The second time entering the vast and empty arena of Amity Coliseum wasn't nearly as nerve-wracking as the first. Maybe it was because he'd already done it once. Or maybe it was because this time he had less to concern himself with. A glance over to his left was all the proof he needed of that.

While Jaune wasn't sure who their opponents would be in this round, he felt good about his partner of choice. It hadn't come down to a vote, and it had not been up for discussion. As the official team leader of Team AWRY, as well as the Alpha of their Grimm hybrid pack, his word had been law. Ruby would be accompanying him in this fight. Not only was she the most stable of the hybrids as far as temperament went, but she was also a very skilled and capable fighter. Not quite as strong as Yang in terms of both pure strength and fighting experience, but stronger still than Weiss. There was no risk of her blowing up like Yang, and no risk of her making an eye-drawing scene like Weiss. It was only fitting that she be the one to join him in a fight against unknown opponents.

Ruby was practically skipping beside him, a happy smile on her face as she hefted her oversized collapsible steel scythe over her right shoulder. For someone as tiny as her, she had a ridiculously oversized weapon. He supposed Aura and Grimm hybrid strength would do that. Among other competitors he'd seen a couple using swords as big as their bodies were. As big and strong as he was, Jaune simply couldn't imagine wielding such weapons in battle. Especially not in a life or death battle against the creatures of darkness.

"I hope we don't get another forest," Ruby said, referring to the random Amity biomes. "I want something cool. Somewhere where I can really go all out and not have a bunch of trees in my way."

As normal as she was though, Ruby still was a hybrid at heart. One which itched for battle and destruction. Even if only a little bit.

"Then I hope so too. I wonder what we'll get, and who we'll get."

With half of the teams eliminated in the first round, only the best of the best would be remaining to challenge them. Honestly Jaune didn't care about winning this, but it would only draw suspicion upon his team if he purposely lost a fight or forfeited.

The last thing he needed right now was more suspicion after what Ruby had told him the prior day.

"Heh," she laughed sharply. "Whoever we get, we're gonna beat 'em. Just like those girls who tried to get in on our pack. Hopefully we don't get another team of all girls."

He wanted to correct Ruby and say that the girls of Team NDGO weren't trying to join their pack, but it was clear to him that Weiss' words had already made Ruby's mind up. Oh well. Just so long as they didn't get more girls then everything would be okay.

Before he could respond in any way, however, a blur of rainbow-colored light passed before both he and Ruby, halting them in their tracks. Ruby immediately hefted her scythe, looking around to find the source of what could be the threat, but found no one. At least not until...

Standing before them, about ten feet away, was a sharply-dressed man holding a trumpet and a colorful faunus girl spinning a pair of nunchucks.

The rainbow could be explained by the provocatively-dressed girl covered in glitter and... hopefully temporary tattoos on her arm and face. But where had the man come from? He'd appeared out of nowhere as soon as she'd stopped. Had she been carrying him? Was whatever that rainbow thing was a Semblance of hers? Was it, and she, strong enough to carry him along with her when she sped along on her... roller skates?

Jaune blinked, glancing back and forth between the two combatants who looked like anything but fighters. One appeared like he should have been playing in a jazz band, while the other looked like she'd be more at home in a skating rink. Then again, huntsmen and huntresses were all such odd creatures...

"I guess these are our opponents," Jaune muttered to Ruby.

The faunus girl leaned in, her hand against her forehead to block out the sun overhead as she peered at Jaune and Ruby. "Wait a minute, aren't you the guy who got busted for looking at porn at the CCT tower?"

So much for not drawing attention to himself. Still, his reputation was a necessary sacrifice for what he had accomplished.

"I am," he admitted without hesitation.

There was a noticeable uptick in the indecipherable crowd noise all around them.

The girl spun around dramatically, ending up behind her partner where she cowered behind him exaggeratedly. "Ewww! Flynt, don't let him touch me! I don't know where those hands have been!"

The man, whose name Jaune knew now was Flynt, smirked with his arms crossed before him. "Don't worry, Neon. I got him."

If they were trying to humiliate him, it wasn't going to work. He had and would endure any punishment to keep himself and his friends from harm.

To his surprise, it was Ruby who stepped forward in order to give a retort. "For your information, his hands have been on me, thank you very much."

Okay, that did make Jaune wince a little bit. Not because he was embarrassed, but because that was just such a Weiss thing for Ruby to do. So much for choosing her because she wouldn't make a scene...

Neon spun around from behind Flynt, skating a few feet closer and leaning in once more to give Ruby a better look. "And you... you're that girl who shares your man with another chick! Oh gods, Flynt, we got a bunch of perverts as our opponents!"

Honestly Jaune didn't know how to respond to that. From an outsider's perspective, given what Neon had just said, yeah, they definitely seemed like a bunch of deviants. Speaking up to defend their actions and lifestyle would only make things worse.

Flynt shook his head softly, not taking his eyes off of Jaune. "My man, you should be ashamed of yourself for two-timing this girl."

Feeling a tug on his sleeve, Jaune looked down to Ruby. "Yeah?"

"Jaune, what's two-timing?"

"It's... uh..." he struggled to say, knowing he would only be feeding his opponents by answering. Still, looking into those pure, innocent eyes of his friend and lover, he couldn't deny her the answer to the question she'd asked so earnestly. "When you date more than one person at the same time."

Usually what that also meant was that he was doing such a thing behind the girls' backs, and that he was a dirty, good-for-nothing, heart-breaking liar. He in fact was none of those things. The girls' pack mentality meant that they embraced such a relationship. Unfortunately the rest of the world would and could never understand the dynamics of a Grimm hybrid relationship.

"Ohh..." Ruby said, her eyes lit up with child-like wonder. She turned back to Flynt, and cupped her hands around her mouth to make sure that he would hear. "Then he's actually three-timing! You forgot Blake!"

As much as this moment pained Jaune, he couldn't be angry. Ruby was just too damn sweet and innocent for her own good. He wanted to hug and squeeze her to his heart's content, but right now was not the appropriate venue.

