So, long story short, this chapter and the previous one were written as one chapter that ended up being much longer than I thought they'd be so I split them into two chapters... but I also love the ending note of this chapter while I only like the last one. Also, again, I am terrible at keeping a backlog.
Beta-ed by xenosaiyan
"So, Blake is the daughter of the Ghira Belladonna, who ran away from her parents to join Sienna Khan when she took over the White Fang, and now is here, possibly hiding after deserting them, or infiltrating the school for them?" Izuku muttered, utterly mystified as he desperately speed-walked after the fiercely stomping Bakugo. "Does Ozpin know about this?"
"He'd be a moron if he didn't," the wolf faunus gruffly replied. "He's met Ghira and Kali multiple times and the coward's bow isn't exactly stationary."
Izuku winced, recalling how his inexperience with faunus had led his first guess to be that Blake was having semblance trouble. "I suppose that would be difficult to mistake for anyone else with context."
The two boys hustled through the upper levels of the Beacon library, the buzzers of Dr. Oobleck's quiz circle softly echoing up from the ground floor (from the sound of it, Team CFVY was dominating). Bakugo's scowl only grew as the rows upon rows of bookshelves passed by them at rapid speed, some even with students in them. Izuku had to tap into his aura a bit to keep up with his classmate's franticly accelerating pace.
Unfortunately, the green-haired boy didn't think the sweat dripping from the wolf faunus's brow was from physical exertion.
"Don't call me that—ugh," Katsuki groaned, though he still didn't slow down even as he clutched his head.
Izuku let One for All flare around his body and overtook the other boy in a flash, putting a hand on his shoulder to make him stop. The wolf faunus growled at him, but the fact that he didn't immediately throw the offending hand off let the green-haired boy know he was on to something.
"Katsuki, are you sure you're up for this?" Izuku kindly but forcefully inquired, recalling how the wolf faunus had reacted to Yang and Ruby interfering in the Kali call and noticing he wasn't slowing down. "It's perfectly fine if it takes you more than a few days locked up alone to process everything—"
"Kirishima is what matters right now, Deku," Bakugo snarled. "And I'm not just gonna sit around and mope when the coward might be able to tell us where he is."
"I might be able to tell where who is?"
Izuku and Katsuki both whipped around to a nearby book nook, Blake cocking an eyebrow at them as she set down the hardcover tome she'd been reading.
"Izuku, I did not tell you all where in the library I come to be alone so that you could bring people to me," the black-haired girl snarked from her chair. "Whatever this is, can it wait until I get back to the room?"
"Hehehe, not really," Izuku nervously chuckled. "Sorry, Blake, but do you happen to know where an Eijiro Bell might be—"
"Ilia Amitola," Katsuki cut in, advancing on Blake, who immediately shot to her feet when the name left his lips. "She doesn't know who Eijiro is. But she knows the 'rainbow friend', the chameleon faunus, who recruited him."
"Ilia recruited… You know I was…" Blake's eyes shot to Izuku, her amber eyes widening at her teammate in horror before whipping back to Katsuki. "Did you tell him—"
"Focus, coward!" Katsuki roared.
He rushed forward and snatched Blake up by the collar of her school uniform, the young huntress too shocked and startled to use her semblance to escape. By the time she might have gathered herself enough to use her clone, Katsuki had already whipped her around and slammed her up against the bookshelf, his hand rising to grab hold of her bow.
Izuku jumped back in surprise. "Woah! What're you doing—"
"Shut it, Deku!" the wolf faunus snapped, his glare never leaving Blake as he tightened his grip on her bow. "I feel a shadow clone and this accessory isn't coming with you, so listen up, coward. Right now, I don't give a rat's ass whether you're still with the White Fang or not. Your lizard fangirl and those fox creeps of hers suckered my friend into joining the losers and you're going to tell me where she's taken him. Now!"
"I… I don't know! I left them! I promise!" Blake frantically protested; her stoic demeanor shattered. Izuku had never seen her so terrified, even when they'd faced down the Giant Nevermore at initiation. "Even if I was still with them, the Albains send recruits from Menagerie all over. Your friend could be anywhere in Vale or Mistral, I don't know—"
Katsuki set off a small chorus of sparks around her bow, right next to her ears Izuku realized if her animal trait was like Kali's, before tightening his hand on the dark fabric. "Let's focus on what you do know then. I'll knock down as many losers' doors as I have to find him, so where's the last camp you were at?"
Blake's face went sheet white, tears pricking at her eyes. "You… you can't. If he's still there, he'll kill you. He'll find me—"
"I don't care about your boyfriend!" Katsuki yelled. "Tell me where the camp is or I'll rip off your bow and parade you in front of the Ice Bitch—"
"Katsuki!" Izuku shouted.
In the blink of an eye, emerald sparks flew over the young man's body as he raced in and tore Katsuki's hands off of Blake. He stepped between his teammate and his childhood companion, one arm protectively shielding his teammate while his other hand came forward to keep the wolf faunus at bay as his red-hot glare fell on him.
"Out of my way, Deku," he growled.
Izuku shook his head, his verdant gaze solid and unfaltering. Whatever Blake may have done, whatever they needed to get from her to help Kirishima, watching Bakugo corner her, attack her with his strength and his words… he'd been on the receiving end of that bullying too many times to ever stand by and let it happen to someone else.
What confused him though was that Katsuki Bell had never been a bully like that. Even Katsuki Bakugo had grown out of it since he'd entered UA. Was it really just the danger to Kirishima that was causing this backslide? Or was there something else to it?
"Katsuki, you need to calm down," Izuku warned. "She doesn't deserve this and you know it. You're not yourself—"
"Not myself?" the wolf faunus barked, pressing him and Izuku close until their faces were barely an inch apart. "Which self is that, Deku? The one that made your weakling life a living hell for years? Huh?! The one who told you to jump off a roof and hope you get lucky in the next life?"
Izuku winced at that reminder. He'd long ago learned to accept the… unpleasantness that had been his school and public lives before UA, but what Kacchan had told him the day he'd met All Might… that was something he especially tried not to think about.
And the fact that Katsuki had brought it up was further proof that something was wrong. Even when he was a bully, he didn't lord his bullying over others like Cardin did. He just did it, because that was how he was, because, in his own words, he couldn't stand Izuku always chasing after him. He hadn't been willing to be 'weak' in his own eyes, but that didn't mean he took pride in squashing others he saw as weak down.
"Is there a problem here?"
Izuku and Katsuki were ripped out of their stand-off by a new voice, they and Blake turning to the opening of their aisle of bookshelves to see Dr. Oobleck glowering at them. Behind his round glasses, his eyes, as speedy as the rest of him, swiftly took in the most minute details of the scene from the three students' positioning to the crinkles and burn marks in Blake's clothes.
"This library is no more a place for laying hands on each other than it is for undue noise," the history professor tutted, slowly striding up to the trio. "Is there a particular reason you seem to be participating in both?"
Izuku, Katsuki, and Blake all involuntarily took a step back. They'd all spent enough time in the man's class to know that when Bartholomew Oobleck deemed to move slowly, he did so with a purpose, usually one unpleasant to whatever had earned his attention.
"It's… fine," Katsuki bit out, averting his eyes from the huntsman. "Just talking."
"Just talking?" Dr. Oobleck tutted. He turned to Izuku and Blake. "Is that so?"
"Yeah, just talking," Izuku nodded. He glanced back at Blake. "Right… Blake?"
He couldn't stop the sudden catch in his voice when he saw her. The dark-haired girl, normally so effortless, stoic, and confident, had tears leaking down her cheeks, her body shivering as her breath came out shallow. It wasn't just the revelation that they knew about her past. Something Katsuki had said had struck an issue she'd buried deep down, something she wasn't emotionally ready to process yet.
Something Izuku's quest to save his Earth friends had torn to the surface. Hurting his Remnant friends in the process.
"Just… just talking," Blake managed to get out, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "Sorry if we were too loud, professor."
"Doctor. And I will admit some ears were pricked in the quiz circle," Oobleck coolly replied, clearly not fooled at all by their 'no one tattles' strategy. "Mr. Bell, Mr. Midoriya, would you please come with me? I believe the headmaster has something he'd like to discuss with you."
Katsuki shot a quick, determined glance at Blake that said that he really wasn't ready to leave without the information they needed, but Izuku grabbed his arm to follow after their professor. Still, as the boys strode away, the green-haired boy's eyes darted backwards on their own, catching sight of Blake meticulously righting her appearance, the ebony-haired beauty somehow leaving no evidence that she'd been seconds away from falling apart only moments before.
Her amber gaze met Izuku's emerald and for a breathless moment, her façade cracked and he saw her fear. Fear of being discovered to be not what she claimed, fear of being cast out for what she was, fear of her friends turning on her and leaving her alone. Fears the hero-in-training knew all too well.
He didn't have an opening to stop and talk to her with Dr. Oobleck escorting him and Katsuki away. He couldn't tell her how he understood what it was like to hide a secret you were ashamed of and that he still considered her a friend (as long as she wasn't secretly still a terrorist, but he was pretty sure Ozpin wouldn't let one of those into the school). He couldn't tell her that she didn't have to put up walls of stoicism or run away. He couldn't tell her that she had nothing to fear.
At least, not with words.
Izuku curled his lips upward, carefully not to fully flash his teeth the way that had lost him points during the Provisional License Exam. The smile he made was a soft thing, a friendly thing like a sibling assuring you that your grade school screw-up wasn't nearly as bad as you thought it was.
