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i pictured you then, in your wedding dress

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“Have I told you how much I hate that you’re doing this?” Weiss asks. Blake pulls another shirt out of her closet—flannel, a green and blue plaid pattern that’s honestly kind of ugly—and wrinkles her nose at it for a moment before shrugging and tossing it onto the bed beside her open suitcase. It lands atop a pile of other, similar casual shirts that are waiting to be folded and packed.

“Repeatedly,” Blake says, glancing over her shoulder. Weiss is sitting on the edge of Blake’s bed, arms crossed and a scowl on her face. It’s an expression that, once upon a time, would’ve made Blake worry that she’d genuinely upset her friend. That was years ago, though, and Blake knows by now that mild aggravation is how Weiss shows love.

“I just want to make sure you know,” Weiss says. “You do know that this is insane, right?” Blake sighs. She glances through her closet one more time, finds nothing more worth packing, and closes the door. She turns around to lean against it, meeting Weiss’s gaze.

“It’s not that crazy,” she says. “It’s a lot of money, and—“

“A lot of money to get engaged to a stranger,” Weiss says.

“I’m not actually going to marry…whoever.” Blake waves a hand dismissively. The network had showed her a few headshots of some of the contestants when they’d finalized the list last week, but Blake has only seen five or six of the thirty people who are going to be trying to date her come next week. None of them had stood out to her.

“It’s a lot of money and good publicity, that’s all,” Blake says. “They offered me the job after that interview I did, okay? Was I supposed to say no to two hundred grand and a free international vacation?”

“When it involves having to get engaged to some idiot you’ve known for three months? Yes, absolutely you’re supposed to say no.” Blake rolls her eyes.

“It’s fine, Weiss,” she says. She’s tiring of the argument. They’ve been bickering about this since she got cast as the next bachelorette. “I’ll get to travel a lot, I’ll make enough money to stop relying on my parents, and it’ll make great publicity for my next book release. I write romance novels, going on the world’s most popular dating show is a great career move.” Weiss scowls harder, but doesn’t argue the point—because Blake is right, of course. She’d thought things through before she accepted the role.

“I just don’t think it’s actually about your career,” Weiss says. Blake frowns at her, not understanding. “You’re a little too okay with all of this, Blake. If it was only about your career, you would be more hesitant at the prospect of having to date a bunch of strangers.”

“It could be fun to get to know people,” Blake says, failing to sound convincing, even to herself.

“You hate people.” Weiss uncrosses her arms, leaning forward slightly. “I’m…concerned.” There’s genuine worry in her voice, and Blake sighs, unable to continue protesting when confronted with the rare sight of Weiss being so genuine. “It worries me to think that you might actually be trying to meet someone, and going about it in the worst way possible.”

“What makes you think that?” Blake asks.

“You haven’t dated since Adam.” Blake’s jaw clenches.

“I don’t want to talk about Adam,” she says. She steps away from the closet, walking over to the bed and picking up the first of the pile of shirts.

“I’m not asking you to,” Weiss says. “I’m just—it’s been a very long time, and you’ve seemed a bit lonely lately. That’s all.” Her voice goes soft at the end of the sentence, and Blake glances up to find love and worry on Weiss’s face. They hold each others’ gazes for a moment before Weiss clears her throat. “I don’t want you do something stupid on international television when you could’ve just downloaded Tinder,” she says. Blake smiles—there’s the Weiss she knows—and goes back to folding her shirt.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid,” she says. “I’m not looking to meet anyone, and if I was, I wouldn’t go after wannabe reality TV stars. But they’re going to fly me all over the world, Weiss, and pay me more than I made in four years of royalties off my last book.”

“When you put it like that, it sounds almost reasonable.”

“That’s because it is,” Blake says. “Now help me pack or get out of my apartment.”

“Just promise me you won’t actually marry someone you meet on reality television,” Weiss says, standing up from the bed and grabbing the next shirt from Blake’s pile. Blake rolls her eyes.

“I have standards, you know,” she says. “I promise.”

The minute Blake gets past Vale airport security and into the baggage claim, she spots the producer that’s here for her. It helps that the woman holding the sign that says Blake Belladonna on it stands out from the crowd. She’s both quite tall and incredibly attractive, with bright red hair and a smile that, even from a distance, sets Blake at ease. Blake makes her way over without much hassle. The airport isn’t too crowded at the moment, and she doesn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone with her wheeled bag.

“Hello!” the woman says the moment Blake is within a reasonable distance for conversation. “You must be Blake!” The smile doesn’t slip an inch, but it seems genuine, like the woman really is just excited to be in the airport on a Wednesday, so Blake manages a small smile back.

“That’s me,” she says, coming to a stop in front of the woman.

“Great!” The woman lowers the sign, tucking it under one arm. “I’m Pyrrha Nikos. I’m a producer with the show, and I’m basically going to be your shadow for the next three months. Any questions you have, anything you need, any time you want a break, I’ll be right there with you to help out. Sound good?”

“Sure,” Blake says. “I get breaks?” Pyrrha’s smile turns a bit mischievous.

“The cameras run 24/7,” she says. “But I know where the cameras aren’t.” Blake isn’t quite sure what to make of that, and it must show on her face, because Pyrrha keeps talking. “I’m on your side, Blake,” she says, settling back into a more serious tone. “Filming a show like this can be very demanding, physically and emotionally. It’s not officially in my job description, but I take care of whoever I get assigned to, and this season, it happens to be you.” Blake nods slowly.

“Okay.” She doesn’t love the idea of having a shadow, but she’d signed up for a complete lack of privacy for three months, and Pyrrha seems nice, at least. It could be worse.

“Okay,” Pyrrha echoes, nodding. “And I’m going to have to take your phone away now.” Blake’s hand goes to her pocket. She’d been told about this, of course; neither she nor any of the contestants are allowed access to the outside world during filming. No phones, no internet, no television. No news, unless something particularly world-altering happens and the producers see fit to inform them. Blake had signed a contract agreeing to all of it. It’s just a little different to be confronted with it in person.

“Right,” she says. “Could I just text everybody first? Say goodbye to my parents and everything?”

“Of course,” Pyrrha says, flashing that kind smile again. “Are your other bags tagged with your name? I can go get them from the baggage claim in the meantime.”

“Yeah, they are.” Blake recites a brief description of her other two suitcases, and then Pyrrha is walking away and Blake is unlocking her phone for the last time for the next three months. She sends a text to her parents, reminding them of the date that she’ll be on Menagerie—with two prospective fiancés, for them to meet her family before she makes a final decision. She refuses to think too much about that part. She texts Weiss, too, and her agent.

“All ready?” Pyrrha is back, carrying Blake’s suitcases. Carrying them, not rolling them, despite the fact that they both have wheels on the bottom. The weight doesn’t seem to bother her a bit.

“Ready,” Blake says, feeling anything but. This is all happening a bit fast for her. Despite her misgivings, she presses the power button on her phone, shutting it all the way off, and holds it out to Pyrrha. Pyrrha sets down one of the suitcases for a moment to slip Blake’s phone into her pocket, then picks it back up and sets off for the airport doors.

“Your phone will go in a safe in the mansion once we get there,” Pyrrha says as they walk. “It won’t come out again until we leave for the first international destination unless there’s an emergency. When we travel, it’ll go with our security team and be placed in the hotel safe at each place we stay. Sound good?”

“Sure,” Blake says. They step out through the sliding doors of the airport and onto the street. There are dozens of taxis and Ubers idling at the curb, waiting for travelers, but Blake’s gaze is drawn past those. At the end of the block, a limousine is parked. Its windows are practically opaque in the sunlight, its black paint job spotless.

“That’s our ride,” Pyrrha says, following Blake’s gaze. Blake shakes her head slowly at the ostentatiousness of it as she follows Pyrrha towards the limousine. The driver pops the trunk as they approach without getting out of the car, and Pyrrha quickly loads Blake’s bags in. Then they’re climbing into the back, onto bench seats that face each other, and Blake locates her seatbelt as Pyrrha taps on the partition between their section of the car and the driver. “We’re all set, Ren,” she says. There’s no audible acknowledgement from the driver, but Blake feels the car begin to pull away from the curb.

“How far is the mansion?” Blake asks, finally remembering how to manage more than single word answers.

“Depends on traffic,” Pyrrha says. “Shouldn’t be more than an hour at most.” She pauses. “Oh shoot, I forgot to ask if you needed to use the bathroom before we left.”

“I’m okay,” Blake says. Pyrrha gives her an embarrassed smile.

“I’m not used to picking people up at the airport,” she says. “I’ve only been assigned to contestants before, and those assignments happen after everyone gets to the mansion.”

“Really?” Blake says. “You seem so confident.”

“I’m doing my best,” Pyrrha says earnestly. “I put together a script for all of this last week.” Blake smiles. Pyrrha isn’t at all what she’d been expecting. She’d imagined reality TV producers as…sort of like comic book villains, or cartoon witches. Cackling middle-aged women pulling strings and pushing contestants to do increasingly stupid things for attention. But Pyrrha is nice, and genuine, and Blake finds herself relaxing a bit, some of the tension that had built up in her muscles on the plane ride fading away.

“What’s next on the script?” Blake asks.

“Well, I was planning to let you know that this car ride is the last time you won’t be on camera for three months,” Pyrrha says. “So if you want to scream a bit, now’s your chance. Ren and I won’t tell anybody.” Blake genuinely considers it for a moment, which is probably a bad sign.

“I don’t want to scream,” she decides. “Do you have any advice, though? About tonight, or just…the show in general?”

“For tonight?” Pyrrha says. “We’ll give you a list of everyone’s names before the rose ceremony, so don’t worry about trying to remember them all.” Blake hadn’t even thought of that, and she breathes a sigh of relief. “In general…just don’t overthink things. To be totally honest with you, most stars break up with their winners within weeks. You don’t actually have to make a lifetime commitment at the end of this, even if you have to pretend you are for the cameras.” Blake nods. She’d known this, of course. She’s been watching the show since she was a kid, and only three of the stars are still together with their winners. “But if something is working for you, go with it,” Pyrrha says. “This process really can work. It’s a one in a million chance, but if you do fall in love with someone here, don’t worry about the show or the cameras. Just do what feels right with them.”

“You really think that?” Blake asks. Pyrrha blinks at her, and she elaborates, “You think this can work?”

“Of course,” Pyrrha says. “Three months isn’t a long time to get to know someone, but some people are destined to be together. Don’t you agree?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, here’s hoping you get pleasantly surprised.” Pyrrha picks up a folder from the seat beside her that Blake hadn’t noticed before. “Now, I have some paperwork for you to fill out before we get to the mansion.”

“Are you ready for this?” Blake turns around at the voice and finds the host of the show, Coco Adel, descending the front steps of the mansion. She can’t help but be aware of the camera crew all around her, following Coco’s movements from multiple angles and filming Blake’s expression from several others.

“Not really,” Blake says, trying for a smile as Coco comes to a stop in front of her.

“No one ever is,” Coco says, returning Blake’s smile much more confidently. “Knowing that you’re going to meet the love of your life tonight? How does that feel?”

“It’s, um, definitely a lot,” Blake says. Coco is a little more genuine in person than she comes off as on TV, but she doesn’t radiate sincerity the way Pyrrha does. Her smile, though kind, is a little too manufactured to put Blake at ease.

“Well, I’ll be right over there if you need anything,” Coco says, gesturing off to the side, away from the path to the mansion door, where she’ll be off camera but less than a hundred feet away from Blake. “Your first suitor should be here in a minute or two.”

“Right,” Blake says. Coco reaches out, gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and walks away. Blake is left standing…well, not alone, since there’s a camera crew all around her and Coco just off the path, but in a manufactured kind of loneliness. Nobody else is within view of the cameras, and no one is making a sound. When this shot plays on TV, Blake will appear to be waiting alone in the center of the path.

With that thought comes a wave of nervousness. Blake shifts her weight awkwardly and sticks her hands in her pockets. She’d opted for a suit and flats for tonight, though she has an incredible variety of formalwear with her thanks to Weiss’s packing efforts. It’s a chilly night, and Blake will have to stand out here meeting people for hours. She may have been living in Atlas for several years now, but she still isn’t used to weather any colder than the tropical heat back home in Menagerie, and the nights in Vale get cold, even in the summer. The suit had just made more practical sense than any of the dresses or heels in her suite upstairs, and she does look damn good in it.

Besides, pockets. Always a plus.

“Hands out of your pockets,” a camera guy calls from the side of the path. “Looks weird on camera.” Blake pulls her hands back out of her pockets with a practically inaudible sigh and crosses her arms instead. “No, not that either,” the same guy says. “Put ‘em behind your back or something.” Blake, feeling a bit like a grade schooler on picture day, laces her fingers together behind her back. She doesn’t have too long to feel disgruntled about it, because moments later, she picks up the sound of an engine approaching.

A limousine turns the corner and pulls to a stop next to the path.

Blake shoots a quick, panicked look at Coco, who smiles encouragingly, then over her shoulder at Pyrrha, who’s standing with the camera crew. Pyrrha gives her a little wave and gestures for her to turn around. Blake takes a deep breath and does so, facing the road just as the door of the limousine slides open.

A man climbs out. He’s blond, not too tall—probably only four or five inches taller than Blake, who isn’t exactly breaking any records—and wearing a suit without a tie, the first few buttons of his shirt undone. He grins the instant he makes eye contact with Blake, and Blake realizes that he’s actually quite handsome.

“Hey!” he says. He half-walks, half-jogs across the short distance between them. “I’m Sun.”

“Blake,” Blake says, extending a hand. Shit, is she supposed to shake his hand? Are they supposed to hug? She’s somehow forgotten every season premiere she’s ever seen of this damn show. Sun doesn’t question her; he just takes her hand and shakes it enthusiastically.

“You look amazing,” he says, squeezing her hand before releasing it. Like, seriously amazing. You’re gonna make some of the guys insecure.” Blake hadn’t thought of that, but it could be an unforeseen benefit of the suit. She knows what kind of people get cast on this show; at least a few of the men will be deeply perturbed by the idea of a woman failing to be traditionally feminine at all times, and she doesn’t want to waste any time on those types. This could be a great way to weed them out early.

“Not you, I hope?” Blake says, raising her eyebrows at Sun. He shakes his head vigorously.

“Absolutely not,” he says. “You look amazing. I’m just happy to be here.” That manages to drag a genuine smile out of Blake.

“I’ll see you inside, Sun,” she says, and he’s gone again, vanished up the path into the mansion. The limousine hasn’t returned with the next contestant yet, and Blake takes a moment to breathe, settling some of her nerves. He had been nice, genuine. If Sun is any indication, maybe Blake can get through the next three months. Maybe she can even have fun.

The next dozen contestants out of the limo dispel that notion entirely. There’s a particularly nervous blonde man named Jaune, who Blake doesn’t dislike but cannot imagine wanting to date, a man with electric blue hair who does finger guns at her and immediately kills any chance he could possibly have, and a slew of generically attractive people who offer her fake smiles and talk more to the cameras than they do to her. Blake finds herself getting bored.

“Hey.” It’s Pyrrha, coming up from behind her. Blake turns to look at her, her arms slipping out of where she’s holding them stiffly behind her back. Pyrrha is carrying a water bottle, which she offers to Blake with a smile. “So,” Pyrrha says as Blake drinks. “The next one is supposed to be a little shocking to you. I can’t tell you who it is, but…just a heads up, it’s someone you know.” A chill slips down Blake’s spine.

“Is it a man?” she asks. Pyrrha hesitates, brow creasing. “Please tell me,” Blake says. “It’s important.” They can’t possibly have brought Adam here. She has restraining orders against him in all four kingdoms and Menagerie; it would be illegal. It would also not be completely out of line with things she’s seen the show do in the past.

“Not a man,” Pyrrha says. “It isn’t anyone you don’t want to see, from what I’ve been told. Just surprising, that’s all.” She smiles sheepishly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have warned you.”

“No, I appreciate it.” Blake hands the water bottle back. “Thanks, Pyrrha.” Pyrrha smiles at her, and Blake hears the limousine motor in the distance.

“Back to your spot,” someone shouts from the camera crew, and Blake can’t repress an eye roll, even as she turns around and gets back into place. The limousine pulls to a stop by the curb, and Blake puts her hands behind her back again, straightening her shoulders. The limousine door pops open, and out steps—

Ilia?” Blake says. Ilia climbs the rest of the way out of the vehicle, straightening up and meeting Blake’s gaze. She’s wearing a suit, too, with a subtle pattern to the dark fabric and a white shirt underneath.

“Hi,” Ilia says. She steps onto the path, and Blake automatically opens her arms for a hug even as her brain desperately tries to catch up to the situation. She hasn’t seen Ilia in months, not since last time she visited Menagerie, and now she’s…here? Competing on the show? The show about dating Blake?

“Ilia, what are you doing here?” Blake says as she steps back from the hug. “What’s—I don’t understand what’s happening right now.”

“I’m here to compete,” Ilia says, which Blake already knew, and which isn’t helping her comprehension of the situation at all.

“But I—you—“ Blake gestures vaguely between the two of them. “You like me?” Ilia’s jaw clenches slightly—nervousness. Ilia’s always been a terrible liar; Blake can read her emotions like a book.

“I figured it was worth a shot,” Ilia says. “We’re friends, we’re both hot. What more is there to it, right?”

“Ilia…” Blake shakes her head, still unable to quite process what’s happening right now.

“Besides, you could use a familiar face around here,” Ilia says. Her words seem…almost recited, like she’d planned what she would say on the drive over. “I’ve met some of the other contestants, and it’s a mess.” Blake can’t argue with that.

“We are going to have to talk about this,” she says. “I had no idea that you…had feelings for me.”

“Blake,” Ilia says. “Chill. It isn’t a big deal. I’m just here to see if it could be a big deal. That’s all.”

“We’re going to have a talk,” Blake says again, more firmly this time. Ilia smiles fondly at her, an expression that Blake has been seeing for years—and oh God, has it meant something this whole time?

“Okay,” Ilia says. “I’ll see you inside.” She starts to step past Blake, then pauses. She presses a quick kiss to Blake’s cheek and walks away before Blake can speak. Blake twists around to watch her walk up to the mansion, fully aware that she has a dumbstruck look on her face but unable to remove it.

Ilia has been one of her best friends since she was a kid. They’ve been in each others’ lives for two decades. Even when Blake was with Adam, he couldn’t pull her away from Ilia completely. And now Ilia wants to date her? She’d played it off, made it seem unimportant when Blake had asked, but Blake is supposed to get engaged at the end of this. Ilia can be impulsive, sure, but there’s impulse decisions and then there’s trying to get engaged to one’s best friend.

The limousine turns the corner again, and Blake is thrust back into introductions without a minute to dispel the daze that’s settled over her. She shakes hands and learns names without paying any attention to what she’s doing. She’s immensely, preemptively thankful for the list of names Pyrrha had promised her, because she’s already forgotten half the people here.

“Last one,” Pyrrha calls from her spot behind the camera crew, and Blake blinks in surprise. Somehow, she’s met twenty-nine people already. She’s been standing here for at least two hours, and the night is barely beginning. After this, she’ll have to talk to all of them, and then send half of them home. Pyrrha had warned her that they wouldn’t be done until past sunrise, but she’d thought that was an exaggeration. Apparently not.

The limousine motors sound, and the car pulls up to the curb. Blake straightens her posture one last time, facing forwards.

The limousine door opens, and Blake’s jaw drops.

It’s a woman who steps out. She’s tan, tall—taller than several of the men Blake has met tonight, even without heels—and her blonde hair falls to her waist in thick, wild waves. She’s wearing a simple purple dress, and as she gets closer, Blake realizes that it matches her eyes. She steps up in front of Blake, features slipping into an easy smile. Blake’s heart thumps in her chest.

“Hi,” the woman says.

“Hi,” Blake echoes. She makes a conscious effort to close her mouth, but she can’t stop staring. The woman is staring right back, deep purple eyes meeting Blake’s gaze without flinching. It feels—it feels intense, and Blake reaches out, unsure what she’s even reaching for. Not a handshake, or a hug; her hands hang uncertainly in the air between them for half a second before the woman catches them in her own. Her hands are warm, almost hot, and calloused where they touch Blake’s.

“I’m Yang,” she says, and Blake nods, because—well, she couldn’t possibly have expected that, but it feels right. Of course her name is Yang, of course her hands are steady and warm against Blake’s, of course she’s here; where else would she be?

“It’s nice to meet you,” Blake says, somehow managing to string words together. “You look beautiful.” Yang’s smile turns into a grin.

“You don’t look half bad yourself,” she says. “Very suave.” Blake feels herself blush, and is immensely thankful that, between her dark complexion and the fact that it’s night time, Yang probably can’t tell. Although the way her grip tightens on Yang’s hands at the words isn’t exactly keeping any secrets.

“Thank you,” Blake says, and she has another thought to voice but it escapes her completely. Yang just grins at her, and Blake’s mind empties out.

A quiet shuffling noise comes from the side of the path, and Blake suddenly remembers, for the first time since Yang stepped out of the limo, that she’s on camera. This is a show, and she needs to keep it moving. She takes a deep breath and smiles politely, trying to drag the intensity of her eye contact with Yang down a few notches.

“I’ll see you inside,” Blake says, squeezing Yang’s hands. Yang makes a face.

“You sure I can’t just steal you away right now?” she says. “I’m pretty sure I could take the limo driver in a fight.”

“You’re going to have to win the show first,” Blake says. “Then you can take me wherever you want.” She realizes as she says it that she’s mostly serious. Yang nods thoughtfully.

“Then I don’t have to steal a car,” she says. “Good thinking. I don’t need another felony on my record.” Blake stares at her until Yang clarifies, “Kidding. I think I have some unpaid parking tickets, though.” Blake shakes her head slowly.

“I’ll see you inside, Yang,” she says again, and this time, she reclaims her hands. The moment Yang’s fingertips slip away from her, Blake misses them.

“See you,” Yang repeats. She steps past Blake, close enough that their shoulders touch, and for a moment, Blake thinks she might pull the same cheek kiss move that Ilia had. Ilia had gotten away with it because they’ve been friends forever; if any of the other contestants had tried that, Blake probably would’ve told them to get back in the limo and go home. But if Yang tries it? Blake just might let her.

Yang doesn’t try it. She heads up the path towards the mansion, and this time, Blake doesn’t give a shit what the camera crew has to say. She shoves her hands in her pockets, trying to hold onto some of the warmth of Yang’s touch.

“That’s everyone, Blake.” It’s Coco, coming up from her spot off the path, and Blake shakes her head slightly, trying to remind herself again that she’s on camera. “How are you feeling?”

“A little overwhelmed,” Blake says honestly. “That was a lot.”

“It’s definitely a lot of people,” Coco says, and oh, right, Blake met other people tonight. “And it’s just the beginning. Ready to make some real connections?” Do I get a choice?

“Sure,” Blake says. Coco smiles at her.

“Let’s head inside then,” she says. “You have a toast to give.”

“Hey, Blake.” It’s Sun, emerging from the crowd of contestants with a grin on his face. “Can I steal you away for a bit?” Blake has barely lowered her glass from the obligatory toast she had stumbled through. Sun is assertive, Blake has to give him that.

“Okay,” she says. Sun’s smile widens, and he offers her his arm. Blake slips her hand around it a little awkwardly and follows him out of the room. Sun takes her down a hallway and into a room with a couch and a coffee table. A few cameramen follow them, though Pyrrha stays behind in the room with the rest of the contestants, talking to another producer. Blake does her best not to pay any of it any mind.

“So,” Sun says as he sits down on the couch. Blake settles in next to him, keeping a good few inches between their bodies. Sun makes no effort to bridge the gap; if he even notices it’s there, it doesn’t bother him. “Do you remember my name?” Blake rolls her eyes.

“Of course I do, Sun,” she says. Sun pumps his fist enthusiastically.

“Awesome, I made an impression,” he says. Blake suppresses the smile that tries to form.

“I remember you,” she says, then her eyes drop. “I don’t remember your shirt being that unbuttoned, though.” Sun glances down at himself, then back up at Blake, not a hint of shame on his face.

“I paid good money to be able to dress this slutty,” he says. “You’re lucky I’m still wearing a shirt.” Blake stares at him blankly, and Sun’s grin slips a bit. “That probably would’ve been funnier if you had context,” he says. “I’m trans.” The lightbulb goes off in Blake’s head, and she nods slowly.

“Top surgery,” she says, just to make sure she’s connected the dots right, and Sun grins.

“Yep,” he says. “Wanna see the scars?”

“You’re going to take your shirt off no matter what I say, aren’t you.”

“Yeah, probably,” Sun says. “Unless it makes you uncomfortable?” Blake shrugs. It might if Sun was pushy about it, or if he hadn’t asked. But as it is? This is definitely the least subtly she’s ever been flirted with, but Sun is respecting her physical space, and he had asked.

“Go crazy,” she says, and Sun starts rapidly unbuttoning his shirt. Blake’s eyebrows raise slightly when she realizes that he’d been hiding some impressive abs under there. Between the muscles, the easy smile, his strong jawline and genuine enthusiasm, he’s objectively very attractive, and Blake…Blake is not particularly interested.

Well, that’s fine. It’s not like she actually came here to meet the love of her life. She’ll keep Sun around, if only because he seems like fun, and who knows, maybe Blake will be able to develop an interest in him. She’s never dated thirty random strangers before; maybe it just takes some time.

“Those are scars,” Blake says, nodding in recognition as Sun pushes his shirt to the sides, revealing two thick white lines on the lower part of his chest. She isn’t sure what else to say. She doesn’t want to say anything rude, or overstep.

“Sure are,” Sun says. “And you’re cool with it? Dating a trans person?”

“Of course,” Blake says. “I’m not super familiar with the community, but I—“

“Can I cut in?” a voice interrupts. Blake looks up over her shoulder and finds a tall man with a cloyingly fake smile standing behind her, looking down at the two of them. Blake vaguely remembers him from his introduction—he had thrown a football at her; apparently he’d been an athlete in college—but she can’t recall his name. Calvin? Caden?

“We’re in the middle of a conversation,” Blake says after a moment. The man’s smile turns into a sneer as he glances at Sun.

“Yeah, I can see that,” he says mockingly. “Already got his shirt off, huh? Aren’t you moving a little fast? I thought you were classy.” Blake’s eyes narrow.

“You’re going home tonight,” she says. The man looks back at her, eyes widening.


“You’re going home tonight,” she repeats. “You can either walk away and enjoy the open bar for a few more hours before I send you home at the rose ceremony, or you can leave right now. Your choice.”

“What’s wrong with you?” the man says. “What’d I do?”

“Would one of you guys mind getting security for me?” Blake says, looking up at the camera crew.

“I’m going!” the man says, raising his hands defensively. “Crazy bitch.” Blake just about throws her glass at his retreating back for that, but she manages to restrain herself, and turns back to Sun instead. He’s staring at her with wide eyes, mouth slightly open.

“What?” Blake says. Sun shakes his head.

“That was so cool,” he says. “That was just—you really told him to fuck off, huh?” Blake can’t stop herself from glancing at the cameras. They’re not live—this footage won’t air for months—but it still seems strange to curse on TV.

“He was a jerk,” Blake says with a shrug. “And not very interesting. I didn’t remember his name.” Sun leans back against the couch, shirt still open.

“Blake,” he says. “You’re, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met.” Blake can’t suppress the smile this time, though she looks away to hide it. She will keep Sun around, she decides. He’s sweet.

“As much of a jerk as he was, though,” Blake says, “I do think I should go talk to everyone else. Can’t start playing favorites this early.”

“Aw, am I your favorite?” Sun says, putting a hand over his heart. Yang’s smiling face flashes in Blake’s mind.

“Don’t get cocky,” Blake says, standing from the couch. “It was nice talking with you, Sun.” She offers him a hand up, and Sun takes it, his touch not lingering any longer than it has to.

“I’ll see you at the rose ceremony,” he says, sticking his hands in his pockets and walking away down the hall, shirt still hanging open. Blake takes a moment in the room to collect herself, as she only has the cameramen for company.

“Hey, Blake.” It’s Pyrrha this time, not one of the contestants, coming down the hall. “How’s everything going?”

“Decently,” Blake says. “How many of them do I actually have to talk to tonight?”

“However many manage to pull you away,” Pyrrha says with a shrug. “The rose ceremony starts at five A.M.”

“Five—“ Blake goes to check her phone before remembering that she doesn’t have it. She glances at one of the clocks in the room instead. It’s a quarter past one.

“I can bring you coffee if you need it,” Pyrrha says.

“Tea,” Blake corrects automatically. “I think I’ll be okay.” She sighs. “Thanks, Pyrrha.”

“No problem,” Pyrrha says. “I should be by your side for the rest of the night, so if you change your mind, I’ve got you.” Blake starts to respond, but she’s interrupted by quiet footsteps in the hall. Pyrrha quickly moves to the side, out of the way, and reveals Jaune, who hovers awkwardly in the entrance to the room, eyes darting between Blake and Pyrrha.

“Uh, hi,” he says, looking more at Pyrrha than at Blake. “Sorry, is this a bad time?”

“No, it’s fine,” Blake says. She gestures at the couch. “Come sit.” She sits back down herself. Jaune crosses the room, looking around at each and every cameraman before he takes a seat. He puts even more space between himself and Blake than she had kept from Sun. He’s practically cuddling with the armrest.

“Hi,” he says again, actually looking at Blake this time—though he glances up at Pyrrha immediately afterwards, clearly confused by her presence. Blake hadn’t thought anyone could be more uncomfortable with being on TV than she is, but she’s clearly been outmatched.

“Just pretend I’m not here,” Pyrrha says, waving a hand at Jaune. “I’m crew, just here to help out Blake.” She smiles at him, and Jaune turns bright pink.

“Right,” he says, and finally turns to look at Blake. He’s clearly not focused on her, and maybe Blake should be offended by that, but she’s honestly just relieved that he’s more interested in Pyrrha than he is in her. He seems nice enough; this way, she can keep him around and send one of the ruder, shallower contestants home without worrying that he actually likes her.

Jaune stumbles his way through a conversation with Blake, then gets cut in on by a deeply uninteresting girl who claims to be an Instagram influencer, and who is also twenty-two. Blake decides after about thirty seconds that she’s sending the girl home tonight, though she doesn’t voice it aloud this time.

The rest of the night passes a lot like that. Blake has conversation after conversation with what she swears are the most boring people the network could’ve possibly cast. She makes a mental list of the ones she can stand and tries to remember their names for the rose ceremony. She tries to pull Ilia away repeatedly, desperately wanting a moment to talk about all of this, but other people keep getting in her way. Blake doesn’t actually have much agency in who she speaks to; whoever comes up to her first is pretty much who she’s stuck with.

Which is maybe why it’s four-thirty before Yang finds her.

Blake is taking a minute to herself—well, herself, Pyrrha, and three cameramen. She’s outside, in the small garden behind the mansion, taking deep breaths of the cold night air and actually enjoying the chill for once. It’s become boiling hot inside the mansion; too many bodies and too little space. Blake had abandoned her jacket hours ago, given it to Pyrrha to hang up somewhere and rolled up her shirt sleeves. Cold air is rolling over her forearms, drawing up goosebumps in its wake, and Blake is just closing her eyes for a moment when she hears footsteps behind her.

“Hey.” The voice is familiar to her, even after only hearing it once. She turns, and there’s Yang, standing a few yards away on the garden path.

“Hey,” Blake says, turning the rest of the way to face Yang and slipping her hands into her pockets. “You took your time.”

“Were you waiting for me?” Yang asks, smiling. Yes. Blake was. Blake is.

“Are you sure you’re going to measure up?” she says instead, avoiding Yang’s question with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. “Going last and all, I mean. At least half the people I talked to tonight had an introduction speech prepared.”

