Bit of a different chapter to usual but I thought it might fit to have a chapter showing other people reacting to Jaune rather than him reacting to their dreams. But I also want their scenes to reference the same insecurities from their dreams. We'll see how it goes.
Cover Art: Curbizzle
Jaune was stretching himself thin.
Ruby could tell because despite being younger than everyone else and a little scatter-brained at time, she paid attention to those she cared about – and Jaune was the first friend she made at Beacon. He was the guy who approached the girl laid flat on her butt and dared to befriend her, and for that he'd always be special to her. If it wasn't for the little confidence bump he'd given then she wasn't sure if she'd have found the nerve to talk to Weiss and Blake.
Of course, she'd never admit to him how important he was. That'd be embarrassing. She'd been really excited when he and Yang became a thing though. Surprised, but excited. Jaune had matured a lot in the last few weeks – even Weiss was saying it – and it felt like he was a lot more "aware" of the people around him. He'd even somehow made friends with a mute girl from Mistral and Velvet's team after losing his cool and thumping Cardin. Why did they call it "losing your cool" anyway? He'd looked awesome when he did that. He'd gained cool. Yang had been practically vibrating for hours after. Even Blake had gotten into it.
There was no denying that Jaune was a lot better than he had been before. That felt cruel to say, like his old self was bad, but it wasn't like he was a different person. He'd just applied himself more or something. He'd wised up. Grown up. Whatever you wanted to call it. All things told, it was a good thing, and yet she couldn't help but watch him drag himself around the classes and yawn into his arm when he thought no one was looking. He would thumb at his eyes, clench them shut, and at times his head would bob precariously forward, only for him to catch it and prop his chin up on one hand. He would smile, and laugh, and chat with his teammates when they engaged him, but the moment their attention was elsewhere such a look of fatigue would take over him that Ruby wanted to run over, kidnap him and stuff him under a pile of blankets.
It's not worth it if you look like that, Jaune…
Everyone else was happy. Weiss was happy, Yang was happy, Blake was happy, his team were happy, but he wasn't. He looked like he was trying to balance six spinning plates at once, and more kept getting added. First Mint, then Velvet, now Coco. Jaune laughed and talked and apologised and kept up with his lessons all at the same time, but you couldn't do all that without making sacrifices elsewhere.
"Ruby," said Weiss, voice a whisper. "You're staring at Arc again."
"Can't you call him Jaune?" she replied. "I thought you were on better terms now."
"We are. It's… It's habit at this point. Nothing more. He's shown an admirable side of himself these past few weeks and I certainly have no complaints. He's become awfully popular with older women though, don't you think? Not only Coco and Velvet, but that Cinder woman from Mistral is paying attention to him. Isn't Yang worried?"
Yang? Worried? Ruby would have snorted if she wouldn't have been told off for it. Yang never worried about anything, and why should she? Yang was confident, pretty, good at talking, and wasn't afraid of anything. Ruby wasn't jealous – okay, maybe she was – but it always felt like Yang got everything right, while she floundered. It sometimes made her wonder if that was the difference between an extra two years of having a mom. Ruby had grown up with only a few memories, and more of a broken-down father for the year it took dad to build himself back up and become a real father again.
Now that was something she was undeniably jealous over. Ruby remembered her mom's smile and her cookies and being held by her, but most of what she knew came from what Yang and Taiyang had told her. Yang had actual memories of her, and they were much more solidified in her head. It wasn't fair at all, but it also wasn't something she could complain about. Yang hadn't had a say in how mom died.
"Why are you staring anyway?" asked Weiss. "Don't tell me you're crushing on him as well."
This time she did snort, though quietly. Crushing on Jaune? Hah. Oh, Jaune was decent looking, she supposed, but that was it. Ruby didn't think she'd ever been attracted to someone before. Not boys, noy girl, not even weapons despite Yang's teasing. It wasn't that she couldn't look at a person and think they were good-looking, but she just hadn't felt the desire so many people talked about. That was probably what led to Yang, dad and uncle Qrow pushing the whole "Ruby is innocent" angle.
"Don't you think he looks sick?"
"Ar- Jaune?" Weiss corrected herself and looked over. Properly this time. "He does look a little tired, but that's hardly worth concern. He was probably up late watching videos or something. Heaven knows your sister does that often enough."
"But he's been looking like it every day. He's always tired. Always struggling."
"Didn't he have that sickness a bit ago? The aura draining thing? He spent a few days in the infirmary from what I remember."
"Yeah, but he said he was better. Does that look better to you?"
"He's just tired, Ruby. Tell him to take a nap."
