On and on we go, approaching the end of the story. It's been a long ride and I've enjoyed it "most of the time". If I'm honest, this fic was one of the harder ones to write, likely because of its gargantuan word count early on.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Sa-Dui (Commissioned by Booya93)

Chapter 43 - Careless Words


Weiss and Yang ended up against Flynt Coal and Neon Katt. It was a fight he'd seen a hundred times before, and he could recite how it would go verbatim. That was his excuse for not being there to watch it, not that Weiss or Yang would have accepted it. Luckily, he'd fed Blake a story about how his family had asked him to sit with them, which gave him a chance to slip away. As his partner and teammate fought for victory on the main stage, he walked confidently through the restricted section, in yet another uniform purloined from the lockers nearby.

I'd best make it up to them for missing their match, he thought. Even if he knew they'd win, it was the spirit of the thought that counted. His eyes glimpsed a screen as he walked past a group of workers, many of them having paused to watch it.

"Heh, look at them go," one said.

"Not sure why you're so excited. We'll only be cleaning up their mess afterwards."

"Live a little, man. If you can't appreciate them for what they do, you can at least do it for their bodies, right?"

"Dude, they're seventeen…"

"And I'm nineteen. Cut me some slack."

I'll cut something if you keep going with that. Jaune scowled and looked up to the screen, his anger dwindling away when he saw Weiss nod to Yang, and the two cover one another as they approached their foes. Their teamwork was better than it ever had been before, and he'd made sure to give them what information he had about the two. They wouldn't be caught off guard by Flynt's Semblance, and that was his only real ace.

Tearing himself away from the monitor, Jaune made his way deeper into the complex. No one questioned his presence, and few could see his face past the cap he'd dragged down over his eyes. When he approached the server rooms once more, the man there spared him a brief glance but relaxed when he entered the key code without incident. Jaune nodded to him and stepped inside, letting the door swish shut behind.

"Good to see they didn't change the code," he said, putting his toolbox down on a nearby table. The room hadn't changed much since his last visit, though it looked like someone had cleaned the place for there wasn't as much dust. He pulled back the chair before one of the screens and sat down, entering the account he'd formed before.

Nothing popped up to stop him. It looked like his previous entry had gone unnoticed. To be fair, anyone in charge of security was probably looking for more malicious forms of tampering. Frankly, if Vale hadn't been able to notice and deal with the virus on the CCT, then he could have done just about anything. The tower was attacked for crying out loud, and Cinder left huge chess pieces on all the screens. Who was in charge of Beacon's IT anyway, Port!?

With Atlas losing the right to handle the security, this only gets easier. Then again, this is the Amity systems, so maybe it would have been the same either way. It didn't really matter. He entered the system and brought up the code, fingers typing in new lines and editing existing ones. It would have taken hours, maybe even days, to find what he was looking for. Luckily, he knew where to look – exactly where to look.

"There you are…"

Well, it looked like Cinder had pre-empted him. She usually did. It wasn't like she expected anything to go wrong at this point. No one knew who she was, after all. She had no reason to doubt that, especially since those attacks on Weiss and he had been perpetrated by the White Fang, who had reason enough to hate the Schnee family.

No reason for that to come back to haunt her. It wasn't like she was dealing with a time travelling obsessive who remembered every little thing and knew exactly how out of place the attack was. Not at all…

"Bad luck, Cindy," Jaune said, entering the final line. He leaned back and smiled, saving the changes and uploading them once more. The servers blinked and hummed, but it went up without any problems.

Really, she should have known better than to attack someone like that. If you did, you had to make sure you dealt with them thoroughly, otherwise people had a habit of coming back to haunt you. He'd learned that the hard way. Maybe she would here.

Loud cheers came from above, filtering through the walls. It sounded like the fight was coming to its climax, and he'd best be there to congratulate the winners. Jaune stood and pushed the chair back, opening the door and slipping out with a small nod to the guard there. They didn't question him. Anyone who had the code had the right to be there, or so they thought.

It was only once he was in the staff changing rooms that he allowed himself to relax.

Another success, though only time would tell if it made a difference. He tossed the clothing into a locker, sealing it and entering some random numbers. It would take a few days for someone to break in, if they even felt it worth the effort. They'd just assume it someone who'd forgotten the code, and he doubted anyone would think to analyse the clothing, let alone test it. He ducked out of the room soon after, and then out of the restricted area entirely.

He had a team who needed him.

"You came back," Blake said, looking his way with a curious expression. She was sat beside Ruby, but stood and moved over to him. "Weiss and Yang won."

"I saw. That's why I came over."

"Figured you'd do your fatherly duties for a change?"

"Be nice," he teased, reaching up to rub her ears. Blake stepped away before he could, and almost tripped over a chair in her haste. He laughed, earning a glare from her. "Oh, calm down, sweet daughter. I won't pet you if it embarrasses you do. I came over because I knew Yang and Weiss would want me to celebrate with them."

"I didn't expect you to show at all."

"I told you, my family wanted to spend a little time with me. They came all this way for me. I don't want to neglect them." That was something he needed to address as well. With what was coming, it was easy to focus on Cinder and forget them. He didn't want to do that, however. They were his family. For now, there wasn't much he could do. "I'll probably be spending some time with them tomorrow as well. Yang and Weiss are through to the singles anyway."

That was a few days away yet, since they would only get through half of the doubles fights today. The other half would take place tomorrow. The singles had been split up too, though not by design. Yang's incident made Beacon postpone the fights.

And then, Beacon fell…

"Well, at least you're here now," Blake said. A disturbance interrupted her, and they looked over to see Weiss and Yang barrelling towards them. Yang barrelled, that was. Weiss walked behind her at a more sedate pace. "Here it comes," Blake sighed.