Flynt looked more serious now, staring down his sunglasses to give Jaune a death glare. "I'm gonna enjoy teaching you some respect."

Jaune scoffed. "Does that trilby of yours tip?" he asked softly.

"What was that?"

Working hard to suppress a smirk, Jaune shook his head. "Nothing."

"Yeah that's what I thought." Flynt's arms unfolded, and he held his trumped in both now in front of his chest. "You know, before I was just doing this for Atlas. Now I'm doing this for me."

Atlas? These two... were from Atlas? Seeing their bold and colorful outfits, Atlas Academy would have been the last place Jaune would have guessed they were from. This wasn't his real concern, however. Jaune had far darker thoughts in mind from Flynt's admission.

If they were from Atlas, did that mean they were hand-picked by General Ironwood to face them? To watch them? To probe and prod for clues to their true identities? Jaune suddenly felt much happier that he'd chosen Ruby to be his partner. She was as reliable as they came, and nothing that these two could throw at her would cause her to lose control like one of the other two might have.

Still, Jaune had to err on the side of caution. He leaned down to Ruby to whisper into her ear. "We need to be careful around these two," he told her. "We can't slip up."

Ruby nodded. "Yeah. If their colors are anything to go by, they look pretty dangerous. Like those poisonous frogs in Menagerie."

That wasn't quite what Jaune was getting at, but he supposed in Ruby's instinct-fuelled brain it made sense. Bright and bold colors were a warning to stay away. If that was the case for these two, then Neon was a walking, talking hazard sign.

Speaking of which...

"Hey, whisper sweet nothings into your girlfriend's ear another time," the faunus girl shouted. "We've got a match to fight."

The holographic symbols around the arena began to spin, and like before Jaune looked around to see them whirling past so quickly that it was impossible to make out what they were. After a few seconds they slowed and the colors and symbols became clearer. Until they landed on...

Four biomes this time. A volcano dotted with pools of lava. A ruined cityscape. A desert crag. And a crystalline mountain.

The countdown had begun. Jaune held Crocea Mors and his shield at the ready. His eyes were locked onto Flynt.

The battle began.

Before he had a chance to even move, the trumpet came up to Flynt's lips and he blasted Jaune with it. He instinctively dove in front of Ruby, shielding both himself and her from what turned out not to be a projectile, but rather only air. Or rather, wind dust.

With his size and bulk, Jaune was two hundred pounds of muscle, metal, and sheer willpower. He had survived the Grimmlands and Grimm Academy itself. He had gone toe to toe with monstrous hybrids in savage contests of life or death. He'd faced down a mad serial killer and come out alive.

An attack of this nature was nothing compared to what he had been through.

Flynt's wind dust attack may as well have been a gentle breeze trying to topple over a mountain. Jaune barely budged and inch from the loud but ultimately harmless attack. He stole a glance behind him to check on his partner.

Ruby was still safe and secure behind him and his protective shield. Had she alone taken the full brunt of that attack, Jaune couldn't say that she would have come out as unscathed as he had.

"You okay?" he asked her.

Ruby nodded quickly. "Yep."

"Okay." Jaune looked back to Flynt, and saw only Flynt, who seemed not a little bit perturbed by the fact that his attack had fallen flat. Jaune's head turned on a swivel, quickly scanning the arena for the other one. He saw Neon skating around them, keeping her distance, for now. "So you wanna go get her? I'll take care of this guy."

The hybrid grinned. "Yeah!"

"Alright. Let's do this."

Ruby gripped her scythe, launching herself out from behind Jaune's protecting body and toward Neon. "I'm going hunting!"

He didn't need to concern himself with Ruby or her abilities. She was as tough as they came, and surely a girl armed with nunchucks and rollerskates shouldn't be that difficult of an opponent.

That left Jaune able to focus his full attention on Flynt. He kept his shield raised as he slowly approached the young man. "That attack probably worked out a lot better in your head, didn't it?" he asked.

Flynt glowered at him. "I'll admit, you're a lot stronger than I thought you'd be. But if you think that's all I've got, you've got another thing coming."

Jaune wasn't sure what a jazz musician pretending to be a huntsman had to offer, but he still approached cautiously. He'd learned a thing or two about caution since he set out on his journey to become a huntsman himself.

In the blink of an eye, a second Flynt seemed to slide out of his body, this one wearing a yellow tie rather than the original blue. A third appeared, and then a fourth, wearing green and pink ties respectively.

Jaune had seen this trick before. Clones, just like Blake. However, these were just illusions. There was no way that they could...

And then they hit him. All four blasted Jaune with their trumpets, and what had been a simple summer breeze before turned into a concentrated tornado of powerful wind assaulting him.

Jaune skidded back a couple of feet before he bent at his knees, planting the sharp edge of his shield into the relatively soft rock of the volcanic terrain he and Flynt stood on. It was enough to stop him from being pushed backwards, however it would be difficult for him to get up, much less move forward, so long as he faced this barrage of Flynt's Semblance.

He would need to think of a new plan, and fast. Worst case scenario, he hoped that Ruby would be done with her fight soon so that she would be able to hit Flynt from behind while his attention was focused on Jaune.

The hunt was on, and Ruby was itching for action.

Hefting her scythe in both hands, she took off after Neon, however her foe's wheeled feet left Ruby with much to be desired in terms of speed. After a few seconds of running as fast as she could after her quarry, it became clear to the hybrid that she would never be able to catch up to her on only her two normal feet.

Neon meanwhile, despite being armed with only a single weapon with an extremely short range, was content with keeping her distance from her. Wasn't this supposed to be a fight? Why was she just going in circles like this?

"Soooo, it must suck to have to share your boyfriend with another woman, huh?" the faunus girl asked. "What, are you not woman enough for him by yourself?"

No, that wasn't the case at all. Jaune was very happy with how womanly she was. She was able to sense his emotions every time they were intimate, and among them were lust and other carnal desires which made Ruby a very happy hybrid.

"Like I said, I share him with two other girls," Ruby clarified once more. "And we're all pretty happy with the arrangement. Believe me, there's more than enough of him to go around."