Weiss didn't get it. Didn't see it like she did. It frustrated Ruby to no end, but she couldn't force her partner to see what she apparently couldn't. Jaune wasn't just physically tired; he was emotionally tired. Or something like that. He looked like a pancake that had been pushed around the pan too much and turned see-through in places.
Ruby wasn't good at analogies.
She wasn't normally good at noticing other people's moods either, not unless they were really obvious. She'd thought that it was with Jaune, but no one else seemed to notice and it was driving her mad. After class she decided to corner Yang and Blake and get their thoughts.
"Jaune?" Yang rubbed her chin. "He's been happy enough when we talk. Yeah, he's been a little out of it of late but I figured it was because of the dying friend." She looked uncomfortable mentioning it. "I've just been trying to be there if he needs me and not bring it up, you know? What about you, Blake? You're perceptive. Notice anything?"
"Huh? Me? Oh, uh, nothing." Blake had a dusting of pink on her cheeks, which either meant she'd noticed more than she ought to, or she hadn't been paying attention at all. Given the book she was trying to hide under her sleeve, Ruby assumed the latter.
Her team were useless.
The easiest thing to do would be to confront him. Ruby took a deep breath and did so before next class, walking up to Team JNPR. Nora saw her coming, winked, nudged the others and had them turn her way. Nora meant it well, but Ruby was instantly put on the spot.
"H-Hey. Jaune, I… uh… I wanted to ask you something."
He smiled. A tired smile, but a smile. It made her heart ache. "Yeah? What is it?"
I want to know what's wrong with you and how I can help, she thought. Say it. Say those words. Say those exact words to him right now. They were simple words, and for once she didn't have to fumble for them. Ruby knew exactly what she wanted to say.
"D-Do you want to play Remnant Fighter later?"
And yet her mouth betrayed her, as it so often did. Ruby wept internally.
Jaune, however, simply chuckled. "I'll see if I can make it tonight. Go easy on me, okay?"
"Y-Yeah. Sure. You take it easy as well, okay…?"
Ruby watched him go, and wished she could have mustered the guts to say what she really felt inside. Damn it, she wasn't done here. Not yet. There was still a chance tonight to grill him after a few rounds, and she wasn't going to miss that chance.
Weiss' father would have accused her of accepting mediocrity if he could see her now, and yet in her mind that was all the reason she needed to approve her current course of action. Ruby had drawn her attention to Arc's problems and Weiss could see them now, and it made her realise she'd been blind to them before. No doubt an ingrained habit of removing his presence from her mind. One she would have to get over given how much better he was. Not at all a bother, and quite witty at times. Things were quite a bit more fun when she was not the centre of attention.
It would have been easy to agree to help Ruby and talk to Arc, and she was sure she could, in time, dig through his words and find out the truth. Then she could take him, mould him, and if there was something wrong, put him back together. It would take time, but it wouldn't be difficult for someone like her.
That was the problem.
Jacques Schnee had tried his best to mould his children to fit the image of what he felt a perfect heir should be. They hadn't been family to him, so much as a portfolio to be meticulously managed and controlled. Invest a little time and money into musical arts to make them more attractive; cut back on investment into less desirable hobbies; pay someone to teach her to sing, and then whore her out at concerts for the good PR. Summon her for a performance review and critique her sorrowful lyrics.
Weiss sighed. It had gone on and on and on.
It wasn't her place, nor her desire, to put someone else through that same experience. Jaune might have his problems, but he was getting better on his own and didn't need her sticking her nose into things any more than Ruby had. Learning that lesson had been embarrassing enough, and she'd promised to be a better teammate and stop trying to second guess Ruby. Now, she should apply that logic to Jaune as well, and stop trying to force him to be a better friend.
He was doing a fine job. Weiss still thought fondly of their dance, how platonic but comforting it had been, and her gratitude to Yang for making it happen. He was moulding himself into a fine man without her interference, and she worried that butting her nose in now might somehow ruin things. Ruin him. Jaune Arc was not an investment, nor was he an asset, and so she would not treat him as one. Could not. To do so would be to make her no better than her father.
But it felt like an excuse to not act, even to her.
Yang felt a little bad for lying to her sister, especially as she ran off to try and get the answer out of Jaune. The truth of the matter was that she had noticed him become increasingly strained over the last week or so, but she just didn't know what to do about the fact and didn't want everyone jumping on her back. Someone close to him was dying, so of course he felt bad. That was to be expected. She'd offered to listen if he wanted to talk, but he told her it was private and… well… she accepted that.