"We won!" Yang yelled, clearing the last few feet with a mighty jump. To her credit, Blake tried to escape, but to Yang's credit, she didn't have a chance. She gasped as Yang's arms wrapped around her, crushing the faunus. "Did you see that!? We were awesome!"

"We saw," Jaune said, relieved to see Blake had taken the brunt of it. He caught her eye and saw the pleading in it, her begging him to help pry Yang off her. "Blake was so pleased. She said she wanted to give you a big hug for it."

"She did?" Yang asked, looking down at the betrayed girl. "Aw, Blake~ That's so sweet!" He didn't think Yang believed him for a second, but she knew how to join in on a joke, and quickly smothered Blake's face into her bosom. "My partner has finally shown her love. I'll never let her go!"

Blake's arms flailed angrily.

"This is your fault, isn't it?" Weiss asked as she arrived. Her face held a frown, but it was weak. There was a crack behind it, not to mention how her eyes sparkled with a mix of adrenaline and hard-won elation. "I shouldn't be surprised. You always cause problems like this."

He grinned and crossed his arms. "I saw your fight," he said. "You were in control from start to finish. Good work."

"We were, weren't we?" Weiss' smile broke through. She gave up the attempt at hiding it entirely, shaking on the spot. "It was a hard fight. Even with what you were able to find out, that man's Semblance was tricky." She looked at him from the corner of one eye. "We tried out best, however."

Jaune had to hide his own amusement. The way she stood not to mention her not-so-subtle gaze. Weiss always acted the mature and serene one, but sometimes she showed a little bit of Ruby deep inside. Right now, the look on her face said she was fishing for praise, but didn't want to admit that. Well, it was his duty as her team leader, was it not?

"You were fantastic," he said, delighting in the beautiful smile that blossomed. "Your strategy was sound. I knew putting you in control would work."

"Well, it's as you say, I suppose…" Weiss' cheeks darkened, but it was more from being the honest praise than anything else. She probably got a lot of fake kudos from people trying to get into her good books. "It wouldn't have been possible without Yang, however. I only came up with the plan. It was she who made it work."

The old Weiss would have taken her victory as a personal one. To him, the fact she continued to say `we` instead of `I`, was the real victory. It also showed how much she'd grown. "You were both incredible," he praised. "Well done, Weiss."

He opened his arms with a smile.

Weiss dithered for a second, and looked around to see if anyone was watching, but quickly leaned in to hug him when the coast was clear. He didn't miss how her hands settled around his waist, or how she breathed deeply of him. He wouldn't comment on it. There was no need to complicate things here. After their date, things had become easier, happier. Nothing was official, nor would it ever be, but it seemed to have taken a weight off her shoulders. For that alone he was happy to have helped.

"Are we about to have a re-enactment of your date?" Yang asked.

Weiss practically threw herself out of his arms. Her cheeks were red, but she still managed to snarl and manage a passable impression of anger. "Must you always be so frustrating, Yang? Is it hardwired into your genetics?"

Yang nodded, "You know, I think it might be… huh, well, I guess that means you can't blame me for it then. It's not my fault, Yang. Blame my parents! My real ones that is," she added, looking to both of them suggestively. "I've not yet received the mail about you two trying to adopt me."

"Oh my, it must have gotten lost," he said. "Where did you put it again, Weiss?"

"The shredder," Weiss snapped. "Where it belongs…"

"Ouch," Yang winced. "You know, I could have been pretty offended there, since I was abandoned by my first mother and all."

"Are you offended?"

"Well, no…"

"Then don't bring it up," Weiss snapped, slapping Yang around the back of the head. "Are you trying to panic me?"

"Ow, ow, child abuse!"

"This isn't child abuse. This is discipline!"

Jaune rolled his eyes at the familiar fight, trusting Blake would break it up once she'd recovered her breath. He looked to the arena instead, where the roulette wheel was spinning for the next combatants. It was a familiar presence, and one his team didn't need to pay attention to since they were already through to the next round.

The first wheel stopped, and Emerald and Mercury's faces flashed up on the large display screens on each wall of the arena. They stood from their seats, making their way out of the arena and down to the changing rooms. Cinder remained behind, feet propped up on the chair in front of her. She fiddled with her scroll, a faintly amused smile on her face.

Good for her.

The second wheel slowed. It spun for a while, the rapid pace becoming an inching crawl, and then a slow tick. It came to land on Coco and Yatsu's team, and Cinder's smile grew. The wheel came to a slow stop.

And then ticked one last time…

The crowd cheered, others whooped – and Penny and Ciel's faces appeared on the big screen, signalling their inclusion in the match. Jaune clapped along with the crowd, his face set in a perfectly neutral smile.

Cinder's was not. She was on her feet, hands on the back of the seat in front of her, eyes locked onto the screen. She recovered quickly, sitting down, but her eyes roved left and right.

He looked away before she could bring them to him. Penny Polendina, the perfect counter to little miss illusion. Or hypnosis, he'd never found out which it was. Either way, he doubted it would have much of an effect on a robot. Penny didn't have a brain, nor eyes, at least in the human sense of the term. Whatever Emerald's Semblance worked on, he doubted very much that it would be receptors and diodes.

Let's see how your little minions work their way out of this one, he thought, and laughed under his breath. If they lost, they were out of the tournament – and thus wouldn't be able to ruin Yang's day. If they won, then it would only be after a brutal fight, one he doubted Penny would lose without some kind of reveal as to her nature. That would save Pyrrha killing her on stage, and Cinder being able to use that to stir up hatred against Atlas.

Two potential outcomes, both of which would be a win for him. That was how he liked to take his bets. Right now, it was time to slip away before Cinder thought to pin the blame on him. He doubted he could hide his smug smile.