“No speeches,” Yang says. She takes a few steps closer, bringing them to a more natural conversation distance. “I—“

“Hey!” The voice comes from somewhere over Yang’s shoulder, and Yang turns to face its source, stepping a bit to the side to let Blake see, too. It’s the same man from earlier who had interrupted Blake and Sun, only he looks significantly drunker now.

“Can you get security?” Blake murmurs to Pyrrha. “I told him to leave earlier.” Pyrrha nods quickly, stepping off to the side and pressing a hand to her Bluetooth headset.

“Hey,” the man says, coming to a stop in front of them. Yang has put herself between him and Blake, crossing her arms over her chest. Blake steps up beside her and mirrors Yang’s pose. “You didn’t give me a fair chance,” the man says, pointing at Blake. “You didn’t let me talk to you.”

“You did talk,” Blake says. “And you were a dick.” The man shakes his head.

“Only ‘cause you were taking that guy’s clothes off,” he says. “That’s not allowed yet.” Blake flushes at the phrasing, the implications. The man steps closer, reaching for her arm. He never reaches her. Yang catches his wrist, her grip tight enough that her knuckles turn white.

“You’re drunk, dude,” Yang says. “And you’re already going home. Don’t get yourself arrested while you’re at it.” The man jerks his hand back, and Yang lets him go. He rubs at his wrist, glaring at her.

“Fuck you,” he says. Yang sighs, closes her eyes for a moment, and when she reopens them, they’re…intense. The look isn’t directed at Blake, but it’s forceful enough, even as an observer, that Blake’s mouth goes dry. She can only imagine how the man must feel beneath it.

“Leave,” Yang says. Her voice is low in both pitch and volume. The man takes a step back. Far up the path, at the mansion doors, Blake sees a few security officers approaching.

“Let’s go for a walk,” Blake says. Yang turns to look at her. For a moment, that intense gaze is fixed on Blake, and it weighs on her, heavy and inescapable. Then it’s gone, and Yang is blinking at her curiously. “No reason for us to be here while they deal with this,” Blake says, tipping her head at the man, who is watching the approaching security officers with a confused expression on his face.

“Sure,” Yang says. Without even thinking about it, Blake slips a hand into hers. Yang’s eyebrows raise slightly, but she laces her fingers through Blake’s and doesn’t comment on it. Blake tugs at her hand, and they start off, walking farther into the garden.

“Let’s find somewhere to sit,” Blake says as they turn a corner around a row of short trees, putting the scene on the path out of sight. “My feet hurt.” Yang smiles slightly.

“Imagine how all the girls in heels feel,” she says.

“I’d rather not,” Blake says, shuddering slightly. “My best friend didn’t think I should bother packing anything formal that wasn’t heels. I’m really, really glad I did.”

“Your best friend sounds like a crazy person,” Yang says, and Blake smiles fondly.

“She is that.” Something catches her eye. “Bench,” she says, nodding at a low stone bench a ways down the path. They make their way to it quickly, settling in side-by-side. The bench isn’t really meant for two, and Blake ends up pressed against Yang from thigh to shoulder. It doesn’t bother her. It feels…nice. Blake keeps their hands together, resting in Yang’s lap.

“I’m sorry you had to deal with that guy,” Yang says after a moment. Blake shrugs.

“He was just a jerk,” she says. “Not a big deal.”

“You seem a little shaken up, though.”

“Do I?” Blake takes stock of herself. Her breathing is a little elevated; her hand is starting to sweat in Yang’s—although that may have more to do with the fact that Yang’s entire body, everywhere it touches Blake’s, is straddling the line between warm and hot. Most telling, though, is the slightly shaky feeling throughout her entire body, the fact that she can’t quite take a steady breath.

“Yeah,” Yang says, and her voice now couldn’t be more different than it was when she told the man to leave. It’s gentle, unbearably so. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.” Blake’s next words are pulled out of her; she doesn’t mean to speak them. She can’t seem to filter herself around Yang. She’s used to saying a tenth of the things she thinks and only meaning half of what she says. But with Yang, she says anything, and it all comes out sincere. “It was just a little intense. You…were intense. That’s all.”

“Oh.” Yang’s hand loosens around Blake’s, like she’s trying to give her the space to let go. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“That’s not what I—“ Blake can’t even say that’s not what she means, because Yang does scare her. Not because of the way she had handled that man, or the way she had ever so briefly looked at Blake, but because—because— “You didn’t do anything wrong,” Blake says, tightening her grip on Yang’s hand. “You’re just—it feels like things matter, with you. Don’t you feel that?” Yang is silent for a long moment, and Blake wonders if she’s somehow come on too strong, despite the fact that Yang is here competing for a chance to marry her.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Yang says eventually. “It’s…weird.” Weird is one word for it. Blake would go with completely fucking insane or batshit stupid crazy herself.

“So, tell me about yourself, Yang…” Blake pauses. She doesn’t even know Yang’s last name.

“Xiao Long,” Yang provides.

“Yang Xiao Long,” Blake repeats. “You said no prepared introduction speeches, but I wanna hear your best improv. ”

“Alright,” Yang says. She takes a deep breath. “I’m from Patch, which is a small island off the coast up north. I grew up there and moved back after college. I’m a physical therapist. I have a younger sister, who’s basically my best friend. My favorite color is yellow.” She smiles at Blake. “How am I doing so far?”

“You sound like you’re at a speed dating event,” Blake says.

“And what is this show but glorified speed dating?” Blake shakes her head, looking away because Yang is grinning at her and it feels a bit like staring into the sun. “I like your tattoo,” Yang says after a moment.

“Thanks,” Blake says, looking down at her left forearm, where her rolled up sleeve has exposed the panther that curls across her skin. Yang’s left hand—the one that isn’t wrapped around Blake’s—comes up, and her fingertips hover over Blake’s skin hesitantly, silently asking permission. “You can touch,” Blake says, a little amused. “It’s not like it’s going to feel like anything to you.”

“Duh,” Yang says. They both know that it’s just an excuse to touch Blake, and Blake finds that she doesn’t mind. Yang traces the lines of the tattoo with careful fingertips, the contact comfortably firm. Her hand doesn’t leave the boundaries of the art, where she’d been given permission to touch. “Any meaning, or did you just show up and ask for something badass?” Yang asks.

“I got it for my dad,” Blake says, and again, it’s honesty pulled out of her by Yang’s…everything. “He has a pretty similar one that he got when I was born.”

“Huh.” Yang’s fingers stop moving, but they don’t leave her skin. “I guess you’re pretty close with your parents, then?”

“I am now. It was…complicated for awhile.” Blake sighs. “Sorry, this isn’t really first date conversation. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“It’s all good,” Yang says, but Blake shakes her head.

“I want to have fun with you,” she says. “It’s the first night. We can do all the depressing shit later.” Yang shrugs.

“Whatever order you want,” she says. “We can go back to telling each other how hot we both are, that was fun.”

“Fishing for compliments?” Blake says. Yang grins at her, unashamed.

“Mostly looking for an excuse to compliment you,” she says. “Losing the jacket is really working for you.” Blake, who has been poorly flirted with by thirty different people tonight and is sick and tired of it, covers her face with her free hand to hide her smile.

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Yang,” she says, voice completely lacking conviction.

“Aw,” Yang says. “What will, then?” She finally lifts her hand from Blake’s forearm and wraps it around the back of her hand instead, cradling Blake’s hand in both of her own. “What’s the key to your heart, Blake Belladonna?”

“I…” Blake gets distracted for a moment by how dark Yang’s eyes look in the dim moonlight. She clears her throat. “I don’t know,” she says. “Your guess is as good as mine.” It sounds like a line, but it’s true. Blake has no idea what she’s looking for.

“Hmm.” Yang pauses for a moment. “Food?” Blake shrugs, makes a face that says eh without actually saying it. “That’s good, I’m not great at cooking. Uh…music? I’m not great at singing either, but I can totally serenade you—“

“Please don’t,” Blake says, cringing.

“No promises,” Yang says. “You’re a writer, what about words? Like, poetry or something?” Blake is shaking her head before Yang is even finished speaking. Words had been all Adam had. Smart, charismatic, deceptively kind, empty words.

“No poetry,” Blake says. “Unless you want revision notes on it.”

“Damn,” Yang says. “I’m just about of ideas. Guess I’ll have to just be myself, huh?”

“I wouldn’t recommend that, either,” Blake says. “I haven’t known you long, but you seem terrible.” Yang snorts.

“Uh huh,” she says. “That’s why you’re trying to crawl into my lap.” Blake blinks, looks down, realizes that she’s somehow slid even closer to Yang on the bench. Her shoulder is a bit behind Yang’s now, allowing her to press into Yang’s side. Blake could lean up a few inches and kiss Yang if she wanted to.

She kind of wants to.

Blake feels blood rush into her face. She pulls away, extricating her hand from both of Yang’s. She’s opening her mouth, readying an apology and an excuse about the chill in the night air—and really, it would only half be an excuse; Yang is like a space heater—when someone else speaks.

“Blake?” It’s Pyrrha. There are still other people here. Blake looks over towards the voice and finds Pyrrha standing with the camera crew. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says. “But it’s time for the rose ceremony. Yang needs to go get on set, and you need to make your decisions.”

“Okay then,” Yang says. She gives Blake another smile, this one a little nervous. “See you in a bit, I guess.”

“See you,” Blake echoes. Yang stands up slowly, starts to turn away, then pauses, looking back at Blake.

“I’ve had a really good time meeting you,” she says. “Um—good luck.” Blake nods, and Yang walks away before she can respond, back up the path to the mansion. The way Yang had spoken…does she think that Blake is going to eliminate her?

Should Blake eliminate her? She doesn’t really want to. Yang is the only person here that Blake feels a spark with. Not just a spark, a…a something, a weight to their interactions. But maybe that’s exactly why Blake should eliminate her. That weight is something real, and reality TV isn’t exactly the place to build a real connection. And even if it was, Blake isn’t here for that. She’s here for her career, for money and publicity. She isn’t lonely, no matter what Weiss thinks.

“Blake?” It’s Pyrrha again, and Blake shakes her head slightly, pulling herself out of her thoughts.

“Yeah,” Blake says. She stands from the bench. It’s cold out here now that Yang’s gone. “I’m ready.”

“Just follow me inside,” Pyrrha says. “You’re almost done for tonight.”

The rose ceremony is a lot less dramatic in person than it seems on TV. Blake marks down most of her choices on a list of names in another room, and Pyrrha tells her that she’ll get to step out and check that list every few names. The contestants stand in three rows on risers, carefully positioned so that no one is obscured by a taller person in front of them.

“Everyone.” It’s Coco, striding into the room and surveying the gathered contestants with a smile. Blake is suddenly aware that this exact moment is definitely going to be on TV, and she straightens her back slightly. “Blake,” Coco says, turning to face her. “How are you feeling? How was tonight?”

“It was really good,” Blake says. “Lots of tough decisions, but…I think I’m happy with my choices.” She hasn’t made all of them yet. She’s debating between keeping Yang or a brunette woman, a journalist a few years younger than Blake herself. She had been…nice. But Blake would have to check the list to remember her name.

It shouldn’t even be a question, but Blake can’t stop herself from asking it. She can’t decide if she wants to keep Yang here, risk…risk what? Blake doesn’t know.

“Sun.” The first rose is easy, at least. Sun grins at her and climbs down from his spot in the second row of risers, moving to stand in front of her. His shirt has been (mostly) rebuttoned for the occasion. “Will you accept this rose?”

“Absolutely,” Sun says. Blake smiles back at him and tucks the rose into his lapel. He doesn’t go for a hug or anything, just returns to his spot on the riser, and Blake reaches for the next rose on the table.

“Ilia.” This one is easy, too. Blake had never gotten the chance to speak with Ilia tonight. They need to sort things out between them, and besides…it’s nice, having her here. Blake is a little comforted by the presence of a familiar face. Ilia steps forward. She isn’t quite smiling, but Blake can see the happiness in her eyes clear as day. “Will you accept this rose?”

“Of course.” Ilia speaks quietly enough that Blake wonders if the mics pick up on it. Not her problem, though. She tucks the rose into Ilia’s jacket and smiles slightly before Ilia turns away.

“Jaune.” This one isn’t quite as simple as the first two. Blake has no interest in Jaune in any capacity, really, but he’d been nice enough, and his inability to form a coherent thought in Pyrrha’s presence had been entertaining. She can eliminate him later; tonight is less about who she wants here and more about who she doesn’t.

To that end…

“Neptune.” Blue-hair finger-guns man hops down from the risers, strolling up to Blake with a shit-eating grin. Blake doesn’t like him, either, but he’s bearable enough, and Blake had spotted him and Sun talking during the cocktail party earlier. They’d seemed like they got along well. Blake will keep him around for now, for Sun’s sake if nothing else.

“Okay, quick break then we’ll get back to it,” Coco says. A few of the contestants visibly slouch, knowing that this bit won’t be in the show.

“C’mon,” Pyrrha murmurs to Blake. They step out of the room, into a side hallway where a production assistant is holding Blake’s list of names. “Eleven more,” Pyrrha says, and Blake suppresses a deep sigh. It’s already nearly six. She wants to sleep.

The next five names go quickly. Blake doesn’t care about any of them. A few ask for a hug with their rose; Blake refuses each and every one. The camera crew readjusts, and Blake goes back out to the side hall, where Pyrrha offers her water and Blake memorizes the last of the names on the list. She still hasn’t made a decision about Yang.

And then, suddenly, she’s standing next to a podium with a single rose on it, and she still hasn’t made a decision.

Blake picks up the rose and spins the stem between her fingertips. It would be so easy to say a different name. It would take her a second to send Yang home. She wouldn’t feel that weight again. This whole thing would stay exactly how Blake planned it: a business venture. A three month world tour, a paycheck, and a breakup that she won’t even cry over, won’t feel a thing about. It would be—it would be safe.

Blake realizes, then, that she’s scared, and it makes her angry.

“Yang,” Blake says, tightening her grip on the rose. She hasn’t let fear make her decisions for her in years. She won’t start now.

Yang climbs down from the back row of the risers. She smiles as she approaches Blake, but her eyes are wide. When she comes to a stop in front of Blake, the breath she takes is a little bit shaky.

“You scared me,” Yang says quietly. Blake tries to smile and can’t manage it. You scare me. But that’s not true, exactly; Yang doesn’t scare her. Blake is only afraid of what the weight between them might mean.

“Sorry,” Blake says, matching Yang’s volume. “I didn’t mean to.” She has a role to play, so she clears her throat, raises her voice. “Will you accept this rose?”

“Of course,” Yang says. She takes the flower from Blake’s hands, their fingertips brushing together. Blake can’t stop herself. She raises her arms, holding them out for a hug. Yang doesn’t hesitate a moment before stepping into it.

Yang is warm, and she smells amazing. Blake’s hands brush against her hair where it falls down her back. Her arms are strong, and she holds Blake the same way she had touched her tattoo earlier: firmly enough to be comforting without clutching, without hurting, without digging her nails in.

It’s perfect, and Blake doesn’t know how much of it she can take.

Chapter Text

“So, Blake,” Coco says, smiling. Blake tries to smile back through her exhaustion. She’d thought she would get to go to bed after the rose ceremony, but Coco had wanted an interview, so here she is, sitting on a couch in the empty first floor living room of the mansion, so tired that she’s getting dizzy every few seconds. “How do you feel? You sent a lot of people home tonight, are you sure of all your choices?”

“I am,” Blake says. “There were a few tough decisions”—there was one tough decision by the name of Yang Xiao Long—“but I’m sure I made the right ones.”

“I’m glad,” Coco says. “And what about Cardin? You sent him home before the rose ceremony even started. What drove that decision?” Cardin. That had been the man’s name.

“The way he talked to me,” Blake says with a shrug. “He was disrespectful. I don’t—respect is really important to me. Like, the most important thing to me. I’m not going to put up with that sh—stuff in a relationship.”

“Of course,” Coco says. “You know, when we talked in pre-show interviews, you seemed a little hesitant about the idea of committing to someone. Any progress on that front?” Blake had definitely not spoken to Coco in those pre-show interviews, but she imagines the information had been passed along. Coco is the face of the franchise; no need to break that illusion for viewers by admitting that there are other people involved.

“Not a lot,” Blake admits, trying for a laugh. It comes out nervous. She’s too tired to project calmness. “I mean, my casting wasn’t conventional. Usually people in my role already tried to win this thing as a contestant. They feel really, really ready, you know? Enough to try over and over to find someone to commit to. I just mentioned how much I love the show in an interview and suddenly…” She gestures around at the room. “So I’m definitely worried that I’m not ready for this. But I like the decisions I made tonight, so as long as I keep making good ones, hopefully I’ll find the right person.”

“I’m sure you will,” Coco says. “Well, I’m sure you’re tired, so I won’t keep you any longer. Have a good night, Blake.” Blake nods and stands from the couch, beyond ready to leave. Pyrrha is at her side immediately, setting a hand on Blake’s elbow and guiding her from the room.

“Tomorrow is a rest day,” she says as she leads Blake down the hall towards the elevators—because the mansion has elevators. The camera crew, mercifully, doesn’t follow, although there are stationary cameras all throughout the house, just in case something interesting happens without a crew around. Blake’s bedroom and attached bathroom are camera free, but the hallway outside is covered from multiple angles, as well as the rest of the fourth floor.

“Thank God,” Blake mutters. Pyrrha smiles at her as they stop in front of the elevators.

“Sleep as late as you want tomorrow,” she says, hitting the call button. “The shooting schedule never gets less weird. Some days you’ll have to get up at six in the morning and some days will shoot until then. The best thing you can do is sleep whenever you can, as much as you can.” Blake nods, not particularly surprised by the information but not happy with it, either. She likes having clearly scheduled days.

“Day after tomorrow is the first group date, and the day after that is your first one-on-one,” Pyrrha says. “And then another rose ceremony. It’s a busy week.” Blake nods slowly. She leans against the back of the elevator, letting Pyrrha hit the button for the fourth floor, and closes her eyes. “Hey.” Pyrrha nudges her. Blake opens one eye and finds Pyrrha smiling at her. “You okay? You need anything?”

“Just sleep, I think,” Blake says. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” The elevator dings, and they step out, heading down the hall towards Blake’s bedroom. Blake technically has the whole fourth floor to herself, but the bedroom is the only place without cameras, so she imagines she’ll spend most of her time there. “You can call the number on the bedside table whenever you want food or anything,” Pyrrha says. “Someone will bring it up to you. You aren’t really supposed to leave the fourth floor tomorrow, too much of a chance you’ll run into a contestant, but if you want to take a walk or something just call and ask for me. I’ll sneak you out. Let’s see, what else? We need your list of contestants for the group date by midnight tomorrow, so take your time on that if you need it. If you have someone in mind for the one on one, don’t take them on the group date. It looks like favoritism, the audiences don’t like it. I think that’s it.”

“Okay,” Blake says. “Thanks, Pyrrha.”

“No problem.” Pyrrha stops walking as they reach Blake’s door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“See you.” Blake doesn’t have the energy to muster up a more polite goodbye, and she doubts Pyrrha cares anyway. She just walks into her bedroom and closes the door behind her, hoping she’ll have enough energy to change into pajamas before she falls asleep.

“Morning, everybody!” Blake shouts as she strolls up the path that wraps around the mansion. She’s headed for the back patio, which is separate from the garden. The house, and the surrounding property, really are too goddamn big.

“Morning!” a chorus of voices calls back. The contestants she’d picked out for the group date—eight of them—are waiting for her on the patio, spread out across a collection of deck chairs. Her eyes skim across them as she approaches, blending right over Jaune, Neptune, and a few other contestants before settling on Yang.

Yang couldn’t be dressed less like she had the other night. The purple dress has been replaced by a bright orange tank top—a color that has no right to be as flattering on anyone as it is on Yang—denim shorts, and white sneakers. She’s stretched out on a deck chair, arms tucked behind her head, and as Blake stops at the edge of the patio, she lowers one to take her sunglasses off and meet Blake’s eyes. Her eyes sparkle in the sunlight, looking a much lighter shade of lilac than they had in the moonlight the night before.

“How are you guys doing today?” Blake asks, tearing her gaze away to address the group at large. The group mumbles a few “good”s back, and Blake kind of feels like a kindergarten teacher or a camp counselor, asking a class for group responses. From her chair, Yang grins at her, and Blake blames the warmth in her face on the sun. “Well, the plan for today is a hike, and then a drink. Sound good to everyone?” Another chorus of “yes”s. “Okay, well, let’s get to the van.”

It’s not a limo taking them anywhere this time; it’s a big, black van with four rows of seats, almost like a miniature bus. Blake notices as she slides into the passenger seat that it’s filled with cameras. There’s one on the dashboard, and one on either side of the ceiling above each row of seats. No one in the van could escape a close up, if one was desired by the editors.

The contestants bicker a bit about who gets to sit closest to Blake. Jaune doesn’t participate, visibly intimidated by a few of the other guys as they argue over who should sit in the second row of seats. Yang, for her part, doesn’t participate either, though she doesn’t look at all intimidated by the arguing. She just smiles at Blake through the passenger side window, eyes tragically obscured by her sunglasses once more, before she climbs into the very back row of seats in the van.

“The drive will be short,” the man behind the wheel murmurs to Blake. She’s about ninety percent sure he’s the same man who had been driving the limo on the first night, though she hadn’t gotten a good look at his face that day. “I can play music if you’d like.”

“Just the radio is fine,” Blake says. “Maybe it’ll keep them from talking to me.” Oh, fuck, she definitely said that loud enough for the mics to pick up. The driver—what had Pyrrha called him? Ren?—just smiles and hits a button on the dash. Some top 40 song or another comes through the speakers, not loud enough to prevent conversation but definitely loud enough to distract from it.

“So, Blake,” Neptune says from the seat directly behind Blake. The music isn’t loud enough, apparently. With a near-silent sigh, Blake twists in her seat to look at him. “What’d you do with your day off? Must’ve been really boring up there all alone, huh?”

“Not particularly,” Blake says. She almost makes a comment about how she enjoys her own company more than she does most of the contestants’, but she holds it back. One irritated remark on camera per day is probably enough. “I read, mostly. I brought a lot of books with me.” She’d discovered that the armchair in her room is light enough to move if she tries hard enough. She’d shifted it directly into the sunlight from her windows and made her way through almost all of one of the novels she brought with her from Atlas. It had been an excellent time.

“Books?” Neptune says. “Isn’t that kinda like homework, since you’re a writer?” Blake lets her amusement draw a smile out of her, though she doesn’t think Neptune is trying to be funny.

“Not at all,” she says. “It’s very relaxing.”

“Huh,” Neptune says. “I haven’t read since I was in school, so I guess I wouldn’t know. Hey, where did you go to school, anyway?”

Blake indulges him in the small talk for the duration of the drive. As Ren had said, it isn’t long, Neptune is amusing enough, and she figures it will give her a good excuse to not pull him aside later, during the second half of the group date where she’s expected to spend one-on-one time with each of the contestants. Maybe she can use the time she would’ve given him with Yang.

Blake’s eyes flick to the back of the van at the thought. Yang is talking to Jaune, who’d taken the other seat in the back row. Blake can’t hear a word of it from this distance, with the van engine and the music playing, but she can’t imagine the conversation is all that riveting. Yang, on the other hand, Blake would be perfectly happy to look at all day.

She doesn’t let herself. They get out of the van in a parking lot, at the base of a short hiking trail that will lead them along a creek and then up the back side of a hill. At the top is a fancy hipster bar that the network has rented out for the day. The camera crew and Pyrrha, who had all been transported in a separate van, join them, and Blake briefly explains the route before setting off into the woods.

It doesn’t take her much effort to establish a lead over the rest of the group. When she was younger, Blake had spent a lot of time hiking on Menagerie, where it was a lot hotter and there were a lot more irritating insects. Since moving to Atlas, she’s returned to it, though she doesn’t care much for the boreal forests and expanses of tundra there. Because of her practice, she’s more adept at walking quickly over uneven terrain than any of the contestants—though, when Blake pauses at a fork in the trail near the top of the hill and turns around to look, she notes Yang’s easy strides and lack of visible exertion. She imagines Yang could catch up if she wanted to. She wonders why she doesn’t.

Pyrrha is walking with the group of contestants, rather than with Blake. As Blake watches, she says something to Jaune, who predictably turns bright red. A moment later, he stumbles, colliding with Yang head first—straight into Yang’s nose.

Fuck,” Yang says. One of her hands goes up to clutch at her face, and the other grabs Jaune by the shoulder. Blake inhales sharply, waiting for Yang to roughly shove him away. She doesn’t. She holds his shoulder tightly until Jaune has found his footing again, and then lets him go.

“I’m so sorry,” Jaune says immediately. “I tripped, I—I’m so sorry.” Blake digs her fingernails into her palms. She’s expecting that same intensity from the other night to make a reappearance. She’s expecting Yang to level that heart-stopping gaze on Jaune and tell him to fuck off.

“It’s all good, dude,” Yang says, clapping his shoulder with a palm and then going to touch her face with both hands. “It was an accident. Shit, that hurts, though.” She lowers one of her hands, and Blake’s heart twists at the sight of blood. She starts to take a step forward, but Pyrrha beats her to it.

“Here you go, Yang,” she says, holding out a pack of tissues. Yang grabs it from her, grimacing at her own bloody fingers. “Do you think it’s broken?”

“Definitely not,” Yang says, pressing a tissue to her nose. “Just bruised. Really, really unpleasant, though.”

“Are you guys okay?” Blake says, finally stepping forwards. The entire group of contestants turns to look at her, and Blake shifts in place uncomfortably.

“Yeah, we’re good,” Yang says after a moment. Blake nods. She feels a bit useless, and worse than that, superfluous, despite the fact that this whole show is mean to be about her. That might be her own fault, though, for refusing to talk to any of her suitors.

“Okay,” she says quietly. Yang holds her gaze. She’s taken off her sunglasses at some point during the hike, and the sunlight is striking her eyes, revealing a glossy sheen of tears from the hit to her nose. There are freckles on her shoulders, Blake realizes. She hadn’t noticed that before.

Yang opens her mouth, and Blake turns away, regaining her lead on the contestants as fast as she possibly can without running. Moments like that are exactly what had made Blake pick Yang for the group date, instead of the one-on-one. All Yang does is look at her, and Blake is transfixed, vulnerable. It’s too much for Blake to take.

And that’s the damn fear talking again.

“Hey.” Pyrrha has caught up with her. Blake glances up at her, then back at the group. The two of them are far enough ahead that the rest of them likely can’t hear anything.

“Hi,” Blake says. Pyrrha sighs, and gives her a look. It’s too nice to be scolding, but it’s definitely not pleased.

“You need to talk to everyone more,” Pyrrha says bluntly. “The camera crew are a little upset. They probably won’t be able to use any of this footage.” Blake stares down at her shoes, tracking each footfall on the path.

“Right,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Pyrrha says. “I know the group date setting is awkward. It’ll be easier to pull people aside up at the bar. Just—in the future, try to talk to everyone, you know?” Blake nods, and Pyrrha gives her a smile before slowing down, slipping away from Blake’s side and rejoining the group of contestants.

Blake doesn’t quite take Pyrrha’s advice during the short rest of the hike, though. She really is a fast hiker, and the rest of the group can’t keep up with her—maybe Yang could, as Blake had noticed, but she hadn’t tried even before she was walking with a bloody nose. At the thought, Blake shoots a glance over shoulder and finds Yang no longer pressing tissues to her nose. There’s blood on her face, and a bruise already forming around her nose, but she’s talking to Jaune still, and as Blake watches, she laughs at something he’s said—and then immediately hisses in pain, touching her nose.

She doesn’t even seem upset that she’s been injured. The headbutt had been an accident on Jaune’s part, of course, but to a lot of people, that wouldn’t matter. Yang had already shown herself to be capable of intimidation. Cardin, the other night, had been afraid of her. But she isn’t turning that on Jaune.

“Almost there!” Blake calls over her shoulder to the contestants as she reaches the top of the hill. The bar she had been promised is just ahead of her. There’s an outdoor seating area, but Blake eyes the presumably air-conditioned inside with interest. She forces herself to wait outside as the contestants and the camera crew finish the climb.

Yang reaches the top of the hill first. She meets Blake’s gaze, bloodstained mouth twisting into a small smile. She seems like she’s about to say something, and Blake opens her mouth to beat her to it—

“Yang.” It’s Pyrrha, stepping up next to Yang. “You should go get cleaned up, and I can ask the staff about getting you some ice for your nose.”

“Right,” Yang says. Her eyes don’t leave Blake’s. “Audiences don’t wanna see me looking all gross, huh?”

“Injuries aren’t always the best thing to show on a dating show,” Pyrrha agrees. “Go find a bathroom, okay?” Yang nods slowly. Finally, she looks away from Blake and walks past her, into the bar. Blake’s heart does a terrible flip-flop in her chest. “You,” Pyrrha says, turning to look at Blake, “look like you need a drink.” Blake lets out a laugh that’s more of an exhale than anything.

“Probably,” she says. She turns to the gathered contestants, preemptively exhausted by the thought of having to entertain them all. “What about you guys?”

“I’m always down for a free drink,” Neptune says from the front of the group, grinning at her. The sentiment is echoed by the other contestants, and Blake takes that as her cue to lead them into the bar.

The space is nice: wood furnishings, sunlight coming in the windows, sparkling clean floors. The bartender nods at them as they come in and completely ignores the cameras. What Blake notices more than anything else is that Yang isn’t in the room. Of course she isn’t; she’s probably in the bathroom washing the blood off her face and hands, but Blake notices her absence.

Pyrrha disappears immediately, and Blake walks up to the bar with the contestants, nodding absently as they chatter at her. It’s a bit like talking to toddlers: feign a little attention, ask a question or two, and they mostly occupy themselves. Blake is doing the absolute bare minimum to make the footage of this part of the date usable.

Jaune splits off from the group first. Blake pays him no mind when he does so. A few other contestants drift off to a table, discussing gym techniques, and then Neptune brings up the idea of starting a darts game. That gets the last of them to walk away, though not before dragging a half-hearted promise out of Blake that she’ll join after she finishes her drink.

She’s oddly satisfied that, on a dating show where she is the only one being dated, she’s managed to convince everyone to leave her alone.

“Hey.” Well, almost everyone. Blake turns on her barstool and finds Yang climbing up beside her. She’s smiling, though Blake can hardly tell beneath the bag of ice Yang has pressed against her nose.

“Hello,” Blake says. “You’ve been gone for awhile. Did the nose end up needing surgery?”

“Oh, yeah, they tried to operate but it’s fatal,” Yang says. “I was just kind of hovering. I didn’t want to get in the middle of…” She gestures vaguely at the other end of the room, where Neptune and his dart players have set up. “That.”

“Fair enough.” Blake pauses for a moment to examine Yang. She swears her eyes are a different shade of purple in every type of light she’s seen Yang under. “How’s the nose?”

“Not bad.” Yang shrugs. “I do some boxing back home, so I’ve taken worse hits.” Blake has a brief vision of Yang in boxing gloves and athletic wear, muscles flexing as she throws a punch. It’s…not unappealing. “What about you?” Blake blinks at her.

“What about me?”

“You just don’t seem that excited to be here, that’s all,” Yang says. “You were pretty determined to be left alone on the hike. Everything okay?”

“I’m a fast walker,” Blake says. Yang smiles at her, leaning one elbow on the bar.

“So am I,” she says. “But it didn’t seem like you would’ve appreciated it if I had caught up. And you didn’t seem super interested in those guys talking to you, either.”

“For all you know, this is me at my most enthusiastic,” Blake says, utterly monotone. “I could be having the time of my life right now.”

“Uh-huh.” Yang leans in slightly, and when did they get this close? Somehow they’ve drifted to the edges of their barstools, knees brushing, faces inches apart. “Are you?”

