s lap — Yang knows the kiss is a period (an exclamation point, if she’s being honest) rather than a comma, and she can’t fault Blake for it, leans back with a smile to match.

“But it’s still not what you’re looking for, huh?”

“I — ” She shakes her head, rubs at her forehead with three fingers. (There are small, thin scars on each of them, perfectly vertical lines. Yang wonders how she got them and regrets that she won’t have the opportunity to find out this and everything else.) “You asked me why I came up here. Earlier.” Another shake of her head, another exhale that means something more than the exchange of gas. “I was trying to avoid any distractions.”

Blake manages to look composed, even with her lips slightly swollen, her cheeks (finally) darkened, her clothing mused. Composed, but not unaffected, and, more than that, not trying to appear as such. So much to unravel, Yang thinks, and maybe regret is too casual of a word to encompass the whole of what she feels.

“Well. I fucked that right up, then.”

The laugh is a bit more genuine this time, and Yang’s glad for it; she takes a moment to mentally capture the lightness that Blake’s smile brings to her face.

“You did.” She pauses, then adds (in a quiet admission), “I didn’t mind.”

Yang’s never been one to overstay her welcome (as hesitantly as Blake withdraws it), and so she stands, rolling her shoulders until one pops. Blake watches openly, snagging on the bare skin at Yang’s midriff. She could push things. Could drop back down and press her hand to Blake’s throat until her back is flat against the ground. Could wait — could settle in against Blake’s hips — until Blake admits the obvious, that she wants to be distracted. But when Blake tears her gaze away, lips pressing into a thin line, Yang knows she won’t. At least not now.

“I’m glad you think things can have meaning, even where there isn’t an after.” Her words are slow, and so is Yang’s resulting smile.

“Oh, no, I never said that.” The frown forms on Blake’s face quickly, and so Yang continues without further pause. “I said there’s always an after. No matter what you seem to believe. So — ” She takes a step backwards. “What do you say?”

Blake stands too; whether she’s aware of the step she takes forwards, Yang’s not sure. “About what?”

The whole meeting — from the moment Yang had climbed up the side of the building without a rational thought — has felt out of time, without any of the normal constraints the natural laws of the universe placed around them. It’s impossible to cling to, especially now that it’s faded away (almost completely), but Yang tries anyway. Throws out a thread of her own, as though they’ll be able to climb back to this feeling later, if only Blake decides to grab on.

“About after. About letting me distract you then.”

And Blake, without much hesitation, does exactly that.

“I could do that.” It’s fantastical, but Yang swears the wind picks up, blowing Blake’s hair into her eyes, until she’s forced to push it back. “After.”

That’s enough to get a grin from Yang. More than enough to wedge something warm into her chest, lodge it somewhere deep. Like saving a special something for later — the tastiest part of a meal or a hidden away treat — she holds the idea close that the best might be yet to come, if only she can make it through the rest. Silly, really, to pin something so small and random in such an important place, but there’s so much to get through, and not much to save. And that’s probably why — as she moves towards the edge of the building — she backs away and keeps her gaze on Blake.

“I’m going to hold you to that,” she says, throwing in a wink for good measure.

Blake shakes her head, eyes bright again. “That’s what I’m planning on.”

One last look. Blake is smiling. She’s happy. There’s a promise of anything in her stare.

“After,” Yang says again, and steps off the ledge.

She looks up after her gentle landing (gauntlets keeping her from breaking every bone in her body), and catches a brief shadow, a mere blink of a figure, staring down.

Some moments have weight from the start, but she has no way of knowing then how much this one will eventually hold.