I actually got an email alert the other day for the first time in forever. The site's constant issues with emails might be coming to a close. Stunning. So, if you've PM'd me recently (like in the last few months tbh), sorry I don't respond but it's mostly because the emails don't even tell me one has arrived, and I haven't been checking since this situation with work began.


Cover Art: Solace o'Autumn

Chapter 26


Pyrrha was in her element in the private gym she brought him to.

Jaune watched with no small amount of awe as a girl his age benched, ran, squatted, and just about did anything she put her body to ten times better than he ever could. The amount of training that must have gone into this was insane, and she didn't have the Semblance-assisted option of dumping arbitrary points into a stat, so that made her achievements even more impressive than his.

It was all he could do to keep strumming and keep using his Bardic Music on her so they could get an accurate reading of how much his skill helped her. Pyrrha didn't do much talking throughout it all, wanting to focus on her performance for best accuracy, but he didn't need to see her previous benchmark to know this was better.

Her shocked expression said it all.

"E—Enough," she said, jumping off and panting slightly. He stopped his music and Pyrrha grabbed a water bottle and a towel, burying her face into it for a few long seconds. "That was intense," she said. "And ridiculous! I struggled on that routine just two days ago."

"I told you my Semblance was real."

"I never doubted you." That was a lie, of course, but Jaune couldn't blame her. His Semblance sounded like complete nonsense. "But it's strange, it must do more than solely motivate because motivation alone wouldn't have let me do all this. And I'm not crashing right now, either."

"Why would you be?"

"Think about it. If you were giving me energy to burn as fuel, like calories, then once your music stops I should lose all that energy. Given I've just expended it all, you'd expect me to suddenly crash and faint. Or at least lose the ability to stand. I'm not. I feel about as tired as I normally would after a workout."

"Huh. What does that mean?"

Pyrrha frowned. "I'm not sure. I don't want to say you're creating matter from nothing because maybe I'll lose body weight tomorrow from this or need to eat more later. You could just be fooling the body into thinking it can push itself further."

"I don't think so. Weiss sang better when I did this. Willow felt better."

"Hmmm. Good point. I don't know about the addictive aspects of it myself but maybe that's because I burned off the excess energy. Maybe Willow got addicted to it because she wasn't burning off your Semblance."

Interesting thought. His skill said it would boost the person, but Willow was usually just drinking or sitting around at the time, so maybe it had lingered in her system like unspent calories, except weighing on her mind instead of her waistline. Weiss and Pyrrha had both used up the buffs he put on them, which might explain why they weren't so effected.

"But it's all guesswork for now, isn't it?"

Pyrrha smiled. "Yeah. We don't know anything about this. Other than that it's amazing. You could genuinely become a huntsman with this, you know."

It was temping.

Jaune would be lying if he said it wasn't.

Then he looked at Pyrrha's level, over four times higher than his, remembered that the terrorist had nearly killed him in three punches, and came back down to reality. "No thanks. I get that I could boost other people but I'm one good hit away from turning into a fine red mist, and I'd have, what, half a year to get up to scratch...?"

"You might be able to do it," she said, frowning in contemplation. "If your Semblance lets you grow stronger by acquiring these... uh... levels—" It was clear she hated saying that. "—then you could jump up more in combat ability than any normal person could in half a year's time."

"Yeah, I could. I'd have to complete these quests, though. Let me know if you find someone willing to throw their virginity my way."

"T—That wouldn't be too hard."

"And becoming King of Vale?"

"We could start small first," she said, sliding a little closer to him. "Get the easier ones out the way."

Jaune chuckled. He appreciated Pyrrha doing her best to cheer him up but he wasn't in a bad mood and didn't need it. Sure, he'd wanted to be a huntsman before, but that was before he knew what being in danger was really like.

"It's fine, Pyrrha, but thanks for trying to be supportive. I'm happy being a wandering minstrel, though. It's fun. I get to meet new people, see new places, and I never get bored because there's always somewhere to go."

"I guess..."

She looked a little disappointed. No doubt she'd been hoping he'd join her at Beacon and then she wouldn't have to make new friends. "You'll do fine at Beacon, Pyrrha. Trust me. You don't need me there, though I'll be visiting Vale when it starts so we can hang out."

