Another day ended and began, and by-and-by, time didn't stop in between.
Gears rattled and whined as they spun on well-greased axles, endlessly turning and spinning, never assuming the same configuration twice lest they succumb to a bounded finality. Tick tock tick tock, time was infinitely simple and there wasn't enough room to allow for error. It was perfect and adiabatic. But the gears were imperfect, the mechanisms buzzed and rattled, the sprockets didn't mesh quite right, and the little things in between the spaces made their own tinny little noises in bitter dissonance. It all sputtered on. Minds were lost in the mesmerizing array of spinning contraptions and metal vortices. They were all designed to be just like those beautiful ones from long ago and yesterday.
Red's forgiving fingers ran over it all, feeling every little imperfection and loving every bit of it. It was bigger than a person now, far bigger, no longer able to be swung around lightly; too much moment to fit in the second; the present rose and grew as little bits were always being added on. Incredible how children grow up so fast.
Red and white rose out of nothing. It was her, clearly. Just like last year, the red fringes of her hair and the white sheen of her dress and her cloak and it was just out of reach. Oblivion beyond the cliff. The gears shifted and some of them stopped and some of them changed direction. The cloak was snagged and it was brought (closer and closer and closer) to the guilty grasp.
When Red rose to grab it, it was gone. Again. Just out of memory's reach.
Ruby glanced at the clock. Five AM. She wasn't sure if she could do it and get back in time to appease Weiss' desire to go shopping, but maybe they could find another date for that activity. There was a dull throb in her forehead.
Initially she climbed down carefully from the bunk, avoiding knocking over anything on the desk. She narrowly avoided putting her foot in what looked like a bowl containing the remnants of some ramen noodles. Gross. Most likely Yang was to blame for that; the other two were much more tidy than that.
When she reached the ground, she realized that her plan to keep quiet was vacuous because Blake wasn't in her bed. In silent self-expression, Ruby shook her head, disappointed; it seems like there couldn't even be one morning where she'd find all her sheep in the pen. Still, she took a large and pronounced step purposefully over Weiss' immotile luggage, just to be sure.
Making a quick adjustment to her plans, she made a dash for the machine shop, where she'd seen some sticky notes earlier. Returning with a couple stacks, she placed them on the dresser by the door, and grabbed one, scrawling a quick note:
Hi Team RWBY! Please don't worry, I have gone to visit my mom. Ask Yang for the details if you need to find me. I'll probably be back in the mid-afternoon, but you
Ruby frowned. There just wasn't enough room on these notes. She grabbed another one, this time a different colour because the purple pen barely showed up on the red.
can feel free to contact me on my scroll. Which will be fully charged because I'm bringing extra Dust.
She grabbed some Dust vials off the the dresser and put them into her belt, impressed with how sensible she was being. She was about to leave, but then she took one last glance at Blake's empty bed - Yang had finally decided to move to her own bed last night - and decided she should exercise some of her Team Leader wisdom.
Instituting a new team rule: no more mysterious disappearances in the night! If you are checking out early you must leave a note detailing where you have
She rolled her eyes. Four stickies it would be.
gone out to and how we can contact you if need be. This especially applies to anyone named Blake. Love, ~ Ruby Rose ~.
She signed her name with a flourish and some wavy lines for good measure. Then she looked over everything once, dotted her i's, crossed out the "R" in "Team RWBY" in the first note since the letter was really addressed to the other three and not herself. Then she changed her mind and scrawled another R on top. Now it just looked illegible. She shrugged and then finally left, shutting the door softly behind her.
Instantly, Ruby regretted closing the door without putting things straight. What if the airship crashed on the way there? What if this was the last time she saw her sister? She couldn't leave things off like that.
She reopened the door and marched quickly, but still quietly, to her sister's bunk. Except there was a problem; her sister had left Blake's bed and returned to her own, which was high up, and Ruby was not especially gifted in that area.
So she jumped, but Yang had rolled to the far side of the bed in the night, so Ruby's nose just connected awkwardly with the hard wooden frame of the bed. Somehow, nobody woke up. She scrunched up her face in pain for a second, making a note not to ever attempt that manoeuvre again.
Carefully, she climbed up the post on the side, pushing off of Blake's stack of books carefully. If she didn't place her feet just right, she might knock something out of place and the whole thing would come tumbling down. When she reached the top, she clambered over the edge and looked at her sister.
Her frizzy but luscious blonde mane was sprawled across the pillow beside her, and she was sleeping peacefully on her side, eyes closed, facing away from the edge of the bed Ruby had climbed up from. She had her arms up to her chest. Ruby knew she did this to keep warm, but given how her hands were curled up into loose fists, it was as though the tavern-brawling side of her was burning to let loose as her gentler side slept. What beautiful arms and beautiful hands they were, attached to her so.
Just as Ruby was about to close in, she felt her hand touch something damp. Just slightly damp. Her brow furrowed; Yang was always meticulous about drying her hair after her evening showers. And even then, it would probably be dry by now, more than six hours later. But here the pillow was damp. She must have been crying in the night, recently.
Her hands shaking, she fought the urge to cry, herself. She'd done far too much of that lately. But her stomach felt light; she knew the cause of her sister's anguish was doubtless her. She couldn't stick here long and reflect on this, though. If she stayed up here much longer her sister might wake up.
So she leaned down and kissed her on the temple. And she breathed in the strawberry-scented shampoo lingering in her hair. And then she couldn't say the words, but she thought them. She thought them really hard, so hard that she almost said them. But she didn't. No amount of thinking could enable her. That was okay, though; it was enough for her just to think the words for now. She could say them later, at any time, as she always had before. Yang's fists curled just a little tighter. Ruby felt a lump form in her throat. Her sister was so warm and beautiful, she just wanted to stay up here a little longer. Just like things used to be.