"Ladies, ladies…" Jaune slipped between Yang and Weiss, sliding an arm around the latter's waist. "You've just won your fight. You've just proven that Team Jazzberry isn't a team to be taken lightly. This isn't a time for arguing. It's a time for celebration."

Yang hummed, not at all concerned with Blake's hands under her shoulders, holding her back. "Celebration, huh? I could get behind that. What do you have in mind?"

"Nothing fancy. How about we all grab a bite to eat at one of the stalls? If we go now, they won't be busy. We'll have it all to ourselves."

Weiss and Yang paused to think about it, but agreed after a few moments. He led them away, hand still wrapped around Weiss' waist, heedless of the head she laid on the side of his chest. All he could think about was the look on Cinder's face, and how much he hoped Emerald and Mercury got their heads torn off.

They deserved nothing less.

/-/

It was toward the evening when Jaune slipped away from his team. They'd stopped for lunch after their fight, then met up with RRNN once the matches were all over. He'd even had a chance to spend a little time with his family, which equal parts fun and embarrassing, mostly because Sable had definitely welched on his date with Weiss. His mother's face had been nothing short of smug.

Now, with the sun set and them back in Beacon, things had calmed down. The crowds of spectators went back to Vale, Amity a floating ghost town but for those who worked there. In Beacon, things were sleepier even still, the students exhausted both physically and mentally.

He was too, even if he hadn't fought. It was from the plans and schemes that rolled around in his mind. Things had changed, as they had a tendency to, and he needed to adapt.

Mercury and Emerald lost their fight.

His eyes lit up, a wide smirk coming out as he basked in the pleasure of that fact. They were out of the tournament, done. It wouldn't make a huge difference since victory in it had never been a prerequisite for Cinder's plan, but it changed some things. Had to, really. Mercury wouldn't be able to cause Yang grief via the use of his legs and the illusions from Emerald. It was a small win, and one that might not mean anything in the long run, but if it meant that Yang wouldn't beat herself up and cry, then it was a victory he'd have taken each and every time.

It also meant he didn't need to expose Mercury's legs, which had been his fall-back plan had they won. That was lucky since he wasn't sure how to achieve it other than going for the old tripping excuse and dragging the bastard's pants down. Well, that or accidentally causing something heavy to fall on and crush his prosthetics. Both were so obvious Cinder would have likely roasted him on the spot. Skipping the need for it was a lucky break.

On the other hand, Penny is still in the competition, and that puts her at risk of going up against Pyrrha still. Should I do something to prevent that?

His heart said yes, but his mind said no. Penny was a great girl, and she was a girl, no matter her internal systems. The thing was… Cinder needed some grief and rage to motivate the people, and there were any number of places she could get it. If he took Penny out of the equation, then what was to say she wouldn't have Emerald use an illusion that would force Pyrrha to kill someone else?

What if it was Weiss that Pyrrha carved into ten or more pieces?

Well, without Penny's wires, that wouldn't happen – but Emerald would change her illusions to suit. It might be that she could convince Pyrrha to hit a little too hard, a little too high, and maybe take out an eye, or kill Weiss altogether.

Penny didn't deserve what happened to her… but she was the best suited to taking it. He felt horrible for thinking it, but she was a robot. She could be rebuilt, remade. Other people couldn't.

Either way, I've put a spanner in Cinder's plan, but that's all. She'll find a way to fix this. She always does.

If he could throw enough spanners though…? Could he clog the machine her plan was if he gave it too many problems for her to fix? If she was constantly busy making adjustments, would that be enough to force her to delay – or even postpone – her plan?

He didn't think so… but it was the only idea he had. Killing her would change nothing. He'd done that before. Adam would step in, or someone else. Everything was already in position. For better or worse, and mostly worse, this was going to happen. He just needed to try and limit the damage. If that was possible.

It was that which he was doing now, as he picked his way out of the campus and into the gardens. His quarry sat ahead, on a low-laying wall looking out at the sunset. She often did, although for the longest time that had been a backdrop to their spars atop the school. It took him a long time to realise Pyrrha loved watching the sun come down.

Heh… it took him a long time to realise Pyrrha loved his doofus ass too. In a past life anyway. Here, things were different.

"Jaune?" Pyrrha asked, confusion in her voice as he walked over and took a seat on the same wall as her. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to watch the sun set. It's been a long day. You?"

"The same." She chuckled and looked back to it. "I didn't realise you enjoyed it. I used to watch this back in Mistral. It's different here, the view," she added. "It's nice."

He hummed an agreement, watching his old friend from the corner of one eye. Pyrrha wore a small smile, hands in her lap as she sat with knees together and tilted to one side. He knew that posture. It was her relaxed, if a little nervous, one. His eyes narrowed. Shouldn't she be more upset?

"Why did you come out to watch it?" he asked. "Is something bothering you?"

"Hm? No. Why?"

No? Ah, she didn't trust him. That made sense, he supposed, even if it hurt a little. He had to remind himself that in this life, their relationship wasn't close at all. "I just figured you might have been here to get away from your team," he explained. "I thought something might be bothering you. Wondered if I could help."

Pyrrha stared at him for a moment, and then turned away to giggle into one hand. "Is this the fabled Jaune Arc concern I keep hearing so much about? I'm flattered!"

"Fabled what?"

Pyrrha laughed. "Ruby always used to tell me how deep underneath that rude and uncaring exterior, there's someone who can't stop caring about other people hiding. She said she could see it whenever you looked at her, and that it reminded her of her sister." She looked away, back to the sunset. "I didn't believe it at first, but it's hard to argue with how you and your team act. I was proven wrong. I was happy to be." She glanced back to him. "I didn't ever expect it to be aimed at me, however. That's why I was so amused."

"Ruby talks about me?"

"Quite often, yes. I'd have been afraid she had a crush on you if it wasn't for how much she hopes you and Weiss get together."

