Main RWBY: Before the Dawn

RWBY: Before the Dawn

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Sun Wukong had been back in Vacuo for a month already, but it was only now that he felt like he was truly home.

It was nighttime in the city, and Sun was on a dark street facing off against three goons who were up to no good. At least he’d assumed they were up to no good when he spotted them stalking a woman out of some new nightclub downtown. Sun had trailed after them silently, but they somehow noticed him anyway and turned to confront him.

They were a strange trio. The woman on the left had spiky pink hair and a loose black robe over a white tunic. The broad guy in the middle wore a green muscle shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. The lanky guy on the right had a brown jumpsuit and combat boots, with a brown patterned bandanna covering his hair and ears. The only things they had in common were matching silver armbands around their right biceps and masks on their faces.

At least they weren’t the creepy Grimm face masks that some members of the White Fang wore. These were just average gas masks with large eyepieces and big, round filters in the front resembling pig snouts. You didn’t see people wearing masks in Vacuo every day, or any day really. Sun bet they got pretty sweaty inside.

“Aren’t you out past your bedtime, kid?” said Pink.

“I’m kind of a night owl,” Sun said, yawning. A lot of people in Vacuo were, simply because the desert cooled down in the evening and that was when walking and breathing didn’t make you want to die. Until it got too cold, like it was now, and you started to question whether it was a good idea to go around with your shirt open all the time.

But this was;  late, even for Sun. It was almost dawn, in fact, and he had to get back to school. He didn’t want to make a bad impression his first week at Shade. Or, rather, he didn’t want to make a bad first impression even worse.

Well, this shouldn’t take long, he thought. Once they stopped their verbal sparring and started the real fight, things would go pretty smoothly. These clowns didn’t even have weapons.

“Night owl? Looks more like a monkey to me,” said Green.

“Why were you following us?” That was from Brown.

It was hard to tell because of the jumpsuit and bandanna, but Sun thought Brown might be a Faunus. He carried himself like he was taking in more of his environment and knew how to move within it. That was a trait everyone had to learn in Vacuo at some point if they wanted to last there, but it came more naturally to Faunus, like Sun. Part of it was their enhanced animal senses; part of it was the fact that they had learned to be on guard around humans and aware of their surroundings. If Brown was a Faunus, that would explain how the group had detected Sun pursuing them.

“Why were you following that woman?” Sun countered. He glanced behind them and was glad to see she’d gotten away while their attention was on him.

Pink cracked her neck. “You’re about to find out.”

“Okay, go ahead and tell me. That’s why I asked.” Sun waited a beat. “Oh, was that meant to be a threat? You should have followed it up with something menacing, like shaking your fist angrily.” Sun demonstrated. “Are you guys new at this?”

The group advanced toward him.

“Wait!” Sun held out his hands, and they hesitated. “I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

They looked at one another and laughed.

“It’s three against one,” Pink said.

“Really? Count again.” Sun put his hands together. He closed his eyes. And he focused. As always, he started with an image that centered him so he could use his Semblance: a desert willow, green and flourishing with white, rose, and violet flowers.

He had seen it once, when he was traveling with his clan across the vast Vacuo desert looking for a new place to live for a while, when their previous settlement had become too attractive to Grimm. Sun, only seven at the time, had been frustrated.

“We should stay and fight,” he had said. “Why don’t we?”

“Not everyone here is as strong as us.” His older cousin Starr Sanzang put a hand on his head and ruffled his spiky hair. “Or as hotheaded as you. Ow!” She yanked her hand away and shook it, pretending to blow on it.

Despite himself, Sun grinned, but he wouldn’t be so easily distracted. “I’m tired of running. We should pick a place and stay there. Keep the Grimm out.”

“We’re on our own out here,” she said. “Most of our clan doesn’t know how to fight, and they aren’t interested in learning. It’s not how we do things.”

“Maybe if they had learned, my—” Sun swallowed. “More of them would be alive.” He hated the way his voice trembled. Starr pretended not to notice.

“One day what you want may come to pass. But not today. Try to get some rest.”

He took her advice, the way he usually did, but just as he drifted off to sleep he spotted the tree. Its leaves had a golden glow in the evening sun. The sight had filled him with a strange peace, and a sense of purpose, that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

That’s the perfect place to stop, he had thought. I would defend a place like that to my death. Why are we still going?

He drifted off to sleep, and when he woke, he asked Starr about the tree. She didn’t know what he was talking about. No one did. It seemed no one else had seen it, either.

“You must have dreamed it,” she had said. “It sounds like a nice dream.”

“I didn’t,” Sun insisted. “It was real.” But from that time on, the tree had been his alone. He remembered every detail of it vividly, too vividly for it to have come from his imagination. He remembered it better than he did his parents’ faces. And whenever he pictured it, he felt that calm again, that purpose. It had led him to discovering his Semblance, Via Sun.

Two glowing clones of Sun flared into existence, one facing Pink and the second squaring off against Green. That left Brown—whom he figured was both the leader of the group and the most dangerous. Why? Because he was hiding the most.

Brown slashed a hand toward Sun. “Take him.”

“Which one?” Green asked.

“The real one,” Pink said. “These are just flashy illusions.”

Sun directed one of his clones to punch Pink in the face.

She blinked and looked more annoyed than hurt.

“That’s no illusion!” Green reached for clone Two.

Sun’s clones were physical manifestations of his Aura, every bit as capable of inflicting damage as he was. But it could be difficult to control them, especially while he was fighting. They were better suited to giving him the element of surprise, extra pairs of hands, or emergency backup when he needed it.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t sustain them long, and they couldn’t take much damage, as they drew Aura from Sun himself. If he kept them going too long, or tried to create too many clones, it usually weakened the Aura shield protecting him. But he’d improved a lot with training, and his Semblance was a lot stronger than it used to be.

Sun whipped out his gunchucks, Ruyi Bang and Jingu Bang, spinning them as he and Brown circled each other slowly. At the same time, Sun was fighting Pink and Green through his clones. Pink was some kind of boxer, dancing around and jabbing with her fists, which One was managing to block. Meanwhile, Green was trying to grab Two and wrestle him to the ground.

Brown had some kind of martial arts training similar to Sun’s—but he wasn’t nearly as good. Sun leaned back as Brown did a high roundhouse kick; he felt a breeze as his opponent’s booted foot swept past his nose with a lot of power behind it. Sun flicked his right gunchuck to loop it around Brown’s ankle and pulled him out of his stance, hitting him with the closed gunchuck in his left hand. The man took the full blow, but it didn’t even faze him.

Sun continued to pull Brown by his leg, using the momentum to spin him around in a circle. But the man quickly regained control and twisted in the opposite direction, yanking Sun toward him. Brown grabbed Sun’s shoulders and pushed him facedown into his knee. Sun saw a rainbow of colors. Clones One and Two fizzled out.

Oh, that hurts.

Brown kicked Ruyi Bang out of Sun’s hand, and his partners closed in on Sun. Sun used Jingu Bang to fire a Dust round at Pink, but the woman went kind of blurry all around the edges and Sun’s shots went right through her.

That’s a neat trick, Sun thought. He ran toward the wall of a building, and as they turned to face him he flipped over their heads to land behind them. He grabbed his fallen gunchuck and merged the two weapons together into a staff. He twirled it lazily in front of him.

Sun went for Brown again, but this time, no matter what he did, he couldn’t quite land a blow on him. His punches and kicks were practically sliding past the guy, just a fraction of a second too late to make contact. It was as if Sun were playing a video game with a busted controller.

The same held true for Brown’s attacks. Sun thought he was dodging them, but again, just a moment too late. And the hits were adding up.

Pretty soon, Sun really was moving more slowly. His Aura was creeping into the danger zone, and if he pushed it too hard it would break, leaving him vulnerable to serious injury. He couldn’t take much more of this.

Now Green stepped up. Sun used his staff to pole vault toward him, landing his feet against the guy’s chest and springing backward. He swept his staff toward Pink, making a solid hit that knocked her into Green. They both went down.

Sun pivoted and swung toward Brown, who took the blow without even trying to block it. But Sun felt the shock of the impact vibrate up the staff and into his bones. Brown grabbed the end of Sun’s staff and pushed him backward.

Sun fell but spun around on his back and scrambled to his feet. He planted the staff in the ground, suddenly aware that he needed it to hold himself up. He breathed heavily.

Oh crap, Sun thought. I’m losing. How am I actually losing?

“Is that all you’ve got?” Sun gasped. “I’ve fought stronger guys than you.” They were nothing compared to the Atlesian Paladins at Beacon.

Idiot, don’t think about that, Sun thought.

Okay, the White Fang on Menagerie. Sun had taken on dozens of those guys at once. Though these three had more impressive Semblances.

“Bigger opponents, too,” Sun said. There was that Sea Feilong, on a freaking ocean no less. Yeah, his friend Blake Belladonna had helped him a teeny bit, but he could have handled it on his own if he had to. Just like now.

“I definitely haven’t fought anyone uglier than you, though, so you’ve got me there,” Sun taunted. “I mean, I’m just assuming because of the masks.”

“You talk too much,” Pink said.

“I get that a lot.”

“Enough!” Brown, Pink, and Green closed in.

Here we go. Sun dug his feet in and gripped his staff. No way he was going to let these chumps take him down after everything he’d been through. Not on his home turf. Though it could be their home turf, too.

He was starting to wish he’d brought some friends with him.

Suddenly Sun saw a flash of light, and a glowing trident landed in front of Pink, Green, and Silver. They all stared at it for a moment in surprise, then electric energy burst from it and shocked them, holding them immobile.

Neptune? Sun thought, recognizing his friend’s weapon. But it was made of hard-light energy, which meant that it was just a copy of Tri-Hard, which meant …

Great. Team CFVY (coffee) was here.

The charge faded, along with the trident itself. Tendrils of electricity crackled over the thugs. They shook it off.

“Seriously? How much can you take?” Sun said.

“More than you can dish out,” Pink said.

“That was just the appetizer,” someone called from above. Sun recognized the voice, but he’d rarely heard her sound so confident. Defiant. He glanced up and saw rabbit ears silhouetted against the bright, broken moon.

Velvet Scarlatina leaped down from a low rooftop and landed lightly next to Sun.

“Just wait until dessert!” Yatsuhashi Daichi rushed out of the shadows and sent Brown flying into a wall. A spray of sand settled over the baddies. Of course the big guy was there; wherever Velvet was, Yatsuhashi was close behind.

“Hey, Sun,” Velvet said.

Sun smiled. “Nice entrance. Did you two rehearse that?” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Yatsuhashi say so many words at once.

“Later,” Yatsuhashi grunted.

That was more like it.

Velvet hefted her camera. “Need some backup?”

“Nah, I got it under control,” Sun said. “But since you’re already here, if you wanna get in on this …” He gestured toward the three opponents. “Knock yourself out. Better yet, knock them out.”

Yatsuhashi drew his greatsword, while Velvet summoned hard-light copies of Scarlet David’s gun, Hook, and his cutlass, Darling. She was favoring weapons from Team SSSN (sun) tonight, which Sun doubted was a coincidence.

Velvet nodded toward the enemy, her ears dipping. “Time for a little street cleaning.”

“Come on, you’ve been practicing quips, haven’t you?” Sun said.

The three students rushed toward the three bad guys. Sun once again faced off against Brown, while Yatsuhashi took on Green and Velvet sparred with Pink.