He saw Blake's face light up when she saw it, the all-consuming fear in her eyes melting away to a more tepid confusion… and perhaps a hesitant hope.
"Blake, Izuku, Ruby has decided she simply has to slack off from her studies tonight, so I'm here to help you win quiz circle for Team RIBW—" Weiss greeted, only to putter out when she came up behind her partner and saw Izuku and Katsuki being led away by Oobleck.
The heiress groaned and let her face fall into her palm. "Do I even want to know?"
When Ozpin had gotten a message from Bartholomew that a pair of students may have discovered Ms. Belladonna's past affiliation with the White Fang (he'd of course alerted the staff that an allegedly former terrorist was among the incoming class and requested that they keep watch on her in case she started trouble or someone else did), he had been prepared for the worst, figuring he'd have to keep Ms. Schnee or Mr. Winchester from blowing up about the matter. Thus, it came as a lovely surprise when he found Izuku and Katsuki escorted up to his office. He'd assumed the latter had already figured it out given his familiarity with the elder Belladonna and as far as the secrets Mr. Midoriya kept, one of his teammates being a former terrorist was downright pedestrian.
Of course, then he'd heard what had led to the good doctor to suspect the boys were aware of Ms. Belladonna's past and his good mood quickly vanished. He thanked and dismissed Oobleck for bringing the matter to his attention, Glynda already present as they'd been discussing her pruning of Forever Fall's Grimm population in preparation for the upcoming field trip before the Earth boys had been brought up.
With the two young men sitting across from his desk with his deputy standing beside him, Ozpin imagined for a moment that he was really just a headmaster, and they were just his students that he had to scold for getting into a scuffle in the library. Alas, matters were hardly so simple.
"What in the world led the two of you to confront Ms. Belladonna so brazenly?" Ozpin inquired after Izuku and Katsuki had relayed what exactly had occurred, letting a note of disappointment sink into his tone.
"She has intel we need to find Kirishima," Katsuki grumbled, his chin mounted on his fist so he could avoid eye contact with the adults.
"So, your response was to corner her in a public place full of potential witnesses and threaten the information out of her?" Ozpin denoted, utterly unamused. "Mr. Bell, gruff and boisterous as you can be, I know you are more than intelligent enough to recognize how dreadful an idea that was."
The wolf faunus's crimson eyes darted up at Ozpin, as if they were trying to spontaneously conjure heat vision to burn through his head. "You don't know me at all, old man."
"On the contrary, I believe I know half of you quite well. How those halves intermingle? That seems to be something you yourself still have to discern," the headmaster noted. "I am removing you from tomorrow's field trip to Forever Fall."
Izuku was instantly on his feet to defend his companion. "Professor, there's no need to punish him like that—"
"This is not a punishment, Mr. Midoriya. Though if allowing it to appear as such makes for an effective disguise to your peers if they learn of today's incident, I advise you use it as such," Ozpin interjected, his gaze never leaving Katsuki's intense eyes. Were he a younger man, the wizard might have been threatened by the focused glare, but his experience allowed him to recognize the child behind it and respond with his best tough but sympathetic expression. "I know better than most what you're going through, Mr. Bell. Two lives in one mind, especially two lives that may not approve of how the other was lived, is not a burden to be ignored lightly."
"My memory's back. If I die, I just wake up right back at UA. Kirishima doesn't," the blonde scowled. "I'll ignore it 'till he's safe."
"Nevertheless, it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to locate which top-secret White Fang base he's been assigned to tomorrow. So take the time to get your own house in order," Ozpin said, his tone deepening into a command. "If you need to talk, I am sure anyone in this room would be happy to assist—"
Katsuki's eyes darted to Izuku for a split second before the wolf faunus jumped to his feet and tossed his chair across the office. "You're wasting time, old man! I'm not gonna let our friends die because you won't get off your ass!"
The fuming young man whirled around and stomped towards the office's elevator, smacking the down button as the doors slid closed behind him. Ozpin let him go. He'd dealt with enough allies over the centuries who felt starved for action against his caution to know that sometimes the best thing he could do was let them stew.
However, that was not Glynda's usual reaction to someone blowing up so disrespectfully, as both Qrow and James could attest.
Ozpin's concerned gaze fell on his deputy, who'd been strangely quiet through the entire conversation, not even using her semblance to catch Katsuki's chair before it completed its thrown arc and clattered back across the floor. Clearing out Forever Fall's Grimm must have tired her out more than he'd thought. Perhaps he could try to arrange some time off for her between the semesters, let her visit her hometown beyond Vale's walls before returning to assist in Amber's security. If she was only there for a short period, Salem wouldn't have the time to hear that one of his lieutenants was vulnerable outside the kingdom's defenses.
"Mr. Midoriya, could you run along and inform Dr. Oobleck that this situation is handled?" Ozpin said. "Barty's normally so methodical I fear he won't be able to focus on his quiz circle without such an assurance."
"Of course, professor," Izuku dutifully responded. But as he turned to go, the green-haired boy found himself hesitating. "Professor, about Ruby… I definitely think she overheard me and Katsuki the other night. Even if she doesn't know everything, she knows enough to know I'm lying to her."
"Do not jump so readily to fearful conclusions, Mr. Midoriya," Ozpin advised. "Just because she knows you are lying does not mean she knows the whole truth."
"But if she does know the truth or even just enough of it… shouldn't we tell her the rest?" Izuku asked. "I mean, it's Ruby. If we can be sure that anyone isn't involved with Salem, it's her—"
"Mr. Midoriya," Ozpin interrupted, his tone just a tad forceful. "While I am more than pleased that you've grown to respect Ms. Rose so highly so quickly, I must advise against bringing her into this matter. Revealing the truth of your situation to her would necessitate divulging certain secrets of mine that, at merely fifteen, I do not wish to burden her with."
Could not risk burdening her with, and not just because Taiyang had promised to do… anatomically uncomfortable things to him if he attempted to recruit his daughters before they'd graduated Beacon. Ozpin had every intention of bringing the children of Summer Rose into his circle in time, but they were still too young, too green. While they were still at Beacon, he would give Ruby, Yang, and their teammates more than sufficient leeway to both stretch their wings and serve his purposes, perhaps bring Yang on a little if she did prove the best option to be the new Fall Maiden. But telling them about Salem before they'd even been on their first real mission? There was far too great a risk of their youthful spirits being crushed by the revelation (too great a risk of betrayal) even without the knowledge of The Queen's immortality.
They were still children for the moment. He'd prefer to let them play the part if he could.
Fortunately, Izuku respected him enough that the young boy managed a reluctant nod at his insistence despite the painfully guilty specter covering his face.
"What we do will not be understood by all, but that does not mean it is not necessary," Ozpin comforted him. "Focus on your mission, Izuku. Katsuki may have frightened Ms. Belladonna, but you defended her. Use that to get what information you can out of her to find Mr. Kirishima."
"Right, use that," Izuku muttered, before letting out a morose, self-loathing sigh as he headed for the elevator. "Use her…"
The mechanical doors swished shut behind him, leaving only the headmaster and his deputy in the office, the clockwork gears pricking by above them. Normally, Ozpin found their regular sound soothing, a reminder that the world was still turning and the people around him were living one more moment his suffering had bought them.
However, as he looked at Glynda now, for some reason he could not shake the thought that they sounded like a ticking timebomb.
"Is everything alright, Glynda?" he inquired.
"What?!" the bespectacled huntress replied, startled. "Why do you ask?"
Ozpin raised an eyebrow. "Forgive me, my friend, but you seem strangely 'out of it' as the students would say."
"It's… it's nothing," Glynda replied. Her eyes flickered towards the door the two Earth natives had just left through. "I suppose with Mr. Bell's memories restored, seeing him so off-balance… it's just making this all feel so real. That children from another dimension are in our world… that The Queen is powerful enough to bring them here, that she might even be able to bring more here."
"I wouldn't worry about that. Given that the Gods were unnerved enough about her actions to actually do something, I doubt they wouldn't set up defenses in Earth's realm to keep it from being penetrated again," Ozpin said, only to pause and purse his lips in thought, recalling the Brother Gods' previous… 'competence'. "… well, I hope that Earth's god has at least."
"… hopefully," Glynda said.
The huntress turned away from Ozpin and took a long, deep breath. Then, she returned her gaze back to the headmaster, her gaze as steady and calm as the wizard was used to seeing.
"Still, I can't stop thinking about it, the burden on those boys' shoulders. To set out on such a monumental task, that might be impossible. It makes me… grateful for our own situation," Glynda revealed. "The stakes may be higher than just a few friends, but we have a plan. It may be ugly and horrible at times, but it'll all be worth it when The Queen's threat is finally gone from Remnant. Your plan to kill her will work, no doubt, correct?"
Ozpin was grateful his hands were already enigmatically pressed together in front of him as they so often were. It made it easy to hide the minute tremor that spread through his wrists at his second's words.
