The trip takes a decent amount of time, a combination of the distance and (more importantly) the fact that they’re not entirely sure where they’re going. There are no maps of the Land of Darkness, not really, and so Yang sits in the co-pilot’s chair and peers out into the low, red light. Blake and Ruby stand at either side, one chattering away to the group in back (offering tactical suggestions and humorous anecdotes), the other entirely silent, fingers dangling down over the front of Yang’s shoulder and resting against the hand that reaches up, Yang’s thumb brushing over Blake’s knuckles at half the speed of her own heartbeat.
They fly up along the shore and Yang recognizes little until the precise moment the curve of a certain bit of the coastline catches her eye and a squadron of Lancers shoots up into the sky. Weiss is about as good of a pilot as she is everything else, and so she dives, rolls, and avoids the lot, blowing a bit of white hair out of her eyes afterwards.
“I’m guessing we’re in the right spot, then,” she says.
“Look for the big pool of Grimm.” The Lancers buzz by again and Weiss flips them around in a fun and new way that drops Yang’s stomach into her throat; someone in the back of the airship makes a gagging noise that she does not turn to investigate. “Gods, you’d think these guys would think of some new moves. Lancers again? Don’t you fucks have a big brained super intelligence powering you now? Be a little more crea — ”
She cuts herself off, nodding a few times, and calmly pumps her gauntlets, checks the straps of her vest and the pouches of extra ammo. She holds the wheel for Weiss as the woman swears for a solid five seconds, sliding out of her seat and checking all her gear as well, and follows her out of the cockpit, Blake picking up the rear.
“You just had to say it, didn’t you?” Ruby yells, fist slamming on the lift for the door, waving each person out as they make a hasty departure from the airship, one after the other.
“On the brightside, now that I know I literally control the universe with my words, I can just wish it away again!” she shouts, and Weiss makes sure Yang sees her eye roll before jumping out of the ship. Ruby does the same, but sticks out her tongue as well. “Universe! I take it back! I was good with the Lancers! The Giant Nevermore is overkill!”
Her shout goes unheeded, and the Nevermore crashes directly into the airship just after Blake pulls her out of it, tangled up together as they freefall, flipping several times before leveling out, and starting to fire. Because as they drop, the Lancers swarm, and the Nevermore starts to circle back around, the explosion from the airship doing little to dent it.
“I guess this is one way to avoid the stairs!” Yang shouts over the wind, angling herself towards the plateau full of Grimm below. “What do you think’s the difference in cardio benefits? Climbing stairs versus falling through a death trap and into a death trap?”
“The heart stress has to be higher when surrounded by potential death at every side,” Blake calls back, sinking her blade into a Lancer as it flies by, getting tugged away momentarily by the attached ribbon. “But there’s not as much muscle buildup this way!’’
Flexing mid-air involves a few challenges, but Yang manages just fine. “I think I’m alright on that front.”
“Stop flirting and kill them!” Weiss shrieks, halting her fall with a glyph (for the purpose of yelling or fighting, it’s not entirely clear).
“Why not both?” Two shots into the Lancer about ready to dive bomb into Weiss, quickly followed up with a pronounced wink, emphasises the words. “Time to clear the landing! Flynt! Ivori! With me!”
The two men in Combat Jackets boost closer, thrusters at their backs working not quite as well as Yang’s timed recoil bursts, but they shine in the follow-up: all three of them crashing into the ground below with enough impact to split the stone underneath, clearing out three distinct craters. Grimm ash floats in the air around them as the rest of the team finishes their descent, with Ruby, Weiss, and Blake landing right alongside her. Ruby slaps her on the back, Blake brushes a hand along the metal of her right arm, and Weiss nods in thinly veiled approval.
“That worked better than expected,” she admits.
“But not for long!” Ruby spins her scythe in a circle, knocking away the incoming dart of a Mimic’s tentacle. “Incoming!”
It’s hard to get a sense of the area around them — the press of bodies, incoming Grimm, and heavy red of the sky blurs it into something more akin to a nightmare — but that’d never been a priority. The layout is simple: a circular plateau covered in smaller Grimm pools along the circumference and a massive one at the center, cracked rock in between and below, familiar purple crystals piercing out of the ground at irregular intervals, and a small and worn temple-like building in the middle of all that. The whole of it doesn’t require a great deal of navigation, and their plan is almost stupidly simple: make it to the center. Of course, this is complicated by the implications of a rather necessary requirement for success, namely: don’t die. And though any of them could cover the distance between their landing zone and the central (and only) building in a minute or less, the dark liquid on the ground (shallow, but malevolent, curling up and sticking to the soles of boots, catching on the sides) and the masses of Grimm (Mimics, most of them, very intent on killing their small group of twelve) make the journey a bit more challenging than a simple jog.
Fire helps, though.
They lob grenades blindly in front of them as they push forward (dozens on dozens of Fire Dust powered bombs). Flynt and Ivori charge in with their Jackets (metal not as affected by the stuff as anything containing life) and use the flamethrower attachments Ruby had fashioned to clear a wide path. Penny flies over the whole of it and beams away sections with a similar ease. And Reese zips out and around on a hoverboard that melts strips of it away. It works well until they start getting picked off; a Mimic collapses on top of Ivori rolling the both of them off somewhere that Flynt follows with a scream, a group of winged Beringels picks Penny out of the air, a Griffon swoops in and rips Reese off her board and her team falls out of line, splintering off from the group to chase it down, vanishing into the dark crush of Grimm.