Sun had seen Velvet in combat only a few times. She was whipping out a whole set of moves he didn’t know she had in her, some of them clearly informed by Scarlet’s fighting style. However Pink’s Semblance worked, it seemed she could only phase out against attacks briefly—Velvet was managing to hit her over and over again with her hard-light sword. Even so, Pink barely seemed hurt.

Meanwhile, Yatsuhashi had Green pressed below his massive blade, the squat thug holding it inches away from his face with his bare hands. The goon’s Aura should have been dropping fast, but he remained on his feet.

And Brown still seemed fresh for the battle, too. Sun had pushed him up against a wall, giving him a beating, but Sun was going to wear himself out before his foe did.

“Screw this,” Brown said. “Smoke them!”

“Uh. What’s—” Yatsuhashi started to speak but then he began coughing. Sun saw smoke pouring out of Green’s skin, which reminded him of the way Grimm disintegrated into black vapor. Then Sun smelled it.

“Ugh! That’s gross!” He began coughing, too, and his eyes teared up.

“You got lucky, monkeyboy,” Green said as he walked off, his companions following him through the cloud of foul vapor. “This time.”

“No, you got lucky!” Sun choked.

Lucky more of my friends didn’t show up, he thought. Then he coughed some more.

With Green and his awful stench gone, along with Pink and Brown, the air soon cleared and they were able to breathe again.

“So that’s why they were wearing gas masks!” Sun gasped.

“Something else was strange about them,” Yatsuhashi noted. “As if they were … invincible.”

“Right?” Sun said. “Glad it wasn’t just me.”

“But it was just you,” Velvet said softly. “Where’s your team?”

“Oh, you know, back at Shade. Sleeping or studying probably. Doing something responsible.”

“Do they know where you are?” Velvet asked.

Sun stalked off, heading back toward Shade. “What is this? A therapy session? A lecture? Where’s the rest of Team CFVY?”

Velvet and Yatsuhashi followed him.

“Coco and Fox are doing the same thing we were when we found you. Patrolling the city,” Velvet said.

Sun bristled at the implication that Velvet and Yatsuhashi had rescued him. Showing up those hotshots out in the desert had been one of the best moments of his life. CFVY’s reputation had apparently preceded them to Shade Academy, where they had relocated after their original school, Beacon Academy, had fallen to Grimm over a year ago. In their first two years at Beacon, they had stood out as the best of the best, but they had a lot more competition in Vacuo, which hardened students into the toughest Huntsmen and Huntresses—unless it broke them.

Arriving at Shade with Team CFVY, having helped them complete their rescue mission, had immediately elevated Sun’s team—Team SSSN—to lofty heights.

But now here was Team CFVY—half of it, anyway—bailing him out. At least Velvet wasn’t the kind of person to rub it in. If Scarlet, Sage, and Neptune heard about this, they’d never let him live it down. And his teammates already had plenty to hold over his head.

He wondered when they were going to get over it. So what if Sun had gone off to do his own thing for a while? That was just the kind of guy he was; he had to go where he was needed. The gang had been back together for weeks now, but it still hadn’t blown over. Scarlet was acting bossier than usual, and Sage had been giving Sun the silent treatment. At least Neptune always had his back, but something seemed to be off with him, too, no matter how much he insisted that everything was fine.

“Want to tell me what you guys are doing out patrolling so late?” Sun said.

Yatsuhashi looked around. “Not really.”

Velvet was a little more forthcoming. “We’re looking for the Crown.”

“The Crown?” Sun asked. “Is that what you’re calling them now?” It was a lot better than Carmine and Bertilak’s mysterious employer, anyway.

“We’ve been hearing that name more and more,” Velvet said. “We think that whoever they are, they’re the ones gathering people with powerful Semblances. We’ve been digging for more information about them, and keeping an eye out for Carmine and Bertilak.”

The rogue Huntsmen team of Carmine Esclados and Bertilak Celadon had escaped from the authorities shortly after CFVY and SSSN had delivered them to Coquina, one of the few settlements in Vacuo with a prison and court.

Velvet was worried the duo would return to kidnap her friend Gus Caspian, whose Semblance made it possible for him to bring down entire settlements single-handedly. Gus could amplify negative emotions, and that negativity summoned creatures of Grimm, the dark manifestations of evil that roamed the world with the sole purpose of destroying humans and Faunus.

“You know, you have a powerful Semblance, too,” Velvet pointed out. “You shouldn’t be out here alone, Sun.”

Sun rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m used to it,” he said. “Besides, the guys are still a little annoyed with me for ditching them.”

“To chase a girl,” Yatsuhashi added.

“It wasn’t like that.” Not entirely. “Blake needed a friend.”

“And your team needed you,” Velvet said firmly. “After everything we saw at Beacon, with everything going on in Mistral—”

“They were fine.”

“But you’re their leader,” Yatsuhashi said.

“They’ll come around.”

“Maybe you would be able to regain their trust if you didn’t keep running off without them,” Yatsuhashi added, sheathing his greatsword.

Sun narrowed his eyes. “I liked you better when you didn’t say much.” He sighed. “You think they don’t trust me?”

Velvet looked at the ground. “What were you doing out here, anyway?”

“I saw those three following a woman. I thought she might need help.”

Yatsuhashi smirked.

“Really!” Sun said. “Since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to reconnect with some of my old friends. But a lot of them are … gone.”

“It’s Vacuo,” Yatsuhashi said. “Fox says people leave every day.”

Sun shook his head. “They didn’t leave. They just vanished.”

“Did they have strong Semblances?” Velvet asked.

“I don’t think so. They didn’t when I knew them,” Sun said. “You know me—I’m not usually one to worry, but it bothers me that so many people are missing and the police aren’t even looking for them.”

“It sounds like the police haven’t been all that reliable,” Velvet said. “They probably couldn’t hold things together without Headmaster Theodore and Huntsmen helping keep the peace.”

“Anyway, aren’t you supposed to survive on your own here?” Yatsuhashi asked.

Sun was always explaining how things worked in Vacuo. “A lot of people assume that. Yes, being able to survive on your own isn’t just a skill here, it’s a necessity. But that doesn’t mean you turn away from helping others if you can, or let your own people fend for themselves. Vacuans still watch out for their tribe. At least they’re supposed to.” That’s why he’d stepped in to help that woman.

“Speaking of survival skills, do you know where we’re going?” Yatsuhashi asked.

“You don’t?” Sun asked.

Velvet and Yatsuhashi glanced at each other. Then they shook their heads.

Sun laughed. “Thanks. That makes me feel better.”

“It’s dark … ,” Velvet said.

“You can see just as well as I can,” Sun said. Though it wasn’t true for all Faunus, Velvet and Sun’s Faunus eyes gave them excellent night vision. “And it’s a full moon.”

“This city seems like it’s all alleys. None of the streets make sense,” Yatsuhashi said.

“That’s because it is all alleys.” It wasn’t like the city was planned out, like Vale, or engineered, like Atlas. When he first came here, Sun had learned that the city just kind of happened. People settled wherever they stopped moving, and the city sprouted up gradually around Shade Academy wherever houses and buildings fit, typically clustered around the small oases and patches of greenery that were too stubborn to give in to the desert.

The city of Vacuo had some order to it, with different districts for residences and businesses, and a wide street down the center for the market. But the outer edges of it were periodically wiped out, because of sandstorms or sinkholes or earthquakes. Occasionally a big enough Grimm burrowed under the wall, churned up the sand, and knocked everything down. Or Ravagers would attack from above. A rare, heavy rainstorm might last for days—a mixed blessing that both brought water and washed shelters away. None of this was bad luck, it was just life—and death—in Vacuo.

Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to get oriented right now. “To find Shade, you literally just have to look up, and there it is,” Sun said.

Buildings in the city were usually no more than a few stories tall, which gave you a clear view of the terraced fortress in the middle, the site of Shade Academy and the Cross Continental Transmit (CCT) tower. It loomed high over the desert, tall enough to be viewed for miles around. During the day, wide awnings were extended from its walls on all sides, providing broad coverage and relief from the harsh sun.

“Seeing it is one thing,” Yatsuhashi said. “Getting there is another.”

“You’ll be glad for it if the city is ever invaded,” Sun said.

“Who would invade the city of Vacuo?” Yatsuhashi asked in disbelief.

Sun snapped, “Who would invade Beacon? Or Haven?”

A dark look crossed Velvet’s face.

“Besides, people have attempted it before,” Sun said.

“Back when Vacuo had something valuable, like Dust,” Yatsuhashi said.

Sun whistled low. “Spoken like a true outsider. If you don’t want to turn Vacuans against you, you’ll stop making comments like that.”

Yatsuhashi looked away.

“Anyway, whoever’s behind the attacks on the academies will get around to us eventually, if Blake and her friends can’t stop them first.” Sun’s money was on Team RWBY (ruby), or it would be if he had any money. The last time he’d seen them, a few months ago, they were taking the Argus Limited to Atlas. They were probably there now, living a life of luxury.

“I hope they’re okay,” Velvet said. “Wherever they are.”

“They can take care of themselves, now that they’re back together,” Sun reassured them.

But Velvet and Yatsuhashi had a point about Team SSSN. Sun had to make sure his own team was okay, now that they were back together, too. Since he’d been back with them, and hauled them halfway across Remnant to Vacuo, he felt like he didn’t quite fit in anymore. It seemed like the team had been just fine without him, and now he was messing everything up.

Okay, it was true he’d been keeping them at a distance. No wonder he felt out of step with them. But was it more than that? he sometimes wondered. Maybe what Team SSSN needed was something to bring them back together.

“We’ll help you,” Sun said impulsively.

“We?” Yatsuhashi asked.

“Help us with what?” Velvet asked.

“We, Team SSSN, will help you hunt down the Crown. More people looking means you’ll cover more ground. And besides, you need us.”

“How’s that?” Yatsuhashi asked skeptically.

“You don’t know this city the way I do. You’ve had a hard time getting information because people don’t trust you. They don’t trust outsiders—especially Huntsmen trainees from other schools who are only in Vacuo because they have nowhere else to go.”

“Ouch,” Yatsuhashi said.

Velvet elbowed him. “We’d be glad for the help.”

“We would be,” Yatsuhashi began. “But you’ll have to convince Coco first. And your teammates.”

“I’m their leader, aren’t I?” Sun asked.

Velvet and Yatsuhashi looked away.

“That wasn’t a rhetorical question. I am their leader.”

Yatsuhashi’s right eyebrow went up.

Sun stood taller and thrust out his chest, striding confidently in the direction of Shade Academy. “I totally am.”

“You can stop laughing, Coco.” Sun sighed. “Anytime.”

“I’m not laughing,” Coco said, innocently sipping her coffee.

It was surprising when Team SSSN joined Team CFVY for breakfast in the lower courtyard before class, but she was glad they had. Velvet told everyone about their misadventures the night before, and Coco would not have missed it for the world.

“Okay, stop smiling, then,” Sun said.

“I thought boys liked it when girls smiled.”

“For some reason when you do it, it isn’t friendly. It looks like a threat.”

Yatsuhashi nodded solemnly.

“You have to admit,” Neptune Vasilias told Sun, “you getting beat up by three random thugs, on your own turf, is pretty funny. Wish I’d been there.”