Okay, so technically Jaune hadn't been intimate with Blake yet, but she was still a true and valued member of their pack. Jaune spent time with her just like he did Ruby and Weiss.

Clearly this wasn't the answer Neon was hoping for, and her face darkened. Ruby sensed anger and frustration from the girl as she continued to circle around.

"So, like, how does it work?" Neon asked, continuing to circle around Ruby like a shark. Weiss would have been proud of such a tactic. "Do you rotate or something? Do it all at the same time? Do you make him into a sandwich?"

A sandwich? Absolutely not. While it was true that sometimes Blake did contemplate eating Jaune, it was never anything more than an empty threat. And certainly not anything which Ruby or Weiss planned to do with him. They loved their mate and Alpha very much and would never consider eating him, human or not.

"There are no sandwiches involved, but Jaune sometimes does use things like strawberries and whipped cream," Ruby explained. "I actually really like strawberries. They're sweet and yummy and I can't believe I'd never had any before coming to Vale!"

Neon was again unhappy with the answer. Negative emotions inside her grew stronger.

"Who gets the sloppy seconds?" she continued to press. "Is it you, Rosalyn? You seem pretty submissive compared to that white-haired chick. I bet she gets first dibs and you just get the leftovers."

For the first time in this fight, Ruby's eyes narrowed in anger. "Jaune is never sloppy!" she protested.

Neon grinned, twirling her nunchucks around as she continued to circle around Ruby. "That wasn't a noooo~~~~!"

"It doesn't matter if I go second!" Ruby continued to argue. After all, Weiss was his First Mate. "We all get equal love and treatment!"

"Yeah, right," Neon smirked. "Hate to tell ya this, Roz, but these kinds of things never work out. In the end your boy's gonna end up loving one of you more than the rest, and then you'll be left out in the cold. When the time comes he's gonna have to pick only one of you to marry, and I don't think that one's gonna be you."

Ruby's fingers tightened on the shaft of her weapon. With a snarl rushed toward Neon, eager to put an end to her lies and insults. What did this girl even know about her pack? What did she know about the love she shared with Jaune, Weiss, and Blake?

This time Neon did not retreat or evade, and Ruby prepared herself to deliver a hard, sweeping blow with her scythe. Her movements were swift and accurate, fuelled by her hybrid strength. However...

Neon was able to leap over the sideways swing with surprising grace and speed of her own. As she did so, she catapulted herself toward and over Ruby's head, delivering a hard strike from her nunchucks to the back of her skull in the process.

Ruby stumbled forward, taken aback by the surprise blow. She regained her wits quickly, standing up and turning to see Neon speeding away on her wheels.

"Tag, you're it!" she smiled, tugging down on the skin just beneath her eye and sticking her tongue out mockingly. "At least in this game it'll be the one time you're it. I bet Jaune'll pick one of your other friends over you in the end."

Ruby snarled. "Shut up!"

Neon's lips pursed and her face appeared sad, but her emotions didn't match her appearance. "Aw, what's wrong? Is the truth too much to take? Are you gonna cry?"

"I'm not crying! You're just wrong!"

"I dunnooo~~~!" she sang happily, cracking her surprisingly flexible nunchucks. They glowed a light, bright blue color now. "Seems like I touched a nerve."

"I'll... I'll touch you if you come closer!"

"Ooohh, kinky! But I don't swing that way."

"I'll swing my scythe at you, you big dummy!" Ruby growled as she rushed at the faunus girl once more.

She leapt up into the air, ready to block the attack which Neon had used on her the last time. If she chose not to meet her up in the air then Ruby would just bring her scythe down on her with a vengeance, and hopefully knock this rude, talkative girl out in a single blow.

Neon, however, did not stand still, nor did she jump up to clash with Ruby. Instead she skated forward before dropping down to her knees, using her momentum to slide forward on her protective kneepads.

In doing so she slid underneath Ruby's attack, and the swinging scythe cut nothing but air as Neon passed beneath her. While passing by, Neon's weapon struck Ruby in her leg, which suddenly felt much colder and heavier than it had a second earlier.

When she hit the ground she realized why. Ruby saw that her left leg was encased in ice, stunting her mobility as well as her ability to attack and defend.

Neon continued to skate around, looking pleased with herself as she maintained a safe distance from Ruby. "Wow you're really bad at this game," she taunted. "When you're it you're supposed to hit me, not the other way around. Maybe this is why Jaune isn't gonna choose you."

Ruby exhaled quickly and angrily as Neon skated effortlessly around like she didn't have a care in the world.

"Tell ya what," she grinned. "You stay right there and cool off for a few minutes. I'm gonna go over and say hi to your little boy toy." Neon covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes widening in excitement. "I know! I should just steal him from you! He could definitely use a catgirl in his life, after all."

As Neon skated away, leaving Ruby to stand there with her leg encased in ice, something inside of her finally snapped. She saw red, but it wasn't out of rage. No, her desire to be free, her need to get her hands on Neon, her breaking point finally being reached...

"That spot is taken already!" she screamed with pure rage.

Ruby sped through the air, a trail of rose petals in her wake as she torpedoed to Neon. The faunus girl barely had the time to turn around, her eyes wide with sudden terror this time, before Ruby barreled into her with uncontrollable force.

The resulting crash sent both girls tumbling to the ground. Ruby sat up, seeing her leg completely free of ice. Neon sat up as well, for once speechless about what had just happened. She attempted to quickly scramble to her feet, and thanks to her roller skates it took a couple attempts before she was able to find her footing and scurry away.

Ruby picked herself up too, looking down at her body trying to figure out what she'd just done. She'd just... gone really fast. Insanely fast, somehow! Her body had just done it because she felt the powerful urge to do so. She wasn't sure how, it had just happened!

Neon was skating away, but Ruby wouldn't let her go so easily. Reaching deep down inside her once more, she willed herself to become speed itself, and propelled herself forward to stand side before Neon. The other girl skidded to a halt, taken aback to find her foe suddenly standing right before her.

"Look what I can do now!" Ruby gushed, feeling giddy with excitement over this newfound ability of hers. "This is so cool! I can finally keep up with you now!"