Honestly, she'd been relieved by it, which she felt a little guilty admitting.
The simple truth of the matter was that she didn't like pushing people. Ruby always saw her as some wildly overconfident and fearless wrecking ball of a person, but that really wasn't the case. Yang ran into brick walls all the time and more often than not gave up. It was just that she never gave up where Ruby was concerned – because mom wouldn't have wanted her to – so she probably looked a lot more capable to her little sister than she was.
Ruby should have guessed something like this would happen given this was her first proper boyfriend, and even then they were only in a semi-official state. It wasn't like she knew what she was doing; Yang was winging it to the best of her ability.
It's not like I haven't noticed him being distracted or clearly bothered, but what can I do? I ask him if he's okay and he says yes. Should I confront him? Should I tell him it's obvious he's lying to me? It's easy for you, Ruby. No one expects you to have all the answers.
"You look bothered," said Blake. "Is it about what Ruby said?"
"Kinda." Blake was good to talk to because she never seemed to be too interested in what you were saying. Paradoxical, but it meant her partner would never care to hare anything she said. "Say I had noticed something up with Jaune. What should I do about it?"
"That's not vague enough for me. Could you be less specific please?"
Blake sighed and rolled her eyes. "I can't exactly tell you what to do when I can't tell what's wrong. Does he look tired? I suppose." She shrugged. "I don't really pay attention to him all that much. Or I didn't before. He's definitely become a little more noticeable after punching Cardin and apologising to Weiss."
"I'll say. He was like a two out of ten before and now he's ramped up to an eight."
"Maybe that's what has him so exhausted," said Blake, choosing not to agree or disagree with Yang's generous appraisal. "If he's pushing himself to be better then it must be tiring to keep it up all the time. Having to second-guess your every statement, having to watch how you act and what you say, and keep it up through the whole day."
It was a decent idea. If he was putting on all these changes then it'd be hard work keeping them going, and anyone would start to feel worn down after a few weeks of that. Yang didn't believe it, though. There was something about the way he acted that told her he wasn't just faking this. Yang would have never suggested they go on a date if she thought this was an act he was putting on. Jaune was genuine about these changes, and yet they were still sudden enough that even she'd been caught by surprise.
If someone asked what the first had been then she'd struggle to say. Him apologising to Weiss was a big one for sure, but there'd also been some glimmers before that when the two of them had talked and he'd come out with some surprising bits of wisdom. He'd been perceptive, picking out things and saying other things that just resonated with her. It had been enough to have her looking at him more than she normally would have, even if at the time it'd been more out of surprise than anything else. Her little sister's goofy friend wasn't supposed to suddenly become some semi-cool figure in her life, let alone someone she genuinely felt she could confide in if she needed to.
That was a weird thing to think in the first place. Yang didn't have any big problems in her life right now and, touch wood, she hopefully wouldn't in the immediate future. But, if she did, she was sure that it'd either be Blake or Jaune she came to for advice. Blake because she was her partner and wouldn't steer her wrong, and Jaune because she actually thought he might take them seriously. A guy who was a leader of another team, and who had, not four weeks ago, been little more than comic relief in her eyes.
People changed, obviously, but this was surely too much too fast.
And yet… what? What could she say about that? It wasn't like she could argue he'd been kidnapped by aliens and replaced, was it? Maybe something had happened in his personal life that prompted the change, or maybe he'd taken a long look in the mirror and not liked what he saw. Both were plausible, and also none of her damned business. A braver person might have confronted him about it, but Yang wasn't as brave as everyone made her out to be.
I'm having fun with him. And I don't want him to decide I'm too much trouble and ditch me on a night out. He probably wouldn't, and probably never would, but that didn't mean her stupid insecurities would leave her alone. I'm such a coward.
Blake wanted to do more to help – but that was the problem. Her whole life had been one series of "wanting to help" after another, and almost every instance of her forcing her concern on others had ended in tears. Yang was bothered, Jaune was out of it, and Ruby was doing her best to fix things. Good on her. Blake liked and trusted Ruby, and admired her as well, even as she was deeply envious. It often felt like Ruby could fix any problem she put her mind to, and she managed it without casualties or having to abandon former ideals.
I'd just muck it up anyway, thought Blake, taking her eyes away from where Ruby was talking to Jaune and his team. I'd push too hard, and then get too involved and cross the line again. It's better if other people sort this out.
A lazy response, some might say, but Blake thought it might be the safest for everyone involved.
Ruby and Yang will handle this just fine.
Blake closed her eyes and reached for her book.
I'd just make things worse.