From the hard edge in Neptune’s voice, Coco wondered if he meant he wished he’d been there to watch more than help. But she doubted Sun had the awareness to see that. And from the way Sun’s other teammate Sage Ayana was glaring at him, she guessed that he understood where Neptune was coming from. Last night wasn’t just about Sun being wacky old Sun—it was another example of him putting himself before his team.

“I’m telling you: There was something really weird about those guys!” Sun protested. “They were unbeatable.”

The news that Velvet and Yatsuhashi had saved Sun had pretty much made Coco’s morning. It restored some of the balance that had been lost since Team SSSN had come to Shade, gloating that they had rescued CFVY on their mission last month.

“Rescued” was a strong word, Coco thought. They had certainly assisted, and she was grateful. But SSSN’s bragging had not only taken the shine off CFVY’s reputation—it had fed brewing resentment that Coco and the others had been getting from some students at Shade. Despite CFVY’s reputation and demonstrated awesomeness, the native Vacuans called them weak for abandoning Beacon Academy. Now it felt like CFVY had to prove themselves with every assignment, every mission, and SSSN didn’t make that any easier.

Coco was more than a little hesitant to accept Sun’s offer to help them track down the Crown. He had a habit of attaching himself to better teams, like RWBY, to make up for the fact that he and his own team were mediocre at best. They had potential, Coco thought, but they needed a strong leader—and Sun wasn’t it. What kind of leader abandoned their team, especially after what they’d been through at Beacon?

Sun was too unstable, too unreliable, for her to want to partner with him and his team. She didn’t even like eating with SSSN, usually. Team CFVY worked best on their own, because they trusted one another completely.

“Look, Sun, I’m sorry about your missing friends,” Coco said. “And I appreciate your offer to team up. But the only help we need right now is from Headmaster Theodore and Professor Rumpole.” She was certain that was the best way to track down the Crown, if the two of them would ever respond.

Unfortunately, Rumpole, Theodore’s right hand, had been brushing off Team CFVY lately. After their mission debriefing last month, Coco had requested a meeting with the headmaster to discuss the Crown, but they still hadn’t heard anything. Either Rumpole hadn’t passed on the message or Theodore didn’t think it was worth his time. Coco was trying to be patient, but Team CFVY wasn’t waiting around.

Scarlet David lifted his head. He’d been listening, not saying much. Coco got the feeling he wasn’t particularly enjoying being at Shade. Vacuo was a bit of an acquired taste and took some getting used to, especially after everything he’d been through—losing both Beacon and Haven to the same people, whoever it was who had been working with the White Fang.

This enemy was a threat, clearly, but so was the Crown. Why couldn’t Theodore see the urgency?

“Hold on,” Scarlet said. “Are you saying you don’t have permission to investigate the Crown?”

“We don’t not have permission,” Fox Alistair said.

“We don’t have explicit orders to pursue the Crown, no,” Coco said. “But I see this as an extension of our original mission to support the Schist refugees. It’s unfinished business.” Carmine and Bertilak were still out there, and the Crown—if that’s who they were working for—still posed a danger.

Why did the Crown need so many people with powerful Semblances? Coco wondered. She doubted the Crown was collecting them to perform petty crimes. And it was taking away people who could become valuable Huntsmen one day—people who might be needed if there was ever a full-on attack on Shade.

“But it is our business,” Coco added. “We don’t need you. No offense.”

Scarlet stood. “Why would I take offense?” he asked. “Just because you think you’re too good for us.”

Coco glanced at her team. Velvet avoided looking at her, which meant she wasn’t on the same page this time. Yatsuhashi looked uncomfortable, but he kind of always did during personal conflicts. And Fox—

“It wouldn’t hurt to have some reinforcements,” Fox sent, using his telepathic Semblance, presumably just to her.

“I don’t disagree,” Coco sent back. “If it was the right team.”

“That’s fine. We hadn’t even discussed this yet, since Sun only sprang the idea on us this morning,” Scarlet said.

Coco blinked. Sometimes it took her a second to process things when she was having a telepathic conversation with Fox in the middle of a regular conversation with other people. Was Scarlet saying Team SSSN wasn’t offering to help? Did SSSN even have a plan?

“We’ll let you know when we need backup,” Coco added. “This is a major problem, and I don’t understand why Theodore and Rumpole don’t see that finding the Crown should be Shade’s biggest priority right now.”

“Theo has a lot on his mind,” Sun announced.

“Theo?” Coco repeated incredulously.

“Headmaster Theodore,” Sun said.

“I know who you meant. I didn’t know that you were on such familiar terms with him. You just got here.”

“And you’re not exactly the best and brightest student at Shade,” she added silently.

“Harsh,” Fox sent.

Okay, so she hadn’t thought it silently enough.

“But fair,” Fox added.

“When we arrived, Theodore wanted an update on everything that went down in Mistral,” Sun said. “He asked why we came to Shade instead of waiting for Haven to reopen.”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” Sage said quietly.

“Hey, I agreed to come because you talked up how much fun Vacuo is,” Neptune said.

“Has Vacuo been fun so far?” Sage asked.

“Not really.” Neptune’s eyes widened. “Sun tricked me?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Scarlet said.

“Look, we need to get ready for whatever’s coming,” Sun said. “This is the best place for that.” His tail swished angrily.

It pained Coco to admit it, but she agreed with Sun. Just this once.

“There’s a difference between the best place and the only place,” Scarlet grumbled. “Beacon’s gone—”

“For now,” Velvet said.

Scarlet rolled his eyes—or at least, the one eye that wasn’t covered by his red hair. “Sure. And with Atlas’s borders closed, Shade Academy is the only place to train. I wouldn’t call that a choice.”

Sun rose from his seat and faced Scarlet. “You do have a choice. You can stay or you can go.”

“I’m not the one who has a problem staying in one place,” Scarlet retorted.

“Harsh,” Fox sent again. This time to Coco, Velvet, and Yatsuhashi.

“Come on, guys. Can we not do this?” Neptune said.

“At least not in front of other teams,” Sage muttered.

Yatsuhashi pushed his plate away, most of his breakfast still uneaten. Velvet’s ears wilted, matching her downcast expression.

This was no good, Coco thought. Team SSSN’s dysfunction was affecting her team’s morale.

“Can we get back to Theodore?” Coco said. “Sun, why do you think he isn’t worried about the Crown?”

“He’s focused on the bigger picture. Shade could be attacked at any moment.”

“Keeping us in the dark isn’t going to help anyone,” Coco said.

“You keep forgetting,” Scarlet scoffed. “We’re just students.”

“We’re already better than a lot of trained Huntsmen,” Coco said.

“But we still have a lot to learn. And we’ve already failed to defend one school.”

Coco corrected him. “We were all taken by surprise. Haven fared better.”

“Most of us weren’t even there, and I still wouldn’t call that a win,” Scarlet replied.

Coco shook her head and repeated her point. “We need to see the headmaster. He may be too preoccupied to look into the Crown, but he also can’t ignore it. He just needs to take us seriously.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Sun said.

She threw up her hands. “I don’t want you to do anything!”

“Hey. I’m trying to help,” Sun said.

“You say Vacuans won’t trust us without you, but you’re wrong. When we were out there in the desert—”

“City Vacuans are different from desert Vacuans,” Sun said. “Besides, Slate vouched for you. That’s probably why people gave you a chance.”

“I thought it didn’t matter where you’re from as long as you can survive in Vacuo,” Velvet said quietly.

Sun looked at her and his face softened. “That’s true—to an extent. But resentment of the other kingdoms still runs deep here.”

Fox nodded. “That’s true,” he said aloud, for Team SSSN’s benefit. “Beacon students may have been accepted, grudgingly, because Vale was the only kingdom to side with Vacuo in the Great War. But Headmaster Theodore’s decision to welcome us clearly wasn’t popular. Judging by the reactions of some of our fellow students.”

“The Great War again.” Coco shook her head. “Ancient history. Let it go.”

“Easy for you to say,” Sun said. “But have you let go of what happened to Beacon?” He sat down and put his hands together. “You. Need. Us.”

“I agree with Sun,” Neptune said.

“Of course you do.” Scarlet crossed his arms.

Neptune’s face grew red. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Coco leaned back. “These guys think they can help us when they can’t even help themselves?” she sent to the group.

“Maybe they need our help,” Yatsuhashi sent.

“They definitely do. Besides, you know Sun is going to get involved no matter what you decide,” Fox said. “Just like you would.”

Coco pursed her lips. Her teammates knew how to get what they wanted. But it wasn’t manipulation as long as she knew they were manipulating her, right? Really, they were just saying things she already knew, things she needed to hear, to come to a decision that was best for the whole team. And for Shade Academy and Vacuo and anyone who might fall prey to the Crown as well.

“What do you think, Velvet?” Coco sent.

Velvet was quiet for a while before she lifted her eyes and looked directly at Coco. She smiled. “I like proving people wrong.”

“Me too,” Coco sent.

While they were having their private conversation, Sun, Scarlet, Sage, and Neptune had reached a new level of anger.

“Just because Team CFVY wants to do something doesn’t make it important,” Scarlet shouted.

Coco slowly rose from her seat, and the boys fell silent. She had to admit she liked that. She had seen the kind of respect that leaders like Slate commanded, and okay, this was probably more fear than respect, but still, Coco would take it.

“Stopping the Crown is important because it will help people,” Coco said. “That’s what we do. That’s what we’re training to do. And if we can’t help others, whenever we can, however we can—then what are we here for?”

“We should focus more on our training—becoming the best Huntsmen we can,” Scarlet said. “Anything else is a distraction. And I don’t like going behind Rumpole’s back.”

Sage nodded. “The best way to help Shade when they come after us is to be prepared to defend it. Better than we were at Beacon.”

Coco took off her sunglasses. She looked around the table. She still had to convince them.

“We need one another,” she said. “We’re among the few who know what we’re up against, because we were there at Beacon, and we fought. And we lost. You guys were at Haven. We know what’s …” She gestured vaguely. “Out there. And how much it can threaten what we have here. We have our history, too—but we also have one another.”

She put her sunglasses back on. Team SSSN really needed to get their act together, but CFVY had been there once before, and she knew a little about the challenge of winning back her team’s trust.

There was no denying that Sun had access to resources that would help them track down the Crown. It made sense to combine their efforts—if only to make sure Sun didn’t get in their way, or to make sure Scarlet didn’t rat them out to Rumpole.

“We’re stronger together.” Coco smiled in what she hoped wasn’t a creepy way. This whole “accepting help” thing wasn’t exactly her style.

Scarlet opened his mouth, but Coco held up a hand to stop him from speaking. “And I will talk to Professor Rumpole after class to make sure she’s on board. To make this an official assignment. Okay?”

Scarlet closed his mouth. He nodded.

Coco glanced at Sun, but he was pointedly looking away from Scarlet.

“Speaking of class,” Velvet said. “We’re late.”

“And those who miss history are doomed to repeat it,” Fox said.

Coco stifled a yawn and sat straighter in her seat, trying to make a good impression on Professor Rumpole, even though it might already be too late for that. When Team CFVY had walked in a few minutes late—heads still held high—Rumpole merely shook her head and continued lecturing about the origins of the Dust trade two hundred years ago. Some might have called it grandstanding, which CFVY had been accused of before, but the team had an image to maintain.