Turning around, Neon sped away, but was soon confronted by Ruby once more, forcing her to suddenly halt once again.

"Not so fast!" Ruby taunted. She giggled, feeling the fear emanating from Neon. "This is so cool!"

Clearly Neon wasn't so confident or talkative when she couldn't use her speed to keep herself out of reach from her opponent. The entire fight had changed now that Ruby could get her hands on Neon at will. As the fighter with superior speed, Ruby could dictate the terms of the match now.

"You're insane! Do you think this is a game?"

Ruby's head tilted. "Well yeah. You said it was."

"Get away from me you freak!" Neon screeched, turning and fleeing once more.

Ruby's hunter's instinct was at the front of her mind now, and she chased down her scared prey again, using her newfound speed to keep up with her scared opponent.

Appearing suddenly in front of her once more, Ruby swung her scythe at Neon's legs. "Tag! You're it!"

The blow to her legs combined with Neon's momentum sent the faunus girl flying forward. She landed hard on the ground, skidding forward unceremoniously for a few seconds before coming to a halt. Ruby was on her in an instant, unwilling to let up on the girl who'd said so many mean things about her and her packmates.

With a cry of anger, Ruby leapt up into the air once more, bringing her scythe down on the stunned girl who only barely had time to turn her head around to see her demise coming.

The blow landed straight and true, and the buzzing sound in the arena indicated that Neon's Aura had been reduced to a level where she could no longer compete. The subsequent announcement only confirmed it.

Staring down at the girl who'd dared to insult her and her mate, Ruby gave one last, lingering look before she turned to join Jaune in his fight against their only remaining opponent in this round.

Despite the position he currently found himself in, Jaune couldn't help but feel like he had the advantage.

With his shield still planted firmly to the ground, Jaune knelt behind it as he waited for the latest blast from Flynt to subside. While the attack of a single trumpet had been little more than a calming breeze to someone of his strength and bulk, four trumpets at the same time were proving to be more of a problem. However...

Flynt was running out of time. He knew it. Jaune knew it. Defeat was inevitable.

Both Dust and Aura were finite. Flynt simply couldn't keep up his quadruple trumpet attack forever. Eventually one of the two ingredients necessary would give out. Thanks to his massive Aura pool, Jaune was bound to win any war of attrition.

There was also the fact that Flynt had to take a breath. And when he did...

A momentary pause was all he needed. When the trumpet blasts subsided, Jaune propelled himself forward, gaining a few precious meters before the attack resumed. As he had done before, Jaune slammed the bottom tip of his shield back into the softer volcanic ground, and repeated the same process as before.

He was now dangerously close to Flynt. His foe had been backed into a corner, and the end was near. He had to know it too. With no interference from either Ruby or Neon yet, it was safe to say that those two were still tied up in their own combat. While Jaune didn't need the assistance from Ruby, the same couldn't be said for Flynt. The clock was ticking down at the same rhythm as Flynt's Aura. Soon his time would be up.

Then... it stopped. Jaune peeked his head over the top of his shield just in time to see Flynt flying toward him, trumpet raised like a melee weapon of its own. The surprise attack meant that all Jaune could do was raise his shield, doing so just in time to feel the full weight of Flynt crashing down onto it.

With a grunt of effort Jaune pushed out, sending Flynt back where he landed gracefully on his feet. Jaune eyed him warily, half expecting another blast from his trumpet. It never came. Instead, the only attack from Flynt's mouth were the words he spat at Jaune.

"Enough of that noise," he snarled. "We're finishing this off old school."

Hand-to-hand combat? Jaune was more than ready for that. With his only weapons being a sword and shield, that was exactly the kind of game he wanted to play.

"Works for me," Jaune said, dropping into a fighting stance. His left side faced forward, shield up and ready to defend.

True, honest, and glorious melee combat. This was where he would thrive. This was where he would show the world what he was made of. Of course in the grand scheme of things that didn't matter, but on some level, he craved the opportunity to show how much he had grown as a fighter. He would be able to justify his dream of wanting to become a huntsman, and mistakenly entering Salem's academy in the first place.

"You may be bigger than me," Flynt said. "And you may be stronger, but you know what? All of those genetics you were born with don't mean you have any sk-"

He never finished whatever it was he was about to say, as a blur of red crashed into him, sending him flying a few feet before he skidded to a halt on the ground. In his place stood none other than Ruby, with rose petals at her feet and her scythe in both hands.

"Jaune!" she yelled happily as she came rushing over to him. "I can zoom-zoom now!"

He blinked, unsure of what that meant. However if that red blur had indeed been her, did that mean she'd unlocked her Semblance? Did she possess some sort of super speed? Whatever the case, the attack had knocked Flynt off of his feet, robbing Jaune of the opportunity to engage in glorious one-on-one combat.

With a shrug and a sigh, he went over to the boy who was still on the ground and attempting to recover from the surprise attack. Glancing up at the screen above, he saw that Flynt's Aura was teetering on the brink of collapse. Just one blow would do the trick.

Jaune brought Crocea Mors down on him without saying a word, and the buzzer sounded. Flynt Coal had been eliminated.

Ruby leapt up and down happily as she hopped over to Jaune, throwing her scythe down to the ground before jumping into his arms. He was just able to catch her, still holding onto his own weapon, and embraced her.

"We did it!" she exclaimed. "We won!"

Ruby planted a kiss on his cheek, earning a thunderous applause from the audience. Jaune knew somewhere up there, Weiss was getting jealous.

"We sure did," he said, and after a few seconds he returned Ruby down to her feet.

Ruby retrieved her weapon, and as the two started walking off the arena, they saw an injured and roughed up Neon standing off to the side.

"Hey, so..." she started, rubbing her left arm nervously with her opposite hand. "About all that stuff I was saying. I was just trying to get under your skin. Are we cool?"

Psychological warfare and trying to throw your opponent off of their game was as legitimate of a strategy as any kind of physical fighting ability, so Jaune had no issue with it. Especially if Neon was admitting to it. The question is, would Ruby be as forgiving? After all, she'd been the target of most of it.