Glynda's speech was precise. Almost targeted. It was as if she knew the truth about Salem. But that was impossible. Other than The Queen and her circle, the only ones who knew about his former love's immortality were himself, Mr. Midoriya, and Mr. Bell, and the latter two had no reason to bring up the matter with Glynda when they were operating under the assumption that she already knew. Had something tipped her off in their manner? She was an intelligent woman, if one of the boys had said the wrong thing, it was possible she could deduce the truth—
No, no, no. He had to get his head on straight. Like he had told Izuku, one could not jump to fearful conclusions. It was possible that Glynda had somehow learned the truth of the war, but it was also possible that Salem had figured out a way to use her spell again to reincarnate victims from another world, perhaps ninjas that could destroy mountains, monkey aliens that could annihilate planets, or some other ridiculous thing like that which would completely throw their status quo into chaos. He could not let such conspiratorial fears drive him to foolish action. As competent and reliable as Glynda was, he could not forget that she was still human, full of turmoil and dread behind her professional façade.
If he took the wrong risk out of fear, he could potentially doom his friend and the world they both sought to protect. After all, he'd had countless competent and reliable friends before, and he couldn't remember the last one that had remained so when they'd learned the truth. One only had to look at Raven for a recent example. Once one of his most determined and dedicated to Salem's defeat, now she hid in Mistral's western wildlands running her little protection racket, ransacking villages in the north and east that sided with the Malachites in their ferocious gang war. And she was one of the better outcomes from over the centuries.
He could not risk Glynda becoming one of the worse.
"Of course it will," he smoothly lied, careful to ensure his smile was self-assured and his eyes were alight with a mysterious twinkle, just as they'd been since he'd first met Glynda when she was a teenager. "It will take time, and far more hardship than I would wish, but it will work. We will kill The Queen and Remnant will be freed from the Grimm forever."
"… That's good to hear," Glynda replied, a noticeable but not long moment of silence preceding her response. Ozpin hoped it was a sign of his deputy settling her rattled thoughts. "I think I should do one more sweep of Forever Fall before the field trip. We can't be too careful with the students' safety."
"True, but don't push yourself too hard, Glynda," Ozpin advised, the huntress marching over to the elevator, her high heels echoing off the office's metal floor. "You don't need to kill every Grimm in the forest, just the stronger ones. You won't be much good as a chaperone if you're too tired to stand. The students can handle a few young Beowolves."
"With Mr. Arc present, that's not a risk I'm willing to take," Glynda declared, stepping into the elevator and turning around to face the headmaster with a renewed stalwart gaze. "Besides, they're still children. We should let them play the part."
The mechanical doors whirred shut.
Ozpin sank back in his chair and let out an exhausted sigh. Sometimes, he wondered if he should stop trying to run a global conspiracy and a school for teenagers with a talent for violence at the same time and just pick one. Let Glynda have Beacon while he 'retired' to manage the wider affairs of Remnant. Maybe then the paperwork would fall to sanity-permitting levels. He wouldn't have to double-check all the students' transcripts due to the discovery of Mr. Arc and cross-reference Leonardo's reports on the Malachite Syndicate to deduce if they were responsible for the recent rash of dust robberies or if it was the White Fang as the police currently theorized (and which, if either, had Salem pulling their strings), just one or the other.
Yes, after the Earth affair was dealt with and Team RIBW and AYBN graduated to become his newest generation of enforcers, leaving Beacon in Glynda's capable hands would do wonders for his sanity. And, with any luck, his sleep schedule!
… eh, that might have been hoping for too much. Oh well, there was always coffee.
The elevator's pace downward was steady, even, calming. The huntress within stood straight as a rod, her emerald eyes staring out from behind ovular spectacles. With her gaze locked on the curved, stainless gray walls as the compartment descended, the blonde professor appeared serene, a tigress at rest in her own realm.
It was a compelling façade.
Glynda had not moved, had not thrown a punch, but a dent the size of an Ursa Major's head had still suddenly appeared in the elevator's wall, the heavy-duty steel cracked and warped like splintered glass.
The professor gulped in a deep, shuddering breath, running her hands down her face. It'd been decades since she'd lost control of her semblance like that, not since she'd mastered it during her long-ago days as a student at Beacon. Mastered under the tutelage of the already legendary Professor Ozpin, the youngest headmaster in history. How honored she'd been to have him instruct her with that mysterious twinkle in his eye and enigmatic but friendly smile.
Perhaps that was why it'd taken her so long to realize he'd been lying to her from the start.
She didn't know if anyone else would have caught the tremble in his arms when she'd asked her question. She wouldn't have if she hadn't specifically been looking for signs of deceit. It was why she'd said what she'd said, hoping that he'd reveal that Izuku was mistaken despite the casual confidence of his statement… or at least, that he'd be honest about what they were facing.
Instead, the man she'd thought to be her oldest friend had lied to her face. Again.
And the worst part was that she had no idea what to do about it. She couldn't just stop being a huntress. The threat of Salem was real. So long as she was a teacher at Beacon Academy, it was her responsibility to protect her students, to train them to… to…
… to die.
That was all there was. All the strength, both of the individual and in teams that they sought to nurture, there was no victory in it. Huntsmen could kill Grimm all they wanted, it didn't affect The Queen one bit. She couldn't die. All she had to do was wait for an opportunity and then strike with magic greater than any maiden and Ozpin wouldn't be able to do jack shit about it—
She… she couldn't do anything about that. She was a professor of Beacon Academy, the deputy headmistress. She'd protect her students… protect them so they could die more usefully for a lost cause, a certain defeat—
Glynda took another deep breath and forced her mind to be silent. She ran her fingers over her face and through her hair, her semblance seeping over her skin to force her makeup back into place and carefully tucking in the loose strands of her blonde bun. After that, she raised her arm and reverted the crater she'd telekinetically smashed into the elevator's wall with barely a thought.
She was Deputy Headmistress of Beacon Academy. Appearances had to be maintained. She had to do her job. She had to protect her students.
The elevator doors chimed open and Glynda Goodwitch marched out onto the ground floor with nary a visible sign of the turmoil she was forcing down inside her.
"Fearless Leader. P-Money," Yang casually greeted as she strode onto the rooftop Team AYBN had chosen for the team 'get Jaune to not suck at fighting' sessions when the training arenas were unavailable. The blonde leaned back against the wall with a groan as Pyrrha guided her partner through basic sword stances. "Hope you two've had a better day than me."
Jaune threw a heavy slash wide enough that his baby nephew (he'd showed them photos of him on his scroll and Yang had spent hours cooing about how Adrien Cotta-Arc was "the cutest wittle thing she'd ever seen") would have been able to see he'd overextended. Pyrrha, being much more experienced than an infant, made him pay for it with a blistering combination that ended with her spear tip at her partner's throat. And that was the Invincible Girl holding back. Way back.
The redhead lowered her weapon and clasped her hand with Jaune's when it looked like the blond boy was going to lose his balance. He shot Pyrrha a dorky smile in response, one that the champion fighter returned with an encouraging grin.
"I have fallen on my face a dozen times," Jaune cheerfully informed Yang.
"Dang, already down from yesterday's four dozen," Yang grinned, shooting him a thumbs-up. "Nice work, Jaune!"
"Thanks, I owe it all to you guys," Jaune said, though he couldn't hide a wince when he moved his arm.
Yang caught it and turned a mischievous smirk on Pyrrha. "You haven't been slave-driving him without me have you?"
Pyrrha nervously rubbed the back of her head. "I suppose I have been a bit… excited."
"Yeah, I could tell when you kicked his ass instead of gently correcting him for overextending," Yang teased. "You've been weirdly amped since Izuku and Katsuki's fight. I'm not complaining, it's a great look, just curious."
"It's… it's not important," Pyrrha deflected, a note of shame flashing over her face before she threw a polite mask over her features. "You said you'd hoped we'd had a better day than you had. Did something go wrong?"
"Ruby and I called our dad, weird subject came up, I tried to pretend things were normal afterward, and pissed off Katsuki by jumping onto his call with his mom, who weirdly looks like Blake but as a faunus," Yang rambled off, shaking her head to keep from thinking any more on that facet of the conversation. She had enough on her plate without diving into whatever nonsense Blake had going on. "Point is, Sparky's pissed at me."
Jaune and Pyrrha both blankly stared Yang, waiting for the real point.
"I mean more than usual," Yang clarified.
"Is that even possible?"
"If… something I've heard that I didn't think was true is true, yeah, it is," Yang said, deciding it was best not to drag her teammates into the whole 'Izuku and Katsuki might be superheroes from another dimension' thing until she had a better read on it. "Anyway, throw down your sword, Jaune. I need to blow off some steam."
"Woah, don't you usually use the punching bag in the rec center for that?" Jaune squeakily inquired.
"Katsuki's using it. Not a conversation I'm ready for yet," Yang half-lied, not wanting to admit she was partially acquiescing to her dad's order to avoid her partner after the CCT Tower. She walked forward and gave Jaune a friendly slap on the arm. "Don't worry, Fearless Leader, Pyrrha's tenderized you enough for one day. My job is to teach you to fight without weapons as well as she'll teach you to fight with them."
Jaune raised an eyebrow. "Uh, this may be a dumb question, so please don't be mad, but wouldn't it be better to just focus on learning to use my gear?"
"That's certainly an option," Yang shrugged. "But then you might end up like Ruby."
"A prodigy good enough to come to Beacon two years early?"
"More like completely helpless without your weapons," Yang revealed. "Seriously, her semblance is super speed, and she refuses to learn how to use it to throw the most epic punches of all time."
"Point taken," Jaune conceded. "But what if I just always have my weapons? I mean, we have rocket lockers to make sure we can always get to them for a reason, right?"