"I guess." This time, she said it with a small smile. "But we should compare my performance to my benchmark earlier in the week and see just how much your Semblance boosted me. Come on, I can log into the computers here."

Pyrrha dragged him to a fancy computer and sat down to type. He was sure she had physios and the like to do this for her, but he was grateful for the privacy she afforded by not involving them. His Semblance could be very enticing to a lot of people. He trusted Pyrrha though, and she soon had a graph on the screen with a grey line and a red line tracking the same progress but noticeably higher.

"The red is today's results," she said. "I'll have to delete them after as I can't rely on this in a real fight. It'd be as good as using performance enhancing drugs and I'm not about to do that."

"That's more than fair. So, it's a lot better."

"Hmm. It's hard to track exactly how much because it could be a flat number or a percentage buuuut..." Pyrrha tapped away a little longer. "It looks like it's an improvement of between 20% and 40%. The variance is probably just me getting tired or the results not being so clear. You're making people at least 20% better, and probably closer to 30% better."

"I guess that means it'll be more noticeable on strong people."

"Yes, and that does make sense. An athletic body can take more strain than one that doesn't work out much. If you boosted by a flat number then someone might tear their own arms off with the sudden increase. Or if Weiss hadn't been a professional singer, her throat might have exploded from the force."

Jaune shuddered. "Yeah. Good job that didn't happen."

"Almost all Semblances have some kind of safety mechanism like that so it's not too unusual. Mine is polarity, but even if I can attract and repel metal, I don't destroy electronics by being near them. I know a tournament fighter who can coat his fists in ice and he doesn't give himself frostbite. If Semblances worked literally, he'd coagulate his blood and kill himself, and I'd probably die the first time I used my Semblance in a house as every nail and screw in the building plunged into my body."

"You almost make it sound like Semblances are designed."

Pyrrha opened her mouth, paused, closed it, tilted her head, then finally spoke. "I mean, it kind of does sound like that now you say it, but it's more likely an evolutionary thing. Like how we don't bend our joints backwards, or how our bodies evolved to have antibodies to fight diseases. I don't think there's anything more to it than that. Maybe people did exist with self-harming Semblances but, via survival of the fittest, they died out or were less successful, and thus those genes were removed from the human lineage." Pyrrha laughed. "We're getting off track."

"Massively. Thanks for the testing today. I'm not sure how much it helps but it's good to know what I can do and have a number."

"No problem." Pyrrha twiddled her thumbs together. "Um. Did you have any plans today?"

"Not really. I need to visit the travel agency and get some books on Vacuo but I can do that whenever. Why?"

"Well... um..." Pyrrha glanced away. "My mom wants you."

Jaune blinked. "What...?"

"For dinner. Mom was saying I should invite you over to ours for dinner, as thanks for saving her in Atlas."

"Oh, right!" Jaune grinned. "Geez, you made that sound weirder than it was."

"Ahah. Y—Yeah, so. Dinner?"

"If it's not a bother. I don't want your mom thinking she owes me or anything."

"No, no. It's fine. Mom always wants me to bring more friends home but so many of them in Haven just want to know me because of how famous I am. It'll be good to have a real friend over. You can even stay the night. I—In the guest room, I mean."

"Well, yeah. I figured that was what you meant. Are you sure, though?"

"Positive!"

/-/

Pyrrha's home was a lot more normal than he expected for someone so famous. It was a nice family home, two storeys and a decently sized garden with a conservatory off the back, but she probably could have afforded a lot better. Whether she needed it was another matter entirely. Pyrrha let him in and called out to her mom.

"Mom, I've brought Jaune for dinner!"

"Hmmm?" Athena Nikos strolled into the hallway in a tight pair of jeans and a loose hoodie, looking like she'd just had a nap. "What now?"

"I brought Jaune. He can stay the night, right?"

Athena blinked. "Isn't it a little too soon for that?"

"GUEST ROOM!"

"Oh, right. Sure, he can. It's a bit of a surprise but we can order takeout."