"Ooooh..." Ruby replied, her eyes wide. "Yeah, don't worry about it. This one time Blake tried to get under Jaune's too, but then he woke up and had to chase her out of the room."

The meaning of Neon's words were lost on Ruby.

The memory of Blake trying to literally crawl under his skin was not lost on him.

Well, in either case, it all ended up being okay.

With only one round remaining in the Vytal Tournament, the end seemed to be near for his time here at Beacon Academy. He would need to remain vigilant. If Cinder was planning on making a move, it would be sooner rather than later.

The secluded forest of Patch was dark, save for the illumination provided by the broken moon which hung above. Insects buzzed and chirped, playing their final songs before they would soon need to retire for the approaching winter. All around her things were calm and still.

For Raven, it provided a foreboding sense of deja vu.

Not for the first time had she come out here, ready to use her Semblance for a secret mission. For a mission which could get both her and her partner killed, or worse. The tragic truth was that there were things which could be worse than death. She'd heard about what had happened to Summer. She'd seen firsthand what had happened to Yang and Ruby.

Qrow was with her, and if she was being honest with herself, he was the only reason she was here. She had fought against this tooth and nail at every opportunity. She'd stubbornly resisted it all. All she had wanted was to forget the past and move forward. To live her life with her family. To not need to revisit the past and remedy the mistakes she had made in her own fear and cowardice. After all, opening up and admitting to your wrongdoing would only rekindle the pain you sought to avoid.

Opening up to Yang had taught her firsthand what would happen when you allowed yourself to be vulnerable. When you opened a door, and that person you were attempting to connect with slammed it shut in your face.

After around five minutes of walking, Qrow had apparently decided that they'd gone far enough away from the cabin so that Tai and Robin would not just happen upon them while they made their final preparations. While they went over the plan one last time.

When Raven would open up a portal to the woman who'd been missing for over a decade.

The Autumn air was a bit chilly, but not so cold that Raven needed to wear any extra layers. Still, her hands shivered. That they were sweating made it even worse. She grasped the fingers of her left hand with her right, clutching them tightly and silently willing them to stop.

An action apparently noticed by Qrow, who finally spoke up for the first time since the two of them had departed her and Tai's home. "Nervous?"

Narrowed red eyes met their twin counterparts, and Raven stared a death glare at her brother's face. "Of course I'm nervous," she spat. "Only a damn idiot wouldn't be."

Qrow, to her annoyance, smiled weakly in return. "That's good. It means you're not crazy."

"You," she said, leveling a finger at him and taking a single step forward. "Don't get to talk to me about being crazy. This whole plan is crazy. I've said it from the start."

"You have," he agreed. "And the fact that you're doing it says a lot more about you than it does me. You couldn't be brave if you weren't afraid, Raven. And you are brave. Braver than me."

Raven let an incredulous laugh slip through her lips. Her? Brave? What utter nonsense. Through age and experience Raven had learned much about herself. She'd admitted to truths about who she was as a person, what her flaws were, and what she valued in life.

Raven Branwen was a selfish coward of a woman. One who had made a plethora of mistakes in the past, and who would fight tooth and nail not to acknowledge them. Acknowledging them would only put her current life, her current happiness, her current family, in jeopardy.

"Is that supposed to be a pep talk?" she asked her brother sarcastically.

"It's supposed to be the truth," Qrow pressed. "I get that you're terrified, but you're doing the right thing. Think about Summer. Think about Ruby and Yang. When this is all over they'll all be better for it."

When this was all over. More like if. There was no guarantee Yang would ever accept her again. There was no guarantee she and Ruby would ever be what anyone would consider to be a normal and well-adjusted person. There was no guarantee that Summer wasn't a broken shell of a person beyond repair.

"Bandits aren't supposed to do the right thing," she argued.

"No, but a mother is. For better or worse, you're a mother. Maybe not to Yang, but to your little boy. You have to do the right thing for his sake, even if he doesn't know you're doing it."

Raven sighed. She hated when Qrow used her family against her. Even if this wasn't a threat in the way it had been when he'd threatened to expose her secrets to Tai, it annoyed her that her brother could hone in on her weakness and exploit it to get her to do what he claimed to be the right thing.

"I hate that you're still in my life," she growled quietly. "You should be off on another continent having meaningless one night stands with waitresses like you used to brag about."

Qrow chuckled. "Then maybe we've both changed. I wouldn't find that sort of thing too satisfying anymore." He shrugged. "At least not emotionally."

Her nose wrinkled. "How about we don't explore that path anymore."

"Fair enough. Instead, how about we go over the plan one more time?"

Raven swallowed hard, but nodded. She'd come this far already. Delaying the inevitable wouldn't do her or anyone else any good.

"We go in, we grab Summer, and we get out," Qrow explained. "However, going back is going to be the tricky part. If both of us are there then you're going to need another person to act as an anchor to come back to. Like you said, you can't just leave your portal open indefinitely, and we don't know how long it might take to free Summer. We don't want to put unnecessary drain on your Aura just in case things go south.

She nodded. "Yes. And seeing how I can't use Yang or Tai as an anchor to go back, that leaves me with one other option. One who..."

"You haven't seen in a long, long time," he finished for her.

Raven nodded once more. Normally Raven was content to not make connections with too many people, but in this case it would be a hindrance to their plan. The only people she was able to create portals to were her fellow members of Team STRQ, her children, and...

The current leader of the Branwen Tribe.

Raven wasn't sure how Vernal might react to her suddenly showing up ten years after she'd unceremoniously up and left them out of nowhere.

Frankly, Raven didn't care either. She didn't need her former protege's permission, nor would she request it. If she or any other of those fools had a problem with it, she and Qrow were more than capable of dismantling the entire tribe in a matter of minutes. Even without her Maiden powers, disposing of scum like them would be child's play.

"And then once we're out..." Qrow continued.

"We figure it out from there," Raven finished. "Right now all I'm worried about is getting Summer out. I'm not a shrink, and I don't have a place for her to stay."

"Yeah. I'll take care of all that on my end. I'm sure Leo would accommodate us for a little while."