Yang smirked. "Draw your sword."
"Draw your sword, just like you would to fight."
Pyrrha frowned. "Yang, don't bully him."
"I'm not," Yang assured the other girl. "This is a teachable moment."
"Oh, that's never a good sign," Jaune mumbled. Credit where credit was due, he didn't hesitate to drop into a ready stance anyway. Yang grinned at that. Whether he snuck in or not, her team leader had the gumption needed to be a huntsman.
Almost made her feel bad when he grabbed for his sword, only for her fist to streak in towards his cheek. Jaune flinched back, but her punch never made contact. He cracked open his eyes to see that Yang had stopped her blow right before it struck his face.
"First lesson. Relying on your weapon means you'll always have to reach for it. I, and the Grimm, will not," Yang instructed, pulling back to a friendlier distance with a jaunty wink. "Get it?"
"Got it," Jaune gasped, taking off Crocea Mors's scabbard and laying it on the roof. "What's the second lesson?"
"Be ready to take some hits," Yang advised, coming forward to minutely correct her leader's stance. "Hand-to-hand means you have the advantages of fighting without a weapon, but it also means you have the disadvantages. Dodging is best, but sometimes you'll have to block and the only thing you'll have to do it with is your body. Even with armor, it's gonna hurt a bit even when you do it right."
Jaune's face fell. "More pain. Hooray."
"Don't knock it. It's more useful than you think," Yang said. "I mean, my semblance admittedly makes it a bit literal, but pain's more of an asset than it gets a rap for. The more hits you take, the more you want to deal them back. The angrier you get because of that, the more strength your body'll give you to win. The more likely you will win."
"What?" Pyrrha queried, blinking in confusion from the side. When Yang turned towards her, the champion immediately plastered on a camera-ready face of placation. "I mean, yes, pain can be useful if channeled correctly. But in my experience, it's still something to be avoided if possible."
Yang shrugged. "If it's gonna happen anyway, in my experience, it's best to lean into it. Use the extra strength to knock'em down when they think they're winning. Trust me, there's nothing more satisfying than punching the smug look off someone's face when they think they're winning."
"And if you miss?"
"What happens if you miss?" Pyrrha repeated.
Yang blinked, but she easily popped a cocky grin back on her face. "Keep pushing, keep fighting. They can't dodge forever. With Fearless Leader's buckets of aura, no way they'll beat him in raw stamina."
"Wait, me?" Jaune asked, startled. "I thought she asked what would happen if you missed?"
Ugh. The one time he had to actually follow the subtle shifts in conversation. How this talk had turned back around on her was something Yang did not know, but she still had her tried and tested defenses: bluster and exuberance.
"Well, if you want to see for yourself how it'll go with me, P-Money, we can always head down to the arena. We can book a spot, I can show you firsthand," the blonde brawler swaggered. "I mean, I may not be as upfront about it as Katsuki is, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to go a few rounds with The Invincible Girl."
"Oh," Pyrrha replied, shrinking into herself. "Well, I think we should stick to training for now. This time is supposed to be about helping Jaune."
"One night of watching two of Beacon's best go at it isn't gonna hurt him. It'll be educational, among other things depending on what gets him going," Yang remarked, actually a bit concerned that her teammate seemed to be so fervently fighting her own desires. "Come on, Pyrrha, we all know you're feeling it. No reason not to indulge."
"You know, it might be the bruises talking, but I think Yang's got a point. I mean you're planning to challenge Katsuki or Izuku in Professor Goodwitch's next class," Jaune piped up, only for a worried look to take over his own face. "Unless…"
Yang cocked an eyebrow. "There a reason you only want to fight the boys and not me, P-Money?"
"What? No. No," Pyrrha replied, though there was a crack of panic in her polite mask. "No, there's no reason. It's just I've been teaching Jaune for a bit now and he's more skilled than he looks, it's not a cakewalk–"
"Pyrrha," Yang interjected, channeling a bit of her dad's teacher voice into her words. "It's okay. I'm your teammate. More importantly, I'm your friend. Whatever's up, I can take it."
The Mistral Champion, the unstoppable warrior idolized by thousands across Remnant, never looked more vulnerable and terrified than she did just then, awkwardly shuffling on her clacking combat heels. Yang's heart instantly panged for her friend, the redhead's visage reminding her, oddly enough, of Ruby when they were on their first flight to Beacon. Of her nervous sister's desperate wish for everyone to think she had 'normal knees'.
Her big sister instincts kicking in with a vengeance, Yang found herself gliding over to the taller girl and engulfing her in a warm, gentle hug. Pyrrha straightened up, surprised for a moment, but she soon settled into the embrace, wrapping her arms around Yang to complete the gesture.
Yang quirked her head, pulling her neck off of Pyrrha's shoulder to show the redhead her quizzical expression. "Huh?"
Pyrrha winced, extracting herself from the hug. She glanced worriedly between Yang and Jaune, but her fear did not return, the champion letting out a sigh to accept it and press on.
"I have been blessed with incredible gifts. Talent, and opportunities to hone that talent into skill. I earned the name 'The Invincible Girl', everyone hoisting me onto its pedestal," she explained. "And at first, I was blessed with a wealth of challengers attempting to climb that pedestal after me. But my tactics with my semblance soon turned their eagerness to frustration and without a source to blame that frustration on, they quietly resigned themselves to stop trying, to leave me isolated on my pillar. Alone."
She glanced at Jaune, a sweet pinprick of a smile ghosting over her lips. "When you had no idea who I was in the locker room, when you treated me like a person instead of an unreachable idol, that was the first time in years someone treated me like Pyrrha instead of The Invincible Girl."
"Heh, glad my obliviousness had some good consequences," Jaune shyly chuckled. "And that the whole 'Hot Stuff' comment didn't sink things right away."
Pyrrha giggled. "It was actually quite charming. You said it with confidence."
Yang's lips pricked up in an impish smirk. It was just mutual admiration and care at the moment, but if properly nurtured (by say, her), something more could definitely sprout between her team leader and his partner. First thing first though…
"Okay, I'm following so far," Yang nodded. "But how does that translate to you wanting to fight Katsuki and Izuku but not me?"
Pyrrha cringed, clearly having reached the part she really wasn't looking forward to. "Well, as my prospective opponents resigned themselves to the idea that they couldn't beat me, I, in turn, began to evaluate them, and regretfully become resigned to the opposite."
"That they couldn't beat you?" Jaune surmised.
"I've always been skilled at analyzing the flow of my opponents, deducing the 'kinks' in their fighting styles that I could exploit with my semblance. And as I got better and better, I realized that no one in my circle, even my professional huntsmen mentors, could beat me. I came to Beacon instead of Haven not only to try to escape my fame, but out of hope that some of the students attending the greatest huntsman academy would be able to beat me, to be able to at least challenge me on my pedestal so they didn't grow to hate me," Pyrrha rambled out, a bit of desperation, even anger, coloring her tone. At least, before her face lit up like a brilliant sun. "My fight with Katsuki was the start, but watching him and Izuku battle, it was like I was competing in my first tournament again. Their strength, their speed, their ability to strategize on the fly… I'd forgotten how exhilarating it was to be faced with challenges I didn't know I could beat. Without any metal on him to manipulate, can Katsuki's AP Shot overwhelm my defenses? Can Izuku's strength overpower whatever control I try to establish on his boots? Can he compress his strength into smaller areas of his body to increase the force of his strikes? Could those strikes then create ranged attacks out of just by transferring the force through air–"
"Okay, okay, P-Money, we get it," Yang laughed, finding herself with a brilliant smile to see the usually reserved Pyrrha so enthusiastic about something. If this was what she'd lost when she became 'The Invincible Girl' it looked like Katsuki's undying will to challenge her had done more good than he'd known. "Well, not completely. I grant you, superheroes from another dimension may be tough–"
"What?" Jaune and Pyrrha asked in unison.
"-I mean Izuku and Katsuki may be tough," Yang quickly corrected, cursing her lapse in attention from noticing how cute Pyrrha looked when she was being passionate and feisty about fighting. "Sorry, Ruby was ranting to me about the latest Captain Vale and X-Ray & Vav crossover messed up the power scaling."
"Ugh, I hate it when they do that," Jaune grumbled. "It's like, yes, Captain Vale is awesome, but he's not in that weight class of power so let him outthink them instead! How hard is it to write something like that?!"
"And…" Yang said, steering the conversation back to relevant issues. "... how do I fall into the 'you know you've got me beat before we fight' category? Sure, your Polarity means fighting you with my gauntlets is asking for it, but if I take them off like Katsuki did, you can't control me like a puppet."
"If you do, then you lose both the ranged capabilities and added maneuverability they provide," Pyrrha countered. "On the battlefield, anything can happen. But in a controlled tournament setting, you would be left with only, admittedly exceptional, hand-to-hand against my rifle's range, my spear's greater reach, and my shield's defense, all backed up by my semblance enabling me to manipulate my armor and weapons for unorthodox strikes. With your straightforward fighting style being what it is, it would be almost as difficult for you to land a punch as if you were wearing your gauntlets."
Yang grinned. "I'll admit, it's a tall order. But you don't know everything I've got up my sleeve."
"Your semblance enhancing your strength for a super-powered strike?"