"That sounds like her, sheesh." Jaune rolled his eyes. It also sounded like his team to go around telling everyone about how he was with them in private. Nothing was sacred in Beacon. Nothing at all. "Why would you be so surprised I'd show concern to you though?"

Pyrrha shifted awkwardly. "It's not like we're particularly close, is it?"

Jaune's smile fell. "I guess not."

"I didn't mean it like that. I don't… well, I used to have a low opinion of you. That was only because of how you always acted. It felt like you didn't care about your team, and you put so little effort into befriending Ruby. She had to do everything."

"I didn't want her friendship at first."

"I could tell," Pyrrha said. "It… it made me angry." She sighed, looking away and gripping at the fabric of her skirt. "I came to Beacon hoping against all hope that I'd be able to make real friends, and then I saw someone who seemed determined to do the exact opposite. That would have been fine, but for the fact people were trying to befriend you. I guess I felt jealous. Why did this person get so many people wanting to be his friend when he wasn't even trying? Why was it that I had to work as hard as I could for the same?"

"Ruby wouldn't ever leave you," he said.

"I know. Or rather, I know that now. I was still afraid at the time. I guess I thought you were a threat, or that you'd take her away. I learned what friendship was, and that my team were my friends." She sighed. "I also learned how many mistakes I made based on first impressions. You weren't as bad as I thought, nor was Weiss. It… I'm ashamed of how quickly I judged people."

It was just like her to be so contrite, and to feel so bad about it. No one was harder on Pyrrha than herself, probably the reason she'd achieved so much. Another thing he'd gotten used to helping her fix. With a little laugh, he nudged his arm against hers. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that, Pyrrha. First impressions exist for a reason and everyone judges others based on them. For someone like you, who didn't have many real friends before, you'd have even more reason to."

Pyrrha stared at him. "How did you know I've never had friends? I only told you I came here hoping to make some…"

Whoops. Jaune shrugged. "I guess I figured it out from what you said."

"You do that a lot," she said.

"What, analyse things?"

"No. You know things before others do." She eyed him curiously. "I'm not sure what it is, but it often feels like you know everyone's darkest secrets. You have this… aura around you, not like normal aura. It's more like you feel akin to an old friend… one I've not seen for a long time."

His eyes widened. Did she… was she remembering his past lives? No, that was foolish.

"It's not a bad thing," she said. "I think it's what makes Ren and Nora so relaxed around you, and Ruby too. You don't feel like a stranger. You treat us as though we've always been there. There's never any doubt you accept us, even if there is doubt as to whether you consider us friends."

"I consider you a friend, Pyrrha."

Her lips twisted up a little. "Thank you," she whispered. "I think I feel the same."

Jaune felt a little comfort of his own at that. It wasn't what they normally had, but knowing she didn't dislike him anymore filled his heart with joy nonetheless. He couldn't blame her for it. Her reasons made sense. For someone who'd tried so hard to win real friends, seeing him lackadaisically throw his way must have hurt.

Now that he had her trust, however, he could move onto the real reason for all of this. I'm sorry Pyrrha. I didn't come here just to watch the sunset.

"When I came by earlier, it did look like something was bothering you," he said. He kept his voice even, calming. This was a delicate topic and he didn't want to frighten her away. "Has something happened recently?"

"No. Not at all. I'm fine."

The usual denials. No one with a problem wanted to burden others, least of all Pyrrha. "Whenever something is bothering me, I usually don't want to tell people," he said. "It's my problem, not theirs. My team and my family showed me how silly that is though. Sometimes other people can help, even if it's hard to talk to them."

"I suppose so…" Pyrrha looked to him. "Is there something wrong with you?" she asked. "I'll listen as well if something is wrong, Jaune. I promise I won't tell Weiss or Ruby if that's what you're worried about."

Not quite what he meant. Jaune smothered his irritation. Couldn't she grasp his meaning already? He was surprised she was faking her emotions so well. Normally, the maiden business left her shaken to her very core. Was this the invincible girl façade? She normally didn't bother with it around him.

Maybe he needed a less subtle approach.

"I was talking with Weiss the other day about memories," he said. "That's why she asked me out on that date, because she was afraid of looking back on this and not having any memories of it. I felt the same, I guess." He tried not to look at her. "What do you think life would be like if you might end up losing all of those?"

"Losing your memories?" Pyrrha sounded surprised and a little confused.

That was all.

No pain. No anger. No grief.

"I think it would be terrible," she said. "I'd hate to lose the memories I've made with my team. I've come to treasure them."

"I guess so." Jaune's brow furrowed. Why wasn't she showing any reaction to that? It was her biggest fear, the thing which held her back. His heart beat a little faster in his chest. This was important. He needed to head off her fear of the maiden, her hesitation. It was something he did every lifetime, just to help his first friend, the one woman who'd given him the chance to be the man he was today, as opposed to a smear on the Emerald Forest's floor.

A leaf fell down from a tree between them, quickly blown away.

"Autumn is coming," he said, watching her. "Or fall. Whichever season you prefer to call it. Do you like fall?"

"Huh? I suppose." Pyrrha tilted her head. "I've never really thought about it. I like it because it's cooler than summer, but also warmer than winter." She laughed. "That makes me sound really high maintenance."

"Don't worry. I'm partnered with Weiss."

Pyrrha looked shocked for a second, then descended into a fit of giggles. "I won't tell her you said that!"

"Meh, she knows it." He waited for her to calm down, swallowing as he prepared to go for the kill. This was getting out of hand. There was a fear starting to gnaw away inside of him. "You like the autumn then," he said. "I guess that makes you a bit of a fall maiden."

Pyrrha blinked and turned to look him in the eye.

"A fall maiden?" she asked. "I've never heard someone call it that before."