Weiss has to take over the bulk of it after that, swiping waves of fire with her sword, while they huddle around her — not so much striking to kill as fending off the barrage of attacks — and it feels endless. Coco fires thousands of explosive bullets into the writhing mass of black, Yatsu swipes back and forth with his sword along the side, Fox brings up the rear and does the same with his bladed tonfa, and Velvet springs in front of the pack and somehow deflects the charge of an oncoming Goliath with a hard light shield that Yang recognizes as a copy of one she hasn’t seen since Beacon (when Jaune Arc — reckless and heartbroken and the last of his team alive — had rushed into a hallway of Grimm and not come out). And Yang — sweating from exertion, aching from the drain of her aura and the build of her semblance — tries not to think of all the little ways Velvet’s semblance stores the souls of the dead, bringing them out one last time like vengeful ghosts.
“Close!” Weiss gasps out. “Push into the building. Rockets.”
The building isn’t particularly large, nor noteworthy, but it is old, not decorated with the same motifs as the castle (or with any decoration at all, really). There’s little time to pay any particular attention to such things, though, and instead of checking for locks or latches, Yang kicks, shoving the double doors apart with her boot, allowing Dove and Russel to fire a barrage of rockets into the interior, just in case. They should be more careful, but whatever’s inside can’t be worse than the things crowding around them, and so they file in at Ruby’s whistle — Yang and Coco and a few more rockets from the boys pushing the Grimm back long enough for Velvet, Weiss, and Blake to shove them closed once more. The rest of the (remaining) squad barricades it with loose stones, debris, and anything else they can find that’s still intact, and then they have a minute to breathe. A minute at most.
“Won’t hold for long,” Coco pants. “Time for you four to go.”
There’s not an excessive amount of lighting in the room — no windows, not many cracks in the stone walls — and it takes Yang a half second to adjust. Blake doesn’t have the same problem, taking her by the hand, snagging Ruby by the hood of her cloak, and pulling them both towards the middle of the room (Weiss following without the same prompting), where there’s a spiral staircase, descending into the dark. There’s little else in the room that hasn’t been propped against the door, and so even if Yang hadn’t seen this exact entrypoint in the vision Salem had slipped into her consciousness, it would have been their only option. But it's a little easier to have faith in the choice, with this additional benefit.
“You won’t hold long either,” Yang murmurs, eyes darting from one survivor to the other (CFVY, Penny, Russell, and Dove are all that’s left, and no one’s untouched, not close to it). “You should come with us. We’ll find a better defence point.”
Coco shakes her head. She’s lost her beret in the rush and looks younger without it, hair sticking up in wild directions that Yang suspects few have seen. “From up here, we can collapse the building around us. It’ll block the path down and you’ll get your time.”
“But you’ll — ” Yang swallows. Shakes her head. “There are other ways.”
“Nothing so effective and we don’t have time to plan or debate.” Coco grins, wide and bright and unafraid. “And we’re going to hold it longer than you think, Xiao Long. Go.”
She doesn’t give Yang any further time to argue, hefting her minigun onto her shoulder as she turns away, barking out orders to the remaining Huntsmen as the Grimm continue to pound at the doors, walls, ceiling. But Yang still takes a single step in the same direction, mouth open, though she has nothing to say.
“The faster we move, the sooner we can end this,” Weiss says firmly, suddenly at her side. “Whatever it takes, Yang. We all said, whatever it takes.”
Yang doesn’t know how to express that it’s different now, that people will die and stay dead, that she’d forgotten that until now, staring at Coco Adel and her brave grin and bare head and knowing she’d end up buried under stone and dirt. Four hundred and sixty-six repeats, and Yang had grown used to death, but she’d forgotten the notion of permanence, somewhere along the way. Blake gives her hand a squeeze — fingers still intertwined Yang’s — and tugs, gentle enough for Yang to start moving again, one halting step towards the staircase and then another. She thinks to call something out (‘good luck’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry’), but Blake releases her and starts down the spiraling stone steps and Yang follows before she can lose sight of her, propelled by stronger forces than despair.
They descend as quickly as possible in the dim light (always growing dimmer), falling into silence without needing to ask for it, though Ruby — right behind her — gasps when the Grimm finally break through up above, not five minutes later. It’s the screams that give it away, the screams and the crunching of stone, the explosions that rumble through the pillar they’re winding around, plunging into dizzying depths. (Too deep, Yang realizes after a while. They’re going too deep to ever find their way out. But she pushes the thought away, finding it unbearable.) Their speed picks up after that, a silent agreement, but doesn’t pick up enough.
Because the next rumble — starting low and building — does far worse. There aren’t any screams this time, just an explosion. And then another. Another. A third, fourth, and five. And then it’s one on top of the other, rattling the stone around them, cracking through the foundations, filling the air with dust and pebbles and gravel and then chunks of stone. The stairs sway beneath them, the ceiling starts to fall, the pillar breaks, and there’s only one option left to them, though Blake voices it first.
It’s a trust fall in the worst sense of the phrase; Yang has no measure of how far they are from the ground, where the steps lead, and what they might be jumping into, but Blake says jump and so she does, vaulting over the narrow railing and falling, a little slower than Blake and Ruby, but faster than Weiss. Stone rains around them, battering her aura, and she fires blindly into the darkness, hoping the brief bursts of light will give her some indication of direction while slowing her fall. It works pretty well, warning her of the approaching ground with enough time for her to slow her speed and land in a fairly well-timed roll. She’s only barely on her feet — just about ready to offer congratulations — when she’s shoved from behind, falling forward again, just out of the way of a crush of rocks from the ceiling and staircase, finally tumbling all the way down.
