Disclaimer: I own nothing of RWBY.
Nora Valkyrie rarely allowed any depressing or ominous moods to linger too long.
Keeping morale up belonged to her. Jaune Arc led their team and created bulletproof strategies. Lie Ren acted with deadly precision and was the voice of reason. Pyrrha Nikos remained diligent and understanding with a cornfed smile. When one of those cherished cogs stopped working, it was Nora Valkyrie's job to uplift spirits while functioning as the team's gigawatt muscle, and right now, things came to a screeching halt. That sunny simpering disposition was missing with her persistence buckling every second.
Any second now, she expected one of her closest friends to burst in Aura-related flames. Even Jaune-Jaune and Ren stopped eating in fear that Pyrrha's Aura might manifest itself from how openly dark her eyes overshadowed. Nora tried her hardest to follow her line of sight, unable to confidently discern who she despised so rigorously much between the mass of students. Too many bodies, too many tables, and too much noise. Any one of those people could potentially be her target, but why?
They all wanted the answer to that question.
Acting as the team's self-appointed morale booster, she spun her fork in a click-clock turn, acting deceitfully playful. Ren and Jaune saw through her plan as clear as day, but tough noodles, this was for their resident fuddy-duddy. Nora briefly considered bumping hips but opted to crack her voice a few octanes.
"Pyrrha?" Nora whooshed. "Hello? Earth to Pyrrha."
Pyrrha ignored her entirely, glaring so hard that it went beyond the realm of out-of-character. She went from shattering her to plate to bending her fork without her noticing. Alloy twisted into incomprehensible shapes. Whatever appetite Nora previously had all but vanished. Things only returned to some resemblance of normal once some of the corkscrewing metal pinched her skin and forced a reboot. Suddenly, she grew blushingly aware of three sets of eyes focused on her.
Nora just knew her Sloth King so well. He reacted first, lowering his utensils. "Pyrrha? What's going on?"
Emerald eyes panicked, but not in fear. Nora cocked her head to the side from such a bashful reaction. Pyrrha's back straightened with her jaw setting in. Something-something over her shoulder and she rested her palms flat against their table. Dread turned to sobriety as her lips shriveled impossibly thin. Even still, her fork bent underneath her Semblance's dominating authority.
"Will you use your eyes on me if I answer?"
"I have no need. You're an awful liar."
Nora's hertz fueled smile made a triumphant comeback when Pyrrha's lips curved ever so slightly into that famous dimpled smile. It didn't last too long. Those once clenching fingers mindlessly repaired her fork into near perfection—dented still in some corners. She no longer frowned in that direction, but she kept her guard up with quenched shoulders and other hand cemented into an iron fist. Every second felt longer than the last, and when she chewed her meal, she made sure to keep direct eye-contact.
Then she swallowed.
"Team meeting." Pyrrha stabbed her food between the words. "It's not safe to talk here."
Now her shoulders tensed. Another mood shift hit her team. What in the holy Red Sap? Safe? Surrounded in a room of peers and Huntsmen-in-Training alike, how weren't they safe? Air quotes almost happened if the severity of the situation wasn't so foretelling. Nora peeked around the chatterbox of a Mess Hall, not seeing a rotten bone anywhere. No? Yes? No. Definitely yes. After everything with Amber and Maidens and whatchamacallits, if Pyrrha said the room wasn't safe, then gosh darn it Nora zippered her mouth shut.
Both Ren and Jaune thought so too.
"You heard her." Jaune cautiously placed a straw to his lips. "Act natural. Finish your food and head to the room."
Easier said than done.
Safe. Not safe. None of it mattered. Guards were up, bodies tensed with Aura bursting to life inside. Nora first noticed it with the way Ren quietly chewed his salad, eyeing the Mess Hall with hawkish Evil Eyes. Jaune hardly acted any better with Shooting Star's makeshift gun blueprint somewhat awkwardly resting on the table, fingers meagerly posed in case of an attack. Even Pyrrha sprinkled her Semblance over the silverware.
She delighted them with a tale of bewilderment and eager delight, acting as the only natural one in Team JNPR's dynamic. Not really. Her hands itched at a moment's notice to fling the plates and toss the tables, and if anyone paid any attention to her tale, listened firmly and held their breaths, someone might have put two-and-two together and realized she repeated the plot three times.
Not a single one of them tasted anything but ash.
Pyrrha wasted little time once they entered their dorm room.
A tempered fist slammed against the nearest wall. She clicked her jaw with her teeth painfully clenched, breathing slowly with Jaune coming up behind her and grabbing her shoulders. Any different day, any other minute, her body would have relaxed and melted in the calming embrace. Not today. Not this moment. Nothing soothed her restless soul, not even the courageous leader who repaired it from the brink of destruction.
That was what she called it. Curse her inability to attract danger. Blessed with Maiden strength only for it backfire and then some? When would the negativity end? Iron-rich blood boiled to an extreme with her bloody Aura finally appearing in radiating temperance, and his grip applied firmer pressure. This time she leaned back, exhaling with a million thoughts racing through her head. Not so-cruelly, intentional or otherwise, they allowed her to catch her bearings, quiet for her benefit. Pyrrha used that gift to break away, unclenched her fist, and wobbled to the nearest bed, dropping with a huff.
Aches and pains all over.
Jaune joined her soon enough, dipping the bed with his added weight as a passing cloud obscured the sun. Ren and Nora occupied the one across from her with her energetic friend plucking Sir Scrabbles from underneath a pillow to squeeze him tight. Any attempts of a smile from the near adorable scene washed under ruthless, cold amber eyes from lingering visions, Amber's very last memory before everything went black.
Eyes that belonged to a cold-hearted monster named—!
Nora tilted her head. "Cinder... what?"
"Cinder Fall!" Pyrrha vigorously growled. "The person who attacked Amber and put her in that coma."
Just like that, more silence fell over the room. Nora refused for it to plague, hugging Sir Scrabbles tighter. "Mmmm, we're going to need the longer version, Pyrrha."
Fair enough. Pyrrha formed fists with the cloud finally passing, coloring her face with warm sunlight. Treasure emeralds glistened in the radiance, and she kept her vision narrowed. Every survival and battle instinct drilled into her demanded she summoned her weapons and attacked the trio while they were none the wiser. She had almost thrown the kitchenware at them if it wasn't for the subject matter of Cinder's abilities and a student body with susceptible casualties. Her fingers then loosened considerably once her partner gently rubbed her arm.
"When Amber was dying, I saw her final moments flash before my eyes. I saw bits of her childhood. The day she received the Maiden powers." Pyrrha shrugged away her partner's hands. She felt undeserving. "And the day she lost half of them, including the people that attacked her. And those same three people are here, posing as exchange students, and were eating dinner a few tables away from us."
"Are you sure?" Jaune had to ask, and Pyrrha nodded. Suddenly things made sense for him. "That's why you stayed behind in Professor Goodwitch's class? You wanted to know their names."
"More or less."
"What are they doing here now?" Nora wondered.
"Probably after Amber. I wouldn't put it past people who know about Maidens not to know Ozpin's true motives." Ren stood and leaned on the wall with his one working arm. "What they don't know is Amber's gone, along with the remaining bits of the Maiden powers, or else they wouldn't be here. And I doubt they'll leave quietly if we told them."
The way they reacted so nonchalently to the recently development was a teastamenat to Team JNPR's chaoic life.
Her partner frowned. "What now? It doesn't matter if they know Amber's gone or not, they're here. We can't just let them roam around Beacon. They're a major threat."
"Precisely." Pyrrha burned in anticipation. "I couldn't agree more, Jaune."
"Counter-measures!" Nora humphed, throwing a fisted arm up. "Let's take the fight to the bad guys and show them what happens when they mess with Team JNPR! I'm itching for payback."
Ren glared in the same burning passion as her. "The dance is tomorrow. That's when they'll move, so we intercept them then."
Pyrrha creased her brows. "We don't know if they're going to strike during the dance—!"
"The dance is the most optimal time to strike." Ren argued. "Defenses will be down with all the professors attending the dance. And after what you did to the General's arm, I'm willing to bet he'll have extra security surrounding him, thinning his forces around Beacon. They couldn't have asked for a better opprotunity."
Nora nodded approvingly. "Smart as a cookie, Ren. We're short on time. It's either now or never."
Strike while the iron was hot, Pyrrha very much approved of their determination. A solid strategy by all means, now they only needed their leader to cement the finishing touches, add some counter-measures as Nora so elegantly put it, and coordinate team attacks, except he remained deathly quiet to the entire exchange.
Pyrrha shifted her attention to her docile leader. She found him staring at the ceiling, silently counting specks with a faraway look. Nothing of his posture screamed retaliation. His breathing remained calm, not at all exaggerated from overhyped adrenaline, and when he blinked without disrupting his count, she feared the worst. This time her hand gripped his forearm.
"What's wrong, Jaune? You haven't contributed. Is it your body?"
Once Pyrrha mentioned such a thing, Nora and Ren ended their fussing. Jaune's injured prevailed past theirs, tattered with only his Aura granting him the ability to function while alleviating pain to a degree.
Pyrrha knew that wasn't the reason once his eyes focused.
He clicked his teeth in a way that said both yes and no. No trace of an indomitable will showed, not with the way he stared at the empty space. Something ate away at him, a trauma only Pyrrha knew the ailments too. Jaune chose not to linger on it too long, straightening his entire demeanor with his face wrinkling in resentment. Each one of them he shared a look with, checking their damages and the destruction caused by Maidens and everything in between. True to his character, he sighed and rubbed his neck out of habit to relieve soreness.
"It just..." Jaune squeezed his knees. "When did Cinder and her cohorts become our problem? Why when the tournament is coming up? You can't tell me that the universe didn't just throw this onto our laps."
Oh! Pyrrha—along with Ren and Nora—saw his point. Things had almost instantaeously spiraled out of control once she mentioned Cinder. He asked again, using only his eyes to convey his question with Aura fueled behind them. Ren had no answer, along with her. Dealing with Cinder and her cohorts did sound outside their comfort zone, but that hardly said much considering the existence of Maidens and fairytales already interloped with their team. Again, he asked, demanding an answer or justification.
Nora Valkyrie rose to the challenge.
She became their strength in their moment of weakness.
"But that's what we signed up for." Nora frowned. "To go on world-saving missions. We're Huntsmen. If not us, then who?"
"Ozpin?" Jaune offered.
Pyrrha refused. "I don't trust Ozpin."
He scoffed. "That makes two of us."
She only acted more confused. "I'm afraid I don't understand. Why are you so hesitant?"
Jaune took one hard look around his beaten and battered team. "In case you all forgotten, none of us are in any fighting shape to take on anyone, including three people that managed to defeat a Maiden. Look around and tell me you're ready to fight."
None of them argued back. Adrenaline from Pyrrha's outburst in the Mess Hall had kept their bodies free from pain, but that acted only as a short reprieve. Right now, once it became blatantly clear of their limitations, numbness and pains returned. Jaune just kept going. He refused to walk his team into a slaughterhouse.
He added more. "And even if we weren't bruised and broken, do you really want to deal with any of this? There's already so much on our plate. Why add more?"
Nora defensively jumped to her feet and glared with the might of Sir Scrabbles. "We can't just sit around and do nothing, not while they're here. And if we can't trust Ozpin, then who do we trust? Team RWBY?"
Pyrrha woefully doubted their sister team's fighting prowess, not unless they had some secret weapon designed to damage Maidens. What Nora said rang true. If not them, then whom? A crippled scarecrow? A one-armed machine? Droids without any sense of self preservation? Each one of those begged for destruction at the hands of monsters living in plain sight. She heroically shared in Nora's settlement, sitting around and doing nothing basically allowed Cinder to run amok until someone got hurt.
No. Not again. Pyrrha already saw what happened when someone with power remained unchained—they all did. Nothing but death and annihilation awaited them. Even now, she shivered from cleaning some of the forgotten tombstones. So she understood where Nora came from, knew why she acted so bashful in front of impossible odds, but her partner brought up valid points. Look at them. All battered and bruised. Nora and Pyrrha suffered the least amount of damage, except least hardly meant minuscule. Not one of them managed to walk without staggering, wobbling, or flinching.
Taking on three who managed to overpower a fully-fledged Maiden?
Pyrrha's hands subconsciously shifted into heavy-hearted fists. Cinder's smirk was Amber's last memories and hers, too. Bile almost lurched into her mouth, just thinking that that person roamed around the academy churned her stomach into iron-tight knots. No. Sitting around and doing nothing was not an option. Period.
"They must be stopped." Pyrrha said firmly and resolutely.
Jaune flinched. "Of course, I want them stopped. We just need to rack our brains for a different plan than challenging them head-on."
Pyrrha found no room for argument.
At the very least, she knew Jaune planned to hinder them. Some solace lifted the heavy burdens weighing on her soul. She allowed herself the opportunity to relax, unclenching those hands with her shoulders sagging in a collective sigh. A different plan sounded fine. With the element of surprise on their side and a drive for the insanity, Team JNPR's Fearless Leader would think of something. Such a testament showed with the way Nora stubbornly folded her arms tighter around Sir Scrabbles with an adorable pout. Chances were her fellow female might have fought tooth-and-nail if she hadn't peeked around the corner and noticed Ren's weakened state.
Team JNPR really was in no condition to fight.
Jaune Arc knew that better than anyone else with his ability to see weakened Aura. Said leader rested his head back and counted the infinite cosmos of specks with a heavy heart. Controlling his Aura output to heal at a snail's pace required sober concentration. Too much and he threatened to expand his muscles, reopen tears, and halt progress, but weakening it any further wasted time and accomplished nothing, forcing him on a standstill of Aura control. How ironic. Him of all people restricting Aura flow. Anyone else would cherish this abundance of Aura.
He knew his team could benefit greatly from a boost of his entire Aura reserve. Unlike him and his ill-balanced body, they had no restrictions—bodies fit to absorb massive quantities at a steady dose.
Glancing around the room, he first checked out Ren's arm, the most noticeable handicap. More promising injuries existed underneath his calming exterior. Then he peeked at Nora's frizzle-frazzled body and Pyrrha's Lore stricken figure. Thank Oum that the Aura shards from earlier reversed a generous portion of the damage. He had more than enough to deprive his team members of their injuries within two days, but only if he sacrificed what remained and recharged of his reserves in those upcoming days. Temptation grew the longer he lingered on that thought.