Coco had mastered the delicate art of balancing respect for authority with a certain level of disdain for rules. Or, at least, she had at Beacon. She hadn’t been Professor Glynda Goodwitch’s favorite student—if she even played favorites—but at the same time, Goodwitch and Headmaster Ozpin knew the team had talent. CFVY sometimes got a pass on breaking the rules if things worked out in the end.

She’d had her share of disciplinary meetings, of course, but Coco had actually appreciated the feedback. In retrospect, it had made her a better Huntress and a better leader. If only she could have finished her training at Beacon like she had always planned.

Here she was getting nothing. No one held your hand at Shade Academy if you needed help, but they were quick to slap it if you fell out of line. No one high-fived you for good work, either.

Maybe they expected that if you were doing well, you knew it, and that was all you needed? Fox had tried explaining that in Vacuo, you didn’t do things for praise—you did them to survive. Coco didn’t see why it couldn’t be both.

“I don’t need praise,” Coco had retorted. But she did need something to gauge her performance. A wink or a thumbs-up or a medal for exceptional service. She wasn’t asking for much.

Fox had laughed out loud, startling students in the library who had no idea they were carrying on a silent conversation. Fox’s telepathy came in handy for more than coordinating fights with Grimm.

“You do need praise,” Fox had sent. “No one spends as much time in front of a mirror as you do if they don’t care what people think of them.”

“You’re just jealous that you can’t see how awesome I am.”

“I don’t need eyesight to know you’re great, Coco. But maybe those shades of yours have been distorting how you see things. Try taking them off once in a while. You’d be surprised to learn there are lots of people outside of our team worthy of praise.”

“Bzzt!” Fox’s voice jolted Coco awake. She had nodded off in class. Too many late nights patrolling with nothing to show for it.

She glanced to her left, where he was sitting. “Thanks,” she sent. Velvet choked back a giggle on her other side.

An 8 a.m. history class seemed unnecessarily cruel, but Rumpole herself had never seemed cruel. Demanding, yes. Harsh, often. Stylish? Definitely. She reminded Coco of herself, which was maybe why Coco liked the professor despite her frustrations. Besides Goodwitch, she was the only other Huntress that Coco wanted approval from, but in that way the two women were similar: Showing approval wasn’t really their thing.

Coco considered what Fox had said. She pulled her glasses off and sat forward, wondering if she would really see things differently without them. On the edge of her vision she noticed Velvet casting a questioning look her way.

No one knew where Professor Rumpole was originally from, but like most people who lived in Vacuo—who didn’t use the right skin care—Rumpole had a deep tan. It was hard to tell how old she was, but she seemed young, first because she was short—about four feet tall—and also because of her fine features and mischievous expression.

Her sandy brown hair reached her ankles, in a long braid bound by golden cord. She had a wide, squarish frame that exaggerated her shortness, and she wore brown pants with a loose, dark green tunic cinched with a brown leather belt at her waist.

But Coco’s favorite part of Rumpole’s outfit was a sleeveless long coat, dark brown and coarse on the outside with glittering flecks, like rock infused with pyrite—or perhaps cloth studded with yellow Dust—and a silky, gold lining. Coco had dreams about that coat; it must have cost a fortune. It was both rustic and gaudy, but somehow Rumpole made it all work.

Without her glasses, Coco saw the essence of Rumpole: Despite her showiness, her style was functional, all business.

And she clearly loved history—enough that her enthusiasm for the topic was almost infectious. Almost.

“And so, Vacuo was faced with a choice,” Rumpole said. “To sit out the war and take its chances that the other kingdoms would leave it alone, or side with their neighbor to the northeast—Vale.” She paused and added, “We all know how that turned out.”

“But you’re going to tell us, anyway,” Fox sent. Coco didn’t even crack a smile; she was so intent on looking interested.

“Why did they decide to ally themselves with Vale, who’d done nothing but watch as mining companies from Atlas and Mistral drew resources out of the ground, taking the Dust from Vacuo and leaving behind barren sand?” Rumpole swiveled her head back and forth. She wasn’t looking for a volunteer—there were several hands up already. She was looking for a victim.

When she noticed Coco, Rumpole zeroed in on her. “Adel. What do you think?”

Coco’s heart beat faster. No matter how many Grimm she fought, nothing was quite so terrifying as being called on in class. (Aside from dark, enclosed spaces—that was still top on her list.)

“Because no matter what their differences, Vale and Vacuo shared the continent of Sanus,” Fox sent.

“I knew that,” Coco sent back. But she repeated what he had said, word for word. She loved Fox’s Semblance. She also added a bit of her own: “Our fates are linked.”

“ ‘Our,’ ” repeated Rumpole. “Are you speaking as someone from Vale or someone living in Vacuo?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Coco said firmly. “I’m from Vale, but as long as I call Vacuo home, I’ll fight for it.”

Seemingly satisfied—and maybe even a little surprised—Rumpole turned away.

Their conversation with SSSN this morning fresh in her mind, Coco suddenly realized something. Since the news from Haven Academy had arrived, Rumpole had switched her history lessons from the establishment of Shade Academy to discussions of the Great War. That couldn’t be a coincidence. Did Rumpole think a second war was coming?

Coco raised her hand, but she didn’t even wait for permission to speak. “May I ask you a question, Professor?”

Rumpole turned back to her. She studied Coco’s face, then nodded.

“I’ve noticed you’ve switched to a different time period in your lectures recently. Shouldn’t we be going through events chronologically, starting with ancient history?”

Rumpole pressed her lips together. “When you tell a story, do you always tell it in the order that things happened? Or do you start at the end to entice the audience, and then back up to the beginning? Add little details out of sequence as they occur to you?”

Coco waited. Was she supposed to answer? No, Rumpole had more to say.

“Does that diminish the telling? I believe the best way to properly consider the past is to provide the right context for it, and sometimes you need to know how things ended up before you can consider why they turned out that way.”

Rumpole hopped up and stood on her desk, which she often used as a stage, or a soapbox. At Beacon, all the classrooms were lecture halls with tiered seats, so the professors were always center stage. Here at Shade, though, student desks were arranged in a circle around each teacher’s desk, placing students and professors on the same level, and theoretically facilitating discussion.

“But I’m also not sure what you mean by ‘ancient history,’ ” Rumpole continued, now towering above her class. “That could be subjective. I am sure that, to some of you, things that happened even fifty years ago might feel like ancient history, while something more recent—say the Fall of Beacon—doesn’t feel like the past at all.”

That was a cheap shot, Coco thought. From the way Velvet and some of their classmates who had fought at the Battle of Beacon—Iris Marilla, Reese Chloris, and Bolin Hori—shifted in their seats, she knew they felt uncomfortable, too.

Vacuans, it seemed, cherished their history but kept their focus on their future. It was one of the many contradictions that made it harder for Coco to adapt to the culture.

“Pay attention to people’s reactions,” Coco sent to Fox, trusting him to pass it on to Yatsuhashi and Velvet.

“It’s just that I’m curious what life was like in Vacuo before the war and the Vytal Peace Accords,” Coco continued. “Before the Dust companies destroyed it.”

She heard grumbling from some of her classmates, but Coco pressed on. “What was it like when monarchies ruled the four kingdoms, when the crown was the center of authority in Vacuo?”

Rumpole couldn’t have missed the significance of Coco’s question, but she didn’t show it. “I see. This happens to be one of my particular areas of interest, but I’m afraid much of that knowledge has been lost in Vacuo thanks to conquest and war. We can only guess at what life was like for those who lived in a paradise filled with verdant life, with a formalized government and royalty. Few documented accounts or records remain from that far back—though some families have claimed otherwise over the years.”

After Rumpole dismissed class for the day, with an assignment to write a lengthy essay on the causes of the Great War, Coco, Fox, Yatsuhashi, and Velvet hung back. When the rest of the students had departed, Rumpole addressed Team CFVY.

“I don’t have an answer to your real question, Adel,” she said. “I haven’t even spoken to the headmaster about your request yet.”

Coco couldn’t believe it. “Why not?” she demanded. “The Crown is important, and we’ve also been hearing about widespread disappearances throughout the city.”

Rumpole hopped to her feet and hooked her thumbs over her belt. “It’s up to me to determine if it’s important enough to bring to Theodore. He has been preoccupied lately.”

“You mean with the attacks on the other academies? I understand his concern, but does he really think anyone is going to attack Vacuo right now? The kingdoms have already taken everything it has,” Coco said in frustration.

Rumpole took a deep breath. “If you think Dust is all Vacuo has to offer, then what are you doing here? After your response this morning, I had hoped you thought better of your new home than that.”

Coco wasn’t about to back down on this one—it might be the last chance she got to make her case. “I do think highly of Vacuo, and that’s why I’m worried about what’s going on here. Right now. Instead of what might happen tomorrow.”

“That’s a luxury you have as a Huntress in training. Theodore has to be concerned with both today and tomorrow. And all the days that follow. It falls to him to keep our academy and students safe above all else,” Rumpole said flatly. “Which is why I’m investigating this ‘Crown’ personally, and will report my findings and recommendations to him—in due time. Not when it’s convenient for you.”

“You’ve been investigating the Crown?” Coco said. “We can help!”

Rumpole sighed. “Of course you can. It’s only because of your team that we know about them at all, and if your suspicions are true, we will have to deal with the situation sooner or later. But I can’t officially assign you to the case without drawing undue attention to it, or running my few leads to ground.”

She paused to let that sink in, then added a warning. “And if I ever find out that you’ve been continuing to investigate the situation on your own, I would have to report that to Theodore immediately. While he doesn’t believe in coddling his students—”

Fox snickered.

Coco might have imagined it, but Rumpole’s mouth twitched in a half smile. “He does intend to protect you all. Even teams as capable as CFVY.”

Wow, is she actually praising us? Coco thought.

“The headmasters of the other schools have been reckless, negligent, or overprotective. Theo’s first priority will always be helping you reach your full potential, making you strong enough to survive anything that comes your way. He has your best interest in mind, no matter where you come from or where you started your training. Who else can say that?” Rumpole spread her hands. “Give us some time.”

Coco nodded. “Okay, that seems fair,” she conceded. “Until we start to run out of time.” She put her sunglasses back on.

Rumpole drew her coat closed and looked at the door. “Now get out of here before I give you extra homework for being late to class.”

Coco left the professor’s classroom knowing two things. One, she not only admired Rumpole but trusted her. She hadn’t been sitting around ignoring Team CFVY’s warnings—she had been out there taking quiet action.

Which led to the second thing: Coco wanted Rumpole as a mentor. Just think what she could learn before she graduated Shade!

“So I guess that’s it,” Yatsuhashi said, processing what they had learned. “She’s onto us. We have to stop what we’re doing or she’s going to tell Headmaster Theodore.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Fox sent.

“We can’t stop now!” Velvet said.

“We aren’t going to, and Rumpole doesn’t want us to,” Coco said. “She told us she knows we can handle ourselves, but if we get too much attention and she’s forced to act, she’ll have to report us to Theodore.”

“She basically told us to be careful,” Fox sent.

“Oh,” Yatsuhashi said. “Are you sure she said all that?”

“It’s Vacuo,” Coco said. “Nothing is ever what it seems.”

Velvet was glad that Sun was helping them now, if only because it was nice to have someone who knew how to get around the city. It kept changing so much, it was difficult to map the streets on Scrolls, and she kept getting lost on their nightly patrols. Like so much in Vacuo, you just had to get used to it … or ask people for directions.