Jaune piped up. "It's no worry if you can't, Mrs Nikos. I can stay with my sister—"

"No, it's fine." Athena smiled. "You did save my life back in Atlas."

"I was only doing what anyone would. You shouldn't feel like you have to put me up for the night to thank me for doing that."

"Hm? I didn't say anything about—"

"Mom!" Pyrrha rushed over and yanked on her mom's arm. "I was just telling Jaune how you said I should invite him over as thanks." She talked awfully loud for being right next to Athena and stared sharply into her mom's eyes. "Remember!?"

"Huh? Oh. Ooooh." Athena chuckled. "Right. Now I remember. I must have forgotten. Silly me." She was smiling in no small amount of amusement. "I suppose I should also remember that I have something to do in my room and leave you two to have some fun, shouldn't I? Make sure to show Jaune the guest room, dear, and also have him call his sister to let her know he'll be staying here."

"Thanks again, Mrs Nikos."

"Call me Athena, dear. It's going to get confusing calling me by my last name when you're here."

"If you're sure, mrs—I mean, Athena."

"I'm sure. Pyrrha, be good."

"W—When am I ever not good!? What's that supposed to mean, mom?"

Athena smiled, touched two fingers below her eyes and then pointed at Pyrrha. The younger girl blushed and started to push Athena out the room.

"I just need to talk to my mom, Jaune!" she said, forcing Athena out. "I'll be back in a moment!"

The door slammed shut behind them.

Jaune idled in the hallway and kitchen area, not wanting to wander off and see or hear anything he shouldn't. There were pictures on the walls of Pyrrha and her family, including a big, redheaded man who he hadn't met yet. There was a pair of heavy boots by the door, however, so he figured the father wasn't dead or gone, just out at work or maybe busy elsewhere. He could be a huntsman given how big he was, and the fact that Pyrrha must have learned from someone before becoming an athlete.

"Oh? You're a new one. Seeking to mark new territory?"

Jaune glanced down to see a tabby cat eyeing him from the bottom step of the staircase. "Are you... Mr Mittens, was it?"

The cat's ears flicked forwards. "It talks? How intriguing." It stood and loped off the staircase toward him, and Jaune knelt in what felt like a polite gesture. It couldn't feel too good to have to look up someone his height. "They talk at me but not to me like this. I've never met one of your kind who can speak our tongue."

"I think I'm unique in that sense. May I pick you up?"

"Polite. You may, but gently."

Jaune offered his hands and let the cat decide the position, which turned out to be it resting its paws on his chest while he held its back, more like he was cradling a baby to his chest than carrying an animal.

"I'm Pyrrha's friend. I'm just here to have dinner and spend the night. I'm not looking to intrude on your territory or anything."

"Hmm. Then you are welcome. I am not above sharing so long as my preferred nests are left to me. And speaking of sharing, how about you share the benefit of your long limbs and open that cupboard for me? Yes, that one there."

Jaune touched a nearby cupboard with one hand and opened it, revealing a bright yellow packet of cheese-flavoured cat treats. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was wanted, and he let the cat down onto the kitchen counter.

"Only a few," he said. "I wouldn't want to get in trouble."

"Much appreciated. You may have one yourself if you wish it."

"Thanks, but I'll be okay." Jaune set the packet back down and stroked the cat's back. "You know, I heard you were deaf. Unable to hear," he explained, in case the term for the disability didn't transfer over. "Pyrrha said you were getting old and couldn't hear."

"Old? Me? I'm still quite young. As for hearing, I have no problems with hearing what goes on around here—"

"I'm back!" Pyrrha said, pushing back into the room and closing the door. "You can ignore anything mom says and—" Pyrrha saw them and her hands flew to her mouth. "Mr Mittens!" she gasped, eyes wide. "NO!"

Jaune panicked. "I'm sorry, he said I could give him the sweets and—"

"No, no, no!" Pyrrha rushed over and picked the cat up. "Um. He has to sleep," she explained. "He's old and deaf and infirm and... wait right here!" Pyrrha dashed up the stairs with the confused cat in her hold. He heard a slam upstairs, then her feet pounding back down the staircase, before she appeared once more, red faced and smiling awkwardly. "Ahah. It was his bedtime! W—What did he say?"