Yang tastes dirt when she hits the floor, and again — in the heavy dust in the air — when she stands. So much noise, but the stillness that’s left feels louder, oppressive, and Yang tries to form words to combat it, only to break out in a loud and persistent cough (which at least has the same effect).
“Yang?” It’s probably Ruby, though the voice is so hoarse it’s hard to tell.
“Ruby? Are you — is everyone — ” She swears — the profanity sliding into her next round of hacking up her lungs — and reaches for the light at her belt. “Okay, enough of the dark. Pretty sure they know we’re here. Fucking hell this stupid thing is — ” She fiddles with the switch, bangs the flashlight once against her thigh. “Blake? Weiss?”
“Here,” Blake says, voice quiet and full of something Yang doesn’t understand until she finally flicks the light on and follows the beam.
The staircase is gone, the ceiling has caved in, and the loose stone from both have piled up at the center of the small landing room, directly on top of Weiss’s lower half, exactly where Yang had been standing seconds ago.
Yang sucks in a sharp breath and it’s a mistake. She coughs again (but at least when her eyes water, she has something else to blame it on).
“Weiss — ”
“I’m fine.” Somehow — eyes closed, crushed under tonnes of rock, lungs full of dirt — Weiss manages to sound, at worst, annoyed. “Don’t look at me like that. Any of you.” She waves off Blake, crouched down next to her, eyes frantically tracing over the layers of stone, calculating the possibility of pulling Weiss out. “Don’t even think about it. We know all this won’t stop them. You need to go.”
Yang shakes her head, striding forward and pulling off the largest block she can find, throwing it to the side and going for another, ignoring the way the pile shakes, the way her hands do too (but not the way Weiss tries to hide her groan).
“Idiot,” Weiss hisses. “You’ll bring the whole thing down and kill us all. Or at the very least help them through. I know you have a single brain cell somewhere in there. You wouldn’t have made it this far otherwise. Why don’t you use it and take stock of the facts.”
A bit of her mask slips when she reaches for her weapon, on the ground nearby but not close enough, and Blake leans in to grab it for her, placing it in Weiss’s hands with a level of care she’s unable to pull back from, both her palms remaining on either side of the fist Weiss curls around the handle.
“We can get you out of there.” Ruby moves alongside Yang, placing a hand on the cave-in, mind surely spinning. “If we can brace the side of it with — ”
“No.” Weiss’s jaw is tight, every muscle pulled with maximum tension. “Blake, you need to tell them. You know you have to go. This idiot has gotten attached to me through her four hundred resets and the other moron somehow already thinks we’re the best of friends after knowing me for five minutes and I can’t — I don’t — ”
Her voice breaks horribly at the end, and Yang’s seen Weiss die a dozen different ways, seen her admit truths that she’s maybe never admitted to another person still alive, but the way her voice cuts in and out now — the way her bravado falls apart — is worse than anything she’s seen before.
“We’ll come back for you,” Blake whispers. “You can — you can get a Summons up. If anything gets through, it’ll hold them off. We’ll finish this and we’ll come back. And I swear if you give up on me before we do, after everything we’ve gone through to get here, I’ll — ”
She finally pulls away instead of finishing, stumbling backwards as she stands, and both Ruby and Yang reach out to steady her, though no one takes their gaze from Weiss, looking so small and pale and alone on the floor.
“Don’t,” Weiss says simply, and holds her blade a little tighter. “No goodbyes.”
The request stills anything further Yang might have said (‘we got to be good friends, in our own way’ or ‘we might make it back’ or ‘you were a huge pain in the ass and I started to love every minute of it’ or ‘this isn’t fair at all’), and instead she steps back, nods, and turns.
Maybe it’s better without words, maybe it’s best to focus on other things: the tunnel they step into then, the soft sob that slips from Blake’s lips as they walk away, the various openings and exits and paths, the way the beam of her flashlight shakes until she transfers it to her right hand, the tight grip Ruby keeps on the back of her vest as they move further and further in.
Maybe it’s better without words or feelings or anything else.
It’s a winding network of tunnels that they would have gotten lost in had Yang not known the exact way, each turn burned into her brain, a departing gift from a lonely soul that Yang wishes, right about then, had been bestowed on anyone else.
(She’s so tired again. Exhausted by the heavy stack of lives she’s once again collecting at an alarming rate, and permanently this time. Heavy, heavy souls, now that they’re in her hands, around her neck, filling her throat.)
(Each step is harder than the last one. She thinks of Weiss — alone and in the dark — and wants to go back and join her. To lie down on the ground next to her and let the earth take her. To swallow her whole.)
(She wishes it had been her instead.)
Five minutes pass.
Yang strains to hear anything from the places they’ve left behind, but sound echoes oddly; her footfalls reach her ear a second too late, from a bit too far away, with more intensity than they should.
(She wishes, more than anything else, that she could stop.)
They go for another ten minutes more.
The visions hadn’t mentioned time, of course. How could they, when the woman who’d left them had no notion of it any more? They might be walking for hours yet, they might be underground for centuries, the world might crumble apart up above and they might always be walking.
(Walking, walking, walking for the rest of their lives.)
(Walking and never stopping.)
(Unless she stops.)
Five minutes pass. Or maybe ten. Or maybe twenty. Footsteps echo in her mind or maybe against the walls and Yang’s not sure, but she thinks there might never be an end to it. She keeps walking still and maybe always will. Better to sit down, better to stop, better to rest, except that —
Except that Ruby’s stopped. Ruby’s already stopped and her hand is over her side and there’s red where it shouldn’t be and when she looks up, she smiles — crooked and sad — and when she pulls her hand away, there’s more red there too.
