Happy Easter. Also known as, 4-day weekend screwed up my mental clock so I thought it was Monday and wrote half of ARC Corp before realising.


Cover Art: Solace o'Autumn

Chapter 17


The Schnee manor became increasingly busy toward the night of the gala, with more and more people coming onto site to help set up one of the many larger halls of the manor with flowers, tables, and audio equipment. Caterers came in their hundreds to plan elaborate meals and buffets, while some fifty waiters and waitresses were taken on and uniformed in crisp white waistcoats over pale blue shirts.

Jaune was swept into it both as an extension of Willow's newfound involvement and also by Weiss, in terms of making sure the audio was done perfectly. They were forced into several sound tests, with Weiss constantly moderating his volume to make sure he was loud enough but not too loud. At those times, Jaune practiced "aiming" his Bardic Music by using it on Willow, and sure enough she remained in an ecstatic mood while no one else seemed effected.

His experiment had worked.

Jacques' experiment had worked too, for all that he was very wrong about what was going on between his wife and the musician hired by the family. In fairness, it was hard to imagine anyone's music being so good it could evoke such a change in Willow, whereas a new romance with a torrid affair absolutely could. Either way, the master of the house was pleased, especially since Willow was practically forcing him out of arrangements for the gala and doing it all herself. He got to retreat to his office, and only checked in every few hours to make sure she hadn't gotten into her wine.

Not a drop had passed her lips all day.

While everything was set up, he made sure to take a few photos of himself on stage to send to Nora, Ren and Pyrrha later, and to his family after. He even managed to convince Weiss to pose for a selfie, and she was willing to do so even if her smile was very fake. A gorgeous, friendly, celebrity smile that made her look like she wanted nothing other than to be in that picture at his side.

"This looks so fake."

"You'll have to get used to it if you're going to perform on stage," said Weiss, pulling away with an irritated frown. It wasn't aimed at him specifically, more at the world at large and all the work that had to be done to make the stage set up just right. "It isn't physically or emotionally possible to smile genuinely when you have hundreds or thousands of people wanting to meet you and shake your hand for four hours straight."

"Is that from autograph sessions?" Weiss hummed in response. "I think Pyrrha said the same thing."

Weiss' head twitched. "Pyrrha? Pyrrha Nikos? You know her?"

"Well, yeah. Didn't your mom tell you all she found me at Pyrrha's charity tournament?"

"Of course she did but I assumed you were just hired help!" Weiss sounded annoyed at him now. "Are you saying you're more than that!?"

The way she asked that had him feeling self-conscious all of a sudden, so his answer was less than confident. "I mean, I like to think we're friends."

"You are or you aren't. What makes you think you are?"

"Well, we exchange texts often. She was dragged out to a fashion shoot yesterday and didn't feel it because she had a cramp from training the day before. I told her to tell them to reschedule but she never does. I think she feels she'd be a burden if she did." He noticed Weiss' shock and continued. "And when I was last in Argus, she came over to my sister's place and I played some guitar for her in my room—"

"You know Pyrrha Nikos!" she hissed, gripping his shoulders. "You're friends with Pyrrha Nikos!"

"W—Weiss…?"

"Do you not realise how big a deal that is?" she hissed. "That's like… That's like being best friends with Guitar Cutie and not telling anyone!" Jaune winced. "Do you have any idea how much I'd love to know her!? Just think of what I could learn from sparring with her! You must introduce us!"

"That might be a little difficult when we're in Atlas and she's in Mistral."

"Idiot!" she scoffed. "Pyrrha is coming tonight!"

"She is!?" He was surprised, excited, but also left wondering why she hadn't mentioned it. Maybe she wanted to surprise him.

"Yes! My parents have invited just about everyone and anyone that is someone. Actresses, directors, politicians, celebrities. Argus isn't so far from Atlas that we couldn't send her one, though she's never accepted any from us before." Her voice dropped. "We always got polite rejections before because of how busy she is, so it was a surprise her agents agreed to this one. Now I know why!" Weiss yanked him close. "You will introduce me!"

"Y—Yes. Of course."