"Only that he was willing to let me stay here and wanted my help reaching the cupboard."

"Nothing... um... else?"

"I think he was about to tell me something he heard but he never—"

"Let me show you around the house!"

"Weren't we talking about the cat...?"

"That conversation is over!"

"O... kay..." Jaune tried to figure out what was going on. "I'm a little lost, Pyrrha."

"Exactly! That's why I should give you the tour!"

"That's not... Actually, fine."

Maybe he should take a leaf from his dad's book on this one and just agree with what Pyrrha was saying. It seemed to work well with his mom, and Nicholas Arc had never gone wrong with women. Never.

/-/

Far, far away, Nicholas Arc sneezed on his wife.

Juniper Arc froze, her face speckled with said sneeze. "NICHOLAAAASSSS!"

"Ah crud..."

/-/

Despite the initial awkwardness, Jaune soon found himself feeling at home with Pyrrha and her mom. It turned out her father was indeed a huntsman, and that he was currently on loan to a small town in Mistral to train up some local militia there to be able to stand on their own. It was a common initiative, because while the militia would certainly not get to the level of a huntsman, they could still learn a lot about how to detect, track, and deal with Grimm before help could arrive.

It felt very much like his own family in many regards, and Pyrrha was even world famous like he was – even if no one knew about that aspect of his life. The two of them had a lot in common, but that didn't mean he was about to tell a pretty girl that he moonlighted as one as well. Jaune really didn't want Pyrrha thinking less of him for that.

"Don't stay up too late tonight," said Athena. "It's a school day tomorrow."

"But mom—"

"None of that, Pyrrha. I know you want to spend time with Jaune, and I know you're far ahead of your peers, but that's no reason to think you can skip classes. Jaune will be here for a few days yet, won't you?"

"A week at least. I'll probably leave for Vacuo after next weekend."

"See? You can spend all next weekend together – and it's not like you can't spend time with him in the afternoons as well." It didn't appear to be enough for Pyrrha, who scowled unhappily at her mom.

Putting together comments like "ages since I had a friend over" and Pyrrha's constant texting of him (which very much matched Penny's in frequency) it wasn't hard to figure out she didn't have many friends. He could understand that of Penny, but Pyrrha was friendly, beautiful, and undoubtedly popular, so he had to assume it was a very different kind of isolation to what Penny felt. Something to do with her fame, no doubt.

It can't be easy knowing your only real friend is going to leave for another two or three months…

But he couldn't take her with him, not when it'd mean sabotaging her education and career.

"We can do something special next week," he promised.

Pyrrha's head snapped in his direction. "Special!?" There was a hungry look in her eyes. "Like what!?"

Suddenly put on the spot, Jaune's mind went blank. Open foot, insert mouth. Of course Pyrrha would want to make special memories with him before he left again, he was her only real friend. The only problem was not having thought up anything. His eyes flicked to Athena, wondering if she'd be good for advice.

"It's a secret," he said. "A surprise," he amended. "I want to surprise you."

Her eyes widened and her mouth stretched into an excited smile.

"Calm," teased Athena, bumping a fist into Pyrrha's red hair. "Why don't you go make the bed in the guest room for Jaune and he can help me clean up the plates here. Then you can both play videogames or paint nails or whatever it is kids your age do when you're not making out—"

"MOM!"

Athena laughed. "Go ready up the room and I'll stop."

Pyrrha groaned and left to do just that, leaving Jaune to help her mother clean up.

"I take it there's some message you want to give me?" he asked.

"Perceptive, aren't you? It's nothing bad – my husband has been itching to do the overprotective speech, but he keeps missing you."

"Should I be worried?"

"No. Alexander actually likes the sound of you and knows Pyrrha can look after herself. He just wants to do it because he thinks it'll be funny and he's even worse at teasing Pyrrha than I am. You'll be just fine with him."

"Then is this about next weekend? I could use some advice, honestly."

"I figured you threw out the surprise line to buy time. You and Pyrrha are cute together."