The question is pointed. It’s hardly even a question; Yang is clearly confident that she already knows the answer. And she does. She’s read Blake perfectly. Granted, Blake has been standoffish with everyone since the date began, but she’s always standoffish. It’s her thing. What would be clear disinterest if anyone else did it is just her default state. No one else has noticed a difference today except Yang. It makes Blake feel…exposed.

“Blake!” It’s Neptune, calling from across the bar. “Come play, we’re starting a new round!” Yang raises her eyebrows at Blake—a question. Them or me. Blake hesitates, hesitates, unable to look away from Yang and unwilling to continue allowing Yang to sit here and understand her.

A quiet laugh echoes from across the room. It isn’t any of the contestants, and Blake glances towards its source curiously. She finds Pyrrha, standing near the dart players, talking to Jaune. She’d been the one to laugh, and as Blake watches, she does it again. A proud grin spreads across Jaune’s face.

Huh. Apparently Jaune’s interest isn’t one-way. Blake will have to keep him around awhile longer.

Blake turns back to Yang, who is still looking at her curiously, but the spell is broken. Blake smiles politely at her and says, “Sounds like I have a game waiting for me.” Yang lowers the bag of ice from her face, and Blake winces at the bruise it reveals. No matter what Yang says, that must hurt.

“Have fun, then,” Yang says. “Win for me, okay?” Blake nods and pulls herself away before Yang can suck her back in, before she can forget where she is and why again.

Blake picks Sun for the one-on-one date.

She’d considered Ilia; she’d strongly considered Ilia. It would make the most sense. She needs to have a conversation with Ilia. Sun is just…fun. But after the group date, the way Yang had read her and the strange feeling Blake had over Yang’s reaction to her injury, Blake wants fun. However her conversation with Ilia goes, when it eventually happens, it won’t be fun.

So Blake picks Sun.

They meet out in the parking lot at the mansion. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is burning hot in the cloudless sky, and there’s a light breeze rolling in from the ocean. It’s a perfect day, actually, for what Blake has been told is the plan for the one-on-one.

“Blake!” Sun shouts the moment she steps out of the mansion doors. He waves at her frantically from his spot beside the van. “Hey!” Blake lets the sight get a smile out of her. She shakes her head as she approaches him, the asphalt hot beneath her flip-flops.

“Hey, Sun,” she says, coming to a stop in front of him. “You look prepared.” He’s shirtless, wearing a pair of truly horrendous floral patterned board shorts and flip-flops.

“I have no idea where we’re going,” he says cheerfully. “They said to dress to be outside, and that I didn’t need to wear a shirt.”

“And this was your go-to outfit?” Blake says, raising an eyebrow. She’s only seen Sun in the rather nice suit he wore the first night. This is…certainly a departure.

“Sure was!” Sun says. “So, where are we headed? What’s the plan?”

“Get in the van, and I’ll tell you,” she says. Sun obeys, pulling the side door of the van open and climbing in. Blake climbs in after him, deciding to sit beside him in the second row rather than in the passenger’s seat up front.

“We,” Blake says as she hunts for her seatbelt, “are having a beach day.”

“Oh fuck yes.” Blake is a little taken back by the enthusiasm. Sun is practically vibrating in his seat. “I live so far from the beach in Vacuo, dude. There’s so much sand and no water, it’s a crime.” He looks over at her. “Aren’t you excited!?”

“I guess,” Blake says. She’s half-smiling. His excitement is infectious. “I grew up on Menagerie, which was like, all beach all the time, so it’s not that interesting to me. I mean, I like beaches, and I miss them now that I live in Atlas, but they’re not that exciting to me.”

“I had no idea you were from Menagerie,” Sun says. “What was it like growing up there?” Blake shrugs.

“Hot, mostly,” she says. She doesn’t offer any further explanation. She has a complicated relationship with her home. She loves the island, she loves her parents, and she hates everything that was done to her there.

“Huh.” Sun doesn’t press for more information. Blake wonders briefly if he’s managed to read her like Yang had, if he somehow knows she doesn’t want to share, but—“Hey, do you think the driver would stop for coffee if we asked really nicely?”

“I will not,” Ren says from the front seat. Sun jerks slightly in place.

“Oh, shit, I forgot you guys talk,” he says. “I mean—like, the camera crew just doesn’t talk, ever, so I’ve gotten used to people not saying anything when I talk to them. Sorry, dude.” Ren lifts a hand from the steering wheel and waves it dismissively. Sun turns his wide-eyed gaze to Blake. “This isn’t just a me problem, right?” he says. “Do you ever forget they can talk?” Blake suppresses a laugh, but can’t stop her amused smile.

“No, I don’t, Sun,” she says.


The rest of the brief ride to the beach passes quickly enough. Sun is easy to talk to, and Blake catches Ren’s amused gaze on the two of them in rearview mirror more than once. Then the van is pulling to a stop, and Blake twists around to grab the beach bag and the cooler the producers had loaded the van with off the seats behind them.

The beach is well populated, but the two of them and the camera crew—emerging from their own van—are given a wide berth by the rest of the beachgoers. They set their things down on a nice flat spot of sand, and Blake locates a beach blanket in the bag. She spreads it out and settles down. She has to squint against the sun even through her sunglasses, and she’s immensely glad that she had applied sunscreen before she even left the mansion. She doesn’t burn easily, but it’s happened before, albeit rarely.

“Dude, it’s the ocean,” Sun says, lying down beside her and propping himself up on his elbows. “That’s so cool.” Blake snorts. “Hey, you’re just, like, desensitized,” he says, pointing at her. “I live in a desert. Do you know when I last saw this much water? Because I sure don’t.”

“If you make it to the last few weeks, you’ll love Menagerie,” Blake says. “I’ll take you snorkeling or something.” Sun goes quiet for a moment.

“Do you think I’ll make it that far?” he asks, uncharacteristically quiet. Blake blinks at him, considers it. She…had kind of assumed he would. She likes him more than anyone else here except for Ilia and—of course—Yang, and she hasn’t decided what to do about either of them yet. Sun seems like the easy choice. But she also doesn’t like him in the getting-engaged kind of way, even if it’s just for reality TV. She doesn’t want to just date him for the show and never see him again afterwards, and she doesn’t want to date him for real.

Maybe she could want that, though. Maybe she could learn to.

“I think there’s one way to find out,” Blake says. She reaches out, setting a palm on Sun’s bare chest. His skin is warm beneath her touch, and he blinks up at her curiously. Blake holds his gaze for a long moment, giving him time to pull away. He doesn’t, so she leans in and kisses him.

It’s…not good. There’s nothing wrong with it, really; Sun isn’t a bad kisser or anything, but Blake realizes immediately that she is not interested. So she lets it last just a bit longer for the cameras and then pulls away.

Sun is frowning at her.

“Do you wanna go get in the water?” he says. Apparently they’re not going to talk about it.

“Uh, sure.” Blake lifts her hand away from him and Sun bounces to his feet. Blake follows more slowly, stripping out of her clothes as she stands. Weiss had tried to make her buy extra swim clothes for the show, but Blake had decided to stick with what she had: a modest purple bikini that’s just high-waisted enough to cover the lump of scar tissue on her hip.

“C’mon,” Sun says, extending a hand. Blake takes it, and he leads her down the beach into the surf.

The water is cold. Not as cold it is on the Atlas coastline in the summers, where one would need an insulated wetsuit to go swimming in July, but not nearly as warm as the tropical waters in Menagerie. Blake shivers slightly and hopes that, whatever Sun is planning to do in the water, he can do it quickly.

Oh, God, he’s not hoping for another kiss, is he? Blake has seen more than a few ocean make-out sessions on this show before, and she has no desire to take part in one.

“Okay,” Sun says when he’s waist-deep in the water, and Blake is up to her ribs. “I don’t think the mics can hear us out here.”

“…What?” Blake says.

“The mics,” Sun repeats. “I know I, like, signed up to get rejected on TV, but I’d rather crash and burn without the audio.” Blake stares at him. Sun pulls a face. “Look, that kiss was—weird, right?”

“Yeah,” Blake says, relief flooding through her. “Yeah, it was weird.”

“Okay,” Sun says. “Well, glad to know it wasn’t just me.” He pauses. “We’re supposed to be friends, huh? Not…” Blake nods.

“If you want,” she says. “I like you, Sun. I just didn’t like…” She makes a vague gesture between them.

“We’re on the same page,” Sun says, nodding. “So I guess this means you send me home?” Blake sighs, glancing back at the shoreline—where five or six cameras are all pointed straight at them—then out across the ocean, to where the water disappears into the sky. “Blake?” Sun says. “You okay?”

“To be…really honest with you,” Blake says, looking back at him. “I mostly took this role for the money.” It’s a stupid, stupid thing to admit to practically a total stranger. It couldn’t get her fired or anything, but if Sun leaks this conversation to TMZ, audiences will hate Blake, and the plan for this show to be good publicity for her writing will blow up in her face. But she likes him, and she wants to trust him, so she keeps talking. “I was hoping that I would like you, because you’re one of like five people here I can stand, but…it wouldn’t be fair to keep you around, knowing it won’t work out.” She sighs. “I’ll send you home at the rose ceremony.”

“Or,” Sun says. “You could not do that.”


“Listen, I came here looking to have fun,” he says. “And to fall in love if it happened, but mostly to have fun. And I’m just saying, if you know we’re just friends, and I know we’re just friends, the producers don’t need to know we’re just friends.”

“You want to stay?” Blake says. Sun shrugs.

“If you don’t mind keeping me around,” he says. “They’re doing a whole world tour, Blake. Free flights everywhere. And so much free food.” Blake smiles slightly, shaking her head.

“Okay,” she says. “So we’re…friends who are letting everyone think that we might get engaged?”

“Works for me,” Sun says.

“Sounds good,” Blake says, and violently shivers. “Can we go back to the beach now?” Sun extends his hand, and Blake takes it. It’s infinitely more comfortable now without the pretense of romance over it.

They goof off on the beach for awhile, joining a volleyball game with a group of suspiciously good-looking and camera-comfortable beachgoers. Blake wonders vaguely how one goes about getting cast as an extra on a reality dating show. Then Sun insists on taking Blake for shaved ice at the little hut on the far end of the beach. The cameras follow them at a respectful distance, but the moment they settle down on a rock with their cups of shaved ice, the crew closes in. Blake swears they can smell drama coming.

Because it is coming—or at least, what would normally cause drama on this show is.

“So, I’m gonna do the thing you’re never supposed to do on this show,” Blake says. Sun pauses, a plastic spoon loaded with bright red ice halfway to his mouth. He looks at her blankly. “I’m gonna ask you about another contestant.”

“Oh,” Sun says. He eats the shaved ice, then says, “Cool. Who?”

“Yang,” Blake says, and Sun gets a knowing look on his face that Blake doesn’t like one bit. “I just—I wanted to know what you thought of her. How she acts around the other contestants when I’m not around.”

“Yang’s awesome,” Sun says. “I know I said you’re the coolest person I’ve ever met, but she’s, like, your biggest competition. Everybody likes her. I think even Ilia likes her, and she doesn’t like anyone.”

“And she’s nice?” Blake says.

“Yeah,” Sun says. He frowns slightly. “Has she not been nice to you?”

“She’s been really nice to me,” Blake says softly. “I just wanted to know if that was a me thing or a her thing.” Sun doesn’t look like he understands, and Blake shakes her head, moving on to something else that had caught her attention. “You said Ilia doesn’t like anybody?”

“Not really,” Sun says. “I mean, she’s not mean or anything—well, sometimes she’s mean, but not when it’s uncalled for. She just doesn’t seem like she’s interested in making friends, and I don’t think the fact that we’re all here to date you is helping.” Blake closes her eyes, feeling that observation form a pit in her stomach.

She really needs to talk to Ilia.

“Okay,” Blake says. “Thanks, Sun. I won’t do this again.”

“It’s no big deal.” Sun leans back on the rock, and Blake realizes that he’s somehow eaten his entire shaved ice in the past two minutes. Her own is melting; she better get a move on. “So, is asking about other contestants against the rules?”

“You’ve never seen this show, have you?” Blake asks. Sun grins at her.


“As soon as I finish eating, I’ll explain all the unspoken rules to you,” she says, pointing her spoon at him. “Give you the best possible chance at getting to Menagerie.”

“You’d better,” Sun says. “I really wanna go snorkeling.”

Blake makes the first move at the cocktail party the following night. Before anybody can pull her aside, she goes straight for Ilia.

“Hey,” she says, setting a hand on Ilia’s arm. Ilia is in a suit again, not the same one as the first night but quite similar in cut and color. Blake, for her part, is in heels and a purple dress that she’s realized bears a resemblance to the one Yang had worn the first night—which is, for some reason, imprinted into her memory. “We should talk.”

“Okay,” Ilia says, putting on a nervous smile. Blake leads her out of the main hall of the mansion—which is significantly less crowded with the number of contestants halved—and outside onto the patio. Since the other day, someone has set up a bench swing out here, and Blake leads Ilia over to it. It’s not quite big enough, and they’re left touching in several places as they sit down. There isn’t a person on this planet that Blake is more comfortable with than Ilia—she’s family, just as much as Weiss or Blake’s parents—but she wishes the bench was just a little bit bigger.

“So,” Blake says, twisting her drink in her hands as she turns to look at her best friend. “We’ve barely gotten a chance to talk.”

“You could’ve taken me on the one-on-one,” Ilia points out. It’s not quite jealousy, but it’s not far off, either.

“Yeah, I could’ve.” Blake sighs. “Ilia, I just—I need you to be honest with me.”

“I always am.” Ilia bumps their shoulders together.

“Are you interested in me?” Blake asks. “Genuinely. Do you want to date me?” Ilia stares at her.

“Yeah, I do,” she says, and Blake’s heart sinks. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“This is a show where people get engaged at the end,” Blake says, a little desperately. She’s looking for the line, the point where Ilia will say no, I’m just kidding, I didn’t mean it, and Blake won’t have to break her heart. “Are you that kind of interested?”

“We don’t have to actually get engaged at the end of this,” Ilia says. “It’s pretty fast. But eventually…yes. I’m that kind of interested, Blake.” Blake slumps back against the bench and covers her face with her hands. She doesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want any of this. She doesn’t want Ilia to want her, she doesn’t want to say no, she doesn’t want to do it on TV where millions of people will see Ilia get hurt. No one would cope well with this kind of rejection getting broadcast across the world, and especially not Ilia, who has always been proud to a fault.

Beside Blake, Ilia shifts uncomfortably.

“Look,” she says, setting a hand on Blake’s shoulder. “I know it’s a lot to take in, okay? I’ll give you some space. We can talk more about it later.” Before Blake can stop her—though if she’s being honest with herself, she doesn’t really try—Ilia gets up and walks away. Blake is left alone on the bench, or at least, as alone as she can ever possibly be in this house.

Blake takes a few minutes to calm down, and the cold night air is about to drive her back inside when a new set of footsteps approaches. Blake looks up and finds Yang walking towards her. She’s wearing a simple white dress tonight, and the moment Blake sees it she’s reminded again that she’s supposed to get engaged in a few months. That she’s meant to marry the person she picks at the end of this.

Yang looks good in white.

“Hey,” Yang says. “Mind if I sit?” Blake’s heart does an odd sort of twist, trying to feel comforted by Yang’s presence and apprehensive of it at the same time. She nods instead of speaking, and Yang settles in beside her on the bench. Yang is taller and broader than Ilia, and they shuffle awkwardly for a moment, trying to fit in the small space, before Yang lifts an arm, setting it across the back of the bench behind Blake’s shoulders.

“Is that okay?” Yang says after a moment, when Blake stiffens at the almost-contact. “I can move—“

“It’s alright,” she says. “We’re not going to fit otherwise.”

“Okay.” Yang pauses, examining Blake closely, and Blake averts her gaze. “So, feel free to call me crazy if I’m wrong here, but…it kind of felt like you were avoiding me on the group date the other day.”

“In my defense,” Blake says, “I was avoiding everyone for most of it.” Yang nods.

“And then you left when I asked you about it,” she says. Blake flinches. Caught.

“You’re not crazy,” she says, because she knows how it feels to be told that she is and she has no desire to ever inflict that on Yang. “I was.” Yang is quiet for a moment.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asks. Blake shakes her head, hard enough that it hurts a bit.

“Not at all,” she says. “You just—I—“ She takes a deep breath. Yang’s hand falls from the back of the bench onto Blake’s shoulder, squeezing gently. It’s an immensely comforting gesture, and Blake feels her heartbeat settle down. “My last relationship,” she begins, and oh, God, she’s really talking about this. To someone other than Weiss or her therapist, and on camera, no less. It’s Yang, is what it is; it’s the damn honesty that she seems to inspire in Blake, the need to spill her insides across the floor and beg for Yang to look at them. “My only relationship, really. I was with him for a long time, and he was—at the start, he was kind, and charismatic, and—charming, I guess. But it was an act.” She pauses.

“I’m not an act,” Yang says quietly.

“I know,” Blake says. “I asked Sun about you. He said you’re the same when I’m not around.”

“I’m glad Sun likes me,” Yang says. “But you could’ve just asked me, Blake. You can trust me.” Blake shakes her head, her hands coming up to grip at her elbows like she’s hugging herself.

“I couldn’t,” she says. “I just needed to know for sure.”

“Blake,” Yang says. Blake looks up at her. “Ask me what my favorite color is.”


“Just do it.”

“What’s your favorite color?” Blake shakes her head slightly as she speaks, utterly lost.

“Black,” Yang says. Her brow tenses. The corner of her mouth twists slightly, and Blake realizes—

“You’re lying.”

“Yeah.” Yang grins at her. “I’m a terrible liar, Blake. If you need to know you can trust me, you don’t need to ask someone else. All you have to do is look at me.”

“That’s…definitely good to know,” Blake says, a little dumbstruck. “What’s your actual favorite color?”

“Yellow,” Yang says. “So, that’s the whole reason you were avoiding me? You were just worried I was fake?” She sounds relieved.

“That was all,” Blake says. “What did you think it was?” Yang sighs, turning her glass in her free hand. It’s just water, Blake notes, despite the fact that there’s an open bar and an endless amount of free alcohol inside.

“You called me intense, that first night,” she says. “And I am. I know that. I was worried I already scared you away.”

“Oh.” Blake feels guilt drip into her chest. “Oh, no, Yang, I—you are intense, but I’m not scared off, okay? I’m still…very interested.” Yang smiles at her, and her arm is laid across Blake’s shoulders now, instead of the top of the bench. When did that happen? Blake doesn’t have a problem with it. Yang’s arm is bare, as is much of Blake’s upper back due to the cut of her dress, and it’s the most skin-to-skin contact they’ve had since they hugged at the first rose ceremony. It’s intoxicating.

“Yeah?” Yang says. She’s very close now, and but Blake is noticing that Yang has the faintest spread of freckles across her nose and cheeks. They’re almost invisible against her tan skin. Blake imagines that not many people have ever been close enough to see them.

“Yang,” Blake says. “Can I…” It seems important to ask, for some reason—not that she imagines Yang would refuse. Her eyes flick down to Yang’s mouth and back up, making her intentions clear.

Yang leans in, and Blake just about implodes when she aims for the side of Blake’s face instead of her lips. She presses a kiss to Blake’s cheek, then leans farther forward, her lips brushing against Blake’s ear.

“Can you wait a few hours?” she whispers, mouths, so quietly that there’s no way anyone could hear it but the two of them. Not the camera crew, not the microphones pointed at them, not the audience whenever this moment plays on TV. Just them.

“What?” Blake says, pulling back slightly to frown at Yang.

"Can you?” Yang says. Blake genuinely considers saying no, because she isn’t sure she can, but eventually, she nods.

“Why?” she asks.

“Just trust me, okay?” Yang says, and Blake—Blake does. She trusts Yang.

“Okay,” she says. Yang smiles at her, leans in again and rests their foreheads together for a moment. It’s a gesture Blake is familiar with, one her parents used with her as a child and still often use with each other, and she wonders where Yang got it.

“I’ll see you soon,” Yang says, and pulls away.

The rose ceremony is a lot shorter tonight than it was last week. Blake’s choices are easy; she keeps Yang and Sun around, along with Jaune, Neptune, and a few others. She’s down to ten contestants now, and the hardest choice is Ilia.

She should send Ilia home. She shouldn’t let this go on any longer. Ilia’s feelings for her run deep, deeper than she had let on that first night out of the limo. That much is clear, and it’s also clear that Blake doesn’t return them. She would by now if she was going to, if she could. She should cut this off now. She doesn’t want to hurt Ilia by leading her on; she’s too important to Blake.

But, by the same token, Blake doesn’t want to end things between them with a stupid fucking rose ceremony. With some reality TV bullshit, without explaining herself to Ilia, on camera for the world to see in a few months. Ilia deserves better than that. Their friendship deserves better than that.

So Blake gives her a rose, and the way Ilia grins at her as she accepts it makes Blake feel sick to her stomach.

“Tomorrow is packing day,” Pyrrha tells her as they stand in the elevator, on their way up to Blake’s room. “I’ll be up here to help out if you need me. You have the whole day to yourself otherwise, just make sure you’re ready to catch a flight the day after. Don’t leave anything important behind.”

“Right,” Blake says. She can’t believe they’re already on to the travel part of the show. Off to Vacuo, where Blake has never actually been, and then to Atlas, where she has spent far too much of her life already. She’s looking forward to Vacuo, though. The desert is supposed to be a stark kind of beautiful.

“Need anything else tonight?” Pyrrha says, coming to a stop at Blake’s door. Blake shakes her head. “Good night, then,” Pyrrha says. “Have fun.” …What? Blake frowns at Pyrrha, confused, but Pyrrha just smiles and shakes her head, stepping away. She has a mischievous spark in her eyes that Blake hasn’t seen before.

“Good night,” Blake says in return, a few moments late. Pyrrha walks back towards the elevators. Blake frowns at her retreating back for a moment more before stepping into her room.

She changes quickly into sweatpants and an old college hoodie—from Weiss’s undergrad school, actually; it had been quite oversized on Weiss and relegated to the back of her closet until Blake came into her life and liberated it. She cleans off her makeup and brushes her teeth, and she’s about to go to sleep when someone knocks on the door. Blake stares at it in confusion for a moment. The entire time she’s been here, no one has knocked on her door. The producers or Pyrrha have called her on the phone in her suite if they needed anything—and nobody should need anything right now, at almost five in the morning before an off day.

Whoever it is knocks again. Blake shakes her head and walks over, opening the door.

Yang?” Yang grins at her from beneath the hood of a worn brown jacket, eyes flashing and blonde hair falling forwards over her shoulders.

“Hey,” Yang says. Blake looks both ways down the hallway, noting the familiar cameras in the corners.

“Yang, you can’t be up here,” she says. “There’s cameras—“

“No one ever checks them,” Yang says. “I asked about it. They only use the still cams for B-roll of the contestants or when there’s drama.”

“Well, if you asked about the cameras on my floor, they’re definitely checking,” Blake points out.

“Nah,” Yang says. “I asked Pyrrha. She won’t tell.” Blake closes her eyes for a moment. Have fun. She hadn’t realized Pyrrha was capable of such—such trickery.

Not that Blake is upset about it.

“Well,” Blake says, opening the door further. “Do you want to come in, then? No cameras in here.” Yang’s eyes dart over Blake’s shoulder at the room beyond. She licks her lips, and Blake is far too aware of the movement.

“…I actually had a plan,” Yang says regretfully. “I know another spot where there’s no cameras. Super romantic, I promise.”

“The contestant bathrooms?” Blake says, raising an eyebrow and ignoring the happy little flip her heart does at the thought of Yang planning this out.

“Yep,” Yang says. “One of the three bathrooms that the fifteen people living downstairs share. That’s the best I could come up with.” Blake shakes her head.

“Let me just put some shoes on—“ she stops mid-sentence. “Yang. What the fuck are you wearing?” She’s looking at Yang’s feet—the sweatshirt she’s wearing beneath the jacket or the black joggers accompanying it are hardly worth commenting on—which are currently clad in green slippers shaped like dragon feet.

“Like ‘em?” Yang bounces on her heels. “They were a present. Ruby’s mom—that’s my sister, Ruby—she used to buy us weird slippers every Christmas. I’m lucky I stopped growing when I did, mine still fit.” There’s…a lot Blake could ask about there. Ruby’s mom, not Yang’s. The past tense of it all, the bittersweet tinge to Yang’s voice when she says that Ruby’s mom used to. Blake doesn’t want to draw conclusions, and she doesn’t want to ask here in the hallway as they’re more likely to get caught with every passing second, so she just rolls her eyes as she goes to find a pair of shoes.

“They’re horrendous,” she says as she slips on some sneakers.

“I know,” Yang says proudly. Blake straightens up, and Yang holds a hand out. Blake, of course, takes it. Yang’s hand is warm in hers, and she tugs gently, leading Blake out of her room and into the hallway.

“Where are we actually headed?” Blake says as they walk towards the elevator.

“Bathroom,” Yang says. “What, did you think I was kidding?” Blake looks over at her and finds Yang smirking, lip twitching with amusement. It’s an expression that screams trouble, and Blake should not find it endearing. She absolutely does, though, and she doesn’t look away from Yang until she jolts in surprise as the elevator starts moving up.

“The roof?” Blake says, because that’s the only thing that could possibly be above the fourth floor. Yang squeezes her hand gently.

“You aren’t afraid of heights, are you?” she says. Blake shakes her head. The elevator dings, and the door slides open. They’re inside a small, concrete room with absolutely nothing in it except for the elevator and a door opposite from it. They step out, and Yang slips her hand out of Blake’s. Blake is about to protest when Yang pushes the door open and holds it for Blake.

“So you do have manners,” Blake says, walking out onto the roof and taking Yang’s hand again the moment she can. “I was trying to figure out if you were raised by wolves or apes.”

“Hey now,” Yang says. “That’s uncalled for. If I was gonna be raised by animals, it would be dragons.” She lifts a foot and holds it out in Blake’s direction—as if there was any chance Blake would’ve forgotten about the slippers.

“Let’s sit,” Blake says, gesturing towards the edge of the roof. Yang tugs her hand, guiding her to the left instead, towards a different side of the roof. It’s odd, but Blake doesn’t think to question it. Yang lets go of Blake’s hand to sit down on the edge and dangle her feet over the four-story fall to the ground, and Blake is grateful she does. It’s difficult enough to keep her balance with all four limbs as she settles in beside Yang; it may have been disastrous with three.

“So,” Yang says, looking over at Blake. It’s intensely obvious like this—shoulder to shoulder on the ledge—how tall Yang is. Blake has to look up to look her in the eye. “No cameras. If you secretly hate me, now’s the time to let me know.”

“If I hated you, I would’ve just sent you home,” Blake says. She takes a moment to savor the first part of what Yang said, though. For the first time, she’s alone with Yang. Granted, Blake regularly forgets that there’s anyone else around with Yang anyway, but it’s true now. It’s just the two of them.

“You almost did, right?” Yang says. “The first night. Or was that just for the drama?”

“I…” Blake sighs. “I almost sent you home. That’s true.” She reaches up with one hand, rubbing at her temple.

“Sorry,” Yang says after a moment. “We don’t have to get into this. If you just weren’t sure about me, that’s okay.”

“No, I can talk about it,” Blake says. “I…mentioned my ex, to you.” She looks up at Yang, finds her looking back, eyes curious and open. “Adam. We were together for…a long time. And like I said, he wasn’t who I thought he was. It’s—I don’t really want to get into all of it.”

“You don’t have to,” Yang says immediately. Blake bumps their shoulders together, rolling her eyes.

“Stop being so accommodating,” she says. “I’m trying to open up, here. Let me finish.” Yang raises her hands, gesturing for Blake to keep going. “He was just—he was controlling, and—and abusive.” She doesn’t like calling it that. It always hurts more to call it what it was. But her therapist doesn’t like it when she downplays, so she says the word out loud, even though her voice shakes a bit and the scar tissue at her hip begins to itch. “And he was the last time I felt something real for someone. So when you showed up, and you felt…you know how it feels.” She takes Yang’s hand from her lap and squeezes it.

“Yeah,” Yang says quietly. “I know.”

“It scared me,” Blake says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to let this happen. I still don’t.” Yang shifts beside her, putting a bit of space between their bodies, and that’s not what Blake wants at all. She tugs on Yang’s hand, trying to pull her back.

“Blake,” Yang says. “If I still scare you—“

“You don’t.” Blake needs to draw this line, because Yang looks a little hurt, a little guilty, and she isn’t going to let that happen. “It isn’t you, it’s Adam’s fucking ghost. It’s always with me. I’m always scared. But I don’t let that make choices for me, and I’ve chosen you, at both the stupid ceremonies. So get back over here and hold me.” Yang blinks at her.

“Alright,” she says. “Can’t argue with that.” She scoots closer again, taking her hand from Blake’s grasp and slipping it around her shoulders. Blake is warm, immediately, where she hadn’t even realized she was cold. “Thank you for telling me that,” Yang says. Blake hums, unsure of what to say. You’re welcome feels…weird.

“Better now than on camera,” she says after a moment, resting her head on Yang’s shoulder.

“Right,” Yang says. “You know, for somebody who signed up to be the lead on a reality show, you really seem to hate the cameras.”

“I do,” Blake says. “I despise them.” Yang laughs quietly, and Blake feels her breath puff against the top of her head.

“Explain that one to me,” she says. “I mean, you were basically a recluse before that interview, right? The one where you mentioned the show. It was a big deal because you’d never shown your face to the public before.”

“…Did you Google me?”

“Absolutely,” Yang says. “I just wanna understand why you went from refusing video interviews for four years straight to being on camera 24/7. That’s a pretty big leap.”

“Honestly?” Blake says. “I’m just in it for the money.” There’s a brief pause, then Yang laughs again, louder this time. Blake doesn’t even try to stop herself from smiling at the sound. It would be a futile fight if she did.

“Damn,” Yang says. “Straight to the point, huh? No dreams of falling in love, finding your soulmate?”

“Nope,” Blake says. “I’m pretty sure you’re the only one here who showed up looking for love, Yang.” Well, her and Ilia, but thinking about that makes Blake anxious, and she doesn’t want her problems to poison this moment. This is just about her and Yang. “Everyone else is playing an angle, even me.”

“I could be, too,” Yang says. “Maybe I’m here to get Instagram famous.” Blake, almost believing it for a second, lifts her head to look up at Yang. Yang’s lip is twitching—she’s joking, of course—and Blake is struck suddenly with the urge to kiss that poorly hidden smile.

“Yang,” she says. “Can I kiss you?”

“Yeah,” Yang says, like Blake has asked if the sky is blue, “Of course.” So Blake does. She presses her lips to Yang’s, feels Yang smile against her mouth for a long moment before it fades, and Yang is kissing her back. Yang’s arm around Blake’s shoulders tugs her closer, and Blake leans into Yang’s chest, barely aware of the fifty-something-foot drop just in front of them.

Blake is the first one to pull away. Yang seems as though she’d be content to sit here kissing Blake forever, but Blake can only handle so much before the weight of it overwhelms her. So she pulls away and looks at Yang as Yang’s eyes drift slowly open, a content look on her face.

“Hi,” Yang says.

“Hello,” Blake says. Yang smiles softly at her, and Blake ducks her head as her cheeks burn. It’s stupid, getting flustered over a kiss like she’s in high school again and not nearly thirty years old. But the feeling is good, warm and safe in its silliness. Blake rests her head on Yang’s shoulder again, looking out across the mansion property towards the city—

“Hey,” Blake says. “You put us on the east edge.” In the distance in front of them, the sun is rising over Vale, the first streaks of pre-dawn light coming up over the horizon.

“I did,” Yang says. “Like I said, I had a plan.”