Only, nothing advertised you were an outsider more than asking for directions. Sometimes people would point them the wrong way just to mess with them.

Sun moved so quickly through the labyrinth of unpaved streets and shadowed alleys that Velvet and the others had to hurry to keep up. At night, those narrow passages were a nightmare to navigate, even dangerous depending on who was lurking in them. Velvet preferred to travel across the low rooftops whenever possible, which made it less likely that she would get turned around.

But in the daytime, she saw that there was some order and reason to the crowded buildings. Even though the brick and stone structures were usually no more than a few stories tall, they cast shadows that helped cool you as you traveled. It was a walking city, not that large from end to end but with a lot packed in. The only quiet time was midday, when the sun was highest and hottest and all the shops shut down for a couple of hours.

“You know this place so well. Did you grow up here?” Velvet asked Sun as she followed him.

“My family and I moved around a lot,” he said. “My dad didn’t like the city. I didn’t come here till I was older.”

Out in the desert, Velvet knew, clans rarely settled in one place for long unless there was some reason to. A rare oasis, say, or a CCT relay—something worth defending. A place to call home, until you were forced to move on.

A lot of the philosophy of Vacuo focused on making the best of what you had for as long as you could hold on to it. Velvet glanced back at Coco, Yatsuhashi, and Fox.

“I don’t really like the city, either,” Sun said. “At least, not this one. It cramps my style, literally.”

“He likes climbing things,” Neptune offered. “The city’s too small for much climbing.” Velvet wondered how he could have forgiven Sun, sticking by him like nothing had happened. Scarlet and Sage were trailing behind the group as if trying to show they weren’t really with them.

“Didn’t you say your cousin’s dojo was around here?” Neptune asked.

Sun’s face paled.

“Ooh! Can we see it?” Velvet asked.

It was pretty clear Sun didn’t want to talk about it. “I’d rather not,” he said. “It’s probably not even here anymore. I’m not sure I remember where it used to be … the city changes so often.”

“You have family here and you haven’t told them you’re back?” Yatsuhashi asked.

Scarlet laughed. “That’s Sun for you.”

Velvet puffed out her cheeks and sighed. She was grateful that Team CFVY had worked out their past difficulties. She didn’t know what she would do without her friends. They knew one another as well as Sun knew the streets of this city.

Sun lowered his head, and his tail dragged behind him. Velvet decided to rescue him—again.

“So you don’t like the city. Is that why you decided not to attend Shade?” Velvet asked. She knew why Fox had left Vacuo for Beacon, but he hadn’t lived here the way Sun had. For Velvet, going to her local academy had made the most sense.

“No.” Sun cast a sidelong glance at her. “I left because I was tired of looking at it.” He turned around and pointed. “Wherever you turn, there it is!”

Velvet looked behind them. Sure enough, she spotted the top of Shade Academy rising above the roofs, even though she could have sworn it was west of them. She really had no sense of direction here.

Shade Academy was the exception to whatever building codes there may once have existed in the city of Vacuo. As the tallest structure for hundreds of miles around, it cast a long shadow, in more ways than one. Right now its awnings were fully extended, shielding the citizens below from the brutal sun.

The campus was surrounded by a low wall, which served mainly to mark boundaries. And perhaps to send a message, just like Scarlet and Sage were doing now: We’re a part of you, but we are separate.

Like the city itself, the academy packed in a lot—vertically—with classrooms and academic spaces in three tiers, and Headmaster Theodore’s office at the apex, which also housed the CCT transmitter. Shade Academy, and Theodore himself, were the center of everything in Vacuo—holding it all together.

“Remnant is a big place,” Sun went on. “I wanted to see more of it.”

“I spent a summer in Atlas once,” Velvet said. “Before I went to Beacon. It was … overwhelming.” So overwhelming, she had spent most of the time in her room or a community makerspace, though she did get to see her father’s lab a few times.

“Atlas is pretty amazing, eh?” Velvet’s father said.

“Yeah,” Velvet said, not looking up from her Scroll.

“Especially that giant statue of Pumpkin Pete,” he said.

“Uh-huh.” Velvet swiped at her Scroll, sending the wire schematics on the screen spinning around rapidly. She jabbed a finger to stop it, spread two fingers to expand the diagram, and frowned as she peeled it away layer by layer. Something about the projection system wasn’t quite …

“Wait, what?” Velvet lifted her head and turned from left to right, peering around. She saw a lot of silver-and-glass skyscrapers, busy streets, flying vehicles streaming through the skies, but no statue of a cartoon rabbit. Because of course there wouldn’t be one, especially not here of all places.

“Gotcha,” her father said. “I didn’t think you were listening.”

“So no Pumpkin Pete?” Velvet said.



He was quiet for a little while as they rode in the back of the Atlesian transport taking them from the train station to his apartment. Had he been hoping to impress her with that, show her what a big shot he was? That would have had exactly the wrong effect on her. Velvet wasn’t interested in spending a month with Will Scarlatina, Atlesian engineer—

Sorry, “tinkerer,” as he preferred to describe himself. She just wanted to spend time with her father. The man who had helped her build her first computer, and didn’t get angry when she stole his power tools, and made the most amazing pancakes she had ever tasted.

On the other hand, could he have turned down the military escort if he’d wanted to? Velvet’s mother said that his mind was too important—too important to risk his personal safety on public transit. Too important for him to return to Vale. Too important to be a good husband or father anymore. As long as he was helping design new top secret technologies for Atlas, that meant Velvet wasn’t important enough. She didn’t deserve his full attention, so he hardly had room to complain that he didn’t have hers.

“Just another way I’ve disappointed you, huh?” he said.

“Dad. No!” Velvet paused. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she didn’t have much to follow that up with, nothing that would convince him, anyway. It was hard to argue with the truth.

He chuckled harshly. “I thought so. I’ll talk to General Ironwood and see if we can’t commission a rabbit statue before you leave.”

“I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t want that.” Velvet smiled. From what she’d heard, the head of Atlas and its military didn’t have much of a sense of humor. She was glad they hadn’t taken that from her father at least.

“I bet it would do wonders for the tourist business.” He laughed. “I’m really glad you came to visit. We’re going to have a wonderful time.”

“Of course I came. This is the center of technology and innovation in Remnant. I’ve been wanting to visit Atlas since I first picked up a soldering iron.” Atlas was the birthplace of the CCT, Scrolls, artificial Dust types—all the things that captured Velvet’s imagination and fueled her creativity. She might have her mother’s ears, but she was her father’s daughter.

“You aren’t here because you miss me?”

“You know how you always told me there are no stupid questions?” Velvet asked.

He nodded.

“You were wrong. Because that is a stupid question. Of course I miss you.”

He smiled sadly. “I miss you, too. Every day.”

“So why don’t you come home, Dad?” she asked. A short-term military contract had turned into a year, and whenever she’d asked her mother why, her mother changed the subject—or left the room.

“Velvet.” Her father looked out the window. He pressed his fingers to the glass. “Thing is, I don’t think I am. Your mother and I don’t see things the same way anymore. Maybe we haven’t for a while and we just couldn’t admit it to ourselves.” He looked at her. “Or to you.”

His decision to work for Atlas had gone over even less well with Meg Scarlatina than it had with Velvet. Or maybe it was more the fact that he hadn’t discussed it with his family first.

“But you can work it out, right? You always say you could fix anything if you put your mind to it.”

He turned back and looked down at his hands. Opened and closed them. “Machines are easier than people.”

Velvet glanced down at her Scroll. “No argument there.”

“Text from your friends?” he asked.

What friends? Velvet thought.

She’d never managed to find her place at Pharos Combat School. She couldn’t wait until she got to Beacon Academy after the summer. It was going to be a fresh start. She was going to try harder to be more outgoing, meet more people. She just hoped she would end up with a good partner and team. She was good at planning—she could see it all in her head already. And her latest invention was going to help with all that. Which is why it was so important she get it right.

“It’s a new weapon I’m working on,” Velvet said. “For school.”

“May I?” Her father reached out for her Scroll and she passed it over. He put on his reading glasses and studied her designs. Suddenly Velvet felt anxious.

“This captures images of other weapons … and then reproduces them in hard light?” He looked up in wonder. “Velvet, this is … astonishing.”

Velvet blushed.

“Does it work?”

“I’ve built prototypes, but I don’t have enough hard-light Dust to test it extensively.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. Once James hears about this, he’ll set you up with all the Dust you need. At the military family discount.”

“James?” Velvet asked.

“Sorry. James Ironwood.” He went back to looking at her Scroll.

“You mean you really know the general?”

His face showed surprise. “Know him? I work with him. Well, technically I work for him, but it’s basically the same thing. You thought I was making that up?”

“Maybe exaggerating slightly. To impress me?”

“I see. Were you impressed?”

“I am now.”

“These projection relays are marvelous.” He pointed to one area of the schematic. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“That part’s been giving me some trouble.”

“You’ll get it. You know, I miss working on stuff like this with you. We could use you in our lab.”

Velvet wasn’t sure that would go over so well. “Mom would love that,” she said sarcastically, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. “Home isn’t the same without you. It doesn’t even feel like home.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But hey, you’ll be leaving soon, anyway. My daughter, a Huntress at Beacon Academy. I’m so proud of you, V.”


Maybe that was all Velvet needed: a new place to call home.

“I’ve never been to Atlas,” Sun said.

“I hope you’ll be able to go sometime. When all this trouble dies down,” Velvet replied.

Sun grinned. “Nah. I’m good. Too much technology there.”

“But also really tall buildings,” Neptune pointed out.

“There’s plenty to climb in Mistral,” Sun said. “More stuff like that.” He pointed, and Velvet saw a natural rock formation springing from a plaza on the outskirts of the city.

“That’s the Weeping Wall?” Coco asked. “I was expecting, I don’t know … a wall?”

The mass was technically wall-like, Velvet thought, about ten feet long and three feet thick and forty feet high. On the shady side of it, two kids had set up an old wooden crate to sell misshapen clay models of the wall.

“It isn’t weeping, either,” Neptune said. “Those aren’t tears—they’re sweat.” He wiped his brow for emphasis. Neptune was referring to a trickle of water seeping out of the rock and running down in a narrow rivulet to disappear into the crevice between the rock and pavement.

“Things aren’t named literally in Vacuo,” Sun said.

“How is it doing that?” Yatsuhashi asked as he caught up to them, the others close behind him.

“What is it doing?” Velvet asked.

“Hard to know without digging it up and ruining it in the process,” Sun said. “Which people in Vacuo are generally against, for obvious reasons. But there must be some kind of underwater reservoir beneath the stone. The rock is porous. It draws the water up and then it trickles down. Once in a while after it rains, the stone will ‘weep’ for weeks afterward.”

“I’ve heard of this,” Fox said. “People sell vials of the water, don’t they? ‘Vacuo’s Tears’ or some nonsense.”

“Why don’t they drink it instead?” Sage asked.

“Because then it would dry up and we would just have an ugly rock,” Sun said. “Some of the water evaporates, of course, but a lot of it seeps into the ground and makes its way back to the reservoir, and probably some of the local oases. It’s as close as we have to a renewable resource around here.”

“This is nice and all,” Coco said. Her tone suggested she meant the exact opposite. “But why did you want to show it to us?”

“I think it’s truly breathtaking,” Fox said.