Healing three-fourths of Team JNPR? Three out of four? Hn. A whimsical idea. That left it at three versus three. One for each of them. Not ideal, but doable. Very, very plausible. A fully restored and ticked off Nora painted a gruesome picture for the enemy with an equally rejuvenated Ren and reinvigorated Pyrrha to back her up. Jaune held back a laugh. Three-fourths, huh? Better than nothing. Not to mention, it solved his Aura dilemma for a short period.
The more amusing it sounded, the weaker his inner laughter got. Softer and softer, his troubled mind cleared. Three on three? Exhausted blues sharpened, taking a second hard look at his team. Nora itched for a fight, Pyrrha craved payback for Amber's sake, and even Ren joined in on the merriment. Jaune very well understood their plight. He shared their pain. The urge to forge Excalibur this very second and protect everyone from the monsters hiding in their home never felt stronger, yet Excalibur's power proved too much for its wielder.
So what about fragmented?
Protecting others sometimes meant giving power up. Teams fought battles together. Never alone. Memories of forging Aura weapons alone and dealing with the bitter pain came back full force, and this time he laughed joyously out loud, startling his teammates. While he cherished those first few months of Aura discovery, nothing compared to the sheer happiness of discovering, learning, and advancing his Aura knowledge, techniques, and abilities with his team by his side. For every time he fell, they picked him back up.
Now it fell to his hands to return the favor.
Nora squeezed her sloth Grimm. "What's so funny, Fearless Leader?"
"Me." Jaune smiled half-heartedly and spoke his heart out. "I came to this academy to follow in my family's footsteps, and to live up to the Arc's legacy. So far, I'm not sure if I'm close to accomplishing those dreams, but I do know one thing, I'm about to fail them if I turn my back now."
Pyrrha's eyes grew. "What are you saying, Jaune?"
"Nora's right." Jaune's feet moved in a blur, only halting to ache from sudden, swift movement. He threw his arms out to hold them back. "What I'm saying is I have a plan."
"You do!" Nora cheered. "Well, don't hold out on us? Tell us!"
"Take my Aura. Take it!" Jaune glowed in a soft shade of white. "It's nothing but a hindrance to me right now, but not for you. You guys can use it. We can fix your injuries and get you back up to fighting shape before the dance."
Excitement hit an all-time low. Smiles flipped upside down. Jaune fully expected that. Not a single one of them wished to deprive him of all his Aura, each knowing the extent of the bodily damages he suffered and how Aura mitigated pain and allowed him to walk. So what? Pyrrha had sacrificed everything on a blind chance and unwavering faith in her team. Chances were a part of life. No pain, no game, right? Turning his back now undermined her sacrifice and everything he—they fought to achieve—and he refused for Penny and Amber's deaths to be in vain.
Enough motivation turned guilt into determination.
Pyrrha unquestionably refused to steal all his Aura. "But—?"
"But nothing!" Jaune ordered with confidence. "We're injured. We cannot meet them on their playing field. The way I see it, three on three is better than one on three."
Pyrrha loathed her inability to challenge his idea. With the right amount of control and patience, perhaps some wishful thinking and blind trust, she knew her partner could restore most of his body by tomorrow afternoon, but one person versus three demanded madness.
Ren stood before him. "Are you sure?"
He blinked. "It's either I try to fix myself to a hundred percent possibly by tomorrow, or I heal you three. There's no other option, not with the dance barely twenty-four hours away."
"What about you?" Nora twiddled her fingers meekly. "What would you do?"
"I'll play the distraction and keep everyone from paying attention to you leaving. Don't sweat it." Jaune grinned awkwardly. "Seven sisters equal too many dance lessons. Might as well put those to good use."
She grumbled-grumbled. "Not fair, I want to see you dance."
That awkwardness turned into a full-blown smirk before he straightened his posture and shined that oh-so magical glow. "The dance is tomorrow. I have the rest of today and tomorrow to patch you up. Ren, bring me all the Dust shards we have."
"Nora! Steal a whiteboard."
"Way ahead of you!"
Nora flashed toward their closet and rummaged through the contents at a frightening speed, but not before pushing Sir Scrabbles into Pyrrha's arms. Out various objects went, most of them not belonging to her. Pyrrha made no remark while Jaune silently laughed at the scene. Sir Scrabbles only perked up when Ren not only dodged her incoming projectiles but discarded the crystals haphazardly onto his bed.
He mindlessly picked one up and marveled at the sight of useless Dust. "You know, next to Excalibur, I think Aura shards were my best discovery."
"It's certainly more practical than conventional healing methods." Ren agreed without question. "Acting as both a healing agent and steroid boost, depending on the body's current state. Although the name leaves much to be desired."
"Why? What's wrong with it?"
"Aura shards?" Pyrrha interrupted. "Ren does have a point. You've given everything else a proper name, all except these shards. Imagine if Excalibur was simply Aura blade and vice versa for Shooting Star."
The leader of Team JNPR crossed his arms, stubbornly agreeing. Aura blade? Aura gun? Aura bomb and Aura flashbang? Eh! Lore shield? Lore rocket? Lore gloves and Lore smoke bomb? Double eh! Okay, he saw their point. Even his notebook received a name, along with Pyrrha's ridiculous code word for calling Maiden powers UFOs. Still, all of this was news to him.
"You've never complained about it before."
"The timing never felt right!" Nora yelled with her bottom half sticking out the closet, flinging items.
Timing? Oh well. Jaune digressed. Any opportunity to update The Constellations always improved his mood. The light in his eyes already shined in riveting anticipation. He caught his notebook soaring through the air, courtesy of Nora, but he faintly recalled hiding this underneath his pillow. Who possibly moved it? His only culprit played dumb in Pyrrha's arms, blinking with those telltale blood-colored eyes of its. An appropriate scene with their resident blood bender.
He snatched a soaring pencil and pressed the lead to his tongue before flipping the page titled Aura shards. "Why not. Things are changing all around us. About time these things got a name." Jaune paused. "Any suggestions?"
His partner perked up.
Pyrrha lazily grabbed one and scrunched her nose the same Jaune did whenever something Aura related fell into his lap. Names? So many to choose from, but not a single one sounded remotely plausible. Perhaps something close to home? Easy to remember? Fancy with a pleasant ring to it. Had to roll off the tongue. Her partner acted like a real stickler for that.
"Well, Aura shards are crystals created from your Aura and your teachings." Pyrrha trailed, beaming with cleverness. "They're everything based on your Aura philosophy, so they should represent that. Philosophy? Philosopher? Aura shards? Philosopher's Stone? Hmm? I do rather enjoy the ring of that. Philosopher's Stone!"
He raised a brow. "Philosopher's Stone? Even I think that's a little too on the nose."
"I think it fits well." Ren uselessly offered.
"Ugh! You're just as bad as Pyrrha!" Nora suddenly squeezed Jaune in a shoulder hug. "Leave the naming to us. By the way, mission accomplished, Fearless Leader!"
They blinked in unison, spotting the pristine whiteboard in the middle of their room, along with junk Nora had collected when none of them were looking. She smiled a watt-filled smile, acting innocent in the most non-innocent of ways. Their new board even came with color-coded markers, one for each of their hair colors and a box with extra. Pyrrha glanced at Jaune to say something, maybe ask her about her habit of stealing, but her leader busied himself with his notebook, penciling in fine details and drawing with what she assumed a new and improved Aura shard sketch.
He racked his brain for a better name and shrugged. "Screw it. Phil-los-o-pher's Stone." Jaune enunciated each syllable, clicking his pencil on the paper when finished. Another read around had him retching. "Ugh. Nevermind. You can call them that, Pyrrha. I'll stick to Aura shards."
She huffed and squeezed Sir Scrabbles. "Everyone's a critic."
He beamed anyway, drawing an Aura shard next to the moniker Philosopher's Stone with Pyrrha's face doodled at the top. Dust fabricated into something capable of giving energy or healing wounds, and all from his lifeforce? It fit surprisingly well. Somewhat of a mouthful, but the message rang loud and clear. He might look for another name in due time. Probably not. He then tossed his notebook onto the bed and grabbed a handful of the soon to be Philosopher's Stones. Aura seeped out of his body into those gemstones, lighting them up with his energy from the manifestation of his soul, but before he drained a massive portion of his reserves, Pyrrha clasped her bruised palm around his hand.
"Are you really sure about this, Jaune?"
Jaune found himself staring at trembling greens, beyond worried for his safety. Turquoise cautiously joined her along with precarious pinks. He merely shook his head and simpered.
A heartwarming gesture, but an unneeded one.
"I wouldn't have Aura if it wasn't for you, Pyrrha." Jaune grinned at all three of them, grabbing her wrist and forcing her to hold onto the shard. "And you believed in me when no one else would. It's only fair I return the favor. Please, take my Aura. If not for anything else, then for me. And that's not enough, then to stop them."
"Not fair." Pyrrha grumbled with her fingers wrapping tightly around the shard, tugging at her heartstrings. "You know what'll happen if you don't have any Aura."
He dismissed her worrywarts by seizing another Dust crystal from the pile. "Stop worrying. I'll be fine. I still have Lore."
"Lore does not heal."
"True, but it'll keep me light and on my feet."
She had countless excuses ready to tear him apart. None of them made it past her lips. Her sense of pride and duty to protect others overpowered her. Humbug! Someone had to stop Cinder and her cohorts, and those people circled their leader, including her. A broken body lacked substance, and was deprived of sufficent Aura. He offered their much needed bodies a lifegiving treat with a bountiful of Philosopher's Stones. Worrisome lips tentatively opened to devour boundless energy.
"Fine, but promise me you won't overexert yourself."
He tilted his head, aching from the hurtful movement. "I promise to try and keep that promise. I am playing the distraction with my funky fresh dance moves. Overexerting myself is an occupational hazard."
She snorted something between a giggle and a hiccup. "Please don't say that with such a straight face."
"No promises." Jaune waggled his eyebrows in Pyrrha's pouty direction before seizing another shard. "Pyrrha, I know it might be hard, but can you remember anything specific about how those three fought? We're going to need all the information we can get to beat them."
She returned his brilliance with her heart soaring. There was that leader of Team JNPR. Believing all the death filled thoughts had abandoned him was a foolish dream, but she knew he knew some things mattered more right now. After, she silently promised. Until then, her battle instincts focused on the task at hand—subduing Cinder Fall and her lackeys.
Odds were against them.
She crunched on the Aura shard, sighing when precious Aura filled her joints and alleviated minor aches and pains. Her breathing hollowed when she cracked a few bones, enjoying every bit of the Aura rush. Succulent. Amazing. Goosebumps traveled up her shivering spine, throbbing for more, and more her partner created. In the meantime, she brightened her smile, perched Sir Scrabbles on the bed, and confidently strutted toward the whiteboard. Grabbing a black, green, and silver marker from the box Nora had secret-borrow from whichever professor was missing a whiteboard, Pyrrha wrote down their targets names in their corresponding colors.
Cinder Fall, Emerald Sustrai, and Mercury Black.
"Here's what I gathered from Professor Goodwitch. There's three of them." Pyrrha tapped her marker against the board. "Cinder Fall, Emerald Sustrai, and Mercury Black are their names."
Jaune blinked. "They used their real names?"
"We can't be for certain. For now, we have to assume so. I searched through the CCT academy network and found their enrollment pictures." Pyrrha showed them their faces through her Scroll in all their evil glory. "These are what people who attacked Amber look like."
Nora blinked too. "Hold up! Mercury? Haven't I already smacked him around? Yeah, right, he has silver hair and loved to use his feet."
"Precisely." Pyrrha drew flames around Cinder and something resembling bits of metal near Mercury's names. "When Amber fought him, she burnt some of his clothing and revealed that he has metal legs."
"Metal legs?" Nora drooled. "He's mine!"
Pyrrha simpered at her enthusiasm. "I'm not yet finished. During the fight, Emerald appeared to have the ability to conjure up illusions. I'm not entirely sure, but she had the ability to make Amber see things that weren't there."
"Illusions?" Ren took an immediate interest. "Leave her to me. Illusions are nothing more than fibs. I'll be able to see right through them."
"Be careful." Pyrrha warned slowly. "From what Amber recalled, these felt real. They're Semblance-based illusions. And her weapons appear to be a sickle-chain blade." Ren nodded, and she continued. "And last is Cinder. Her arsenal includes close-range combat and arrows for long-range with apparent fire projectile abilities. And since Amber only had half the Maiden powers, it's safe to assume she has the other half. Ozpin did mention they were stolen."
"You know..." Jaune wondered out loud. "I'm surprised Professor Goodwitch didn't figure out what you were doing when asking for names."
"I asked for all the exchange students' names."
"Blah-blah!" Nora's hip bumped Pyrrha away from the dry board. "Pyrrha and Ren are both smart cookies. We all know that. So, Fearless Leader, what's the next phase of Operation Beat Up the Baddies?"
Nora wrote said operation in colorful lettering by using their four colors for each word. She drew Cinder's head with fangs, Emerald's with other Emerald clones, and Mercury's with a pair of robotic legs, all crudely with her lines janky and colors popping outside the borders. She used not one, not two, not three, but four exclamation points to drive her point across.
"Beat Up the Baddies?" Pyrrha grumbled. "And you say my name's too on the nose."
Nora, for all pretense and purposes, booped Pyrrha on the nose with a pink marker. Ren gratefully stopped her from drawing a star underneath her eyes. Team dynamic aside, Jaune busied himself with Aura shards to grab the pen. So Nora took it upon herself to add the nitty-gritty details.
He had a few more vital questions before he came up with a plan. "Pyrrha? You said Cinder stole the Maiden powers. Do you remember how?"
"Apologies, but Amber's last thought was Cinder standing over her before total blackness." Pyrrha soothingly touched her chest. "But I recall tremendous fear."
Tremendous fear? Not the words he wanted to hear. Clues were missing to this jigsaw of a puzzle, relevant factors, and inconsequential variables. Knowing their existence didn't make this any safer, even if they outranked them numbers-wise and had the element of surprise. All of that was for naught without knowing how she stole the powers in the first place. Tch! Fussing about it now wouldn't help them in any way.
Better to work on what they did know.
