I guess I'm just vibing with Adam redemption stories. This story is crossposted on AO3; my profile has the details on how to find my account on there. Edited 12/26/20 with minor changes I meant to have in here since posting.
This...used to be a oneshot.
Blake's punch sent him reeling. His heels scraped along the ground, scattering the broken halves of Gambol Shroud's blade. He could taste blood in his mouth.
He was losing.
Blake's gaze flicked down. His followed: Gambol Shroud's hilt, topped by a jagged section of the blade. A weapon. They went for it at the same time: him, to keep it from her, to buy himself a precious moment to reload Blush's magazine. Her, to finish him off.
In the end, she was faster.
He felt both halves punch through him. Felt his skin break and muscles tear. Felt a strange, spreading cold that outpaced the pain and left him numb. All thoughts of recovery fled. He stood there, speechless, his blood dripping onto the rock below.
His hands trembled. Realization washed over him.
He wasn't losing. He'd lost.
They yanked Gambol Shroud out of him. First from the back, then from the front. The numbness spread. He staggered forward, thoughts dragging, blood drenching his jacket.
He collapsed to his knees. Tried to look up.
Weightless, he watched his world slide between the water below and sky above. He hit rock, and across the distance between his mind and his body, agony echoed. Flipping too fast to see anything but a blur, he hit the water and sat up with a gasp. Heaving for breath, his hands scraped over his shirt, feeling for holes that weren't there. Heart pounding, he pressed harder, desperation whirling—
"Adam, are you awake?"
A hand wrapped around the front flap of the tent and pulled it aside, revealing Blake. He froze. She stared at him for a moment, neither of them moving, and then offered a tentative, playful smile. "Did you actually sleep in for once?"
He opened his mouth but had nothing to say. Her smile slowly disappeared, replaced by concern. "Adam? Is something wrong?"
Is something wrong. Is something wrong.
In the silence, other sounds drifted through the tent's opening: laughter, conversation, a few fires. He could see shadows moving beyond Blake, shadows dressed in the standard White Fang uniform.
It was a camp. He was in a White Fang camp, and…and Blake was here as well, looking at him like nothing was wrong. She was dressed differently too. Instead of the tall boots and crop top he remembered, she was clothed in her old white cropped shirt and black vest. In her hair rested the bow he had thought she long ago discarded.
"What…what happened?" he managed.
That concern became genuine worry. She stepped inside, letting the tent close behind her, and knelt next to him. He couldn't stop staring. There was no fear of him and no demands to be left alone. It was as though her memories of him had been reset along with her clothes. "It's an hour before dawn," she said. "Nothing's happened yet. Did you have a nightmare?"
A nightmare. Was it a nightmare? All of it? No. Impossible.
With effort, he pulled his expression back into something approaching neutrality. "No. I'm fine." Asking Blake what day it was would only make her worry worse. Instead, he looked around the tent, hunting for something familiar that could give him a sense of where and when he was, because clearly, this was far from Argus. His lack of injury and Blake's behavior both left no room for doubt. His attention landed on his mask, set within arm's reach of his sleeping pad, and then Wilt and Blush, laid parallel to him for easy access in case of an attack. Finally, he focused on the trees just barely visible through the opening the breeze created in the tent flaps. Red trees.
And suddenly, he knew exactly where he was. Blake had said it was an hour before dawn. The train came at dawn, so the mission didn't start for an hour.
She stood when he did, biting her lip. He wasn't convincing her at all. "Are you sure you're okay? I can do the mission on my own if you're not—"
"No," he cut in, and her slight flinch didn't escape his notice. He wasn't the only one failing to put up a good act. "I'll meet you at the rendezvous point."
His dismissal was clear. With a slow nod, she backed out of the tent. The flap fell back into place, and he was alone. The storm of conflicting desires that had roared to life with her arrival began to calm. He let out a slow breath, scanning his tent once more while he smoothed out his shirt. There were any of a hundred questions he could ask, but he had no way to get answers. As Sienna had once said during a mission gone awry, the only way out was through.
First things first, he needed to change out of his rumpled sleep clothes. His old jacket was neatly folded on a blanket spread over the ground next to a full change of clothes. He must have laid them out last night.