/-/

"Typical of Jaune to abandon us again, eh?" Yang asked, tossing a pillow her way.

Weiss caught it with a huff, rolling her eyes at the childishness, before putting it down on the edge of her bed. Yang could come collect it if she wanted it. "I doubt that going for a walk counts as abandonment, Yang. He probably just wanted to escape your insufferable attitude."

"My attitude?" Yang asked, sitting up. "That's rich coming from the girl who practically glowed every time a compliment came her way. What's wrong, Weiss? Did Jaune's words send a little flutter through your heart?"

Weiss couldn't be blamed for the pillow that slammed into Yang's face. Anyone would have done it.

Blake sighed. "Please don't start another fight. I don't have Jaune here to calm you both down, so I'd rather you not bother."

"Meh, spoilsport," Yang said, but did refrain from retaliating. "Why does he need a late night walk anyway? Don't tell me this is another booty call."

"Yang!" Blake hissed.

Weiss didn't miss how the faunus' eyes flicked in her direction. She sighed. "It's fine. I'm not upset. He isn't beholden to me and we're not together, even if we did go on one date. If he wanted to do something like that, it would be arrogant of me to try and stop him."

"I doubt he's doing that anyway," Blake said, still glaring at her partner. "Jaune hasn't slept with anyone for weeks. Trust me."

"You'd know?" Yang teased. "Nah, but seriously Weiss-cream, Blake is right. I wouldn't have joked about it if I thought it was possible. I've kept my ears open for rumours, but all I've got is that some people have been disappointed for a while that the Jaune of Arc is off the menu." She grinned. "Or a certain part of him at least."

"I didn't need the added information, Yang." Weiss sighed. "Thank you nonetheless. I suppose it's just me taking things personally."

"Can't say I blame you, girl." Yang stood and moved over to her bed, sitting down next to Weiss. She didn't put an arm around her shoulder, but she let their arms touch. A subtle, appreciated gesture of support. "If I liked someone as much as you liked him, I'd be upset too. Still, he hasn't been with anyone for ages. I'm not even sure when he stopped, but he hasn't so much as looked at a piece of tail in weeks."

"It was since the dance," Blake said. "He stopped after that."

Weiss' breathing stilled. After he rejected her? She looked toward the door, but he obviously wasn't there. She wasn't sure if she believed her own mind. Had he really stopped sleeping around because of her?

"That's ridiculous. You're suggesting he's done all of that so as to not hurt my feelings?"

"It's possible," Blake said. "I can't think of any other answer."

"Not unless he suddenly got bored of sex." Yang added. "Like, instantly. He didn't even react to that Fall girl, and she was practically throwing herself at him. If I were in his shoes, even I'd have tapped that."

"If you were in his shoes, I'd poison myself," Weiss said automatically, earning a laugh. "Either way, it doesn't prove anything. It just wouldn't make sense for him to go that far for me. He turned me down. It's not like that means he can't ever love someone else. Who would go that far?"

"Jaune," Blake answered.

"Jaune," Yang agreed. "Come on Weiss, we both know he's not exactly the most reasonable of guys. You can't apply the normal rules to him. Inconsistent is his middle name."

Blake nodded. "Yang is right. If you think back on how he used to act and how he does now, there have been all sorts of changes. He's practically a different person."

Weiss couldn't find it in herself to disagree. He wasn't different, at least not in terms of the person he was, but the way he acted certainly changed. When they'd first met, he'd been lazy and unmotivated, a person who had no interest in running the team he'd been selected to lead. That had changed. "People change," Weiss said. "When I look back on how I was at the start of the year, I can't help but be appalled at the person I see."

"Myself as well," Blake sighed.

"Eh, I was perfect." Yang copped one of Blake's pillows this time.

"Jaune's changes were a little more dramatic, though," Blake said, ignoring her partner's cries. "Haven't you noticed all the little inconsistencies? His ability to fight is a clear example."

Yang snorted. "You mean how he went from weak and ineffectual to Mr I can clear a train of terrorists in ten minutes? While off my head on drugs?"

"That was hardly the first time," Blake argued. "Don't tell me you've forgotten those `I tripped` moments early on?"

Weiss hadn't, and the reminder made her roll her eyes. The first time in initiation, she might have believed it. She was still too shocked, and also appalled at who her partner was. The second time, however, after Cardin launched his locker into the forest? "He was definitely able to fight off the Grimm around his locker," she said. "I don't care what he said, there were clear signs of combat."

"You didn't question him at the time," Yang pointed out.

"I'd been afraid my partner was killed," she countered. "Excuse me for not initiating an interrogation. Besides, did you think he would answer any questions?" Weiss raised an eyebrow, but smirked when Yang shrugged. "Precisely... Either way, it's not like we're not aware there's some hidden aspect to his past. While his claims of never having trained to be a huntsman might be true, he's never directly said he wasn't trained to fight."

"He knows how to fight in a way most people don't," Blake said. "When a huntsman fights, there's always a certain aspect to it. Long sweeping cuts, heavy blows, increased momentum… our attacks are designed to take down Grimm, to cut through large amounts of muscle and bone. Jaune fights in a different way. He fights to take down people."

Weiss didn't reply, but she felt Yang cringe next to her. "Geez, Blake. Do you have to make it sound so bad?"

Blake shrugged.

Weiss sighed. "He's filled with inconsistencies," she said. "He told us he wasn't trained to fight, but he's honestly better than most of the other students. All he lacks is conditioning. He told us he didn't want to become a huntsman, but he's here in Beacon. He told us he doesn't know anything about the White Fang, but he clearly despises them."

"He told you he didn't love you," Yang interrupted, "but he clearly does."