“Ruby, what — ”
“Something’s following us, I think,” she says, no mention of the blood, which — as Yang shakes herself out of a fog and lurches closer, pushing aside Ruby’s cloak — she finds comes from a large gash in her sister’s side. It’s a deep, weeping cut that Ruby must have had for a while, that Yang should have noticed, that she should have prevented in the first place. “Something underneath. Or maybe in the walls. Is anyone else feeling tired? Or is that — I don’t think it’s the blood loss. There’s something in here. Something trailing us.”
Sinking the tip of Crescent Rose into the ground, Ruby lets herself do much of the same, sliding to the floor. Her descent is slowed only by her grip on her weapon and Yang, rushing forward to catch her. Blake’s at her side in the next half second, pushing back the fabric around the deep tear in Ruby’s skin to get a better look.
“You should have said something.” The words barely slip out from behind her clenched teeth. “We should have sealed this before we got down here. What happened?”
“Mimic talon,” Ruby sighs, letting her head fall back against the side of the tunnel with a thud. “It happened during the first push and I thought I could keep up, but — it’s a longer walk than I thought it’d be. Why does it have to be so long?”
There are whispers floating down the passageways, footsteps continuing, closer now. Yang shakes her head and reaches for her bag, hands Blake a bottle of wound sealant, which she applies with practiced hands (same as Yang’s, trained by the futility of saving the same lives, loop after loop).
“We’re not much further, I don’t think,” Yang reassures, though she has no way of knowing for sure.
“Not close enough for me.” As the sealant sets, so does Ruby’s jaw, though she doesn’t make a sound of pain. “I know Weiss already did this, but she was right. You two need to keep moving. I’ll just sit and — wait. And shoot. They’re getting closer, don’t you think? It’ll be nice to sit and shoot. I think they’re pretty slow. Do you feel them? They’re affecting the air. Or. Our moods? Something’s wrong. Something’s different. If Grimm can feed on our mood it makes sense they might want to manufacture something tasty, don’t you think? That makes sense.”
The mumblings, in fact, make very little sense to Yang, but then, she stops listening fully around the time Ruby makes the absolutely fucking insane suggestion that they leave her behind. Yang blinks, looking around as though for support, but only sees Blake, finishing the application of a patch above the sealed cut, steadily avoiding Yang’s gaze.
“No.” She almost laughs, really. “Ruby, that’s — no, that’s obviously not happening. We’re almost there. We just — we’re almost there.”
They’re almost there and there’s only so much a person can lose.
“Yeah, and it’ll probably be safer out here, if you think about it. I’ll take care of these suckers trying to sneak up on us. You and Blake will take care of the off switch for this whole thing. And then we’ll meet back up here, go find Weiss — who probably killed all the Grimm outside just for fun while we were gone — and we can just… sleep.” Her eyelids flutter. “Won’t that be nice? Or. Wait. No!” She pushes Blake back, a sharp poke at her shoulder that has her falling backwards, only just catching herself. “I mean, yes, we’ll do all that, but not — there’s something coming, Yang. There’s something — oh, hey-oh!”
Ruby flips her weapon around and sets the blade of it once more into the soft earth, right between her feet, and then she fires off a barrage of shots — four headshots, five, six — right into the bare skulls of the beasts suddenly rounding the bend. They crumple without a sound, already too stretched for their own bodies, long fingers and detached jaws. Yang stares in horror long after they’ve dissolved into dust.
“What the fuck was that?” Blake gasps, the first words she’s said in a half hour or maybe more.
“No clue! But I feel a lot better now that they’re dead. And that you’ve patched me up. Thanks for that, Blake!” Ruby actually grins, and Yang’s head spins, trying to make sense of it all.
“Ruby, I’m — what’s going on?” She blinks, taking in her surroundings: the plain concrete walls, the brown dirt floor, and nothing else. Nothing else except them.
“I don’t know. A new sort of Grimm, maybe? I think they help guard this place. Or maybe — ” Ruby frowns. “Keep things calm. But they seem pretty easy to kill. So I’ll stay here and do that. Honestly, Yang, I don’t know what you’re so worried about. There are probably way worse things waiting for you at the end of all this. But I know you and Blake will take care of it. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. But only if you keep moving. Let me be another checkpoint. This one’s easy.”
There are a million protests ready on her lips, but somehow, she can’t access any of them. Outside of the one:
“I’m not leaving you, Ruby.”
“It’ll be safer here, Yang.”
“If that was true, you wouldn’t want to stay.”
She looks older than Yang remembers, which doesn’t make sense, because she’s lived this same day with Ruby hundreds of times before. But when she smiles then, she looks older, she looks tired, and she looks kind. She looks like the most important person in Yang’s life, always so ready to take on any weight that might dare press down on the space Yang had carved into the world for the two of them.
“You won’t lose me,” Ruby murmurs, and Yang shakes her head, because it’s not that at all.
A low whisper slips down the tunnels again, pushing heavy on Yang’s shoulder, and Ruby fires off another shot blindly, a warning this time.
“You won’t.” Her eyes crinkle with her smile. “You want me to promise?”
Blake’s set out a small pile of goods: medical supplies and water and food, as though getting Ruby ready for a long night, and Yang nearly snaps then, has to bite her tongue to keep from screaming at the only woman in the world who’s lost as much as Yang has, over and over again.
“Yeah,” Yang says instead. “Yeah, I do.”