Last night. It wasn't last night. It was years ago. And yet…
In the middle of changing, he paused briefly to run his fingers across the unblemished skin on his chest. No sign of the fatal wounds Blake and her apparent new partner Yang had inflicted, but he knew that they had been there as sure as the brand on his face.
He slid on his pants, buttoned his shirt, tucked his banner into his belt, and shrugged on his jacket. Socks and boots came next. He finished with Wilt and Blush settled in place at his waist. He finger-combed his hair into the weak show of order that it was used to and then, after a moment of hesitation, fit his mask over his face. Its weight and texture were at once comforting and disconcerting.
After a breath to steel himself, he ducked out of his tent. In the meager predawn light, he was greeted with exactly what he had expected: their camp in Forever Fall. Tents stood scattered around in a loose formation, crates sat stacked in a few places in preparation for moving the next day, and a handful of campfires threw flickering light over the sentries taking breaks between shifts. To his left, the command tent had a light burning in it despite the early hour. There was no sign of Blake.
The longer he looked around, the more memories came crawling back. He had blocked out most of this day except for the moment Blake cut her car free and abandoned him, but there was more happening now than just her imminent betrayal. Setting his jaw, he headed for the command tent. Both flaps were tied back, giving him an easy view inside. It was all painfully familiar: the large map of Remnant in the back, a map of Vale to the left. Under the view of the city lay a few shelves of supplies, spare uniforms, and vials of Dust. In the middle stood a table laden with detailed plans for the upcoming attack and a single lamp. And at that table—
"James," Adam greeted.
His lieutenant glanced up from the plans and pushed off the table to stand straight and nod in return. "Sir."
Though his expression was hidden behind his full-face mask, his confusion was clear. Adam was supposed to be gone by now.
"Something has come to my attention," Adam began, walking up to the table. There was no way realistic way to justify what he was about to say, but he could lead into it and lie to deflect suspicion. "Rumors."
"One of the scouts reported to me just now that there have been sightings of that woman and her lackeys in the forest nearby."
James's shoulders tensed. "I thought you made our stance clear to her."
"I did. I also thought she understood. Clearly, I was wrong." He let a hand rest over where their camp was on the map of Forever Fall. This map was far more detailed than the one of Remnant. He could see the train tracks winding through the forest before they smoothed out next to the cliff. "With Blake and I going on this mission, the camp will be more vulnerable than normal." He held up his other hand to forestall James's defense. "I know your abilities. I know our comrades' abilities. But that woman acted with a huntress's level of confidence, and I don't doubt that the other two are strong as well. It's a risk we don't need to take." He took his hand off the map. "Pack up the camp. Move to our fallback position and wait for further orders."
"Sir, moving just because those three were seen is—"
He slammed his palm on the table, shutting James up before he could finish questioning his orders. "Do it, lieutenant," he snarled.
Taken aback, James stared for a second before he slowly nodded. "Understood."
They met in the clearing. They headed for the train. They boarded the train. They fought off the drones. Adam did it all on autopilot, attention laser-focused on Blake. Where was the sign? It wasn't this morning. Her tent had still been up next to his, her few things scattered around. She'd decided to leave on the train, not beforehand. So when had she done it?
The lid of the Dust crate fell closed. "Take the next car. I'll set the charges."
Blake's eyes widened a fraction. "What about the crew members?"
Time stood still. This was the moment, he realized. This was the very instant everything had started going wrong. Losing her had been the point of no return. Staring up at him, ears folded back, Blake looked like she was expecting the worst. Like she already knew his answer and was just asking to confirm it. Like she was trying to give him one final chance to change her mind. The first time, he had only solidified her decision to leave. This time, he needed to give her a reason to stay.
He needed time with her. Time to understand why she did what she did and why their story, his story, had ended the way it had. What could he say? What was the wrong thing? What was the right thing? Was there a right thing?
His indecision cost him his chance: in front of the door they had entered through, the spider droid dropped down with a clang that shook the whole car. Its four cannons glowed, and he and Blake split to avoid the blasts. He dove behind crates for cover, but Blake had other plans. She charged the droid, getting in one slash before it kicked her back. She rolled and stayed down, stunned. He picked up the slack, but Wilt's edge only scraped across the hardened metal plates of the droid's armor without cutting through. He got his guard up just barely in time to avoid the same fate as Blake, but more shots from its cannon forced him back.