Yang's lips pursed. "How–"
"The fight with the Deathstalker during initiation. You went from being smacked around by its claws to pinning it to the ground with a single blow, at which point your hair lit on fire," Pyrrha casually revealed, her fingers rising to pensively rub her lips as her brow crinkled in thought. "I couldn't figure out if it was just an automatic boost or if there was some sort of activation requirement, but now that I think about it, what you said about taking hits and inevitable pain… yes, that would make a more straightforward style where you get hit into an asset…"
"Wait, I feel like I'm missing something," Jaune spoke up. "What turns getting hit into a good thing?"
Yang felt her heart freeze as Pyrrha's sparkling emerald eyes whipped back to her, the Mistral girl's smile wider than if she'd just been shown a photo of Adrien Cotta-Arc riding Zwei across a rainbow. "Does your semblance store the kinetic energy from the blows you take until you release it back all at once?"
"Uh… yeah," Yang muttered, her face falling. "Yeah, it does."
The spark in Pyrrha's eyes began to dim at her teammate's dispirited tone, so Yang immediately perked her features up to hide how hard the champion's words had hit. Even if she didn't live to support her friends, she had literally asked her friend to be truthful with her. She could not and would not validate her fear by reacting exactly how the redhead's past opponents had with petulant apathy and frustration.
And yet, she couldn't deny that she was frustrated.
Yang found herself shifting over to the edge of the roof and staring out over the towers of Beacon, the brisk night air buffeting through her resplendent golden mane, loose hair flowing in front of eyes she was sure had turned a blazing red now that her teammates couldn't see them.
She'd never gotten a big head about her strength, her dad and uncle had taken great care to ensure that she knew that she wasn't invincible just because she was easily the top fighter at Signal. But still, she'd been confident and secure in her strength. It was a point of pride for her that she was Ruby's big sis who could protect her from anything, that she'd never be as helpless as she'd been that day she'd dragged them both to the abandoned cabin in her first search for Raven. To hear Pyrrha so clearly spell out how she stood no chance against The Invincible Girl, with simple prideless logic, it made her heart burn with anger. With all the unclear revelations of Grimm Queens and Gods she'd received that day since she and Ruby had called home, it was… difficult to reconcile the loss of her strength's comforting certainty.
She'd stood at the top of Signal, and even at Beacon, she could say she comfortably sat in its top four first-year fighters along with Pyrrha, Katsuki, and Izuku. But with the knowledge of Pyrrha's true semblance and skill and the boys' otherworldly origins, it was finally clear to Yang just how wide the gap was between herself and the other three. The Invincible Girl deducing her semblance after only seeing her use it once put her in the same tier of battle analysis as Izuku and Katsuki. Yang just didn't fight with her head like that. She fought with her anger, she had plenty of it, what with her abandonment issues from Raven.
How the hell could she help her friends, protect them and everyone else she cared about from the mystical and interdimensional threats that were apparently out there, if she couldn't stand toe-to-toe with them?
Yang's gaze turned from red to violet, her anger subsiding as she and Pyrrha turned to the sound of Jaune's scroll's notification. Their curiosity turned to concern as their leader pulled the device out and blanched at what he saw.
"Message from Ozpin," Jaune said. "Katsuki… he's not coming on the Forever Fall trip."
"What?!" Pyrrha exclaimed. "Why not?"
"I don't know. It doesn't give a reason," Jaune replied. He turned his scroll so they could see the message. "It just mentions some sort of health concern? What's that about?"
Yang's brow furrowed. A day ago she would have just taken the message at face value, maybe chalked it up to just Ozpin being Ozpin or at most ask Katsuki what he'd done to piss the headmaster off. But now aware that there was a greater game at play, and that her partner was a crucial piece in it, she couldn't help but suspect a scheme in the works.
But what could she do? It had just been made clear she wasn't nearly as in her depth as she'd thought she was and Katsuki had made it pretty clear that her interference was not wanted. Heck, she should be celebrating! If he wasn't on the Forever Fall trip, it'd be easy for her to avoid him and help Ruby avoid Izuku just like her dad had asked. To follow her father's desires, all she needed to do… was nothing.
Eh. Since when had she done what authority figures had wanted her to?
"Hey, Jaune?" Yang said. "You're the one who puts in health notes to the teachers, right? Let's them know when we can't make it to class?"
Jaune tilted his head in confusion. "That's one of the things they told us we had to do at team leader orientation. Why?"
"Well, I think I'm coming down with something and won't be able to go to Forever Fall either," Yang responded. She added a cough into her elbow for effect.
Jaune and Pyrrha flatly stared at her, neither buying her 'illness' for a second.
"Yang, you can't just call in a sick day for no reason," the responsible redhead chastised her. "And besides, the teachers have put a lot of work into this trip for us."
"I know, I know, but all that pollen in Forever Fall plays havoc with my allergies," Yang said.
Pyrrha disapprovingly frowned at her. "Allergies?"
"That you've never mentioned before?"
"Even though we've known about this upcoming trip, to one of Vale's most famous forests, for weeks?"
"Must've slipped my mind."
Pyrrha glared at her. "Yang, you can't call in sick just because you want to try to reconcile with Katsuki while no one else is around?"
"What? P-Money, what are you talking about? That's crazy," Yang teasingly shot back. "That's crazy."
Jaune rolled his eyes. "Yeah. Totally crazy." He began typing into his scroll. "So, you want me to put you down for the flu or something more exotic?"
"Jaune!" Pyrrha exclaimed.
Yang smirked. Thank goodness Jaune was still growing into being a team leader. He hadn't learned to say no when one of them really wanted something yet. "I'm good with the flu."
"Teammate Yang Xiao-Long has the seasonal flu…" Jaune muttered, filling out the form on his scroll and sending it off with a ping. "And done! You are officially excused from the field trip."
"Sweet!" Yang grinned, flashing him a thumbs-up. "Thanks, fearless leader!"
"Jaune," Pyrrha disappointedly frowned.
"I know, I know, a leader has to be willing to say no to his teammates when he thinks they're wrong or if it's for their own good," Jaune shrugged. "Look, I know I'm not the brightest bulb in the bunch, but Katsuki was really looking forward to kicking my butt into shape before he challenged Izuku and he hasn't even shown up to one of these sessions. I'm not sure what's going on with him, but I don't want to leave him alone just in case something is actually wrong."
Pyrrha's eyes glittered with concern, her brow furrowing in thought. "He has been uncharacteristically… moody."
"Exactly! He hasn't called me 'Wet Noodle' even once!"
"Jaune, he's been calling you by your name."
"Yes, but why?"
"You earned his respect."
"And Yang hasn't?" Jaune challenged, shaking his head. "No, no, he's up to something with that. But I'm not gonna be caught by surprise when the other shoe drops!"
Outwardly, Yang laughed along with Pyrrha at Jaune's pouting paranoia. Inwardly, the reminder that she was the only one on her team who Katsuki to yet to call by their real name. It used to be fun, trading barbing nicknames with him, Sparky and Poofy Hair…
Eh, just another thing to bring up in their upcoming talk.
ReaperofRoses10: Hey! Handy! I saw your last match! That was an awesome finish!
Handyman175: Rosy?! Great to hear from you! Thought you were busy with that new school of yours?
ReaperofRoses10: Yeah, it's been more of an adjustment than I thought it'd be.
Handyman175: Well, if you ever need to blow off steam, feel free to bitch about it to me over a match. I know I've whined enough in your ear about my old lady.
ReaperofRoses10: Thanks, man. Hey, how'd getting those books for your sister's birthday work out?
Handyman175: Eh, mixed bag. Got to wait on delivery for one of them, but she was really happy about the other. Say, you up for a game now? Without you around, online's been pretty snore-worthy.
ReaperofRoses10: Maybe later. I actually need to ask your advice on something.
Handyman175: Sure. Shoot.
ReaperofRoses10: Alright. I know it's a lot, but bear with me.
ReaperofRoses10: So, I made a new friend at school and he was pretty much as awesome as a guy can be, right? He's nice, super into huntsmen, always happy to help, and even made me and our friends breakfast. But then we found out that one of our other friends did something bad and at first he convinced me that we need to turn him in even if neither of us wanted to.
Handyman175: Sounds like a narc. Screw him.
ReaperofRoses10: I'm not done. So then another of our friends who didn't want to reveal the truth challenged my friend to a fight to decide what we'd do. Since my friend had been trying to find a way to fight this other friend since they'd met, he accepted and convinced me to go along with it.
Handyman175: Sounds like a hypocritical narc. Fuck him.
ReaperofRoses10: Still not done. So after the fight, those two went away to talk in private but I followed them to overhear what was going on since it didn't make sense why my friend had flip-flopped. But from what I overheard… well… my friend is a superhero from another dimension sent to this one by gods to track down six of his superhero friends whose souls were stolen by an immortal queen of the Grimm and reincarnated without their memories and my other friend was one of them and he was so determined to fight him because they were rivals and he needed to use their fight to restore his memories.
Handyman175: … you lost me.
ReaperofRoses10: I know how it sounds. But he said that my headmaster and deputy headmaster are both helping him and when I asked my dad about certain details, he confirmed them and told me to stay away from my friend. But I still don't know how much of it is true, how much of it isn't, and if my friend… really is my friend. Any ideas?
Handyman175: … are you fucking with me, Rosy?
Handyman175: Alright, alright. Look, I don't know if I buy all that crazy other dimension stuff, but have you tried just asking him?
ReaperofRoses10: Well, no. But he's lied to me so many times. What if he lies again?