Any regret she felt, she pushed back into her mind, bottled up, and threw into a darker corner to hopefully be forgotten. There along with a million other bottles about Adam, her parents, Ilia, and so many other things, places and people.
Ren sometimes hated being the perceptive one.
It was good to know Ruby had noticed something wrong with his erstwhile team leader as well, and that she might be trying – albeit unsuccessfully for now – to help him. Jaune had chosen his friends well, and Ren was pleased to count himself among them. Jaune had always been a good friend, but not, in all honesty, a good huntsman.
Ren didn't hold it against him; some people were weaker than others; that was the way of things. Jaune worked hard too, so it wasn't like the problem was unfixable. It had looked bad when he refused help because of Cardin, but Pyrrha had told him and Nora that there had been more "behind the scenes" that Jaune hadn't been able to tell them. Ren surmised blackmail, and though he didn't know what it was over, it was clear the problem was over. That was good. Ren was not of the same "break legs" mentality as Nora, but that didn't mean he was immune to feeling anger directed at Winchester and his team. He had felt his own pleasure at watching Jaune knock the bully down a peg after he tried picking on Velvet.
That was a thing, he supposed. Jaune was… different of late. Not a different person but more aware. Yes, that was how he would put it. More aware of himself, his actions, the consequences of said actions and the emotional state of the people around him. Ren found it relieving to have someone else so aware on the team, and his recent conversations with Jaune had been enlightening. No more did Jaune talk of comics and Ren struggle to keep up. Now, they often drifted into the realm of philosophy, and sometimes psychology. Interesting topics that Ren was happy to delve into.
But you could not build a house without wearing down a few tools, and Jaune was beginning to look increasingly worn down. Ren worried for him, but he did not know what to do with that worry. Nora was an unshakable kind of person, so he'd never had to learn to deal with it from her, and everything before was… well… in the distant past. It had been bad enough when Jaune asked Yang to the dance and Pyrrha's façade cracked, but even then Jaune had done his level best to go with her, and even come to Ren after to discuss it. Again, Jaune had noticed that which he never would have before.
Where had this sudden maturing come from? Ren wasn't entirely sure, but he suspected it might have something to do with the timely issue that cost Jaune much of his aura. It did not escape him that they had begun about the same time, and Ren posited that he might have an emotions-based Semblance not unlike his own, except that instead of being able to mute and remove emotions, Jaune could see or feel them. An empathic Semblance of sorts. That would explain his sudden "awareness" of how everyone was feeling, and it might have made him feel pressured to fix every problem he saw.
A needless endeavour for sure, but also one that Ren would absolutely suspect of his friend. Jaune was the kind of person to feel guilty over things he should not, and he did love his team. That was never in doubt. Ren had been waiting for the right time to confront him, but confrontation felt wrong. He did not want to accuse or demand or make his friend feel as though he "owed" him anything. There had to be a better way. A less confrontational way. A way that wouldn't introduce strife and discord to the team.
And so, Ren watched, and waited, and remained silent.
Nora wasn't the smartest girl on the planet, she knew that. She wasn't dumb either and her opponents found that out if they thought it of her. It was just that after being best friends with Ren for so long she knew that she wasn't as smart as him and didn't feel the need to compete. He could be the brains and she'd be the brawn. Of course, that didn't mean she was dumb enough to miss the state of her team. Nora was actually the first to realise Pyrrha's crushing on Jaune, beating Ren by a full two weeks (he might be smart but he didn't understand girls any more than Jaune did), and she also realised Jaune knew the first time he dropped a hint before the dance.
It was the way he looked at Pyrrha after, like he was gauging her reaction, that clued her in. Ren had gotten that one sooner, after the third hint, but even that was painfully slow in her opinion. Not half as slow as Pyrrha had been to take advantage of it, the poor girl. Ah, Nora wished she could have just shoved them together and been done with it but she couldn't do that. They had to make the decision themselves otherwise if things did go wrong in the future, they'd blame her. You couldn't force love. Nora knew that.
You could force other things, though, like Jaune was forcing himself to be "out there" and support the team. He really was a big, lovable doofus – and Nora did love him. Wholly and fully. He was her teammate, one of her best friends in the whole wide world, and though she joked a lot about breaking people's legs if they hurt him, they weren't always empty threats.
Sadly, Nora couldn't break Jaune's own legs for hurting himself. Or, well, she could, but it wouldn't be a very good idea. Figuring out his problems and fixing them was also a little out of her comfort zone, mostly because she was sure she'd get the wrong idea. Ren was better for that kind of analytical stuff. Besides, there were other things Nora could do.