"Good." Weiss let go of him. "And if you can convince her to spar with me, I'll… I guess I'll owe you something. Anything you want, within reason."

"Anything…?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Within reason!"

"Hey, I wasn't going to ask for something crazy like your first kiss."

"Maybe you wouldn't. You'd be surprised what things I've been asked for after a performance. When I'm covered in makeup and in an outfit I need a team of people to help me get into and out of." She sighed and toyed with some strands of white hair. "Some of it is creepy, some of it frankly illegal, and then there's some that is just sad."

"Sad…?"

"The old men who let their hands linger on me are creepy but sometimes you get fans who are much less fortunate. I was told to do a PR visit to a hospice once." Weiss grimaced. "I thought I knew what I was getting into. Go, sing, give toys out to children without much time left. One of them was a boy my age who told me he'd never kissed a girl before. He'd been in a hospital bed all his life."

"You kissed him."

"What was I meant to do?" she asked, looking away sadly. "It made his day. I was told he died a few weeks later." She sighed. "That was my first kiss too, and even today I'm not sure if I should say it was wasted or not."

Damn. Jaune sucked in a breath. "I'm sorry."

"I shouldn't even be sad," she said, smiling faintly. "With one kiss, I made him happy in his final days. It's a small price, isn't it?" Her eyes finally came back to the present and locked on his. "Don't become famous. That's my advice to you, given for free. Travel Remnant, find a job you like, then settle for it. Don't stand out. It's not worth it." Weiss brushed past him after her piece was said. "Please excuse me. I need to meet my makeup crew."

He didn't stop her, but watched as she walked off the stage and made her way off with several professional-looking women with makeup cases. It was a rare moment from Weiss to share things like that, propelled in part by talk on Pyrrha but, he liked to think, continued because Weiss trusted he wasn't the type to share it.

Maybe I'm lucky I went viral in disguise after all. So many people are looking for Guitar Cutie, and they'd all be looking for me otherwise.

In hindsight, being mistaken for a girl wasn't so bad.

He distracted himself by sending the selfie to Pyrrha and then asking her when she planned to tell him she'd be at the gala. Her response came quickly enough.

"I wanted it to be a surprise! xD"

A welcome one for sure. It was a shame Nora and Ren couldn't come.

/-/

The gala began officially at 6pm, though guests began arriving as early as 4:30pm in limousines. They lined up outside the manor and valets hired by the SDC saw them safely parked away. Guests were met at the entrance by Jacques and Willow Schnee, and then steered into the main hall where they could schmooze and receive free drinks. Waitresses and waiters bustled about, and everything was free. The event itself was for charity, and a large table with various "gifts" had been set up and would be auctioned off to raise money.

Jaune had seen the like before in Ansel, usually with items like a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates and such on display.

This was a little more extreme than that.

A one-of-a-kind sports car, a villa at a Mistral retreat, a marble statue, a private evening performance from pop singer Weiss Schnee. Jaune could only imagine how much the latter one annoyed Weiss, but her family had put it up without asking her. It sounded creepy, but he imagined it would be more like what he did with Willow. Other prizes included luxury holidays, cosmetic treatments, tickets for expensive tailor-made suits, and in one case an outright penthouse apartment in Atlas.

Jaune got the feeling the bidding would be a little beyond his budget.

He wasn't actually allowed to schmooze with the guests or find Pyrrha because Weiss wanted him on hand and immaculate. He'd even been forced to sit through a quick makeup session from one of her people. Just foundation and concealer to make his skin appear smoother. The woman had commented that he didn't need much, as he had wonderfully smooth skin already. All courtesy of his Charisma.

With so many guests in the audience, he wondered if he'd pick up a point or two tonight. There had been a few from the last video Saphron and Terra released, but less than ten. It seemed that the days of getting fifty or more points from a single performance were gone, and that was kind of a relief.

He couldn't keep himself occupied with his thoughts forever.

Nor could he delay the inevitable.

"It's time," said Weiss, having snuck up behind him backstage at some point. "You're not getting cold feet, are you?" She sighed. "It won't matter. Once you're up there, you won't be able to see anything for all the stage lights aimed at us. Keep your eyes down or squint. You'll lose concentration otherwise."