Handyman175: He might. But take it from someone whose sister tends to overcomplicate things, elaborate schemes tend to unravel if you ask about crucial details directly. Either the narc'll finally tell you the truth or it'll become stupidly obvious that he's not your friend and you can kick the crap out of him.
ReaperofRoses10: That's… a really good point. Thanks, Handy! I've got a plan now.
Handyman175: Glad to help. Though honestly, he still sounds like a narc you're better off without. But, if you're good now, do you have time for a game?
ReaperofRoses10: Only if you've got time to lose. :)
Handyman175: LOL! You're on! NM4, three stock, no items, Jade Garden.
Blake had been all over the world during her travels with her parents and then the White Fang, but even she had to admit that Forever Fall was near unmatched in its beauty. Unfortunately, as the freshman class of Beacon spread out through the austere forest, the secret cat faunus found herself unable to admire the location's elegance.
Half of her couldn't even figure out why she was there at all. Izuku and Katsuki knew who she was! Katsuki had threatened and assaulted her and it was only a matter of time until the rest of her friends found out. Ruby might, might, have enough compassion to let it slide but Weiss? Blake had never expected to get along with her partner so well, but if she found out she was a faunus, a former White Fang member, it would be all the heiress would see. She should have just bolted, let them wonder where she'd disappeared to in the middle of the night. At least then she wouldn't have to see the look in their eyes when they found out the truth. She had been about to run in the library when… when…
… Izuku had smiled at her.
In that moment, it was as if someone had hit pause on her panicking, crumbling mind and all her fears about discovery, Weiss, the White Fang, and even Adam. Maybe it was set up by how he stepped in to pull Katsuki off her despite being after the same information as him, but when he'd shot her that smile, comforting and genuine… it felt like everything would be alright. It was nonsense, nothing about her situation had changed, but it had been… reassuring to know that at least one of her teammates didn't hate her despite knowing what she was. Enough to give her the presence of mind to get herself back in order before Weiss had arrived and make sure her partner's only question for the night was why her buzzer always seemed to ring a second slower than Fox of Team CFVY during Professor Oobleck's quiz circle.
Now, as Team RIBW sifted to the edge of the clearing Professor Goodwitch had brought them to in order to gather red sap for Professor Peach, Blake found her brief reassurance swallowed by paranoia. Katsuki had stayed back at Beacon for some reason, but Izuku was right in front of her, with Ruby and Weiss close and ready to hear whatever secrets of hers he decided to spill. She couldn't base her safety off a mere smile. She had to figure out what game he was playing.
He and Katsuki had interrogated her. Time to return the favor.
"Hey, Izuku," Ruby tentatively asked her partner, the young girl's face steeled serious and determined. "There's something I need to talk to you about–Hey! Blake!"
"Gotta talk to Izuku about something in private. Be back later," Blake dryly said, as if reading off a cue card as she grabbed the bewildered Izuku by the arm and dragged him off into the auburn trees.
"But, Blake, I need to–"
"Ms. Rose!" Professor Goodwitch called out. "The creatures of Grimm populate this forest. Stay in the clearing!"
"What? There's no Grimm for miles! And they're not staying in the…"
Blake didn't wait around to hear the rest of Ruby's confusion. If she was only going to have so much time before Professor Goodwitch interfered in her confrontation with Izuku, she couldn't waste a second of it.
Once they were a bit into Forever Fall, she whirled her teammate around and shoved him up against one of the trees, a glob of sap dripping down the trunk over his shoulder. Izuku held up his hands defensively, his eyes wide with scrambling surprise. He looked more like a singled-out bully victim than the confident boy who'd stood up to a furious Katsuki not long ago.
"How long have you known about me?!" Blake demanded, her hand on Gambol Shroud's hilt. "Since that first day in Professor Port's class? I knew it couldn't have been that semblance nonsense!"
"Woah, woah! I had no idea who you were back then," Izuku corrected. "I only found out you were a faunus the other day, when Katsuki and I called your mom–"
"My mom?!" Blake squeaked, nearly facepalming at her own obliviousness. "Of course, Katsuki's a Bell Boy. What did you tell her? Does she know I'm here?!"
"What? No!" Izuku said, though he cocked an eyebrow in confusion. "Would that be a bad thing?"
Oh, foolish naive fool! The only thing she feared more than her mother's wrath for what she'd said to her and her father before abandoning them for the White Fang was Adam himself. If she'd remembered what Ilia had messaged her about her mom becoming the Bell House's main patron after becoming Menagerie's First Lady, she would have booked it the second she learned Katsuki's last name.
"Why haven't you told anyone else?" she inquired, her knuckles tightening around her sword.
Izuku tilted his head, befuddled. "Why would I?"
"I'm ex-White Fang! Why wouldn't you?" Blake hissed. "For all you know I could be plotting to kill you all in your sleep."
"I'm pretty sure you're not," Izuku replied. "Are you?"
"Then why would I tell anyone? It's your secret to tell," he frowned, a look of guilt crossing his face. "I know a bit about keeping secrets so that people'll accept you. But, Ozpin knows yours and he still trusts you. And you're my friend, so I trust you."
"You'll get yourself killed thinking like that," Blake sneered.
Yet, she found herself finally letting go of her weapon. If nothing else, she understood Izuku. Like Ruby, he was like looking back in time at a younger version of herself. But while her team leader was like her wide-eyed childhood self, throwing her everything into each of her parents' boycotts, the green-haired boy represented a more complicated point in her life. The time when she was committed to Sienna and Adam's more violent crusade, trying her best to be moral even as she found the number of horrific acts she was party to steadily growing.
She didn't know exactly what Izuku's own secret was, but she didn't think she had anything to fear from him. Unless…
"Are you going to tell Weiss about me if I don't give you the information you want?" Blake suspiciously queried.
"No," Izuku immediately answered, his face as serious as stone. "I'm not going to blackmail you, Blake."
"But you do want what I know?"
Izuku nodded. "Eijiro is a dear friend to me and Katsuki. I can't just leave him in the White Fang."
"Ilia isn't the type to pressgang people," Blake said. "No matter what Katsuki says about 'tricking' people, your friend joined of his own free will."
"So did you. Did you realize everything you'd be signing up for?"
Blake's angry mask cracked, her cat ears twitching under her bow. She turned away and pulled inward, nervously clutching at her own hands, desperately trying to forget how they'd looked drenched in blood from Adam's latest victim. How she'd tried to save the poor SDC guard, only to realize far too late that no amount of pressing down on his chest would keep his life from pouring out the wound Wilt had left.
He'd be after her now. He'd never let traitors go before and everything they were to each other would just fuel his spiteful rage. If she was lucky, he'd just kill her, but if he found out she'd made friends, he would… he would…
"Hey, Blake, breathe. Breathe," Izuku gently comforted, suddenly at her side. He didn't touch her, he kept his hands raised so she wouldn't feel threatened, but he made sure he was there. "Breathe. You're safe. Nothing will hurt you here."
Blake hadn't even realized she'd started panting before she'd heard his voice, but his words cut through the trembling in her body before the panic could truly take hold. She found herself staring up at her teammate's compassionate gaze, his verdant eyes vividly contrasting the warm hues of the forest.
This was the person who was asking for her help. The person who was asking her to send him straight into her nightmare's jaws.
"There's a base nearby," she murmured. "We use it for staging raids on SDC trains that run through here."
"Okay, okay," Izuku softly said. "You don't have to go there. Just tell me where it is, and wait with Ms. Goodwitch–"
"It's a base, Izuku," Blake hissed. "If it's still there, you'll be outnumbered a hundred to one."
"I don't need to fight them," he assured her. "I'll sneak in and find Eijiro–"
"He'll find you!" Blake shouted. "He'll kill you, don't you get it? No matter how strong you are, he will turn that strength back on you and you will die."
Izuku took a second to process her words. "He… you mentioned that back at the library, the person you're really scared of. Katsuki called him your 'boyfriend'? Who is he?"
Blake opened her mouth but found she couldn't speak the words, his masked face flashing through her mind when she tried.
"Just… don't go."
Her teammate flashed her a resigned, but satisfied smile. "I have to."
"I have to find Eijiro," he declared. "It's why I'm here."
It was like the cafeteria all over again, the natural charisma of his simple, certain assertions flooding Blake's mind, reinforcing her spirit and making her want to believe that things could go just as well as he said they could. It pushed back the cat faunus's fear a fraction, but her experience and disillusion with such orators kept her from being swept up in his tide.
Yet, she knew that such certainty did fill him. Just like she had once (and honestly still did) felt she had to save her people, Izuku would not stop until he'd found Eijiro Bell. Now that he knew a base was nearby, he'd go off searching for it whether she revealed its exact location or not, just to find out if his friend was there or not. And if he wasn't, he'd do the same for every White Fang base there was until he found the right one. He might not have been as pushy as Katsuki, but Izuku was just as bullheadedly determined, if not more.
Of course, thinking of Katsuki brought back memories of the library, including those that contained threats that weren't against her.
"What Katsuki said to you in the library," Blake said. "Did he really tell you to kill yourself?"
It was Izuku's turn to have his facade crack, though he kept from crumbling as Blake had by chewing on his lip, as if trying to figure out how to phrase the matter.
"Yes, but it was a long time ago," he eventually settled on.