Jaune ignored that line with the practice of a man who had grown up with seven sisters. Every female friend he'd ever had got the "she's your girlfriend" teasing. It was like it was some kind of ritual. His mom would call Pyrrha, Penny and Nora all his girlfriend if she knew about this, and probably Weiss as well.

"I just want to do something special for her. I know… I mean, I think she doesn't have many other friends."

"No, you know. You're just being polite by pretending otherwise. My daughter could have as many friends as she wants but they're all so childish and only see what she is." Athena sighed. "I suppose that's better than her being unable to make friends. The problem isn't with her this way, just with how immature those around her are. It's part of the reason she wants to go to Beacon. She'll still be famous there, but not quite the homegrown hero."

"More a curiosity?"

"Yes. Being famous hasn't been easy on her. Honestly, I wish I could have done more but I also didn't expect any of this. It's not like I've been famous either."

Jaune hummed. He was famous, but it really wasn't the same as he didn't have to deal with any consequences for it. Saphron and Terra just sent him the money they made off him and kept his bank balance healthy, and every week or so he had to deal with a disembodied voice telling him he'd gained some charisma for performing in front of an audience.

It wasn't nearly the same.

"I was worried at first about all this – not about you, I could tell you were a nice boy the moment I met you. More the consequence of Pyrrha's first friend being someone who would be leaving so soon and for so long."

"That makes sense. I'd be worried for her, too."

"Hm. Luckily, you and she have been great at staying in touch and I'm glad to see she wasn't too sulky. Maybe for the first week or two, but I think she's come to accept you won't just walk out her life and never come back." Athena chuckled. "You know, she was over the moon with excitement when you said you were coming back. Went to bed early the other night just to make it happen sooner. She hasn't done that since she was ten and wanted to make Christmas come faster."

Jaune laughed.

Because he'd done that too. Amber, his youngest sister, still did.

"But, you know, one thing Pyrrha has always missed out on due to being so famous is having a nice young man take her out to the movies, for a meal, and then for a long, late-night walk through the park."

"Isn't that a little… um… like a date…?"

"Only if there's romance involved, otherwise it's just two best friends hanging out."

That made sense.

He'd done things like that with friends back home without it being weird.

"That's it, then? Movies, a meal, and a walk? It doesn't feel all that special to me."

Athena smiled kindly. "You'll fine, Jaune, that sometimes the most special thing to a person is that which isn't normally attainable. To a person with a disability, the thought of being able to walk or run is magical. To someone who has lost all her friends, a simple day out having fun will feel like the most wonderful day of her life."

Jaune swallowed, sensing the seriousness. He nodded. "Okay. I'll do it. And I'll make sure she has the best time ever!"

"That's my future son-in-law!"

"Your what…?"

"Nothing. Nothing. Pyrrha is probably done making up the guest room. Why don't you go hang out with her, hm. I'm sure you two have a lot of catching up to get on with."

"Mrs Nikos…"

"Hm?"

"Why do I get the feeling you're manipulating me?"

"Me!? Of all people?" Athena looked shocked. Unconvincingly. "First of all, I'd never do that to Pyrrha's best friend. Secondly, if I did do that to Pyrrha's best friend, it would be with his and her best interests at heart."

"Not that you ever would. Right?"

"Of course!"

Jaune didn't need his Charisma to tell him she was lying.

But he doubted she'd do anything that would cause pain to Pyrrha, so, with a sigh, he left the kitchen and headed upstairs, pretending he couldn't hear Pyrrha loudly begging her cat not to tell him any embarrassing secrets.

"I know you are talking at me," said Mr Mittens. "But I should point out you don't speak my language and I don't speak yours. Neither of us knows what the other is saying."

"Don't. Tell. Jaune. Anything!"

"I understand not a single word that has crossed your mouth."

"Do you understand me, Mr Mittens?"

"I do not understand you."

"Meow once for yes and twice for no."

"Sigh…"

"Good." Pyrrha put him down, accepting the singular sound as agreement "I'm glad we could sort this out between us."

Coming out with the truth to someone was a weight off his shoulders, but it had also opened a whole new can of worms. Pyrrha was never going to trust animals again. Jaune counted to thirty, to make it seem like he hadn't heard anything, before knocking on the door.


Next Chapter: 9th June

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