The smile Ruby sets on Blake is warm, but the one she turns on Yang is everything, full of too much love for the universe to contain, maybe.
Yang stares for a long time.
Longer than she has.
And then they run.
She’s not sure how she manages it, how she drags herself away. She’s not really sure of anything except that her vision is blurry and it’s hard to see the turns she needs to take and Blake is right at her heels and she can hear the shots from Crescent Rose echoing down the tunnels and each one tells her Ruby is still alive, alive, alive. They’re faster now, whether because they have to be or due to Ruby picking off the creatures that’d been following them, Yang can’t be sure, but they speed through the tunnels until Yang’s breath grows short and her legs feel heavy.
Eventually, the shots fade away, and Yang tells herself they’ve traveled too far to hear them, because she can’t bear anything else.
(Ruby wouldn’t. Not when she’d promised. Not when Yang’s given so much.)
And because, as they round the next corner — still at full speed — they’re suddenly at the end of the tunnels, somewhere entirely new.
Somewhere with a familiar figure.
Blake notices first, sliding in the mud (now mud rather than dirt, Yang hadn’t noticed this change either) as she tries to stop, pulling Yang with her as she does, both of them slipping, but catching themselves against the wall that leads into a much larger chamber: a massive cave with sinking floors, sloping walls, and a very large Alpha Mimic standing still at the center.
“That’s — ” She keeps her voice low, tries to control her breathing (and her tears — dry now — but liable to start at any time again. Too much, she thinks again. Nearly too much).
There’s mud on Blake’s hands and a splash of it on her face. And though her voice is flat, everything she’s forcibly taken out of it rests in her eyes, as plain as though she’d spoken of them directly. So many resets and Yang never had enough time for that: sitting back and charting the way Blake’s irises light up with each one of them, mapping the emotions out like constellations.
After this, Yang decides to think.
After all this, she’ll get Ruby, she’ll find Weiss, and she’ll do exactly that for the rest of her life.
“We can’t kill it. You don’t have the ability to reset any more, so it does.”
Yang has to lean in to hear her, has to press in close against her and pick up on the low sounds coming from Blake’s lips. But she doesn’t have to reach up and press her hand to Blake’s cheek; this she doesn’t because she wants to, because she needs a little more strength.
“So I’ll distract him. I’ll give you enough time to find Salem and — ’
“No, Yang.” It’s not a forceful interjection, but it doesn’t need to be. Her forehead dips down, knocking gently against Yang’s, and Yang already knows. “We already have our roles in this.” To her surprise, Blake smiles. “And I’m much faster than you are.”
“Hey, I don’t know about — ”
Too much. But what choice does she have?
“Promise me too,” Yang raps. “I need you to promise me too.”
She’s collecting them now.
At the end, she’ll show these receipts to the universe if she has to. Slam them one after another against the end of time.
Whatever it takes.
“You won’t lose me,” Blake says. “I promise.”
Her fingers curl around the collar of Yang’s vest, and there’s no hesitation when she pulls her close, free hand fitting against Yang’s jaw with a firmness that suits them now, when Blake kisses her for the first and last time (of one life or another). Yang reaches with the same instinct, hands curling around her, palm digging into her lower back and urging her closer, mouth opening up underneath Blake’s, catching the taste of her tongue. There’s vallia this time, despite it all, and Yang smiles, feels the curve of Blake’s lips in response.
And then she jerks away.
And then she’s gone.
Her footsteps — loud and fast — echo through the chamber, but the roar that follows her reverberates, shakes the walls and interrupts the already unsteady beat of Yang’s heart. Thuds follow the roar, and then a crash, and then another, further away. Yang counts to five, tries to breathe throughout it all, and then stands, back sliding up along the wall. An odd, clear emptiness takes over, and she’s nothing but grateful, because it’s the only thing that allows her to step out from the nook of cover and into the low light of the cavernous room awaiting.
With the Alpha gone, the throne at the center of the room is all the more obvious. It’s decoration doesn’t quite match the one of the castle; it’s too plain, as though it’s merely a pale imitation, or perhaps a mockery of the original. But the creature that sits in it commands far more of Yang’s attention, and so she doesn’t dwell.
It’d been a woman once.
This, Yang knows as she steps closer, careful and slow. The once blonde hair has turned white and thin, mottled in places, as though bits have fallen out. Her pale blue dress hasn’t stood the test of time or transformation, and a plain black robe covers her now. And though her eyes had once held kindness, they are the same red of the Grimm’s now, black filling the scleras, hate filling everything else. Instead of pale and soft skin, the arms of the thing are black — the same consistency of the dark pools scattered across the Land of Darkness — though red veins still run throughout the mess, bright lines of blood along the limbs, shoulders, neck, and up to the face, which retains the shape of Salem’s (jaw, mouth, nose, eyes) but only in the way clay might fill a mold.
This had been a human once, but there’s nothing left of that now.
(Yang knows the story now: the death of a lover, a girl who turns bitter, a woman who gives all of herself for revenge against a cruel universe — her aura, her form, her mind — a creature who only remembers the one, brief moment she wanted the world to burn.)
“Do you know who I am?” Yang asks. “Do you remember?”
The creature cranes its neck too far in question, until its chin lifts higher than the top of its head.
“You asked me to come,” she continues. There’s a marble dais around the throne, only barely elevated, and Yang steps onto it now, but keeps to the edge, starting to circle. “You asked me to help you with something. Do you remember that? Is there anything of you left?”
For a moment, the creature is still.
And then dives, ducking under the claw that shoots out, arm extending like putty, narrowing missing the top of Yang’s head. She rolls and comes up again, blocking the next strike with her prosthetic, then dodging the next three in quick succession, weaving underneath with sharp, fast movements. The last hit she blocks again, but it sends her sliding back, off the raised platform and into the mud, and when the creature-that-was-once-Salem comes to its feet, Yang charges back in, blasting herself forward with her gauntlets, avoiding the next swipe of its talons, and shifting her weight to plant a charge at its side. The punch does little to slow it down, but it screeches at impact, and the next attack is a little more wild, four quick slashes that chip off Yang’s aura and knocks her back, until she’s on the outer ring of the dias again.
“I guess not,” Yang pants. “You could have warned me, you know! About all of this!”
Jumping into the air, she thrusts out her right arm to propel herself into the fight once again, left foot first; it deflects the first kick, but fails to block the follow-up, her right left swooping in a roundhouse that knocks into the thing’s skull, bends the head until it’s at a right angle from its neck. She lands on the arm of the throne and punches another several charges into the creature’s back, up along its spine, too curved and pointed, each vertebrae sticking out of the thin cloth covering it. But when she tries to retreat, the throne isn't where it should be, pulled out from underneath her and then slammed down through the bit of air where she’d been suspended until she’d blasted out of it with the recoil from both gauntlets. It’s not the cleanest of escapes, and she skids on her side along the dirty marble, aura dipping into the red to keep her shoulder from popping out of place.
She’s running out of time.
Really, she barely had any to begin with.
“‘Come kill me, Yang!’ you said! ‘You’ll fix it all’ you said!” Yang pushes herself up back onto all fours, but has to drop again, rolling to the right, to avoid the slam of the creature’s fists. “Or, okay, maybe you didn’t say that exactly, but it was implied!”
Fire spreads in her veins, floods down each strand of hair, and surrounds her a crackling glow. From a runner’s start, she dives in again, bobbing under the right hook and the left swing, and then reaches up to pull on one of the appendages, tugging it down and herself forward, planting three more charges along the way, another three when she springs back. She’s faster and stronger with her semblance burning through her, and she’s able to repeat the motion on the other side, twisting around the thing, blowing a shell into its side for good measure, even as she finishes laying the last of the charges she has left.
And then she throws herself back, presses the button to ignite them all, and hopes it’ll be enough.
The explosion isn’t particularly loud, but the thing-that-was-once-Salem is.
Instinctively, Yang covers her ears at the sound and stumbles back. There’s blood on her palms when she pulls them away, a light stream pooling out of her ears, but the creature collapses when the noise (mercifully) ends, and the red that seeps from its own body spreads far wider, coating the floor underneath. Smoke pours from its skin — shriveling, shrinking, cracking — as it writhes, and as Yang’s semblance runs out, she nearly sinks to the ground as well, exhaustion overtaking her at the sight of a final battle won. The sight of the end. (Finally the end.)
There’s one last grenade strapped to her belt, the one she’s been saving for this, and she fumbles with it before pulling it free and tossing it towards the creature, the ten second delay starting as soon as it hits the ground.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” she sighs. “Fuck you, but. You’re welcome.”
The thing looks up.
Eight seconds left and the thing looks up, seven seconds and its back erupts, two new limbs ripping out from underneath the cloth — grotesque and contorting at fast, unnatural angles — spilling out and expanding, across the dias in a blink of an eye. Six seconds left and they spear Yang through, two sharp points piercing her stomach, in the front and out the back, curling around and gripping around her ribs, (five seconds) pulling her back in, across the floor, too quick for pain to set in. Four seconds, and she’s in front of the thing once again, face-to-face, (three seconds) dark blood dripping out of its mouth and into her own, a disgusting torrent of iron and ash mixed. And with two seconds left, red eyes lock with purple. They are not kind, but they understand.
“Thank you,” it rasps.
With one second left, it throws her.
The grenade — a mix of Fire and Electricity Dust — crackles first and then explodes. Still mid-air when it goes, Yang’s propelled further away, off the dias and into the far wall of the room. It doesn’t hurt, somehow, but the shock probably has something to do with it. When she rolls onto her back and stares into the sky, there are stars — pinpricks of light — and it doesn’t occur to her that this is wrong, that she’s deep, deep underground and this isn’t where the sky is meant to be. Her hands fall on her stomach and it doesn’t occur to her to be concerned with the wetness. Her ears continue to ring and it doesn’t occur to her to try to separate the different sorts of sound.
Not until Blake is standing above her, frantic and hurried and clearly calling her name.
But even then, Yang only smiles.
“You made it.”
So many deaths, but this is the least painful of them all. Yang would have expected worse, but then, maybe she’s had enough practice by now. Or maybe it’s just that Blake — now on her knees, but still hovering above her, pressing her hands to the holes in Yang’s chest — is bloodied and scratched, but warm and alive. It’s easy to look past the panic in her eyes in the face in that, because Blake will make it out of this, and that’s more than Yang could have ever asked, more than she thought she’d get.
“You will too,” Blake murmurs. “I just need — I just — ” Yang’s blood coats her hands, gushes out of the wound. “I’ll get you out of here. There’s a healer on base that can fix anything. You just need to hold on and we’ll — ”
There’s a strangely pleasing symmetry to it, in a lot of ways. Her first death caused by a Grimm tearing a hole through her stomach and now, her last one, much of the same. Except that now there’s Blake, stumbling over impossibilities, hands trembling with the reality she’s refusing to face.
“It’s not that bad. We can get your aura restarted and — and people have survived worse. They have, Yang.”