Someone outside began to call everyone for the main attraction. Jaune's stomach flipped. He'd thought he was ready for this after playing after the tournament, but that was him on a raised platform in front of a bunch of people barely paying attention. Here, he was going to be the centre of attention.

No. Weiss will be. I'm just her backup guitarist. They won't even notice me.

That thought helped him. Weiss walked out first to applause, and then he walked out five full seconds later to the tail end of hers. Maybe a little for him as well, but only polite. He moved over to his amp, positioned off to the side of Weiss and a good two metres back. Enough distance to make it clear she was the star, and enough for him to feel like she was serving as a human shield against all the people watching.

Not that he could see them; Weiss had been right about the lights. They were glaringly bright, designed less to illuminate and more to make Weiss shine. Literally. Her makeup included glitter on her cheeks and arms, and those shone with reflected light, making her sparkle. It felt like her looks were given equal weight to her singing, and that was probably the case. It said unfortunate things about pop music culture, but it was a business at the end of the day. Sex sold, be it an attractive young woman or a muscled and oiled-up man ripping off his shift mid-performance. Jaune strummed a few quick notes both to loosen his fingers and to warn everyone to quieten down because it was about to begin.

Weiss' foot tapped once on the floor. Jaune counted it, then the second – and he struck the first notes on the third, following her lead as had been planned ahead of time. She led, he followed, and she dictated the pace.

Time to see how this works.

Jaune focused solely on Weiss' back, activated his Bardic Music and concentrated on the idea of making her better. Of, in the skill's own terms, raising her capabilities. His Semblance surged to life as his fingers raced over the strings.

/-/

It had been a long time since Weiss truly enjoyed singing.

That was the way of things. Her father said it was because she was flaky, flitting from one passion to another, but she held that it was because he ruined them. Tainted them. Jacques Schnee was the man who would take any hobby or joy in the world and ask the big question – "How can I make money from this?" He would turn joy into work, pleasure into toil, and passion into cold numbers.

Once upon a time she'd lived only for the looks on people's faces.

Now, they came only for hers, ands he couldn't look upon them without thinking how every guest had been best orchestrated to further the Schnee agenda. What had once been a hobby had been turned into a venture, and she was nothing more than an asset.

Her lyrics reflected that.

Loneliness, emptiness, trapped before a mirror. Trapped alone—

The guitar behind her intensified.

No.

Not alone. Not here, at least. There was one other on the stage, a rare commodity but for backing dancers in past live performances. It was nothing of great note, simply her mother's boytoy picking up where she'd normally have a recording of the guitar, and yet it was another soul on stage. It was someone picking up some small amount of slack.

And for a brief moment, it felt less lonely up there.

For a brief moment, the faces before her, barely visible through the light, changed from politely interested businessmen and arrogant celebrities to those wide-eyed looks of wonder from hospitalised children. Children who had less than her, and who would never have the opportunity to have more. Children who, despite the pain, had cried tears of joy when she sang for them.

A tear ran down Weiss' cheek, smudging carefully placed makeup that had taken an artist much too long to place.

But she didn't care.

Gripping her microphone tight, Weiss sang.

It was loud, raw, passionate, and she sang of the mirror and being the loneliest of all.

For the first time in forever, it felt as though they listened. Conversation halted, eyes widened, glasses were lowered. Even General Ironwood and Specialist Winter Schnee, who had been quietly conversing in a corner, stopped in shock. Jacques Schnee paused in shaking hands with an important supplier and turned to watch and listen.

And Willow Schnee raised two fingers to her lips and suppressed a gasp.

It was like a wave was passing over the guests of the gala, and even to those waiting outside. Everything was forgotten, and even the cameramen taking this all in for a PR video later lowered their cameras and wiped at their eyes. Weiss' eyes burned as well, unshed tears powering her vocal cords.

It wasn't enough that they understood her feelings.

She would make them feel it.

And they did.

/-/

"Jaune!" He barely had time to react before Pyrrha was on him with a huge hug. Athena came walking calmly after, an odd smile on her face. "You were amazing up there! It was so good!"