Team JNPR's leader tossed an Aura shard onto a slowly growing pile. "Okay. Here's what we know. We have the home-field advantage over them. With the element of surprise, it might be possible to lead them into a trap and separate them."
Pyrrha wholeheartedly agreed. Simple, but well thought out. A search and destroy plan with effectiveness depending on their ability to break the group. As compelling and blood sweating as a team they were, one on one they prevailed. Together Team JNPR was monstrous. None thought so more than Ren, Evil Eyes twinkling in mischief.
"Better yet." Ren grabbed a marker with his working arm. "What if hypothetically, and I'm just speaking hypothetically, we take them on one on one, not three on three. From what you recounted, Pyrrha, it sounds as if they solely need each other to complement their fighting styles. Mercury acts as the heavy hitter with Emerald distracting and Cinder hitting long-range. Breaking up that team dynamic should prove beneficial."
"You think that might be a better idea?"
He nodded. "Only if they do separate, rather than move as a single unit. Emerald would be at a disadvantage fighting me while Nora's busy fighting Mercury."
"And that leaves me to defeat Cinder." Pyrrha simpered at the possible two scenarios, but then he threw a nasty wrench into the plan. His hand stopped writing on the whiteboard, suddenly realizing the folly of his decision. "Ren?"
The voice of reason for Team JNPR spoke. "Cinder's not just anyone. She has Maiden powers, or at least the other half of Amber's. She's on a whole other league."
Point proved once the silence settled in for them to glare at one another's wounds. One half Maiden nearly wiped them out. What about a trio capable of annihilating a fully-fledged one? Everything about their plan fell apart in that clear, concise realization. Any conventional or prodigy team, maybe, but not one so compelling enough to conquer magic. Suddenly, the notion of calling Ozpin for help echoed in Jaune's ears, forcing him to halt Aura shards production.
He dropped the newest shard. "We should inform the professors then—!"
Pyrrha Nikos refused. No. She bit her lip so hard she tasted iron, reaching out and gripping Sir Scrabbles obstinately. A chill traveled down her spine to the edge of her toes. Everything metallic bent to her will, and she glared at the floor. Reinvigorated bloody Aura heated the chilled atmosphere.
"I know it's selfish. I know it's idiotic, it might even be my pride talking, but I want to fight Cinder for Amber's sake." Pyrrha pleaded with her leader. "Please. Allow me to do this."
Ren didn't share in her view. "It took three of us to beat one half Maiden, Pyrrha. That power's dangerous."
"Believe in me."
Nothing in her tone suggested fear, not champion's pride or stubborn payback, only retribution for a wayward, restless soul. She practically begged her leader to make an impossible judgment call, to toss her into the open inferno, to pray she came out the other side burned free. Inexcusable. Pyrrha remained a standing pillar in the face of unbeatable odds, a champion that made crowds cheer for her unconquerable soul.
The Invincible Girl.
His breathed because understood where she was coming from. "Very well. If Cinder notices the professors acting differently, she might run. We cannot allow her to think anything's up if this plan's going to work. So we either fight them three on three, or one on one. All of it depends on how they move."
Ren capped his marker. "It's risky."
"Ren?" Jaune almost rolled his eyes. "We past risky a few stops ago."
"Yup-yup!" Nora added, drawing a pair of gruesome teeth on the board. "We're in the monster's jaws. But that's okay because we're going to smash his teeth in."
Unbelievable. Pyrrha concerned herself with her team's willingness to jump into the jowls of evil with such conviction. Then she glanced down at Sir Scrabbles, a creature of twilight, one made of Lore—the darkness that shielded her lost soul from the insufferable light—and tenderly hugged their team's sloth. Jumping into the monster's jaws, Pyrrha gently smiled into Sir Scrabbles' fur, that should be their team's motto.
"Speaking of teeth..." Jaune announced, throwing his arms out to reveal the treasure trove of glittering Philosopher's Stones. "I hope yours are ready to chow down."
Various reactions occurred to the gourmet meal presented. Drool spilled out of Nora's mouth. Evil Eyes curved upward ever so slightly. Not even Pyrrha showed immunity to the Aura-rich feast presented to her. Aches, pains, bruises, and ouchies rejoiced. Glorious medicine. First reaction belonged to Nora, who threw her arms up and lunged from the other side of the bed.
A patent Nora Valkyrie hug incoming!
Nora affectionately squeezed Jaune, mindful of his Aura-less and torn body. "You're the bestest leader ever! We don't say it enough, so I'm saying it now so that you don't forget."
She pulled back, poking him squarely in the chest. "And don't you forget it, bestest leader."
"Remember to eat them slowly and spread them out." Jaune warned, patting Nora on the noggin. "We don't want a repeat of last time and waste them."
One salute later. "Gotcha! Gimmie! Gimmie!"
Orange lightning raced over toward the pile. Pyrrha spread her amused smile. Eating too many at one time sounded what Nora had planned. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the point-of-view, Ren controlled her consumption. Relief instantaneously washed over their decrepitated bodies with color returning to bruised spots on their skin. Tickled pink, Nora giggled, fretting over Ren's lip-curling smile. Her entire figure vibrated in static jolts, reverberating with life as she placed a comforting hand over his cast. Then she got the wondrous idea of signing his cast with the markers nearby, eyes brighter than ever since the Maiden incident.
Pyrrha moved to discreetly point at the two with Jaune, pausing when she noticed his pained grimace.
Oh. Right. Healing came at a steep cost. Aura acted as his only painkiller. While everyone else healed, he purposely prolonged his injuries for their sake. A noble sacrifice that would not be in vain. That she promised as she chewed her lip and sat next to her partner, frowning from the way Jaune winced and then laid on the bed, making sure not to move unless he unconditionally had to.
"What remains of your Aura?"
He raised a brow. "What Aura?"
Her head whipped ever so fast that the whiplash of her hair stung her skin. "None whatsoever?"
"Not a drop." Jaune weakly snickered at the way Nora lovingly fed Ren and rubbed his newly hearted cast arm. "But that's okay. You guys need it more. So, help yourself."
"... Are you sure?"
He crooked his head on the pillow, sharing his ever-growing grin. A weakened arm moved over the pile, grabbed a Philosopher's Stone, and firmly planted it into her palm.
"Stop worrying about me." Jaune forced her fingers to intertwine over the gem. "And worry about yourself for a change. I'll be fine. Promise."
Warmth from the gem spread throughout her pores. It called to her. Relieving Aura beckoned to alleviate her body. She attempted to pry her fingers open and demand Jaune to regain some of his former strength, but Aura-less digits stubbornly kept hers from opening. A pained expression said to trust him as she asked him to believe in her.
"As long as your sure."
He rolled his eyes ever so playfully. "Hey, I'm not the one fighting. If anything, it's you I should be worried about. You're the one one fighting a Half-Maiden by yourself."
Ever so optimistic, she pulled her arm away and stuffed the shard into her mouth. Greedy teeth chomped and munched on the crystal, sighing when enchanting Aura filled her nerves and pores with lifegiving energy. Asking her not to smile from the relief asked a dying Huntsmen not to give it their all on a final attack. Not enough, Pyrrha's body had more damage to reverse, but with the bounty of shards on the bed and tomorrow to come, she rejoiced and placed a delicate palm over her partner's chest.
"Get some rest, bestest leader."
Team JNPR slept peacefully that night in an academy lurking with nefarious monsters.
Tomorrow came faster than anyone expected.
Sleeping earlier had done little to make the clocks slow down. All of the student body fretted, frazzled, and overall frenzied over the impending dance with last-minute setups taking place. Some ran to purchase a tuxedo. Others panicked over dresses or dates.
Not Team JNPR.
Nora and Pyrrha woke up first—a sign of the apocalypse or life-changing events to come—and brought breakfast for the more marred half of their team. No, the irony wasn't lost on Nora and Pyrrha, who once needed the same treatment in the woods. Aura shards already molded their bodies and mitigated or eradicated much of the pain. Some remained behind with Ren still suffering the most. A general consensus followed that he deserved the Leo's share of the next batch. Until their lazy leader woke up, Nora made it her life's mission to feed Ren.
Ren, for once, accepted the unhealthy breakfast and indulged himself. Rarely he ate anything so fatty or starched with butter, but Nora's excitement from his first bite sealed the deal. He opened his mouth, bit down, and gazed over at Pyrrha, who mixed a bowl of oatmeal for their still snoozing leader before Nora cooed and pushed another helping into his mouth. Rinse and repeat, they acted all normal without a care in the room, pretending their imminent engagement wasn't much later in the day.
He flexed his fingers.
Better. Much, much better. Those Aura shards packed a game-changing punch when needed most. Was this how Jaune felt whenever he used his Aura in combat? Ren idly noted to purchase a fruit basket for his leader when all this was over. Waiving such promising strength for their benefit threw the Sandman's sand into his sumptuous Evil Eyes.
He swore on his clan's integrity to help him win the Vytal Tournament when all this was over.
For now, he playfully munched and gnawed on the next bit of pancake Nora shoved into his mouth. Enjoying the peaceful moments mattered more than dwelling on woes. Nora happily agreed so, sitting on his bed with her knees bunched together, hand soothingly placed on his injured arm. That only lasted until he swallowed his food. By then, she removed her hand to feed him another piece. Just more of the rinse and repeat nonsense he came to love.
Ren delayed his chewing. Nora froze. Jaune was finally waking up. Before he made a move to stop her, with Pyrrha nonchalantly moving out of the way, Nora discarded his breakfast plate into his salubrious hand and pounced. Nearly predictably unpredictable nature jolted with lightning reflexes. She sprang over to her leader and leaned over his body, almost in a ninety-degree angle, noses practically touching with her electrifying smile showing all teeth. Someone blinked when their eyes finally opened to find vibrating turquoise staring back, and it wasn't Nora.
"Look who's finally awake, sleepyhead."
"You look much better." Jaune said dryly.
She moved back, throwing a mock one-two combo in the air. "Feel much better! A little bit more Aura juice, and then I'll be raring to go and kick Mercury butt!"
Ren wordlessly shared in her enthusiasm. His body overall felt better. Not everything worked a hundred percent—internal and external damage still prevalent—but it wasn't as noticeable as yesterday. More Aura from the shards should repair what corruption remained. He couldn't say the same for his leader. Sleep acted as the only pain killer to his body, including whatever Aura recharged the previous night, and now he held back his power to converse resources for more Aura shards. He knew that much with his refusal to sit up.
Pyrrha knew too, holding a hot plate of food for him. "Excuse me, Nora. I've brought Jaune his breakfast."
Breakfast? Nora quickly peeked at his food and just as swiftly grimaced. Oatmeal?! Bleh! Double bleh! Triple bleh! Bleh with a capital bleh! She backed away from her hapless leader and opted to finish feeding Ren the good stuff. Sloth King wisely chewed on his food, choosing not to anger the Valkyrie.
That nasty reaction strenuously pushed Jaune to sit up and inspect his so-called meal. Someone mimicked that yucky face, and it wasn't Nora. "Oatmeal?"
Pyrrha pouted her cheeks and tenaciously pressed the oatmeal filled spoon against his lips. "Eat it. I'm not bringing you anything else."
"You've turned against me. My own partner."
Pyrrha Nikos' intelligent and bulletproof retort came in the form of poking his lips firmer.
Ren envied him.
Momentarily considering the idea of switching breakfast partners for more suitable taste palates, a solid pancake bit pushed against his lips with Nora's eyes conveying the silent message of don't even try it, buster. Not a chance. He appreciatively ate his fill with Nora booping his nose with a syrup-stained fork.
"So? What's the plan?" Ren asked between mouthfuls.
He shrugged to the best of abilities. "The dance isn't until tonight. I have plenty of time to finish the last batch of Aura shards. For now, I don't know, go mingle."
"And what about you?"
"Me?" Jaune hugged his covers tight. "I'm not leaving this bed for the next few hours."
"That's for the best." Pyrrha scooped up more deliciously nutritious breakfast for him. "After you finish your breakfast, I'll bring you a good book to read."
"... You're trying to kill me, aren't you?"
A cavity-inducing simper said one thing, the steaming oatmeal with shredded blueberries told him to shush and finish his breakfast before it got cold. Ren decided best to consume the rest of his meal before he headed off to plan some unfinished business. Quick forkfuls of buttery goodness, courtesy of the Pancake Queen, made that into a reality. Never once she offered him a beverage with him only now realizing said drink didn't exist.
A drink first and then unfinished business.
"All done!" Nora singsonged. She set the plate aside and perked up next to him. "What do you want to do now, Ren? Jaune and Pyrrha look a little busy."
Busy correlated to the way that Pyrrha force-fed Jaune, making sure he ate every bit. Said leader glared. An ineffective tactic, only rewarding him with grander spoonfuls. Ren saw no reason to save him and got up. Changing out of his nightwear wasn't so difficult, putting on his cloak made him look inadequate and downright silly. Laughter, Nora shook her head with her dimples showing, cheeks blooming a honeysuckle hue, and aided him by snatching the cloak from his incompetent arm.
"How about Vale?" Nora offered. She pushed one arm through his sleeve. "Maybe a movie with some overpriced popcorn and soda?"
As much as he enjoyed spending a ludicrous amount of lien on large popcorn, he apologetically frowned, bouncing his shoulder to get the fur on just right. "Sorry, Nora, I have to talk to someone first. Then we can head to Vale."
She stretched the other sleeve, holding it apart so he could easily slide his bandaged arm inside. Blinking, her head tilted with innocence as he bounced that other shoulder so that Lore's properties fitted perfectly to his body frame.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Lie Ren mentally prepared himself for whatever berating and accusations laid waiting for him behind this treacherous door. Noise permitted inside. A ruckus ensued. Lady Luck blessed him this moment as the person he desired to talk to threw open the door with her flustered teammates arguing about fog machines, dollies, and the serving of fish. Somehow, even when drawing the one in fourth chance, he still felt unlucky in life.
"Ruby." Ren quickly spoke so she couldn't interrupt. "After the dance, we train. Just as promised."
Wide-eyed silver eyes blinked in shock, jaw slightly skewed before she regained her bearing, crossed adorable arms, and narrowed her sights with milk-loving cuteness. "I thought you forgot."
He offered no apology. "Our early mission took priority. As you can see, I needed a few days of recuperation."