Weiss' heart clenched. "Yang…"

"I'm serious here. Hear me out." She silenced Weiss with a finger to her lips. "I'm not saying he's in love with you, or that he's about to whisk you off your feet. I'm saying he loves you. There's something stopping him, which is why he said no, but as for his old ways of sleeping around? Yeah, they're gone now. Gone because he knows you'd be upset, and he cares enough to not want that. Now, it could be that he's just a great guy and a girl's best friend, but that rings a little hollow." Yang smirked. "I mean, it would be nice, but who would expect someone to go that far? Harsh or not, it's your fault for falling for him. He shouldn't have to change the way he lives his life because of that."

"I know," Weiss said, "That's what I'm trying to sa-"

"But he chose to anyway," Yang talked over her. "He chose to because to him, it's more important than you're happy, then it is for him to get some. People are selfish, Weiss. They don't sacrifice something unless they think it's worth it. Some people sacrifice their lives for those they love. As for Jaune, he's willing to sacrifice the way he lives his life for you." She cocked her head to the side. "I don't think that's any less meaningful. Do you?"

She wasn't sure. She couldn't find the right answer. Weiss bit her lip and looked away. "Maybe," she whispered. "I don't know. It doesn't matter either way. How did we even get here?"

"We were talking about his inconsistency," Blake said, "Well, that and how many women he used to sleep with."

"And how he never asked us," Yang realised, suddenly offended.

"No," Blake sighed. "We weren't talking about that at all."

"Don't you think it's odd though?"

"Yang… your ego is showing."

"Yeah, but was my body not? I mean come on, I'm not trying to be arrogant here, but I'm not someone to just be looked over."

Weiss sighed and reached for the pillow Yang threw at her earlier. She stuffed it into the taller girl's face and turned to Blake. "Ignoring this idiot for a moment, are you saying there's something deeper to all of this?"

"There almost has to be. I think it's a bit much to claim all of this is a coincidence by now. The docks, his ability to fight, the way he refused to be a part of the team, how that changed, his reluctance to properly fight in class…" Blake shrugged. "The nightmares, the over-sleeping, the malnutrition…"

"Zwei is a service dog," Yang said, pulling the cushion away. She looked at corgi, asleep on Jaune's bed. "Uncle Qrow got him for Dad because of his depression, but they also work for huntsmen who have seen bad things they can't forget."

"PTSD?" Weiss asked. "You're suggesting Jaune has PTSD?"

"I'm not suggesting it. I'm just raising the point."

Weiss shook her head, "And I'm not disputing it. Is that even possible though? I was under the impression it was something soldiers went through, those or huntsmen who have experienced terrible things."

"It's not that simple," Blake said. "We had a few people in the White Fang who showed signs of it, and I personally met children who were orphaned who might have had it too. It's hard to diagnose. As for who gets it, you need to remember that it's a subjective thing." She shrugged. "A soldier who lost his squad might get it, or might not. Someone who loses their home to debt and has to live on the streets might get it as well. While you can say the soldier's been through worse, it doesn't matter. It's all in the individual's mind."

"Trauma is trauma," Yang agreed. "Some people go through worse than others, but people still get it. I guess it's the same with stress. Dad always said it was ironic when Ruby or I talked about stress when we had homework, like we even knew what the word meant. It was stressful to us though. I mean, looking back on it, it really wasn't, but we felt stressed at the time."

"Exactly. It's the nature of people to say `someone's had it harder than you`, but that doesn't change what the person who has it feels or experiences." Blake looked toward Weiss. "All that's required is a situation the person feels is traumatic. The worst part is that what counts as that depends on the person. Someone who's lived an easy life can feel that losing their money is trauma. We can say it isn't, but it doesn't matter. They can still suffer."

Weiss wasn't an idiot. She got the message. It was just that she didn't want to believe it. She'd never met someone with PTSD, but she knew about it in the same way most people did, from rumour and hearsay. It always sounded bad. "But we've no idea if anything did happen in Jaune's past," Weiss argued. "We could be jumping to conclusions here."

"We know he hates the White Fang," Yang pointed out. "We know he hates them almost as much as you do, maybe even more. We also know you lost family members and friends to them. Do you think he'd be that angry if he lost anything less?"

No… she didn't. It would explain how he treat them too, both the White Fang and their team. He fought with reckless abandon against the terrorists, with no concern for their lives. On the reverse, he treated the three of them like they were made of glass.

Like they might shatter and break at any moment.

Weiss' good spirits fell. They'd guessed at depression before, but this felt more accurate. They were similar in places, and one probably came along with the other, but his night terrors seemed too aggressive. His behaviour felt too self-destructive.

"At least it's over now," she said.

"I'm not sure it is."

Weiss' heart fell. She turned to Blake, along with Yang. "What do you mean?" Yang asked. Her tone was ice cold.

"I don't think his history with the White Fang is as over as we think." Blake sighed and crossed her legs, sitting atop her sheets. "You saw how he acted with them before. Don't forget what we discovered in Ozpin's office. He went out to investigate their warehouses."

"Yeah, because you asked him…"

"Then why go without me?" Blake asked.

They had no answer.

"It's easy to think he did all of those things to protect one us," she continued. "The docks might have been to protect me, the train to protect himself, last night to protect Weiss. You're focusing on those things and forgetting others though. What about Mountain Glenn?"

"What about it?" Weiss asked. "He was under the influence of drugs. Even if we assume his past made him more aggressive, it wasn't like he was there by choice."

"Actually, he was. He was there entirely by his own choice." Blake didn't wait for them to argue, and instead pushed on. "Don't you remember that both he and I were missing when you woke up? I followed him, but that was only because he left the camp in the middle of the night to try and find them. We never did figure out why."

Weiss struggled to hide her shock. Blake was right. They'd forgotten in the drama, all the fear and worry for their teammate as he suffered from Torchwick's brutal treatment. She didn't think Yang's Uncle had even remembered to ask him about it. There'd been too much going on. His actions were suspicious though. There was no denying that.

