A/N: Looong chapter ahoy! PLEASE READ THIS NOTE, WOULD YOU KINDLY?

As promised, here's the Friday update. Hope everyone likes/reviews, because I feel like death warmed over.

Surgery will be on Sunday/Monday. No, no, noooo...I don't want it, I do NOT want it, but I can't deny that I really do need it...

Sorry for the delay. Sickness is beating the hell out of me, and surgery's looming on the horizon. Thankfully I've got friends to help me pick up the slack. If the chapter title doesn't make it clear, this is the chapter where we take the dial and crank it up to ELEVEN. The plot, the romance, the twists! To say nothing of THAT scene! Hope you've got your popcorn ready!

And now a few quick questions/answers...

Q: Please don't tell me you dropped the Winter plot-line. Really enjoyed seeing her temper cause her to make a reckless decision. It kinda made her feel human...

A: I haven't dropped it all. In fact, she was meant to appear in this chapter anyway.

Q: You're really pulling out all the stops with the romance here, aintcha? Can we hope to see more of it?

A: As stated, Naruto's been letting his emotions get the better of him for some time in this story. Given the hell that's been through, coupled with the fact that he's been stumbling from one conflict to another, and well...he was at his absolute lowest point when he was bickering with Raven and recovered afterward.

Funny how a good lay can relax a man.

Q: So...Naruto and Raven...that happened. They in a relationship now, or what?

A: Nope. They don't have a relationship at this point. Raven said as much. So did he. It was a casual thing.

I cannot overstate this enough; Raven doesn't own Naruto; if anything its the reverse. He owns her. Little miss broody birdie knows he can kick her ass to kingdom come. Which is PRECISELY why she wants to ally herself with him in the first place. Now that she's been outed as Spring, she's looking for a powerful ally that isn't Ozpin. Naruto happened to fit that bill. Its a damn good thing he did; if he hadn't stuck around, there's a chance Raven could have gone to Salem and sold her services. That...would be bad.

Q: Does Naruto have a team?

A: In a sense, he does, though he's not a part of Beacon at present. You've already seen them. I'm afraid I can't say more than that.

Not a lot questions this time around, too ill to answer all of them. I'll let the chapter speak for itself.

As ever, I own no quotes, no references, no themes, and certainly no memes. They're used for entertainment purposes and laughter alone!

"Hello, hello, hello! Oh, its so nice to finally meet someone like me."

"I'm nothing like you. You're a psychopath."

"And you will be, too. Soon."

~Banter.

Long Live the Maidens

Tap.

Winter kicked her foot impatiently.

Tap. Tap.

The noise echoed through the hull of the battleship, a steady sound that would have driven many a man mad. It bounded off the walls, struck the ceiling, hit the floor and kept going. Some of the guards began to twitch; a good number wore vacant expressions, suggesting their minds had long since flown this mortal coil in search of a happier place. And still the noise persisted, growing steadily louder with each passing instant. Yet for all the torture and torment, no one dared to utter a word. To do so would only lead to an icy demise.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

General James Ironwood barely batted an eyelash as he thumbed through the messages on his Scroll. Unlike his men, he remained unaffected. He'd long since grown inured to the unusual spectacle that was Winter losing her temper. For make no mistake, rare though it might be, this WAS the Schnee definition of a tantrum.

It was almost sad, really.

He knew his subordinate was cross; one had but to look at her face to know her emotions. Those pale blue eyes were akin to frigid blocks of ice now, much like her namesake rather than the gentle azure skies. Her mouth was set in a grim line, her posture a touch too stiff for her given profession. The Specialist hadn't uttered so much as a word for hours now, and all their staff knew why.

Winter Schnee did not take rejection well; much less being stood up by a potential date.

Ironically, it hadn't been a part of her mission at all; Naruto had crashed through her barriers and in doing so caught her eye. She'd tried to take what she wanted by force, as Jacques had before her, only for it to blow up in her face. Silly girl. She still had much to learn.

It would be remiss of him to say otherwise.

That was to be expected, he supposed. Despite her age, Winter was in many ways still a child at heart; if only because she hadn't had much of a childhood to begin with. Jacques had battered and berated her at every turn, all but denying her any true chance at a normal life, so much so that she'd joined the military -joined him!- just to escape her father's grasp. Atlas was many things, but it was no place for a little girl. Winter had been forced to grow up fast. Mentally and physically alike.

Considering his scroll anew, he blew out a sigh.

"Don't leave Vale yet." Ozpin's request read. "I need you here."

With that request and Naruto haring off in Mistral thanks to Raven's interference, they had little choice left but to wait for his and Amber's return before they could proceed. Assuming Qrow managed to return in one piece without disaster following in his wake. Best be wary of that one's Semblance. Bad luck was a powerful thing in its own right, just as much as its counterpart. Hmm. Now there was a thought. He'd have to introduce him to Clover sometime.

More to the point, he'd be having words with a certain young man when he came back to Bale.

He didn't bear Naruto Uzumaki any ill will of course; nor could it be called his fault. No. He didn't hate Naruto Uzumaki. He simply wanted to talk to him. Loudly. Repeatedly. With his gun. He would recover...probably. The boy had already demonstrated a remarkable healing factor if nothing else. He'd be fine. That wasn't the parent in him talking. Nope. Not at all.

Winter's tapping reached a crescendo, becoming an angry, constant source of noise.

Finally, his tongue betrayed him. "He stood you up, didn't he?"

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" Winter inquired.

His brow quirked. "Granted, specialist...?"

Cold eyes flicked his way. "Shut up."

Ironwood stifled a small smile as he went back to his work. He cared for Winter like the daughter he'd never had, but she really needed to get out more. Even her talks with Fria back in Atlas were an painful, stilted thing. Perhaps that was her upbringing showing through. Winter only knew one way to live. She'd get better in time. It wasn't as if she could get any worse.

If anything, he found himself amazed Winter had a crush. It was almost too incredible to be true. She hadn't seemed the sort.

"Why choose the boy?" he asked into the silence that followed. "For what its worth, I saw the footage."

Winter's pale face turned scarlet and her eyes swept away. "Is... that an order, sir?"

Ironwood ached an eyebrow.

"I...don't have the words for it." Her eyes swept away and down, seeking refuge in the floor tiles. "He treated me like a person. Not a Schnee, not a solider, but a person. He called me on the carpet for my crap when no one else would. Sir." she added after only a moment's hesitation. "He was brave. Bold. Fearless. I wanted that."

Something hardened in her gaze.

"And then he vanished without so much as a word."

James knew he could have left it at that. All he had to do was hold his tongue and the bridge between these two would be burned. Maybe he should have. Yet for some reason he felt the need to defend the boy. No, that wasn't it. Try as he might, his desire for Winter's happiness overrode his instinctive drive to protect her from herself.

...he was going to regret this, wasn't he?"

"To be fair," the general raised a finger, "He was kidnapped by a known criminal. Neither of you could have accounted for something like that. Even Ozpin and I were unprepared."

"That's not...!" Her stance softened as she considered his words. "I suppose you're right. Still, to think that it would be the Spring Maiden ...

"Yes, Amber did well to uncover her identity." Ironwood steepled his fingers, hiding a small smile behind them as his specialist bridled. "Raven Branwen is well known to us, though I expect her loyalties had shifted by now. We'll have to see about offering her sanctuary. Her power needs to be protected."

Winter ground her teeth. James resisted the urge to sigh.

"I could send you after them, you know." he ventured into the silence that followed. "I'm sure they'd appreciate some air support." It might be too late for that, but surely the gesture would mean something. Moreover, it might allow Winter to make a better impression than her last. "If you like, I can have a bullhead prepped in five minutes with a full company of soldiers."

Sure enough, Winter's brow furrowed. "That won't be necessarryyyyyyyy!"

Without warning, her words piqued into a startled yelp and her entire body convulsed from head to toe. James shot out of his chair as she pitched forward, collapsing onto her hands and knees. The shaking didn't stop; if anything it only grew worse. A silent, keening gasp forced itself between the specialist's teeth.

"Winter?!" he laid a hand on her shoulder, turning her to face him. "What's wrong? Why did you-"

Glowing blue eyes rose to meet his, brimming with confusion and wild azure flames. Ironwood jerked back, feeling scalded by them. No. No, that wasn't...it shouldn't be possible. It didn't make a lick of sense. Spring and Fall were accounted for, and Summer was a known variable. Their own Maiden was secure in Atlas. And yet Winter was showing all the signs. An ugly pang of dread stirred in him as he beheld a thin film of frost licking at the floor. Only one Maiden held such mastery over ice.

"Sir?" Winter whispered. "What's happening?"

He barely heard her; his mind and Semblance were already whirling to find answers. Fria. It had to be. She'd been in poor health when he'd last seen her, but the doctors had assured him she would make a full recovery by the end of the week. It was all too soon. Too sudden. She must've perished. Be it through old age, accident, or perhaps a more untimely end, she'd passed on. Winter must've been the final woman in her memory, as they'd planned, yet to see her burning eyes, to know that the the torch had been passed...! Had she been killed? Was Atlas under attack? Too many questions. Not enough answers.

The Winter Maiden was dead; long live the New Maiden.

Already, he could feel the beginnings of a migraine coming on.

Wherever he was, he prayed the boy was having better luck than them.


(.0.0.0.)


The journey to Haven should have been a blur. It wasn't.

Qrow set what he thought was a blistering pace, yet time and time again Amber found herself nearly outrunning him. Naruto proved even worse; if only because she knew how quickly he could move. More than once, she caught him visibly grinding his teeth as he forced himself to slow down and keep pace with them.

She shot him an exasperated look and he shrugged.

It was a rushed, frantic thing, if only because they knew they didn't have the time for anything else. The enemy might learn the truth at any given moment, discover their plans and undo them. So when Naruto began to lengthen his stride, she unknowingly did the same. Within moments they began to break ahead of the group. Qrow growled and tried to keep pace with them, but he had no supernatural powers to rely on, and soon, his stamina began to flag. Raven and Vernal were worse, one for her injuries, and the other her youth.

Amber tried to not begrudge them, she really did. But it was hard.

So hard not to simply cut loose and race to their destination. To their future. Their fate. Why walk when you could run? Better yet, why run when you could fly? There was no need to conceal her power anymore and her gifts ached to be used. If the enemy -Salem!- knew who she was, then there was little point in hiding it now.

She didn't even realize they were leaving them behind until someone called out.

"Teacher, slow down!" Vernal whined as she jogged after them. "You're going too fast!"

"Oh, just go ahead already." Qrow stumbled to a halt with a rasp and laid both hands on his knees. "Freaking kids these days. You can see Haven from here. Can't miss it." he pointed to the looming spires in the distance. "Ask for Lionheart when you get there. Raven and me'll catch up with you." he flicked them both an anxious glance. "Just don't do anything stupid, alright?"

Naruto hesitated. "Vernal...

Qrow saw it. "I'll keep an eye on your brat, alright?"

"What?!" said girl sputtered. "No! I don't want anything to do with-

"Vernal."

She stiffened. "Yes, teacher?"

"Damnit, I told you not to call me that." A curious flush overtook the blond's whiskered visage, but he mastered himself. "I need you to stay with Qrow for now."

"Why?" she challenged immediately.

"Because I've got a bad feeling about this. C'mon, don't make that face." Even as he said the words Vernal stomped a foot. Thin arms folded before her chest, and an almost mulish expression stole over her face. Naruto was quick with his counter. "I'll teach you a super secret move once this mess is over, alright?"

Just like that, her eyes lit up. "Promise?!"

"Yup." he reached down to tousle her

"Wait." Amber's gaze slid to Raven. "Why can't she come ahead with us?"

"Tch. If you must know," The Spring Maiden grimaced and rolled her right shoulder. "I still haven't fully recovered." even those words seemed to gall her, forced from somewhere deep inside herself. "My aura's still lower than I'd like. I'm at less than half. Not gonna be much use in a fight."

She was lying. She had to be. "Don't be such a coward!"

"I'm not," the warrior huffed at her. "I'm being practical. Right now, I'm vulnerable."

"I don't agree with her," Much to Amber's chagrin, Naruto stepped up beside her. "But she's telling the truth. She isn't at peak strength right now."

"And how do you know that?!"

A blond brow rose. "Because I was the one that beat her black and blue."

Amber flinched at the words, even as Raven preened. They wounded her more than she cared to admit. When had they become so close? Still animosity to be sure, but the pair weren't openly snapping at one another as she expected they might. There were questions there, questions that needed to be asked, but she dare not give voice to them for fear of what answers she might find.

Instead she rounded on her partner. "What makes you so sure?"

"Sixth sense." the blond replied readily, tapping a finger to his skull. "She's not putting out any negative emotions right now."

"See?" Raven cocked one hip in her direction, clear sign of defiance. "If it makes you feel any better, you can't trust me, but you can trust me to do what's in my best interests."

Vernal scratched the back of her head. "The hell does that mean?"

"It means she won't run." Qrow muttered. "If she does, she knows her days are numbered."

Raven shot him a scowl. "Don't muddy the waters. I'm working with you lot, and I'm not going to stab you in the back. Isn't that enough."

Naruto clearly didn't trust her and neither did she, but there could be no denying that they needed her. And she needed them. Like it or not they were all in the same boat right now. If the alternative meant Raven going to Salem, or worse, having the Maiden power ripped out of her and given to that bitch from before...no. Amber swallowed her dislike and choked down her hatred.

They would work with her. For now. After all, she needed answers, answers only the Lamp could provide-

All at once a sharp, sudden tune pierced the air and ran out among them to startle everyone. Four pairs of eyes rounded on the sound. On her. Amber's gaze dipped to her hip pocket and the vibrating Scroll there. Against her better judgement, she plucked it free and held it aloft. This close to Haven, the signal was there, but patchy all the same..

It still didn't conceal the caller ID.

Raven offered a dark chuckle. "Of course. Its him."

"Its..." Amber swallowed once for courage. "Yeah, its Ozpin."

Qrow swore softly and Naruto hissed out an angry breath. "Don't answer it. Let the bastard stew."

Amber dithered. Should she? He might have a good reason for calling. Fear stayed her hand. Would -could?- he give her the answers she sought? Would he tell the truth? The loyal follower in her wanted to say yes, but the cynic...well, the cynic said otherwise. Ozpin might have a very good reason for keeping such secrets. But those secrets had nearly gotten her killed not once, but twice now. Naruto had been kidnapped over them, a fact he had yet to forgive. He was right to want the truth and in all honesty, she wanted the same. Raven had said many things, but they needed to be certain.

And there was only one way to ensure that certainty. One guaranteed method beyond bias, one that could not lie to them.

Ozpin was a good person. There could be no doubt about that. But all these secrets were maddening. They could confront him later once they had the truth and the relic in hand. Once it had been used they could hide it somewhere else, or even seal it back in its vault. Surely he would understand...? At long last, her scroll ceased ringing entirely as the call went to voicemail.

Amber waited for a moment. Then another. Another still. It dinged and went still, signalling the message left behind.

"Well?" Raven mocked. "Aren't you going to listen to what he has to say?"

She flicked it open again and put in on speaker.

"Hello, Amber." Ozpin's words rang through to be heard by them all. "I'm worried for your safety. I've tried to call Qrow and Naruto, but they haven't responded. I'm afraid something might have happened to them, that they might have been led astray." a weighty pause followed as he seemed to gather his thoughts. "If you can hear this...then...well." a deep breath followed. "I'm sure Raven has told you a great many things about me. About Salem. Some of what she says is true. I've made mistakes. I'll be the first to admit that. More mistakes than any man, woman or child alive. Please, do not think less of me for them."

The five of them exchanged a glance.

"All I ask is that you give me the chance to defend myself."

"More words." Raven growled. "More lies. Don't trust the snake."

"This is what Salem wants." the headmaster's voice continued heedless of her word, breaking at last. "She seeks to divide us all, to conquer Remnant while we squabble with one another. Moreover, the Maiden in Atlas has perished under mysterious circumstances; James suspects foul play at hand, and I'm inclined to agree with him. By some miracle, Winter is now in possession of her power, so we've managed to avert a crisis on that front. However, there's a chance you and Raven may be targeted as well. I think it certain that the two you will come under attack. She likely has her agents in Mistral already."

A commotion in the background muffled his words for a moment as he spoke to someone off-screen.

"You must listen to me." his voice grew louder, and she had the impression he was leaning closer to his scroll, begging, pleading with her. "It is imperative that you return to Vale immediately with Raven. Please, call me if you receive this message. We're stronger together, Amber. Don't let Salem tear everything apart."

With a supreme effort of will, Amber silenced the Scroll and closed it down.

Was this all a part of Salem's grand plan? It was a sobering thought.

She turned to find varying expressions waiting her.

"Not a bad speech." Raven drawled. "He sounded sincere." she turned her head and spat. "Then again, he's always been a good actor. Although, I'm surprised. I don't think he knows we intend to use the Lamp. He would have said something otherwise."

"So the Schnee's a maiden now." Qrow wore a sour look of his own. "Great. She's never gonna let me live this down."

Little Vernal offered a helpless shrug. "I really didn't understand any of that."

"Naruto?" Amber ventured weakly. "What do you think about all this?"

The shinobi flicked her a wary look, one Amber found herself mirroring. His blue eyes were sharp, not angry, but not calm either. Whatever thoughts he felt, he kept close to his chest. He would have his answers, and then confront Ozpin on them. But only after he had the Relic. If it came to a fight between the two of them, she knew who would win. The outcome had never been in doubt. Well. That did it. She was locked in now. Best not to think about it. They were on the clock.

"I think we continue as we have been." His response only solidified her belief. "We'll use the Relic first, then question him. If he tells the truth, great. But if he lies...

Amber fought down a pang of dread. "What will you do?"

...I'm not sure." rather than answer properly, he offered her his hand instead. "But whatever happens, we'll do it together, yeah?"

Amber felt her traitorous heart skip a beat as heat rose in her cheeks. Hers hands flew out to clasp his fingers in her own. Even after all this, he still refused to forsake her. What might have once fractured their friendship only left it stronger than ever before. She wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. She could die in this very moment and she would be at peace.

In the end, she forced herself to pull away and speak before Naruto could question her. "Race you to Haven?"

Azure orbs narrowed to thin slits. "You sure about that?"

Was she?! No! Not at all! Her mind was whirling, her beliefs crumbling, her very world falling apart around her. She didn't want to think about this. Any of it. Too much, too soon. Ozpin had pleaded with her, and a part of her wanted nothing more than to go back to Vale, climb into bed, and pretend none of this had happened. A single seed of knowledge held her back. Naruto was going to Haven. With or without her. He'd already made his views abundantly clear. One way or another he would pry the Relic from the vault and ask his questions. She could be there when he did...or doubt herself forever.

She was done doubting herself.

"What's wrong?" Amber wore a shaky smile she didn't feel as she planted a hand on her hip. "Afraid you can't keep up?"

"No," he needled, more than happy to distract her. "Just afraid of leaving you in the dust. Again."

"We'll make a wager of it, then." Amber bit out the words.

Naruto saw the chance for what it was and pounced upon it. "Sure, why not. What're we betting? Food? Money?"

"Time." The Fall Maiden held up a singe finger. "Loser has to do whatever the winner says. For a day!" she amended hastily when she beheld his incredulous expression. "How's that sound?"

Naruto jammed both hands into his pockets. "Not much of a bet, since I know I'm gonna win."

Amber marshaled her faltering willpower and clenched her fists at her sides.

"Then we'll sweeten the pot." she spat.

An eyebrow arched. "How so?"

"A date."

His other brow rose to join it.

"Huh." he muttered. "Never been on one of those before." thankfully, he was wise enough not to make mention of what Winter had all but blackmailed him into. Even then, she still expected a denial. It was a foolish wish of hers, a girl's wish, one she thought would be denied. "Alright, I'm game."

The words floored her.

Amber felt her eyes burn with a pulse of flame. Yes! Victory! A petty little thrill of pride shot through her. Just like that she'd gone and one-upped that silly Schnee. Her rival was probably already displeased at being blown off -ironic, given she had Raven to thank for that- but this was the cherry atop the proverbial cake. Ohhh, this would leave Winter seething. Call it courtship, call it cruelty, but she'd made up her mind. She craved the calm and safety he gave her; craved it more than the very air in her lungs.

She fully intended to have Naruto as her husband someday.

Forget being partners, she could see herself spending the rest of her life with him; after all, he understood her in a way few could. Even this good-natured jabbing felt friendly.

He will be mine.

"Who will?" Qrow spoke into the silence.

Amber's face flamed for a different reason. Oh gods, she'd said that aloud! No, no, no! Not like this!

"Kids these days, just get a room, will ya?"

Raven rolled her eyes as well. "Teenagers, the both of you. Stop flirting and fuck already. This is nauseating."

A chorus of shouts went up.

"Ray!"

"Seriously?!"

"Did you have to say that?!"

Vernal made a series of gagging noises.

"A-Anyway!" Amber's retreat turned into a full blown rout as she backed away. "We're leaving! Right now!"

Naruto dropped into a runner's crouch. Amber mirrored him.

"Ready?" he hissed out.

"Set." she snarled, eager to be gone.

"GO!" Naruto whooped loudly and burned gold.

A thunderclap rattled the world and he was gone, leaving everyone's ears ringing. All that remained of him was a trail of burning saffron flames road in his wake, scorching the road. As she looked on aghast, a fresh line of burning fire scorched its way up the path and into the distance. Amber felt her eyes widen.

"Hey!" She took flight and shot after him with a yelp. "No fair!"

There was something glorious about using her powers to fly; if anything, her Semblance made it even easier. All told, she felt good. Weightless. Free. Better than she had any right to. The wind in her hair, gravity losing its stubborn hold of her, all the world a blur below. In moments Qrow and the rest were long behind her. She knew Raven would catch up. Bloody woman probably had a portal to Naruto now. She wouldn't put it past her; fate just seemed intent to screw her these days.

But even wit power, she couldn't keep up.

Naruto was fast. Almost ridiculously so. She saw him as little more than a golden speck on the horizon; already halfway to the city and and Haven within. Red eyes flashed up at her from below and she caught the grin on her face. She poured on a burst of speed, flames howling from her hands as she sought to close the distance between the two of them. He slowed, just a pace. Just a hair.

Then he sped away and quite suddenly, it was like trying to chase a storm.

They raced through fields, vaulted over fences, lunged across streets.

In hindsight, Amber wasn't sure who started laughing first. It could have been her. It might have been him. Looking back, she really wasn't sure. It burst out of her in a joyous gasp, little tiny giggles fleeing from her as they chased one another. He always seemed so close, just out of reach, yet she wasnt able to overtake him. Rather than frustrated her, she found herself enjoying the chase; if only because it distracted her from everything else. It made her feel normal again. This was what life felt like. She never wanted to let it go.

Eventually, they arrived.

She didn't even remember cresting the walls of Mistral, much less arriving at Haven itself, nor the ungodly commotion left in their wake. One moment they were without, the next they were quite suddenly within and their chase came to a smashing end. Literally.

"And...done!"

Naruto's back slammed against a wall. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated, skin slick with sweat. Amber could only imagine how she must look; cheeks flushed, bosom heaving with heavy breaths. She was more winded than he was and it likely showed. For all her pride and power she wasn't much used to a full on spring through the countryside, nevermind the speed they'd been going.

"You alright?"

"Just a little tired," she hummed, pushing herself upright.

He stepped in to help and without thinking, she leaned against him. His hands caught her. Steadied her. Gave her strength. Thoughtlessly she stepped into him, staggering them a little. The wayward ninja pivoted to hold her up and catch her again; his hands settled against her hips with gentle strength. It felt like they belonged there.

"Who won?" Naruto asked suddenly.

Amber blinked away the haze with an effort. "Huh?"

She didn't know and she said as much. Neither of them had paid any attention to their arrival. They'd been having too much fun to notice, and if she was with herself, care. Her instincts stirred again. This felt good. It felt safe. It felt right. She wanted to stay in his arms forever.

"I don't know." she admitted.

Amber looked up and her throat went dry.

"What's wrong?" he blinked. "Why're ya lookin' at me like that?"

Why was she hesitating?! Uncle Qrow had made a painful point earlier. Even Raven, absolute bitch though she was, had spoken the truth. She'd never kissed a boy before. She'd never done that with...well, anyone. Her power had always kept everyone away. Or perhaps it was Ozpin, keeping her safe. Who could say? She didn't begrudge the headmaster for it here; her mind was already elsewhere.

She wanted to kiss Naruto

Her already dry throat turned absolutely arid at the thought. Amber licked her lips and swallowed, then coughed, desperately trying to bring some much-needed moisture to her mouth. Focus! Now wasn't the time for this at all. They had a mission to complete. She couldn't let herself grow distracted, lest she...she...what was she worried about again?

Damn, you're thirsty. A tiny, naughty voice cooed in the back of her head. Just take him already.

Amber turned nearly incandescent. No! she wailed. Its not like that!

"Isn't it? the voice came on again. You're lusting after him like a bitch in heat. Make your move or move on. You owe it to yourself to be honest with him."

Didn't she?

If the alternative meant letting Winter or gods forbid, Raven have him? That tore it. In the back of her head, the very last thread of restraint snapped with an audible twang. Naruto looked like he wanted to say something, perhaps question her at the very least, and that made it even worse. She was so very tired of talking; of dancing around this like some lovestruck girl.

"Naruto."

"Hmm?" he blinked.

She stepped forward. "Don't move."

Amber pushed herself up on the very tips of her toes and kissed him.


(.0.0.0.)


Naruto wasn't sure what to expect when Amber's eyes began to burn.

Oh, he knew she was emotional at the moment and he couldn't much blame her for it.

Even so, he still didn't expect the kiss. Even if he'd been forewarned about it, he still wouldn't have moved in time.

She trembled in his arms, pushed herself up on the very tips of her toes, and pressed her lips to his. Naruto sucked in a sharp breath. Stars -entire galaxies!- burst through his mind. His breath hitched and he was sure he heard Kurama say something to him, but everything suddenly seemed muted somehow. Faded. Distant. His very being tensed, but she made no effort to follow-up her actions. She simply stood there, heat tilted just so, a quiet, forlorn girl pressing herselfiinto his arms.

Winter had been cold and angry. Raven, fire and passion. By contrast, Amber was gentle. Hesitant. Almost afraid.

Her mouth was warm and soft against his, tasting faintly of vanilla and cherries. Her body welded against his like she belonged there. Her hips fit against his as she twined one leg with his; not to prevent him from getting away, but merely so she could pull herself closer to him.

He wanted more.

Something awoke inside Naruto all over again, but with a supreme effort of will he held himself back and pulled away. Amber made a tiny noise of disappointment when he did so. It almost sounded like a moan-gah! Bad brain! Full stop! Proper thoughts!

"Why did you stop?" her words were a whine, one that nearly broke him.

"Didn't want to take advantage of you." he drawled. And there it was, the honest, unvarnished truth.

"Advan-you dolt!" Her eyes pulsed with living flame as she slapped his chest. "I was the one to kiss you. Please. Try."

What was the saying? Third time's the charm? It was exactly what he needed. She came alive in his arms, surging up to fling her own around his neck and link them together even as she angled her head to allow him better access. Belatedly he realized he was having difficulty holding her. Her body shifted against his, trying to squirm closer, but something kept pulling it away. He soon saw why.

"Amber."

"Hmm?" she blinked.

He pointed. "You're floating."

She looked down and her dark face turned darker still; she was hovering a good inch or so off the ground. Enough to be aware of, but scarcely be seen. He wouldn't have noticed it at all if he weren't holding her. Was this her Semblance, or merely her powers playing up? He stumbled back as she slammed her head into his shoulder, grabbed him by the face, then drew him back to her. Her mouth closed on his again and this time there was passion.

Fire burned through Naruto's veins as she tilted her head against him, angling for a better kiss. She was as nervous as he, but made up for it with sheer tenacity. Every kiss hastened the beat of his heart, every touch was like searing ice in his vens. Her fingers dug into his back as she hooked one leg around his waist, his fingers sweeping down to support her rear and her weight with it.

"Um, excuse me?" someone called out to them. "Might I have a moment of your time...?

"No." Naruto ignored them with a growl as he pulled her close. "Not now."

Amber flung a lazy arm in that direction. "Go away."

"I'm afraid I must insist...

With a long suffering sigh, the pair parted. Well, Naruto tried to part. Amber latched onto his hand as she drifted back down to the ground, and he didn't have the heart to make her let go. Her fingers threaded perfectly in his, and he fought down a sudden rush of warmth.

That warmth faded somewhat when he saw their would-be-voyeur lingering only a few paces away,

Leonoardo Lionheart stood before them, fretfully winging his hands together.

"You must be Naruto. Might I ask what you're doing here...?"


(.0.0.0.)


"Really, this is most irregular."

A brief explanation later found the three of them in the Headmaster's office.

All told, it rather reminded Naruto of the room Tsunade once used for her own duties as Hokage, albeit lined with bookshelves and other knick-knacks. Gently sloped windows filtered morning sunlight in the room, lending it an orangesque glow. Really, it was a homely little place, homely little area.

There was something off about the whole thing.

Naruto had never met Lionheart before. Never even knew the man. And yet he couldn't quite bring himself to relax in his presence.. For all his gregarious laughter and jovial smiles, the man radiated fear on almost primal level. He'd offered them tea. Naruto refused to drink it, and perhaps sensing his distrust, she hadn't either.

"Where are all the hunters?" Amber remarked suddenly. "I haven't seen one since we got here. Only a few students."

"Well, they're quite busy, as I'm sure you can imagine." nervous laughter greeted them. "Grimm to kill, civilians to protect, that sort of thing. Many of the students themselves are away on holiday and only a few remain in the dorms." he tapped a tan knuckles against his desk. "Rest assured, its usually quite busy here."

Kurama hissed out a breath. "He's lying."

'I know.'

Even after all this time, he could still sense negative emotions. If anything his time in Remnant had only served to sharpen this strange sixth sense of his. Leonardo Lionheart was a man who projected confidence, but felt none of it. His smile was as brittle as glass. This was a fearful man, terrified really, but not of them.

Who, then? What was he so afraid of?

He had a bad feeling about this; just like that, his guard went and a dozen walls slammed into place within his mind. Were they being setup? Was he being paranoid? Not, it didn't feel like it. And yet this strange feeling of dread hounded him without end. An idea dawned. While he had no way to warn Amber without revealing himself, there was a way to confirm his suspicions...assuming it didn't blow up in his face.

And he was so very tried of dancing around this. "We need the Lamp."

Leo's fear spiked tenfold, followed by a cold thread of anger directed solely at him. Naruto fought down a bitter smile. Well. That confirmed it. Whoever this man was, he clearly couldn't be trusted. Was he a traitor? Could be. Might not. His heart didn't want to believe it, but his senses hadn't let him down yet. He suspected Leo would refuse them before the words even left his mouth. If the man allowed them use of the Lamp without issue, then there wouldn't be any problem. But if he refused...

"That's out of the question." Ohhh, he tried to sound stern, but the fear he felt all but cut the legs out from under it. "I cannot simply give you the Relic-

"We weren't asking." He slammed both hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Ozpin knows all about this." Now it was his turn to lie, and he weaved a tall tale all its own. "The Spring Maiden's already on here way here to open the vault. We'll use it, ask our questions, and then we'll be on our way."

Lionheart's face twisted. "Spring has been found...?"

Was she missing in the first place? Nevermind. He went with it. "Yup. She's on her way with Qrow. We were sent ahead to tell you."

"I...I see." the headmaster all but gulped, tugging at his collar. "Has he done it, then? Does Ozpin have a way to defeat Salem once and for all?"

But Salem couldn't be destroyed now, could she. Raven had said as much. A dozen alarm bells went off in the back of Naruto's head. He pushed through them all. The more he learned, the less of this he liked. Lionheart had gone from "untrustworthy" to "dangerous" in his mind. Fearful men did foolish things

"He does." Amber leaned over beside him and made the lie all the more convincing. "We're talking to you now as a courtesy, nothing more."

Lionheart sagged in his chair, shoulders slumping. A strange resignation came over him. It left Naruto even more wary than before.

"Yes," he muttered to himself, "Yes, I suppose it makes sense that he would send the two of you ahead to secure the Relic." straightening, he rose from his chair and stood to his full towering heigh. Naruto couldn't help but notice that the man had his weapon there on his desk. Leonardo donned it now, securing the strange device to his wrist. "I'll...take you to the statue."

Amber preened, blissfully unaware of it. "You'd best."


(.0.0.0.)


Where had he gone wrong?

On a certain level, Ozpin knew as he regarded his still-silent Scroll. He'd kept too many secrets, held his cards too close to his chest. Something was bound to backfire sooner or later. It often did, and had in many a past life. But he kept some matters silent for a reason. Knowledge is a terrible thing, and more often than not it broke the minds of men.

He laid his scroll down on his desk and stood. Paced to the window.

Alone in his tower, the lonely immortal watched the coming storm behind the glass. Thick black clouds roiled

They were going to use the Lamp. He couldn't say how or why he knew, only that he did. It was the only path they could take now.

He could have called Leonardo to delay them, could have flown to Mistral himself. Tried to stop them at the very least. But didn't, and hadn't. Instead he'd held himself back, merely reaching out through repeated phone calls. Any attempt at subterfuge on his part would be taken poorly, if not by Naruto, then Amber certainly. Those two had endured much. Too much, some might say. If he were to lie them now, if he attempted to spin a web of half truths before them, they would break away and all would be lost.

It was a risky gambit. If the Spring Maiden was secure and the questions used, then Salem would be forestalled another hundred years.

But if they weren't...

Ozpin shook his head, sighed, pulled a thermos from his belt, and drank. Whiskey burned the back of his throat. He suspected he'd need more before this day was done. Salem was moving. The death of the Winter Maiden was merely a portent of the times. That left Naruto connect to not one, not two, but THREE Maidens. Who could say how Winter might react to such an awful truth? Naruto had ingratiated himself in the minds of many and to remove him now would spell disaster.

He bore the boy no ill will of course. He would learn the truth, and then he would come here.

He would have questions, and Ozpin had long ago resolved himself to answer them all. For that boy was the key.

Regardless of the outcome, there would be a reckoning. Would they be allies after this? Enemies? He wasn't sure. He did not relish the idea of losing Qrow, much less a maiden, but he relished the idea of dying even less. Naruto had proven his skill in combat and he wasn't sure he could face him in a fair fight. Even an unfair one almost guaranteed his defeat. That boy held incredible power. If used fro the wrong purpose...no.

Time would tell.

A peal of thunder boomed outside.

Ozpin raised his mug to lips and took a long drink. "So it begins."


(.0.0.0.)


Something was wrong.

Naruto couldn't put his finger on it, but he'd been feeling restless for the last five minutes as Lionheart lead them through the halls. His senses were sharp as ever, and he was almost certain of their safety, but even then he couldn't quite bring himself to relax. He grit his teeth and tried to shake the strange feeling of dread away, to no avail. The boy in him wanted to trust. Wanted to believe. They were safe here in Haven. No one was going to turn on them. There would be no ambush here, no betrayals, no surprises. The cynic said otherwise.

Something clicked in the back of his brain. Wait. Surprises?

When they'd met, Lionheart had known his name. Before he'd even given it. He'd ignored it at the time, thought it a slip of the tongue, or that Ozpin had mentioned him.

He hadn't.

Blue eyes narrowed in realization.

Not a moment later, his senses told him what he already knew. Damnit. He hated being right.

The foyer was a wide and grand thing indeed; not an enclosed space this, but a wide open area, with multiple levels, decked in the colors of brown and green. Looked downright earthy, really. I twas the statue in the center of the room that caught Naruto's eye, however. That thing had to have a purpose. Was the vault there? Beneath it somehow? His mind whirled, trying to find an answer. It stopped when he saw the two figures flanking said statue.

"Why am I not surprised?"

One was an absolute brute of a man clad in a green coat. From him, Naruto felt nothing but stoic anger. His companion was another matter. Though he wore a brown jacket, one could glimpse strange white clothes lurking beneath. As they approached, he flung it aside and began bounding on the balls of his feet. Manic glee pervaded the air, enough to leave his senses physically ill.

"Wait. I know that man." Amber hissed out a breath and slowed. Naruto mirrored the motion.

To his credit, Lionheart tried to spin the situation.

"Never fear, these are...associates of mine." the man began, "They're here to guard the relic, nothing more-

"Stop lying!" she rounded on him. "That's Tyrian Callows! He's a murderer!"

The man flinched as the words slapped him in the face.

"Oh, joy of joys!" the one in white clapped like a giddy child. "And who might you be?!"

"Naruto...and right back at you." with a long suffering sigh, the ninja tensed his shoulders. "Whoever you are, whatever you want, we're not here to fight."

"Why friend, my name is Tyrian!" much to his dismay, the madman giggled and sketched a shallow bow, stinger sweeping behind his back. "And I'm afraid that is not possible. You see, my assignment from her Grace was to seek out a young man matching your description and retrieve them...so that is what I must do." his grin grew as he straightened. "One does not upset the queen."

"Queen?" Amber hissed at his side.

"Great. Someone else wants to meet me." Naruto growled back, Can't you all just bugger off?!"

"I'm afraid not." the giant in green spoke at last. "Surrender the Maiden."

Amber bristled behind him, keeping one eye on Lionheart. Oddly enough, the man didn't make a move. To the untrained eye, he seemed almost defeated.

"I think we've had enough talk now, don't you?"

Behind them, the air rippled.

Naruto all but grinned.

"Sure. Why not."

A crimson blade parted the air where the madmen stood as Raven came hurtling through with Qrow at her back. The giant saw her coming and threw himself clear. He caught a lightning bolt to the chest for it and hurtled across the room. Qrow gave chase with a roar. His companion made no such effort as the Spring Maiden closed with him. Her blade would've taken his head, if the madman's body hadn't contorted at an impossible angle and ducked at the last moment. Twin blades flicked out, locking against her sword.

"As I live and breathe! Raven Branwen!" he cackled, bounding back to his feet. "A true huntress has entered the fray. I didn't realize this was your territory."

"He's mine. Hands off."

"Oi!" Naruto squawked. "I don't belong to anyone!"

"No." Something flickered behind them. "You don't goodbye."

Amber yelped. And the world exploded.

Naruto was ready for it. The moment he felt Lionheart's ill intent, he yanked his partner into him and wrapped them both in a shimmering shroud of golden chakra. Heat and flames washed harmlessly over his shoulders, leaving him untouched. Smoke filled the air. A blood-red iris peeked over his shoulder.

"That...was a mistake."

"What are you?" Leonardo lowered his arm, eyes wide. The headmaster -TRAITOR!- paled and shrank back. "No, wait! I can explain-

Naruto's fist thundered into his jaw, bringing with it the wrath of Mistral's fallen huntsmen. The cowardly lion never stood a chance. He didn't stumble across the room. He flew. His body struck a wall, left a decidedly man shaped impression behind, and crashed facefirst into the floor lolled limply to the side. He did not rise again.

"No, he growled, lowering his arm. "You can't."

"Oooh!" Tyrian offered a mad giggle as he clapped his hands. "How delightful! I call dibs on the boy!"

Hazel blocked his advance with a large forearm. "No. You take the Maidens. The boy is mine."

"Party-pooper!"

Naruto looked left. Naruto looked right. Naruto sighed.

"Qrow! Raven!" He raised his voice, briefly bringing the combat to a lull. "Get the Relic! We'll handle them!"