It’s nice to hear her name from Blake’s lips. She’s always regretted the early versions where she’d forgotten to mention it, though maybe Blake would have known regardless. It’s a nice thought — one to die to — but Yang pushes past it, gently grips the hands frantically (hopelessly) pressing against her wounds.
“I need you to find Ruby. She could have made it. She — she usually makes it. Weiss too. I know you — you could all make it.”
“Yang — ”
Blake nods, takes in a shuddering breath. Yang tries to do the same, but finds herself unable to. There’s not enough air. Not enough time. But she can get out the most important thing, if only because she must.
“I love you,” Yang gasps. “I loved you every reset. Every life I got. All four hundred and sixty-six of them.”
Now Blake’s shaking her head, harder than her nod, more furiously than the movement of her hands, still moving to keep Yang from falling apart.
“Not at the start,” she whispers. “You couldn’t have at the start.”
The world is dimming, blurring at the edges, but Blake still looks so clear. Brighter than anything. A steady gold light. Something worth heading towards.
“Stubborn,” she says, more a cough than a word. “How’s this, then? I chose you. Every time. I chose you at the start and loved you at the middle and loved you most at the end. Every day, I loved you a little bit more.”
It’s not an exaggeration. It’s not even a line. Yang’s incapable of either now, only the truth.
“I wish I’d gotten to know you.” Blake sucks in another shaky breath, an inhale for them both. “I wish I’d loved you back.”
And Yang — Yang who knows she’s out of time, who knows this death will be her last, who knows her work is done — smiles.
“You did.” She reaches up, though she can’t quite raise her hand enough to touch Blake’s cheek, and so Blake leans down instead. “That’s why you’re crying,” she continues, and weakly wipes at the tears sliding down, until movement leaves her, until she can only close her eyes. “Because you do.”
Here’s the beginning and middle, but not quite the end:
Yang dies on a Tuesday.
(She loves Blake more than she has any Tuesday before.)
She wakes, and it’s a Monday.
It’s the same Monday.
It’s the 467th Monday.
And everything is different.
She knows this before she’s fully conscious, she knows this before she opens her eyes, she knows this because she’s woken by the sounds of fireworks, air raids, music playing through their scrolls at full-blast. Ruby only stares when she stumbles out of her sleeping bag — nearly tripping over her own feet in the process — and wordlessly hands her the scroll that’s reporting the news. The caster is almost impossible to understand given the speed of the words and the emotion laced in them, but enough gets across, shaky videos displayed on screen, areas that had once been flooded with Grimm now empty, not even ash left behind. Overnight, everyone claims, a miracle had occurred. An airship is sent to the Land of Darkness to confirm and it’s the same there; the Grimm are gone.
But more importantly (far, far more importantly), Ruby is here, Ruby is safe, Ruby is alive, more alive than Yang’s seen her in years, maybe, because her eyes are bright and clear and shining with tears, and when Yang surges forward to grab her in a hug that lifts her clear off the ground, she can feel her heartbeat — steady and loud and alive — right against her ear. It’s perfect, the best sound Yang’s ever heard, and it’s also impossible (that she’s here, safe, alive) when Yang had so clearly heard her shots fading away, had seen the deep stain of red on her side. It’s impossible, and Yang won’t question it. Not today.
(Later, she will think of Salem’s blood dripping against her face, wetting her lips, slipping past her tongue; will question whether she knew of the gift she was giving; will wonder what it means to be outside of time; will endlessly debate the practicalities behind the ending of her 467 days. But not now.)
“We did it!” Ruby squeaks, throwing her arms up. She’s unfazed by being lifted into the air, which seems to add to her enthusiasm rather than detract from it. “Or! I guess we really didn’t do anything since the Grimm just dropped dead overnight and we just slept right through it, but! You know! We did it! Even without doing anything!”
She laughs harder than she ever has, too hysterical to be from humor, too manic to not involve irony, too loud to be from anything other than relief. She laughs until she can’t hold Ruby up any longer (though she sets her down as gently as possible) even as her laughter continues, a long wheezing that has her folding over, her hands on her knees. Ruby waits until it’s passed, minutes on minutes, longer than anyone else would have gone without interrupting. And when Yang straightens, she’s only smiling, a small half smile that holds an understanding that isn’t borne in the reality of the matter, but still manages to touch on it, without any knowledge of the specifics.
Maybe Yang’s earned it. After hundreds of deaths, maybe Yang’s earned these two things beyond the very triumph of humanity: herself — alive on the same beach she’d woken up on so many times — and her sister — confused, but supportive, standing next to her. And maybe (though it’s terrifying to hope, though fear lances through her chest to think of it and thus potentially convince herself otherwise), maybe she’s earned two other things as well. Two more lives she might have brought through with her, just as they’d been before she’d met them. She can’t know for sure, not from here, but maybe with one of them she does. Because maybe each reset — every life she’s lived — has proven she’ll always find her way to Blake, if only she finds a string of fate and pulls.
“Ruby,” she says, after the laugh dies down and she’s left with nothing but a need to see how much she’s earned. “I have to do something, and you’re going to just have to trust me while I do.”
“Okay.” Not a trace of hesitation. Only a smile. “What are we doing?”
Yang nods, pauses, then starts to nod again, over and over. She’s bouncing on the balls of her feet, shoving her armor in her bag, collapsing the tent so quickly it breaks, and Ruby just keeps smiling.