Leonardo Lionheart. Raven could see her brother's point of view. If there was anyone else in the world who might be a bigger coward than she was, it was the current Headmaster of Haven Academy. Qrow would easily be able to cow him into doing exactly what he wanted him to do for Summer's sake.

Qrow placed a hand on her shoulder. Raven flinched at his touch, and immediately stiffened her body as a result. To try to appear confident and strong. She doubted he would buy it.

"So. You ready?"

No. I'll never be ready for this. "Let's just get this over with," she chose to say instead.

Unsheathing Omen from her hip, Raven held the blade up straight in front of her face. She stared at its thin edge for long seconds before closing her eyes. She thought of Summer Rose. The memory of her beautiful, smiling face. The mischievous glint in her eye when she had an idea of how to have some unauthorized fun while at Beacon. Her teammate. Her friend.

Her family.

The blade slashed downwards, opening up a tall, oval portal of swirling red and black. On the other side of it was almost certain death and doom. She could just close it after Qrow went through. That would be the end of it. She would never see him again. No one would ever tell Tai the truth then. That chapter of her past, and of her life, would be over forever. The book would finally be closed for good.

But if she did so, would she ever be able to look either Tai or Robin in the eyes again? Knowing what she'd done to her own brother? To doom Summer for good? Yang and Ruby too?

She pushed the thoughts from her mind, and as Qrow stepped through the portal to Salem's realm, Raven stepped in behind him. This was it. The die was cast.

The place was dark. Bleak. Haunting.

Under the best of circumstances it took a few seconds to readjust oneself after stepping through one of Raven's portals. Here, however, in this accursed realm, any sense of normalcy and familiarity was nothing but a forlorn hope.

And yet it was hope which had brought him here. Hope which would not allow him to give up. Hope which would save a life.

Qrow could barely see a few feet in front of himself, much less who else was in the room with him. The only light was a sickly purple glow from outside, which barely did anything to help coming in from the windows up high in the stone walls. It was only because he heard a sound from behind him that he knew that Raven was behind him.

Or was she?

He turned in an instant, Harbinger in its sword form and ready to strike at a moment's notice. Thankfully at such a close distance he was able to make out Raven's form, and her red eyes squinted in confusion. A wave of relief washed over him. As much as he had pressed for this to happen... this place was unnerving. Just being here made his skin crawl. He could understand Raven's apprehension in coming here once again.

How had Jaune and the girls survived such a place? Where even was this place?

Such thoughts could be saved for later. For now, however, he had a mission to accomplish. The most important mission of his huntsman career. One which he would never be rewarded for, save for the reward that came with saving a dear friend's life.

Qrow walked slowly in the room, scanning around for Summer the best he could in such dim light. He stepped in a puddle of something wet, but paid it no heed. She had to be here somewhere. Raven had opened a portal to her. Just because he couldn't see her yet didn't mean she wasn't here.

What came next did so without even thinking. He called out, his voice soft yet harsh at the same time. "Summer!" he whispered. "Summer!"

To his surprise, relief, and abject terror, he received a reply. Her voice, despite sounding so monotonous, broken, and defeated, still carried the sweet and melodic tone which he remembered from his former team leader.


He didn't see where she'd spoken from, but he heard her. Turning to the source of the voice, Qrow moved quickly. After around twenty paces he came upon her. The dim purple light washed over her form. For all intents and purposes, she was exactly as he remembered her.

Save for the blindfold over her eyes.

Qrow rushed over to where she laid on a bed. She wasn't tied or chained up. Perhaps there was no reason to do so with an unarmed prisoner who had no way out. Or perhaps she was no longer a threat. The reason why didn't matter, but Qrow was merely relieved that he wouldn't have to break any kinds of bonds to free her.

"Summer, it's me!" he exclaimed, holding back bitter tears as he knelt down beside her.

"Who are you?" she responded unenthusiastically. "What do you want?"

It saddened Qrow that she didn't remember his voice the same way he did hers. Still, it made sense that she would think it was someone in Salem's service. Summer hadn't seen a friendly face in years. In fact, with that blindfold on, she couldn't see a thing at all. He wondered why she wore it if her hands weren't bound.

"It's Qrow," he answered, unable to contain a joyous, relieved smile.

In an instant Summer's demeanor changed. She sat up from her bed, her head turned toward him. Even if she couldn't see him, she could hear him just as he'd heard her.

"What?" she whispered in disbelief.

"We're here," he said. "We're here to get you out."

To his surprise, however, Summer shook her head violently. "You have to leave! Now!"

Her reaction was the last thing Qrow had expected. Shock, relief, those were what he would have predicted by his sudden appearance. Not telling him to leave.


"Leave! Please!"

Qrow grabbed hold of her hand, which Summer immediately tried to pull away. He would not let her, however. Holding her single hand in both of his, Qrow did his best in order to calm and comfort the obviously shaken woman.

"Summer, it's okay," he spoke in a soft, soothing tone. "I'm here. Raven's here too. We're going to get you out of here."

Summer's head moved, as if to try to find where Raven was. Still, she was blindfolded. She couldn't see either of her rescuers.

It was a flaw which Qrow would remedy immediately.

"Here, let's get this off of you," he said as his hands moved up to her face. As soon as his fingers had touched the fabric which wrapped around Summer's head, her own hands came up and slapped them away.

The action took Qrow aback once more. Still, he complied with her unspoken request, and lingered for a few moments. "Summer?"

She shook her head again. "There's no point," she said darkly. "I wouldn't be able to see you anyway..."

It took Qrow a few seconds to process what she'd said. When it finally clicked, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Sorrow and rage filled his heart in equal measure.

She'd taken Summer's eyes.


Silver eyes were the bane of the Grimm. If Summer was to be her prisoner, to be used against Ruby for whatever dark and heinous purpose she had in mind, of course she couldn't be allowed to keep her silver eyes. Still, to take them, to leave this woman in such a state...

"Qrow," he heard from behind him. "We need to leave. Now."

There was fear and panic in Raven's voice. It was understandable. Just being here in this dark dungeon made him feel as if his willpower was being sapped from him.