"Blake has a point," Yang whispered. "It definitely feels like there's unresolved business there."

"There's more." Blake's words drew all eyes to her. "I didn't know how to say it but this is as good a time as any. Earlier, your fight..." She sighed. "Jaune didn't watch it."

Weiss stood up. "What!?"

"He didn't watch the fight. He wasn't in the stands."

"He had to be," she said. "He quoted details of the fight. He literally ran through the moves we used."

"Weiss is right," Yang said. "He gave a pretty detailed rundown of it when we were eating lunch at that stall."

Blake shook her head. "I know what he did, but he wasn't there."

"He said he was with his family…"

"He lied! He wasn't with them." Blake took a deep breath and let it go. "I thought something was up when he said he would be. I decided to follow him. I guess I could say I was worried the White Fang would do something, but that would be a lie. Something about it just felt wrong."

"And what did you find?" Weiss asked.

"He didn't go and watch the fight with his family. He went that way initially, but that was only to throw me off. He changed directions and went into the stands. Not into the spectator areas," she added when Yang opened her mouth. "He went into the restricted areas. He went under the stands; inside them."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

Yang was incredulous. "You didn't follow him!?"

"I couldn't! He went in, but then went into the men's changing area. If I'd followed he'd have seen me, and I heard people coming so I couldn't wait outside. I couldn't risk being caught, so I had to leave." She waved a hand. "I went back to Team Rubine. It was all I could do."

Weiss sighed. Great, just what she needed – more confusion. Couldn't her partner be easy to understand for once in his life?

"Why would he go in there?" Yang asked. "What reason would there be?"

"Isn't it obvious?"

"Blake, I wouldn't ask if it were. Stop beating around the bush and tell me."

"Where did we encounter the White Fang?"

Yang blinked. It didn't take her long to catch on. "Crap."

"That's one way of putting it. We chased that White Fang member into that area, and were ambushed by a few others. If Jaune really is still involved with them, and now has reason to believe they're hiding on Amity Colosseum…"

"Then he would go after them," Yang finished for her partner. "The fact they attacked him and Weiss only makes it worse." Yang looked her way and winced. "He's probably on the warpath. What if he's in trouble?"

"He isn't," Weiss said, interrupting the conversation.

"Weiss?"

"This was hours ago, Yang. He's fine, which means whatever happened, he wasn't hurt." Her head rose, however, eyes hard. "We'll just need to keep an eye on him moving onwards. We can't let him go off on his own like this, not when we know there's a chance the White Fang are active."

"Should we tell the teachers?"

"They already know," Blake said. She shrugged. "We left those ones tied up, Jaune and Weiss were attacked, and Ozpin is in charge of Vale's security. There's no way they don't know."

Yang relaxed. "True… I guess we just need to keep an eye on Jaune. That and make sure we're nearby if the shit hits the fan." She looked at each of them. "Whatever's going on, the White Fang are involved, and Jaune knows it. He isn't going to let them get away with it. Whatever his past is, his beef with them… it's going to force his hand."

"We'll stand beside him," Blake said.

"He won't let us."

"Then we do it anyway! If he won't tell us where he's going or what he's doing, we'll find the fight ourselves." Blame slammed a hand down on her bed. "Jaune isn't a one man army, even if he acts like it. We saw from Torchwick that he can be captured, he can be hurt. What if he's killed next time?"

Weiss' heart froze.

"This is dangerous, Yang!"

"I know!" Yang snapped back. "We'll do what we can, I promise. We'll keep an eye on him. Now that the doubles are over, we can have two people with him at all times. Hell, we'll bring Sun in again too. He can watch Jaune in areas we can't."

"You're right." Blake deflated. "I'm just worried. You don't know the White Fang like I do, Yang. They wouldn't spare a thought to killing him, not after what he- what we've done - to their operations."

Weiss agreed.

She knew what the White Fang were capable of.

She'd seen family, business partners and loved ones be torn away. Executed.

Would she be made to watch as that happened to Jaune too? Could she do anything to stop it? Yang and Blake's plan was good, but Jaune would never stop on his quest. She could just tell. If they ever faced enemies beyond them, beyond him, then he would be killed. Her hands tightened into fists in her lap. The White Fang; it was always them. They took her family away, took her father away – changed him – and now they wanted to do the same to the man she loved?

No. She wouldn't allow it. She'd been too young before, but she wasn't now. She was stronger, older, and able to make her own decisions. If Jaune wanted to risk his life to protect them, then he'd best be prepared for them to risk their lives in turn. But what if there was a way she could do it on her own? What if there was a way to protect not only Jaune, but her team as well?

Protect them all...

Weiss moved away from Yang, toward the door.

"Where are you going?" Blake asked.

"Out," Weiss said, pausing at the door. "There's something I need to do."

/-/

Their talk continued for another thirty minutes or so, about random topics, anything to take his mind off her last words. Pyrrha excused herself with a smile and a thank you for his company before the clock struck eight. He'd let her go, taking the time to sit in the garden along with his thoughts. His hands rested between his knees as he sat on a low wall.

Pyrrha hadn't been afraid.

She hadn't been upset. He was no master of human emotion, he knew that, but if there was one person he understood more than any other, then it was the girl – the woman – who had been his partner more times than any other. She'd been the first woman he kissed, the first woman he dated, the first woman he'd made love to. In all the repeats and all the attempts, no one had been his partner, his rock, more than her.

And he knew how her mind worked. The pain over the maiden, the fear and the uncertainty, it always ate away at her. Always. After so long living a life where no one looked at her as anything other than the face of a celebrity, she'd fallen in love with their team. Some might have called it an obsession, but there were worse things to be obsessed with.

Pyrrha never took the news of the maiden well.