“And what’s next in the plan?” Blake asks, watching the horizon through half-closed eyes.

“Well…” Yang hesitates. “It’s pretty late. Or early, I guess. Maybe I should let you go to bed.”

“Change the plan,” Blake says firmly. Yang smiles. Blake can feel it against the top of her head.

“Yeah?” she says.

“Yes. Tomorrow’s an off day, I can sleep as much as I want.” She turns her head further into Yang. “I’d rather stay here for now. With you.”

“Okay,” Yang says. “What do you want to happen next, then?” Blake’s mind flashes back to the dress Yang had worn earlier that night, simple white and all too evocative of how this show is supposed to end.

“Tell me about you,” Blake says, shaking the thought away. Yang makes an amused little huffing noise.

“Kinda a broad question,” she says. “Got anything specific in mind?” Blake hums, going over what she’s heard about Yang so far. She doesn’t want to ask about the sadness she’d noticed earlier when Yang spoke about her family. Blake has done enough spilling of demons tonight for the both of them.

“You said you box,” she decides. “Tell me about that.”

“Okay.” Yang lifts her head a bit, giving herself space to speak. “I started doing martial arts as a really young kid…”

Blake manages to stay awake and focused until the sun is almost clear of the horizon, through a dozen anecdotes about Yang from the ages of four through twenty-seven. But then her eyes start shutting of their own accord, and she regretfully cuts Yang off in the middle of a story about a prank she’d pulled on a judo instructor in tenth grade to say good night.

Yang kisses her good night—or good morning—on the roof. She doesn’t walk Blake back to her room; they can’t risk getting caught. Blake likely wouldn’t face any consequences, but Yang could get in trouble, or even sent home for sneaking around. So they hug one last time in the elevator before Blake slips back down the hall to her room.

She falls into bed more exhausted than she’s been in years, with a smile on her face.

Chapter Text

“There’s so much sand.” It’s a silly observation, maybe; Blake has seen nothing but sand and equally sandy buildings since their plane touched down in Vacuo, but it’s especially noticeable in the view from her hotel room window. The hotel is on the edge of the city, and the pamphlets in the lobby had marketed it more as a nature resort than a tourist hotel—a place to go, not a place to stay, one of the pamphlets had said. The bedroom window in Blake’s suite looks out across uninterrupted desert, and while it’s not quite the cartoonish sand dunes and cacti that she had been picturing, it is a vast expanse of flat tan earth, populated sparsely by dry bushes and rocks.

“You’ll never get it out of your clothes,” Pyrrha says as she sets down the last of Blake’s suitcases. “It might be worth going shopping during the group date tomorrow if you have the time and cash to spare. Your regular clothes are probably too warm anyway, and if you get sand in them and put them back in your suitcase, everything in there will be sandy forever.”

“Talking from experience?” Blake says, turning to lean against the windowsill. Pyrrha straightens up to look at her.

“Absolutely,” she says. “My first year working on the show, I made the mistake of not keeping my Vacuo suitcase separate from the rest. It took me months to stop finding sand in my clothes dryer.” Blake winces at the thought and makes a mental note to buy some new clothes and an additional suitcase next time she’s let out of the hotel.

“You worked with contestants in past years, right?” Blake says aloud, sensing an opportunity. Pyrrha nods.

“I don’t miss it,” she says. “I never knew when my contestant might get eliminated and I would be reassigned to something else. Besides, some of the people they cast on this show…” She shakes her head slowly, and Blake certainly agrees. “It’s always worse when they cast straight leads,” Pyrrha says. “When it’s all male contestants in the house, they get…well, I’m sure you can imagine.” Blake can, and it’s unpleasant, but that’s not what she latches onto from that statement.

“Straight leads,” she echoes. “You say that like you’re not.” Pyrrha gives her an odd look.

“I’m bisexual,” she says. “Is there a reason you’re asking?” Blake shrugs. Might as well bite the bullet.

“I noticed Jaune has a thing for you,” she says. “It seemed like it might be mutual.” Pyrrha lets out a long, slow sigh, and sits down on the end of the bed.

“I’m sorry about him,” she says quietly, looking up at Blake. The good cheer that’s usually etched into every line of her face is faded, pressed over by worry and what looks a little bit like shame. “He’s meant to be here for you. He shouldn’t be acting like that.“

“Whoa,” Blake says. “You aren’t responsible for his crush on you, and you aren’t responsible for the fact that anybody could see it from space.”

“I realize that,” Pyrrha says. “But it’s—like you said. It’s mutual. And I am responsible for that.”

“Pyrrha—“ Blake crosses the room and sits down beside her. “Pyrrha, if it bothered me, I would’ve sent him home the first night. Look, you’ve spent more time with me than any of the other contestants here. You…know that I’m not as enthusiastic as I could be about all of this. Right?”

“I’ve noticed,” Pyrrha says, brow furrowing. “Still, it doesn’t bother you? He’s here under the pretense of falling in love with you, and instead he’s…infatuated with me.”

“It doesn’t bother me,” Blake says firmly. “I’m not interested in Jaune.” Pyrrha closes her eyes, a little of the stress bleeding out of her expression. “But you are, right?”

“I…” Pyrrha clenches her hands into fists where they rest on her thighs. “Under any other circumstances, I would be, yes. But he’s a contestant. I could lose my job. I would lose my job, if I pursued him.”

“Maybe after the show is over, then,” Blake says. Pyrrha shrugs. It’s not a very hopeful gesture.

“Maybe,” she says. She doesn’t sound convinced, and Blake frowns, deeply unsatisfied with this end to things. Maybe it’s the romance writer in her, maybe it’s the fact that all anyone ever talks about on this damn show is love, but Blake wants Pyrrha to get her shot. She wants a happy ending, for everyone involved.

“You know how to sneak around, right?” she says. “I mean, you helped Yang the other night.”

“I didn’t help Yang do anything,” Pyrrha says, raising a finger. “I…answered a contestant’s question about filming procedures. Whatever she did with that information is none of my business.”

“Of course.” Blake smiles. “Maybe Jaune should ask you a question about filming procedures.” Pyrrha squints at her.

“I’m not sure I completely follow the euphemism,” she says.

“It’s not my best.” Blake winces. “Look, just…don’t worry about me, okay? Even if other stuff is holding you back, don’t let me be a factor.” She reaches out, hesitates for a moment, then sets her hand on Pyrrha’s shoulder. “I hope things work out.” Pyrrha reaches up and settles her hand atop Blake’s, squeezing gently.

“I hope so too,” she says. They sit for a moment longer before Blake lowers her hand and stands up.

“Well, I’ve got to unpack,” she says as Pyrrha follows her to her feet. “And I’m sure you’ve got a million things to do.”

“I always do,” Pyrrha says. “Should I even bother asking who you want to take on the one-on-one later this week?” Blake had already submitted her list of names for the group date tomorrow—which is a blessedly smaller group than the week before; Jaune, Neptune, Sun, and a quiet girl with glasses who Blake imagines will be going home at the end of the week—and it very purposefully hadn’t included Yang or Ilia.

She should pick Ilia. It’s the right thing to do. Pick her and let her down easy. But there will be cameras everywhere; that’s the whole point of a one-on-one, to fill the future episode with actual interaction between Blake and one of her favorites. There almost certainly won’t be a chance to talk things out alone.

Some small part of Blake’s brain wonders how long she’ll be able to keep using that excuse.

“What exactly is the date?” Blake asks, stalling for time.

“Horseback riding,” Pyrrha says. “The hotel runs a scenic riding tour in the desert. Then a campfire dinner under the stars. I think the network is going for an old west theme.”

“Yang,” Blake says, barely a moment after Pyrrha is finished speaking. “I want to take Yang.” It’s hardly even a choice; the thought of wandering out into the nothingness of the desert with Yang by her side, getting to sit beside her in the desert night chill, is irresistible. The stars are supposed to be amazing in Vacuo. It’s something about the lack of light pollution in most of the desert. Blake has seen photos of the night sky where galaxies are blazing bright as day.

It’s the easy choice. It’s the selfish choice, and even so, Blake refuses to feel bad for making it. She’s earned a little selfishness over the years.

“Of course you do,” Pyrrha says. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay? Get plenty of sleep tonight.” Blake waves her away, and Pyrrha slips out of the room. Blake returns to her spot at the window, looking out over the vastness of the desert and imagining herself and Yang in it.

Damn, Blake,” Yang calls from a dozen feet away. Blake grins at her, crossing her arms over her chest. She’s wearing some of the clothes she’d bought the other day on the group date: a white, short-sleeved button-down shirt that she knows makes her arms look amazing and a pair of brown pants that the shopkeep had insisted she buy after she admitted she was going horseback riding today. He’d also foisted a cowboy hat on her, though Blake refused to try it on, and certainly isn’t wearing it tonight. She kind of feels like she looks like a park ranger—in a decidedly bad way—but Yang clearly doesn’t agree. She’s strolling across the back lot of the hotel towards Blake with a smile on her face and fire in her eyes.

“Hey,” Blake says as Yang comes to a stop in front of her. Yang just grins, lifting a hand and resting her palm against the side of Blake’s neck. Her fingertips fall along Blake’s spine, and her thumb rests just on the edge of Blake’s jaw. Her eyes flick down, and she looks like she’s about to ask permission, so Blake beats her to it. She pushes herself up on her tiptoes and kisses Yang. Yang isn’t quite prepared for it, so she’s still half-smiling when their lips meet, and Blake thinks she might get addicted to that feeling, of Yang’s happiness so tangible against her skin.

“Hey,” Yang says when Blake finally pulls away.

“Hey.” Blake feels a little floaty, and she takes a deep breath, trying to steady herself as she takes in Yang’s appearance. Yang is wearing similarly functional clothing to Blake: an old t-shirt with a faded graphic that Blake can’t make heads or tails out of beneath a yellow plaid shirt and plain blue jeans. Her hair is up in a ponytail, which Blake is thoroughly unprepared for, and now that Blake knows her freckles are there, she can’t stop looking for them.

“Hey,” Yang says again, smirking.

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” Blake says. Yang shakes her head in amusement, and her hand slips away from Blake’s neck. It lands neatly in Blake’s hand at her side instead, their fingers tangling together, and Yang makes no move to put more space between their bodies. Blake doesn’t, either. She has no desire to keep Yang at any distance other than touching.

“So, where are we off to?” Yang says, looking across the back lot. It’s mostly dirt, with a few ATVs parked in a row off to their left. Right beside the ATVs are three horses, one of which has a man perched atop it.

“Where do you think, Yang?” Blake says, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m gonna guess we’re going with John Wayne over there,” Yang says. “So, off into the desert? I thought you said we couldn’t run away together until after I win the show.” Blake looks over at her, a little incredulous.

“After you win it?” she repeats. Yang shrugs.

“I figure it can’t hurt to be confident,” she says, but there’s a hint of insecurity in it that gives Blake pause.

“Morning, ladies.” It’s the man on the horse, guiding the animal up to them before Blake can try to ask Yang about her tone. He speaks with a near-comical Vacuan accent, drawling and slow. “How y’all doing today?” Yang and Blake exchange a look. Yang’s eyes are wide, and it’s obvious to Blake that she’s holding back a smile.

“We’re good,” Blake says, because she doesn’t think Yang will be able to open her mouth without laughing.

“Glad to hear it,” the man says. “Either of you been riding before?” They shake their heads practically in unison. “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll help y’all up, and after that you shouldn’t have to do much. These girls are trained to follow the leader, they shouldn’t go wandering off beneath ya.”

“Sounds good,” Yang says, finally speaking. The man nods, and climbs off of his horse in a smooth motion that Blake can’t quite follow with her eyes.

“This one’s for you,” he says, looking at Blake and gesturing at one of the two horses beside his own. It’s not nearly as big as his. Its fur is solid, shiny black, and it watches Blake with strangely intelligent eyes as she steps towards it. “She’s a sweet girl, give her a pet.” Blake eyes the horse for a moment longer before she reaches out, setting a hand on its nose. The horse eyes her right back. Blake swears she sees suspicion in that equine gaze. She flexes her fingers, scratching the horse’s nose, and it lets out a snort.

Blake jumps back. The snort is loud, and wet—her forearm is definitely damp now. She has several perfectly good reasons to be startled.

That doesn’t stop Yang from laughing at her.

“That just means she likes you,” the man—Blake, against her will, is starting to think of him as John Wayne—says before Blake can turn to glare at Yang. “Let’s get you up on her back. C’mon, set a hand on my shoulder, you’re gonna want the support. Then put your foot—yeah, like that.” Blake lifts herself up onto the horse’s back with ease. Her foot only shakes a bit in the stirrup before she’s settled in.

“Alright, your turn,” John Wayne says, turning to Yang. Yang steps right up to her horse with none of the anticipatory nervousness Blake had acted with. She sets a hand on the horse’s nose, which accepts the gesture without protest, and then moves to get into the saddle.

Her first attempt ends in falling right back down to the ground. Blake, who has just been mocked for being snorted at, responds by laughing loudly. Yang makes a face at her, adjusts her grip on John Wayne’s shoulder, and tries again. She wobbles her way into the saddle this time, and once she’s stable, John Wayne walks back to his own horse.

“How the hell did you make that look so easy?” Yang says to Blake. “Have you actually done this before?”

“I did gymnastics for years,” Blake says. “I have good balance.”

“Alright, ladies,” John Wayne says, twisting on his horse’s back to face them. “We’re going on a scenic ride today. Your horses will follow mine, but I’ll keep a lead on you, give you some space. First stop is about a thirty minute ride, holler if you need anything.” He turns further, looking somewhere past Blake and Yang. “You boys good over there?” Blake looks over her shoulder and sees the camera crew, squeezed into one of the ATVs. The guy behind the wheel gives a thumbs up, and John Wayne quite literally tips his hat at them before turning to face forwards again. His horse starts off across the back lot, towards the place where packed dirt meets sand.

“Okay,” Yang says the moment he’s far enough ahead to be out of earshot. “That accent has to be fake, right?” Blake shakes her head.

“It doesn’t sound fake,” she says. “He’s a great actor if it is.”

“But nobody actually sounds like that,” Yang says. “And looks like that, and rides horses for a living, all at the same time.”

“It’s…definitely something.” Behind them, the ATV engine turns over, and their horses start to walk. Blake has to take a moment to get used to the movement; it’s a little strange to be carried by something alive. They ride without speaking for a moment, Yang clearly adjusting to the motion, too, and behind them, the ATV engines continue at a low roar, pacing the horses perfectly. Blake glances back and finds two cameras focused on them, in addition to the mic that she’d been outfitted with that morning and the similar one she can see attached to the collar of Yang’s flannel.

“This isn’t exactly how I imagined this,” Blake says to Yang, quiet enough to not be heard by the camera crew over the ATV engine, though the mic can pick up her voice. “I was hoping for something a little…quieter.”

“I know what you mean,” Yang says, mirroring Blake’s backwards glance at the camera crew. “Not exactly a pristine wilderness experience with a four wheeler following us everywhere.”

“Four wheeler?” Blake repeats, a smile tugging at her lips. Yang blinks at her.


“Nothing.” Blake lets the smile take over, unwilling to hide it from Yang. “You just sound like you belong here, is all.”

“Do other people not call them that?” Yang says. “Is that not normal?”

“It’s just not something you usually hear from people who grew up in, y’know, cities,” Blake says. “How many people live on Patch, anyway? I’d never heard of it before you mentioned it.”

“Not many,” Yang says. “My high school class was…I wanna say forty-five people?”

“Forty-five—“ Blake shakes her head. Not many. Way to bury the lede, Yang. “Yang, you grew up in a village.” Yang snorts.

“It’s not that small,” she says. “I mean, it’s not big, sure. I know a lot more people live on Menagerie, but—“

“Over a million people live on Menagerie,” Blake says. Yang blinks.

“Okay, like I said, a lot more.”

“Yang,” Blake says. “You’re a country girl.” Yang groans.

“Shut the fuck up,” she says. “I swear to God.” Blake cackles. “You’re the one who’s into it,” Yang says over Blake’s laughter. “So, if anything, this is more embarrassing for you.”

“No,” Blake says, pointing at her. “Absolutely not. This is a moment for you to be mocked, not me. You know what?”

“What?” Yang says.

“I,” Blake says, “was gifted a cowboy hat at a clothing store the other day. And when we get back to the hotel, I am going to make you wear it, and I am going to ask Pyrrha to get my phone out of the safe to take pictures. And I am going to make fun of you with them forever.”

As it turns out, most of the scenic locations in the Vacuan desert are rocks. Large, interestingly shaped rocks, yes, but rocks. Blake gets bored of them fairly quickly, and she might’ve ended up having a mediocre time on the date if it weren’t for Yang. Yang, apparently, has an endless appetite for interestingly shaped rocks, and she’s unapologetically enthusiastic as she tries to convert Blake to the same. She climbs the rocks, insists on Blake joining her atop them to be photographed, somehow figures out exactly what each one looks like and shares her observations. Blake’s personal favorite is the one that Yang describes as resembling “an ent, but, like, a young and sexy ent”.

The day wears on far too fast for Blake’s liking. She forgets about the ATV on their trail almost immediately, and John Wayne only slows down to speak to them when they’re about to make a stop. Most of the time, it’s just Blake and Yang, wandering farther and farther out into the desert, keeping their horses close enough to talk. There’s something about Yang that makes the time pass impossibly fast in her presence. Blake feels like they’ve barely gone anywhere when she looks up and notices that the sun is beginning to set.

“We’re gonna stop at this fire pit up here,” John Wayne says, and Blake looks away from the way the fading sunlight makes Yang’s hair look like fire—which she’s been staring at for several minutes now—to realize that he’s closed his lead on them entirely, guiding his horse just ahead of theirs. “I’ll build a fire for y’all and leave you to it. It isn’t too far back to the resort from here, so y’all stay as long as you want. Sound good?”

“Sounds good as long as there’s food,” Yang says, and Blake silently agrees. Lunch had been a very long time ago.

“Plenty of food,” John Wayne says. “It’s back with the camera boys, I’m sure they’ll be happy to share.” With that, he pulls his horse to side, off the poorly defined path they’ve been following for the last half hour or so. Beneath her, Blake’s horse follows, Yang’s close behind. They wander maybe ten yards off the trail, to a large, unremarkable rock. John Wayne leads them around it, and on the side opposite the trail, Blake spots the fire pit. It’s not fancy, just a patch of earth cordoned off by a metal ring with high sides and a grate over the top.

“Y’all sit while I get the fire going,” John Wayne says, hopping off of his horse. “Don’t fall off while you’re getting down, now.” Blake swings a leg over the back of her horse and slips down to the ground with only a mild stiffness in her legs impeding her usual grace. It’s not quite as soft a landing as she could make it with more practice, but it’s smooth enough. She glances over at Yang, who is twisting in her saddle with a frown on her face, as she has every time they’ve stopped and dismounted.

“Do you need some help?” Blake asks, raising her eyebrows. Yang spares a moment to scowl at her.

“I’ve got it,” she says. She swings her leg over and half-jumps, half-falls to the ground, stumbling on the landing. When she straightens up, looking genuinely proud of herself, Blake doesn’t have the heart to laugh at her.

“Let’s sit down,” she says instead, already headed for a patch of earth between the fire pit and the rock. She settles down, wincing as she bends her knees, and puts her back against the rock. She’s definitely going to be sore from this tomorrow. Yang sits down beside her, leaving a little more space between them than they typically have in the past, but Blake understands and shares the desire to not necessarily be touching right now. She’s stiff, and sore, and sticky with sweat from riding in the sun all day. She can’t imagine Yang is any different.

They sit quietly while John Wayne builds the fire. He’s clearly done it a lot; his movements are quick and assured, and there are flames licking high up into the air within minutes. He tips his hat at them as he stands up, then heads over to the horses and starts to gently guide them away, back around to the other side of the rock. One of the camera guys—who are very much staying on this side of the rock, lenses already focused on Blake and Yang—sets a cooler down beside the now-roaring fire and walks away without a word.

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” Yang says, going for the cooler immediately. “Let’s see, sausages, more sausages…canned beans, which I think is leaning a little too hard into the cowboy thing. Drinks.” She leans to the side, giving Blake space to reach into the cooler. Blake goes for one of the beers immediately, sitting back down to pop it open before she looks at the food. Beside her, Yang grabs a water, and at this point, it’s a pattern that Blake can’t help but comment on.

“You don’t drink,” she says. Yang glances up at her.

“I don’t,” she says. There’s a finality to her tone that tells Blake they won’t be discussing this tonight. Blake returns to the cooler instead, scanning its contents and discovering that her only viable option really is sausage. She takes one of the packages out, tearing it open and making a face at the wet plastic. Yang hands her a long, two-pronged metal fork, which the camera guys had delivered along with the food, and Blake wedges one of the sausages onto it before holding it out over the flames.

“I feel very stupid,” Blake says after a moment, glancing up at Yang. “I look like an idiot, right?”

“You’re burning your food, babe,” Yang says without looking up. Blake takes a moment as her brain reboots from the pet name, then she turns to look back at the fire, where—sure enough—the outside of her sausage has developed a nasty-looking char.

“Fuck.” Blake pulls her fork back out of the fire, frowning at it. “How did you know that? You weren’t even looking.”

“You stuck it right into the flames,” Yang says. “That’s not how campfire cooking works. You find a good patch of coals and hold it over that. Cooks slower and more evenly that way.”

“You’ve done this a lot?” Blake asks. She decides that the small charred spot on her sausage will be edible enough and returns her fork to the fire, though this time she aims for a bed of coals on one side that looks feasible.

“There isn’t actually a whole lot to do on my tiny country island,” Yang says. Blake can hear the amusement in her tone, and it’s a struggle to keep her eyes on her food instead of twisting around to look for Yang’s smile. “Me and Ruby camp out a lot. We used to go as a family when we were little.”

“You and your parents?” Blake doesn’t mean it to be a difficult question. A moment too late, she remembers the bittersweet tone Yang had taken the other night when she spoke about her family.

“Yeah,” Yang says. “More or less.” She stares at her food in the fire for a long moment. “Maybe we can talk about this after we eat.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Blake says. She tries to echo the tone Yang had taken with her the other night back in Vale, tries to sound gentle and open and perfect. To her ears, it’s a shallow imitation, but Yang shoots her a small smile.

“I want to,” she says. “It’s important. It’s—our families are a part of us, you know? And I want you to know me. All of me.” She turns her sausage over in the fire. “Besides, if I get to hometowns, it’ll be a lot easier meeting my family if you know which wasp nests not to kick.” Blake feels a jolt of extremely preemptive nervousness at that, but she pushes it away.

“Let’s eat first, then,” she says.

“Sounds good,” Yang says. “You might wanna turn your sausage over if you want the other side to be warm.”

“So,” Blake says after they’re done, after they’ve eaten dinner and availed themselves of the bag of marshmallows John Wayne had slipped back around the rock to leave by their fire with a smile. She’s still sitting with her back against the rock, but the sun has slipped beneath the horizon, and she’s cuddled up against Yang’s side for warmth. Well, for several reasons, not the least of which is that Yang’s touch is addicting, but also for warmth. “Your family. More or less.”

“Yeah.” Yang’s arm tenses where it’s resting across Blake’s shoulders, and Blake reaches up, tangling her fingers with Yang’s. “My earliest memories of home are me and Ruby and Dad and Ruby’s mom, Summer. Ruby was born when I was two, so I don’t really remember anything from before that. Dad always tells me I was crazy excited to have a baby sister once I understood what was happening, and I guess I can believe that. I’m still excited about Ruby.” She smiles, and there’s such clear love in the expression that Blake can’t help but smile, too. “Anyways. Summer was technically my step-mom, I guess. But I didn’t find out we weren’t blood related until a lot later, so growing up she was just Mom. And she was, like, the best mom. She was kind, all the time. No matter what. She never made anyone feel stupid or silly or—just, she always made me feel seen.” Yang lets out a shaky exhale, and Blake’s heart sinks, knowing that this story is about to take a turn for the worse.

“Summer died when I was thirteen,” Yang says. “Ruby was eleven, and my dad—he just kind of checked out for awhile. He was depressed, I think, and he didn’t handle it well. He still worked, he kept us afloat financially, but from then on if we needed groceries or if Ruby had a problem or if something in the house broke, it was my problem or it wasn’t getting dealt with at all.”

“Yang,” Blake says. Yang lifts her free hand and rubs at her face, and when she lowers it, the glossy sheen in her eyes has been pushed away.

“I found out around the time I started high school that Summer wasn’t my birth mother,” she says. “I needed my birth certificate for some—I don’t even fucking remember, something or other, and I dug it out and saw that my mother’s name was listed as Raven Branwen. Which, fun fact, my uncle Qrow who I had always thought was just one of Dad’s college friends? His last name is Branwen. He was my actual uncle, and Raven was his twin sister.” Yang’s tone is changing. It’s slipped from childish nostalgia to decades-old grief over the last few minutes, and now it’s growing angry.

“I asked my dad about it, and he wouldn’t tell me anything,” Yang says. “Which pissed me the fuck off, obviously. And then I went to Qrow, and he didn’t just not tell me anything, he specifically told me not to go looking for her. Said he knew his sister, and that it would end badly.” Yang stops for a long moment, her jaw clenching. “So I didn’t, at first, but I was still mad. I spent a lot of high school doing dumb shit because of it. Not—not anything that could get me in real trouble. I couldn’t do that to Ruby. My dad was doing better by my junior year, but I didn’t trust him for shit when it came to her, and she looked up to me. So I mostly just smoked a lot of weed and skipped class. Painted the walls of my room one time when my dad was out of town hoping it would make him mad. Dumb shit like that.”

Yang quiets again for awhile, and Blake leans in, resting her forehead against the side of Yang’s jaw. Yang’s shoulders relax a bit at the contact, and she breaths deeply and slowly, like she’s breathing Blake in.

“I only met Raven a few times,” Yang says eventually, and Blake pulls back a bit, giving her room to talk. “That’s…a whole other story. But it didn’t work out. She ended up, um, ghosting me.”

Jesus.” Blake pulls away further so she can look Yang in the eye. “That’s horrible.” Yang shrugs.

“Yeah,” she says. “And that’s it, I guess. That’s my family.”

“God, Yang…” Blake tugs her fingers free of Yang’s and reaches up with both hands, framing Yang’s face with them. “How did you go through all of that and turn out like this?” Yang blinks at her. “You just—you’re still so kind. How are you still so kind?”

“I don’t know,” Yang mumbles. She sounds a little uncomfortable, and Blake realizes that at least a little bit of the confidence that pours off of Yang in every situation is bravado. She doesn’t seem like she can quite accept the compliment. “I just kept going.”

“I think a lot of people wouldn’t be able to,” Blake says. “I—maybe this is weird, but I’m…proud of you. Even though I didn’t know you.” Yang stares her for a long moment, eyes wide with an emotion that Blake can’t name. Whatever it is, it’s warm. “Is that weird?”

“No,” Yang says, her voice low enough to rasp. “Not weird. I appreciate it. Thank you.” Blake nods and slowly lowers her hands, leaning back into Yang’s side. She focuses her gaze on the fire, which is burning itself out now, flames replaced with a bed of coals that’s growing dimmer with each passing minute. “Besides, it’s not like it didn’t affect me. I’m fucked up, I go to therapy. I’ve got enough abandonment issues to pay for my counselor’s retirement plan.” Her tone is joking, but it doesn’t quite land.

“That, um.” Blake wishes they didn’t have to talk about this on camera. But she has to bring it up, because it’s important, and because she wants Yang to understand. Yang had said she wants Blake to know all of her. Blake knows what she means, and this is a part of her, even if it’s a part she’s trying her best to change. “That might make this hard. Us, I mean.” Yang looks over at her slowly, brow beginning to furrow.

“Why?” She says. “Are you planning on abandoning me, Belladonna?” The words could so easily remind Blake of Adam. It’s the kind of thing he would’ve accused her of, had accused her of on multiple occasions. But they don’t, because Yang’s tone is light without masking the trepidation behind it, and nothing about Yang reminds Blake of Adam. It never really has.

“I’m not,” Blake says. “But I can be…evasive. I get scared. I run from things. Weiss likes to tell me that I’m afraid of being happy.” She draws her knees up to her chest. “You know why I’m like this. You know about Adam. And you make me happy, and it’s—it’s big, and heavy and it scares me, and at some point I’m going to feel like I have to leave.” Yang says nothing for a long while. Blake almost worries that she shouldn’t have spoken, that she’s fucked up irreparably by giving her instincts voice, but Yang’s arm stays steady around her shoulders. She doesn’t move to pull away.

“Would you come back?” Yang finally asks. Blake fights back her natural urge to say yes immediately, to reassure, to placate, and turns the question over in her head. Would she? She has before, when it mattered. She went back to her parents, too late to completely fix their family, but she went back all the same, and she stayed. She’s still staying. She can return when it matters, and Yang matters.

“I would,” Blake says. Yang nods slowly.

“Do you think you could tell me, when you’re feeling scared?” she says. “Just so I know, and it feels less like…being left?”

“I…” Blake hesitates. She doesn’t like that. She doesn’t want it to be up to someone else if she can leave, and maybe that’s not fair if she wants to build a life with Yang, but she’s loathe to let go of the freedom to just vanish. “You have to promise you would let me,” she says. “You have to promise.”

Let you?” Yang repeats. Blake nods. “I’m not saying you have to ask my permission. That’s not what I mean. It just isn’t fair if you leave without telling me. It would hurt.” Her voice wavers. She’s speaking from experience. “I get that you need that option, Blake. Like you said, I know why. I’m just asking for, like, a window into your head. If we’re going to be together, I have to understand what’s going on up here.” She brushes her fingertips against Blake’s temple, and a moment later, that hand slips down to cup Blake’s jaw. Yang’s skin is warm, as it always is, and Blake leans her head into the contact. “But I’m not asking for control,” Yang says softly. “I don’t want to be in charge of what you do, Blake, I don’t want that. All I’m asking for is…dialogue, I guess. Just tell me if you want space.”

“Okay,” Blake says. “I can do that.” She doesn’t get into the fact that she doesn’t want space; her urge to run isn’t about what she wants, it’s about what her brain thinks will keep her alive. That’s a clarification for another time. They’ve shared enough pain with each other tonight. Blake just wants to sit here with Yang and watch the fire die out.

“Okay,” Yang says softly. She leans in and kisses Blake, short and chaste and unbearably gentle. “Do you want to start heading back now? It’s getting late.”

“Not yet,” Blake says. “We’re not doing anything tomorrow. We can stay out late. The stars are supposed to get brighter when it’s late.” Yang nods in agreement, and they settle back against the rock, finding as comfortable of positions as they can against the rough ground.

The stars do burn a little brighter by the time they pack up and leave. Blake doesn’t see any galaxies tonight, but on the ride back to the hotel, they keep their horses close. Blake tells Yang a few of the stories she heard growing up in Menagerie: a blend of local mythology, campfire tales, and urban legends, and for Blake, Yang’s grin flashing white in the dim moonlight is splendor enough.

Chapter Text

“We’ve got a problem,” Pyrrha says. Blake blinks owlishly at her, not awake or caffeinated enough to deal with whatever is happening right now.

“What?” she says. Pyrrha holds out a disposable coffee cup. Blake accepts it and steps aside, allowing Pyrrha to enter her room. She takes a sip as she closes the door and is delighted to find that it contains black tea, not coffee. Pyrrha had remembered.

“One of the higher up producers wants to meet you,” Pyrrha says, leaning against the desk in Blake’s hotel suite and crossing her arms. “She wants to talk to you about some things you said during your one-on-one with Yang yesterday.”

“I…okay,” Blake says. She tries to remember what she might’ve said that would piss off a studio bigwig, but she can’t think of anything, and most of her memories of yesterday are just Yang, Yang, Yang. “What’d I say?”