"Hey Pyrrha." He laughed and hugged her back. "And Mrs Nikos."

"Athena, please. Or moth—"

"The performance!" said Pyrrha, louder than she needed to. Her face was a little pink as well. "You were so good!"

"Ah. Weiss is the one who did most of the work."

"Nonsense! You carried her!"

"I wouldn't go that far. I was just backing music. Um. Weiss is around here somewhere. I think she wanted to meet you—" It was the wrong thing to say, he knew. Charisma wasn't needed to feel Pyrrha tense up. "Not like that," he said. "She's complained to me of the same things as you have. People treating her different because of her fame, people using her. I think she wants to meet someone who has been through the same, if only so she knows you won't fangirl all over her."

"You seem to know the young lady quite well," said Athena. Pyrrha tensed even more. "Are you close?"

Why did that question feel so dangerous?

"I wouldn't say we're best friends or anything. I can count the number of conversations we've had on one hand. It's just we were both working together on this show, so we ended up talking. Turns out she's not that ba—"

"Jaune!" Weiss had found him at last. Or, more specifically, she'd found Pyrrha. Her eyes widened on seeing the redhead draped over him. "There you are. Ahem." Weiss straightened herself out. "Are you going to introduce me to your friend or…?"

"Right. Weiss, this is Pyrrha. Pyrrha, this is Weiss."

Weiss smiled and offered a hand. "Charmed."

"Yeah…" Pyrrha took it without letting go of him.

Had Weiss meant for him to keep it a secret that he was to introduce them? Apparently. He hadn't gotten the message though, and now Weiss looked silly for trying to play it cool. He had a feeling that was going to bounce back on him later.

"And this is Pyrrha's mother, Athena."

"A lovely song today," said the older woman, shaking Weiss' hand. "We were just catching up with Jaune. He tells us you're close."

He hadn't said that.

"We are!" Weiss lied and grabbed his free arm. She was trying to use him as a bridge to get to Pyrrha, but all it did was make Pyrrha's eyes narrow. "Given our shared interests in music, it's only natural we would get along. We've even been to a hot spring together."

Pyrrha froze.

"Is that so?" asked Athena, looking at him.

"Ah. Yeah." Jaune laughed awkwardly, caught between two girls. It might have been a dream come true if he didn't know there was no romantic interest there. Weiss just wanted to get close to Pyrrha. "It was a big resort. Apparently, it's quite famous in Atlas. It was nice."

"We're also planning to visit the Atlas memorial together tomorrow."

"We are?"

Weiss' fingernails dug into his skin.

"We are!" he yelped. "We are! Sorry! I forgot!"

"Silly Jaune." Weiss giggled. "I know being on stage is intimidating, but you need to remember these things. We're going tomorrow for lunch. It was just planned as the two of us, but I suppose we could let Pyrrha join if she—"

Pyrrha's answer was immediate. "I'm free tomorrow."

Athena sighed into her hand.

Pyrrha, no, thought Jaune. I just told you Weiss wanted to spar with you. How are you not realising this is a trick? Come on.

"Excellent!" Weiss smiled brightly. "I'm sure Jaune can text you a time and place for us to meet. I have training in the morning. I'm planning on applying to Beacon, you see and—"

"We should spar."

"Eh?" Weiss seemed surprised at how easy this was going. "R—Really?"

"Yes." Pyrrha's eyes were deadly serious. Deadly. "You and I," she said, with a manic little smile. "We should have a friendly spar tomorrow morning. I'd be glad to show you a few things. Jaune should watch, too."

Why me? What did I do? And Weiss, say no! Look at her face! She's going to kill you!

"That sounds like a great idea!" Weiss was blind to the danger, too excited at getting what she wanted. "And I'm fine with Jaune watching as long as he stays out of trouble. He often watches me spar."

He'd never so much as seen it and knew she'd have chewed him out had he invited himself. Weiss was creating a whole backstory for them, thinking it'd help get her closer to Pyrrha. And it was working, though he didn't think she would want to be as close as Pyrrha was looking like she wanted to make her. Heart to spear.

Weiss needed to put some points into Charisma if she was this bad at reading the room.

He needed a distraction, and he needed it fast.

.

NEW QUEST: Animal Dentist

Word of the gala has reached the ears of malcontents within the kingdom of Atlas, and now the White Fang comes to wreak vengeance on the Schnee family. De-fang the White Fang, besting their leader and saving the day!

Bonus Objective: Defeat the White Fang leader!

.

Success: +EXP. +Schnee family. -Rep White Fang.

Bonus: +++EXP. +Title: Hero of Atlas. -Rep White Fang.

Failure: -Rep Schnee family. +Rep White Fang. +Death.

.

"What!?"

Weiss, Pyrrha and Athena turned to look at him as he screamed the word out.

"What is it?" asked Weiss.

He didn't answer, too busy staring at the masked individuals coming onto the stage. It was enough. They saw his expression and turned, right as a masked faunus raised his weapon and aimed it at the crowd.

Jaune tackled Athena.

Gunshots sounded a fraction of a second later, following by shrill screams and the horrifying sound of bodies hitting the ground. Jaune crawled over Athena and shielded her with his body more by instinct than anything, but he spared a glance for Pyrrha and Weiss and hoped for the best. They both had aura, and both had managed to get it up in time. They were sent staggering back by the force of the shots, but they were alive.

"What's happening!?" cried Athena.

"I don't know!" he lied. "Stay down! No! Crawl." He scurried on all fours, half-dragging and half-steering Pyrrha's mom behind a decorated pillar. There was no telling if it'd block bullets, but it would at least block line of sight. "It's some kind of terrorist attack."

"White Fang," she gasped. "The one time we agree to come. Is Pyrrha—!?"

He dared to peek. Pyrrha was racing for the stage, and without so much as a weapon. "She's alive," he said. "How good is her hand-to-hand?"

"It's good but… oh no. Please don't tell me she's getting involved!"

He didn't tell her. Not that she needed him to. The White Fang. He knew of the name, of course. Hard not to pick it up in Argus and then Atlas. Radical faunus terrorists with a hateboner for Atlas from what he'd heard. The why they were here was easy enough to guess. All these important people in one place, and the Schnee family with them. It must have been too good an opportunity to pass up.

One of the faunus dropped with a scream, blood propelled from his shoulder. Jaune looked back, eyes widening in relief as General James Ironwood vaulted a buffet table with a freaking cannon of a handgun roaring angrily. The huge man raced forward with zero regard for the bullets striking and pinging off him. He was a crazy high level, so he'd surely be able to wrap this up all on his own.

Then Winter Schnee joined in, sending a hail of white birds in front of the stage. Not to attack, but to provide cover and a screen for the innocent people trying to get away. The White Fang may have managed a hit on the best target they ever could, but it wasn't a safe target. Big names were here, along with big security, and they were going to be slaughtered. Jaune sagged against the pillar beside Athena, practically crippled by relief.

"It's going to be okay!" he shouted. "Security is running in and handling it. We just need to wait it out. Pyrrha will be fi—"

The table to the left of their pillar collapsed as a faunus in White Fang uniform crashed into it, falling backwards over the top and landing on the floor on all fours. The mask protected her face from being seen, but her yellow eyes met his.

Worse still, her mask couldn't conceal her identity from him.

.

Blake Belladonna

Title: The Doubtful

Lvl. 28

White Fang terrorist, Blake Belladonna is the current romantic partner of one of the most powerful White Fang lieutenants. While loyal to the cause and deeply supportive of faunus rights, the current trajectory of more violent and extremist attacks has caused her to start doubting the cause. Blake feels like she's been pushed into a corner and is trapped and dangerous as a result.

.

They stayed like that, frozen in place, with the terrorist – Blake – on all fours and him sat beside Athena. Between them, dropped from her hands when she was set flying into the table, a black handgun with an odd blade attachment rested on the floor. His eyes snapped to it and then back up, only to catch hers having done the same.

At the exact same time, they both dove for the weapon.


Next Chapter: 7th April

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