“We’re going to run — or jump, or blast, or whatever we have to do — to the base camp. We’re going to go as fast as we possibly can and we’re not going to stop for anything. Because — and stay with me now, I know this is insane — there’s someone waiting for me there. She just doesn’t know it yet.”
“That — “ Ruby blinks, but by the time Yang does the same, she’s swooped around their small encampment — a blur of rose petals — and cleaned up her stuff and crammed it into her pack. “Okay. But along the way, you’re going to have to tell me that story.” She grins, readies herself into a runner’s stance. “If you can keep up!”
Yang doesn’t wait for the countdown. She cocks her gauntlets, fires, and goes.
“One day,” Yang begins (as Ruby always had), words yelled over her shoulder as she blasts herself through the air, “Yang Xiao Long went into the Land of Darkness and she died.” The wind rushes past her face and her heart swells, threatens to burst, and she feels like she could make it anywhere in Remnant without touching the ground. “Fortunately, afterwards, she woke up and it was the day before.”
Ruby believes her, because of course she does.
She has questions (dozens), but by the time they make it to the clearing — where the training field has turned into a festival, an exaggerated version of the party Yang remembers happening that night — Ruby’s the one dragging her along, (gently) shoving already-drunk soldiers out of the way, though she also ends up hugging a few as they go along.
“She’s always in the training room, but today is different! Where do we look first? Do we ask? Oh my gods, I’m so nervous. How are you going to convince her you know her? She’s such a big shot. Oh! A code word? You said you used code words so that would still work now, right? I mean, she has to realize something like what happened to her before is what’s happening now, otherwise all the Grimm dying makes no sense.” She sucks in a breath, dodges around a Huntsman wearing pants atop his head, and comes back into view with two kebabs in hand, one of which she passes to Yang. “I can’t believe that weird time travel centered around you makes more sense than anything else. Oh my gosh, I feel like I haven’t asked you anything. Like! Are you okay? Are you worried? Do you want me to kidnap her so you can talk to her in private? I totally will!”
So many questions and Yang doesn’t have an answer to one. She’s gone over a million possibilities in her head (‘does 94% of life really live underwater?’ -or- kissing her right away without a single word -or- blurting everything out at once -or- slipping her hand under Blake’s shirt and pressing the spot just above her hip that always makes her squirm -or- bursting into tears at the very sight of her alive. But in the end, the last one is all that matters. Blake is alive and the rest will come. She has time (time that won’t be reset), days and weeks and years, all one after the other, all bringing something new.
“I don’t know,” she breathes. “I have no idea. I was just going to head to the training ground and — ”
(Moving, breathing, thinking.)
Because Blake is there.
Right outside the main gate of the base — doors flung open wide — standing in the middle of the path, eyes roaming around with a sort of franticness that looks out of place on her, that Yang’s only seen on a few rare occasions, even after so many loops. Weiss is there too, looking widely confused, hands telling a complete story as they wave shapes into the air around her, frantic in a way that’s somehow on the opposite end of the spectrum. Blake lips move with quick answers — one word for every hundred of Weiss’s — but doesn’t look at the woman once. She keeps searching.
Until her eyes meet Yang’s.
Over four hundred times, the universe has offered her the same thread; in every iteration, in every life, the same opportunity presented itself time and time again. And everytime she’s made the same choice. She chose Blake. In different ways, in unexpected places, she never stopped choosing Blake. She pulled on the thread. And maybe that’s the key to it all. Maybe Yang had pulled so many times on the same part of the universe that she’d undone the whole of it, and maybe it was here, now, spooled in her hands, ready to use as she wished.
And maybe — miraculously, impossibly, beautifully — Blake had done exactly the same.
Because when Blake’s gaze finds hers, it’s clear.
Yang’s running before the thought fully settles, limbs moving faster than her mind, consciousness scrambling to catch up with instinct. Because Blake knows, she knows, she knows, and she’s running too, looking for Yang out of the thousands of people in that field, out of the millions in Remnant, out of all the iterations of Yang and Blake and Weiss and Ruby and everyone else. Blake knows her.
They collide and — gods — Yang would have died a hundred times more, a thousand times more, any number of times that the universe would have demanded, she would have done anything to have this: Blake in her arms, clinging tighter than she ever has, the full weight of hundreds of versions of their story behind her. Blake’s fingers tangle into her hair — the way Yang’s only ever liked when Blake was the one doing it — and her lips press into Yang’s neck, and her hot tears slide down the side of Yang’s throat.
Around them, the chaos of celebration continues. Weiss — snooty and sniff and alive and perfect — shouts something about Blake needing some kind of counseling. Ruby — out of breath and ecstatic — attempts to introduce herself and calm Weiss in the same breath. And it’s not successful — not even a little — but they have time for that later. Plenty of time.
“I guess you were right.”
Blake pulls away just enough for Yang to see her face — gold eyes bright with tears and something else, lower lip captured between her teeth — and all of her glowing, happier than Yang’s ever seen her, a full composite of all the pieces Yang had put together with painstaking effort, fingers (and everything else) bleeding from the attempts.
“I usually am,” Yang breathes, but barely manages even that, lightheaded from the sight in front of her, from the implications contained within. “About which thing?”
“What you said the first night we met.”
Her lips are on Blake’s before she can finish, but there’s no need for her to continue. They both know. The words are from four-hundred and sixty-seven lives ago, but Blake’s hands press into her jaw and her lips taste more of salt than vanilla, and they both still remember.
(There’s always an after.)
The second-to-last time Yang dies, it’s on a Tuesday.
After that, everything is different, except for the few things that matter.
Those things never change.
No, you're not home yet
No, not home
But you finally found the way back