“I haven’t seen the footage,” Pyrrha says with a shrug. “She’s mad, though. She thinks you and Yang spoke off camera.”

“Oh.” Blake takes another sip of her tea. “Shit.”

“Exactly.” Pyrrha grimaces. “The woman that you’re dealing with is named Cinder Fall, and she’s a bitch. I’ve had to deal with her before. She’s manipulative, and cold, and she doesn’t know where to draw the line. Do you remember a few seasons ago, when one of the contestants got sent home for being abusive and they brought him back for the season finale?” Blake nods. She remembers that very clearly; it had given her a panic attack. It had drawn a lot of bad press, and the network had been forced to issue a public apology.

“That was Cinder?” Blake asks.

“Sure was.”

“How does she still have a job?” Pyrrha sighs.

“Because when she isn’t getting the network in trouble, she’s making them a lot of money,” she says. “Most of the drama you see on this show is manipulated in some way by Cinder, and drama gets views. All the dumbest things contestants do are on her suggestion. The executives think she’s a worthwhile investment.”

“Okay,” Blake says. “So what do we do with this meeting?”

“Let me do the talking as much as possible,” Pyrrha says. “Like I said, I’ve dealt with her before. I can protect you for the most part. But you can’t let her know that you saw Yang off camera. Cinder will send Yang home in a heartbeat.” Blake’s heart stops.

“She can’t do that,” she says. “Who goes home is up to me. Isn’t it?”

“In most cases,” Pyrrha says. “But if someone breaches contract, say they have a partner back home, or they’ve been sneaking around off camera? The network can send them home, and that decision would be up to Cinder.”

Fuck.” Blake sits down heavily on the edge of her bed, fingers trembling slightly around her tea. “What do we do? I can’t let Yang get sent home. There’s no one else here that I…I would quit. I would quit.”

“Don’t tell Cinder that,” Pyrrha says. “She’ll find a way to use it against you. Look, Blake, I’m not going to let her send Yang home, okay? I’ll do my best to protect you. I just need you to be prepared, because if she thinks she has leverage over you, she will use it.”

“Okay.” Blake runs a hand through her hair, grimacing when it comes away coated in sand. She hadn’t showered the night before; they’d gotten back for too late from horseback riding for that. She’s never been more grateful that the hotel staff changes her sheets every night, as there’s a layer of sand between them now. “When are we meeting her?”

“As soon as we get dressed,” Pyrrha  says, straightening up. “Take your time if you need it. Today’s supposed to be a rest day, so she can’t get mad if you make her wait.” Pyrrha pauses. “Well, she will get mad. But she won’t be able to do anything about it, and that will bother her even more.” She sounds delighted by the prospect, and if Blake hadn’t already been dreading meeting this woman, she certainly would be now. Pyrrha is maybe the most genuinely nice person Blake has ever met; whoever could get Pyrrha to hate them has to be the worst.

“Miss Belladonna,” the woman says the moment Blake steps into her office. “I’m Cinder. Can I call you Blake?” She smiles widely, and Blake feels uncomfortably like she’s just stepped into a wolf den. The grin is all teeth, all threat, no warmth behind it at all.

“Sure,” Blake says, unsure if she really has a choice.

“Have a seat,” Cinder says, gesturing at the chairs in front of the desk in her hotel suite. Blake slides into one, and Pyrrha sits down beside her. “Pyrrha,” Cinder says, her smile vanishing. Apparently even a bloodthirsty grin is too much to keep up in Pyrrha’s presence. It’s replaced by a glare.

“Cinder,” Pyrrha says, nodding. She meets Cinder’s gaze without flinching, completely unafraid. “What is all this about?”

“I was reviewing the dailies from yesterday,” Cinder says, turning to Blake, “and it seemed like you and Yang were a bit closer than the other footage we have would suggest.” Blake shrugs and glances at Pyrrha, wondering if this is the bit where Pyrrha does the talking. Apparently not.

“We were having a good time,” she says to Cinder. “I’m comfortable with her.”

“Mhm. And you mentioned someone named Adam to her?” Blake’s jaw clenches.

“I did,” she says.

“And how did Yang know who that was? I don’t remember seeing you talk about that on camera ever before.”

“You must have missed it,” Blake says. Pyrrha tenses slightly beside her.

“Did I,” Cinder says. It isn’t a question. “Or did you two see each other off camera? Contestants and leads do that more often than you’d think. It happens every few seasons.” She leans forward slightly. “Did you and Yang sneak away at some point? Back at the mansion? On a group date?”

“No,” Blake says.

“So you’re telling me that if I review the footage from the still cams in the mansion, I won’t find anything?” Cinder says. “How about if I ask the camera crew if they did you a favor and let you slip away? I can pay them more than you could’ve, you know.”

“You won’t find anything,” Blake says. “If you want to spend your time going through thousands of hours of footage, be my guest.” Cinder smirks.

“There is such thing as a fast forward button, Blake,” she says. “It won’t take me too long to get through that footage. I hope you’re right, and I don’t find anything, because if I do, there will be consequences.”

“That’s enough,” Pyrrha says, standing up. Cinder’s gaze jumps over to her, eyes narrowing. “Let’s go, Blake.”

“I’m not done here,” Cinder says, rising from her own seat and leaning forward over the desk. It only draws attention to the fact that Pyrrha is several inches taller than her.

“What else do you have to say?” Pyrrha says, crossing her arms. “Blake told you she didn’t sneak out. She knows it would be against the rules, and she’s already fully aware of the possible consequences. So we’re done here. Sit down, Cinder.” Cinder practically snarls, and Blake takes that as her cue to leave. She hops to her feet and slides out of her chair, taking several steps towards the office door. Pyrrha turns away  from Cinder and follows. They leave without saying goodbye. Cinder does not sit down.

“What was that?” Blake asks, half-running to keep up with Pyrrha’s long strides. “You two hate each other.”

“We do,” Pyrrha agrees. “That was us at our most civil.” Blake shakes her head slowly.

“Do you think she’ll really go through the tapes?” she asks. Pyrrha sighs deeply, slowing her pace as they step into the elevator. She hits the button for Blake’s floor and leans against the wall as the doors close.

“She will,” she says. “She may not have if you hadn’t denied it so thoroughly. Cinder is…all about control. Subservience. If you’d sucked up, she might’ve let it go, but now…” Blake’s jaw clenches, and even though it could get Yang sent home, she refuses to regret how she spoke. She’s long been done with trying to placate people like Cinder. “If she hadn’t, though, she would’ve used this as leverage to get something else from you. There’s no winning with her. Don’t blame yourself.”

“Do you think she’ll find the footage?” Blake asks. Pyrrha says nothing for a moment. The elevator rumbles around them.

“Almost certainly,” she says after a moment. “It’s hard to know what she’ll do with it, but…now that you’ve made her angry, she might try to get you sent home. I doubt she’d succeed, but technically you did break contract.” Blake leans against the elevator wall, resting her head against it and closing her eyes. She really wouldn’t mind a return to privacy, but…no more world tour, no two hundred thousand dollars, less good publicity for her book. No Yang.

Well, Blake is pretty sure she could just ask for Yang’s phone number and see her after the show, but still. Yang lives on Patch, wherever that actually is, and Blake lives in Vale. It would be long distance, and there would be work and family and real life to contend with. it wouldn’t be the same. Blake wants to keep the show going with Yang; she wants more time in the fantasy the show tries to create for them. More ridiculous theme dates, more stolen moments alone—even if that’s how they’d gotten themselves into this very trouble. Blake doesn’t want it to end.

“But you won’t get in trouble, right?” Blake says, pushing her anxiety away to focus on the actual conversation at hand. “Even if Cinder finds the footage of Yang in my hall, she won’t know you helped her.”

“I won’t get in trouble for that,” Pyrrha says. “But that’s…not the only rule I’ve broken this season.” Her tone is leading, a little giddy, a little nervous, and Blake stares at her for a moment before she puts the pieces together.

“You and Jaune?” she asks. Pyrrha smiles.

“I saw him yesterday when you were out with Yang,” she says. “I…don’t know if it was a good choice, considering what I’m risking, but…I liked making it.”

“I’m glad,” Blake says. The elevator dings. “I’ll keep him around for you for as long as I can.” Pyrrha gives her a small smile.

“Thank you, Blake,” she says. “I hope Cinder doesn’t find that footage.” Blake nods in agreement, and they walk down the hall in silence, pausing at Blake’s door. “Get some rest,” Pyrrha says. “Pack up, and be ready for tomorrow’s rose ceremony. Just keep going like nothing’s changed, since we don’t know if it will, yet.”

“Okay,” Blake says. “See you later?”

“See you,” Pyrrha says, nodding, and she walks away. Blake slips into her room and sets her sights on the suitcase that carries her books, seeking out something to calm the nerves her meting with Cinder had rattled.

“Jaune,” Blake says, picking up the next rose from the podium. Jaune smiles, stepping forward from his place in line with the other contestants. He has a spring in his step that Blake hasn’t seen from him before, and there’s a confidence to the way he stands in front of her, shoulders back and head held high, that makes Blake smile. It’s honestly kind of cute, the wonders spending time with Pyrrha has done for his confidence. “Will you accept this rose?” Blake asks, meeting his gaze.

“I will,” Jaune says. Blake pins the rose to his jacket and nods at him. He steps back and returns to the line. Blake turns to the final rose on the podium, picking it up and surveying the line of contestants. Jaune, Sun, Neptune, and Ilia each already have one. Yang is standing at the end of the line, her hands tucked behind her back and her eyes fixed on Blake.

“Yang,” Blake says, and she’s pretty sure that her voice sounds obviously warmer than it had for any of the others. Yang steps forward, shoulders visibly relaxing.

“Do you like scaring the shit out of me?” she says, barely above a whisper, when she stops in front of Blake. Blake rolls her eyes.

“Like I would send you home after the one-on-one we had,” she murmurs back. “I’m just saving the best for last.” Yang’s face does a funny thing then, eyes going wide with wonder.

“The best, huh,” she says.

“Don’t let it go to your head.” Blake reaches out, tucking the stem of the rose into Yang’s palm and curling her fingers over top of Yang’s, guiding her hand into a fist. A moment later, she realizes—“I forgot to ask,” Blake says, glancing back to where Coco is standing, watching the proceedings, and then up at Yang. She isn’t sure how important the question actually is, just that every lead ever has asked it of every contestant at every rose ceremony since the show has been running, and that she’d been directed to do the same.

So, probably pretty important.

“No take backs,” Yang says. She holds the rose close to her chest and ducks her head forwards. She presses a kiss to Blake’s cheek, almost at the corner of her mouth, then steps away, purple eyes sparkling under the low lights of the rose ceremony room. She retakes her place at the end of the line of contestants, eyes never leaving Blake’s.

“That was the final rose for tonight,” Coco says, stepping forwards from her corner of the room. “Those of you who didn’t receive a rose, take a moment to say your goodbyes. Those who did, and Blake, of course, gather your things. We have a flight to Atlas to catch.” The few contestants that Blake had eliminated this week step out of line, murmuring goodbyes to each other and to the remaining five contestants. Blake ignores them, turning to look at Pyrrha where she’s standing behind the camera crew. Pyrrha steps forward, slipping around the cameras and microphones to stand beside Blake.

“If it’s alright with you, I’m going to stay behind for a few minutes,” Pyrrha murmurs to her. “I want to have a conversation with Jaune.”

“A conversation,” Blake repeats seriously, nodding. “Of course. I think I can find my way back to my room myself. Should I wait for you before I head to the airport shuttle, or will the conversation take awhile?”

“Shush,” Pyrrha says, though she’s smiling. “I should be up in a few minutes. Make sure you don’t forget anything.” Blake nods and steps away, headed back down the hall towards the elevators. A lone member of the camera crew follows her, barely even bothering to point the lens in her direction. It’s not as though there will be any use for footage of her riding an elevator and walking down a hallway, after all; he’s only there because she isn’t really allowed to be alone.

Blake hits the button in the elevator for her floor and leans to the side against the wall, taking some of her weight off of her feet. The rose ceremonies now are far less punishing than they had been that first night, and they had skipped the cocktail party entirely tonight due to the red eye flight they have to catch. Still, she had picked out heels tonight, mostly because she realized that the only remaining contestant shorter than her is Ilia, and she really wanted to not feel short. Her legs and feet hurt, and she’s more than ready to take full advantage of the first class plane ticket the show had booked for her. Those seats recline all the way back.

“Holy shit,” the camera guy says. It takes Blake a moment to connect the voice to the man standing next to her; the crew almost never speaks. But sure enough, it’s him who’s talking—and who else would it be; they’re the only two people in the elevator. He has his hand pressed to his radio earpiece, and a look of utter shock on his face.

“What?” Blake says as the elevator doors slide open. The camera guy reaches forward, hitting the ground floor button—the floor they had come from.

“We have to go back down there,” he says. The doors slide shut once again. Blake mourns the footwear options she has in her room and leans more heavily against the side of the elevator. “Holy shit.”

“What’s going on?” Blake asks. The man shakes his head slowly.

“One sec,” he says. He lifts his camera, propping it up on his shoulder and aiming it directly at her. Blake stares into the dark lens, a pit of dread forming preemptively in her stomach. “Apparently, someone just caught Pyrrha kissing a contestant.” Blake closes her eyes, the pit of dread spreading throughout the rest of her body.

Fuck,” she says. The elevator dings. She opens her eyes, looking out across the ground floor, and there in the hallway, gathered before the elevators, are all of Blake’s remaining contestants, along with Pyrrha and the camera crew. Every single camera is aimed at Pyrrha and Jaune, who are standing side by side. Jaune looks a bit like he might be sick, and Pyrrha’s face is carefully blank, though she winces slightly when she makes eye contact with Blake.

“Blake,” Jaune says, stepping forward as Blake steps out of the elevator. The cameras turn quickly to focus on her. “Listen, I’m so sorry—“

“No, you’re not,” Blake interrupts. Jaune falls silent, staring at her, and Blake notices that his hand is wrapped around Pyrrha’s. Oh, this is a clusterfuck. “Don’t apologize.”

I’m sorry,” Pyrrha says. Blake looks at her, and she sees that Pyrrha means it. She’s not sorry for kissing Jaune, of course—Blake had all but told her to do that—but for the way this will complicate things for Blake. She’ll lose her shadow, her advocate, the one producer who actually knows and accepts Blake’s motivations for being here and her infatuation with Yang to the exclusion of all other options. It’ll be a lot harder to get another secret rooftop moment without someone on the inside helping them.

And Blake will have to deal with Cinder alone.

“It’s alright,” Blake says to Pyrrha. She takes a moment, takes a deep breath. She has to play a part, here; this is supposed to be the first she’s hearing of Pyrrha and Jaune’s feelings for each other. “You like each other, right? This is a real thing, not just a mistake?”

“Yeah.” It’s Jaune that speaks, his voice uncharacteristically quiet. “Yeah, it’s real. I’m sorry, Blake.”

“I told you not to apologize,” Blake says. “This show is about finding love. You’ve found it. Congratulations.” The words come out monotone, without inflection. Blake is not an actress. The only character she’s ever learned to play is a quiet, aloof, emotionless one, and her tone reflects it.

“Pyrrha, you’re done.” The voice comes from behind Blake, from the elevators, and Blake turns to find that one of them has opened. Cinder is standing just in front of it, her arms crossed, a triumphant look on her face. “Get your things, you’re going home. The higher ups have already emailed you your termination notice.”

“I’m on my way,” Pyrrha says, eyes narrowing as she looks at Cinder. “Come on, Jaune.”

“Oh, no,” Cinder says, raising a hand as Pyrrha attempts to tug Jaune towards the elevators. “He’s staying here. You’re going on separate flights home. If you want to see each other later, that’s your business, but our show does not encourage cheating. Jaune here was supposed to be here for Blake. He’s not going home with you.” Pyrrha sighs deeply, looking up at Jaune.

“You have my number,” she says. “Call me when your plane lands.” Jaune nods, glancing up at Cinder and looking a little intimidated. Pyrrha lets go of Jaune’s hand and walks alone towards the elevator. She stops for a moment next to Blake, looking over at her with a regretful look.

“I’m sorry,” she says again. Blake reaches out, setting a hand on Pyrrha’s arm.

“It’s alright,” she says. “I’ll be fine.” A viewer of the show might hear the words and think they’re a reference to Jaune, to Blake’s hypothetical heartbreak, to Pyrrha’s supposed betrayal. Blake is instead referencing Cinder, and she hopes that’s clear to Pyrrha. Blake doesn’t want her to worry. “I’ve dealt with this kind of stuff before.” The vindictive, controlling, power-hungry aura that Cinder carries with her is a familiar one to Blake. She lived with it for years; she refuses to be afraid of it again.

“Okay,” Pyrrha says quietly. “If you ever want to see me again, I live in Vale. I’ll be around.” Blake gives her a small smile and releases her arm. Pyrrha slips past her and into the elevator. Blake turns back around and looks at Jaune, who looks even more nauseous now.

“I really am sorry that I’m messing things up for you,” he says to Blake, and he sounds so genuine that Blake doesn’t tell him off for apologizing again.

“You like her, Jaune,” Blake says. “Don’t feel too bad for that. Now go, please.” Jaune nods at her and ducks his head, looking a little ashamed as he heads for the elevators. Blake hopes Pyrrha explains to him soon that Blake truly isn’t bothered by the two of them. She doesn’t want Jaune to feel bad for falling in love.

“Blake.” Blake is sick of people asking for her attention by now, but this voice almost makes her smile. She turns, and finds Yang approaching her from the crowd of remaining contestants. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Blake says. Yang stops in front of her, reaching out and taking both of Blake’s hands.

“You sure?” she says, squeezing Blake’s hands gently. “This is all…a lot, I guess. I know you liked Pyrrha.”

“I still like Pyrrha,” Blake says. “I’m not angry with her. I’m just…I’m tired.” This whole situation is a mess, and they have a plane to catch in a few hours, and Blake is realizing that dating show lead maybe wasn’t the best career choice for someone who hates managing interpersonal relationships.

“Okay,” Yang says. She slips her hands out of Blake’s and moves them to her shoulders instead, tugging Blake into a loose, warm hug. Blake closes her eyes, leaning into the embrace, but it’s over all too quickly. Yang steps away with a small smile, and the rest of the contestants crowd around Blake, eyes wide and fixed on her.

“Say the word and I’ll kill both of them,” Ilia says, crossing her arms over her chest. Blake smiles slightly, shaking her head.

“Please don’t,” she says. “Thanks, Ilia. I—“

“Blake.” God damn it. Blake turns. It’s Cinder this time, looking at Blake with an expression Blake can’t quite read but that she’s pretty sure spells trouble for her. “We need a confessional from you on all this. Come with me.” She turns and walks off down the hall, and Blake figures it’s more trouble than it’s worth to fight her on this. She nods at the contestants and then follows Cinder away.

They head to the small room off the rose ceremony room that the show has been using for interview segments throughout their time in Vacuo. It contains nothing but a chair, surrounded by still cameras that are already manned by crew members. Blake slides into it and looks a little to the right of the camera lens aimed at her face, to where Cinder is standing, right next to Coco.

“So, Blake,” Coco says. “What are your thoughts on what you learned tonight?” Blake shrugs.

“I learned that I shouldn’t pick Jaune,” she says, “and I sent him home. That’s all there really is to it.” Cinder does not look satisfied with that answer.

“Any hard feelings?” Coco asks. “Towards him or Pyrrha?”

“Not really,” Blake says. “Like I said earlier, this show is about finding love. It’s supposed to be about genuine connection. I can’t be mad at them for finding that.”

“Jaune cheated on you,” Cinder interjects. “Pyrrha betrayed you. Are you saying that doesn’t upset you at all?”

“It doesn’t,” Blake says. She wants to laugh at the phrasing—cheated on her, like Blake has spent more than twenty-four total hours with Jaune since the show started, like their relationship was anything beyond making conversation at cocktail parties and on group dates. She can’t, though; she doesn’t want to give Cinder any more ammunition to use against her.

“You need to give us more than this,” Cinder says. “Jaune and Pyrrha broke the rules. Don’t you have a problem with that?” Blake realizes, then, what Cinder is going for. It’s a leading question, obviously, and Blake is sure her response to it will air. This is the first major drama that’s happened on her season so far. Cinder is trying to cast Jaune and Pyrrha as the villains here.

Blake isn’t going to participate in that.

“I’m not angry with them,” she repeats. Cinder’s face twists in a snarl. “Can I go yet? I have packing to do upstairs.”

“You can,” Coco says. She’s looking sideways at Cinder, a little uncomfortably. “I’ll see you later, Blake.” Blake gets to her feet, then pauses, a thought occurring to her.

“I have something I want to talk to you about on the plane,” she says. She doesn’t want to make this request in front of Cinder, especially not right now; she’s pretty sure Cinder would try to say no just to spite her.

“I’ll come find you,” Coco says. Blake nods, and slips out of the room. The hallway is blessedly empty, the contestants presumably ushered back to their rooms to gather their things for the flight to Atlas. Her only companion is a lone, silent cameraman, in an unpleasant parallel to earlier that night. Blake only hopes he doesn’t receive any momentous news while they’re in the elevator; she can’t deal with more drama tonight.

He remains silent all the way to Blake’s door. When she opens it, she’s greeted by the sight of several more cameramen standing around in the living room area of her suite, and she’s about to start swearing at them to get out when her eyes fall to the couch.

Yang is sitting there, tapping her fingers against her knee anxiously. She’s changed out of her formalwear from the rose ceremony, into dark sweatpants similar to those she wore on the mansion rooftop back in Vale—though without the dragon slippers this time, and in a t-shirt instead of a sweatshirt. On the coffee table before her, a kettle with a thin stream of steam coming from the spout is resting on a folded towel, alongside two mugs and a pile of teabag packages.

“Hi,” Blake says, closing the door behind her and leaning against it. Yang smiles nervously at her.

“Hi,” she says. “I just—you seemed upset earlier, and I remembered you saying you like tea, so I figured I would try to help out? So I asked if I could come up here, but if you wanna be alone or something I can go—“

“You can stay,” Blake interrupts. Yang’s anxious tapping pauses, and her smile widens.

“Yeah?” she says. Blake nods, already kicking off her heels.

“Just give me a minute to change,” she says. “Did you steal the tea from the hotel breakfast?”

“I sure did,” Yang says.

“Give me the raspberry one.” Blake had memorized the hotel’s tea selection over the past week, and since she doesn’t really want caffeine at this hour—she’d like to sleep on the plane, as her request to Coco won’t take long regardless of the response—the raspberry is her best option.

“Okay.” Yang digs through the pile of teabags. Blake walks past her towards the bedroom, carrying her heels, and she’s struck for a moment by the intimacy of the situation. Minus the camera crew, Blake can picture this playing out almost exactly the same, over and over again. Blake getting home late from an event or a flight or something, and Yang waiting at home with tea and a smile and warm arms that Blake can fall into—

—and Blake realizes that, in this fantasy, they live together. They share an apartment, or a house, a home.

Blake turns behind the back of the couch. Yang glances over her shoulder at her, and Blake leans over, pressing a kiss to the top of Yang’s head. Yang makes a little surprised noise, a kind of half-sigh, half-squeak that Blake immediately falls in love with.

“What was that for?” Yang asks, tipping her head back to look up at Blake.

“I wanted to.” Blake turns and walks away into her bedroom, though not before she sees Yang start to smile in her peripheral vision. She changes quickly, packing away her heels and dress as she does so and grabbing the clothes she’d left out that she planned to wear on the plane: plain black leggings and her (Weiss’s) old college hoodie. Close enough to pajamas to sleep comfortably in while still technically being publicly presentable. She washes her face, ties her hair back, and heads out into the living room, where Yang has made them both tea.

“Thank you,” Blake says, settling onto the couch beside Yang and picking up her mug. It’s a plenty big couch; it’s probably the first seat they’ve shared on this show that’s actually big enough for two people. It would be big enough for four, if the four didn’t mind getting cozy with one another. Still, Blake sits close enough to press her side against Yang’s. Yang’s arm immediately slips around her shoulders, which is quickly becoming Blake’s favorite thing.

“So, are you really okay with…what happened earlier?” Yang asks after a moment. Blake sighs heavily and takes a sip of her tea.

“I am,” she says. “But honestly, I don’t really want to talk about it. I’m tired.” The words come out snappy, and she winces at her own tone.

“Okay,” Yang says. She doesn’t sound a bit bothered by Blake’s tone or her disinterest in conversation. She just adjusts her grip on her own mug and settles her free hand against Blake’s upper arm, where her fingers start to draw slow, gentle circles.

They sit quietly for awhile. Blake finishes her tea and sets her mug aside to rest her head on Yang’s shoulder. Within minutes, she finds her eyelids fluttering, begging to fall asleep. It takes her by surprise. Blake doesn’t often sleep with other people around, only when Weiss stays over or she stays at her parents or Ilia’s back on Menagerie. And even then, the other people of note are in another room, another bed, through walls and doors and locks. Blake hasn’t slept in someone’s arms since Adam, and she didn’t think she would ever want to again, after him.

But Yang…Yang makes her feel safe.

“I do?” Yang says, and Blake realizes she’s spoken the last bit out loud.

“You do,” Blake says. “It’s weird.” Yang snorts.

“Flattering,” she mutters. Blake pokes her in the leg.

“Not bad,” she says. “It’s just…not always easy for me to feel that way, that’s all.” Yang’s fingers still on Blake’s arm. “It’s just the feeling I get, around you,” Blake continues. She isn’t going to get into the reasons safety is so difficult for her, not tonight. “It’s the same way everything feels heavy with you. I can’t explain it, it’s just there.”

“…Yeah.” Yang’s fingers start to move again, though the patterns she draws are a little more absent and aimless than they were before. “I know what you mean. Why do you think it is, that we feel like this?”

“I don’t know.” Blake’s heart wants to say something stupid, something about soulmates and true loves that she half-remembers from a thousand books she’s read. But her head can’t form the words, and she would never say them anyway. They sound so silly, even if they feel true. “Does it matter? We both feel it, and we…we both want to build on it. We both want to see where it goes, right?” You want this too, don’t you?

“Of course,” Yang says. Blake nods.

“So I don’t think it matters, where it comes from,” she says. “We’re connected. That’s all.” Yang leans in and kisses her on the temple.

“You’re really smart, you know that?” she says. Blake rolls her eyes, a smile tugging at her lips. She readjusts how she’s sitting, sliding somehow closer to Yang, and takes Yang’s hand from her arm, playing with her fingers and tracing the lines of her wrist.

It takes a few moments, but eventually, Blake finds a line that doesn’t belong.

She traces it with her fingers, frowning. She can’t twist her head at the right angle to look, but it’s a long, straight line, slightly raised from the skin around it, going from a few inches above Yang’s wrist up beyond where Blake can reach at this angle, with Yang’s arm around her shoulders. She can feel Yang’s eyes on her, and she turns to meet the gaze.

“You want to see?” Yang says softly. Blake nods. Yang takes her arm back from around Blake’s shoulders, which immediately burn cold at the loss. She rests her hand in Blake’s lap, her palm facing upwards. It takes Blake a moment to find the line again with her eyes. It’s a different color than Yang’s tan skin, a silvery white instead of a light brown, but it’s thin enough that it’s barely noticeable, and Blake can understand how she never spotted it before. She’s mostly seen Yang’s arms from a distance or in the dark.

The line traces from just above Yang’s wrist all the way up her forearm to her elbow, where it becomes a bit jagged then disappears entirely. Blake presses a thumb against it and follows it all the way up, stopping in the crook of Yang’s elbow, where she can feel Yang’s pulse against her skin.

“Old scar,” Blake comments, the much pinker and messier scar tissue on her hip throbbing in recognition. “It’s really faded.”

“Yeah,” Yang says. She’s looking down at her own arm, a look on her face that falls a little short of regret. “I crashed my motorbike when I was seventeen. It was…a long story and a complicated situation. My arm got crushed underneath the bike. They had to operate on it, put a bunch of shit in there to hold the bones together.”

Jesus.” Blake traces the scar back down to Yang’s wrist, rubbing gentle circles as she goes.

“Yeah.” Yang shrugs her left shoulder. “I had to do a bunch of physical therapy to get my range of movement back, and it still isn’t as strong as my left arm. The concussion was the real kicker, though. Would’ve died if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet.”

“Is this why you became a physical therapist?” Blake asks, looking up at Yang. Yang snorts.

“Absolutely not,” she says. “I hated physical therapy. That shit hurt. Nah, I wanted to be a doctor, and I did the pre-med path in undergrad before realizing I really didn’t want to do surgery on anybody, ever. Physical therapy was something I could actually use my undergrad degree for. Still in the medical field with, like, a minimal amount of blood.”

“Huh.” Blake squeezes Yang’s wrist before tugging her arm back around her shoulders. Yang goes willingly, though there’s a knowing smile on her face that makes Blake frown at her. “You’re warm,” she says. “Don’t judge me.”

“Baby, I’m not judging.” Blake’s heart flips over, and she closes her eyes for a moment. Yang seems to be getting more comfortable with the pet names, which Blake cannot cope with, not even a little bit.

“Someday you’ll have to tell me all these long stories of yours,” Blake says, returning her head to Yang’s shoulder.

“Whenever you want to hear them,” Yang says. “Anything you want to know, I’ll tell you. Just maybe not tonight.” Blake hums in agreement. Her eyelids slip shut, and she allows it for a moment before she realizes that she’s actually about to fall asleep.

“Okay, you need to stop touching me,” she says, lifting her head. Yang raises her eyebrows at her, her arm loosening around Blake’s shoulders. “I’m going to fall asleep. You’re going to have to carry me onto the plane.”

“I can do that,” Yang says. She flexes her left arm, which is just completely unreasonable and Blake has to avert her gaze.

“Go,” she says, poking Yang in the ribs. Yang yelps a little bit and pulls her arm back from Blake’s shoulders.

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” she says, rising to her feet. “I’ll see you in Atlas, I guess?” Blake reaches out, catching the hem of Yang’s t-shirt and tugging slightly. Yang looks confused for a moment, until Blake tilts her head back, making her intentions clear. Yang leans over and kisses her.

“See you,” Blake says when Yang pulls away. Yang grins at her and slips out from between the couch and the coffee table, waving over her shoulder as she heads for the door.

Chapter Text

The camera crew is already inside Blake’s Atlas hotel suite when she arrives. It would be reminiscent of the night before, only instead of Yang sitting on the couch inside with a nervous smile and eyes only for Blake, it’s Weiss, standing in the living room and looking distinctly irritated by the presence of the cameramen.

“Blake,” she says as Blake steps into the suite. She holds up her arms before saying anything else, and Blake goes to her quickly, pulling her into a tight hug.

“Hey,” she says as she pulls away. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“Yes, well,” Weiss says, “when I got a call yesterday evening from Coco Adel, I couldn’t exactly say no, could I?” Blake doesn’t bother pointing out that Weiss absolutely could’ve said no.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says instead, settling down onto the couch as a few of the production assistants carry her bags to the suite bedroom. That’s one perk to this whole situation, she supposes; she never has to carry her own bags.

“I signed an unbelievable number of NDAs to be here,” Weiss says. “Is all this secrecy really necessary for a dating show?” Blake shrugs.

“They take it pretty seriously,” she says. “Can’t let people find out who I choose until the season finale airs.” She’s not sure how that will work for her season, to be honest. She’s pretty sure it will be abundantly obvious to everyone watching that the only person Blake could possibly choose is Yang. The editors have worked magic before, though, so maybe they’ll succeed in making her look indecisive.

“Are you actually going to choose someone?” Weiss says, wrinkling her nose. “You’ve known these people less than a month.”

“That’s not totally true,” Blake says. “Ilia is here.” Weiss’s eyes go wider than Blake has ever seen them.