Her body language softened. "Oh? How is it?"
"It's nothing but a fracture. My Aura will have it healed by tomorrow, Sunday the latest." Ren gradually lifted his non-bandaged arm, showed Ruby how perfectly fine it looked, and before she realized her mistake, he tapped her on the forehead. "We start Monday. Be prepared."
He skillfully dodged her messy attempt to poke him on the forehead, sliding away with the ease of his Lore cloak turning his body into weightlessness. Revenge never came for one Ruby Rose, pulled back inside by her yelling partner by the threads of her combat skirt. Not as if she didn't try, gripping the side of the door before her elder sister needed her opinion too to—in her yelling words, not theirs—put Weiss in her place. Ironically, Ren agreed with the assessment of a fog machine, knowing it might help in slipping through the party-goers.
Somewhere, something, Ruby screamed in the room, followed by a loud bang.
A ghost of a smile edged his lips from how he yearned for the simpler times before everything crashed and burned around them. Who would have thought he missed the strawberry short stack? Getting crushed in an iron-sand coffin supposedly did that. Seemed so long ago when it only happened recently. Somehow he looked forward to training with Ruby, if nothing else, to bring a sense of normalcy to the function of Team JNPR.
So he turned with a slight kick in his step, and right into Nora, who had her hands perched on her hips, clearly frustrated with this sudden development. Hn? Troublesome. He had neither the strength or the appropriate speed to outpace her, sluggish from a fatty breakfast two serving sizes too much. Ren merely accepted her accusation-filled pokes to his heart covered cast.
"What am I supposed to do while you're busy kicking Ruby's butt?"
"I'm not expecting to train her for too long. A week or two tops." Ren effortlessly grabbed her finger. "And for your entertainment, I'm sure something will come up. In case you haven't noticed, we're not lucky enough for anything else."
Nora humphed in a very Weiss-like manner, puffing out her cheeks in what demanded nothing short but a compelling movie date with extra salty snacks and movie filled explosions before, and he quoted, kicked bad guy butt. Someone, anyone, shoot him point-blank for finding the out-of-character jealousy so remarkably adorable.
"That better be true."
Lie Ren returned to the dorm room—after half a day of watching and sneaking into movies—and discovered his leader standing on his feet, recently showered, half-dressed for the dance in advance with a bundle of Aura shards glowing on Pyrrha's bed in glistening temptation. The sun hadn't yet set, decorating the horizon with the dance closing the gap within the next two hours.
Right now, the Aura expert and Lore user fumbled with his tie with his jacket lifeless on his bed. Bothersome. That left the question to his partner's whereabouts since helping him fumble his band always fell to her hands, precisely how he aided Nora every morning with hers.
Jaune grumbled, hating the complexity of ties. "Something about vantage points."
Surveying the potential battlefield, Ren wished he thought of that. His only idea involved Dust. Too late now. He checked the time on his Scroll before searching for his own dance clothing, entering and exiting the closet with his outfit in a Nora-proof plastic bag that read Please Touch. Of course, she ignored it for everything else. He almost chuckled at the thought of her squeezing around the pocket to reach for things behind it.
Tossing the bag onto his bed, he shot a quick glare over to the blood eyes peeking underneath Nora's bed before noticing the way his leader groaned from moving too much. Sir Scrabbles sensed his panicked before it ever hit him.
"How are you standing so easily without Aura?"
"Lore. Gravity and such. I'm lighter on my feet." Jaune exhaled smoothly enough, cracking his neck. "Don't be fooled. Everything hurts. I just make it look easy."
Understatement of this bizarre century. Ren cast a glance toward the pile of Aura shards and helped himself, seizing a few before consuming one in moderation. Energy pored throughout his body, down to his cellular structure, bone marrow, and nervous system. More aches vanished. Noticeable limitations, as in limping and slowed motor function, improved with his breathing growing bit by bit easier. His natural Aura benefited greatly from the boosted flow.
He ate another one.
More improvements from the enhanced regeneration and he stretched his body to crack joints into place. Consideration of another stopped once he spotted a blackened gem rested on the pillow, weak on cold darkness. Ren calmly grabbed it, holding it up to the window's streaming light to get a better look. He feared naught the power, nor Sir Scrabbles, too, who hid underneath the bed.
"You're making another one of these?"
His leader finally squeezed the tie just right before turning around to address him. All his features softened. "Yeah. I once thought this power was dangerous, but now I know it protects in other ways. Besides..." Jaune waved one hand dismissively. "It helps by stopping my muscles from expanding too much."
More or less, Ren agreed. His reservation for the crystal itself borderlined on iffy. It wrecked Nora but saved Pyrrha. A situational shard for all pretenses, especially since creating them took an astronomical amount of time compared to their counterparts. So he made no backhanded comment and tossed the shard over to his leader when he extended his palm out.
"Fair enough, but don't overwork yourself. Having you collapse on the dance floor is going to raise a lot of eyebrows."
His leader chuckled harmlessly and caught the Lore shard. "Yeah. Don't remind me." Jaune then grabbed his jacket and swung it over his shoulders. "If you need me, I'll be on the rooftop."
"Dare I ask why?"
"To stargaze." Of all responses, Ren never expected that one. He then moved past him and waved out the door. "I'll be back within the hour."
His chance to stop him slipped past his fingers. He scowled, forgetting how headstrong Jaune acted sometimes. Two peas in a pod him and his partner were, never knowing their limits. Shaking his head, he removed his cloak and shirt, shirtless with bandages wrapped tightly around his frame. One-by-one, he peeled off the few he no longer needed, taking extra precaution to move deliberately slow. More parts of his body required another dose of Aura, but he limited himself for at least another hour, allowing what festered to apply diligently. Overloading his Aura network with anymore requested for backlash.
He learned that much from reading The Constellations and watching Nora short circuit.
Speaking of the short stack, orange-haired succubus, Nora Valkyrie booted the door open. Some of the room rattled. Sir Scrabbles popped out for his daily cuddling. She didn't disappoint, swooping in to tackle her Grimm and squeeze in tight as if they weren't preparing to battle three megalomaniacs within the next few hours. Cheek to cheek, she cooed and then grinned majestically from the pile of Aura shards awaiting consumption. One she ate for herself, feeding Sir Scrabbles another, both shivering from the ingestion of Aura.
Ren carefully noted to discuss that with Jaune later.
Not the part of Nora eating Aura shards, but her devotion to feeding their Grimm them and its acceptance as those as a source of food. That deserved investigation, but not now. Right now, right this second, he nonchalantly sniffed his bandages and wrinkled his face. Sigh. Ren then moved to close the door before heading for the bathroom.
"Try not to feed Sir Scrabbles any more shards. We need the rest to heal up." Ren mentioned over his shoulder, fetching a towel. "I'll be in the shower."
She chewed another. "Hurry up, smelly, I'm next—and don't use all the hot water!"
Ren made no such promise and purposely bit his tongue.
Hair of this slick and shine demanded expert scrubbing and orange-scented shampoo of the highest pedigree. Quality came at a price. He almost offered her first dibs for that sole reason, Pyrrha then barged into the room, took one flash around the leaderless quarters, looked to Ren for an answer—Rooftop—and promptly left to retrieve her partner after swiping a few shards for herself.
"Like I said." Nora warned a moment after, using Sir Scrabbles' claws to point at his face. "Save me some hot water."
Lie Ren showed restraint where any weaker man would have faltered and hurried.
Jaune Arc stared up at the darkening sky with his stomach in knots.
His opened tux bellowed in the comforting wind blowing in the high rooftops. Crickets chirping in the background almost drowned out his troubling thoughts.
Just not quite.
Everything hurt in his body as if he strained various muscles at the same time in every conceivable direction. Nothing compared to the first time he experienced this pain, and fortuitously some of his Aura repaired a few of the alignments until he decided to split it amongst his team. He spoke the truth when talking to Ren. Lore lightened his body, a contemporary attribute with the addition of vaster control and Ragnarok. He suspected it to be profoundly intuitive, resembling the way Ren's Lore cloak worked, only way less sophisticated and in need of constant control.
Just something to add to The Constellations after the dance.
The Constellations? That name. Its very existence brightened his soul with every star appearing in the blackening sky. Space hovered above him, holding countless specks of lights for him to count. More and more appeared. Leo the Monarch emerged first, followed by the Great Bear, then Scorpio, and finally, Lupus. Other constellations, one he did not know the name to yet, developed. A universe floated above him, telling a story he was incapable of reading.
Ever so slowly, however, that fairytale dimmed. Jaune felt his breath left him. Imagination worked against him today. Some of the stars twinkled into what resembled Penny's radiant smile. A few turned into ones-and-zeroes. His chest thumped in the cruelest of ways, and he gazed away and searched elsewhere. For everything he had accomplished and achieved, Team JNPR's leader looked to the constellations for guidance. Cinder Fall, magical Maidens, screaming Aura, Amber, and death. Things were unraveling so fast with little time for him to breathe. Those specks in the distant sky painted an unimaginative picture, glowing bright with the darkness creeping over the land. He got lost counting them, squinting as mismatched constellations created complex designs.
There's an old wives' tale that's as old as history itself... it tells of a time when scholars used to look to the stars for answers and guidance.
Jaune Arc fancied himself an Aura scholar. Creating and forging weapons from the manifestation of his soul took more than spirit and hard work to achieve. By that standard, he deserved to search the infinite cosmos for answers. Professor Goodwitch rightfully said so. Polaris itself shone above him, one of the first to peek through the darkening sky. Its illumination made the others pale in comparison, and he huffed with his hands slipping out his pockets.
That's not just any random star, that's the Polaris, but some call it the North Star. If there's any star you should remember, it's that one.
The North Star.
But to answer your question, the Polaris is special because it guides.
His hand absently reached for the glowing light, making a fist that grabbed nothing but air. Guidance right now wouldn't hurt. He was so, so lost. A distraught arm failed to stay hovering in the air for long and fell. Nothing came from his pleas. Polaris shined all the same, far out-of-reach.
Reach for the stars, Jaune. With a little luck, who knows? You might just be able to pull off a miracle and actually grab one.
One day, he promised himself, he would make a miracle a reality. If only the North Star blessed him with a form of guidance.
"What are you doing up here?"
Divine intervention? Jaune held back a snort. Maybe not the cosmos, but he appreciated Oum for the distraction. Turning around halfway showed Pyrrha still wearing her usual combat gear, not yet dressed for the upcoming dance. An Aura shard—or Philosopher's Stone by her terms—rested between her teeth before she confidently crushed it. She glowed in front of him without the need for Outer Space, sighing in blissful relief.
He flicked his head toward the infinite horizon. "Stargazing."
The way her eyebrows curled, along with the slight tilt of her head, said he told her something childish, but she amusingly shook her head and moved closer to button up his suit. One button, two buttons, three buttons, four, she smothered his outfit, fixing imaginary wrinkles with her eyes brighter than any star out tonight. She finished, looked up, and lowered her voice by a few decibels.
"Do you remember the last time we were up here?"
"No." Jaune answered honestly. "Do you?"
"Somewhat." Pyrrha backed away, content with her handiwork. "I remember tossing you around like a ragdoll, but most of those days blurred together."
He chuckled and straightened his hair. "Sometimes, it seems like a dream, and I'm happy that it's not."
"Imagine if it was?" Pyrrha hid a growing smirk behind her palm. "Right now, I can picture your old self asking Weiss out to the dance with that distorted guitar of yours."
"Hey! Don't mock El Diablo. Besides Crocea Mors, it's all I came with."
"It's a miracle you survived this long."
He snorted playfully. "Oh, yeah? Did anyone even ask you? I can't recall anyone knocking on our door with a bundle of flowers, asking for the Pyrrha Nikos."
She snorted. "No. And for that, I'm glad. Might have made things far more complicated tonight."
Taking down three criminals bent on destruction, what a way to remember their first dance as a team, but it worked surprisingly well considering their flawless track history. Either nothing happened tonight, or everything changed. Only time would tell. Jaune rubbed his neck at the thought, breathing in easier with Pyrrha next to him. She noticed his jumbled emotions, his mismatched tie, and gently forced him around to both talk and fix the atrocity of what he called good enough.
She tugged him harshly to make her point and get her message across. "We're going to win."
"I know you will." Jaune smirked, pointing up. "It's written in the stars."
Her tie fumbling stopped, twisting her face into something resembling a giggle and hiccup. "Excuse me, Jaune, but that's the definition of corny."
Placing his hand on his chest, he picked a thick accent. "First, El Diablo and now my pick up lines? You're cruising for a bruising, Miss Nikos."
Pyrrha offered a smirk of her own, tugging his tie correctly with a harsh pull before backing away a few steps. Slender arms sunk in her pockets, retrieving the last shard she swiped from the room, dangling it just out-of-reach. She placed the lifegiving gem between her teeth, pulled her long gloves back, and openly ate the Aura shard.
Skillful challenges equaled coequally skillful comebacks, and Pyrrha acted intentionally cold-blooded by eating a second Aura shard right in front of him, holding her arm up to show a bruise healing in record time from accelerated regeneration. Was she guilty of her actions? She grinned too coyly to tell.
"I've got bruises covered, Mr. Arc."
Jaune, with his weakened body, pushed her shoulder for his ultimate comeback. The teasing acted nothing more than a distraction to the gruesome trials that awaited them. Dance the night away? That was a best-case scenario, purely lucked based, and having their own walking bad luck charmed screwed them over on that. They knew the odds never favored them, not from the moment their team got selected as a contender in the Vytal Tournament, from their first fight, and so forth. Tonight, though, they had one thing going for them.
The element of surprise.
Every unfavorable battle happened when their defenses were down. Cruelty followed them, enemies took advantage, and their engagements carried costly mistakes and undesirable penances. Somehow they persevered. Jaune showed Pyrrha his limitless strength. Ren defeated the Sloth King. Team JNPR saved her lost soul. Nora bought them just enough time to keep their team intact. Now, they took the fight to the unaware enemy.
Things weren't looking up just yet, but they weren't looking down anymore.
Jaune thought so too, sleeving her glove back up her bruised free arm. For all his aches and pains, he made an impressive show of not having them, but she knew better and stepped away.
Pyrrha Nikos only wanted this night to be over. "We better hurry. The dance starts in an hour."