He'd become adept at seeing that, and at offering her whatever comfort he could. Jaune sighed. He liked to think he'd become good at it, to the point where he was normally able to cut off the tears before they ever appeared. He knew what to say, what to do…

What to look for.

None of the signs were there. Possibilities swam through his mind, but none made sense. Had his absence from the team made her more blasé about the possibility of losing herself? No, that was madness. Pyrrha loved Ruby. Maybe not in the same way she'd loved him, but as a close friend and almost a sister nonetheless. She also loved Ren and Nora, and wouldn't ever give them up. There was no way Pyrrha would have acted any different to losing Team RRNN than she did to losing Team JNPR.

Had Ruby granted Pyrrha more confidence, or perhaps noticed and dealt with the problem already? Despite her age, Ruby could be frighteningly perceptive at times, and he doubted there was anyone who could remain miserable in her presence. Ruby wouldn't allow it. She was stubborn enough to not take `no` for an answer, and innocent enough that you just couldn't bring yourself to scream at her to leave you alone.

It didn't feel right, however. Pyrrha would have still shown some signs of sorrow, or even recollection. He'd taken to using terms and words that would have made her suspicious if she knew anything of the maiden, or at least they should have caught her off-guard, made her stumble. She hadn't. She'd been perfectly calm, if faintly bemused at his sudden concern for her.

Jaune knew Pyrrha. He knew her inside and out.

He knew she wasn't lying to him.

It was just that the consequences of what that meant were too difficult to accept. It couldn't be possible. It just couldn't. Time after time, it was her. It was always her, and with good reason. This was about the time it happened. Ozpin couldn't afford to wait any longer. He must have chosen by now. He should have approached Pyrrha by now.

Why was Pyrrha not reacting as she always had before? Why had Pyrrha not been selected as the recipient of the Fall Maiden's powers?

A pit opened up in Jaune's stomach.

/-/

Weiss' feet felt heavy as she approached her destination. Her entire body did. It felt as though her stomach, her heart, every organ inside of her, was tied to ten tonne weights. Her mouth was dry. Her mind buzzed with thoughts of fear. She wanted to step back and run, to hide away.

But she couldn't. She was a huntress. She was a warrior.

A fighter…

The figured waited patiently for her, perhaps understanding her hesitation. That or they simply knew that pushing her would be the wrong choice. Weiss struggled to meet their eyes. She couldn't breathe. She was afraid.

"The Weiss I know isn't some pampered princess in a perfect dress. She's strong and independent."

She would be strong. She had to be strong. Taking a deep breath, Weiss stepped forward, her heels echoing across the floor. The room was silent but for her approach, and she took what strength she could in keeping it even and measured.

"Miss Schnee," General Ironwood greeted. He stood to the left of a desk, Miss Goodwitch on the other side. In the middle, the headmaster sat. "Thank you for coming Miss Schnee," Ironwood continued. "I know this can't have been easy for you."

"You're not some demure and quiet girl who won't speak her mind."

"It wasn't," Weiss said, looking him in the eye. She allowed her gaze to shift to Miss Goodwitch too, the older woman being the one to look away. Finally, she looked to the headmaster. He was calm, but there was a hint of something behind those eyes. Pity, perhaps… or was that sorrow? "It wasn't easy," she repeated. "I'm here though."

The headmaster spoke, "I take it that your presence here means you have come to a decision, Miss Schnee. Is that correct?"

Weiss' hands curled into fists. Her heart beat faster, and she dreamed to imagine that sweat ran down her brow. The fear was natural, she told herself. There was nothing wrong with it. She took a deep breath, and thought of Jaune.

"The Weiss I know doesn't always look her best. This feels more natural. This feels like you. My partner…"

Her body relaxed. That was who she was. That was who she would always be. Weiss looked to the people before her and nodded. "It is." she said. "I've made my decision."

"And what," Ozpin asked, hands steepled before his face, "is your decision?

Weiss closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Jaune's face flashed in her mind

"You're not afraid to face what comes, you're not afraid to do what you have to do."

It would let her keep him safe.


So, a chapter out. I hope you enjoyed it. I'm sure some saw the ending of this one coming, but I'd like to say that while there are many theories as to why it's Weiss, and some saying they don't make sense, etc, please reserve any final judgment until the reasons are revealed. I've seen some good arguments for and against, but none that take into account all the facts.

On another note, and as a bit of a disclaimer, I am aware that PTSD is a very serious and trying thing. I know it's not something to be taken lightly. With Jaune's past, we can all see why he might have it, but as for the girl's conversation, their points were not incorrect either. While we can all agree that a veteran has more reason to have PTSD than say a normal person going through a tough point in their life, the simple fact is that the human mind doesn't always work that way. It's how kids can get depression, even though "objectively" there are people with far worse lives out there. It's that old "someone else has it worse" and yeah, that's true, but it won't stop whatever you're going through being the worst in YOUR life, and it's your life and your depiction of trauma which determines whether you suffer from PTSD, depression, or any other mental illness.

I'm putting this here because the last time I used the depression word, I got a lot of hate from people who said I don't understand, etc, etc… and I'm a monster, etc, etc… The truth of the matter is I too have had depression, and been on medication for it, and also that depression hits a LOT of people in their lives. It's not nearly as rare as some people like to pretend – and it disappoints me when people try to wear it like some kind of badge, like it makes them special or unique.

Again, I did my research. I read about it, I have a psychology A-level anyway (college grade equivalent for the US out there), and I also watched some documentaries on it. It can happen to anyone who goes through a shocking and traumatic moment in their life, from veterans, to traffic accident victims, to those who have been taken advantage of, or even someone who has lost a close friend – which is what his team believe happened to Jaune, likely in a White Fang attack that was brutally orchestrated.


Next Chapter: 24th June

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