“She did not,” Weiss says. “Is she really?” Blake nods, and Weiss buries her face in her hands. “Oh, that’s not good at all.”

“Did you know about this?” Blake asks. Weiss lifts her head and sighs deeply.

“I didn’t know she was here,” she says. “I texted her a few days ago and never got a response, which was worrying, but—well, you know how she is.” Blake nods. She’s never met a worse texter than Ilia. She’ll answer the phone any time Blake calls her, but she’s chronically unable to respond to texts. “I had no idea she was on the show.”

“But you knew she liked me,” Blake says quietly. “Didn’t you?”

“I—“ Weiss shakes her head. “I suspected. Or, not even suspected, I saw it. It was really obvious to everyone who wasn’t you, Blake.” There’s a sharp discontent to her tone, not anger but something adjacent to it. Blake closes her eyes, exhaustion sweeping over her despite the fact that she’d slept quite well on the plane. It’s the exact answer she had been expecting. She’s been looking at the past years of their friendship through a different lens the past few weeks, and she’s beginning to see it, too.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Blake asks.

“It wasn’t my place,” Weiss says. “They’re Ilia’s feelings, not mine. It wouldn’t have been right for me to tell you. I was hoping she would, eventually, although I wish she would’ve asked my advice first. I certainly wouldn’t have told her to come on the show. This…doesn’t seem like the wisest course of action.”

“Yeah. No kidding.” Blake leans back against the couch, rubbing at her face with her hands. It still would’ve been a mess if Ilia had told her in any other situation, of course. There’s no easy way to navigate this. But it would certainly be easier if their every move wasn’t filmed.

“How do you feel?” Weiss asks, looking at Blake, gaze intent and perceptive. “Do you like her?”

“I love Ilia.” Blake lowers her hands, meeting Weiss’s gaze. “You know that. She’s my oldest friend.”

“I know,” Weiss says. “You know what I’m asking, don’t dodge the question.” Blake sighs.

“I…” She can’t say no. If she says no, she’ll have to either send Ilia home or risk looking like a terrible person on international television, and since good publicity is half the point of her being here, she’d have to choose the first option. And she doesn’t want to do that. Not until she gets the chance to talk things out with Ilia, preferably off camera.

“I don’t know yet,” Blake says. Weiss examines her closely, eyes narrowed. It’s a fiercely protective expression, one that Blake rarely sees from Weiss, and has never seen on Ilia’s behalf. It makes her wonder.

“Uh huh,” she says. She clearly doesn’t believe a word of it. Blake doesn’t mind that. She just wishes she could ask for Weiss’s advice off camera, explain the situation honestly and hear her true opinion on it. But Blake had known when she’d asked Coco if she could see Weiss that it would have to be on camera, so she pushes down her disappointment and moves the conversation in a different direction.

“I haven’t known the rest of them very long,” she says, “but there’s other good options besides Ilia.” Weiss groans.

“Blake, no,” she says. “You promised me.” Blake pokes her in the arm and shushes her.

“I’m serious,” she says. “There’s this woman. Her name is Yang, and she’s—we’re—“ Blake makes a vague gesture with her hands, linking her fingers together and tugging at them. “I don’t know how to explain it, but she’s incredible.”

“You’ve known her for a month,” Weiss says. Blake sighs.

“I know that,” she says. “I just…I don’t know, Weiss, I think you were right.” Weiss frowns at her.

“About what?”

“I was lonely.” Blake half-smiles and gives a little shrug. “I didn’t even realize I was, but then I met Yang, and I just…”


“She makes me happy,” Blake says, and Weiss’s irritated facade crumbles. She gives it one last deep, exasperated sigh, then she smiles.

“That’s good,” she says. “Just don’t rush into anything, okay? And don’t let her rush you into anything.” There’s a pointed note of worry in her voice, and Blake shakes her head as she recognizes the implication.

“She would never,” she says. “She’s not—she’s nothing like him, Weiss. At all.”

“Are you sure?” Weiss says. From anyone else, it would piss Blake off. She spent more than enough time relearning how to trust her own judgment; she doesn’t need anybody else to doubt it. But Weiss was there for the relearning, for Blake reconstructing herself, and more than that, she’s been through a similar experience herself. She’s only asking because she worries.

“I’m sure,” Blake says. A thought occurs to her then, an additional request that is probably far less likely to a get a yes, but one she can’t resist making once she’s thought of it. She turns to a member of the camera crew and says, “Can Weiss meet Yang?”

“Uh…” The camerawoman looks at her teammates, eyes wide. They all shrug at her, equally uncertain. “I can radio Coco about it?”

“Please,” Blake says. “Tell her I’m happy to have her meet all the contestants to avoid playing favorites if it would look better.”

I’m not happy with this,” Weiss says. “I don’t want to meet any of these idiots!” Blake ignores her, and so does the camerawoman, who has already stepped away and pressed a hand to her earpiece.

“You’ll like Yang,” Blake says, turning back to Weiss. She pauses and reconsiders. “Actually, you might drive each other insane. But even if you do, she’s good. You’ll see.”

“Will I,” Weiss mutters. “What about the rest of them? You have other contestants than Yang and Ilia, don’t you?”

“Sun and Neptune,” Blake says, nodding. “Sun is nice. He’s fun to be around. Neptune’s fine.” Weiss’s eyebrows raise.

“Nice and fine,” she repeats. “Glowing endorsements.” Blake remembers that they’re on camera and she should attempt to seem impartial, or at least conflicted about who she might choose.

“Sun is…really fun.” Yeah, no, it’s not happening. Blake can’t wax poetic about either of her other contestants. She could certainly attempt it with Sun, but all his best qualities that she’s noticed have mostly been related to how well he took her disinterest in him and how easily he’s rolled with their plan to keep him on the show despite that. Nothing she can really mention on camera.

“Miss Belladonna?” It’s the camerawoman, returned from her radio call to Coco. “Yang is on her way up. Coco said that Miss Schnee can meet the other contestants if she wants—“

“I don’t want.”

“—but that they can always claim there were time constraints on her visit if she only wants to meet Yang.” Blake’s eyebrows raise at the bluntness of the statement. Coco has remained a fairly impartial, distant party to everything so far, mostly appearing at rose ceremonies to usher contestants around and behind the camera during Blake’s confessionals. Blake imagines everyone working on the production is fully aware by this point that Yang is Blake’s favorite, but no one had acknowledged or supported that but Pyrrha, and even Pyrrha’s support had been quiet. They’re all supposed to play along with the illusion of the show, regardless of the reality directly in front of their faces.

“That’s…really nice of her,” Blake says. The camerawoman shrugs.

“It will bother Cinder,” she says, half-whispering. “Everyone likes doing that.” There’s a vindictive undertone to her voice that makes Blake smile.

“Thank you,” she says, wishing she had the woman’s name to thank her by, but just then, there’s a knock at the door of the hotel suite. One of the crew opens it before Blake can get out of her seat, and Yang struts into the room, already grinning.

“Hey,” she says, plopping down onto the couch beside Blake. Blake, who is keeping a normal, friendly-though-close distance from Weiss, immediately scoots several inches closer to Yang.

“Hey,” she says.


“We’re not doing this again,” Blake says, and Yang huffs. “Yang, this is Weiss, my best friend. Weiss, Yang.” Yang twists, reaching across Blake’s body with her right hand to go for a handshake—and in doing so, smoothly sneaks her left hand behind Blake’s back, settling onto her hip.

“Hey,” Yang says. Weiss shakes her hand, eyes narrowed.

“Yang,” she says. “Do you have a last name to go with that?”

“Xiao Long,” Yang says, leaning back and untwisting her body to sit more comfortably against Blake’s side.

“I’ve never heard of you,” Weiss says. Yang blinks at her.

“Uh, no,” she says. “Most people haven’t.”

“There were several aspiring Instagram influencers in the lineup for this show,” Weiss points out. “I’m just curious as to your motivations for being here.” Yang stares at her for a long moment, then snaps her fingers on the hand that isn’t rubbing very distracting circles on Blake’s hip and points at Weiss.

“I get it,” she says. “This is the here for the right reasons talk. Right?”

“…What?” Weiss stares at her incredulously.

“This happens every season,” Yang says, nodding. “Blake told me about it. Somebody gets interrogated about why they’re here and it turns out they’re trying to, like, promote their business or get social media clout or something.”

“I…didn’t realize I was playing to a trope, but yes,” Weiss says. “That’s what I’m asking you.”

“Cool,” Yang says. “Well, I’m just here because I’m a fan of Blake’s books, and then I saw her interview and she’s super hot. I had a lot of vacation days saved up, and this is an all expenses paid type gig, so I figured it was worth a shot.” She shrugs. “That’s it.” Blake, already knowing what she’ll find but curious anyway, watches Yang’s face as she speaks. No twitching, no badly hidden smile. She’s being honest.

“That’s…surprisingly straightforward,” Weiss says, taken aback. Yang shrugs.

“Only straight thing about me,” she says. Blake makes a face.

“Not your best work, babe,” she says. Yang looks at her, and instead of the teasing grin she’s expecting, Blake receives a warm, wide-eyed look. “What?” she says.

“You called me babe,” Yang says, and yes, Blake realizes, she had. It had just slipped out, like she’s called Yang that a thousand times. She half-smiles at Yang, a little nervous.

“Is that okay?” she asks. Yang grins, and Blake notices that their faces are very close together.

Extremely okay.”

“Oh, gross,” Weiss says, reminding Blake that there’s a third person on this couch and that she definitely can’t climb into Yang’s lap and kiss her right now. What a shame. “I’ve changed my mind, Blake. I don’t want you to be happy if I have to see this.”

“We’re just talking,” Yang says, resting her chin on Blake’s shoulder and tipping her head to look at Weiss. Weiss makes a disgusted noise.

“Okay, okay,” Blake says, before Weiss can speak again. “Yang—babe”—Yang turns her head and smiles into Blake’s neck—“maybe you should go. I don’t want to push my luck keeping you up here too long.”

“Sure.” Yang kisses Blake’s cheek before she gets to her feet, hand slipping away from Blake’s hip. “I’ll see you later, Blake. It was nice to meet you, Weiss.”

“It was nice to meet you as well,” Weiss says, her manners overpowering whatever lingering irritation she’s feeling. Yang nods and slips back out of the hotel room. Blake watches her go, then turns to Weiss as the door clicks shut behind her.

“So?” she says. “What’d you think?” Weiss sighs deeply.

“I think that if I had to be in a room alone with you two for more than five minutes, I’d jump out the window,” she says. Blake rolls her eyes.

“We aren’t that bad,” she says. “Seriously, what do you think? You know I trust your judgment.” Weiss grows serious, the annoyance fading from her face.

“Honestly?” she says. “The way you two look at each other…well, it’s sickening, obviously, but it’s also good. She…looks like she admires you.” Blake nods, heart warming at just the thought. “I suppose I don’t entirely disapprove.” That’s as good as a wedding gift from Weiss. Blake smiles at her and pulls her into a hug.

“You still can’t get engaged to her in two months, though,” Weiss whispers into Blake’s ear as they embrace, quietly enough that the mics likely can’t make it out. “I forbid it.” Blake rolls her eyes as she pulls back.

“We’ll see,” she says, and she’s just teasing, but…

…well, maybe the thought isn’t so bad.

Someone knocks on Blake’s door. She sighs deeply at the break in her immersion and narrows her eyes, speed-reading the last page of the chapter in the book she’s reading. Before she can get to the end, they knock again, louder and several times in a row. Blake rolls her eyes, skims the last few sentences of the chapter—skims, an actual crime against literature—and gets to her feet, setting the novel aside.

“What is it?” she calls. The door swings open, revealing a woman with green hair that Blake has never seen before in her life.

“Hey,” the woman says, and Blake can’t tell if she’s bored or if that’s just her voice. “I’m Emerald. Couple things. First of all, I’m your new shadow—“

“I get another one of those?” Blake interrupts. Emerald shrugs.

“Pyrrha’s gone,” she says. “Someone has to do it. Second thing, who do you want to take on your one-on-one tomorrow? The other three are going on the group date.”

“I…” Blake shakes her head. She would’ve liked some time to figure this out. Pyrrha would’ve given it to her—time and sound advice besides.

Still, Blake knows what her answer should be.

“Ilia,” she says. “I’ll take Ilia.”

“Cool,” Emerald says. She closes the door before Blake would even be able to ask her opinion, if she had been so inclined. Not that she is so inclined.

Blake turns back to her book, utterly incapable of losing herself in it once again, not with her one-on-one with Ilia hanging over her head.

The one-on-one will be a trip to a museum, followed by a wine tasting, as Emerald explains as she walks Blake out of the hotel the following morning. Blake finds the idea to be in poor taste, seeing how most of the museums in Atlas are filled with things that they stole from other countries, but it isn’t up to her, and there’s nothing this show hates more than getting political. So, out of a desire to not dig herself an even deeper hole with Cinder than she already has, Blake decides to keep her mouth shut, just look at the pretty art and deal with the Ilia situation.

The moment she forms the plan, she’s frustrated with herself for it. Here she is, trying to placate Cinder, walking on eggshells to keep a bully happy. This is not what Blake wants. But it’s what might keep both her and Yang on the show, so she sucks it up as Ren drops her off in front of the imposing museum building and smiles and waves at Ilia, who’s standing on the steps.

“Hey,” Ilia says, bouncing on her toes as Blake draws closer. She’s smiling, though it’s clearly nervous. She’s dressed neatly—button-up shirt, black jeans, black boots, with a leather jacket thrown on to combat the chill in the fall Atlas air—but not too nicely. Blake is wearing something similar, though a little less masculinely cut.

“Hi,” Blake says.

“Took you long enough to pick me,” Ilia says. She’s going for teasing, but her tone falls short, and the joke falls flat.


“Let’s head inside, okay?” Ilia says, offering her arm. “We’ve got stolen artwork to look at.” Discomfort brewing in the pit of her stomach, Blake settles her hand in the crook of Ilia’s elbow and follows her up the steps towards the looming museum. It’s a classically styled building, giant white columns holding up the roof where it overhangs the entryway. Or at least, they appear to be holding it up. Most of the buildings in Atlas are fairly new, and Blake doubts whoever designed this one made the columns load-bearing.

Really, it’s an excellent metaphor for Atlas itself. Nothing but a facade, aspiring to an ancient, faded glory that never truly existed in the first place. Blake notes the concept in the back of her head to use in a book at a later date.

“Where do you want to go first?” Ilia says as they walk into the museum, closely followed by the camera crew. The man at the front desk nods and waves at them, gesturing for them to continue into the museum without pause. The show must’ve already paid for their entrance.

“The Mistral section?” Blake suggests, gesturing at a sign off to their left. “We can just go clockwise around the whole place.” Ilia nods thoughtfully.

“Very smart,” she says. “Nice and efficient.” She starts walking in the direction Blake had indicated, and as Blake’s hand falls from her arm, Ilia catches it in her own.

They’ve been friends since they were little more than toddlers. They’ve held hands hundreds, thousands of times, and Blake has never once found it uncomfortable until now.

They loop their way all the way around the museum. The halls are near-silent, filled only with Atlesian locals who give them and their camera crew curious stares. It’s an oppressive atmosphere, but despite it, Blake doesn’t have a bad time. She actually has a pretty good time.

It’s just that she’s having a good time because Ilia is her friend. One of her best friends. Blake loves her, and she loves spending time with her, but when Ilia takes her hand away to point at something in the corner of a giant painting, Blake slips her hands into her pockets instead, and she doesn’t feel like she’s missing anything at all.

The wine tasting across the city goes much the same way. The Atlesian woman who runs it speaks very quietly and very seriously, and it provides even less of an opportunity for Blake and Ilia to actually talk to each other. Really, it’s an incredible coincidence that when Blake finally works up the resolve to take Ilia on a one-on-one and actually sort things out, the producers set up a date that completely prevents that conversation from actually happening.

Blake wonders, briefly, if Cinder is doing this to mess with her. But no, these dates are planned months in advance, and Blake had chosen Ilia for it only last night. It’s just deeply unfortunate timing, is all.

But then the dinner portion of the date rolls around, and Blake and Ilia are left alone in a room with a table full of food and a camera crew. The food is really just set dressing; they’d been fed separately beforehand. Turns out, shots of people eating aren’t actually that attractive. Audiences just want the illusion of a candlelit dinner and a romantic conversation.

“Did you have fun today?” Ilia asks, leaning back in her chair and tipping it onto two legs. Blake nods, nerves rolling in her stomach. “I’m glad. I did, too. I hate Atlas, though. Everyone’s so pretentious. I don’t know how you stand it living here.”

“It’s not so bad,” Blake says. “We just went to all the worst kinds of places today. There’s plenty of less…stuffy places.”

“Still.” Ilia lets her chair fall back to the ground on all four legs. “It’s nothing like home. Do you remember the summer festival, our junior year?” Blake cracks a smile at the memory. The summer festival in Menagerie is always wild, four full days of partying and dancing and drinking, centered around the bonfire they keep lit on the beach for nearly a hundred hours straight. Junior year of high school had been the first year they were legally allowed to participate in the drinking part.

“I do,” Blake says. Ilia smiles, clearly remembering the same moments Blake had, and it takes a long moment to fade away.

“Do you think you’ll ever move back to Menagerie?” she asks. Blake exhales slowly and looks away.

“I doubt it,” she says quietly. “Menagerie is home, and I love visiting, but…”

“Too many ghosts,” Ilia says, quoting Blake’s explanation to her when she first left for Atlas. “Yeah.”

“Yeah.” They sit in silence for a moment. Blake returns her gaze to Ilia’s, and grows uncomfortable with what she finds there. There’s more warmth, more affection in it than Blake is used to, and maybe she’s not as good at reading Ilia’s emotions as she had thought, if Ilia had hid this from her for years.

“Well, if it comes down to it, I could move to Atlas,” Ilia says. “If you want.” Blake is already shaking her head before Ilia has finished speaking.

“I don’t want you to move, Ilia,” she says. “You’d hate it here.”

“Yeah, but…” Ilia shrugs. “You’re here. That’s worth it.”

No,” Blake says. “I don’t want that. You love Menagerie.”

“Yeah, but I kind of want to see you more than two or three times a year, Blake,” Ilia says. “And if I have to sacrifice a few things to do that—“

“I don’t want you sacrificing anything for me,” Blake says. “It’s not about whether I’m—I’m worth it or anything like that. I don’t want you to give up your happiness for me. I don’t want anyone to, ever.”

“You keep saying you don’t want things,” Ilia says quietly, “and it kind of sounds like you mean you don’t want me.”

“Ilia…” Blake wants to cover her face with her hands, wants to hide from the expression on Ilia’s face.

“Hey.” Ilia leans forward, reaching out across the table and taking one of Blake’s hands. “I get that it’s—it’s weird, trying this with me. I know you weren’t expecting it, and that’s okay. But you said it yourself, you had fun today. So forget I said anything about moving, okay? That was…a bit much. Don’t worry about it. We can just keep having a good time.” Blake hesitates, gritting her teeth together. Ilia looks so hopeful, so anxious, and there are so many cameras around them, recording every single inch of both of their faces.

“I’m just not sure that will change anything for me,” Blake says softly, as gently as she can. It’s not quite a rejection, and Ilia doesn’t take it as one.

“You don’t know, yet,” Ilia says. “Right? You’ve only taken me on one date.” Blake does know, is the thing, and she’s about to say so when one of the camera crew coughs quietly. She glances up, and stares down the lens of a giant camera, then another, then another, all around them. She thinks of Cinder, who is clearly desperate for Blake to generate some kind of drama, and what she’ll do in the editing process to this moment, how she’ll make Ilia look if Blake rejects her on camera.

“Okay,” Blake says, chest aching with guilt. “I’ll give it some time.” Ilia grins at her, and Blake has to look away.

“Yang.” Yang grins, stepping forward from the line of contestants to stand in front of Blake.

“Not keeping me for last?” she says. “Am I not your favorite anymore?”

“I don’t play favorites,” Blake says, in maybe the least convincing lie she’s ever told. “Just take the rose, Yang.” Yang takes the flower from her, catching Blake’s hand as she lowers it and pressing a kiss to her knuckles. She winks up at Blake as she does so, and Blake has to close her eyes for a moment, caught between the urge to laugh at her and the urge to kiss her. It’s the same dilemma she’s been having all day. She’d taken Sun, Neptune, and Yang on a group date today, before the rose ceremony, and Yang had seemed particularly obsessed with making her laugh—more so than usual.

“Thank you,” Yang says as she straightens up, her goofy smile slipping into a softer, more affectionate one. She releases Blake’s hand, their fingertips brushing and then falling away, and steps back into line.

“Sun.” Blake is making the easy choices first, and Sun is certainly a simple one. He steps forward with a smile and a bounce in his step. “Will you accept this rose?”

“For sure,” Sun says, and leans forward slightly so Blake can tuck the rose into the chest pocket of his suit jacket. His shirt is, once again, several buttons too far undone, and the tie he’d been wearing at the start of the night has vanished entirely. He gives her a quick hug after the rose is in its place, and Blake leans into the contact. It’s comforting; Sun is kind and familiar, and a welcome interlude between Yang’s intensity and the decision Blake is about to have to make.

She turns to the last two contestants.

Ilia looks nervous. Her eyes are wide, and her hands are tucked behind her back, where Blake is sure that they’re trembling. Neptune, for his part, looks entirely unbothered by the whole situation. Blake has gotten the sense that he only came on this show because he wanted to be on TV—not that she can begrudge him his motives, considering her own—and the most enthusiasm she’s seen him show was yesterday, during the group date, when he and Sun spent quite a bit of time speaking to each other while Yang hung around Blake like the moon in orbit.

“Ilia,” Blake says quietly. She’s never sounded so unsure of anything in her life. Ilia breathes an audible sigh of relief and steps forward. Blake holds out the rose to her, and when Ilia takes it, both their hands are shaking. “Will you accept this rose?”

“I will.” Ilia takes it and tucks it into her suit jacket. “Thank you.” Blake shakes her head, unable to come up with words in response. Ilia steps back into line, giving Blake a small smile that she can’t return.

She’s made the wrong choice.

“That’s the last rose for tonight,” Coco says, stepping onto camera from her place at the side of the room. “Neptune, take a moment, say goodbye.” Neptune steps out of line, and before he even approaches Blake, he turns and hugs Sun.

“See you around, dude,” he says. “Text me when the show’s over.” He steps back, and Blake spots Sun grinning widely before Neptune turns to face her. “It’s been fun,” he says, nodding.

“Yeah,” Blake says, and finds herself at a loss for anything else to say. She’s barely even spoken to Neptune, to be honest. He gives her a brief hug for the cameras, which is a little uncomfortable, and then walks out of the room with a backwards wave, accompanied by a crew member.

“Well,” Coco says, surveying the remaining contestants and then turning to look at Blake. “Down to the final three. An exciting night, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah,” Blake says. She glances over at Ilia, who is already looking at her.

“Now, there’s some things you should all be aware of,” Coco says, moving to address the entire room at once. “Because of what happened with Jaune, we’re down to three contestants a week early. As you all know, normally, the bachelorette goes with each of her top four contestants for a hometown visit, followed by an elimination. Given the irregularities this season, we’re going to combine the hometown visits with what normally happens when there’s three contestants left—the fantasy suites. Blake, you’ll get to go home with each of the contestants, and during the week of your hometown visit, you’ll get a night to yourself with that contestant. Sound good to everyone?”

“…Sure.” Blake very much doubts that the plans would change at all if she weren’t happy with them. The contestants nod, and Coco claps her hands together with a smile.

“Excellent,” she says. “Now, everyone back to your rooms. Tomorrow is packing day, then Blake and Sun are heading back to Vacuo for a hometown visit. Yang and Ilia, you’ll be staying here in the meantime. Blake and Sun, don’t forget anything important!” The cameras start to shift away, and Blake lets herself slouch as she walks out of the room. Emerald doesn’t appear to follow her; apparently, Pyrrha sticking to her side like glue hadn’t been a standard practice. Blake doesn’t really want Emerald to do the same. She doesn’t trust her in the slightest, not yet, at any rate. But the lonely elevator ride does make her miss Pyrrha more.

Blake has changed into pajamas, brushed her teeth, and has started to use the excess anxious energy she has from the rose ceremony to pack up her things when there’s a knock at…her window? No, the sliding glass doors that separate her hotel room from the attached balcony.

Blake turns, crosses the room, and opens her blinds, fully expecting to see nothing and write off the sound as a bird hitting the glass in the dark.

Instead, she sees Yang.

“What the fuck,” Blake says aloud. Yang grins at her sheepishly.

“Hey,” she says, voice muffled by the glass. “Mind letting me in?” Blake shakes her head slowly and unlocks the glass doors, sliding them open. Yang steps inside immediately, along with a rush of cold air from the chilly Atlas night outside. Blake closes the door quickly.

“Yang, how the fuck did you even get up here?” she asks.

“I realized the other day, when I came up here to meet Weiss, that your room is right above mine,” Yang says. “So I climbed.”

“Climbed,” Blake echoes.

“Yeah,” Yang says. “I have a balcony, too, so I just kinda stood on the railing and jumped a little bit and grabbed the bottom of yours, and…yeah.”

“You are…” Blake shakes her head. “So weird.” Yang shrugs.

“Little bit,” she says. “…I can go if you want, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Okay?” Blake repeats, brow furrowing.

“Yeah. You seemed kind of out of it on the group date today, and really stressed during the rose ceremony. I was just…y’know. A little worried.”

“Is that why you were so…” Blake makes a vague gesture with her hands. “I don’t know. Enthusiastic during the group date?”

“Yeah,” Yang says, wincing. “Sorry if it was too much. I was just trying to cheer you up.”

“It wasn’t too much,” Blake says immediately. “I appreciated it, Yang. It did cheer me up.”

“I’m glad,” Yang says. “But then you got sad again.”

“I…” Blake sighs. “It’s just Ilia. I’m—I keep making the wrong choices with her. I’m going to hurt her, in the end.”

“Oh.” There’s an undertone to Yang’s voice that isn’t…hurt, or jealous, exactly, but distinctly uncomfortable. “You guys have known each other forever, right? So if—if you wanna make things work with her, I’m sure you can.”

“Make things work?” Blake frowns. “Yang, I’m not interested in her. Not romantically, at least.”

“…You’re not?”

“No,” Blake says. She takes a step forward, taking Yang’s hands in hers. “Yang, have you—do you think that I care about the others here, the way I care about you?”

“I—yeah,” Yang says. “Isn’t that the whole point?”

Yang.” Blake shakes her head. “Ilia is one of my best friends, and I like Sun, but this isn’t a real competition. They could never compete with you. From the beginning, you were the only person here I could see myself marrying.” Yang’s eyes go wide, and Blake closes hers in embarrassment. “I…didn’t mean to say that.”

“It’s all good,” Yang says softly. “I didn’t hear anything.” Blake shakes her head, feeling her face burn hot. “Do you mean that, though? That I’m…that it’s just me?”

“I do,” Blake says. “I thought that was obvious.” She’s sure it was obvious. She’s all but said it on camera at this point. Yang shrugs sheepishly.

“Maybe it was,” she says. “Even if I had noticed, though, I wouldn’t have believed it. I mean, there are…some good choices here other than me, and you’re you. You could have anyone you wanted, even outside of the show.”

“Good thing I want you,” Blake says, though she doesn’t quite believe that she could have anyone. Yang smiles at her and starts to lean in, one hand slipping out of Blake’s and settling on her waist instead. She rests their foreheads together, and Blake is about to close the distance and kiss her when someone knocks on her door.

Fuck,” Blake hisses, practically jumping back. Yang doesn’t speak, but her eyes go wide and panicked. “Hide!” Blake whispers. Yang looks around the room quickly, and her eyes settle on the closet, which is more than big enough for a person to fit into. She dives in and pulls the doors shut behind her, just as the knock on the door comes again.

“What is it?” Blake calls, moving to stand by her suitcase and picking up the clothes she had abandoned folding. The door swings open, revealing Emerald, who looks utterly bored.

“Plane ticket for tomorrow night,” she says without preamble, waving a slip of paper in the air.

“Leave it on the coffee table,” Blake says, nodding at the couch across the room. Emerald steps inside and sets the ticket down.

“Night,” she says, and leaves the room. The moment the door clicks shut behind her, Blake breathes out a sigh of relief. Her heart is racing, and she waits for it to calm down before she speaks.

“You can come out,” she says, looking over towards the closet. Yang pushes the doors open and steps back out into the room, a wide-eyed look on her face that Blake is sure she’s matching.

“That was way too close,” Yang says, and Blake nods rapidly.

“I think we should stop sneaking around,” she says, with no small amount of regret. “It’s too much of a risk. You could get sent home, Yang. They already suspect we’ve been up to something.”

“Wait, what?” Yang says, and Blake remembers that she’s completely out of the loop regarding the Cinder situation.

“One of the producers,” Blake says. “Have you met a woman named Cinder?” Yang frowns.

“I think I’ve heard the crew complain about her?” she offers.

“Sounds about right,” Blake mutters. “She thinks we’ve been sneaking around off-camera, and she’s obsessed with proving herself right. I don’t want to give her any more ammunition than she already has.”

“Well, fuck,” Yang says. “Yeah, of course, I’ll keep it all on camera. Not like I can sneak into your room while you’re in Vacuo with Sun, anyway.”

“Yeah.” Blake opens her arms, and without even questioning it, Yang steps forwards and wraps her in a hug. Her chin rests on the top of Blake’s head, and Blake burrows closer, slipping a hand beneath the hem at the back of Yang’s sweatshirt to trace the warm skin underneath.

“Y’know, it actually makes sense that you weren’t interested in anyone,” Yang says after a moment. “You were so unbothered by Jaune and Pyrrha, and Pyrrha didn’t seem like the kind of person to do that to a friend.”

“She’s not.” Blake sighs as one of Yang’s hands rubs its way down her spine. “Honestly, Yang, can you imagine me being interested in Jaune?” Yang’s hand pauses as she thinks about it.

“I may be stupid,” she says a moment later, and Blake laughs.

“You’re not stupid,” she says, lifting her head to look up at Yang. “You were just a little oblivious. And you also need to leave before we get caught.” Yang sighs dramatically.

“Fine, fine,” she says. “God, it’s gonna be weeks before I get to see you again.”

“Shut up,” Blake says. “Don’t make me think about that.” She pushes herself up on her tiptoes and kisses Yang. It goes on a little longer than she intends it to, and she has to take a deep breath when she pulls away. “Okay, go,” she says, pushing at Yang’s shoulders.

“One sec,” Yang says. She ducks her head and kisses Blake again. “Okay, now I can go. Have fun in Vacuo, Blake.”

“Good night,” Blake says. She doesn’t let herself follow Yang out onto the balcony, because she knows there’s no way she’ll let Yang leave if she does. She watches from inside the sliding glass doors as Yang walks out, grins over her shoulder at Blake, then shimmies down the outside of the fence that cages in the balcony, until only her hands are visible.

Then she lets go. Blake winces a little bit at the sight, brain conjuring up the unwanted image of Yang continuing to fall to the ground below.

“Good night!” Yang shouts from the next balcony down, and Blake shakes her head fondly as she locks her balcony doors and turns back to her folding.

Chapter Text

“So, what’d you think of my friends?” Sun asks, grinning at Blake. They’re sitting on a bench in a little park in Shade, Sun’s hometown in Vacuo. It’s a lot smaller than the capitol city of Vacuo proper, and Blake doesn’t like it nearly as much for that fact. She grew up in an immensely crowded place, and for all that she doesn’t like actually talking to people, there’s something to be said for being surrounded by them.