"We could always be fashionably late."
She honestly considered it for all but four seconds. Nope. Not a chance in this lifetime or another. Not with lives on the line, monsters running amok, and with the power to stop it. One or two more Aura shards would repair what little damage her soul and body sustained still. So she wordlessly said no and urged him to follow.
Jaune Arc only sighed.
He straightened his properly fixed tie and hid his palms in his pockets, before shooting one final glance up into outer space. Polaris shined brightly in the blanket of stars, unwavering, unmoving, a lucky star. Possibly his lucky star. Perhaps he was wrong the first time. The North Star might not have guided him per se, but his stomach wasn't wrapped in tight knots anymore.
"Guess I owe Professor Goodwitch a thank you later."
Not just for her advice. Everything. Once all this finally blew over, and they defeated Cinder and her team, he contemplated asking her for more lessons of stargazing. So many stories awaited him yet. He wanted to hear them all from the one-time astronomer.
I was a bit of a geek for astronomy when I was younger. People used to call me a nerd.
Jaune Arc figured if that was the case, then his combat professor deserved a section in The Constellations, if nothing else, then for inspiring the name of his Aura notebook, but under what one-of-a-kind title? He pondered, stretching his growing smile from everything he learned from her, both in fighting prowess and life lessons. His mentor. His teacher. Someone outside his team who showed belief in him and acted as the Mother of the Stars. So she deserved the best. Something with a unique ring to it and rolled off the tongue so elegantly that children's books envied her name, and he figured out just the signature when sparing the Polaris one last look as a shooting star soared through the Milky Way Galaxy.
Glynda Goodwitch of the North Star.
Nora Valkyrie walked out of the bathroom with a bright pink towel wrapped snuggly around her body, humming a delightful tune with her hair dripping wet.
All of that stopped in a lightning crackling heartbeat.
She guiltlessly blinked when she found Ren staring out the window with his back turned to her, he stood there shirtless, wearing only his dress pants. Every bandage he previously had laid on the floor, all except the one he currently undid. Accelerated restoration renewed what else remained of his old injuries. No more sluggish movements, internal pains, or flinching, Lie Ren thrived back in tiptop shape. Body fat? Uh, nope. Nothing but cemented flesh—still dripping in moisture—stood before her.
Not everything healed properly. Scars were inevitable from the collisions of iron sand particles piercing flesh. Unforgiving time and a little bit of bad luck made sure they festered long enough to form. Flawless skin no longer existed for one Lie Ren. Not that Miss Valkyrie minded too much. She cooed from the way they stretched on his taut muscles. Somehow those highlighted his already handsome features. Shoulder blades deliciously weakened her state of mind, slowing things down to a sloth's pace.
Nora never considered herself a prude. Life was much too short for that trivial nonsense. Countless times she changed in the same room as Ren, forgoing modesty for convenience, but things were different now. Removing clothes with Ren nearby thumped her heart harder than any Manghild smash. A dynamic shift she welcomed with greedy, opened arms.
In fact, she tiptoed over and sneak hugged him from behind, scratching her fingers across crevices of stone in lightning flash speed. Dummy refused to blush, willpower impressive with years of buildup due to her previous prancing around. Oh? Oh! Challenge accepted. Nora squeezed from behind tightly, hoping her gazungas might get more of an honest reaction. Devious Nora acted naughtily, trailing her slender digits up his torso and over his broad shoulders. Halfway she rubbed his forearms, squeezing compacted mass with buttery soft skin. She felt him stiffened when she grew bold, playing with his abs.
A smirk dawned on her lips.
Ren then swiftly flipped over, capturing her wrists in a deadlock. Well, one wrist. Silly ducky, his other hand still had that pesky cast on, but she played nice and tore it off in a fluid motion of superior strength. Off it went with his prize underneath, a working, function hand, courtesy of Aura shards, and one amazing Nurse Nora. Now, for her payment. Mmmmm! He seized her other wrist and leaned over her, glaring so hotly with his imposing torso pressed against her squishy chest.
Nothing but a thin towel separated them.
Their Fearless Leader announced tonelessly from the doorway, standing with a blood-faced, mouth cupped Pyrrha. A recently healed Ren flew over to his bed by a dominating shove before a tomato cheeked Nora rushed to the bathroom to change in a speed Ruby only wished she could run. Aura specialist and The Invincible Girl stood collectively still, raising eyebrows when Ren dusted himself off, acting so in character that she pinched herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
Pyrrha stifled a building smirk.
The first time she ruined one of their moments, ergo flour-covered kitchen, chef strike, pastry camouflage, she sympathized with Nora and apologized profusely in her head. This time not so much. Nope, nope! She even had Jaune to share in the blame, the same leader who crossed his arms with authority he rarely used.
"Am I going to have to separate your beds?"
"Don't be absurd." Ren cracked his recently healed joints. "We can control ourselves."
He arched that eyebrow and chose to grant Ren the benefit of the doubt. More substantial issues were here, so he shrugged it off and rested on his bed as the clock tick-tocked. Very few of the Aura shards remained, four to be exact, lessening by two when both Pyrrha and Ren grabbed one more to consume. Not to fix their bodies, but to recharge what Aura depleted throughout the healing process. Jaune risked some damage to up his concentration and gauged their Aura reserves.
Pink and blood Aura shined respectively from the influx.
"You'll need one more, Ren. Take it before you fight." Jaune informed. He grinned at his partner. "And you're raring to go, Pyrrha."
Ren grabbed the last two. "What about Nora?"
Said short stack walked out the bathroom right on cue, changed into her pink hearted dress with her hair perfectly sculpted. Small traces of a blush refused to wash away, no matter how desperately she tried. Neither Jaune or Pyrrha teased her with the redhead rushing into the bathroom to change into her evening dress.
He focused on her. "Nora, concentrate on your Aura. I need to see where you're at." Nora grinned, blush vanishing. Turquoise Aura illuminated in Outer Space, nearly rejuvenated. "Perfect. She only needs one more shard."
Everything fell into plan. Ren handed her the remaining shard and pocketed the last one. While Nora chewed on the last of the rock candy, he finally fitted on a shirt and tux. Just as fast, Pyrrha emerged from the bathroom in her sleek, crimson dress. Not a wrinkle was seen or hair out of place. Team JNPR was the epitome of fancy. A shame they expected fewer hip-shaking and more body slamming for this wondrous night. Choreography was their game, and Team JNPR was their name.
Jaune fixed his cuff links. "Before we head for the dance, put your combat gear in your weapons locker. You guys can't just show up with your weapons."
Someone grumbled, guaranteed Nora, and the trio summoned their handy-dandy weapons lockers to their bedroom. Crashing never happened with Pyrrha capturing them mid-flight with her Semblance, pulling them inside via window. She kicked hers opened first, hiding her combat gear, blood-soaked weapons, and some leftover Dust inside. Nora pushed past her to drop her Dust canisters, but Ren held her back and fitted her locker with StormFlower and a few rounds of ammunition before shutting the lid closed.
She rolled her eyes at the needless gesture of chivalry. "Don't worry about me, Ren! I can totally beat Mercury's butt—!"
"... Oh. Right. Oopsie, I forgot." Nora growled and held her hands up. Another one-two combo! "It's fine. I'll just use my fists."
He clasped his fingers around those battle stained hands. "No. You need a weapon. So I'm giving you mine."
She frowned. "What about you?"
"I have a weapon." Ren pulled out a dagger his deceased mother bestowed him. "And I'm much better suited for hand-to-hand combat compared to you. Take StormFlower."
She knew arguing was pointless. "Fine! Just don't be mad when I break them."
He grabbed her cheek. "We'll repair Magnhild when this is over."
"Ren, you and I both know there's nothing left to repair. Magnhild's gone. Dust to the wind!" Nora played off her weapon's demise as nothing, but Ren saw right through her, so she gently relaxed into his tender touch. "Are you sure?"
He smiled. "Positive. You've practiced with them."
"I still don't feel right taking these from you."
"Well..." Ren trailed, shooting a diabolical glimpse at her remaining Dust grenades. "There is something you can give me."
Next to them, Pyrrha and Jaune stood ready at the door with their jaws set. She already fired her locker away with Ren and Nora eventually doing the same, just right after Ren borrowed her leftover Dust canisters. Neither of them asked. Jaune just broke away from the group to hold his arms torso length, holding them back from the door.
"Heads up! None of us talked about this, but just in case nothing happens tonight, as your leader, I'm ordering you to have fun tonight."
"And if everything goes horribly wrong?"
He grinned at the bouncing Nora. "Then break all their bones. No holding back."
"Everyone ready?" Jaune was greeted with shuffled nods all around. "Okay! Time to have a dance night that Beacon Academy will never forget."
Nora zigzag slid in between Pyrrha and Ren, seizing both their hands in a magnetized grip to toss them in the air alongside hers. Renewed Aura from a crunching Aura shard caused a massive jolt of static to shock her partners-in-crime. Jaune blessed his lucky stars that Nora only had two arms.
"Alright! Operation: Beat Up the Baddies is a go!"
Jaune Arc surveyed his battlefield with disdain.
Blaring music. Dancing bodies. Fruity punch. Exactly what he expected from a dance Team RWBY helped set up. A strained body groaned from all the unavoidable, foreseeable dancing coming their way, and the Arc mentally apologized for each step. Lore turned his feet feather-light, a twinkle toes of footwork. Playing the distraction. Not the calling card he saw himself playing this musical festival night, somehow the least dangerous of suits compared to the ones his teammates played. Conundrum failed to live up to its overhyped name. Jaune needed a newer, more realistic name for such a situation.
Hn? Would that dictionary he took from that cabin in the woods hold something worth reading? Age certainly befitted that old manuscript. Something to fret over later about, for now, Jaune plastered on his best heroic smile and entered the dance party with his team hanging by his lingering shadow. Partygoers greeted them with Yang Xiao Long acting as the usher, waving them right in with a Cheshire Cat grin. Nora Valkyrie smirked, smashing her fists together, Pyrrha Nikos shared her Hello Again Smile, Lie Ren devoured the last Aura Shard, and Jaune Arc pushed the doors open.
Operation: Beat Up the Baddies was a go!
Innumerable bodies littered the dance floor with the music blaring much louder with the doors flung open. People were getting their groove on, unaware of the wolves hiding in sheep's clothing among them. Fortuitously for those happily frolicking sheep, their trustworthy shepherds sniffed them out, playing dumb with their teeth sharpened.
Jaune's order separated them into two couples. Nora with Ren and Pyrrha with him. He led his partner toward the back of the dance stage, passing by professors, robotic guards, the Headmaster, and General. Some stared, but too many teenagers made them faceless sheep in the herd. Almost immediately, once they found a suitable vantage point, he clasped Pyrrha's hand and rested a palm against her hips, leading her around in an artless waltz, critical for surveillance with the least amount of frivolous movement for his body. Much quicker, they found their targets with Emerald and Mercury sharing a dance.
Then Pyrrha spotted Cinder amongst the sea of faces.
Her blood burned.
"Found her." Pyrrha mumbled into his shoulder. "She's by the wall, watching Emerald and Mercury dancing."
"She's probably waiting to switch with him."
Pyrrha wordlessly agreed, aiding her partner with her dip, and wondered if Ren and Nora found their targets. She hoped so, hugging Jaune tight while peeking over his shoulder and twirling. Then Cinder shoved a mask onto her face and wasted no time, sleeking into the shadows. At first, the champion thought she might mingle and dance, but her evasiveness turned her into an obscuration against the wall.
She forcefully turned Jaune. "Cinder's on the move."
"Already?" Jaune chuckled. "Good thing we weren't fashionably late."
He kept his sights locked on Cinder Fall, dipping Pyrrha to check the eyes watching them. Another twirl, hands clasped tight, and he finished with a final decline with the slow song over. No one yet noticed them, a blessing since he did dance with the four-time champion, sliding her into a butt-shaking rhythm. So they separated, acting exhausted with Pyrrha excusing herself to powder her nose. Which backfired since the second the music stopped, Cinder stopped moving, and they lost their camouflage. His partner faltered for a moment, not knowing how to react when their target refused to move.
Then the music flipped to something more upbeat with fewer people dancing.
"Guess that's my cue."
Dragging Pyrrha back for another dance, especially for one so upbeat, might make them lose their target, but he needed to get people's hips shaking. Reconnaissance was his game, Jaune Arc was his name. Bluish blues searched the dance for a suitable distraction, locking on at silvery ones sipping deliciously nutritious punch.
A classic case of wallflower, punch bowl, leave me alone, I hate dancing, my dumb sister dragged me to this syndrome. Sorry, Rubes, no socially awkward punch bowl tonight, he needed her for reconnaissance work. Lore lightened feet hovered toward his newest dance partner, sliding past hip shakers with ease, even with a muscle torn body.
He never loved adrenaline more than right this second.
Team JNPR's Fearless Leader slid into Team RWBY's Adorable Leader space with more than just an award-winning smile. Not a word was said, Jaune just helped himself to a cup of punch, downed the entire thing in Nora-approved gulp, and moved in for the booty bouncing kill. She never saw it coming, having her attention stolen by his confident strut. Booming music and mindless chit chat failed to drown his voice in the sea of noise.
He extended his hand at the starstruck Rose, grinning with all his teeth showing. "May I have this dance, milady?"
Ruby blinked before experimentally twirling the punch in her cup. "Did Uncle Qrow spike the punch bowl again?"
Ignoring the again comment, he gently seized her palm, planting a slow, tender kiss against soft, pillowy skin. "C'mon, Rubes. One dance. What are you afraid of, falling on your butt?"
"Exactly!" Ruby blushed out of heart-thumping embarrassment, nervousness, and blackmail level of excitement. "I'm not trying to fall on my butt and embarrass myself in front of everyone."
He made that oh face before quickly recovering. "I promise not to let you fall. It'll be fun. Let's shake our butts."
"My butt's not much of a shaker."
"Tonight it is."
A quirky eyebrow rose, along with her signature doubtful smirk. Maybe Uncle Qrow spiked the punch after all because Ruby Rose chugged the rest of her drink, threw caution to the annoying wind, and allowed Mr. Casano-duh to pull her away from the sanctuary of the punchbowl and into the jamming dance floor. Sayanora, awkwardness!
Jaune seized the opportunity.