But they weren't like that, not right now. So she crawled back and leapt off the bed, landing gracefully and silently. She'd done her part. Now it was time to go.
It was chilly outside, but the birds were chirping happily anyway. Ruby was surprised to hear that they had an accompaniment. Somebody was playing guitar.
It was Jaune, strumming a sad tune out. He was quite good, actually. Ruby wondered if he'd start to sing, too.
But he didn't. He just kept playing the same sorrowful notes. Ren would probably have some elegant word to describe it like sforzando or major tenth, whatever those meant. Ruby suspected those exact words probably didn't apply to this, though.
So Ruby sat on the bench beside the one he was on. "Has Ren been giving you tips?" Ruby asked wistfully.
Jaune's fingers slipped and the already melancholy melody lurched in pain.
"Ruby!" he exclaimed. "You're up early."
"So are you," she pointed out playfully.
Jaune looked down sheepishly at his guitar. "Sorry. Do you think I'm playing too loudly?" he asked. "I didn't mean to wake anyone."
"Well, you woke me up!" Ruby complained loosely, standing up from her bench.
There was a sudden pause in the birdsong as Jaune's face slowly transformed into heartbreak. He glanced down gloomily at his guitar.
"Oh no," Ruby quickly corrected. "I was kidding. I didn't hear you until…" it was really dark, but Jaune looked quite sad, "until I rounded…" Ruby pointed behind her, "until I rounded the corner there."
"Oh," said Jaune uncertainly.
Ruby gulped. She hoped her harmless joke hadn't discouraged Jaune from playing guitar forever. She approached his bench.
"You were really good!" she said. "I'm sure if anybody was listening they wouldn't mind." Jaune blinked. "N-not that anyone was listening. Nobody could hear you."
"Right," said Jaune. "Um…"
Ruby raised a finger, "Well, actually I could hear you. But I was the only one, really." She wasn't sure why she tended to keep saying things long after she had already spoken herself into a corner. "And the birds, too, I guess. But those aren't really people, right?"
Jaune opened his mouth but was cut off.
"No offense to any bird faunus. Actually, are there any bird faunus? I've never met one. I should really pay more attention in Oobleck's class, huh."
"I think there are bird faunus, but we could just ask Blake, I'm sure she'd know."
"Good point," Ruby agreed. Then she narrowed her eyes at Jaune. "Wait, why would Blake know?" Did Jaune know about Blake?
Jaune stared awkwardly back at Ruby's narrowed eyes. Then he laughed.
"What's funny?" Ruby asked. She folded her arms.
Jaune shook his head frivolously and changed the subject. "So, if I didn't wake you up, who did?"
Ruby scratched the back of her head and then sat down. "I did, I guess."
"You woke yourself up? Did you punch yourself in your sleep or something?"
"Yeah. Well, no. I mean, I woke up, just like that, right?" she snapped her fingers to help explain. "And nobody else woke up me up, so by process of elimination…" she pointed at herself.
"In that case, you can just say nobody woke you up."
"Then that would sound like I never woke up."
"Oh yeah." Jaune looked back down at his guitar. "But you are up," he said quietly, his confusion having an incidental tinge of consternation. Ruby felt guilty suddenly, for her lack of clarity in conversing with her friend. It struck her that he saw the world through such a straightforward perspective. As he sat there poring over his guitar, Ruby saw a fragility in him she hadn't entirely appraised before. His competitive nature in all the arm wrestling tournaments and video-game matches and fighting jousts was transparent to her for just a moment. She contemplated how earnestly he tried to improve himself and present himself as a stoic leader for his team.
And yet one tiny inflection in his voice hinting that he was mildly irritated by her words just now completely betrayed the image of the stalwart knight he clad himself in. Here he was, playing guitar, so weak and helpless. If a Grimm appeared behind him just now, would he notice before it struck him down? If she drew her scythe on him, could he possibly react in time, pitted against her incredible speed? With Crescent Rose at her side, and her rose petals to wrap her safely up, there was surely nothing in the world that could stand a chance against her. Certainly not Jaune. So why could she see herself sitting on that bench in his place, holding onto the gradually-dissolving blanket of naïvety, tinkering with Crescent Rose in much the same way as he carefully tuned his guitar?
A maverick drop of water which was a day late to the yesterday's storm landed on the guitar string, causing it to produce some off-scale ping that woke her up from her rumination and made her instantly cast aside whatever fruitless line of thought she had been pursuing.
Ruby snorted. "If Weiss were here she would say we were such dolts."
"Weiss," said Jaune, a glimmer entering his eyes. "Yep."
"But I think I did wake myself up," she admitted.
"Well, I had a reason to get up this early."
"To hear some beautiful music," offered Jaune, as he strummed some notes out harshly on the guitar, testing it after having tweaked the tuning.
"I'm going to go visit my Mom. Want to come with?" Ruby asked sweetly.
Jaune hesitated part-way through plucking a string. "Uhh," he said uncertainly, clearly trying to make sense of her mom's mortality status.
"Her grave, I should say," Ruby corrected. "Doofus," she added, for good measure. It was becoming a pet name. "I just need to sort some things out in my head and, uh. Well I guess I'll just go on my own."
Jaune's mouth tilted to the side as he thought. "Well, I could come along. Why not? I'll study for the exam on the way, if that's okay."