“They seem nice,” Blake says. She’s been in Shade for almost a week now, and today she finally met Sun’s friends and roommates, Sage and Scarlet. Sun, it turns out, is an orphan, and where Blake would normally meet his parents and siblings and ask for their approval, she instead dealt with his best friends. They’d both been a little standoffish, not particularly interested in getting to know her, and neither had expressed any real opinion on her relationship with Sun. It’s certainly not what hometown visits are normally like on this show, and it’s probably not going to make Cinder very happy.

“Yeah, they’re awesome. And don’t take it too personally if they didn’t, y’know, give their approval. They don’t think I’m ready for a commitment like this. They told me that before I left for the show.” Blake nods. That explains a lot about the cold reception she had gotten, and makes her wonder if they had known, somehow, that Sun isn’t really interested in her.

“And you disagree?” Blake says, raising an eyebrow. Sun shrugs, unbothered.

“I’m just going with the flow,” he says. “Clearly you disagree, since I’m still around, huh?” He smiles at her, a humor in it that no one watching would be able to decode.

“Right,” Blake says.

“Well, I guess we should get moving,” Sun says. “Unless you wanna have fantasy suite night right here.” He gestures expansively at the park, and Blake makes a face. The fantasy suites aren’t technically only for sex, but they definitely have an implication, and the joke is in poor taste.

“Get up,” Blake says, poking him in the side. Sun rises from the bench and offers Blake a hand up. As they stand, a few of the cameras drift away from them, the crew checking their equipment as nothing important is happening in scene right now.
“Blake.” It’s Emerald, stepping forward with her arms crossed. “Cinder wants to see you before we move to the suite. You’ll meet Sun there.” Blake glances over at Sun, who seems a little surprised by the development. Blake…is not. She’s been waiting to be called into a meeting with Cinder again since the day Pyrrha and Jaune got caught. She just hopes the footage of Yang from the mansion hasn’t been found.

“Okay,” Blake says. She nods at Sun and follows Emerald into one of the crew’s vans. There’s no one else in it, and Blake takes the passenger seat as Emerald slips behind the wheel.

The drive back to the hotel where the crew and producers are staying is a short one. Shade is not a large town, and there aren’t a lot of options for lodgings. Emerald is a kind of terrifying driver, but Blake isn’t about to argue with her about it, so she just clutches onto the door and lets out a sigh of relief when they park.

Emerald leads Blake into the hotel, up an elevator, and down the hall to Cinder’s room without a word. She’s not much of a talkative type, or maybe she just really doesn’t like Blake. She swipes a keycard in the door and opens it, stepping aside to make room for Blake to pass.

Cinder is already waiting for her, seated in the office chair that had come with the room. A smaller, folding chair is set up in front of her, without a desk available to separate them. Blake settles into it uncomfortably, wary of the satisfied smile on Cinder’s face.

“Blake,” she says, cloyingly sweet. “How has your week been with Sun?” Blake shrugs.

“Good,” she says. Cinder nods.

“I’m glad,” she says. “And tonight? How are you feeling about the fantasy suite date?”

“A little confused as to why I’m not there right now,” Blake says. Cinder’s smile slips, but she drags it back into place before sighing quietly.

“Just a few notes from the higher ups,” she says. “They’ve been reviewing the dailies from this week, and you’ve been…less than enthusiastic about Mr. Wukong. They wanted me to ask you to rectify that.”

“Rectify it,” Blake echoes. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“Well, we want to tell a good love story, of course,” Cinder says. “And the network, my bosses, have decided that the best love story we have here is you and Sun. That hasn’t been entirely reflected in the footage we have, so we just want you to make sure that you enjoy tonight, at least the portions that you’re on camera for.”

“I’m sorry, back up,” Blake says, shaking her head. “What are you talking about? The network has decided on me and Sun?” Cinder nods.

“It’s the best choice, really,” she says. “It’s obvious that you don’t have feelings for your poor friend Ilia, and you’ve barely spent any time on camera with her.”

“And what about Yang?” Blake asks. Cinder grins at her, teeth flashing.

“I’ve found footage of the two of you sneaking off camera,” she says, and Blake’s heart drops. “So unless you want it sent off to my bosses, you’ll obey. This show does not reward rule breaking.” Blake stares at her, an unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach. This doesn’t quite add up.

“You know that if you send Yang home, I’ll pick Sun over Ilia,” she says. “Why not just do that, instead of trying to blackmail me? Unless you don’t actually have the footage.” Without a word, Cinder holds her phone out between them. On the screen is a grainy still image—Blake recognizes the hallway by her bedroom, back in the mansion in Vale. Cinder taps play, and Blake watches as she and Yang come out of Blake’s room, Yang in those stupid dragon slippers, and walk underneath the camera off of the screen.

“As you can see, I have the footage,” Cinder says, withdrawing the phone. Blake’s heart is pounding. She feels a little sick to her stomach, but she doesn’t let that stop her.

“Then send it to your bosses,” she says. “Send Yang home.” Cinder’s eyes narrow, but she doesn’t pick her phone up again. Blake has called her bluff. “You already showed it to them, didn’t you,” she says. “And they don’t want Yang to go home.”

“They think they can make a story of it,” Cinder says, jaw clenching. “They think they can sell you two as soulmates, and this”—she holds the phone up—“as love at first sight. They’re willing to forgive it for the sake of the narrative. I disagree. You broke the rules, Blake. You both did.” Blake leans back in her chair.

“Why do you care about the rules so much?” she asks, narrowing her eyes at Cinder. “It’s a reality show. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters that you lied to me about it,” Cinder hisses, and Blake understands. It isn’t about the rules themselves, it’s about Cinder feeling in control. She wants to be in charge of this whole operation; she wants Blake’s choices to be up to her.

Too bad.

“If that’s all, I have a date I’m supposed to be on right now,” Blake says, getting to her feet. She’s halfway to the hotel room door when Cinder speaks again.

“That footage isn’t the only thing I have on you, you know,” she says. Blake pauses, glancing over her shoulder and barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “I have Adam Taurus’s phone number.”

“…What?” Blake says. Her blood runs cold.

“He’s not a difficult man to track down,” Cinder says, smirking at her.

“I’m sorry, are you being serious right now?” Blake says, slowly turning back around. “You’re—what, you’re going to sic my abusive ex on me because you’re not getting the reality show that you want out of me?”

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Cinder says. “Make sure you have fun with Sun tonight, if you don’t want to have a surprise reunion.”

“Are you—“ Blake shakes her head. Are you fucking kidding me? “You know that would be illegal, right? He’s not allowed anywhere near me.” There’s no way Cinder will actually do it. Blake could sue the hell out of the network if she did; she has multiple restraining orders on Adam, and Cinder deliberately bringing him here would make them liable for the violation.

“Stranger things have happened on this show, Blake,” Cinder says. Blake shakes her head. The fear that flooded her veins at the name has been replaced by anger.

“You won’t do it,” she says. “You’ll lose your job.” Cinder just smirks at her. “We’re done here. I’m going to pick Yang at the end of this, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.” Blake turns and walks out the hotel room door, Emerald following close behind her.

“Hey,” Sun says, smiling widely as he opens the suite door. Blake’s hand is still halfway in the air from knocking; apparently, he’d been practically waiting at the door. Blake glances at the camera crew over her shoulder, feeling…odd about the fact that they won’t follow her through the doorway. Inside the suite, it’ll be just her and Sun.

“Hi,” Blake says. “Let’s go inside.” Sun, too, glances at the camera crew before stepping out of the way. Blake walks into the room, and Sun shuts the door behind her, cutting them off from the crew entirely.

“What did Cinder want?” Sun asks, trailing behind Blake as she explores the suite. There’s a bathroom with a double vanity, a small living room area with a couch and a giant television, and a bedroom with a king sized bed, a high ceiling and a view of downtown Shade. It isn’t quite as swanky as some of the places they’ve stayed on the show so far, but there’s only so much swank a town like Shade can offer.

“It’s…hard to explain,” Blake says, opting for the living room and settling down on the couch. Sun sits on the other end, looking at her attentively. “Yang and I have been sneaking off camera to see each other, and it pisses her off. She was trying to blackmail me.”

“Blackmail you?” Sun says. “With what?”

“Footage of Yang and I sneaking away,” Blake says. “And then, when that didn’t work, she…threatened to call my ex.”

“Your ex,” Sun echoes, sounding a little lost.

“Abusive ex,” Blake clarifies. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

That’s really fucked up,” Sun says. “Jesus. Do you think she’ll actually do it?”

“I—“ Blake takes a deep breath. “There’s no way, right? I have restraining orders on him. There’s no way.” She meets Sun’s gaze, blue eyes wide with concern. “Do you think she’d do it?”

“I don’t know,” Sun says with shrug. “I haven’t met her.” It isn’t at all the answer Blake wants to hear, and she crosses her arms over her chest, trying to settle her nerves.

“They probably disconnected that TV, right?” she says instead, nodding across the room. Sun’s concerned expression becomes a grin immediately.

“They disconnected the cable,” he says, getting to his feet and doing a little hop over the coffee table to get to the TV. “And the internet connection. But they did leave…” He digs through the cabinet beneath the TV, then spins around, a disc case in his hands and a playful smile on his face. “Mario Kart.” Blake looks at him for a moment, noting the hope in his smile.

“You want to play, don’t you,” she says.

God, yes,” Sun says. “I haven’t been deprived of video games for this long since…never. Since never. I’m dying here, Blake.” Blake shakes her head.

“Plug it in then,” she says. “I’m going to lose, though. I don’t think I’ve ever played.”

Never played?” Sun repeats, deeply offended. “You have so much to learn, Blake Belladonna.” Blake rolls her eyes, but catches the controller Sun tosses to her, content to do anything to take her mind off Cinder’s threat.

They play video games for awhile, going through the entire selection of games in the room that don’t require internet. Blake loses every single one. She’s never really been into games, but Sun doesn’t seem bothered, content to utterly destroy her in every round and cheer for her when she manages to beat a few of the computer players.

They’re not expected to check out of the suite until past noon the next day, so they stay up late. When they’re finally done, Sun sleeps on the couch, and Blake curls up alone in the king sized bed, small town lights twinkling outside the window. Her anxieties come back in the dark, as they have a nasty habit of doing, but she manages eight hours of fitful sleep before the sun is too high in the sky to ignore.

The moment the plane begins to descend into Menagerie, something in Blake’s chest settles. She can never live here again, not after everything. It’s a big city, but it feels deceptively small: immediately after their breakup, Blake ran into Adam’s friends everywhere. That likely had something to do with him stalking her, but it was enough to taint her home, possibly beyond repair.

Still, Blake loves Menagerie. The skyline is achingly familiar as the plane circles, coming lower and lower towards the airport. She can spot her parents’ house from above where it rests in the center of the city, looming over the buildings around it. She won’t get to see them on this trip; this is Ilia’s hometown visit. The producers have, for some reason, decided that the best travel route is to Menagerie, then to Patch for Yang’s hometown, then back to Menagerie for the final two contestants to meet Blake’s parents. Blake cannot for the life of her decipher their logic. She hasn’t seen her parents in months, since well before she left for the show, and she misses them desperately.

When they finally touch down, and Blake is allowed to step outside, the rush of humid air over her skin feels like home. She’d dressed for it preemptively in her Shade hotel room this morning, shivering under the plane air conditioning in her tank top and shorts all the way here, but it’s worth it, now, for the heat on her skin. The sun is hot, and the air is thick, and Blake is already wondering how many times the producers will let her go to the beach before they get sick of it as a date location.

Date location. Because she’s here to go on a week’s worth of dates with Ilia, culminating in the fantasy suite night. They won’t get a minute off camera to talk to each other until said night. Not only that, but Blake is here to meet Ilia’s family.

She’s met them before, of course—or her, Blake should say. Ilia was raised by a woman named Sienna Kahn, who is maybe the most intimidating person Blake has ever met, and one of the most intelligent. Blake shivers a bit at the thought, despite the heat baking into her skin. She likes Sienna, and she isn’t looking forward to hurting her, as well, when she has to let Ilia down. Speaking of whom—

“Blake!” It’s Ilia, waving at her from the other side of the runway, next to the plane that had taken her across the ocean from Atlas. Blake glances back at Emerald, unsure if she’s even allowed to interact with Ilia right now. Emerald just gives her one of her trademark bored looks, and Blake decides to take it as permission. She walks quickly across the runway, sandals slapping on the tarmac, and Ilia mirrors her, meeting in the middle.

“Hi,” Ilia says, smiling. She’s dressed similarly to Blake, equipped for the warm weather in shorts and sandals, although instead of a tank top, she’s wearing an oversized t-shirt tucked in in the front. Blake eyes the way it falls over her chest for a moment, noting a familiar shift.

“You didn’t bind on the whole flight here, did you?” she says, keeping her voice low. There aren’t any cameras on them right now, but it’s still a private conversation.

“Changed in the bathroom before I got off the plane,” Ilia says. “I know how to be safe. I’m a little smarter than I was in high school.”

“I know you are,” Blake says. “I just want you to be comfortable.” Ilia smiles at her.

“I think I’m more comfortable right now than I have been since this show started,” she says. “Back home. With you.”

“…Yeah.” Blake glances around, noting the lack of cameras in their immediate vicinity. Emerald is watching them disinterestedly, but she’s out of earshot. “Ilia, I—“

“If you two are talking, you’re goin going to need mics.” Blake glances to the side, and there’s Cinder, strolling up to them with a smile on her face. Blake grits her teeth. Judging from the satisfaction in Cinder’s expression, she has at least some idea what she’s interrupting.

“Right,” Blake says. “I’ll see you later, Ilia.” Ilia nods at her, and Blake reluctantly crosses back across the runway, to where Emerald is standing amongst a group of crew members who are unloading Blake’s bags.

“You probably shouldn’t break the rules in front of Cinder like that,” Emerald comments as Blake walks up to her. “She’s already pissed at you.”

“Believe me, I know that,” Blake snaps. “You were in the room the other day when she threatened me.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Emerald says. “So why provoke her more?”

“Believe it or not, my actions don’t revolve around what Cinder wants me to do,” Blake says, and Emerald’s apathetic mask slips a bit as she flinches almost imperceptibly. Blake has hit a nerve, apparently. Blake takes the opportunity, pushing for a little bit of honesty from Emerald, who has been mostly a brick wall since she got assigned to working with Blake. “Do you think Cinder would actually bring Adam here? It would cost her her job, right?”

“I…yeah, she’d probably get fired,” Emerald says. “Come on, Ren has the car waiting.” She walks off, and Blake trails after her, not missing the fact that Emerald doesn’t answer her first question.

They meet Sienna at the beach, rather than at Ilia’s childhood home. Blake had requested beach dates, but she isn’t sure if that’s what pushed the producers’ decision as much as another opportunity to film their highly attractive cast in swimwear. Either way, she isn’t going to complain about it. The sun is burning brilliantly and the sky is a radiant blue, and it’s hot enough to make showering multiple times a day a necessity. It’s exactly the kind of day that Blake always misses, living in Atlas.

They have some time to themselves before Sienna arrives. They stay away from the water, since Ilia is wearing shorts and a purple half tank binder that really isn’t meant to get wet. Blake doesn’t mind; the water here is much nicer than it had been on the beach in Vale with Sun, but the ocean isn’t really her main draw to the beach. She’s here for the heat.

“I’m amazed you didn’t bring any books,” Ilia says from her spot beside Blake on the beach blanket.

“I would if it wasn’t…” Blake gestures vaguely. She doesn’t want to call it a date.

“Wasn’t what?” Ilia says. Blake winces. She’d been hoping that Ilia would let that one slide, but their conversation back in Atlas seems to have shifted something. Ilia is pushing, now, asking for the truth of Blake’s feelings in a way that she hadn’t been in the beginning. Blake wonders if she knows what that truth will be.

“I just don’t think audiences would be the biggest fan of it,” she says, evading Ilia’s question. “It would look kind of rude, even though I know you don’t mind.” Ilia examines her for a moment more before she smiles.

“I don’t mind,” she agrees, letting the question of what slip away. “I think it’s cute how you still like your job enough to do homework for it.”

Books aren’t my job, Ilia,” Blake says, the irritation in her tone purely for show. This is an old, fun fight for them, something to bicker over ad nauseam. Blake knows Ilia is proud of her.

“Ilia.” The voice comes from behind them, and Blake twists, looking over her shoulder and squinting against the sun. Ilia mirrors her, and both their gazes find the source of the voice: Sienna Kahn. She doesn’t cut a particularly imposing figure; she’s probably shorter than Blake, dressed for the beach, and smiling, but Blake’s stomach flips nervously all the same.

Sienna has never been mad at her, but Blake has seen her angry before. Her and Ilia’s last year of high school, Adam robbed a convenience store. He dragged Blake into his plans, and by extension Ilia, making them go through the day before and note all the locations of the security cameras. It hadn’t prevented him from getting caught, of course; Adam wasn’t really good at crime, but he was young, hadn’t stolen much, and made a sympathetic enough defendant that that he hadn’t ended up in prison. He never named Blake and Ilia as accomplices, and they hadn’t gotten in any trouble for the situation, but there had been a long few weeks where they were both worried that they would end up with criminal records. It would’ve ruined their chances at college, ruined their futures, and so Ilia had, of course, told Sienna about it.

Sienna is a very intelligent woman. She had understood what was going on between Adam and Blake better than Blake even understood it at the time, and she hadn’t blamed Blake for the situation, even though Ilia had followed her into it. But Blake had seen the anger behind Sienna’s eyes when they explained the situation to her, and it hadn’t mattered that the anger was directed at Adam. Blake was afraid of it anyway. She still is.

And now she’s going to break Ilia’s heart—arguably a far worse crime than the robbery could’ve ever been.

“Hi, Sienna,” Ilia says. She doesn’t get up to hug her the way Blake would leap at the chance to hug her parents. Blake knows they don’t care for each other any less for that. Sienna nods at Ilia, then looks over at Blake.

“Hello, Blake,” she says. Blake manages most of a nervous smile and a nod in greeting. Sienna spreads out her own blanket on Ilia’s other side and settles down, shooting a glance up and around at the cameras encircling them. “A little crowded today,” she says, looking back at Ilia and Blake.

“You have no idea,” Ilia grumbles. “We haven’t gotten a moment alone this whole time.”

“Well, that is what you both signed up for,” Sienna says. “How have things been, other than the lack of privacy?”

“Good,” Ilia says. “We’ve been all over the place. We were in Atlas a few weeks ago.” Sienna’s lip curls slightly at the name.

“I’m sure it was…educational,” she says. “And what about you, Blake? How many people have you had to reject so far?”

“Twenty-seven,” Blake says.

“We’re down to the last three,” Ilia adds on. Sienna nods slowly.

“Any idea who you might choose in the end?” she asks. Blake’s mind flashes a very helpful image of Yang, in that purple dress from the very first night, smiling at her from just outside the limousine door.

“I haven’t decided yet,” she says unconvincingly. Ilia shifts uncomfortably beside her.

“I see.” Sienna’s tone betrays nothing, and Blake’s throat tightens nervously. “Ilia, would you mind getting us some drinks from the stand over there? Just water for me.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ilia says. She hops to her feet, and Sienna hands her her wallet without looking away from Blake. Ilia walks off across the sand, a single cameraman following her. Next, Sienna turns to the remaining camera crew, eyes narrowing.

“And you all,” she says. “Please give us a moment alone.” The crew looks at each other, nervous expressions on their faces.

“Ma’am,” one of them says after a moment. “We can’t do that. We’re supposed to film everything you three say to each other today. We—“

“Just a brief moment,” Sienna says. There’s a force behind her tone that does not allow argument, and the crew exchanges another series of nervous looks before backing off. Blake isn’t mic’ed today, a fortunate consequence of being dressed for the beach, and they both wait in silence until the boom mics are pointed away and the cameras are lowered, the crew far enough away that they won’t be able to hear over the sound of the waves.

“Sienna, I—“ Blake begins. Sienna cuts her off with a shake of her head.

“You don’t love Ilia, Blake,” she says. “Do you?” Blake has to look away.

“I do love Ilia,” she says. “I could never stop. Just…not in the way she wants me to.”

“Then why are we here?” Sienna says. “Why would you let her keep her hopes high for so long?” Blake draws her knees up to her chest and hugs them tightly.

“It’s like she said. Since the show started, we haven’t gotten a moment alone. And I didn’t want to do this on camera. You know how she would take that, and I don’t want to lose her.”

“I…suppose I can understand that,” Sienna says, glancing up at the crew, who are standing at a distance, watching their every move. “But the moment you have a chance, you need to be honest with her. This charade has gone on long enough, don’t you think?”

“I do,” Blake agrees. She looks over the beach, over the other people who are here, giving them and the crew a wide berth. Her eyes catch on Ilia, who is waiting for their drinks at the stand. She sees Blake, waves with a smile. Blake waves back, smaller and uncertain. “How did you know that I didn’t…feel that way?” she asks, turning and looking at Sienna.

“If you loved my daughter half as much as she loves you, there would be no question of who you choose at the end of this,” Sienna says. “You would’ve chosen her already.” Blake stares at her, unable to even choose which part of that statement to latch onto first. She can count on one hand the number of times she’s heard Sienna call Ilia her daughter. She’s not sure the adoption was ever even legally recognized. Ilia has certainly never called Sienna mom.

And love. Ilia loves her. Blake knows that, of course, but Ilia hasn’t said it in so many words, and Blake hasn’t allowed herself to think of it like that, let it be so heavy. But it’s true. It’s heavy, and it’s true, and Blake can’t run away from it anymore.

“I’m sorry,” Blake murmurs, throat dry. Sienna sighs.

“It isn’t me you need to apologize to, Blake,” she says quietly, as Ilia approaches them, returning with drinks in her hands and a water bottle tucked under her arm. “It’s not me you need to hope you can fix things with.”

“Hey, guys,” Ilia says, coming to a stop in front of them. She passes a drink down to Blake, then the water bottle to Sienna before retaking her seat. She doesn’t sit too close to Blake, though what counts as a comfortable distance between the two of them is significantly smaller than what Blake keeps from most people. “How’d you get the cameras to go away?”

“I asked nicely,” Sienna says. She raises a hand, beckoning at the crew, and they begin to drift closer across the sand again, mics raising and lenses pointing at the three of them.

“Nicely,” Ilia repeats. “You know you’re terrifying, right?”

“I do,” Sienna says. “It’s a talent.” Ilia snorts.

“You didn’t threaten Blake too much, did you?” she says, tone light. “If you hurt Ilia they’ll never find your body, and all that?” Blake winces. Sienna looks across Ilia at Blake, eyes narrowed.

“No,” she says. “No, I didn’t need to do that. I think she would feel bad enough about it all on her own.”

After several days spent on Menagerie, revisiting old haunts and detested tourist traps that the show is getting paid to feature, Blake and Ilia get driven to the fantasy suite together. Cinder doesn’t interfere this time, though Blake almost wishes she would. She’s dreading what will happen when the hotel door closes behind them, shutting out the cameras and the microphones between the two of them for the first time since Ilia stepped out of that limousine back in Vale.

Ilia, it seems, isn’t quite ecstatic about it, either. She hesitates in the hallway, resting a hand on the doorknob to the suite and shooting a nervous smile over her shoulder at Blake.

“Fancy place,” she says. Blake nods. it’s a hotel neither of them has ever stayed at before—duh, they both have homes on Menagerie—but one that Blake’s father’s political allies and rivals always stayed at when they visited the island, and one which has a reputation for being both incredibly expensive and incredibly luxurious. Blake has only ever been in the lobby and a few meeting rooms before, accompanying her father to one event or another. She feels, in the hallway, how she always does around such wealth: out of place. She may have grown up with money, but her parents aren’t the ostentatious types, and she’s spent long enough making (mostly) her own way that places like this no longer feel like they belong to her.

“Let’s go in,” Blake says after a moment, when Ilia continues to hesitate, eyes searching Blake’s face. Finally, Ilia nods, and turns the doorknob. The camera crew remains in place outside the suite, and Blake flicks the lights on as she follows Ilia inside.

The door opens directly into a spacious, high-ceilinged bedroom with a king-sized bed. Off to their left, through a glass wall, is a living room area. A door to their right reveals the dark interior of a bathroom, and Blake steps over to it out of curiosity as Ilia closes the front door. She flicks the lights on. The bathroom is just as beautiful and spotless as the other two rooms, with a giant walk-in shower and the softest-looking towels Blake has ever seen in her life hanging up.

There’s an immense amount of wealth and luxury stuffed into the room, though not at the expense of comfort. The bed looks warm, the towels soft, the floor-to-ceiling windows across the room have shades waiting to be drawn. None of it comforts Blake in the slightest. None of it puts her at ease. She turns back to Ilia, who is watching her move about the room.

For a long moment, they just look at each other. Ilia’s eyes are wide and scared. Blake has no idea how she might look, but she feels the same.

Finally, Ilia says, “Blake—“ and her voice cracks. She coughs, looks away, and tries again. “What do you want to do tonight?” Blake very nearly loses it right there. Her throat tightens, her eyes begin to burn.

“I want to talk,” she says. “We need to talk.”

“Okay,” Ilia says. Neither of them moves, towards each other or to sit down. Blake can barely get her lungs to breathe.

“Ilia, I don’t…” Blake shakes her head. “The way you feel about me, I don’t feel the same.” Ilia closes her eyes.

“I should’ve seen that coming, huh,” she says, and her voice shakes in a way that Blake hasn’t heard since they were children. Ilia isn’t one to be obvious with her pain; they’re alike in that way, though Blake has always been able to identify the feeling on her friend, the difference between the way Ilia’s jaw clenches when she’s angry and the way it does when she hurts.

The trembling voice hides nothing, and doesn’t attempt to. It’s stripped back, laid bare, and Blake’s hands twitch at her sides. She wants to reach out. She doesn’t. It would only make things worse.

“I’m sorry,” Blake says. Ilia shakes her head.

“Can’t you just—can’t you try?” Ilia says, eyes still shut. “Just to see if you could love me?”

“I don’t think it works that way,” Blake says, and Yang’s face comes to her mind again. “And even if it did…I don’t think I would want to.” Ilia makes a sound like she’s been cut open. She opens her eyes, and they’re watery.

Fuck, Blake,” Ilia says, reaching up and rubbing at her tears. Blake averts her eyes. She tells herself it’s because Ilia is tough, she doesn’t like being seen vulnerable, but that doesn’t apply to Blake seeing her vulnerable. It almost never has. Blake just doesn’t want to look at this. Maybe that’s cowardly, but she doesn’t want to look.

“I’m sorry,” Blake says. “I should’ve told you sooner. I just—I didn’t want it to be on camera, and I didn’t…”

“You could’ve just sent me home on the first night,” Ilia says. “It could’ve been over right there.”

“I…” Blake couldn’t have. She could never. “You deserved better than that.”

“Did I?” Ilia says. “This doesn’t feel better.” Blake flinches. “Just—fuck. Fuck!” The yelling makes Blake flinch back further. Ilia notices, and she stops, taking deep breaths instead as she tries to dry her tears faster than they fall.

“I’m sorry,” Blake says again. Ilia shakes her head.

“I just—I need to not be here right now,” she says, voice hoarse. “I’m gonna…go home, I guess. I can’t be here.”

“Okay,” Blake says. Her hands jerk at her sides, fighting to reach out, and she stops them, pinning her wrists against her sides. “Is there—are we going to be okay, Ilia? Are we still going to be friends?”

“I don’t know, Blake.” Ilia jams her hands into the pockets of her jeans, looking at Blake with red-rimmed eyes. “I don’t know right now.”

“Okay,” Blake says again, feeling like a broken record. All she has to offer are apologies and acceptances. “I…just don’t want us to be hurting each other.” Ilia nods.

“Ask me again next time we see each other,” she says. “…Whenever that is.” Blake nods, and steps to the side, opening the path to the hotel room door, hands still aching to reach out and hold her friend. Ilia steps forward, and their shoulders touch. She stops in her tracks and leans to the side, into Blake. In lieu of a hug that neither of them can handle right now, a pressure of shoulder against shoulder, gentle and solid and still fleeting as Ilia steps towards the door and the contact fades away.

The door opens and shuts, and Ilia is gone.

Chapter Text

“What happened in there?” Coco asks. It isn’t a confessional; they’re both on camera. Blake is still in the clothes she’d worn that day, sitting on the couch in the hotel lounge with her arms crossed across her chest in hopes that it will make her feel a bit steadier. It doesn’t. It’s been minutes since Ilia was escorted out of the hotel, back to the one she’s been staying at while in Menagerie to gather her things and go back home to her apartment on the other side of the city. Blake hadn’t been allowed a moment to catch her breath. As soon as Ilia walked out of the fantasy suite alone and it became clear that things had ended between them, the crew had swarmed Blake, getting her every blink and breath on camera.

“I sent her home,” Blake says. Coco nods, a sympathetic look on her face.

“So it was you who ended things?” she asks. “Not Ilia?”

“It was me.” Blake glances up from Coco, to the camera lens aimed directly at her face. “I just…couldn’t do it.”

“Couldn’t see yourself marrying her?”

“That,” Blake says. “Or…any of it. She’s my best friend, but…”

“Do you think you’ll stay friends?” Coco asks. Blake’s heart clenches.

“I hope so,” she says. “I don’t…I don’t know.” That’s what finally gets her, the not knowing. The lack of certainty where it’s always been before. The tears that formed behind her eyes in the suite begin to escape. “I’m sorry,” Blake says, to Coco, to the camera, to Ilia who isn’t here. “I’m sorry. I need to go.”

“Of course,” Coco says softly, and Blake thanks the universe that Cinder isn’t on set right now, because there’s no way she would let Blake leave if she was. “It’s been a hard night. Let’s get you home.” Home. Coco means the hotel, of course, but Blake can’t think of anything she wouldn’t give right now for Ren to drive her to her parents’ house instead. She misses her parents. She could use a hug, from either or preferably both of them.

Or from Yang. Blake misses her, too, despite the fact that it’s only been two weeks since she last saw her, and the comfort that she feels in Yang’s arms is something she could desperately use right now. But Yang is even more out of reach than Blake’s family, across the ocean and waiting in a hotel room in Atlas for her turn to show Blake her hometown.

Blake will see her the day after tomorrow. That’s not soon enough, but it’s the  best that she can get.

The Patch airport is tiny. There are two gates; one for incoming flights, and one for outgoing flights. As a result, Yang is flown in over an hour before Blake is, and when Blake steps off the plane and walks into the baggage claim, Yang is already standing there, surrounded by the camera crew, holding up a huge red poster that says Blake Belladonna on it in bubble letters. There are small drawings all over the thing, and Blake is pretty sure she spots glitter in multiple places. It looks like something a parent would wave at their eight-year-old kid’s soccer game, and Yang is holding it up proudly, with a gleeful smile on her face.

“You,” Blake says, walking straight up to Yang, “are such a dork.” She kisses her. The camera crew around them is certainly capturing every moment, but Blake doesn’t care, barely remembers they’re even there. What matters is that Yang is lowering the poster, one hand letting go to slip around Blake’s waist and press against the small of her back. Yang’s touch is warm, and Blake melts from it, leaning heavily into Yang and kissing her in a way that she never would’ve kissed anyone in public before Yang.

“Good morning,” Yang says when Blake takes a moment to breathe. “Nice to see you, too.” There’s a smile on her face, and Blake kisses it.

“What even is this thing?” she says, leaning back just enough to look down at the poster in Yang’s hand. “Did you bedazzle it?”

I didn’t,” Yang says. “This is all Ruby’s work. Apparently, she’s really excited to meet you.”

“You already saw your family?” Blake asks. Sun and Ilia hadn’t been allowed to see theirs until Blake was with them.

“Nope,” Yang says. “The crew went by my house, apparently, and Ruby insisted on them giving me the sign.” She looks down at it with a smile. “Cute, right?”

“…Sure,” Blake says. “Why is she so excited about me, do you think? She doesn’t know anything about me.”

