You know that teacher that always assumes that, if you don't write inches or cubic centimeters or furlongs or whatever, you meant bananas or lobsters or fluffy pink elephants? And, you know, obviously the area of this rectangle isn't twelve bananas, now is it? In this universe, destiny never had that teacher.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is REMEMBER YOUR UNITS FOLKS!
Like all humans and faunus, Blake was born with a number etched in silver on the inside of her wrist. One hundred and ninety-six. Its fine lines were spiky and angular, like it had been scrawled in a hurry by someone who normally had beautiful handwriting. The bottom of the nine curved over one of her veins—a quiet, understated threat.
It was a solid number, as far as her family was concerned. High, but not too high. It didn't go down at all in her first year. Everyone who turned the infant's chubby fist and glanced at her counter agreed that all signs pointed to a long life.
Then it began to fall, much too quickly for comfort. Kali tried to stay positive. Some had numbers that dropped as evenly and methodically as clockwork, counting down the days or minutes or Tuesdays in June they had left before death. Others went through fifty years of life with a counter in the high thousands, only for it to plummet to zero in less than a minute. Using the numbers to estimate a person's remaining time was a spotty science at best, and she refused to let Ghira try it. Mostly, she just didn't want to see on paper what she was already starting to feel in her bones.
When Kali finally figured out what her daughter's number meant, it was completely by accident. She goaded a petulant six-year-old Blake into promising to go to bed after just one more chapter. Ten minutes later, her little girl launched herself into her arms, sobbing. Her counter had dropped the moment she turned one page too many.
Ghira told Kali over and over that it wasn't her fault. They couldn't have known. But the fact remained that almost a dozen tiny, harmless betrayals had frittered Blake's life away, all for sins as minor as conveniently 'forgetting' to brush her teeth.
As she grew up, Blake saw her numbers as a nagging second conscience, telling her off for the same mistakes everyone else seemed to be allowed to make freely. She didn't realize she wasn't the only one with a moral compass on her wrist until years later, on an SDC cargo ship bound for Mistral. A guard lay cooling on the floor, eyes wide open. Adam didn't notice his number had gone down until she pointed it out to him. She told herself it couldn't possibly mean what it seemed to, not when it was still over four hundred.
When she decoupled a train car and watched him dwindle into the distance, she looked down and noticed that her counter had dipped again. It was as if it was saying that this cowardice, running away from everything she'd ever believed in, it meant nothing more than the dozens of harmless missteps she'd made as a child. She realized it was nothing like a conscience—it was mocking her.
When she stepped onto a tiny passenger ship bound for Menagerie and it dipped from one utterly unremarkable number to another, she decided that was no more than she deserved.
There was Yatsuhashi, whose every word was precious to him. Sky Lark, who fled from one number to another. James Ironwood, with a one inscribed at the hollow of his throat. Ciel Soleil, whose counter ticked down meticulously from somewhere in the hundreds of millions.
Yang was born with the number nine, but that changed before she turned two weeks old. Taiyang was frantic with the thought that he might lose both of the most important people in his life, but for the next nine years it remained steady. There was Summer and Ruby and life, and the quiet dread that had grown up in him settled. So did the three on his wrist.
Then it was just him and his daughters, and he was faced with a sobbing little girl who had only just started learning about the numbers. Who, unlike everyone else she knew, didn't stay up some nights wishing hers was higher. Who wasn't sure how she was supposed to do this seven more times.
By the time Beacon fell, Yang had been trying for years to forget about her counter. She'd always believed it was better not to know, that the luckiest ones alive were those that were born with a silver one and no reason at all to live their lives readying themselves for the next blow. So she wore a wristband and didn't look at it, like that would change anything when the number seven was seared indelibly into her mind.
Some people talked about the comfort the numbers brought. Their numbers were usually useless, which was the best thing a number could be. Yang's hadn't been any comfort the first time Blake ran away, after her argument with Weiss. Even when she'd caved in the middle of the night and seen that the seven was still there, it hadn't made her feel better—it could just be a sign that Blake didn't count. Blake wasn't dear enough. It might mean that it would be worse, when it did happen.
She went on trying not to look at it, until suddenly she was missing a part of herself and all she could do was laugh and laugh—because her teachers hadn't known why some people had the mark on their non-dominant hand, but she did. Then she cried, because she'd given in and checked and now there was a little silver five on her wrist.
When, months later, it turned into a four, she couldn't muster the energy to do either.
When her counter hit three, she wasn't sure if it was getting easier, or if she was just going numb. There was nothing left behind but a feather this time, but that was more than she usually had. Yang stared at it for a while, then moved deeper into the vault. Picked up the relic. And then her knees buckled under the weight of it all. She hated her mother, her counter, herself, because she'd given Raven the chance to rob her again and she'd taken it. Now she owned two pieces of Yang's life, and Summer had only ever gotten one.
As a baby, Ruby's number was over forty thousand. It sat for years, unchanged, sleeping contentedly where it coiled all the way around her tiny wrist. It was the highest Taiyang had ever seen, and unlike most high counters it seemed in no hurry to dwindle. He thought, maybe, that their family would be allowed this one lucky number.
The day she killed her first Beowolf, it began to tick down. First in fits and starts, little trickles. Then in a slow and steady rivulet, as she carved her way through hordes of Creeps and sleuths of Ursai. Tai tried to stop her at first, but she wouldn't budge. If she was going to stop, she declared proudly, it would be when she had a shining silver one to match his two.