As the droid advanced through the car, it focused on Blake, lifting one leg to run her through on its pointed tip.
Reflex and conscious thought fell into perfect sync: he focused his aura on his legs and pulled her away before the droid could impale her. He and Blake both reassessed. He wasn't going to have an opportunity to talk to her until the droid was dead. To do that the way he had before, he needed to bait it into using its beam attack once he was ready.
But absorbing an attack that powerful would cost him a significant amount of strength. Blake had used that opening before to get away, and he hadn't yet been able to get a word in to change her mind about doing the same thing this time.
"We need to get out of here!" Blake said.
The droid agreed, faking them out with separate cannon shots before combining them into the beam. Though he was in no way ready for it, Adam managed to take the brunt of it on Wilt, but he hadn't had the time to brace and they were both knocked back onto the next flat car. Wind whistled through his hair. Blake winced as she got to her feet next to him. The droid crawled out of the new hole in the car wall.
He could see the old plan perfectly. He would ask her for time, ready himself, absorb the attack, and use the energy to utterly annihilate the droid. It was a good plan. A clean plan.
A plan that had cost him Blake.
His eyes shifted from the droid to the snowflake-stamped crates stacked all over the car. The Schnees had been careful about packing them so that, even if their defenses were activated and stray attacks hit the Dust, it wouldn't detonate. But if someone were to deliberately try to set it off…
"Blake," he said, nodding towards the crates. She followed his gaze. "Buy me some time."
"As much as you can."
She set her jaw, then took off. He watched her weave around more cannon fire for a second before turning his attention to the nearby crates. He checked a few before he found the ones he was looking for. Inside, the yellow Dust gleamed. He tossed the lids aside, then kicked the crates into a haphazard pile. Several crystals spilled out without detonating. Right as he finished, Blake let out a shriek. The droid had kicked her again, this time with far more force.
Gambol Shroud whipped through the air, the end of its ribbon clutched in Blake's hands. He leaped up to catch it, landed, and yanked, but gravity had already begun pulling her down. She hit the edge of the car with a grunt, arms over but the rest of her body dangling down. Her feet had to be inches above the tracks. Adam slid to his knees next to her and swiftly helped her up.
They set up away from the Dust he'd collected behind a different set of crates. Lightly favoring her right leg, she peered out from between boxes to eye his impromptu trap. "Is it ready?"
They stayed crouched behind cover. The droid took several potshots, but it had lost them in the maze of crates. It didn't seem to care about the Dust scattered around the car as it clambered over various boxes to get closer to where it had last seen them. Every step it took was another vibration on top of the wheels on the tracks below.
He waited until those vibrations were coming from the right place. Then, in a rush of black and red, he shot up from cover, sighted down Blush, and fired a single shot.
The droid was mid-stride when the bullet shattered the first Dust crystal under it. That one impact set off a chain reaction of lightning. Adam was blasted back, hitting a net of cables and ties with a pained grunt. He got to his feet as the storm of electricity began dying down.
He and Blake approached the droid slowly with their weapons at the ready. The metal underfoot was scorched and scarred. The droid's few red lights flickered weakly as its fried systems attempted a reset. Before it could get the chance, Adam braced himself and stabbed Wilt through the joint under its chin that connected its head and body. Blake had weakened it during her distraction, and he used that vulnerability now. The droid twitched, cannons uselessly rotating quarters of degrees in random directions. A satisfied grin pulled at his lips, and with a flourish, he activated his semblance and ripped Wilt free. The droid's head clanged against the floor. He sheathed Wilt in perfect time to the metal breaking apart into petals. It wasn't nearly enough power to disintegrate the entire thing, but its brain was gone. The body slumped, the last of its light dying. The droid was dead.
He didn't need to turn around to know that Blake was backing away.
"Wait," he said. He slowly faced her, searching her expression for any hint of the same gentle teasing she had shown him earlier. There was none. Only fear at being caught before she could put more distance between them. She knew she was still well within reach.
"I—I should check to make sure there aren't any more in the other cars," she tried. Her words fell flat. She edged back another step. Her attempt at a poker face was decent enough, but did she think her bow could hide what her ears revealed?