Qrow stood up, and reached down to take hold of Summer's shoulders. He urged her to stand up too, and when he moved to pull her along with him, she dug her heels into the ground and stopped both of them.

"Where are Ruby and Yang?" she asked, her voice frantic with worry. "We can't leave without them."

Thankfully he did have an answer to this question. One which would satisfy Summer.

"They're in Vale," he told her. "Both of them."

"Are they safe? Are they okay?"

He nodded, though this was just a natural reaction. He knew she couldn't see it.

"Yeah. They're both fine. I mean, they're both still... how they are, but they're safe."

For the first time since arriving, Summer smiled. That sweet, bright smile which was enough to light up even this horrid place.

"Now come on. Let's go."

Perhaps the shock had worn off, or perhaps learning of her children's safety simply made her more agreeable. Whatever the reason, Summer was suddenly willing to walk with him back to where Raven stood. All that was left now was to get out of here.

"Okay, Rae. Do your thing."

Not needing to be told twice, Raven raised Omen to slice through reality once more and create a portal to Mistral.

Before it could arc down as it had before, something grabbed onto her arm, arresting it in place.

His eyes had adjusted better to the light now, and Qrow saw, to his horror, the cause of Raven's distress. The barbed tentacle of a Seer Grimm had wrapped itself around her right arm and was currently locking her in place.

It had been in there with them this whole time. Qrow simply hadn't seen it. Of all the bad luck...

The thing screeched an inhuman cry, as if to alert other Grimm to intruders. Qrow wouldn't give them a chance. With Harbinger in hand, he leapt forward to sever the tentacle which held Raven in place...

Only to find that he couldn't move either.

Something had grabbed onto his ankles. Looking down and behind him, he saw a pair of clawed hands holding him fast. The... thing, which looked disturbingly human and yet not at the same time, was sprawled out with its belly on the floor. Its skull-like head looked up at him, and baleful red light emitted from both its eyes and its screaming yet silent maw.

It had no legs, for they were still submerged in a puddle of black ichor on the floor. The puddle he had stepped in before...

As Qrow looked around in a panic, he saw that there were several more puddles all over the floor. Puddles which were spawning more Grimm into the prison cell.

Pure instincts took over, and Qrow lashed out with Harbinger, slicing through the Grimm's wrists and freeing himself. This time it did make noise, and the cry it screeched when Qrow cut through its limbs was enough to make his knees go weak and nearly collapse to the floor.

It took everything he had to push himself back up to his feet. "Summer!" he screamed. "Raven!"

The Grimm which were spawning from the black pools were like nothing he had ever seen before. These were no mere Boarbatusks or Creeps. These unnamed things, bipedal and utterly terrifying in their almost human-like visage, clawed their way into reality from their dark birthing pools before clambering up to their feet. Tall, gaunt, and skeletal in appearance, they shambled forward without a sense of urgency. Like they didn't even share the same destructive desire as other Grimm did.

Qrow felt... oddly at peace with this. Like they were no threat at all. Like they wouldn't hurt him even if they got their claws on him. Like this was all just... fine.

Yes. Everything would be fine.


The sound of Summer's voice snapped him back to reality. He hadn't even realized he'd let go of her hand. That he'd just been standing there with his arms limp. With his weapon at his side.

With the approaching horde of Grimm slowly nearing the three of them.

Trying his best to shake the cobwebs from his mind, Qrow lashed out again at the Grimm at his feet, driving the tip of Harbinger through its skull. It screeched once more in its death throes, and he saw how it began to dissipate into nothingness after it was slain.

One down... many more to go...

But that was fine, wasn't it?

With his free hand Qrow gripped his head. What was wrong with him? Why couldn't he focus? Why did he want to just lie down and go to sleep? There was a bed right there. Maybe he should go and lie down in it... Take a nap... Finish this mission later...

Raven's scream broke him from his stupor this time.

The Seer which had taken hold of her sword arm was slain, but not by her weapon. Her unarmed hand surged with magical power, and a blast of pure ice shot forth. It engulfed the Seer, freezing it solid in the blink of an eye. The floating thing, robbed of its power and its life, fell to the stone floor where it shattered into hundreds of pieces.

She did the same thing to the horde which stalked them. Wild and untamed power was let loose, and the air around them grew colder in an instant. The power Raven possessed at her fingertips was terrifying to behold, and Qrow saw that if the two of them were ever to go toe-to-toe that he would be defeated in a matter of seconds. The uncounted Grimm were stopped in their tracks, frozen solid by Raven's attack.

Suddenly Qrow's senses returned to him. His sense of purpose, his clarity, it all came flooding back to the forefront of his mind.

He snatched Summer's hand once more, unable or unwilling to release it this time.

"Now, Raven!" he screamed, not willing to waste another moment and allow more Grimm to appear.

She'd bought them precious seconds thanks to her Maiden powers, and now she was finally able to carve through reality itself and create another portal.

Qrow pulled Summer close to his chest and dove straight into it. There was no time for grace. No time to plan a safe landing. He just had to get out of there. Get out and never return.

He landed in the dirt, and the early morning light. Next to him, thankfully, was Summer. A moment later Raven landed next to them, and the portal behind them closed.

It took a few seconds for Qrow's eyes to adjust once more, and for his brain to process how they'd gone from that eerie purple glow to early morning light. Light. Yes. That's right, they were in Mistral now. They were several hours ahead of Vale, and dawn was just breaking here. In a way it was symbolic. Summer was back with them, and it was like the dawn of a new day in all of their lives.

Relief washed over him as he reached out to hug Summer. He buried his face into her shoulder, and for the first time in a long time, Qrow Branwen shed tears.

"We're out, Summer," he whispered, clutching her tightly. "You're out. You're safe."

Summer embraced him back, and he heard how she sobbed too. Right now nothing else mattered. She was safe. They were safe. This was the beginning of a new and better tomorrow.

"She saw..." he heard his sister say.

Reluctantly removing his face from Summer, Qrow looked up to where Raven now stood. Her entire body trembled uncontrollably. She clenched her sword tightly, while her free hand balled into a fist.