Jaune's counter started at two. His sisters, who all had numbers stretching on into the high hundreds, told him that was lucky. He would have some warning—not like those born with a one—but not too much. Unlike his eldest sister, he wouldn't have to find out that his number ticked down every time he laughed until he was breathless.
All his young life, he believed them. He was perfectly happy with his counter, but he knew how to act around people who weren't. He knew not to ask when Weiss started wearing a wristband the first day of classes. He knew not to argue when Ren refused to talk about his four. He nodded and smiled when Pyrrha told him she was perfectly happy with her own unchanging one. But it was Nora who he felt he really understood. She'd borne a three all her life, and had absolutely no idea what it meant.
Still, sometimes he wished he could just know. His youngest sister lost one every time the full moon rose, and when she'd done the math she'd found out she had over ninety years. Part of him wanted the kind of peace that would bring.
When he crawled, trembling, out of the dented wreckage of a school locker, he didn't check his wrist. Didn't see the change until he fumbled for his scroll and opened the screen. Then the light shone on the silver one, and he lurched and almost threw up. He called Weiss and Ruby, begged them to do something. Anything.
Now he was the one people with lucky numbers didn't know how to talk to. It was also in the most unexpected of company that he found someone who seemed to understand. Ruby and Yang's father sat next to him at the table one night, about a week before they left for Haven.
"You keep rubbing your wrist," the man pointed out.
Jaune said nothing.
Taiyang turned his arm so that Jaune could see a silver number two. "When I was born, it was four. Every day, I hope like hell it doesn't mean what I think it does."
Ren didn't notice his counter drop for the first time until hours afterward. Even so, he knew instinctively when it had happened, right down to the minute. What else could it have been except for the sick, breathless seconds he'd spent just watching while someone else was bullied? His father agreed, and told him gently but firmly that it didn't matter what his counter said. To take action and help those in need would have been his duty even if he weren't marked the way he was.
Then, with a small smile, he'd added that he was lucky—the numbers were usually worse than that. Ren couldn't understand how. (He would, later, watching a shattered Jaune clutching his wrist so hard it bruised.)
It was true that most people's numbers didn't act as Ren's did, as a moral compass to dissuade him from pursuing the wrong path. As he got older, he grew to resent it. He hadn't come closer to death when his village was burning, when he'd run to Nora without hesitating. He'd done the right thing. But the threat written on his skin cheapened it, just a little.
When he and Nora first traveled together, he was sometimes jealous of her simple, unchanging three. She didn't have to think about whether she was being coerced into doing the right thing. Then they came to Beacon, and he soon realized that it could be far, far worse. Ruby was the only one who talked about her counter, and it was practically punishing her for doing what all Huntresses did. Now he knew what his father had meant when he said it could be worse. His counter could have gone down every time he didn't freeze.
The number on the inside of Jacques Schnee's wrist read, simply, one. It was written in his biography that it had been so on the morning of his birth, and would remain that way until his death. When he was younger he'd had the habit of wearing a wristband, and his parents had both passed before he married Willow—as such, only she knew that when she'd met him, it had been two. That had changed when he held a baby Winter for the first time. She'd cried when she found out she was pregnant with Weiss. When Whitley came along, she hadn't.
Whitley was jealous when they were small, before he even knew what the numbers meant, because he had only five and Weiss had almost two thousand. Winter pointed out that it wouldn't matter until they knew how quickly they were going down, and showed him the silver nine etched on her own wrist. In the first fourteen years of his life, only one of their three numbers decreased. His eldest sister now wore an eight, though she wouldn't say how it had changed.
On her second morning at Beacon Academy, Weiss found that her counter had finally gone down. It dropped every sunrise from then on, like clockwork. She lied and told her team it had been doing that all her life. She lied and told her family that it still hadn't changed. She started wearing a wristband, and anyone who tried to do the obvious division in her presence was silenced with a glare.
Then her world shattered, and Father came to collect the pieces. It was only after four nights in the too-big bed in the too-empty room that she realized her counter had frozen. She couldn't bring herself to think of it as unfair, even though it was. At least now the number was more than a declaration that her life was going to end. It was also a promise that, someday, it would start again.
Nora didn't spare Yatsuhashi much thought once they left Beacon. She hadn't known him well, and for obvious reasons he hadn't talked much. At no point in her life did she realize that they had a lot in common. He had a few thousand words to spend. She had the three that mattered most.
Pyrrha preferred to tell people that she was born with her one, but that wasn't true. She started her life with forty-eight, and her counter dropped for the first time at the age of seven, after she lost a practice duel with one of her classmates.
By the time she reached forty, she knew without a doubt what her number meant. She hid it from her parents, mostly because she didn't want to think about it. Didn't want to acknowledge that it was real.
When she reached one, she went to her instructor in tears and told her that she couldn't fight anymore. Showed her the number. And her instructor told her kindly that she wasn't any more likely to die in sparring than anyone else.
"You're fated to win," she said. "Over and over and over again. To be invincible. And then... to fail when the stakes are highest."
The woman revealed the inside of her wrist. Six. "I lose one every time I truly hate someone. It's not telling you how much time you have until the end, child, it's telling you how it happens."
Five years later, she asked her killer if she believed in destiny. In answer, she tilted her arm and let her sleeve drop away from her right wrist, revealing a pale silver zero.