"You're trying to leave." It was a fact, and he stated it as such. Blake's eyes went wide. Her ears went flatter than they had in the train car. She stepped away when he stepped forward. "Blake." Rage wouldn't serve him here and he'd burned it all out in front of the waterfall anyway. He didn't want to fight. He wanted to understand. "Why?"
In her fear, she couldn't decide which half of his mask to focus on. She swallowed. "I just can't do this, Adam. It's gone too far."
He narrowed his eyes, the dregs of a different and far older anger stirring. "The crewmembers."
"No human is innocent!" He swept a hand over the train. "This Dust was mined with the blood of our people and they do nothing about it. You call that innocence?"
"It's not guilt! What happened to shades of gray?"
"We haven't had that luxury in a long time," he growled.
To his surprise, she set her jaw and stopped trying to edge away. "Mercy isn't a luxury, Adam. It's what makes us who we are. It's what separates us from the Grimm!"
He all but ripped the mask off his face. She flinched at the sight of the scar and the anger in his eyes, and he forced himself to take a breath and speak clearly. "I am showing them exactly the amount of mercy they showed me."
And though she was trembling, though her voice shook, her words cut him to the core. "Then this isn't about revolution. It's about revenge."
He clenched his hand into a fist before he did something rash. "This is a war. You do whatever is necessary."
"Killing the crewmembers isn't necessary. We can—we could just cut off their cars. We could throw the Dust off the train. The SDC would still lose money like that!"
Already preparing to dismiss her words, he stopped. On the surface, she was right. This was about wrecking the train and destroying the SDC's Dust and all the profit it represented. Destroying it was a step above mere robbery. It was a declaration that even the White Fang wouldn't touch the SDC's Dust. A wholesale rejection of a valuable resource on principle alone.
What would slaughtering the crewmembers add to that? It would spread greater fear of the White Fang, but their moral stance would be tainted by blood. It was this pattern of thought, this dismissal of casualties, that had made him deaf to the screams of the faunus civilians in Vale as Beacon fell, that had set him on the path to betraying his brethren at Haven, that had sent him on a single-minded quest to take out his own rage and humiliation on Blake as though that would undo any of the horrors he had committed.
His dismissal died on his tongue. On its surface? No. All the way down.
She stared like she hadn't heard, still braced for a rejection that would not come. He closed his eyes and released Blush's trigger. When had he prepared to attack her again? When had seeing her as the enemy become so natural? Even with all of his second-guessing, he had nearly ruined this second chance on something as trite as reflex.
He opened his eyes. Met her gaze. "You're right, Blake. Killing the crew members is going too far."
She didn't believe him, but when he only waited for her response, her confusion shifted to cautious hope. "Then you won't hurt them?"
You. Not we. He didn't want to know how thin this line of possibility he walked truly was. "No. Not if we don't have to." He put his mask back in place. "But if we're going to do this, we're doing it together."
I'm not letting you out of my sight. Her hope flickered, but she held onto it and nodded. That flash he'd seen when she had first asked about the crew members, that implied hope that he would do better than she expected, now served as just enough faith to hold together her trust in him.
He didn't have to force her. She wanted to do it. He felt the strange urge to laugh, but he knew it would come out far too manic. All along, all he'd needed to do was talk.
From a vantage point atop a couple of trees stretching up from a small hill, he and Blake watched the Dust explode in a massive, multicolored cloud. Bolts of lightning, shards of ice, balls of fire, and tens of other spontaneous combinations raced through the smoke that ballooned into a cloud massive enough to block out the sun. The shockwave flew across Forever Fall, buffeting them with harsh wind laced with the smell of ozone.
Far in front of that explosion, the cars he and Blake had packed with all the train's employees and severed from the Dust cars continued rolling forward.
The brief high of a successful mission couldn't last. As they dropped back to the ground, the gravity of what Blake had nearly done weighed in the air. He stood in front of her. He didn't know what to say. It had all been so clear as they convinced—threatened—the crewmembers into the forward cars, but now, he was in uncharted waters.
Blake wouldn't even meet his eyes, but she was still the first to speak. "What now?"
They both knew that what she had tried to do amounted to treason. At her rank, the punishment was severe. In the end, the true extent of it was up to Adam as the leader of the branch, but the standard was disfigurement or death.
He never entertained either possibility for even a second. "Do you truly want to leave?"