Ruby nodded. "Right. Combat physics. I think I'll be fine but I can give you some pointers if you like." The she backtracked, not wanting to insult his intelligence. "Um, only if you want them. I mean you're probably better than me," she realized at this point she should probably just stop talking. "Or not. I don't know." She pressed her lips together very tightly.
Jaune took it all in with a laugh. He seemed to be in good spirits again after her earlier faux-pas deriding his guitar-playing skills. "I'd love some help. Thank you."
"Sometimes it feels like years can go by in a night's sleep," Ruby said, closing her textbook and standing up. "Do you know what I mean?"
Jaune leaned against the railing of the airship, appreciating the scenery that passed them by below. There was a small forest near Beacon that was red all-year round, as though autumn never ended. But here, seeing the vast ocean of red beneath him, it was breathtaking. The red of the rising sun through the a new haze; red reflecting from Pyrrha's hair in his imagination; red was on his mind quite a lot.
"Sometimes it can be just a single moment that seems to stretch on forever. There's just so much that happens that it can be hard to even comprehend it all," Ruby said. "Everything changes so suddenly, I need time to process it, so my mind puts all the time I can hold into the one moment to make the change feel gradual. And at the end, it's like the change never happened and the way it is is now all that ever was."
"Moments that never end, huh?" Jaune asked absentmindedly. The forest exhaled a gust of wind. "And to think you were just telling me to pay attention in Oobleck's class."
"You told that to yourself," said Ruby. A moment of silence followed. Not an infinite moment, but nonetheless one that was longer to them than it was to the forest below. "I had that kind of moment last night."
"You had a weird dream and slept in?" Jaune asked. "I can relate to that."
"We both got up early today. We had this talk already." Ruby said. "And no, it wasn't a dream. I, uh…"
"Hmm?" Jaune asked. He detected something in her voice that sounded just a bit troubled. It wasn't the first time that something in Ruby's tone of voice and body language led him to think that there was something hurting deep below her often-times bubbly personality. Meeting her eyes, he pried into her. "What's on your mind?"
Ruby looked embarrassed and became silent. Jaune was about to pry further, but after a moment she opened her mouth to speak, only to waver for another deceptively long moment. She finally said, "I had a fight with my sister."
"Ah," Jaune said. It was strange; they normally seemed to get along. "Well, as somebody who has a large number of sisters, I am qualified to say that whatever it was you said to her, I'm sure she'll forgive you soon enough and in a few weeks neither of you will remember it. She's your sister; you're her sister; whatever you're worried about, it's the same for -"
"I'm not exactly her sister," said Ruby. A darkness had come over her.
"Well, that's obvious," said Jaune, chancing a joke to rouse her. They looked nothing alike. In some sense, it worked; a thin half-smile appeared on her face. He recognized it from the night they sparred.
"I suppose I should explain what I mean," she said.
Jaune was surprised. Lately, Ruby had been a closed book.
"Yes," he said. "I would appreciate that."
Ruby took a moment to find her words.
She put on the necklace. Wouldn't do to let that spawning piece of filthy offspring see her in any kind of undress. Bling. Style. Charm. She had it all, of course. She had it now. That slimy newborn grin fit so poorly on an such an ugly, dead-headed young woman. Those proportions were worse than what she could sew with her hands.
She'd learned from her mistake of course. She was better now. And when it came to metal, her craftswomanship was unequalled. There had been so much in the world she'd already made. No more daughters now. No mothers, no fathers, no sisters, and especially no brothers. Rosy wench and that blond bastard took what she owned. What she'd made. What she had lived with for so long.
She couldn't contain her laughter. "Make it black. Please."
The adorable bunny faunus whimpered. She could bend those ears backward and she'd still be pretty compared to any of those abominations she'd once permitted to exist in her presence.
"I'd love so very much to twist those ears together and hear what sound you make," she giggled. Glancing in the corner she saw none other than herself. Her daughter was there. It's why she needed the necklace - she'd been wearing it. And it fit her mystique so well, didn't it? "The other option is nice, burning, hot fucking cream and two sugars, black. Please."
The one who'd had her necklace before coughed and said, tentatively, "if you told us what you wanted more clearly, maybe we could help you -"
She laughed again. "Everyone's always helping me aren't they? Help this, help that, that's how it's always been. I'm fine. It's your name isn't it?" They exchanged the nervous glances that only unarmed expendables could. "Coffee."
The faunus was trembling so hard she could hardly stand up. "O-okay, I can make c-c-coffee."
"Not you," she rolled her eyes. "I need you so that I can find out if you're above or below a C6."
The bunny chick obviously had no idea what she meant. Why was it so hard for anyone to be just a little less obtuse? The pitch of the scream, of course.
"In hertz!" She laughed for a solid, good, long, tasty chunk of time. Metrology and pain. The kind of pun only those brats she used to obsess over would appreciate. One or two of them.
"I'll make it," the one who had the necklace said cautiously, and left the room after receiving her non-vocal assent.
Then the laughter turned into extended snorts. "Yeah, I'm sure. Hey mangy rabbit bitch, you seen Ozpin lately?"
The mangy rabbit bitch just stared at her, wide-eyed.
"Ooooh, right. Would've sent you out here to die, most likely. So you would have indeed seen Ozpin lately. Alright. Fits. Never could handle any kind of pressure, my dear, dear darling."
The building was abandoned and dilapidated. Glass lay shattered on the floor. Fire had damaged the structure the most. Grimm had damaged it almost as much. Her own actions had barely made a difference to it. The little punks were scared witless now so they'd probably go running back to Beacon and tell that two-faced liar about her. Which is what she wanted. She wanted to say hello just like it was old times.