“Wait. Aren’t you blind?” Neptune asked.

Fox turned his head toward him and didn’t say anything.

“What’s he doing?” Neptune said nervously.

“That was the joke,” Yatsuhashi explained. “Sorry. Don’t be mean, Fox.”

“Please stop staring at me,” Neptune said in a small voice. “I mean—” He covered his eyes and turned away.

Fox grinned.

“Take a closer look,” Sun said. “Come on.”

The two teams gathered on the cooler side of the stone formation. Velvet saw the base was cluttered with an assortment of stuffed animals, bunches of desert flowers, shoes. Glasses filled with water and plates of dried meat. After a moment she put it all together: This was a shrine.

Loops of thin wire were wrapped around the wall, with pictures and posters pinned to them. Some of the pages were faded, nearly blank and in tatters, while others had been freshly printed or handwritten. Many of them had the same chilling word in block letters at the top: MISSING.

Velvet whispered a description of what they were seeing to Fox, avoiding teamspeak for SSSN’s benefit. No one found out about Fox’s Semblance until he trusted them enough to let them in on it.

“What is this?” Coco asked.

“These are the missing and lost of the city of Vacuo,” Sun said. “People who have disappeared without a trace. Most of them in the last year.”

“Where’d they go?” Sage asked.

“They wouldn’t be missing if we knew where they are.” Scarlet patted Sage on the arm.

“Oh, right.”

Velvet walked along the wall, taking in all the pictures. There were so many. Children, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins. Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. These were people who had left someone behind to miss them, to mourn. To wonder what had happened to them.

“I guess they’re a low priority for Headmaster Theodore, too,” Velvet said.

“Even though people expect a lot from him, he doesn’t have complete authority,” Fox said. “And we’re still in Vacuo. Resources are limited. The Huntsmen he works with regularly have got to be stretched pretty thin already, if Rumpole has them on the lookout for the Crown.”

Velvet tried to imagine what it was like for the people who only had the resources to put pictures of their missing loved ones on a wall and hope they would come home one day.

“These people could be in trouble,” Velvet said.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Sun said. “I’ve gotta find them.”

“There you go being all noble and selfish again,” Scarlet said. “Both at the same time.”

Sun didn’t rise to Scarlet’s bait, which was pretty strange. But it also wasn’t his style to devote himself to a cause like this. He usually went wherever his whims took him, whether that was across the sea to help a friend or to get noodles at three in the morning. To pledge to fight a big cause with no clear solution or end in sight? That really didn’t sound like Sun. Maybe his time with Blake in Menagerie had changed him.

“We’ll help you,” Velvet said with conviction. “We’ll find them.”

Coco cleared her throat. “After we track down the Crown.”

Velvet walked around the wall to the other side, trailing her fingers over the posters. There was a laughing boy balancing a plate on his head. A smiling man holding a baby in his arms. A teenage girl with her head bent over a Scroll.

Velvet froze, staring at a picture of a gawky teenager with short hair. Velvet knew her.

“Guys!” she called. “Look at this!”

Yatsuhashi was the first one to reach her. Velvet pointed. “Look familiar?”

Yatsuhashi squinted.

“What’s wrong?” Coco asked.

“I know this girl. We ran into her last night,” Yatsuhashi said.

Sun’s eyes widened when he saw the spiky pink hair. “Pink!”

“This was one of the three people in masks who we saved Sun from,” Yatsuhashi said.

“Hey,” Sun muttered. “I had it under control.”

Coco leaned closer to the picture and lowered her sunglasses. “So you’re saying this missing kid has a Semblance.”

“She seemed to be able to phase her body so physical objects could pass through her.”

“That’s impressive,” Coco said. “The kind of person the Crown would be interested in.”

“But she didn’t act like someone who’d been kidnapped,” Sun said. “More like she was a kidnapper herself.”

“Like Carmine and Bertilak?” Coco asked.

“Oh, good point,” Sun said.

Coco smirked. “I know.”

Velvet used her Scroll to take a picture of the picture. The girl with pink hair was named Rosa Schwein and lived in Gust Downs.

“Someone should go talk to her family, find out what they know,” Coco said. “Maybe these missing people are connected somehow.”

“The boys and I will take care of it.” Sun gave her a thumbs-up. Scarlet tossed up his arms in frustration. Sage sighed and Neptune shrugged.

Velvet started snapping pictures of wide sections of the wall with her Scroll. Some of them were already fading, bleached by the sun. Soon they’d be gone forever—a small tragedy that Velvet was all too familiar with. All of them were potential leads, as long as they lasted.

She handed her Scroll to Yatsuhashi. While he got pictures of the ones too high for her to reach, she went to the little souvenir table near the wall.

Velvet slipped the kids a Lien in exchange for one of their handmade sculptures. She handled it carefully since it was still damp. It looked like it had been made right here, from the wet clay at the base of the wall, but it was actually a pretty decent likeness of the Weeping Wall, if you knew what you were supposed to be looking at.

When Team SSSN and Team CFVY were nearly done photographing everything on the wall, a girl about their age approached. Her curly brown hair almost obscured perky mouse ears.

Neptune was friendly. “Hey,” he said. “How’s it going?”

The girl burst into tears and held up a flyer. “My older sister is missing!”

Neptune froze, not knowing how to react.

“Here, let me help you with that,” Sun said. He took the flyer and pinned it to an empty spot on the wire. There weren’t many empty spaces left now.

Coco got right down to questioning. “When did she disappear?” she asked brusquely.

“Two nights ago.” The girl looked around in confusion, suddenly aware of teams CFVY and SSSN and the fact that they were all paying attention to her. “Um. She went to a club or something to watch a fight.”

“Where was it?” Coco asked.

“Downtown. I don’t know. She had an address on a poster. She likes to gamble, but only because she’s trying to make money so we can eat.” The girl broke down crying before she could offer more detail. “I don’t know what we’re going to do without her.”

Velvet snapped a photo of her flyer. The girl’s sister was named Lily, and she looked like an older version of the girl.

“We’ll keep an eye out for her,” Velvet promised.

“Does she have a Semblance?” Coco wanted to know.

“Sure,” said the girl. “Nothing too useful, though. She can make things sticky.”

“Uh, what?” Neptune asked.

“She can make things stick to each other. Little things, like rocks, or the pages of a book. We used to make houses of cards together.” The girl wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “But it doesn’t last long. A few minutes, and then—” She splayed her fingers out. “Poof.”

“Okay,” Coco said. “That’s not gonna rock anyone’s world.”

The girl scowled. “She is my world.” In a huff, she walked away.

Coco’s face flushed. “I didn’t mean to upset her.”

“She was already upset,” Fox said.

Scarlet crossed his arms. “But you just made it worse.”

Coco was trying to piece together what they knew. “Well, I don’t know if their situation fits,” she said. “That girl—”

“Lily,” Velvet supplied.

“Lily probably got in too deep with gambling debt and got into trouble,” Coco suggested. “Or she was too embarrassed to go home to her family.”

“She wouldn’t have left her little sister alone,” Velvet said. “And it sounds like her family would support her no matter what.”

Silence fell over the group.

“You’re right,” Coco finally said. “Because that’s what families do. Even in Vacuo.”

“Especially in Vacuo,” Sun said.

“And speaking of families …” Velvet looked around at her teammates. Coco and Yatsuhashi nodded. “Now it’s our turn to show you guys something.”

That night, as Sun looked around the dorm common room at the other students gathered there, he felt strangely disconnected from his body. Unsettled.

“Hey, everyone,” Velvet began. “As you can see, we have a few new faces here. Since we all voted to invite Team SSSN to these meetings, here they are. Sun, Scarlet, Sage, Neptune—welcome to the Beacon Brigade.”

The group applauded softly. Neptune beamed, seemed to think better of it, and his face went flat. Then his mouth stretched into a weird, wide grin that Sun knew meant his friend was about to lock up.

“Um, thanks,” Sun said awkwardly. “I’m still not sure if we really belong here, but …” He rubbed the back of his neck.

In the last few weeks, he had seen these kids in the classrooms and hallways of Shade Academy—they were his new schoolmates. But they weren’t exactly strangers. He had seen a number of them at Beacon. He had fought against some of them in the Vytal Festival Tournament. He had fought beside others at the Battle of Beacon.

And they had lost together, watching Beacon fall.

“Everyone here helped defend our home and school, even though they didn’t have to,” Velvet said. “We’re grateful. As far as we’re concerned, you’re all honorary Beacon students.”

Whatever that means anymore, Sun thought. Then he chided himself. To the others here, it still meant a lot. Sun liked to move around so he didn’t get too attached—to a place or the people there—but that’s not how other people operated. Most people’s identities were built around where they lived and trained. Their friends, their culture. That was the whole point of the team system—to become part of something, to define yourself, to lose yourself in it. A team made you someone new, someone better.

Sun hadn’t really been a big fan of that mentality, either, come to think of it.

And now here they were, creating a new group named after a place that didn’t even exist anymore. The Beacon Brigade. There was Team CFVY, of course, but also Team ABRN (auburn), consisting of Arslan Altan, Bolin Hori, Reese Chloris, and Nadir Shiko. They had gone back to Haven Academy with Neptune, Scarlet, and Sage, where they watched the school nearly fall to the White Fang. And like Team SSSN, they were one of the few groups who had decided to pick up their training in Vacuo rather than lose another semester. ABRN had beaten them to Vacuo by a couple of weeks, though, since Sun had insisted on taking the scenic route—luckily for Team CFVY.

Sun recognized a few other faces from Beacon, even if he only remembered Iris Marilla’s name. But he was surprised to see Nolan Porfirio, the only one here who was an original Shade Academy student.

Nolan had lost the rest of his team, BRNZ (bronze): Brawnz Ni, Roy Stallion, and May Zedong. And it showed. He was even thinner than he’d been last year at the Vytal Festival, and his rose-colored glasses couldn’t hide the dark shadows under his eyes.

“Who wants to start?” Velvet asked. “What’s on your mind?”

Bolin raised his hand tentatively. “Is it just me, or does it seem like we aren’t really wanted here?”

“It isn’t just you,” Nadir said. “Let’s just say some of the Vacuan students here are giving a new meaning to ‘Shade’ Academy.” He looked around. “Because they’ve been throwing a lot of shade at us?”

“We get it,” Fox said.

“It’s true that they have been giving us a hard time since we arrived,” Arslan said. “They like to remind us of the fact that we have abandoned two other academies now, as they put it. While I appreciate that they have their own perspective, it is not a very productive attitude.”

After a brief pause, Yatsuhashi spoke up. “It’s tough here, but that helps keep me focused. That, and meditation.”

Several heads nodded around the room. Sun had seen Yatsuhashi leading meditation groups early in the mornings at Shade. They reminded Sun of the exercises Starr had forced on him at the dojo when he was young. For him, sitting in one place and doing absolutely nothing for long stretches of time was the opposite of relaxing.

“It feels like a punishment,” a high voice said.

Sun winced and looked at Iris.

“Is that weird?” she went on. “I’m just being honest. It’s like, it’s so hard here, I’m not sure I can make it, but the alternative …” She swallowed, and her voice softened, but not enough. “I think I deserve it, you know? Because I survived and some of—some people didn’t.”

“Thank you, Iris,” Velvet said. “Does anyone else feel that way?”

Some murmurs of assent.