"Back when you two were kids? When you met each other when his refugee ship stopped over at the port you were scavenging in?" Blake asked, recalling the story the two had told for how they'd known each other before Beacon after Weiss had demanded further explanation after their duel. According to them, it was when Izuku had gained his desire to prove himself against the 'image of victory' the wolf faunus was for him, with Katsuki forgetting their acquaintanceship due to the mess his life had been at the time and only recalling during their fight.
"It was before either of us came to Beacon," Izuku said. "We were both different people then. It doesn't matter now."
Oh, Blake doubted that very much. She knew how the wrong words from a callous person could cripple one's mind. She still caught herself thinking Adam becoming the monster he had was somehow her fault. Even if Katsuki had pulled himself out of a similar path, recent outbursts aside, his previous bullying had clearly left scars on Izuku that the green-haired boy didn't even realize were there. Why else would he be thrilled when the wolf faunus had started calling him 'Deku', old Mistrailian for 'useless', save that he was pathologically determined to prove the title false?
Well, that left Blake with two choices. Do nothing and let him go charging headlong into Adam with no backup, or go with him into her worst nightmare and try to keep him alive. And she was never fond of doing nothing.
"Come on then," she announced, striding off in the opposite direction from the clearing where the other students were. "The base is this way."
"Great–wait!" Izuku chirped, rushing around in front of her. "Blake, you don't have to come with me."
"If the base is still in use, it'll be surrounded by traps. I know where they are and how to disarm them," Blake said, pivoting around him. "You're not going to be able to sneak in if you set one off. And that's if you survive the blast."
"I… I…" Izuku got in her way again and tried to argue, only for his face to fall, covered in guilt. "I don't want to use you."
Blake paused, recalling how he'd convinced Ruby to swing his way back during the debate over Jaune's transcripts. It seemed he was just as demeaning of himself for it as their team leader had been. But even if she appreciated his concern, it did not negate her own for him.
"You're not using me. I'm offering to help," she declared, marching around him once again and heading off into the forest. "You're my friend too."
She didn't turn around, but she heard the hitch in his breath. Seemed like she hadn't been the only one who'd needed a pick-me-up.
He fell in behind her and the pair set off into the depths of Forever Fall.
"Where do they think they're going?" Ruby angrily muttered.
Weiss groaned as she began to drain red sap into her assigned jar. "Ruby, perhaps what they do should be considered their business when you have to spy on them through a sniper scope to see it?"
Ruby furled up Crescent Rose and flipped down from the top of the tree her teammate was tapping, her silver gaze glaring into the forest. "Something's going on. They're heading deeper into the forest."
"Wait, what?" Weiss said. "Why would they do that? There are plenty of healthy trees to get sap from here."
"Weiss, they're not looking for sap."
"They better be. We don't get full credit for this assignment unless we each bring back a full jar. Our academic integrity is at stake," the heiress said. "If they wanted to deal with personal issues, they should have called in sick like Katsuki and Yang."
"Keeping Katsuki back at the school was weird. Unless…" Ruby rubbed her fingers down her chin. "Is Blake one of them too?"
"One of what?" Weiss asked. When Ruby didn't respond, the heiress let out a sigh. "Look, Professor Goodwitch swept the forest. There are no Grimm for miles. If there were, we'd hear them coming for that."
She pointed towards the other end of the clearing, where half of Team CRDL was currently covered in sap and running around like chickens with their heads cut off while being chased by a swarm of rapier wasps. Ms. Goodwitch was currently absorbed in dealing with the insects, having recruited Pyrrha and Jaune to assist, but the other boys' panic would have easily attracted any Grimm nearby.
"Honestly, I didn't think those neanderthals could get any more buffoonish. But they were trying to collect sap in a completely irregular manner, something moved through the leaves of their tree, rocked the trunk, and it… nevermind," Weiss said, noting that Ruby's eyes were keenly narrowed at the distracted Professor Goodwitch. "If you're so concerned about Izuku and Blake running off, just go tell her. She told us to stay in the clearing, so she'll bring them back."
"No, she won't," Ruby grumbled. "She's in on it."
Weiss's face plummeted into her palm. "Ruby, if this is what one night of video games does to you, I really must insist you abstain from them until after the semester–Hey! Where are you going?"
"After them," Ruby proclaimed, stomping towards the treeline. "I have questions that need to be answered one way or another."
"Well, what am I supposed to do?" Weiss inquired.
Ruby's eyebrows perked up, clearly having not accounted for that. She glanced back, scanning over the four sap jars. "Ensure our academic integrity."
With that, she burst away into the forest. Above her, a rustling in the canopy trailed after her.
"Pah, pah, Ruby!" Weiss sputtered, spitting rose petals out of her mouth as she glared after her red-hooded leader. "Fine! What do I care? If you ask me, this team has a serious problem separating the personal from the professional and I refuse to be part of it. I will stay here in the permitted area and collect sap for everyone like a good teammate."
She turned back to the empty jars and set back to filling her own with the pulpy maroon liquid… slowly…
No, no, she wasn't alone. She had friends outside her team. Sure, Yang and Katsuki were back at school, but she still had Pyrrha and even Jaune. She could go over and talk with them while they extracted sap and… swatted rapier wasps away from Team CRDL, whose other half were also now covered in sap somehow.
"Damnit," Weiss whimpered. Why did her friends never want to do what she wanted to do? Like study, or sing, or just not break the rules for five minutes?
She made sure her jar was positioned to fill with sap without her presence and chased after her team's trail.
"Something's wrong," Blake muttered. The cat faunus knelt before a trip wire between a pair of thick red oaks, her cautious gaze scanning the trap until she spotted a pack of fire dust grenades strapped to the far trunk. "This shouldn't be here."
"What do you mean?" Izuku inquired, kneeling down beside her. "You said there'd be traps."
"If the base was still in use. But look," Blake reminded him, nodding towards the forest floor, spotless save for their own footprints. "Any active White Fang base has regular patrols, especially any run by him… anyway, there'd be tracks, signs of people coming through here. But there's nothing, not even any Grimm tracks. And if there's nothing, why would these still be here?"
Izuku's brow furrowed. "Maybe they left them behind?"
"Dust isn't something the White Fang leaves lying around. We were a… uh…"
"Freedom fighter organization?"
"... yeah, that," Blake conceded. "The point is, we couldn't just run over to a mom-and-pop dust shop and buy all we needed. Leaving behind ammo is a surefire way to get your commanding officer pissed at you."
"Maybe they were found and had to leave in hurry?" Izuku theorized, before shaking his head. "No, there'd be tracks then. There's been a rash of dust robberies lately. Maybe they're involved and the ammunition policy changed after you left?"
Blake glared at him. "The White Fang may be a 'freedom fighter' group, but they're not common thieves. We raid big SDC trains or shops that refuse to serve us."
"And the latter don't exist in Vale due to anti-discrimination laws," Izuku noted. "We should keep going. One way or another, we'll find out if the camp is still there when we reach it."
"Agreed," Blake said, shuffling over to the grenades. "Should we try disarming these while we're here? I'm not the best at this kind of stuff, but leaving live grenades lying around in the middle of the forest seems like a risky idea."
"Look like SDC model Hyperions. I can disarm them pretty easy."
Izuku and Blake's eyes both widened, their faces pale as they realized neither of them knew the grenades' exact model nor had the other one's voice been the one who'd uttered the name.
They whirled around to find their team leader glaring at them, her red hood billowing behind her as its color mixed in with the autumn hues of Forever Fall.
"Oh… hi, Ruby," Blake squeaked. "So, we wanted to scout out places outside the clearing in case we needed more sap–"
"Blake, we can deal with your stuff later. Right now, give us some space," Ruby commanded, projecting very much the atmosphere of a leader she so often hid under her weapon lust and cookie addiction. And all of it was focused in her silver stare at her partner. "Izuku and I need to talk."
The cat faunus glanced at Izuku, but the green-haired boy shot her a reassuring nod, one that did not go unnoticed by Ruby.
"It's okay. I owe her an explanation," Izuku said. "Can you keep watch while we talk?"
Blake narrowed her eyes in worry, but she answered with her own nod. She drew Gambol Shroud and darted off into the forest.
Izuku and Ruby were left beside the trip wire, the red leaf-covered branches shuddering above them as the partners faced off, their faces both unsure and fearful.
"Don't think I've ever seen Blake fall in line like that," Ruby noted. "You're more a team leader than I am."
"That's not true," Izuku shook his head. "You're Team RIBW's leader. No one else."
"I wouldn't be so sure. People listen to you, Izuku, even if you don't. Blake, Weiss, Jaune… Me," Ruby stated. "Guess that's a side effect of being an interdimensional superhero, huh?"
Izuku gulped. "How much did you overhear that night?"
"A lot," Ruby simply said. "Are you going to lie to me again?"
"Ruby…" Izuku murmured, so many thoughts swirling around in his head.
With how vague Ruby was being with how much exactly she already knew, it was clear to Izuku what she was doing. She wanted to contrast what he told her against her own knowledge. That way, he could either risk trying to lie to her again and accidentally contradict himself, destroying her trust in him forever, or he could be completely upfront and just tell her the truth. And honestly, Izuku really wanted to tell her the truth.