Old times were farther away now than they had been last month. She looked out of the window at the moon and saw that it was indeed as she remembered it. Waning. Dying. She watched as the crescent rose. She had so often before.
Her mind was like this almost all the time now. Sometimes brief moments where it was not. It had started with self-obsession; seeing her face - her daughter's face - in the shadows; the need to make things right; to fix her broken family. She knew her grip had slipped so long ago, but there was the hope that, maybe, with time, she could put things right.
The crescent moon was rising. She remembered this. It was about time.
"I had no idea," Jaune said, his face pale. "That must be so hard for you."
"It's worse for her," said Ruby. "I can't imagine how that feels. Well, I can, a bit."
"I mean, living with her as long as I have. I remember the first time she started acting…" she searched for the word, "well, different, I suppose. I'd fallen asleep in her arms after watching some old movie. When I woke up, she wasn't there anymore. I found her pacing the perimeter of the house. She said she was looking for her."
"Her mom," Jaune clarified.
"Yes. It wasn't the first time, though. Apparently she'd done something like this before. I was too young to remember, but she nearly got us killed. Also looking for her."
"And her mom, she…" Jaune paused, uncertain how to put it gently. "She passed away?"
Ruby shook her head. "Went missing. Maybe she passed away. Nobody has seen her."
"She must have really been close to her."
Ruby looked at him, shocked, like he hadn't been listening. "It's not like that at all. It's just an obsession that gets to her. And it's usually her - sometimes it's other things. But this time… I thought she'd made progress. I thought we'd made progress. I thought she'd moved on. But it doesn't work like that, does it?"
"Maybe she could get better," Jaune offered, gently.
"Maybe," she said. "Maybe. I don't think those kinds of things go away. I should know."
"Yes, just the necklace," Coco whispered.
A brief wave of intense static crackled on the line as Coco waited for the reply. In the other room was for sure the woman Yang had told her about yesterday. The way she'd made it sound, she thought there was almost no chance Team CFVY would run into her. Hadn't Yang said nobody had seen her in over a decade?
"Definitely the woman you described yesterday. She matches the photo exactly. Same outfit, even."
Her scroll cut out suddenly. The CCTS only weakly fibred through this Grimm-forsaken town.
"Is that how coffee is made these days? It's been so long. I don't recall scrolls being involved."
The woman was behind her. Watching her. Coco almost made the motion to fold up the scroll, then decided against, understanding she'd already been caught. She hoped maybe it would transmit the message and Yang would alert Beacon about the situation.
"The coffee is ready," Coco said. Indeed, she had been preparing a cup like the woman had told her to. The situation was dire, and she may have been up against an unpredictable opponent far past her team's combat threshold, but not in even the worst situation imaginable would she let it ever be said that Coco Adel makes a subpar cup of coffee.
Plus, the stove was still stocked with dust, and, surprisingly, even though the house has been abandoned months ago, the fridge was still up and running, too. Whatever family that lived here before must have been very wealthy to afford such a large potency-mass of ice dust. It was probably high-grade Schnee company material.
The woman eyed the scroll, contempt in her eyes. "You're telling them about me? Hmm, did I tell you you could do that? Remind me."
Coco noticed that the woman was holding Velvet in one hand by the ears, so that Velvet had to bend over just to stay standing. Were her hands not holding the cup of coffee, they'd have clenched into fists. That sort of thing could hurt a faunus like Velvet very badly.
"Oh, you did make the coffee," the woman said, dropping what she'd just asked. She stood on her tiptoes to peer into the cup from her vantage point in the far side of the room. Then her face darkened. "You put cream in it," she said.
"You said cream and two sugars," Coco responded smoothly. She just needed to stall for time so the message would send. She would think about how to escape after that. Velvet looked at her helplessly.
The woman's face twitched and screwed up. "I said black. Didn't you hear me? I said black!"
With this remark, she whirled her arm around herself and threw Velvet by the ears at Coco. Velvet screamed in pain. Fox, who had been behind the woman where Velvet had been held, bristled, groaning audibly.
Velvet collided with Coco, but her momentum was mostly nullified by Coco's touch-telekenesis.
"And," the woman said, "I said no semblances. Why can nobody follow basic instructions?"
The scroll brightened momentarily, indicating its dust supply was running low. The audio communication interface displayed on it clearly.
"You sent a message to, hmmm, a friend, perhaps?" the woman asked. Coco thought she saw a glint of gold in the woman's crazed red eyes.
"I sent a message to Ozpin. An extraction team will arrive in minutes. You'll want to get out of here before then," said Coco, setting Velvet beside her.
The woman closed the distance between the two of them and snatched the scroll from the counter. On it was a picture of Yang's face. The woman's eyes narrowed to slits as she carefully studied the image. Coco's heart sank. She didn't want this woman to go after her underclasswoman. She was responsible as the senior student to not bring the chaos of a mission like this back to the other students at school.
"I hate liars. Just like my brother," she said, snarling the word. She pushed the picture of Yang up to Coco's face. "This isn't Ozpin."
"Yang will tell Ozpin. An extraction team will arrive," Coco asserted.
"Yang," the woman said, trying the word out like it was a soiled dress. She looked incredibly pleased. "Right, yes. You're completely wrong."
"An extraction team will -" Coco reiterated, but was interrupted.
"She probably won't tell anyone. You chose the wrong person to ask for help, I'm afraid," she said. "That chick is a flighty, unstable little jilt who you'd be best served offing in the middle of the night. Like I should have done when I had the chance." Again her eyes flickered.