"Raven?" he questioned. How could she possibly be frightened now that they were back to safety?

"She saw," his sister repeated. "She saw! She saw! She saw!" Raven wasn't making sense. She just kept repeating those same words over and over again.

"Raven, who saw? Saw what?"

Raven was frantic. "She was watching. I know she was watching. She knows now. She knows. She... she..."

Before he could press for more information, Qrow realized that they weren't as alone as it first appeared. Of course they weren't. After all, Raven had made her portal to a woman she had a connection with.

Looking around, he saw how the filthy and disheveled bandits of the Branwen tribe had begun to emerge from their tents. All around them stood a tall wooden palisade. They were, for all intents and purposes, trapped here with the bandit tribe which they'd once belonged to.

Qrow wasn't overly concerned for his or Raven's own safety. They could more than handle themselves. However, he didn't want to have to fight while protecting Summer at the same time. All it would take was one stray shot, one unlucky bullet, to strike the woman who wasn't in any condition to fight. He didn't even know if she could activate her Aura right now.

He stood up, bringing Summer to her feet as well. He stood in front of her, doing his best to use his own body to shield her from the majority of the bandits who'd gathered.

"Hey," he called out to them. "We don't want any trouble. We'll be on our way right now."

Knowing what he knew about the old tribe, however, he knew this wouldn't be enough. They were encroaching on their territory. At best they would be ordered to pay a toll. At worst they would have to fight their way to freedom.

"Will you, now?" a woman asked as she stepped forward out of the crowd.

Standing at average height, her brown hair was cropped close to her skull, and her left arm bore a tattoo of a large bird of some sort. When she spoke she wasn't looking at him, however. She was looking at his sister.

Raven was staring down at the ground, still stuck in whatever terrified stupor she'd been in ever since returning from Salem's realm. Her body still shook. Qrow wasn't sure if she was about to collapse down onto her knees or explode with unrestrained rage.

"Hey!" the unnamed woman snarled. "I'm talking to you!"

Raven's head slowly turned, and her wide eyes stared manically at the bandit woman. A shiver went down Qrow's spine at the sight of his sister in such frantic distress. He had never seen Raven so shaken before in his life.

What came next he'd seen only once before, when he'd threatened her with telling Tai the truth. Raven's eyes were engulfed in red fire, and that burning gaze alone would have been enough to force most opponents into submission.

"Vernal," she greeted coldly, even as her left hand became bathed in flames. "I will say this only once. Submit, or die."

Qrow wanted to comment on how diplomacy had broken down, but in the Branwen Tribe this was how diplomacy was done.

It was an unusually quiet evening for Taiyang Xiao Long. With Robin in bed for the night and Raven out to help Qrow run an errand, he was all but alone here in the cabin. They were rare occasions, but it was times like these that he thought about getting some sort of pet to keep him company. To keep his boy company. Maybe a dog. A boy should have a dog.

With nothing else to do but wait until his wife and brother-in-law returned, Tai sat down on the couch in the living room and turned the television on. Changing the channel to the news, he could only reflect on how old he was getting. Here he was, the onetime stud of Beacon Academy, turning on the nightly news. Maybe he should invest in some sort of a hobby. Maybe... gardening.

Lisa Lavender was on the screen, bringing VNN's nightly coverage of the Vytal Festival. Warm memories came flooding back even stronger this time. Once upon a time he and the rest of Team STRQ had participated in the tournament. They'd even won it. They had been the coolest, strongest, and most badass team in their year at Beacon. No one could match them in terms of ability and coolness. He had been the cool and cocky lady's man. Raven the foul-tempered but surprisingly loving bad girl. Qrow the brooding and mysterious emo boy whom certain ladies wanted to try to fix and heal. And then there had been Summer... their leader...

How could he even describe Summer? Sweet, sincere... a bit of a brat at times. Their leader ruled over the odd collection of Team STRQ with an iron fist in a velvet glove. She had been so warm and gentle, but when the time came to be a hardass she never failed to rise to the occasion. She'd kept all of them in line, one way or another.

Tai missed her. As much as things might have changed, as much as he had healed in the past ten years, he still missed her.

Maybe it was that fondness of his former friend, teammate, lover, and wife which made him lean in closer to the TV when he saw the highlights from one particular match. A boy and a girl from Haven Academy, him with blond hair and blue eyes, and her with red-black hair and silver eyes. After their match the girl had leapt into the boy's arms, planting a huge kiss on his cheek. It didn't look like a kiss of excitement over their victory, either. It looked to Tai that the two of them were an item.

It looked as though he was seeing into the past, and staring at him and Summer all over again.

That girl... she looked remarkably like Summer had back when they'd been their age. It was impossible, though. Summer was gone. Ruby... she too was gone.

However if Ruby wasn't really gone, she would be this girl's age now.

Tai shook his head. No. There was no reason to travel down that path. Ruby, Yang, Summer... they were all gone. He had made peace with that fact long ago.

And yet... how did she look so much like Summer? What were the odds that she would share that same hair? Those same rare eyes? Outside of Summer and Ruby, Tai had never met anyone else with silver eyes.

Team AWRY from Haven Academy. So that's who they were. Maybe he would need to go online and look up some more highlights from their match. More from their four on four match. He wanted to see more of them.

If for nothing else, than to watch them compete with a smile as he reminisced about the good old days. Before life had become so tragically complicated.

Author's Note: Team FNKI was really the best possible matchup for this version of Ruby and Jaune. Jaune, as we saw in volume 7, completely bodied Flynt in their training match. Considering that this Jaune is much stronger than his canon self thanks to his time at Salem's academy, I have no reason to believe it would be any different. A little hot air wouldn't do anything to someone of his bulk.

And then Ruby, well, once she was able to become as fast as Neon, that speed advantage she possessed would be negated. It took a while, but those insults of hers eventually broke through to Ruby. Much like with Yang in the show, they wound up doing more harm than good.

Oh yeah, and then a lot of movement on the Raven/Qrow/Summer/Taiyang front. Is Team STRQ inching closer to a full reunion?

As always, I hope you enjoyed the latest chapter. Thanks for reading.