Yet, he also didn't want to betray Ozpin's trust. The headmaster had taken him in since he'd arrived on Remnant, on nothing but Izuku's word that gods that the old wizard had no particular fondness for had sent him on an impossible task similar to Ozma's own. He'd guided him through Remnant and offered him all the help he could in finding his friends. Izuku couldn't just disregard his wishes on the matter, could he? He didn't want Ruby to know about Salem or the gods when she was so young. Izuku shouldn't burden her just because he was jumping to fearful conclusions…
… why would he be afraid of Ruby knowing the truth?
Back home, there were many reasons he was afraid of others finding out about One for All. Letting All Might, who'd asked him to keep it a secret, down was a big one. His idol had given his worthless, weak self a chance, and told him that he could become a hero when no one else would. He had to live up to the expectations of the Symbol of Peace.
But the biggest reason he hadn't told anyone but Kacchan, despite how close he'd gotten with his classmates, especially Uraraka, was that… he was ashamed. They looked at him and saw what he'd become with All Might and so many others propping him up. Only Bakugo had seen what he was on his own. His worthless, weak real self.
He would be the Deku who always does his best. But at his heart… he knew that was because he was afraid he was still just Deku. Useless. And when so many amazing people were relying on him, had put so much faith in him, he could not let that happen.
"... I'm sorry."
Ruby frowned, her face falling with hurt. "So that's a yes."
She turned around and began walking away, Izuku's already flagging resolve immediately crumbling. For all that Ozpin and Professor Goodwitch had told him the pain he was causing Ruby was necessary and he should take comfort that his partner would understand if she knew the truth, she didn't. She had been hurt by his actions and he was just letting that hurt fester. He may have kept secrets from his classmates at UA, but he'd never actively manipulated them either.
He did not know if he was acting out of fear like Ozpin claimed or not, but he did not believe he had the right to harm Ruby like he had. He was her friend and, as Blake had reminded him, they were his friends too, and he could not honor that friendship if he hurt them when it was convenient and then justified it that they would understand if he wasn't doing all he could to help them do so. A hero existed to help people, not lord above them.
"I've never wanted to lie to you. But the truth… is ridiculous, and more people than me have important secrets in it," Izuku called out. "I will tell you everything I can, you deserve at least that much, but there are some details that I can't without betraying other people's trust."
Ruby stopped walking away, but she didn't turn around. She was quiet for a few seconds until… "Are you a superhero from another dimension?"
Izuku flashed her a nervous smirk. "Not exactly. I'm still in school back home as well. I'm just a hero-in-training."
Ruby whipped back around to him, her face sparkling with excitement. "There's a school where you can learn how to be a superhero–Izuku, look out!"
Something grabbed Izuku's ankle tight right as Ruby turned around and ripped him off his feet. Before he had a chance to even begin to process what was happening, he'd already been smashed into the ground three times over, his aura crackling from the strain of protecting him from the sudden, visceral force. Caught completely off-guard and unprepared, the young hero hadn't been able to tense his muscles to protect himself at all, each blow devouring far more of his stamina than they would have if he'd been ready for a fight. If he hadn't finally gotten used to having his aura active at all times, his skull would have been cracked open by the third strike.
Ruby grabbed for Crescent Rose on the back of her belt, but the creature battering Izuku just swung him like a bat and bashed the red-hooded huntress into a nearby oak, scarlet leaves fluttering down on the huntress as her impact rattled the trunk.
Izuku grit his teeth in fury at the attack on his partner. The slightly larger arc of the swing at Ruby gave him the briefest of seconds to recollect himself, his head whipping towards his foot to see what was attacking them.
It was a bipedal Grimm, with no eyes and a canine-like bone mask over its face. Izuku didn't have time to take in anything else before the creature started to move to bash him against the ground again, so the green-haired boy brought forth his arm, his fingers positioned to flick with 100% of One for All. This Grimm had avoided Professor Goodwitch's numerous sweeps of Forever Fall, left no tracks for Blake to detect, and snuck up on him and Ruby without making a sound. Clearly, it was no ordinary mindless killing machine and with it having caught them in such a compromising position, he couldn't take any chances with his partner's safety. He had to take it down! Now!
But as his hand rose into position, the creature's snout cracked towards him, taking a quick sniff. Immediately, its mercurial arms, like bubbling tar, twisted in a way no limbs should have been able to move and chucked Izuku at a nearby tree.
The young hero gasped as his back slammed around the trunk, the thick wood cracking from the sheer force he struck with as Izuku fell to the ground. Fortunately, though his aura crackled, its energy likely deep in the red, he'd be able to jump back to his feet and–
Izuku's head whipped back towards the tree, his eyes widening at the broken trip wire yanking away over half a dozen grenade pins.
'It threw me into the–'
He didn't have time to think anymore before eight SDC model Hyperions went off in his face.
Blake was very glad she'd heard Ruby's shouted warning to Izuku. If she hadn't, she likely wouldn't have gotten back to the trip wire in time to grab her team leader when the explosion went off.
Only her shadow clones prevented the fireball from hitting the huntresses head-on, and even then their ears were still sent ringing as the surrounding forest was set ablaze, flames consuming the scarlet foliage as the trees' serene beauty was shattered by the sudden attack.
"Ruby?" Blake hurriedly questioned. "Ruby, what happened?"
"Grimm. It came out of nowhere. One second I looked away and the next it was behind Izu–" the girl's eyes widened, leaping to her feet. "Izuku!"
Blake's gaze darted around with her, desperately scanning her burning surroundings for the first of her friends to accept her, past and all. Fortunately, the area wasn't large, so she spotted him quickly. Unfortunately…
It was taller than a Beowolf, but that was the closest thing to it Blake had ever seen. Unlike the other Grimm though, this one… changed, its writhing, oily limbs in the final stages of morphing right before the huntresses' eyes, going from a lanky biped to a thickly built, quadrupedal hound.
The canine beast padded into the blaze, sniffing Izuku's blackened body. The creature almost seemed to smile, scooping the unconscious, burnt boy into its jaws and rushing to some of the still ashen trees. In a flash, it had climbed up into the branches and dashed off into the canopy.
Blake whirled around to see Weiss running up to the other huntresses, a line of speed-boosting glyphs fading from under her combat heels.
"I heard the explosion," the heiress frantically said. "What happened? Are you guys alright?"
A gunshot cracked before Blake could answer. The cat faunus turned back around to see Crescent Rose's momentum launch a red-hooded figure up into the trees.
"Ruby, wait!" Blake called out, but the younger girl had already burst away on a stream of rose petals. What kind of leader just ran off before letting her team know what was going on? Forever Fall's leaves were a lot thicker than the Emerald Forest's. Did she really think her semblance would let her catch up with that hound? It had the maneuverability advantage up there.
Bah! She didn't have time for this!
She whirled back around to Weiss, who was looking after their leader's trail in gaping confusion. "A Grimm took Izuku!"
"Took?" Weiss gasped. "What do you mean? Grimm don't take prisoners–"
"This one apparently does!" Blake shouted, already drawing out Gambol Shroud and ensuring the weapon's ribbon was ready to carry her weight. "Get back to the others! Get Professor Goodwitch!"
Weiss looked baffled for a second, but only a second. After that, her face steeled with resolve and she gave her partner an affirmative nod. "Go! Get our friend back.
Huh. Before she'd come to Beacon, Blake would have never thought a Schnee capable of just listening to someone else's plan and accepting a support role. All that circulated in the White Fang were stories of Jacques Schnee's egotism or Winter Schnee's perfectionism. Of course, upon further reflection, such willingness to back up her friends was hardly uncharacteristic of Weiss. Whether helping Ruby and Izuku study or providing monetary support to Katsuki and Jaune, Blake's partner had dedicated herself to learning to be the best teammate she could ever since their talk in Ms. Goodwitch's class on the first day of school.
And if Izuku could know the truth about her and still accept her as a friend, maybe Weiss…
… that was getting ahead of herself. Save her Grimmnapped teammate first, figure out if she wanted to take the risk of revealing herself to her partner later.
As Weiss jetted back to the clearing on her glyphs, Blake swung up into the canopy and bounded after the rest of her team.
Ah, yes. I am really proud of The Hound's entrance here. Love how it shatters the safe atmosphere created by the constant conversation.
Really pleased with a lot of the character work in this chapter, particularly Izuku, Blake, and Yang's turmoil and the compare and contrast of Izuku and Ozpin's reactions to their respective situations with Ruby and Glynda. Primarily, that Izuku is TERRIBLE at standing up for himself due to his crippled self-esteem from being bullied but give him a way to protect or support others and he'll throw everything he's got and more into it. Thus, when he sees just how much he's hurting Ruby by trying to go with the Ozpin strategy of 'deny and act like everything's normal', he immediately falters and tries to reach out and trust her. But unfortunately, his previous secret keeping had already caused Ruby to turn around, which meant there was no one to spot The Hound sneaking up behind him until it was too late.
Enjoyed writing the conversation between Ruby and Shigaraki too. Part of it was the abnormal format, but I was also able to draw influence from a lot of my conversations with my beta xenosaiyan for it, plus have it be a great character showcase for Shiggy. Shigaraki's greatest strength and greatest weakness is his aptitude for simplicity (Overhaul has a truth-detecter who'll catch any plan he gives Toga and Twice to take him down? Just trust them to get revenge for Magne and be ready to support and follow up as needed), so him advising Ruby to just cut the knot of her emotional turmoil and just force Izuku to talk to her was a lot of fun to put to page.
Remember to leave your thoughts on the chapter in a review and to update this story's TvTropes page! :)
Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!
Go Forth and Conquer!