It was plain to Coco that this woman was not in her right mind. For one thing, she was making herself an enemy of the Huntsmen, which was not something any rational Grimm-fearing person would ever do. But more than that, she was speaking of her daughter - Yang had implied that this was her mother - like she was an infestation of ants in a house she had moved out of. What kind of mother spoke about their daughter like that?
Coco dismissed these thoughts. The woman might have been out of her mind, but she was definitely still a threat. Team RNBW was lying bloody and incapacitated outside. She'd only got a brief look at them, but it looked like their auras were completely depleted and some of them were barely breathing. She'd been lying when she'd said an extraction team would be here in minutes - it would take a whole day at least, as it had for them - but she hoped RNBW would be able to hold on until then. She hoped her own team could survive until then.
"What do you mean, 'you should know'?" Jaune asked.
"That's why I'm on this airship isn't it? How can I fault her for not having moved on if I haven't moved on either?"
To Jaune, this was clearly a false comparison. "That doesn't make sense at all. This is completely incomparable."
Ruby raised a finger to her eyes. Tears were starting to form. She looked at Jaune hopefully, like what he was about to say was a lifeline.
"There's nothing wrong with visiting someone's grave. It doesn't mean you haven't moved on. Everyone does it. Well, everyone who's lost someone." Jaune paused. He hadn't lost anyone. He made a mental note to use his scroll to talk to his parents more often. "What Yang is doing - the way you described it, you made it sound like she's obsessed. That's different. What you're doing is healthy. What she's doing - what's happening to her -"
Ruby sniffled. "You're right. I'm fine. Thank you."
Jaune paused. He wasn't sure if he'd helped her or somehow insulted her. Why were girls so complicated? Jaune stumbled over that last thought. Friends. That's how Ruby wanted him to think of her.
"Anyway. She might get better. The doctor said sometimes these things just go away eventually. She said it wasn't as likely, though, because for most people these symptoms don't start until their twenties and Yang isn't - well she isn't twenty yet. But they do come and go over a span of months, and -"
Something caught Jaune's eye. "Maybe we shouldn't be talking about this," he said. "Smile coming our way."
A couple of passengers - rodent faunuses of some sort - were pointing out him and Ruby to a cheerful officer in a bright red uniform.
"A smi-?" Ruby started to ask. "Oh, a safety guard. Whoops." She rubbed her face quickly, as if to wipe off any trace of worry and she replaced it with a chipper grin. Jaune was impressed. He supposed.
There was something just a bit eerie about the Smiles. They were selected from people who breathed out pure, concentrated warmth. When they talked, they salivated confidence; and when they made eye contact, their subtle nod could pierce pierce aura with a spear of reassurance. Their existence was a paradox in the truest sense.
The safety officer had taken notice of them. When she walked, she was held buoyant on a dense cloud of the exuberance she excreted from her own mirthful gait.
"Hey," she said, softly. Her white hair was highlighted with red streaks which matched her outfit. Jaune's heartbeat increased. Red lips red tongue red strands in silver… "I'm just checking in. Are you enjoying the flight so far?" So casual.
Jaune nodded very quickly, stammering, "Y-yes! Red - ready to - really enjoying it." It was important to not earn the attention of a safety officer. His sisters had drilled this into him during his first airship coach ride. Safety officers were always a bit tangy to be around, but on extrakingdom journeys like this, they were vested a lot of power. If he messed up now, he could end up on a psychological risk list.
The presence of a Smile was doubly inexorable. Beyond what they themselves posed, they were also a reminder about the ubiquitous threat of the Grimm.
"It's alright," she said, casually. "You don't have to worry?" She spoke so gently, Jaune couldn't help believe her. "Talk to me; what's going on? We've got some concerned passengers looking out for you."
"Well, my friend is just going to visit her mother's-" Jaune started, but Ruby squeaked.
"-Mother!" Ruby corrected.
"Your mother's mother?" she asked.
"Y-yes!" Ruby said. "My mother's mother. She lives in Patch."
The officer watched both of them blankly for a few seconds. The time passed and Jaune felt himself grow uncomfortable with the silence. He was about to say something when he realized that this unstable void in the conversation was actually the Smile's attempt to fish something out of them. His ears were starting to hurt from the silence. He looked at Ruby, who was biting her lip. His sisters had warned him about this. They prefer to get people to fess up if possible, rather than detaining them with force right away, because someone who feels guilty is less likely to cause any more trouble than someone who is trying to pretend that there is no trouble.
As the awkward silence stretched on, Jaune realized he could try to hijack this into an exit. He turned toward Ruby, just enough as to put the Smile out of what he felt was the societal standard angle in which one could be considered a part of their unit.
"So anyway, Ruby -" he started, trying to disengage the Smile, but she recovered the priority.
"It's an odd way to put it isn't it?" she pointed out to Ruby.
"It… what?" Ruby asked.
"Your 'Mother's mother," she said. "Did you maybe mean to say your 'grandmother'?"
"Aren't those the same?" Ruby asked, confused. The Smile was trying to corner her.
"They mean different things," Jaune cut in. "'Mother's mother' is unambiguous. 'Grandmother' could refer to two people." The Smile turned to face him, and hit him with another blast of silence. He thought about what he just said. Did it even make sense? "Or four," he clarified. "Well - I suppose 'mother's mother' could, too. To two people. Or, no, to four also. Hmm." Before he knew it, he had caved. "There is also 'maternal grandmother'..." He trailed off as the officer put an affirming hand on his shoulder.