Seven sisters skills expertly dragged Ruby to the center of the dance floor, holding her body close. "Follow my lead."
"You better not drop me." Ruby fiercely whispered.
Just to have fun with her, Jaune snapped her away before pulling her impossibly close in what transpired in a second. She blinked dumbly, asking what just happened, but he laughed. In that span of a moment, he had twirled her and wrapped a firm arm around her petite back, grinning. Lore already strained from its limited usage. Then he followed up by entwining his fingers around hers, holding one pair close to their bodies with the other pair outstretched far to act as a pointer. Nothing too complicated, except that might be the problem.
No one yet joined them in their merriment.
"Get ready, Rubes." Jaune whispered. "That was just the warm-up."
He twirled her around in a clockwise spin, using his hand as an anchor for her to spin, pulling her close before she dipped back. If she thought that was the worst of it, he surprised her, lifting her body into the air before tossing and catching her without trouble, or at least until her added weight pressed down on his whacked body. Thankfully, Lore saved him, expanding his muscles for only the briefest of moments. Ruby never noticed his grimacing smile, wowing from how effortlessly he moved her body with her doing nothing.
Jaune Arc aimed to please.
He threw her up again, this time rotating her in midair, so that she landed on her feet, dazed. Wonderful! Joyous Ruby giggled, and he grabbed her hips, pulled her in, and joined her. Laughter was contagious for a reason. It pulled other people's awareness and made them the center of attention. Jaune wouldn't dare allow her shyness to ruin her fun and upped the beat, throwing away close-quarter body grooving for something more tasteless and easy to remember.
First, he started with his shoulders, moving to the beats every time a note bounced. Thump, thump, thump! He clapped. She thought him a fool, grinning like one, too. Broad shoulders shook, acting as maracas with his fists pushed up. Dutifully she followed his lead. Perfect! Phase two! Jaune then hovered over her frame, still shaking with her leaning back, very, very confused. Then he rolled away, motioning for her to follow. Realization shone in pure silver. Ruby inclined over him and vice versa, shaking their arms and dipping more between each resonating beat until they appeared to be playing a game of limbo.
Someone soon copied their dance.
Once one couple had fun, others always joined in. Thrilling fun always acted as a good icebreaker. More and more bodies joined them, filling the dance floor with a resonating clap echoing in the background. Ruby understandably flushed from the sudden attention, but gleefully surrendered when he seized her hips again. While everyone praised the dance couple, he purposely held her close to eye the situation of the ballroom. Target at twelve o'clock. Cinder Fall used the recent groovy diversion to slink further away into the shadows, nearing the exit with Pyrrha following from the other side of the discotheque.
Everything went without a hitch.
Then Ruby leaned back, balancing on the soles of her feet, using him as support to check the mass of dancing bodies. She grinned so spaciously that it had to hurt, but her words stabbed his soul and bleeding heart with such an imposing force that he almost stumbled.
"Where's Penny? She should be here having fun, too."
Expert dancer extraordinaire had the air knocked out of his lungs. Breathing harshly, he drew Ruby in, sliding her past his body, pulling her in again, and deeply dipped before resting her against his chest to hide his face in the crook of her neck. She saw nothing strange, shaking with fun while Jaune's eyes grew in size with his palms sweating. Some of his digits slackened, losing precious grip with all the music drowning out into a muted silence.
Everything just slowed down.
Dancing faces turned into blurry figures. Heart pounding thuds bashed against his eardrums. Even his skin lost life with his movements suffering. Penny? Amber? For a fleeting moment, he forgot how to stand, using Ruby's shaking body to keep him on his stumbling feet. No one noticed his inner conflict. His distraction worked a bit too well. Everything around him grew smaller, his sights unfocused, and he looked anywhere for salvations.
Pyrrha's flowing, blood colored hair swayed in the background.
Hollowed breaths steadied with his eyes focusing once more. His lips thinned into a steadfast frown, reverting a once wobbly body into stone.
The operation took priority.
Having a panic attack now would jeopardize everything. Lives were at stake. Monsters lurked so impossibly close that they smelled fresh blood. So, Jaune miserably sighed underneath the blaring music, snapped back to reality, and moved his Lore enhanced feet, going through the motions now with a fake smile plastered. Across from them, hanging by the punch bowl with their sights focused on following Emerald and Mercury, Lie Ren and Nora Valkyrie sipped punch. They offered their leader a look before vanishing into the crowd of dancing bodies. Jaune nodded his head from over Ruby's shoulder, twirling the laughing Rose with the practice of seven sisters guiding him. Ruby grinned, giggling with Penny's murderer in her arms. He kept his smile plastered, biting his inner lip and holding his haunting guilt at check.
He twirled Ruby before dipping with her, using her laughter as a sign to check how Pyrrha was progressing. Uh-oh! Not so good. His booyah moment worked too well with some braver souls asking her for a dance with her politely declining. However, once someone moved in for the kill, others reacted like voracious piranhas. Team JNPR's leader tched, humphed, and clicked his teeth all in that order, pulling Ruby around to spin her a few times. A flash recorded in the background—without a doubt Yang—and he last minute planned as his dance partner threw her head back in blissful, ignorant wonder.
What now? Cinder Fall was sneaking away from the ballroom unnoticed, edging closer to the doors, and too many suitors kept trying to grab Pyrrha's attention for a dance, not counting the diverse eyes on them from both General Ironwood and some of the Beacon staff. Double drat! Eyes from every corner. If Cinder escaped now without Pyrrha managing herself a reliable stealth boundary, then everything would be for naught.
Distraction! Distraction! The Arc needed a distraction.
Something to screech the dance party to a grinding halt and shift all eyes on him, but what? Not Ruby. She was fun, exciting, adorable to the letter, but not rumor mill material. Grabbing her protective sister's attention would be child's play with the right song, but he needed more than the right song, he required the perfect dance partner, but whom?
Who turned heads without trying in this accursed academy?
Nothing came to mind. Jaune tried looking around the ballroom, a fruitless endeavor. Again, no one worth scooping up for the dosey-doe. He frowned while dipping Ruby. Pyrrha couldn't depart without someone noticing her disappearance. Ren and Nora were easy, but he occasionally forgot about his partner's celebrity status. Precious time dwindled during a lazy waltz with Ruby resting her head into his shoulder. He maneuvered for the inevitable twist and turn, prepared to spice it up, an instinctual response to his skill, but the song faded into the background.
A new song?
Ruby abruptly detached from his body, cooling her face by using her palm as a fan. "Phew! Excuse me, Jaune. I really need a drink now."
That solved one problem.
He grinned at the opening. "Don't drink too much, or I'll start calling you Fruit Loop instead of Crater Face."
Ruby playfully stuck her tongue out, one eye closed, and hurried to the divine protection of the punch bowl. He clasped his hands together, checking the speed of the newest song. Another slow song. Piano. Dreadful. Maybe with another uplifting and body shaking tempo, he could attract everyone's attention just long for Pyrrha to slip into the shadows, but Fate loathed him. Fine. Not the song, but the dance partner. Now, whom? He quickly spied over to Yang, only to remember her current standing with her. Weiss busied herself in Neptune's arms and Blake with Sun's. Those were out of the equation.
He internally panicked, noticing people walking away so the newest batch of dancers could approach the floor. Sights shifted left and right. His heart stopped. Tick-tock! Tick-tock! Clock was running out. People were mingling. Suitors kept asking for Pyrrha's hand with Cinder only feet away from exiting the ballroom. No. No! A desperate gambit made him glance toward his professors with his fear dying instantly upon sharing a look with keen emeralds.
Either he withered into obscurity today, or became the talk of the academy tomorrow? Such a tough choice. Option three included the entire dance whispering and then mocking him for invariably failing. Whatever! Desperate times called for suicidal measures. So without missing a beat, he strolled over, slipping past the droids, the student body, all the professors, and offered his hand to a bewildering Glynda Goodwitch. She exchanged a look with his hand, pouting suspiciously
"What are you up to, Mr. Arc?"
"Just dance with me, Glynda."
Every dancing body froze.
Professor Goodwitch pinched her eyebrow at the use of her first name. Bold of him after the fiasco with Miss Valkyrie, but denying her interests after such an extraordinary week was naught. Not like anyone else asked her to dance. She graciously accepted his hand, clasping fingers over his with already half the student body watching them. Whispers erupted once he pulled her into the center of the dance floor, leading her with the ever infamous tango. Smooth.
Lore uplifted his body in his most desperate hour. Jaune clasped a hand around her back and led with an air of confidence most people never saw from the dead last, dipping her downward at the right tempo and twirling her in the nick of time, far beyond what he did with Pyrrha nor Ruby. Deep blues glared at heated emeralds. She bothered not holding back her smirk, allowing the shorter one of the two blonds to lead, quite impressed with how much he held back.
By now, he had everyone's attention with the pace of the music picking up. Slow to fast. He bopped his shoulders and moved to the flow of the music, swaying wildly to the slow beat. Glynda snorted back a laugh, but refused to be shown up by one of her students, especially one so brave as him, and showed Mr. Arc the difference between strutting and bobbing. He moved forward, and she dipped back. Then they reversed. Glynda followed foremost with him leaning backward. Somewhere in the shuffle, she laughed. Jaune smiled and shot a glance over to Pyrrha during the dip, discovering that she hid a playful smirk behind her palm before she steeled her gaze and nodded silently through the exchange.
Warm up over.
Jaune settled on the tango.
Arc and Goodwitch bodies meshed. Glynda raised an eyebrow when he rested his hand on her hip. "You're playing a dangerous game, Arc."
"What can I say? I like to live dangerously."
At the appropriate beat, he tossed her gently up with her kicking her feet for style. She effortlessly slipped into his personal space, weaving her hands with his with such grace that it boiled his blood. A worthy dance partner was hard to find. Jaune boldly accepted the dangerous game of the tango, stretching her arm and strutting in one direction before flipping to the other, synchronizing steps with her. Momentum picked up. She flipped so graciously that he barely registered her back was pressed to his chest, arms now touching her stomach. Still, he held her hand, moving forward before the ever infamous turn demanded spotlight attention.
Slow. Sensual. Glynda twirled with her dress swaying. She trusted her student entirely, posing all her weight onto his arms as her body bent in a lowcut angle with one arm clasped around his back and other thrown out to the onlookers. He did not disappoint, staking his Arc pride on not only perfecting the move but following with the dreaded body leans imposing on his weakened body. Breaths mingled. Jaune grinned while Glynda smirked in tango supremacy.
One long strut, then two, three, and four, they moved with another spin fast approaching, but before that move, he braced himself for her to lean her body against his chest with one leg arched into his pelvis. That wasn't even the worse part. He not only held her back with an arm above his head, but forcefully pulled her body a few inches with her entirety rested upon him.
Even Cinder Fall stopped to watch the fairytale magic happen.
Okay! Final spin approaching. Only this one required her to wrap her legs around his waist, backward. The lead demanded precision, too. He spun alongside her with her kicking one leg up during each turn, holding him close as their combined momentum built. Dangerous emeralds asked if he was ready? Jaune only responded by hefting her so she could kick her feet in opposite directions. Glynda smirked, wrapped one leg around his, and carried the impulse into a spin that had her jumping and wrapping herself around him. Lore saved him. The music drowned out his groan.
Now, for the last flashy slice of the tango.
They stopped when her feet touched the floor, glared at one another, and strutted confidently into the far end of the ballroom. Separating, Glynda moved away, linked by his hand, and Jaune led her into the final move by pulling hard. Driving momentum allied with him. She waltzed right into him, Jaune lifted her whole body, and she twirled onto his back and spun into his body, coming down to revisit their first spin with her leg wrapped around his body. Lasting energy carried them both over, she whirled, declined far, a firm hand rested on the small folds of her back, and everything ended with him pulling her back up to limp in his arms to draw the crowd.
The crowd clapped into a frenzy with everyone cheering for an encore. Exactly what the leader and partner hoped for as Pyrrha swiftly strutted outside the ballroom, she fixed her free-flowing hair into place, clasping her metal head-guard while peeling off her heels. More, more, the crowd excessively cheered. He bounced upward before he saw her reaching for her Scroll to call upon her weapon's locker, coming back to grin at Glynda's analyzing smirk. Uh-uh. No time for any of that.
The crowd cheered for an encore.
Team JNPR's leader aimed to please.
This time he clasped her wrist and vibrated his shoulders in a wave-like motion, strutting his body to follow along, and his professor matched his movements down to the swish-wash of flexing fingers. Jaune Arc ruled the dance floor, capturing everyone's attention with his rhythmic expert noodle moves. Everyone clapped, clapping to the beat with a circle around him and Professor Goodwitch.
Not one soul noticed Pyrrha Nikos slip out the back and stalk Cinder Fall.
Flocking on the dance floor, Nora pouted with her arm wrapped tightly around Ren's. "Not fair. Look at our leader and professor. Our first dance, and we can't even enjoy it."
"At least you got to see our leader dance." Ren flinched. Not the right thing to say. "I'll make it up to you later."
She traced a finger up his torso. "You better. Nora's need affection three times a day, and you've been holding back for years."
"Pinky promise." Ren pulled her toward his chest and rotated Nora to get a better look at their targets. "Eyes on the prize, Nora."
A difficult thing to ask of Nora with back turned, but a newer prey walked inside the deadly ballroom. Her fingers dug into Ren's back with her sour mood growing more acidic. Forget Mercury, this person's bones were her newest priority.
Qrow Branwen himself showed up fashionably late to the party with his broken arm in a cast and a flask in his other.
He eyed the children dancing and creased his nose at the sight before downing another whisk of the good stuff. He stopped midway, however, tentatively lowering his container upon noticing Glynda—the Glynda Goodwitch—dancing with that Arc kid and having a grand old time. A crowd of onlookers cheered them on. Huh? Before he even searched, James approached him, still missing an arm from when the champion tore it apart.
"Did you spike the punch?" James demanded point-blank, holding a glass of punch.
A valid question.
"Beats me." Qrow eyed the fruity concoction, twirling the drink when Jimmy handed it to him. "But it sounds like something I would do."
The General sighed, reaching for Qrow's flask. So rare to see the guy indulge himself with alcohol that Qrow openly allowed him full reign over his quality stash. Losing an arm brought out the worst in people. Point taken with the beefed up security around a children's dance. Adolescents, none of them were trustworthy, especially the blond mane of sun-kissed yellow running up to him with her Scroll in hand.