“Sometimes I feel that way, too,” Velvet acknowledged.

“Really?” Sun said. He was surprised to hear that. Velvet had never mentioned it.

“When we first got here, I hated Vacuo,” Velvet admitted. “But I also know that this is the best place to get stronger. To learn what I’m really capable of. And to realize that at Beacon I did my best, but my best can still be better.”

“Yeah.” Iris drew in a shaky breath. “This week has been hard for me. It would have been Castor’s birthday yesterday.”

“I’m sorry,” Velvet said.

“I miss him so much,” Iris said, wiping her eyes.

“We all do,” Yatsuhashi said, as if he’d been close with Castor, too.

Who’s Castor? Sun thought. One of Iris’s teammates? Her boyfriend? Both?

His thoughts were interrupted by another student. “I should have died there,” Nolan said flatly.

At that, a silence fell over the group.

“I thought I was going to. I was afraid …” Nolan scanned the room, looking for support, though not everyone met his gaze. “But I didn’t.” His voice shook, but the set of his jaw was determined. “We didn’t die. There’s a reason for that.”

Yeah. Because you ran away, Sun thought, unable to stop himself, even though this was the exact thing the other Shade students were thinking of the Beacon and Haven survivors. No wonder Nolan was here—he was probably getting criticized worse than anyone, because Shade students were supposed to be stronger than everyone else.

“I’m going to make my life count,” Nolan said. “I’m not going to waste this chance.”

That’s more like it, Sun thought. But he’d believe it when he saw it. It was easy to talk about doing something, and another thing to follow through on it. Maybe that was what he didn’t like about this group. So far it was all just sitting around and talking. They should be focused on moving on—channeling their strength toward protecting their new home, their new friends.

“I think we all feel that way,” Velvet said. “Thank you for sharing, Nolan.”

Sun couldn’t contain himself; he rolled his eyes. This therapy thing felt weird, like a shirt that didn’t quite fit. It had its own language, and everyone was so careful about how they phrased things. It ran counter to everything he was.

“You have something to contribute, Sun?” Coco asked.

“I don’t think so,” Sun said. “I’m sorry. I don’t think this is for me.”

He stood up. Neptune jumped to his feet, too, and then they stood there awkwardly, unsure of what they were doing.

“You don’t have to stay, of course,” Coco said. “Maybe you’re not ready for this.”

Sun scowled. There was an implication there he didn’t like. “That’s not what I meant. But I don’t have anything to say that I think you’d want to hear. So I’m just gonna go.”

Velvet stood up and put an arm out to stop him “Don’t. This is a safe space, Sun. It’s like a family. And whatever you’re thinking, I think we’ve all been there. I think we all need to hear it from each other.”

Sun hesitated.

“Go on.” Scarlet tapped his foot. “Don’t keep us waiting. Again.”

Sun narrowed his eyes. “Look, I understand why you’ve started this little group, but I think it’s a mistake. For a lot of reasons.” Now everyone was staring at him, their eyes burning as hot as Vacuo’s noontime sun.

“You’ve only been here for ten minutes, and you’ve figured us all out?” Nolan said, incredulous.

Sun shook his head and started to leave. “Come on, Neptune.”

But his teammate didn’t move. Neptune glanced at Sun and then at the group and then back. Finally he sat down. “I’d kind of like to hear what you have to say.”

Sun was exasperated. “Okay, for one, Theo really wouldn’t like this,” he burst out. Sun circled his hand in the air, indicating the whole room. “This is why Vacuans won’t trust you. Because you’re holding on to who you were and where you came from instead of focusing on where you are.”

He caught his breath and continued. “I get it. Beacon was your home. But it belongs to the Grimm now. We all survived, but it’s like you haven’t left Beacon at all. And if you don’t leave it, that darkness is going to eat you alive.”

“That’s not what this group is about,” Velvet told him. “We’ve all lived through something that no one else can understand.”

Sun laughed. “You don’t think Vacuans understand what you’ve been through? People stay in Vacuo because it’s our home, no matter what. We’re making up for our failure every day, punishing ourselves with the heat and the hunger and the thirst. Because we deserve it, and because we don’t want to forget.”

Scarlet stood. “You mean like you didn’t forget about us? Like you didn’t leave us the first chance you got to chase after someone you barely knew who didn’t want your help? You didn’t even stay in Vacuo for school—you chose Haven.” Scarlet flipped his bangs away from his face and glared at Sun. “You wouldn’t know anything about loss, Sun. You never stay in one place long enough to learn.”

The room was quiet. Sun’s face was flushed. “You all belong in Vacuo more than you think,” he snapped.

“Thank you, Sun.” Velvet’s voice shook. She looked resolute and genuinely appreciative, but Sun couldn’t stay there any longer, not with Scarlet airing Team SSSN’s dirty laundry for everyone to see. Sun pushed his way through the common room doors a little more roughly than he needed to. He stalked down the hall and out into the cool night air.

He still couldn’t figure out what was going on with Scarlet. Yeah, Sun had left his team to support Blake, because she needed a friend and her mission was way more important than just settling back in at Haven and picking up his studies. And he still didn’t regret leaving—without him, who knows what would’ve happened with the White Fang on Menagerie or Haven. Blake may not have needed or wanted him, but there was no doubt in his mind that he had helped.

The doors opened again a moment later, and Velvet emerged. “Sun, you don’t have to—”

“I’m sorry about that. This just isn’t my thing.”

“It doesn’t have to be. It’s helpful to everyone in there, and that’s all that matters. You’ll find your own way to work through it.”

There’s nothing to work through, Sun thought. We just need to move on.

But Sun just smiled at Velvet. “I’ll see you guys for patrol later.”

Fox crouched on the low rooftop beside Coco, thinking there were better things he could be doing than staking out a gambling house, thinking there were better people for the job than the blind guy. But Coco had insisted, and Fox trusted her instincts. Coco knew what Fox was capable of and how boring this assignment would be for him, so she must have had a good reason for dragging him along.

Unless he’d done something to get on her bad side.

“Did I do something to annoy you?” Fox sent. “Lately?”

“No. Why do you ask?” Coco sent back.

“Team SSSN just joined us, and now they get to do all the fun stuff,” Fox sent.

With Team SSSN joining Team CFVY for the first time on one of their nocturnal patrols of the city, Coco had changed up their strategy a bit. There was a little debate from Sun and Scarlet, but as usual Coco got her way.

And so Sun and Neptune were making the rounds of the downtown hot spots, which was a generous description for the clubs and restaurants that entertained the locals at night. That had been Fox’s favorite beat, because it kept him moving. Not sitting around, waiting for something to happen.

“Sun knows this city better than anyone,” Coco sent. “He’s the best person for the job.”

“I could have gone with him instead of Neptune.”

“You looking for some quality time with Sun?” Coco asked.

“No, but I’d rather be doing something, and someone needs to keep an eye on him. So to speak.”

“But then who would watch Neptune?” Coco asked.

“You’ve got me there. I wouldn’t want that job,” Fox had to admit.

“So … you don’t trust Sun?” Coco asked.

Fox wasn’t sure where he stood on that question. “I don’t know Sun yet. Not really. I guess I don’t trust Team SSSN to not mess things up for us. They’re sloppy and off-balance right now.”

Coco sighed. “I agree with you there. They have some stuff to work through. But then again, most teams do. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes tonight,” she sent.

“You didn’t split up Scarlet and Sage, either,” Fox observed.

The other half of Team SSSN was guarding the wall that separated the rest of the city from Shade’s campus. Scarlet had insisted that if the Crown was going after people with powerful Semblances, they would eventually be moving on the academy—which had the highest concentration of people with powerful Semblances for miles around. Though Scarlet didn’t venture to guess as to whether it would be little disappearances spread out over time or one big, coordinated attack.

The tension in Coco’s voice told Fox she was scowling.

“It’s what Scarlet wanted. He’s determined to protect Shade Academy—maybe a little too zealous about it. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. If we don’t want them to get in our way, or worse, raise a big enough stink that we can’t continue our investigation, it’s better to keep them involved in a limited capacity. Plus, I don’t think it’s a good idea to put Scarlet anywhere near Sun right now … not after that scene they made earlier.”

“Fair. And conveniently enough, this way you don’t have to break up our team, or mix them and us.”

“If you already know all the answers, why do you bother asking?”

“To pass the time. So why are Velvet and Yatsuhashi on Grimm watch?” Fox sent. “Did they do something to annoy you?”

Grimm watch was the duty of the low-rent Huntsmen who worked loosely with local law enforcement to help keep the peace.

“There’s been a rise in incidents of Grimm wandering into the city lately,” Coco sent. “Nothing that isn’t handled quickly before the attacks escalate, but more than usual.”

“How do you know that?” Fox asked. He hadn’t heard a word about it.

“Professor Rumpole requested reports from the sheriff on recent police and Huntsmen activity.”

“So how do you know that?” Fox asked.

Coco laughed. “I snuck into her office.”

“Coco!” Fox said.

“Don’t lecture me, Fox.”

Fox smiled. “How dare you do that without inviting me,” he sent. “What were you looking for?”

“Anything she had dug up on the Crown,” Coco explained. “I didn’t find anything, but she had left the report on Grimm activity out on her desk, plus a list of missing person cases linked to a club in the Pits.”

It was kind of odd for a nightclub to pop up in the old district locals referred to as the Pits—because of all the sandpits and traps that could grab someone who didn’t watch where they were going.

“That girl at the wall mentioned a club,” Fox said. “I don’t get why you’re worried about Grimm, though.”

“Because either there have been too many for the regular Huntsmen to handle or the Huntsmen aren’t doing their jobs. Something’s changed in the last few months. And—hold on. Someone’s coming out.”

The door of the gambling house opened and the raucous sounds of laughter invaded the quiet night.

“Two people are leaving, a Faunus male and a woman wearing a truly horrific ensemble,” Coco sent.

“—not your night,” Fox overheard the woman say. “Better luck next time.”

“But how’m I gonna eat?” the man responded as they moved out of earshot. Nothing about them seemed suspicious.

“You were saying?” Fox asked. “About why Velvet and Yatsuhashi are watching for Grimm.”

“Right. They aren’t only watching for Grimm. I’ve been thinking—”

“Always dangerous,” Fox interrupted.

“Ha ha. I’ve been thinking that the Crown may not be operating in the city itself. It would make sense to set up their base of operations nearby, but not directly under the nose of Headmaster Theodore.”

“That’s not an idea. It’s a guess,” Fox noted.

“When you don’t have enough information, a guess is the best you’ve got, and I’m rarely wrong.”

“Which brings me back to why we’re here and why me in particular—” Fox began. If the others were watching for the Crown, why was he stuck here?

“Because you’re a great conversationalist, when you don’t want to make any noise,” Coco sent. “This would be way more boring for me if I didn’t have someone to talk to. And we’re here because if the Huntsmen aren’t watching for Grimm, then what are they doing?”

“Gambling.” Fox nodded to the club.

Nothing much happened in Vacuo, and when there was an argument or a crime, people tended to sort things out on their own—with their fists. But when it came to Grimm, Vacuans depended on Huntsmen to fight their battles for them.

Any large gathering of people—whether a temporary settlement like most of the ones in Vacuo, or a village, or a major city—naturally drew Grimm on a regular basis. But between Shade’s students on training missions and the hired Huntsmen on guard duty, it was rare for a Grimm to cross into the city—almost as rare as Coco’s instincts being wrong.