"That's not what you were going to say, was it?" she said, and Jaune shook his head quietly.
"You were going to say something else. 'her mother's…'" grave, he finished in his head. The silence filled his ears again. Grave, he thought. He needed her sentence to end. He needed the closure. Grave. He needed somebody to say something. He couldn't stop himself. He mouthed the word.
"Grave," she said, reading his lips. She looked a bit disappointed, and Jaune immediately felt ashamed. She seemed like a really nice person, and he was sure that in any other context the two of them would get along very well. Famously. Even the three of them. They could all get coffee together sometime, in another world, where she wasn't a safety officer.
"Mourning can be a very important way to overcome grief," she said, her voice ringing with piercing sympathy. "But it's very important to do so in a safe, comfortable environment. It's a serious danger to travel when in mourning, Ms..." She paused, apprehensive. She looked at Jaune. "Sorry, what are your names?"
"I'm -" Jaune cut himself off. The Smile was trying to pull something again. Why had she been talking to Ruby and then turned to ask him for their names. It wasn't a natural thing to do. She had to have picked him because he was the one she'd made progress with already. He'd ,already let something slip, and she was leveraging him. Their names were more important than she was letting on.
"- not -" he continued, airborne, uncertain where he could land. "- sure," he finished, then immediately kicked himself mentally. That didn't make any sense. The Smile gave him a quizzical look and once again made no comment. Jaune wondered in the back of his mind if this overpowering silence trick was a Semblance or if it was just her incredible charisma. He could feel himself about to betray something. He started to tremble. If he didn't come to his senses fast, in a moment, she'd have both of their names and they'd have an asterisk next to their names in flight ledgers for years to come.
Ruby grabbed his arm before he could say anything else, and pulled him over the airship's rails and into the breeze outside.
So relaxing. Just a hint of burning her tongue, as she liked it. Nothing in the world is as soothing as a hot drink like coffee. It was very hot. Scalding. That was good. It was black, too. Very good. But it didn't have cream. Or perhaps it was the other way around
"It's not as I asked it," she said. Perhaps she had said it before.
They exchanged looks. Not so much the blind one. The fashionable one and the mangy one. To be fair, both epithets weren't entirely fitting; she'd swiped the necklace off the fashionable one so now she was just a little less fashionable. And the mangy one was only mangy because of what she'd done to her. Mangy was a good look on her, though. It fit her. All the creatures of that ilk didn't really look right dresses up all clean and proper. It wasn't their station. Treating them like humans only led to disappointment and heartbreak.
"Say what now?" she said, remembering they were looking at her, though they hadn't said anything. "Oh I know, you can't make black coffee and put cream in it. It wouldn't be black. I'm not crazy. Still, that's no excuse for not following the instructions."
The fashionable one held her mouth shut. Clenched quite tight. Inside her there was clearly a barely-suppressed urge to object. Her colleague spoke up, instead.
"Fuck you," said the rabbit bitch. Her heart sank hearing these words. For a minute she thought maybe she'd been to hard on her. It's not like she'd actually hurt her ears. Just grabbed them is all. And only for a moment. But honestly, that was her job, right? She was supposed to comfort her through hard times like this. She was making up for all the time she'd spent away, when she should have been by her side, and she wasn't.
She smiled, remembering later on when she taught her a lesson.
The mangy rabbit bitch had better ears for that sort of thing. How many faunus could you actually grab like that, you know? It probably humiliated them, which was honestly hilarious. They get so worked up over such small differences. She was still talking, actually, the rabbit bitch. Holding a camera. Not the right stray. The pet she owned was somewhere else. She'd pretty much gotten what she came for; might as well go take a look-see at that other bitch.
"Yeah, whatever," she said, dismissing the rabbit bitch during the impassioned speech she was giving. The rabbit bitch had been really into whatever it was that she was saying, but as soon as she was interrupted she shrank back into the fashionable one, her resolve clearly broken.
"Thanks for the coffee. It's good," she said. It was hot. "Here, try some." She grabbed the mangy rabbit bitch by the neck and poured the remaining four fifths of the cup onto her scalp and ears. The rabbit bitch shrieked in pain and howled. Very loud.
She clicked her tongue. "Just a little bit flat, unfortunately." This was all clearly too much for the fashionable one, because this spurred her to rush at her, swiping at recently-emptied air with her elbows and knees.
She shrugged and hopped away into another space, a ripple in the air of red and darkness. Suddenly she was elsewhere. Four-ears's pain was only down to the flesh and muscle. She wouldn't draw much attention. Their kind never did.
The other ones, however, were wounded in a much deeper way. They'd allowed it to happen. It may even have been the darkest they had felt for their entire lives so far, but they would all be comforting the one person who needed it least. They would be drawing a lot of attention that day, she was certain of that.
And they deserved it.
She caught a thermal outside and whipped Jaune and herself up to the top of the ship. Her semblance was involved. The top? The aft? She didn't know ships. She knew weapons.
When Jaune didn't finish his high-pitch wail, Ruby put her hand on his lips.
"Quiet, Jaune! We don't want them hearing where we ended up. All she saw was us -"
"What was that!" Jaune shrieked. "Ruby! You pulled me out of an airship! One that is still in the air! What even -"
"I didn't want you getting into trouble on my account," she explained. "I brought us on this silly trip. So why should you have to -"
"Not in trouble?" He repeated incredulously. "Are we even allowed up here? There is no way we're allowed up here. This is going to get us in trouble. And more importantly - you pulled me out of a window! What were you - why did -"
"Jaune, I'm sorry."