He crossed his fingers and reveled in the brief look of confusion everyone wore. He'd never get tired of that. The urge to simply flood the room with shadow clones and swarm their enemies was almost overpowering. But that wouldn't be enough. That wouldn't satisfy him. Instead he flung three at Hazel and three more at Tyrian. The copies died almost instantly, but their purpose was served. They weren't meant to fight. They were simple distractions, nothing more.

Everyone separated and the world turned to a blur.

He didn't look to see if his shout was followed; instead, he lunged at Hazel.

Amber shot toward the ceiling, eyes blazing. Tyrian climbed up after her, leaving them to one another.

"You want to play mad? Fine." Amber growled, eyes burning molten gold as she dove down after him. "Lets be mad."

A fist crashed into Tyrian's face and sent him skipping down the hall. He was still flying through the air when another found him and send him flying in the other direction.

"Weeeeell!" a giggle greeted him as he clamored upright. "You certainly flew quite a bit there! Lets do that again! I've got a lot of anger to burn off, and you're going to be my punching bag, buster!"

Baleful red eyes bled back into blue as Naruto released his cloak.

"Why do this? We're not enemies."

"You serve Ozpin." the giant reared back and jammed a dust crystal into his arm. "That's enough."

"I don't work for him, ya big oaf!"

Hazel's muscles began to writhe and twist beneath his jacket, growing to grotesque proportions. The giant stabbed his hands into his belt and a second crystal joined the first. Followed by a third. Fourth. Fifth. With each injection his body warped and twisted, taking on an almost crimson hue. Naruto looked up. Up. Up again, as the man continued to grow.

Kurama swore as Hazel's shadow engulfed them. "That...might be a problem."

And still he continued to contort, his body writhing as arcs of fire and lightning crawled across his bristling shoulders.

"We were told of your strength." even Hazel's voice had deepened now, a great base undertone that rattled the very floor. "You will not find me wanting."

He moved with a speed that bellied his new size and slammed a punch at his face. Naruto evaded with ease, sweeping to the side before those crackling fingers could make their mark. Was that it? Bastard might be big, but he wasn't going to hit him like tha-

He did not dodge the current that chased after Hazel's fist.

"Aaargh!"

Electricity slammed into him and every muscle clamped down, forcing him to one knee. His world burned white as blood vessels burst in his eyes, staining the sclera scarlet. Hazel pounced and decked him in his moment of weakness, nearly laying him out on the floor. Anyone else would've been finished, surely. A lone tooth whistled into the air as Kurama blunted the pain and forced him to focus.

"Alright." Naruto wheezed smoke. "Shoulda seen that one coming. My turn, now."

Hazel struck again, and this time he struck back, ignoring the pain. His first punch slammed the growling giant into the ground. A second pinned him there.

"Just stop moving already!"

Hazel jammed a sixth crystal into his thigh and flung him off.

"Your efforts are in vain." he informed him briskly, growing once more. "I cannot feel pain."

Rhymes aside, the realization alarmed Naruto. Something cold and hard coalesced deep inside him. He'd held back against Cinder and her minions. What had that earned him? Nothing but misery and pain. Restraining the lion's share of his strength here was going to get him killed. No more. Not one more. Mercy meant nothing to these men. They were monsters.

Somewhere behind him, Amber cried out in pain. He dare not look away to check on her.

Instead, he crossed his fingers. "Shadow clone-

Hazel thundered forward, forcing him to abandon the jutsu and block. Pain thundered down his arms as he caught the blow.

"I don't need you to feel pain." he warned. "I just need you to go DOWN!"

This time he didn't hold back.

Hazel came in again and he met him halfway with a roar. As ever he led with a right hook; it proved to be his downfall. Naruto caught his arm, gritting his teeth as sparks coursed through him again. He was prepared for it and the pain that followed.

"Neat trick." he grinned against the current arcing through his teeth. "Let me show you one of mine."

Gritting his aching teeth, he dragged Hazel's arm down and slammed an elbow into muscle. Aura crackled. Flesh and bone gave with an ominous crack. Naruto struck again, and the arm striving against him went limp as he found his proper target. Hazel grunted in surprise, but he didn't scream. Wide eyes regarded the spike of white bone jutting out of his wrist.

With an ugly crack, he pushed it back in.

"Last chance." Naruto warned as he settled back into a stance. "Stay down, or I swear by all that is holy, I will put you down."

Hazel straightened slowly. "You would murder a man in cold blood?"

Naruto fought down a flinch. His conscience protested...

"A man? No. I wouldn't kill a man."

...until he murdered it.

"Ah, but you?" Blue eyes gleamed gold, then red as he ceded control to Kurama. "You're not a man. You're a pig. Let me hear you squeal."

He blurred into the giant's guard, one arm swept back to strike.

Hazel squinted as he heard a faint keening noise.

It was the last sound he'd ever hear.

A/N: PLEASE. READ. THIS. NOTE.

As ever, reviews keep me going in this dark time; they're all I have, sad as it sounds.

Fight continues next chapter. Now if you'll excuse me, I feel like shite, so I'm just gonna go cry in a corner until I feel better.

As ever, reviews keep this old man alive and -relatively!- healthy despite what's been going on.

Well, that's all I have to say this time around.

So in the Immortal Words of Atlas...

...Review, Would You Kindly?

And enjoy the previews~!

Speakin' a which...

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

PLOT DETAILS AHOY!

(Previews)

Ah, freedom at last. And it wasn't the man of many face who had released her.

"Jinn!" her new owner boomed! "I summon you! Answer my questions!"

Well, well, well. A small smile curled her pale blue lips.

"As you wish...


Their group toppled out of the portal in a mess of tangled limbs.

Taiyang looked up from his book.

...what the actual hell."


"Start. Talking."

Ozpin raised his hands in surrender. "Very well...


"What's with this kid and romancing Maidens?! Is the freakin' Summer one gonna pop up next?!"


Neo offered a cheery little wave.

R&R~!