“So that’s why Theodore’s been sending more students out lately, clearing the immediate area of Grimm,” Fox sent. “Maybe the Huntsmen are getting lazy.”

The door below them opened again. Coco and Fox stilled, listening.

“Don’t you worry. We’ll get you home,” a man said in a deep voice.

“We’re trained Huntsmen. The best in the city,” came a second man.

“I don’t know,” a third man said. “I think I can manage on my own. I always have before.”

“I’d be careful if I were you,” the first speaker noted. “A number of people watched you leave with your winnings, and sometimes bad things happen on the way home.”

“I’d sure feel better seeing you there safely. And you can certainly afford our reasonable rates tonight,” the second male said.

“Well … okay.” The third man gave up and went with them.

“Three males. One short with a green tank top and cargo shorts. His partner is taller, a Faunus with pig ears,” she sent.

Fox was glad they were using teamspeak. With ears like that, a Faunus would definitely have heard them whispering.

“So there are our Huntsmen,” she went on. “The person they’re protecting is average height, definitely not a fighter. Vacuan head covering and loose clothes, no weapon I can see. A merchant, maybe.”

“This doesn’t feel right,” Fox sent.

“Agreed. These Huntsmen are already paid to protect the city from Grimm, not escort private citizens home with their winnings. So … let’s follow them.”

Coco and Fox waited until there was some distance between them and the group, then dropped down silently to the sand. They crept after the trio.

“Should I update the others?” Fox sent.

“Not until we have a situation.”

They followed quietly, Coco in the lead. Fox concentrated on the group they were following and drew in a sharp breath.

Coco elbowed him. “Shhh. What?”

“Two of these guys have a lot of Aura,” Fox sent. “Basically off the charts.”

“The Huntsmen, I bet,” Coco said. “Flanking the guy in the middle?”

“Right. Their Auras are weird, so vivid I can see them. And they’re the same color.”

“Is that unusual?” Coco asked.

“Auras are usually more unique, but these seem identical.”

Fox and Coco continued to tail the two Huntsmen and their charge.

“Wait, this isn’t the way to my house,” the merchant said. “We should have turned left back there.”

“This is a shortcut,” the tall Huntsman said.

“No, it isn’t,” the merchant said nervously. “Thank you, but no thank you. Here’s some Lien for your trouble, but I can take things from here.”

“Not so fast,” the tall Huntsman said. “We don’t want your money.”

“What do you think you’re—” Fox heard them struggling. “Get off me! Let me go!” The merchant was fighting them off.

“You’re coming with us,” the short Huntsman said after a scuffle.

“I’ll pay you more if you want. Here, take everything!” the merchant insisted.

“We don’t want your money. We want you,” the tall man said.

“Now we have a situation,” Coco sent, rushing ahead of Fox. “Alert the others. Call in Sun and Neptune.”

Fox wasn’t sure Velvet, Yatsuhashi, Scarlet, and Sage were in range of his teamspeak, but he broadcast wide to everyone, anyway.

“We have a situation,” Fox sent.

“What was that?” Sun sent back. “Uh, hello?”

“It sounded like Fox,” Neptune returned loudly. “What are you doing in my head?”

“Calm down, it’s just teamspeak,” Fox sent.

“Since when can you do that?” Sun asked.

Velvet jumped in. “It’s Fox’s Semblance. He’s telepathic. And he likes surprising people with it.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Fox sent. “A couple of Huntsmen are abducting someone. Sun, Neptune, get to the Pits district. Scarlet and Sage, you, too, if you can hear me. Velvet, Yatsuhashi, hold your position in case they get away and try to flee the city.”

“On our way,” Sun sent.

Fox ran toward Coco’s location. She was trying to intervene, and the tall Huntsman wasn’t taking her seriously.

“Go on home, sweetheart,” he sneered. “This doesn’t involve you.”

Oh, that was definitely going to annoy her.

“I’m involving me,” Coco retorted. “What are you doing? You’re a Huntsman; you’re supposed to be fighting Grimm, not kidnapping helpless people.”

“I’m not helpless!” the merchant said.

Fox could only imagine the expression on Coco’s face. “Oh, all right, then, tough guy,” she said. “If you think you can handle this, I’ll just go—”

“No! Please!” the man begged.

Coco had a real sadistic streak sometimes. Just one of the reasons she and Fox made great partners.

His head was full of Team SSSN now.

“Man, I used to think that guy never talked. Has he been using telepathy all along?” Sun sent.

“I bet he’s been talking about us, right in front of our faces,” Neptune sent.

“It’s kind of cool, though, right?” Sun said.

“I can still hear you,” Fox sent. He drew his tonfas and took up a defensive position beside Coco.

“Great, another one,” the short guy said darkly.

Sun and Neptune were quiet for a while.

“How does this work?” Sun asked.

“I’ll explain it later. Just get over here,” Fox sent.

“We’re here!” Sun shouted, and Fox heard his actual voice, then a soft thud as Sun landed in front of him and Coco. Neptune rushed over just behind him.

“Oh, come on!” the tall guy said.

At the exact same time, Sun said, “You again!” sounding surprised.

“You know these guys?” Coco asked him.

“Yeah, we fought a few nights ago, only they were all covered up,” Sun said. “Two against four this time.”

“We can still take you,” the tall guy said.

“How about two against six?” Scarlet called from above before landing softly next to Fox.

The short guy sighed. “These kids are becoming a real problem. Let’s get out of here.”

“Not with that guy, you don’t,” Coco warned.

“She won’t be happy if we come back empty-handed again,” the short guy said to his partner.

“Shut up,” the tall guy shouted.

“Drop him, or else!” Sun demanded.

Something crashed into the ground and the two Huntsmen took off.

“Drop him?” groaned the merchant.

“Fox, if you can track those Huntsmen by their Auras, go after them,” Coco sent. “Find out where they came from.”

“On it,” Fox sent. He sped off after the two bright Auras, plugging his earbuds in and tapping the Scroll in his belt to turn on ADA, his Accessibility Dialog Assistant. She immediately started feeding him information on his surroundings so he didn’t run into a wall or fall into a hole while pursuing the would-be kidnappers.

They seemed to be heading out of town.

“Velvet, Yatsuhashi, I think these guys are heading your way. You’ll recognize them from the other night—you fought them with Sun.”

“You mean the ones we rescued Sun from?” Velvet asked.

“Come on!” Sun sent.

“We’ll be ready,” Yatsuhashi confirmed.

Fox let the Huntsmen get farther ahead of him so they wouldn’t realize they were being followed. He had a good lock on their Auras now, so he wouldn’t have had any trouble finding them again. Just before they hit the northern border of the city, they stopped. Fox crept to their coordinates and listened. It was quiet.

“ADA, what’s in front of me?” Fox whispered.

“One kilometer north there is a five-story building constructed of steel and concrete, rectangular in shape.”

“That’s pretty tall for Vacuo, and it’s made of concrete?” Fox said. “What building is it?”

“It is currently abandoned.”

“It isn’t abandoned now. Someone just went inside.”

“It has no designated purpose on public record at this time.”

“What used to be there?” Fox asked.

“The Mistral Trading Company owned and operated it as a Dust refinery.”

“That would have been before the war.”


Fox relayed the info to Velvet and Yatsuhashi.

“They’re inside now,” Fox sent, concentrating his Semblance. “I can’t pick them out because there are a lot of people inside and a lot of their Auras seem the same.”

Velvet and Yatsuhashi soon joined Fox. “We happened to be nearby,” Velvet said, relieved. “Glad we could get here.”

“So … how do you want to play this?” Yatsuhashi asked.

“I want to know what’s in there. Who’s in there,” Fox said. He had a bad feeling about this.

“So let’s open it up,” Yatsuhashi said. He stepped forward and Fox heard him grunt with exertion. “I can’t … budge this door.” Yatsuhashi drew his sword, and a moment later Fox heard a massive clang of metal on metal.

“Ow,” Yatsuhashi said.

On the other side of the door, Fox heard shouting and clapping, then banging. Yatsuhashi hadn’t broken the door down, but it was okay. Now someone was opening it to them.

A metal bolt slid on the other side of the door and a woman’s voice asked, “What do we fight for?” Was she looking for a password?

“Um. Fortune and glory?” Fox said.

The door slammed shut. “I guess that was the wrong answer,” he said.

Fox knocked on the door and tried to get her attention again. “How many guesses do I get?”

“Maybe we should go,” Velvet said.

“ADA, mark this loc—” Fox faltered. He was scanning everyone in the building with his Semblance, noting the variations in Aura and trying to pick their Huntsmen out of the crowd. There had to be around fifty people in there, but at least one of their Auras was familiar.

“Fox?” Velvet asked. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Fox said. He could hardly believe what he was about to say. “But I’m pretty sure Professor Rumpole is inside.”

“In there?”

Fox nodded.

“Then we’re gonna bust in.” Yatsuhashi reached for his greatsword.

“Hold on, Yatsu,” Velvet said. “Fox, is she in trouble?”

“There’s no way to know from out here,” Fox said. But he was worried.

Just then his Scroll vibrated. “Coco Adel,” ADA announced.

Quickly, Fox answered and put Coco on speaker. “Status,” Coco asked.

“Confused.” Fox hung up and switched them all to teamspeak, updating Coco on how they’d come to the supposedly abandoned Dust refinery and the fact that Professor Rumpole seemed to be inside.

“If the professor is in there, I’m almost certain it’s because she wants to be. Her own investigation must have brought her there. We shouldn’t interfere,” Coco sent.

“Are you sure?” Scarlet asked suspiciously. “Or are you saying that because you don’t want us to get caught? Because if something happens—”

Coco shut the idea down quickly. “If we interfere in her investigation and blow whatever she’s doing, we’ll get worse than detention. She’ll probably kick us out of Shade. And we’ll have ruined the usefulness of the information she’s gathering. I say we give her time to do her thing.”

“What about the guy they were trying to abduct?” Fox asked. “What have you found out about him? Does he have a Semblance?”

“He says he doesn’t,” Coco returned. “He was kind of rude about it, too.”

“He threatened to report us to the headmaster, once he found out we’re only students, not licensed Huntsmen,” Scarlet said.

“Students from Beacon and Haven,” Sage pointed out. “He cared more about where we came from, I think.”

Coco sounded smug, like a decision had been validated. “He refused to talk to anyone but Sun once the danger was over.”

Sun laughed nervously. “For what good it did us. He didn’t tell us much, just that he’d never figured out his Semblance—”

“Were those two who were following him really Huntsmen?” Fox asked.

“The owner of the club said they are. He likes that they hang around his club, in fact, because they make him feel safer. Plus, their presence discourages people from cheating. Usually,” Coco sent.

“They didn’t want his money,” Velvet sent. “But if they were working for the Crown, why would the Crown be interested in people without Semblances, like this guy and that woman the other night?”

“Well, this has been a good night so far. We have two new leads,” Coco sent.

“What’s that?” Velvet asked.

“That Dust refinery, for one. We know it was harboring at least two criminals.”

“And the other lead?” Neptune asked.

“Professor Rumpole,” Coco sent. “Tomorrow, I’ll go to her office—”

“And snoop around some more?” Fox asked.

“No,” Coco said. “I’m going to ask her some questions.”

Yatsuhashi shif