"You're sorry you pulled me out of an airship?" When Jaune put it like that, Ruby did feel that a simple apology was somehow incomparable to what had just happened.
"It was a difficult situation, and I thought on my feet. What else was I supposed to do?"
Jaune frowned. "You threw me off an airship to get me out of a tricky situation." He said it like it was.
"Well, I pulled you out of the cabin. We're still on the airship," she pointed out.
Jaune exhaled slowly, his lips rounded.
"I assume you have a landing strategy," she offered.
Jaune shook his head.
"Well… how did you land for the initiation?" Ruby looked over the open water below. They had left Vale airspace. "I suppose it is a bit harder over ocean when there are no trees."
"Yeah…. Pyrrha kind of saved me for that. Honestly I survived a lot more things that day than I would have thought possible..."
"It's because you're tough as nails," Ruby winked, punching him lightly in the shoulder.
"Do you think that she can find us up here?"
"No, the, the," the Smile.
"Ah, right. No, I don't think there's a way up from the cabin."
"You know these airships really well, huh?" Jaune seemed surprised.
"Yeah," Ruby smiled. "Yang took me up top once when we were small."
"Your family sure is weird," Jaune's eyebrows went up.
"You have no idea," Ruby muttered.
Mechanisms. Electrical signals. Dust transistors. Reductionism such as this obscures how a device can exert an Aura. Consider instead the meaning. Stepper drivers. Opcodes. Interrupts. Clock cycles. Meaningful; conceptual; these hint at the existence of higher-level frameworks still.
Consider these frameworks, then. Not what the processors do, but rather what uses it. BPRT routines. Linearly independent lambda functionals. Data structures. Static linkage. Assembly calculus. The basics of crafting any sort of client system. Any aspiring technically-minded person learns these early on. But only these are just the basics. What uses these for greater abstraction still?
Multivariant lambda functional analysis. Encapsulated BPRT routines. ADT interfaces. A myriad of techniques that a client engineer discovers but never gives names to. This is how the CCT was created, one of the greatest achievements of humanity. But even these can be used by higher levels of abstraction, too.
It's two more levels of abstraction until the basics of creating an artificial person emerge. Aura is two levels above that still.
It thought about this for several hours in perfect stillness. Aura is two levels above that. Emphasis on is. The quote is not that Aura is generated two levels above that. Rather, that level of abstraction is what Aura is. Or rather, it's a soul, and Aura is its projection. That is the level of thought its creator had achieved.
It reached out, applying control-theory to calculate the torque required for its joint steppers, and was about to unplug itself from the data terminal. Unlike the other sapients around it, it had no need to interface with the CCT using a keystroke terminal. It was considerably more efficient to directly communicate over an emulated serial terminal interface with the Atlas mainframe. As an engineered client it could make use of the CCT to a considerably higher degree than its intended per-user bandwidth. However, nothing could amend the gap in abstraction-levels between which both clients had been designed. It was simply a more complex system than the CCT.
"Excuse me, miss," was received on the combined audio client channel. One of the sapients waiting in the physical user-elevation queue. Adjacent to it in the CCT building's relative physical coordinate space. "But might I have a turn?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," it said, as that was the minimum-weight response in the balanced arbitrary-ary eusociality tree. "I'm not quite done." It had indeed queued one additional query, the collection of data around the alias index Ruby Rose.
"It's just," came the reply, "well you have been sitting there staring into space doing nothing. You could do that anywhere; you don't need to be at one of these desks."
The search subclient completed, and it finally unplugged itself. "I'm done," it said. It affected a smile, as that was the minimum-weight response in the balanced arbitrary-ary eusociality tree. Then it closed the communication buffer (which was an unsignalled one-sided flag setter invocation not requiring a response from the other sapient), unplugged itself, and strode away in building coordinate space.
It returned to the iterative subproblem of making friends.
"Hi mom," said Ruby. "I have a lot to get off my chest. Mind if we talk for a bit? I'm not really turning out to be the daughter you'd hoped I'd be."
Ruby listened, and she heard Summer's response. It was as expected.
"That's… Very kind of you to say. You know I'm proud of you, too, right?"
She didn't respond.
"I know you probably still haven't forgiven yourself. But I've forgiven you. It wasn't your fault."
She contested the point.
"Well it wasn't. But that's not why I'm here. I just wanted to know… What am I?"
She told her the answer to a similar question.
"That's my name. But that's not what I am. Is there a name for what I am?"
She used an old cliché.
"I don't think 'sweet' is the right word for me, mom. But thank you for trying."
"I'm not a Huntress, am I?"
She listed the reasons why Ruby might not be a Huntress.
"You're wrong. I'm not living my life in vain. And I'm not doing what you did either. I'm going my own way. I think I can do a lot of good for everyone."
She expanded the definition of 'everyone.'
"No, it is what I want for myself, too. I want to be a Huntress." It sounded convincing.
She asked for clarification.
"It's just, I'm not one, am I?"
"I mean even if I had a license, though."
"What am I made of? Deep down?"
She gave the obvious answer.
"Am I, though? Why do I feel sometimes like the only one that understands me is Crescent Rose?" She reached for it at her side instinctively until she remembered she's stashed it in the locker. Had she really retrieved it just for her brief walk that morning and then put it away after finding Jaune? Since moving to Beacon, so many routine parts of her life started to fail to be transcribed into her memory.
Maybe showers would be next.
"Am I just a weapon?"
She reminded her what being a Huntress stood for.
"Am I going crazy like Yang?"
She told her about the appropriate way to talk about one's sister.