"Guess what!" Yang's smirk said everything and more. "Ruby actually danced."
Oh? "The squirt danced?"
"Yup! Check it out."
True to her word, the images and one video showed Ruby shaking her butt to the music with that Arc kid. She appeared to love every second of it, throwing caution to the wind. Interesting. Qrow never pegged the socially inept scythe wielder as a body mover. Definitely needed some work, but she showed endless spirit. Yang thought so too, or so he assumed with the way she critically glared at the video.
Something told him she might be staring at the blondie instead. "What was she doing before?"
"Drinking punch by the punch bowl." Yang answered smoothly.
Come again? Qrow gave the fruit punch in his hand a critical glare of his own. He smelled the concoction, not sensing any alcohol. A quick taste test showed nothing, but then again, an excellent mixer blended the flavor perfectly. Qrow Branwen fancied himself a connoisseur in that regard. So, yeah, huh?
He really wasn't sure if he spiked the punch.
Maybe he mixed the brew yesterday? Better safe than sorry. Qrow then drank the whole glass, not one for allowing satisfying liquid courage to go to waste. He needed more to tease the squirt some. A few more should suffice, so he walked toward the punch bowl, passing by a couple who flinched in his presence.
Two thieves danced away from him as one of them almost had a mini heart attack.
Emerald Sustrai never believed in coincidence. People created their own luck, but now she questioned the deity of Lady Luck. Qrow Branwen, Mr. Scarecrow himself, stood twenty feet away from her and Mercury, drinking a cup of punch with his arm wrapped in a cast, decorated with scythes and gloved drawings. More than once, he had derailed their plans. Seeing that troublemaker in a suit and tie irked her, but gut feeling stopped her from lunging forward and firing a bullet at his drunken heart. Not out of fear, but self-preservation. Mostly, however, it was because she danced in a room of semi-combat professionals, and the other half because she believed the bandage a fake at best.
Once she gave up her location, all Grimm hell would break loose and rain down retribution upon them.
Not like things weren't already awful. Ever since James Ironwood lost his arm, he upped his security detail, practically covering every square inch of Beacon Academy with surveillance drones and security. That caused an upsurge and jeopardized their plans. Cinder only managed to slip through the shadows once he attended the dance, bringing a hefty amount of his force with him.
Now they had Qrow Branwen breathing down their necks, too?
Mercury miraculously pulled her close. "Please tell me you see him?"
She hissed and dipped her head into his chest. "Shut up and follow my lead. I have a plan. Keep spinning until we hit the wall. We'll sneak out the escape exit."
She felt his eyes rolling. "That's your so-called plan?"
"Got a better one?"
Silence, then. "Tch! Hurry up. It's hard leading someone with two left feet."
A thief's pride took a substantial blow. Two left feet? Two left feet! "First of all, who's leading whom? And second, at least I got two left."
"Ha-ha, pick on the crippled, real original."
Any other day, Emerald baited the challenge, not today. She followed through with her astonishing plan, hugging the wall. Unbeknownst to them, not needing to hide, Nora Valkyrie and Lie Ren spotted their unusual behavior and took note of how they edged closer toward the exit. King and Queen ended their reception, calmly excused themselves for the night, and offered their prestigious leader one farewell glance before chasing after running thieves.
When Jaune Arc finished his second dance with Glynda Goodwitch, bowing while she curtseyed, no one even realized he danced alone.
He left it all up to them while playing the distraction in a crowd of faceless onlookers.
Emerald Sustrai strolled across the grounds of Beacon's courtyard, keeping her wits sharp and eyes deadly focused.
Resting her palm on her chest, she exhaled slowly with an air of relief. What were the chances Qrow Branwen would be there of all nights? To have their cover almost blow by bad luck? Tch! What were the freaking odds?
They escaped without that scarecrow seeing their faces. Job accomplished. The only sensible course of action was to walk to their dorm, message their superior when the coast was clear, and await for Cinder to return to plan their next move. If only Mercury refrained from using the bathroom with her refusing to wait for him. Blah, blah, blah, when nature calls, she didn't want to hear it. Unprofessional was more like it.
Just dandy with her.
Emerald preferred the solitude. Mercury's rants and talks were manageable at small doses, but an entire stroll back to their dorm room might have her strangling him before the enemy found him. Darkness was her ally, hiding thieves of the night. Past the courtyard and near the botanical garden, she enjoyed the scenery. Grass, plants, and trees had no allegiance. There was something to be said about simplicity. Colors. Flowers. Scents and smells, every one of those played a vital part of life. Not to mention, her moss green hair made her blend seamlessly into the trees. A shame that this place's future involved fire and death. Vegetation and animals always clicked well with her, but necessary sacrifices.
While addressing of nature's cruelty, a black butterfly with two pink orbs on the tips of its wings fluttered nearby, crossing her path with this air of innocence that made her reflexively lift her palm for it to rest on her finger. She braved a smile when it did, understanding the notion of butterfly kisses a bit better now, but the blurriness of the background faded away when she noticed a shift in the shadows. That butterfly then flapped its wings and rippled away, leaving her alone with a man stepping out of the shadows of a tree.
Piercing pink eyes bore into her bloody reds with the rest of his body, save for his black and pinkish strand hair, concealed in an ominous, black cloak covered in ridiculous pink clouds. Every one of his steps lacked sound as if he weighed nothing, even against the blades of crinkled grass. Not even blowing wind brushed the mystified cloak.
Emerald's fingers twitched. She instinctively reached for her weapons strapped against her thighs but offered a harmless smile instead. Best not to break character, even if every one of her instincts demanded she shot this man between the eyes. Staining Wanderlust with a student's blood wouldn't be the brightest move while undercover, especially with that Branwen lurking nearby. Better to plaster on a fake smile and lower his guard.
Besides, how much trouble could he possibly be?
"Hi." Emerald racked her brain for the intel. "Lie Ren, right? You're part of Pyrrha Nikos' team, correct?"
Ren never answered her ridiculous question, disregarding the gust of wind brushing past his feet. That black butterfly fluttered beyond his shoulder with an apocalyptic raincloud hiding the moonlight. He ever-so-slightly tilted his head. Pink hues narrowed at demanding reds.
Emerald coughed in the awkward silence. Intel did report this guy as one of those strong-silent types. "Okay... weird. I guess I'll start, the name's—?"
"Emerald Sustrai." Ren answered colorlessly. "One of the three assailants that attacked Amber."
Screw not breaking character!
Emerald swiftly pulled out Wanderlust out of her hidden holsters, aiming directly for a statue-like Ren. "Who are you? And what do you want?!"
A direct question.
He said nothing.
Her convertible revolver-sickles switched over to scythe form. Ren wanted to roll his eyes at the irony. First Ruby, and now Emerald? What was with his bouts with scythe users? Even Qrow Branwen used such a troublesome contraction. Lady Luck had a sick sense of humor. Regardless, he allowed the silence to weigh upon her while he gauged the situation, and Emerald followed his plan to the dot, eyes colder than steel. She never blinked, not moving a muscle.
Her mind moved a mile a minute, trying to put together how they were figured out by this guy of all people. Mercury never mentioned anything about a student like this, but then again, he had focused primarily on the explosive and Invincible Girl. Cinder had ordered him to retrieve data on Pyrrha Nikos. So he never paid any other consideration to the nameless faces. Only that blasted Qrow had seen their faces, but they hadn't counted on him remembering them so well. Folly on their part, one that might cost them dearly if she didn't end this man's life right here, right now.
Ignoring her internal struggle, he naturally extended his index finger out, and the wandering black butterfly landed right on it. Not an emotion filtered through his eyes or body language. They shared a mutual glance, partners in chaos. Another gust of wind, another failed attempt for physics to take hold, and a cold sweat trickled down the side of the thief's cheek. Grimm fur blended into the darkness of the forest, overlooking reflective properties, and she struggled to keep her composure. No thief caught red-handed would be able to remain collected in this situation.
She clicked her teeth and switched Wanderlust into her chain-sickle form. One of the scythes spun in the air, attached to an iron chain with her target standing perfectly still. The other weapon reverted back to her revolver stance, aiming right for his heart with her arm unmoving.
"I'm not going to ask again! What do you want?!" Emerald repeated, louder.
He frowned from the increasing volume of her voice.
Lie Ren shooed the butterfly away, willing his collar to pop open and revealed his thinned lips. Lore reacted to his emotions with his mother's dagger detaching from the gravity-influencing clothing. He caught the blade smoothly enough. Emerald Sustrai tightened her grip on her chained weaponry. Lifting the daggered weapon, he pulled the knife free from its sheath, glaring above the edge of the stainless steel metal with shimmering Evil Eyes.
"Your journey ends here."
"I'm so screwed."
Mercury Black jetted across Beacon Academy to catch up with Emerald, surprised and not-surprised she left him behind after discovering Qrow Branwen was in the area.
Bathroom breaks mattered. No one, Cinder or higher, could resist the call of nature. Tch! Damn it! Some people just couldn't be reasoned with, including Miss Master Thief. Move! Every one of his steps was long and stretched, designed to cover the vastest distance in the shortest amount of time. He cut through the dormitories, speeding past the facilities, and skidded a corner to run past Beacon's water fountain, only to come to a screeching stop when he found a most unusual sight during Beacon Academy's destined dance.
Nora Valkyrie sat at the edge of Beacon's fountain, splashing her feet carelessly in the water with an adorable simper. From running in a panic to stopping and finding her playing with water? What a twist of Fate. She then noticed his stunned appearance and waved ecstatically at the disgruntled assassin. Any sane person not running from the law might have realized she changed out of her dress and into her combat attire.
Mercury Blake had too much on his mind to notice.
Huh? "You know my name?"
She giggled. "Of course. I remember all the names of the people I've beaten up."
He flagrantly rolled his eyes. Okay. That made sense. As if his day didn't reek already. Now he had explosive one-o'-one mocking him from that one fight they had. On any other day, not caring for which hour, he would have taken the bait and challenged her—a battle of wits or skill, it wouldn't have mattered—but not now, not today. Not this second, no matter how much he craved to wipe that idiotic smile off her overconfident face. Mercury chose to walk away and return to their dorm room with his head held high for a guy recently running with his tail between his robotic legs.
She threw her hand out. "Wait! Wait! Where's the rush? Throw your worries away and dip your toes in the water. It's tingly fresh."
He frowned. "I'm not much for toe-dipping."
Nora laughed but persistently pointed to the spot next to her before heartedly slapping it. Somehow her stubbornness persuaded him to humor her demand. Not like Emerald expected him anytime soon after leaving him to rot. Sparing a few minutes wouldn't hurt anyone.
Mercury joined her on the concrete seat, sitting opposite of the water with his back turned to her. After running and having that near heart attack experience in the ballroom, taking a breather eased his tension-filled nerves. Except for the minus toe-dipping part, his loathsome trauma vanished in the safety of someone so open with their emotions. Someone like that never possessed a cruel bone in their body, all rays of sunshine and rainbows, but little did he know, Valkyries loathed rainbows and preferred the vibrating rumble of pelting rain and thunderous storm clouds.
Nora proved his false assumption by endlessly bouncing her feet in the clear liquid, splashing, creating ripples, and overall humming an enchanting tune with a permanent smile. She leaned back and threw her head out. Mercury, for a brief moment, envied her carelessness. Ignorance was bliss. Lucky. Then she peeked his way and pointed at the clear, blue water while breathing in a breath of fresh air.
"So, you're not a fan of the water?"
He shrugged his shoulders and scratched his chin. "Nope. Not a fan afraid."
"Ah." Nora sounded all sagey, kicking her wet feet up with her toes wiggling free. "Is it because you have robotic legs? Afraid they might rust?"
Mercury's swift turn of the head was the only reason he was able to react to her incoming fist to the jaw. The expert assassin leaned back, eyes larger than saucers with an indomitable gust of turbulence passing his hair. That velocity came from her jab? What-the-what? He carried the momentum over and backflipped out of her reach and skidded against the concrete floor with his metallic shoes shooting sparks from the corners. Across from him, scooping her legs out the fountain, Nora frowned and sighed like he messed up her grand master plan.
"Aw! I missed. Hold still next time."
Hold still next time? He saw red from almost having his head torn off. "What the heck's your problem?!"
She puckered her lip, grazing the tip with her finger. "Now that's a trick question. I have no problems. Well, okay, that was a lie. You're my problem, but you shouldn't treat yourself like that, it's not healthy. Unless if you're into that kind of stuff."
He despised this girl.
Nora's smile stretched while putting her boots on. First lefty, then righty. Mercury merely scoffed. "You're crazy."
"And you're a coward." Nora retaliated. "Who attacks someone one on three? Amber would've had you if you played fair."
Amber? His jaw tightened from her slip of the tongue. Suddenly that innocent smile of hers darkened in the overcasting rainclouds. He switched his boots on into combat mood, bending his ankles for a running spring. A fight now of all places? Curse his luck. Still, he played on the fact that once upon a time ignorance.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
She blinked and waved her hands in shadow puppet magic. "Amber, you know, the Fall Maiden. Magic! The one your little trio attacked. That Amber. You guys really did a number on her with stealing half the Maiden powers."
Ignorance his shiny shins, he heard more than enough. Somehow their cover had been blown, and by this imp of all people. Damn it. Damn it! He twisted his snarl, no point with stalling any longer. Reaching for his Scroll to warn Emerald and Cinder, Mercury only managed a single dial of his password before a bullet pierced and shattered the device. Damn! When he glanced her way, he moved his feet apart with his arms spread out.
Nora Valkyrie had StormFlower aimed directly where his Scroll had been with the barrel smoking hot. Tch, tch! The other half rested against her shoulder as her grin slowly morphed to that of a smirk. Teeth showed. Turquoise irises sparked a watt of electricity. Mercury Black stood his ground with her humorously tilting her head to the side as if everything before them was some elaborate game. Her no-no gesture with her index fingers spelled trouble.
"Let's just keep this between us friends."
An elevator opened with a midnight assailant strolling out into the CCT mainframe.