"I did," she answered, conflicted. "You—you've changed, Adam. Turned cruel. I don't—didn't—it wasn't right."
So that was it. His line in the sand had split from hers, and she hadn't seen a way to bring it back.
"I want to believe this is real," she continued. "I really do. I just…I'm scared it's not."
Perhaps it said something about how significantly his actions on the train had affected her view of him that she was willing to be this honest despite her fears. That kind of trust demanded reciprocity.
"You showed me the dark path I was taking today," he began slowly. It was a lie, but a harmless one. This Blake didn't know that it wasn't her words that had changed him but rather learning all of these lessons the hard way. His final moments in Argus had been…illuminating. "The White Fang is a force for revolution, and it is meant to help the faunus above all else. I failed to realize how I was using it for my own ends. That can change. It will change." He paused for a beat, his heart battling against what needed to be done. "With or without you at my side."
It had to be her choice. He wasn't going to keep her prisoner with the same kind of manipulations he had used for years as he sensed her slowly pulling away; that mentality of control had only hurt them both. He needed her to have faith in him and believe in what he was doing if he didn't want to end up with the same pathetic ending as before.
She pressed her lips together, searching for an answer in his face she would only find inside herself. Her shoulders dropped with her gaze. "I need space."
Though he had seen it coming, it still managed to leave his stomach twisting. "I see."
"I've spent my whole life in the White Fang. There's more out there. I…I want to see it, Adam. I want to live a normal life outside of this war even if it's just for a little while. I've done all this fighting. I want to use what experience I have to protect people, not just raid Dust convoys."
An urge he had never felt. To him, the Grimm were a secondary threat. He knew the answer, but he asked anyway: "Where will you go?"
It was tacit permission, and her ears lifted. She finally looked him in the eye. "Beacon Academy in Vale."
Oh, the trust required to tell him outright where she was going. No more frantically scanning maps only for his frustrated rage to demand he cast her aside entirely, no more hunting through every face he saw on every mission he ran for a single sign of her presence. She simply told him.
This was a good thing. This was progress, wasn't it?
In the distance, the dissipating Dust cloud, blown thin by the wind, finally let the sun shine through.
"A huntress hardly lives a normal life," he said, but his jab was hardly intended to dissuade her. She even cracked a smile.
"I'll still be reachable, okay?" She tapped the pocket holding her scroll. "You can call me. And," she hesitated, "if you need—if there's information, I'll—I can see what I can find."
An offer in exchange for him letting her go. A way for her to reciprocate. And, though she didn't know it, an opportunity.
"I'll keep in touch," he said.
She took a step back, and then it clicked with him: this was the last he would see of her for a while. The childish need to keep her close for just a little bit longer surged, and he spoke without thinking: "You can collect your things from the camp."
She stiffened in surprise. "What?"
"Your things." Before, she had simply left them behind. It wasn't much, every Fang soldier packed light, but her novels and sketchbooks had always been precious to her. "I'll deal with informing the camp that you're going away on," he spared a second to think of a suitable cover, "an infiltration mission. You won't face any resistance for that."
The beginnings of a far wider smile tugged at her lips, but she was far too reserved to show its full extent. "Adam, I—I don't know what to say."
Frankly, he didn't either. All of this, when compared to the original progression of events, was ludicrous. And yet, as she followed him back towards the fallback camp location, he couldn't deny that it felt so much better.
He saw Blake off in a quiet stretch of the woods just beyond the camp's edge. That hope in her eyes burned brighter than ever. It gave her new energy and a subtle bounce in her step he hadn't seen in years. They embraced briefly for the first time in as long as he could remember. He savored the moment. He had never expected to experience anything like it again.
James was waiting for him in the newly erected command tent. "Sir. Blake's gone?"
"Yes. I'll be maintaining constant contact should we move closer to Vale." A niggling thought gnawed at him as he stared down at the maps. His eyes fell onto their base's former location. "How long until we move to rendezvous with the camp to the south?"
"A few hours."
Plenty of time. "Wait for me to return," he said. James frowned at him.
"What are you doing?"
"An errand. I need to confirm something. I'll be back soon."
There were few things in life that truly satisfied him. There were even fewer that could make him happy. That being said, watching Cinder scream in rage and slam a heel into the ground in the middle of the vanished camp from a hidden position in the trees did bring a smile to his face.