“Well, we both like your books,” Yang says. “And…I don’t really date much. She probably thinks if I got this far, it has to be important.”

“Would she be right?” Blake asks. Yang gives her a look.

“Don’t fish for compliments, Belladonna,” she says. “Even if it is a cute look on you.” The crowd of the crew around them is thickening, and Blake senses that they’re probably running out of time. “You’ll get to ask her about it soon enough. Our dinner with my dad and Ruby got bumped up to tonight. Apparently they’re scrambling to find us literally anything else to do on Patch. My little village doesn’t have a whole lot to offer tourists.”

“Tonight?” Blake echoes, nerves creeping up into her throat. “That’s…soon.”

“Sure is.” Yang sounds wholly unbothered by the idea, which Blake finds unfair. She would be nervous if it was her introducing Yang to her family.

And, oh God, she’s introducing Yang to her family next week. Oh, no. Her mom is going to be unbearable.

“Look on the bright side,” Yang says, slinging an arm around Blake’s shoulders and guiding her towards the airport doors. “We only have to be apart for a few hours before you get to see me again. Plus, the restaurant we’re going to has great fish.” Blake is reminded how little she ate on the plane at that.

“How do you even know I like fish?” she asks as they step out of the airport and into the sunlight. It isn’t nearly as warm as it had been on Menagerie; Patch is off the northwestern coast of Vale, and it’s far enough north that even the summer sun brings a chill with it. Or maybe that’s just the breeze Blake can feel against her skin, rolling in from the ocean in the distance and smelling faintly of salt.

“I pay attention,” Yang says. She stops walking, bringing both of them to a pause, and turns to look at Blake. “This is where I leave you,” she says. “Different cars to different hotels for the first few nights. But I’ll see you at dinner, okay?”

“Okay,” Blake says softly. They pause for a moment, the moment not feeling quite complete, and Blake is struck by the urge to say…more. But she isn’t ready for that yet, so she just leans up and kisses Yang gently. “I’ll see you tonight.” Yang blinks at her, speechless for a moment before her grin settles back into place.

“I’ll see you,” she says, and starts to step away before pausing. “You can keep the sign.” She holds it out, and Blake takes it automatically before she can question the action.

“Yang, what am I going to do with a sign with my name on it?” she asks. Yang just grins at her, taking another step backwards.

“Consider it a welcome to the family gift from Ruby,” she says. Blake looks back down at the cardboard sign in her hands, taking a moment to absorb Yang’s words. Family. Blake has one of those, in her parents and Weiss and maybe Ilia, if they can fix things between them, but…maybe she could use an expansion.

She definitely can’t use the sign, though. She looks back up, but Yang has already vanished into one of the cars waiting at the curb. Blake shakes her head, unable to summon anything but irritated fondness, and walks over to the other car waiting at the curb, the one the crew is loading her suitcases into.

Yang is waiting outside the restaurant in the parking lot when Blake’s car pulls up. Blake sees her through the window, and has a moment to cope with Yang’s appearance before she opens the door—though not nearly long enough of a moment. Yang is dressed casually, in black jeans, a purple t-shirt, a black leather jacket, and motorcycle boots—all matching perfectly with the motorcycle she’s leaning against.

“Jesus fuck,” are the first words out of Blake’s mouth, despite her best efforts to have them be literally anything else. Yang grins at her with a level of cockiness, arrogance, that Blake wouldn’t find attractive on anyone else. She doesn’t think there’s anything Yang could do right now that Blake would find unattractive.

“Hey, babe,” Yang says, straightening up and uncrossing her arms. “How was the drive?” Blake just shakes her head.

“Is that yours?” Blake asks. Yang glances over her shoulder at the bike.

“What, this?” she says. “No, I stole her on the way here.”


“She’s mine,” Yang says, apparently taking pity on Blake’s momentary lack of higher brain function. “Bumblebee the second. I totaled her predecessor, Bumblebee the first, in…well, you know.”

“Right.” If Blake was thinking rationally, she might be a bit concerned by the idea that Yang is continuing to drive a motorcycle after almost dying on her last one. Blake is not thinking rationally in the slightest. “They let you drive yourself here?”

“I insisted,” Yang says. “And after Coco saw the bike, she seemed to think it would make good TV.” I bet she did. Blake could not agree more.

“Can you give me a ride later?” she asks. Yang’s grin sharpens.

“I absolutely can,” she says in a tone that makes Blake’s cheeks warm.

“Cool,” she says, trying to regain some semblance of control over this conversation. “We…should go inside, right?”

“Sure,” Yang says. “Dad and Ruby are waiting for us.” The spike of nervousness that reminder elicits cuts through Blake’s gay meltdown, at least a little bit, and she takes the arm Yang offers as they walk into the restaurant.

Even if the gathered camera crew didn’t make it exceedingly obvious which pair of diners were Yang’s family, Blake is pretty sure she would have no trouble spotting them. Yang’s father, Tai, has the same distinct, wild blonde hair that Yang does, as well as her tall, muscular build. Ruby, who is sitting beside him, looks nothing like Yang at all, but she is practically bouncing in her seat with excitement and waving frantically across the restaurant at them. Yang tugs Blake towards the table, but they don’t make it halfway across the room before Ruby is up and out of her seat and charging towards them. Yang’s arm slips out of Blake’s just in time to wrap around her sister.

“Hey,” Yang says, picking Ruby’s feet up off the floor.

“Hey!” Ruby drops out of Yang’s embrace and turns to Blake. Her arms come up, like she’s aiming for another hug, and Blake braces herself, suppressing the urge to flinch. “Oh, I didn’t ask. Are you a hugger?”

“I…” Blake glances at Yang, who is just watching the proceedings with a grin. “I guess?” Ruby takes that as permission, and darts in to wrap her arms around Blake. She squeezes tight enough that Blake is pretty sure her ribs are bruised, but it’s blessedly brief, and then Ruby is bouncing away, back towards the booth where Tai is sitting.

“C’mon, come sit!” Ruby throws herself onto the bench seat beside her father, gesturing Yang and Blake forwards. Blake glances at Yang again, who gestures for Blake to go first. Blake slides into the booth. Yang follows close behind, sitting closer to Blake than the size of the bench necessarily requires.

“Hi, Blake,” Tai says, the first thing he’s said to either of them since they entered the restaurant. “I’m Taiyang, or Tai. Whichever you want to go with.”

“Oh!” Ruby says, sitting up straight. “I’m Ruby. Probably should’ve led with that instead of the hug, huh?” Blake smiles.

“I know your name,” she says. “Yang has told me all about you.”

“Really?” Ruby scowls at her sister. “She hasn’t told me anything about you.”

“How was I supposed to tell you anything?” Yang says. “No phones, remember?”

“No excuses!” Ruby says. Yang half-sighs, half-laughs, turning to Blake with an expression that says see what I put up with?, only without a hint of real irritation in it. Only exasperated, proud affection.

“You heard her, babe,” Yang says. “Tell her about yourself.”

The meal goes well. At least, Blake thinks it does. She doesn’t have much to compare it to; her parents had never liked Adam, and he hadn’t had family that she needed to impress. But Ruby, at least, definitely likes Blake. She isn’t as sure about Taiyang, who remains quieter and more reserved throughout the evening, seemingly content to let Ruby carry the conversation—but then, Blake is a lot less concerned about impressing him than she is with Ruby. The way Yang had talked about his behavior after Summer’s death hadn’t exactly endeared him to Blake. Maybe it’s not up to her to hold a grudge for something that happened over a decade before she even met Yang, but it’s hard not to hold it against him, at least a little bit.

They’re down to the bottoms of their drinks, Yang’s hand wrapped around Blake’s beneath the table, when they hear a commotion at the front door of the restaurant. Blake twists her head to look, but only gets a vague impression of crew members talking quickly and quietly to someone else, just outside her range of hearing. She turns away, dismissing it as none of her business, when Yang stiffens beside her.

“Blake,” Yang murmurs. Blake turns to look at her, questions forming on her lips, and then she sees—


He’s pushing his way through the crew at the door, angry red hair and sunglasses sticking out from the nondescript forms of the camera crew. He never takes the tinted glasses off, even indoors, but even with them on and from a distance, Blake can feel the moment his eyes lock onto hers. His mouth twists into some macabre imitation of a grin, and he rips himself free from the crew, crossing the room in a few quick strides.

Dimly, Blake registers the cameras that had been surrounding the table throughout their meal beginning to turn, focusing on him instead.

“That’s him?” It’s Yang talking, muffled and from a distance like she’s underwater. Blake nods slowly, eyes still locked on Adam’s approaching form. Yang leans across the table, obscuring Blake’s view for a moment. “Call the cops,” Yang says to Ruby. Ruby makes a confused, distressed noise. “Blake has restraining orders on him, he can’t be here. Call the cops.” Yang leans back into her seat, and suddenly Adam is there, standing at the end of the table, looming over the four of them. Blake squeezes Yang’s hand so tightly her knuckles turn white, but she doesn’t shrink back.

“Blake,” Adam says. “It’s been awhile.” His voice grates on Blake’s ears. Yang stands, tugging her hand free from Blake’s. She takes a step forward, putting her body between Adam and the table, only inches between their chests, and Adam—Adam takes a step back.

“Get out of here,” Yang says. Her voice is low, angry. “Right now.” Adam scoffs. Yang doesn’t even give him the chance to respond; she raises a hand and shoves him in the chest. Either Adam is taken off guard, or Yang puts a significant amount of force behind the move, because he stumbles back another step. He makes an irritated noise and steps forward again, bringing himself nose-to-nose with Yang.

“You don’t want to do this with me,” he says. “Blake and I have a lot to discuss. You don’t need to be involved.” Blake gets up from her seat, standing next to Yang and glancing over at her just in time to see Yang roll her eyes.

“Fuck off, dude,” she says. “If Blake wanted to talk to you, she would’ve, y’know, called you instead of getting restraining orders on you. Take a goddamn hint.” Adam growls, reaching out and grabbing one of Yang’s arms—her bad arm, Blake realizes vaguely, the one she’d injured in that motorcycle crash—and squeezing. Blake winces at the sight of Yang’s flesh changing shape beneath Adam’s fingers, but Yang doesn’t even flinch. She sets her feet and yanks her arm free.

“Blake,” Adam says, turning to look at her. Blake’s jaw clenches. At her side, she feels Yang’s fingers slip into her own. “Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.” Blake squeezes Yang’s hand tightly, and feels Yang squeeze back in return.

“Fuck you, Adam,” Blake says, and she’s known Adam for long enough that, even though she can’t see his eyes widen behind his glasses, she can tell that he’s flinching. “You don’t belong here.”

“Blake—“ Adam starts to reach for her, and despite herself, despite wanting to be brave, to stand her ground, Blake takes a half-step back. She doesn’t need to. Before Adam’s hands can come anywhere near her, Yang punches him in the face.

Adam’s head snaps back. A moment later, Blake registers the satisfying crack his nose had made when Yang’s fist impacted it. Adam stumbles back a few steps, hands coming up to his face, and Blake sees blood between his fingers.

“You bitch,” Adam says, voice thick with blood and rage. “You broke my nose!” Yang doesn’t even respond to him. Blake feels her hand slip away and her arm find a home around Blake’s shoulders instead. Yang tugs her to the side, moving them both. Blake goes willingly, tearing her gaze away from Adam. Yang guides her away across the room.

“Keep him here,” Blake hears Yang say to the crew, voice distant through the ringing in her ears. “The cops are coming. I swear to God if you people follow us I’ll toss your cameras in the ocean.” Blake doesn’t catch their responses, but the tone Yang is using isn’t one that encourages disagreement. She’s tugged through a crowd, still pressed tightly to Yang’s side, then suddenly they’re outside. It’s started raining while they were in the restaurant. The air is thick with mist, and it smells like salt.

“Hey.” It’s Yang again, speaking gently now, her hands coming up to trace Blake’s jaw. Blake blinks rapidly, trying to focus her eyes. She finds Yang’s face, close to hers, purple eyes fixed on her. “Are you okay?”

“I…” Blake shakes her head, trying to clear it. “Yeah, I’m…I’m fine.” Yang almost smiles at her and darts up to press a kiss to her forehead before stepping away.

“Good,” she says. “Let’s get out of here.” Blake follows Yang across the parking lot to where her motorbike is waiting. Yang digs through the saddlebags, emerging with two helmets—one bright yellow, the other purple and black. Blake takes the second one, turning it over in her hands with a slight frown. It’s not that she doesn’t like the color; it’s that it seems a little too well-suited to her.

“I bought it this afternoon,” Yang says. Blake looks back up at her and finds Yang already wearing her helmet, the visor popped so she can meet Blake’s eyes. “I figured you would want to go for a ride.”

“Cocky,” Blake mutters, not that Yang is wrong in the slightest. She slips the helmet on and lowers the visor, tinting the world a bluish-purple. Yang climbs onto the bike, and Blake follows her, a little less confident in the way she throws her leg over the seat than Yang is.

“Hold on tight,” Yang calls, her voice muffled through both their helmets. Blake has no complaints about that instruction. She wraps her arms around Yang’s waist and holds tightly, pressing her front to Yang’s back. Even through Yang’s jacket and Blake’s shirt, Yang is warm beneath her touch.

The engine roars to life beneath them, and moments later, they’re off.

Blake pays very little attention to the actual drive. It’s dark out, and raining, so she couldn’t see any of the scenery even if she wanted to. Besides, her conscious mind is thoroughly occupied. Part of it is still back in the restaurant, replaying Adam’s hands reaching for her, and the rest of it is living in her fingertips where they’re pressed against Yang’s stomach.

At some point, the slick concrete beneath their wheels turns to dirt, and Yang’s speed drops significantly to accommodate the change. Not long after that, they roll to a stop, and the engine shuts off. Yang shifts in front of her, and Blake tightens her grip automatically. Yang laughs quietly as she takes her helmet off, twisting to look at Blake over her shoulder.

“Babe, you have to let me get up,” she says. “We need to get out of the rain.” With great reluctance, Blake lets her arms slip away from Yang’s waist and reaches up to take her own helmet off. It’s as she does so that she realizes she’s shivering. Her clothes are soaked; she doesn’t have a jacket like Yang does, and it’s raining harder than Blake had thought.

“Where are we?” Blake asks, glancing around and blinking in the dark. They’re on a dirt road in the woods somewhere. She can’t see any lights through the trees.

“We’re a few miles out of town,” Yang says. She takes Blake’s helmet and replaces them both in the saddlebags. “Me and Ruby have a…well, you’ll see.”

“That’s the most serial killer way you could’ve possibly answered that question, thanks.” Blake wonders if Yang can tell that her heart isn’t in the banter. She feels faded, tired, like she’s speaking through a telephone and watching the world on a distant television screen.

“Just follow me, okay?” Yang must notice. Her voice is gentle, so damn gentle, and it makes Blake shiver harder. But she follows as Yang leads her off the road, down a path into the woods that Blake hadn’t even noticed. It’s even darker in the trees, but at least the rain lets up. Blake blinks rapidly and tries to keep her vision focused on Yang’s form in front of her. They walk through the trees for a minute or two before they come to a stop. Yang steps to the side and gestures at the tree trunk they’ve walked up to with a flourish.

“Ta-da,” she says. Blake squints, and sees a series of rungs buried in the tree trunk—a ladder. Slowly, she follows them up with her gaze, towards the tops of the trees until her eyes finally settle on a large, square mass sitting amongst the branches, blotting out the distant, cloudy sky.

“A treehouse?” Blake says, looking at Yang. Yang grins at her, teeth flashing in the dark.

“Dad built it a long time ago,” she says. “No one knows it’s here except him and me and Ruby.” Blake doesn’t know what to say to that, and Yang’s smile starts to slip. “I just figured if I brought you home, the cameras would follow us,” she says, the confidence vanishing from her voice and replacing itself with concern. “And I thought, y’know, you probably don’t want that right now.”

“I don’t.” Blake looks back up at the treehouse and reaches for the first rung. “Thank you.”

“Yeah.” Yang’s hand brushes against the small of Blake’s back as she starts to climb. “Be careful. I’ll be right behind you.”

The treehouse is cushy, if one could ever call a treehouse that. It’s maybe eight feet by eight feet, more than big enough for them both to be inside, and the ceiling is high enough that they can stand up without hunching over. The floor is covered in sleeping bags and pillows, and once they’re inside, Yang turns on a few battery-powered lanterns that had been sitting on the windowsill, along with the gas-powered space heater in the corner. Blake steals Yang’s jacket and replaces her shirt with it, leaving the wet garment hanging from a beam to dry and zipping the jacket up to her chin. The space heater heats the tiny room up quickly, and within minutes, it’s practically cozy—warm, softly lit, and with Yang only inches away.

And yet Blake is still trembling.

Yang isn’t touching her; Blake can’t tell if that’s helping or contributing to the problem. She just can’t stop shaking. The rush of sound and movement of the motorcycle ride is over, and now her mind is firmly living inside that moment in the restaurant, Adam snarling and reaching for her.

“Blake,” Yang says quietly. Blake, with effort, forces her eyes to focus on Yang. “Are you…actually okay?” Blake takes a deep breath. It wavers.

“No,” she says. “I don’t think I am.” Yang moves like she’s going to reach out to her, but stops herself halfway there, a jerky, aborted movement that draws Blake’s gaze down to Yang’s arm. She’s just wearing the thin t-shirt she’d had on under the jacket Blake stole. Her forearms are bare. The red outlines of fingers are dark against her skin.

“You’re bruising,” Blake says. Yang glances down at her arm, blinking like it’s the first time she’s noticed it.

“Yeah,” she says. She rotates her wrist, and Blake sees the way the marks wrap around, marking the spot where Adam had touched her. “He grabbed me pretty tight.” Her tone is nonchalant, and that makes sense—obviously, Yang has been through a lot worse than some asshole grabbing her arm. She boxes, for fuck’s sake.

But Blake’s mind latches onto the image, and she’s still back in that restaurant, but now Adam isn’t reaching for her. He’s reaching for Yang.

“Blake?” Blake doesn’t look at Yang this time. “What’s going on?”

“I—“ Blake takes a deep breath. “I think I need to run.” She looks up at Yang. She doesn’t find what she expects to. No anger, no disappointment. Sadness, maybe, in the way Yang’s jaw flexes, but there’s nothing on Yang’s face to fuel the guilt that’s trying to burn a hole in her stomach.

“Okay,” Yang says. “I can drive you back into town. If you can wait til morning, it’d be safer, but if you want to go now…”

“I don’t want to,” Blake says. “I just—I just—“ Her words break off, and she takes a few deep breaths. Yang says nothing, just watches her, eyes soft in the lantern light. “I’m scared,” Blake says finally.

“Of what?”

“Of Adam.” Blake draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them, squeezing herself tight. “And I—I hate that he still has power over me, but he hurt you, Yang.”

“This?” Yang lifts her arm. “This is nothing.”

“But next time it might not be nothing,” Blake says. “Adam is—he’s obsessive. He won’t leave me alone. It’s a miracle I’ve avoided him for this long.” Not a miracle so much as a collection of particular legal circumstances, but those are a long story, and they don’t apply to Yang.

“Then why come on the show?” Yang asks. “You had to know he would find about it, even if this wasn’t something you expected.”

“I—“ Blake frowns. “I knew he would find out, yes, but…I wanted to do this. I don’t make decisions with him in mind, not anymore.” Yang smiles and spreads her hands, a gesture that says exactly. “But this isn’t about me,” Blake says, shaking her head. “The show was a risk to me. This is about the risk to you.”

“I’m not scared of him,” Yang says. Blake almost wants to laugh at that. Of course she isn’t. “Look. Give me your hand.” Blake holds her hand out. Yang takes it and slides it over her forearm. Blake’s palm lines up with the shadow of Adam’s, her fingers trace the ghost of his. Her hands are smaller than his; she can’t cover the mark completely. “It’ll heal,” Yang says quietly, holding Blake’s gaze. “It’ll heal a lot faster than his nose will, too.” That’s what gets Blake, in the end—the reminder of the sight of Yang punching Adam in the face, the way he’d stumbled back. Yang isn’t scared of Adam, but if he’s still capable of it, Adam is definitely scared of Yang.

Blake’s hand falls away from Yang’s arm. She shifts up onto her knees and throws her arms around Yang’s shoulders, pulling her forwards into a hug. Yang goes willingly, her hands pressed against the small of Blake’s back to pull her closer.

“I love you,” Blake says. Yang goes still. “I…” She didn’t mean to say that.

“I love you, too,” Yang says. She tilts her head back to look Blake in the eye, their foreheads brushing together. She grins, and says, “That’s probably kinda stupid to say on the third date, huh?” Blake can’t even manage a smile at the absurdity of their situation. Vaguely, she notices that there are tears in her eyes. Yang’s amused smile slips away until she’s just looking at Blake, eyes wide with undisguised awe. “But I mean it,” Yang says. “I really do mean it.”

Blake kisses her. Yang, somehow, is entirely unprepared for that, and she falls backwards into the mess of sleeping bags and pillows on the floor. Blake follows her down, lands straddling Yang’s hips while her hands press against the floor to hold her up. Yang makes a surprised noise against her mouth, and when Blake pulls back to take a breath, her lips form that damn playful smirk.

“So,” Yang says, “guess that means you’re not running?” Blake sits up fully and blows her hair out of her face, looking down at Yang with a dizzy head and a pounding heart.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “I promise.” And she means it, too. The part of her mind that wants to run is still there, but the part of her that wants to stay with Yang is so much stronger.

“Okay,” Yang says quietly. “Good to know.” Blake stares down at her for a moment. The orange glow of the lanterns turns Yang’s hair the color of fire, and the dark of her pupils is swallowing up the purple in her eyes.

Blake unzips her borrowed jacket. Yang sits halfway up so fast it’s like she was electrocuted.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she says, grabbing Blake’s wrists and, in doing so, preventing her from shrugging the jacket off her shoulders. “Hey, that’s—are you sure?”

“Yang,” Blake says, very slowly. “We’ve been headed towards this since the minute you stepped out of the limo on the first night.”

“Well, yeah, but—“ Yang’s fingers squeeze gently down on Blake’s wrists, an absent-minded gesture that makes Blake’s heart skip a beat. “It’s been…an emotional day,” Yang says. “I just want to make sure you’re okay, first.”

“I’m…” Blake isn’t completely okay. The anxious vestiges of a panic attack are still sitting in her chest, and there are half-dried tear trails on her face. “Okay enough,” she says. “And I’m not doing this impulsively. Like I said, I’ve wanted this since that first night.” Yang’s eyes go wide.

“I, uh, yeah,” she says. “Yeah, okay.” She releases Blake’s wrists and moves her grip, instead, to the lapels of her jacket where they rest on Blake’s chest. She meets Blake’s eyes again, searching, and Blake looks back, not attempting to hide a single thing.

“Are you sure about this?” Blake asks after a moment, when Yang’s hands haven’t moved.

“…Yeah,” Yang says. “I just…um, I’m trans. I haven’t told you about that.” Blake blinks at her.

“Oh,” she says. “Okay.” They stare at each other for a long moment. “That doesn’t change anything for me,” Blake says eventually, when it becomes clear that Yang isn’t going to be the first to speak.

“No?” Yang says. Blake shakes her head. “Okay, then.”

Yang slides the jacket off Blake’s shoulders and down her arms.

After, it’s incredibly warm in the treehouse. Yang complains about it in a rough undertone, but Blake couldn’t be enjoying it more. With Yang’s body pressed against her, beneath the unzipped sleeping bag thrown over them like a blanket, it’s practically warmer than Menagerie.

Their breaths are still coming quickly when Blake says, “That was…” She can’t finish the sentence. Behind her, where Yang’s face is pressed into her hair, she can feel Yang smile.

“Yeah,” Yang says. Blake shifts in her arms, rolling over so she can frown at Yang.

“I could’ve been about to say terrible,” she says. Yang’s grin widens.

“Sure you could’ve,” she says. Blake makes a face at her.

“So cocky,” she mutters.

“You know all about it, babe.” Blake groans and pokes Yang in the stomach.

“I can’t stand you,” she says. Yang just laughs, and Blake can’t blame her. She can’t take herself seriously, either. She burrows closer beneath the sleeping bag, pressing her face into Yang’s shoulder and neck. Yang presses back into the closeness, and her fingers fall to Blake’s side, tracing gentle circles over the lump of scar tissue above her hip.

Blake knows she can’t ignore it anymore. Yang had asked permission to touch the scar when it had been revealed, had kissed it on her way down Blake’s body. The question had been in her eyes then, and while she hadn’t asked and Blake hadn’t offered an answer, the question is still hanging between them.

“You wanna know where it came from,” Blake says quietly. Yang’s hand pauses its movement against the scar.

“Only if you want to tell me.”

“I do.” It’s easy to say. Blake doesn’t like talking about this, actively avoids talking about it with anyone else, but…this is Yang. Yang, who makes Blake want to be honest the same way she wants to breathe.

“After I broke up with Adam,” Blake says, and Yang’s arms tighten around her, likely already sensing where this particular story is going. “Menagerie was…unlivable. His friends were everywhere. He was everywhere. So I left. I moved to Atlas, and he…he followed me.”

“Blake,” Yang murmurs, with an ache in her voice that makes Blake’s heart clench.

“He caught up to me eventually,” Blake says. Her throat is dry, and she swallows hard, doing her best not to think about her memories of that night, fractured images of red hair and angry teeth and flashing metal. “It was a knife.”

Blake.” Yang holds her tightly and rolls onto her back, pulling Blake partially on top of her if only so they can get closer. Blake doesn’t fight the movement. She rests her head on Yang’s chest and listens to her distant heartbeat through her skin.

“That was how I met Weiss, actually,” Blake says. “She was doing her residency at the time, and she was working in the ER that night. Adam…he left me for dead, after. I think he thought he cut deeper than he actually did.” She squeezes her eyes shut, dispelling the thought. “I made it to the hospital. Weiss patched me up, and she…she knew, somehow, what had happened to me. Maybe she recognized the signs. She made sure to document the whole thing, and once I was out of the hospital, she put me in contact with her older sister. Winter’s a lawyer, and she took it all to the police. They found security footage of the attack.” Blake closes her eyes. She still can’t believe it sometimes, that Adam was stupid and arrogant enough to attack her on camera. If she’d died like he’d intended, he still would’ve gotten caught.

“There’s still a warrant out for his arrest,” Blake says. “If he ever sets foot in Atlas again, it’s pretty much over. He’s on video trying to kill me. He’d be arrested and convicted within weeks.”

“So why the fuck isn’t he in prison yet?” Yang asks. Blake sighs and lifts her head, propping her chin on Yang’s chest to look up at her.

“Because Menagerie doesn’t extradite to Atlas,” she says. “Hasn’t historically gone great for us when we did.”

“…Yeah.” Yang exhales slowly. “Fuck.” They sit in silence for awhile. Yang’s hand has found its way around Blake’s hip, and her thumb is pressed against the scar again, soft and steady. “Blake,” she says eventually. “Menagerie doesn’t extradite to Atlas, but Vale does.” Blake blinks at her.


“Vale extradites,” Yang repeats, lifting her head to look Blake in the eye. “Ruby called the cops before we left. If Adam didn’t escape from the restaurant…”

“It’s not like the Patch cops will know to hold him, or to contact Atlas,” Blake says, shaking her head.

“No, but they’ll find out,” Yang says. “Nothing happens on this island, Blake. Rumors spread fast. Everybody in town is going to have heard about this by morning, and at least one person is going to google Adam Taurus and find this stuff out. And they’ll tell the cops, believe me. No one can keep a damn thing to themselves around here.”

“You really think so?” Blake says, hope sprouting up in her chest despite her best attempts to stamp it out.

“I think so,” Yang says. “They’ll at least hold him til morning. If I have to, I’ll go down to the police station and tell them myself.” Yang lifts herself up on one elbow, pressing a kiss to Blake’s forehead. “You’re going to be safe, baby. We both are, I promise.”

God.” Blake shifts to the side, sliding off Yang’s form and back onto the pillows beneath them. She wants to look at Yang right now. “I…I haven’t felt safe going home in so long. I always kept my visits short, and I was always looking over my shoulder, and now…” Blake doesn’t know how to express it. If Adam goes to prison—if he’s gone—Menagerie will be hers again. “I can’t wait to show you Menagerie,” Blake says instead, because it’s the second thought that occurs to her, looking at Yang and thinking of home.

“Yeah,” Yang says. “I just hope your parents like me.” Blake can’t imagine how they possibly wouldn’t.

“They’re a little protective,” she says. “Just tell them about how you punched Adam in the face, I’m sure my dad will like that.” Yang grins.

“I got him good,” she says, and she sounds so proud of herself that Blake can’t help but laugh. Yang watches, her grin fading back into that look of wide-eyed awe.

“What?” Blake says when her laughter fades. Yang shakes her head.

“Marry me,” she says. Blake stares at her.

“You’re a few weeks early for that.” It’s all she can think to say. A proposal is where this is going, of course, it’s what the show demands, but Yang can’t just—she can’t just say it like that.

“Next time I ask, it’ll be because I have to,” Yang says. “For the cameras. I…want this to be real.”

“Yang,” Blake says helplessly, half of a nervous laugh catching in her throat.

“I mean it,” Yang says. “I’m being serious. Marry me.” Blake just stares, her breathing shaky. The look on her face must be worrying, because Yang’s confidence visibly wavers. “You don’t have to say yes,” she says, much quieter. “I just—I just really do want to marry you. Not for the show. For me. That…seemed like something you should know.”

“Yang—“ Blake shakes her head, pressing her cheek into the pillow. “This is insane. We’ve known each other for two months.”

“I know,” Yang says. “But that’s what we signed up for, right?”

“I—yeah, but…” Blake hadn’t thought it through, alright? She hadn’t anticipated Yang.

“Hey.” Yang reaches up, resting a hand on Blake’s cheek. “You’re freaking out. No freaking out. This isn’t a big deal.”

It isn’t a big deal?” Blake says. “You just proposed.”

“Okay, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal.” Yang lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “You can say no. Hell, you can say no on camera in a few weeks. That’s okay, Blake. I wanna marry you, but you don’t have to want to marry me. As long as we’re not, like, breaking up, I’m not gonna be upset about it.”

“I do want to marry you, though,” Blake says before she can stop herself. Yang blinks at her.

“Okay, I’m confused,” she says. Blake sighs, raising a hand and settling it on top of Yang’s, pressing Yang’s palm into her face.

“I do want to marry you,” she says. “And it’s—it’s really fucking scary. I barely know you.”

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Yang murmurs, and Blake can’t argue with that.

“Either way.” Blake squeezes Yang’s hand. “I don’t usually let myself have the things that I want. Just staying here with you is hard already.” That isn’t exactly what Blake means. It’s not the with Yang part that’s difficult, it’s the staying. But Yang seems to understand, if the way her eyes soften is anything to judge by.

“Fair point,” Yang says quietly. “You did want to run away like two hours ago.”

“Exactly.” Blake lifts Yang’s hand from her face and turns, pressing a kiss against her palm. “So I’m—I’m gonna say not yet. And I’m going to say it again on camera. I’m sorry.”

“No apologies,” Yang says. She lowers their joined hands between their bodies and takes Blake’s in both of hers. “Not yet is a pretty great answer, if you ask me. I’ve got all the time in the world to wait for you.” Blake shifts forward and kisses her. There’s no hint of earlier’s heat in it, but it’s no less enjoyable for that. It settles Blake’s heart in her chest.

“We should get some rest,” Yang says when Blake pulls away. “I’m pretty sure it’s getting late.” Regardless of the time, Blake is exhausted, and she nods in agreement as she burrows deeper under the sleeping bags. Yang rolls over briefly to shut off the lanterns, and the inside of the treehouse falls into darkness as Yang returns to Blake’s side.