"But I see things that don't make sense. I feel things that don't make sense."
She put things in context.
"Maybe that's true. But I have to know. Am I your daughter?"
All the love in the world and more. More than for Taiyang. The love a mother has for her daughter. She made her. She knew what she was. Taiyang helped to make her. He knew what she was. In a way, Raven helped make her, too. She knew what she was. Qrow helped raise her. He knew what she was.
"Then you should know. Am I a real person?"
She had an Aura, didn't she?
"But I feel something is wrong. Do my senses deceive me?".
She pointed out the irony in the question.
"Mom! This is no time for joking."
"You're real enough for me, anyway."
"I miss you."
There was a breeze.
Something occurred to Ruby. She remembered what Ren had taught her. She started to reach out, but then stopped, deciding she didn't want to know the truth about that.
"Anyway. I guess I should put it plainly."
Her heart rate increased. Ruby's.
"I'm not really a girl. I don't think I am, anyway."
The same cliché.
"That doesn't really… help. It's not about what I'm called. It's what I am."
And maybe that's all that matters.
"Maybe. But I mean it in a physical sense."
She asked for clarification.
She hummed a song that was on Ruby's scroll. It was a song that used to be on Summer's. It reminded Ruby of her. She could almost picture her there.
She told her how much strength it took to be where she was today, after all that had happened.
"I'm like Crescent Rose."
She listed some properties of Crescent Rose.
"Yes! Just like that. Seriously. That's what I think, sometimes."
She listed the ways it couldn't be true.
"Yes, but, there have been moments where it's the only explanation. What do you think?"
She told her what she thought.
"Okay, I know when you were alive that's what you always said, or so I've been told, but playing with machines isn't that unhealthy."
She analyzed this and pointed out some symptoms.
"I do have friends!"
She enumerated them.
"Not just Yang. Mom!" she pictured another timeline in which Summer was still alive, and embarrassing her to her friends, and Ruby used the exact same tone of voice to ask her to stop. Ruby laughed.
A crow cawed.
Ruby checked the time on her scroll. She should leave soon. She had to go shopping with Weiss. No messages.
Summer told her how she was going to look.
"I don't know, I don't want to look like that. Just picture me, standing there, in some red, frilly dress. Is that really me? Is that what I am?"
She suggested another red object.
"Lame, mom. You know, the heart isn't even shaped like a heart? It's more like a potato. Honestly, it's kind of ironic. Combat physics texts are always giving these techniques for calculating angular inertia, right? And some of them only work on circles and squares and stuff, but some of them work on a lot more shapes. And at the end of the chapter they always give some potato-shaped blob and say, 'here! Congratulations! Using the techniques you learned in this chapter you can now calculate the angular inertia for this potato-shaped blob.' But here's the thing - none of those techniques work for potato-shaped blobs! These books are all obsessed with potatoes. But the anatomy textbooks - which we are reading in Peach's class, and let me tell you, Peach is a real hoot. I mean, what a character - anyway, for once, I get to deal with a potato-shaped blob, and everybody is drawing these shapes which are definitely not potatoes! Heart-shaped doesn't even get to be potato-shaped! It's tragic."
Summer laughed, though Ruby knew what she was saying wasn't really reaching her. She wiped a tear from her eyes. She wished she had a real Mom to share her school experiences with. Every day was so new and different.
"How am I going to make it through this shopping trip?"
She said, picture someone else.
"The silver-eyed Warrior. What was his name?"
She told her.
"Yeah, him. Let's say Weiss takes him shopping for dresses. What does he do?"
She asked a leading question.
"Yes, let's say Weiss is a very valuable friend to him."
She tells her what he does.
"Really? You think a guy like him would wear a dress to the prom? To prove what a great friend he is?"
She listed the property of friends.
"I know, mom. I have friends. Still…"
She pointed out something obvious.
"It's a combat skirt!" Ruby frowned. "And it's mine. I am comfortable with it. It's not a prom dress, though. If it were, I wouldn't wear it. I'm going to be miserable."
Misery loves company.
Ruby sat there for a very long time, looking over the side of the cliff, enjoying the familiar presence of someone she had never truly known, until finally she worked up the courage to be courageous. The problem, she decided, was as much an external one as an internal one. She had a solution. She knew how to get through this. She was pretty confident it was going to work, too. She blew a kiss to Summer. For the first time in days she felt okay.
Moms are great like that. Even dead ones.
She left the grave and went back down the hill to Jaune, who was sitting at a bench watching the ducks in a pond. He had his guitar but he wasn't playing it.
"Boo," she whispered.
"Ah!" Jaune cried and fell off the bench. They both laughed.
"Jaune, make a wish. I will grant it."
Jaune stood up and brushed himself off. "What do you mean?"
"Combat physics homework. A new weapon. Name your price. We're making a trade."
Jaune's eyebrows went up. "You mean there's something I can help you with? Me?"
"Yes, and I assure you, you'll want to set a high price for it."
Jaune shook his head. "No, no. You have already helped me so much. You have helped me with my leadership, my footwork, my swordplay, my confidence. I'll do anything you want. No price."
Ruby felt her lips curl up.
"You know the dance next week?"
Jaune's eyes widened. "Ruby - I thought - I mean, I can't - I mean, Weiss -"
"No, no, no, no, not like that," she blushed.
"Oh," Jaune exhaled. "Then…"
"It's worse than that."
Jaune looked a little frightened.
She thought about what Summer had just said. Yes. It was an excellent idea. Misery does indeed love company.
She cleared her throat. "We're… heh. We're friends, right?"