Cinder Fall marched with confidence, making each glass footing step count, yet her instincts were restless. She encountered not a single sentry on the way here, human nor machine. Something was amiss. Must be related to the General's missing arm. Extra-security to protect the head of the Atlas military, corners needed cutting, but she still had this sinking feeling that a violent storm was heading her way. She then scoffed her troubles. Nonsense. Nothing more than her overactive imagination playing tricks on her. With the plan so close to completion, who wouldn't fret over the most insignificant details?
It was only natural since her Queen demanded perfection.
Nothing happened when she reached the terminal. No natural disaster screwed up the part where she inserted her Scroll into the driving port, not a hair out of place, or a step out of line. Once the Queen's image appeared on the screen, she marginally relaxed her shoulders.
Cinder mentally rejoiced. The virus was uploading just as planned, infiltrating their systems and hacking protected networks. Seventy percent. Eighty percent. Ninety, and—then her Scroll detached and flew away into the iron-clad palm of one four-time champion, cutting off the download process at ninety-nine percent. Corruption plagued the file, and she would have to start all over again. She smirked when she turned around to meet the hitch in her plan, holding back a light chuckle from the irony.
Gut feelings were rarely wrong for a reason.
Pyrrha Nikos stood outside the elevator with her Scroll in hand. Somehow she moved the contraction without creating a lick of noise and snuck up on her. Curious questions for another time, so she stepped forward with her hand outstretched, palm waiting for her Scroll back. A diabolic taunt danced on the tip of her tongue, except Pyrrha cared for none of that.
"How about we skip the formalities, Cinder Fall?"
Cinder cocked an eyebrow through her mask. "Oh, this is a surprise. You know who I am, Pyrrha Nikos."
Pyrrha reduced her lips. Cinder regarded the wayward champion for an insignificant moment before reaching out and carelessly tossing her mask away. Useless. No point in interrogating her to how she discovered her identity or uncovered the purpose of her visit. The only course of action left to take was to erase her permanently. Sooner than planned—a significant hiccup—but what choice did she leave her?
Pawns should know their place.
A lesson she planned to teach thoroughly and roughly with the ends of her infiltration outfit reacting her Aura. Lengthy gloves and the edges of her pants illuminated in fiery orange. Dust-infused linen empowered with pyroclastic material dancing in the air around her. Pawn Pyrrha never batted an eyelash, not stunned, nor concerned to Dust stitched clothing. Nonchalantness to the display of power interested Cinder, and she graciously allowed her opponent the chance to retaliate with a simmering simper. She lived up to the champion-filled hype. Pyrrha Nikos far surpassed her expectations with a newly acquired silver tongue.
"More than that, I know what you are, Half-Maiden."
Her devilish sly smirk withered into a scorching glare. Gone went the jolly playfulness of the whole adventure. Cinder had anticipated Pyrrha to reveal her treacherous crimes, exploit some of the bodies she burned, the politicians she blackmailed, but Half-Maiden took the dynamite-filled cake. Things jumped from amusing to deadly without proper transition. Throwing her hands out, Midnight, twin obsidian blades, conjured from Dust-based volcanic glass with the use of her Semblance; Crucible.
Pyrrha merely raised an eyebrow, silently comparing the appearance of blades materializing out of thin air to her partner's Aura sword.
Nothing new for this warrior.
Cinder readied her dual seaxs, and just as her uninvited guest pocketed away her Scroll, she promptly pulled out a canister of concentrated Ice Dust and propelled mini stalagmites toward Pyrrha. Her adversary never flinched, never dodged. Red solids detached and burst from her back, turning into a liquid and materialized a fluidity shield to absorb the impact and harmlessly dismiss her Dust. Momentum ceased from impacting something thicker than water. Only the subtle movements of her fingers revealed to Cinder that Pyrrha had controlled that state of matter to bend to her will and form a shield.
Ice picks dropped the floor with Pyrrha grabbing both her malnourished shield and spear from her back. Two Dust shards immediately came into view for Cinder, which she instantly comprehended that those played a vital role in her weapon's functionality. Point proved when Pyrrha merged her floating fluid and iron-like solid. Liquid solidified upon contact. From here, she felt the chill of a few degrees dropping. A disfigured buckler rebuilt anew, gaining definition in places it lacked, turning more circular.
Intuitivity sparked creativity.
Cinder granted the wayward champion that.
She moved her foot back by a hair's length, preparing to side-step an attack if necessary. Data on her Semblance? None. Fighting prowess? Threat. Cunningness? Unknown. Not a typical opponent. Maybe if Ruby Rose had followed her instead of Pyrrha Nikos, then Cinder might have toyed with her victim, but this wasn't meek prey. An apex predator stood before with far too many unknowns for her liking. Did her prey bite? Use poison? A combination of both? Information was power, and Cinder craved that more than ever.
Any intel on her weapon was, too, forfeited. Only Mercury's reports from afar detailed verdicts on the weaponry. A liquid-based substance that restructured and hardened due to the usage of unknown Dust. No record of the fluid or basis. No data on the Dust crystal. Practically useless information. Cinder just reaffirmed that from the Dust little show. If she were to throw caution to the wind and guess, it almost appeared to be blood.
A ludicrous assumption—?!
Cinder failed to hold back her surprise.
The other half of the Maiden Powers beckoned to her from the champion's body. A feeble spark burned within her chest, tempting the seductive mistress with the missing half of her soul. It felt weak. Lacking. No matter. It was there! Cinder rejoiced all the same. The absent half possibly was tattered from whatever process Ozpin and his lackeys used to transfer Amber's portion of the Maiden Powers to their selected vessel.
She smirked. "Well, well, it appears I've found the other half of my power. I hope you don't mind me taking it? Destiny has brought you to me, after all."
Pyrrha inclined her head. "Do you believe in Destiny, Cinder?"
Caliburn and Moirázo̱ reciprocated to Pyrrha Nikos' internal struggle. Blood bent to a Semblance she couldn't confidently call Polarity anymore. Ever since the introduction of Lore and Aura's capabilities, her once set in stone path crumbled underneath the gravitational pressure. Grimm became allies. Humans backstabbed them. Perhaps during one point in her life, when the world of Remnant was bitterly black-and-white to closed eyes, that name meant something. Polarity, magnetism at its core, controlled alloys with magnetic properties, but iron-rich blood wasn't such an alloy. Semblances evolved. They developed as their wielders changed. Nothing remained the same forever, like her abilities, her friends, her beliefs. Growing was an essential part of life, and she turned her back on Destiny's ill-conceived path.
"Because I don't."
Jaune Arc stumbled onto the ballroom's balcony with his body screaming for relief.
Lore mitigated his ability to move, not the pain.
Music blared in the background from the dance goers remaining blissfully unaware of the monsters lurking in plain sight. Once Pyrrha left to pursue her target, his thoughts refused to leave him alone. Ruby was somewhat to blame after asking him if he had seen Penny anywhere again. It took all of his willpower not to throw up there on the dance floor and confess his crimes. Instead, he had managed a broken smile and said no, excusing himself for air before his legs gave out.
No one had noticed his fake persona, no one but piercing amber eyes cloaked in the darkness.
Tumble! His hands grabbed the rail guard for dear life. Wobbly legs threatened to give out. Dancing for such a long period of time, pushing beyond the limits his muscles were currently capable of with Lore infused power, drained him. He dried heaved, leaning over the edge with the wind brushing against his clammy skin. No one would think twice about that being sweat clinging to his body from dancing too much, except one. Stealthy heels clicked on the stone pavement, silent until she stood five feet away from her target. Even then, when she made her presence known by a slight cough, Jaune Arc didn't react to Blake Belladonna's appearance, not in the way she anticipated.
Jaune flinched. Her feline-reflexes hid her entrance well. Instead of turning to greet her with a sunny disposition that she came to appreciate, only his shoulders straightened, entire body going rigid to that of a cornered animal. To his credit, he ceased with all the leaning but refusing to turn around worked against him.
"Nothing. I'm just tired as all."
She rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "You're a terrible liar. Must I ask again?"
He sighed and figured lying proved pointless, but he denied the truth. "You wouldn't understand... no one would."
She hovered over his shoulder and adopted a lighter tone. "That's funny. I one time thought that, too. Then this annoying leader showed me that wasn't always the case."
"No." Blake firmly grabbed his shoulders and leaned over him. "I don't like seeing you like this. Tell me. What's bothering you?"
Jaune persistently rejected her pleas, playing this childish game of cat and mouse. Blake scowled regardless. She felt his raging heart from the fabric of his suit, digging her fingers into expensive thread. She loathed that. Heart palpitations were never good. Something turned her companion into a nervous wreck who hid his pain from his friends and declined help. Sadly for him, she knew how to play the waiting game, and never left his side until three more songs passed, by then he sighed and lowered his voice.
"Please, Blake, don't. You'll end up hating me if I tell you."
She had enough and forced his body around. He couldn't ignore her piercing glare this time. "Tell. Me."
"You don't wanna know."
"You wouldn't understand."
She scoffed. "No one would if you keep everything bottled up and put on happy faces. Try talking. I hear it helps free the soul. And I've been told I'm a great listener."
"More like persistent."
She narrowed her sights. "You're stalling."
The Arc tried to look away anyway but failed. Somehow she got him talking before his brain caught up to his mouth. "Fine! You want to hear it? I've just learned my actions on our mission led to some people dying. Okay! People died because of me. They died because I couldn't help them. I failed as a leader—as a Huntsman. And I just couldn't keep dancing knowing I caused some people's demise, how could I? Blake..." Jaune said somberly. "I don't deserve to be here."
All of it came out so fast, like a bullet. Jaune blurted it all without warning. He expected her to push him away with a look of disgust, to hate him, to call him a monster and every term underneath the moonlight, but Blake did none of those things. She pressed her lips into an impossibly intensive edge. A look of recognition filtered through those eyes of hers, and before he backed away, she tightened her grip on his shoulders.
"Do me a favor. Look up."
She demonstrated and glanced up at the night sky. "Look up and tell me what you see."
He preferred not to, but unless he felt like pushing his Lore to the breaking point of his tendons to escape her hold, the Arc obeyed and followed her lead. Not much came into view, except for the vast, everlasting sky, murky clouds, shattered moon, and glistening—!
"Stars." Jaune answered remotely. "I see the stars."
"Exactly. The sky's filled with them, but do you want to know a secret, Jaune?" Blake rhetorically asked. "Most, if not all, those stars up there are dead. Only their light remains, still shining after death. They're still remembered by the universe even when they're long gone. Isn't that fascinating?"
He glared back at her. "What are you trying to say, Blake?"
She met his glare with one of her own. "Dead stars are like memories. As long as someone remembers them, they'll always exist. Only in the darkness can you see the stars. Try to be like them and remember them for whom they were. You don't have to carry on their dreams but never forgot about their legacy. Don't let their deaths be in vain. That's what matters."
That made sense to him, or at least partially until he remembered Penny's stringless body and Amber's dying breath. None of those had been accidents. Aura. Lore. His power ended both those lives. She saw his spiraling depression before it robbed the last fading light in his eyes—that absence ruined forgiving hearts, and she would be damned if it claimed another innocent—and shook him until his head snapped in her direction.
"Hey. No. Look at me—look at me." Blake grabbed his cheeks and forced him to stare into her eyes. She smiled the most genuine smile in the infinite Milky Way. "You don't have to be strongest all the time. Being brave doesn't mean you have to shoulder the burden all by yourself. It's okay to rely on others. You taught me that. You! Jaune Arc!"
He blinked the darkness away. "Hey? You remembered my last name?"
She rolled her eyes in the most amusing ways and carefully grabbed his hands with her dazzling smile. "I know it hurts. I know how the pain never really goes away, but that's a good thing. It means underneath all that Arc is a heart. You care. That's much better than half the people on the planet."
He frowned. "How could you possibly know that? How could you possibly know how I'm feeling?"
A darkness of her own clouded her features, but she accepted it instead of fighting it. "Because I've been there. Hopelessness. Endless suffering. I know those pains. People have died under my guidance, too. The White Fang's claws aren't stain-free, and neither is mine. So I know what you're going through because I've been through it myself."
His frown withered and replaced itself with hope. "You have?"
She nodded firmly. "Uh-huh. That's why I'm not giving up on the organization. Those Faunus I've lost had all hoped to one day see the prejudice of the world gone. How can I sulk when I'm carrying all that on my shoulders? If I stopped and turned my back now after they sacrificed their lives for the cause, then I wouldn't be able to face another Faunus."
His vision re-blurred. Everything ached from his body to his resolve. So much weight bared down on his tattered soul, yet, somehow, someway, Blake managed to ease bit by bit of the burden. Not everything, but enough to get him to breathe the fresh air around him. She gently simpered when he chuckled dryly with stained cheeks.
"You're a good therapist."
"I still charge by the hour."
Jaune weakly returned the smile, but his skin felt cold underneath the Lore holding his body together. Hollowness ate away at his soul, and he pulled his hands free from warmth they did not deserve. Penny Polendina. Amber. Dead by his hands. Monsters didn't deserve comfort or shoulders to lean on. He backed away, only for her to pull him back in and keep him still. He grabbed her wrists but lacked the strength to pry them free.
Words, all he had left were words. "I don't deserve your kindness. I'm a monster."
Blake shook her head and poked him right where his heart thumped. She had this sympathetic smile that pierced the bleakness clouding his damaged soul.
"We both know that's not true."
His jaw tightened. Not fair. This time Blake Belladonna opened her arms up to the fragile Arc, using his own words against him. Last line of defense gone. Her arms pulled him into a rare hug with him greedily accepting the warm embrace with his body aching. He tried his hardest not to cry into her shoulders, keeping his undeserving arms to his sides, but the way she tenderly rubbed his back forced the flood gates to open. Muscle torn limbs wrapped firmly around her back for comfort. She never judged. Never pried. Not even wondered. Blake only held him in his time of need, just like he had done for her too many times to count.
Above them, sparkling so dazzling in the perpetual darkness, Polaris' guiding light shone more brilliant than any flawless diamond.
Only in the darkness can you see the stars.
Author Notes: I know the weapons and Semblances names were revealed, but I'm sticking to my original notes. Enjoy the Dance arc and have a happy New Year's!
Nora Valkyrie vs. Mercury Black
Lie Ren vs. Emerald Sustrai
Pyrrha Nikos vs. Cinder Fall