Jaune almost buckled when she leapt on his back and wrapped her hands under his armpits and over his chest. "N-Nora!?"
"I'm coming to play tonight as well!" she crowed, pressing herself into his back. He was turning red, probably because of her assets. Heh-heh. He was adorable sometimes. "It's gonna be you and me against the world! Or against Team RWBY, who represent the world! We're going to crush them, Jaune. Crush them!"
"I don't think that's necessary for a game, Nora-"
"Nope." Nora booped his nose. "It's decided. You and me, me and you, the dream team. We're going to kick butt and take names. I've got your back!"
And she'd always have his back because she knew he'd have hers. It was a bit embarrassing that she'd dreamed of Jaune saving her back in Kuroyuri, but it wasn't strange. Nora figured it was just a reflection of her feelings, that he was the kind of guy who'd jump into a fight alongside her without asking questions. It hadn't been a surprise at all.
Nora squeezed him tighter, ignoring the way he squirmed.
I've got you, fearless team leader. I might not know how to make things better but I can help make things less bad.
Pyrrha felt jealous.
And she hated it.
This was Nora for crying out loud, who was so obviously into Ren that she could have approached Jaune in a wedding dress, got down on one knee, and no one would have thought it a proposal. It wasn't like she didn't understand why Nora was doing this, either. Jaune was quite clearly exhausted. Pyrrha had noticed it immediately, as she often did when she spent so much time watching her partner.
Even when he was with Yang…
Another stab of jealousy; another stab of self-hatred for feeling it in the first place. Jaune didn't belong to her, he wasn't hers, and she had no say on who he did or didn't see. That was ridiculous. Pyrrha would never be a controlling person, but that didn't mean she was without fault. It was hard to see them talking together, especially when Yang was so withdrawn about things.
They hadn't even kissed in public yet. Again, she knew that was their choice, but Yang was obviously wanting to take things slow and it frustrated her that Jaune was so understanding, and that Yang could make such demands, when Pyrrha would have been anything he wanted.
But, at the end of the day, that was her fault.
No one to blame but herself for not telling him how she felt.
The same as how Nora wasn't to blame for trying to comfort him when she had also seen the signs and not had the courage to say or do anything all day. Some partner I am, she thought miserably. If Ren was upset then Nora wouldn't have let him out her sight. She was glad Nora had stepped in to do what she didn't have the courage to, but that only made the yawning pit in her stomach open further still.
He was tired, but that wasn't something they could fix. Killing was their forte, murder their art, and while most problems in the world could be fixed by killing them, this was one of the few that could not. In this case, not even ice-cream could help, though he had seemed to take some comfort in them sitting in his lap. Vanille would have thought he had certain "desires" for them if he wasn't so caring.
Caring. Fatherly. Vanille smiled silently, wondering if this was what it was supposed to be like. He was not old enough to be their father obviously, but he let them – no, he let her play, and he took Neo away and kept her distracted. Neo and Vanille, two as one, or one as two. Her real parents had always told them it was their imagination, but they knew better. He did too. Jaune.
The name felt right in her mind. He was surrounded by his allies at the time, so Vanille was certain he would be cared for if he collapsed. Neo was more aggressive, as was often the case, adamantly demanding they go and right things now. That they find what had him so exhausted and kill it before it could harm him further.
And Neopolitan raged.
"His Semblance is taking a toll on him," said Cinder, remarking with all the amusement of a feline poking at the dying twitches of a mouse it had long since grown bored of. "They're all ignorant of it still. I wonder if we should extend a hand to him. It must be hard being surrounded by those who don't know what ails you."
"Is he really worth it, ma'am?" asked Emerald.
"Maybe. Maybe not. It is only a thought. He knows my mind anyway, and I'll be sure to act if he strays into it again."
For once, their minds were one. Unified. Eyes flicking to a mismatch of brown and pink as they slid over the fork in her hand, and contemplated how best it could be driven into Cinder's left eye socket, and then into her brain.
Murder could not solve all problems, but it could solve this one.
If Cinder stepped too far.
Not super thrilled with this story but I wasn't in the best mood to write today - or this week at all. Still waiting on results re my throat but last night I struggled to breathe - or rather, I could draw breath in just fine but it felt like my lungs weren't satisfied with the amount. Had to regulate my breathing for 30 mins before it calmed down. A very worrying experience.
Next Chapter: 20th June
Like my work? Please consider supporting me, even if it's only a little a month or even for a whole year, so I can keep writing so many stories as often as I do. Even a little means a lot and helps me dedicate more time and resources to my work.
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur