Another Saturday, another chapter. Hope you all enjoy.
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Sa-Dui (Commissioned: Booya93)
Chapter 47 – Hands of Fate
Three simple words…
That was all they were, and spoken by a girl far smaller than he. Despite that, they struck him like a sledgehammer, driving the wind from his lungs. The world moved before his eyes, or maybe it was just his eyes which struggled to see the world. Either way, it was only the girl in his arms that stopped him from falling to his knees.
She pressed a finger against his lips.
"I know it's not easy," she whispered. "It's selfish of me. I'm asking you to sacrifice so much, but I want you to hear me out. I want you to understand my reasons."
She paused, perhaps waiting for him to speak or argue. He wanted to, but his mind was still reeling. He couldn't construct the thoughts in his head, and he doubted his lips could form the words even if he could.
"I don't want my life to be meaningless. That's what it would be if you went back in time again. The world would revert, and the person I am now wouldn't ever exist. I'd have never existed." Weiss cringed at the thought. "There might be another Weiss Schnee, but she wouldn't be me, and might never be. Yang and Blake might be my teammates, but we wouldn't have the same bond we do now. It wouldn't be what I love and cherish, and that frightens me. Ever since I was young, I wanted to make my mark on the world. I wanted to fix the SDC, repair our family's honour, and show everyone that a Schnee can bring more than just pain and profit."
"You can do any of those things," he rasped.
Weiss smiled. "Can I, Jaune? Would it be the same? Even if I tried my hardest, none of that would matter if you died. No one would remember me, or what I'd done. You would, but I wouldn't have made a difference. Not to the SDC. Not to the faunus. Not to you." She sighed long and hard. "My existence would be a useless one. I'd have contributed nothing to the world, and anything I'd ever achieved would be gone. This way, at least if I do this, I can leave my mark."
"Is that why you're doing this, because you feel you need to be useful!?"
"No!" Her eyes hardened. "No. Not like that. It's not that simple. I just… if this is true, then it's going to happen either way. You can either fight against it, die, and condemn me to nothingness. Or you can let me die to create a new world where my memory can live on. Where Yang and Blake can live on." She reached out to touch his cheek. "Where you can find peace…"
"Why… Why would I want such a world?"
"Because it might be the only one you can have." Weiss removed her arms from him and moved away. She paused, waiting for him.
He followed her. He followed through the hallways and eventually outside, until they were alone in the gardens of Beacon. The light of the moon cut paths through the pillars and arches and pillars above them. The air was cool and soft, with the lightest of breezes. It chilled him to his core.
"I guess I'm not like you," Weiss said. "When I look at this, it's a place I've never been to before this year. It's amazing and special. I love it." She turned, white hair dancing in the moonlight. "It's not the same for you, is it? You've seen this all before. You've done it all before."
Jaune tried to smile, but it felt weak and lifeless. He moved through the grass, closer to her, but not close enough to touch. "It still means something. Beacon is a place I call home, even if I know it well enough to see the cracks others don't. I wouldn't have kept fighting as long as I have if I didn't consider this place dear to me. It's why I fight. It's why I'll continue to fight."
"It's why you will continue to die."
He swallowed. "If needs be…"
"Needs don't," Weiss hissed. "They don't need be, and they won't. Jaune, you've been here a thousand times or more. You've seen what effect your fighting has. By your own admission, nothing ever changes. At some point, you need to open your mind to the possibility that you're doing things wrong. That it's not that simple."
"And what if it is?"
"Then this doesn't work and the world resets for you. It's the same thing as will happen if you do fight it, so there's no loss. Consider this an experiment."
His hand gripped hers, squeezing so tight her bones ground together. "I don't experiment with my friend's lives…"
"I-It was a poor choice of words." Weiss cringed and then winced. "Jaune, please... You're hurting me." She massaged her hand once he'd released it, her eyes downcast. "I didn't mean to say that so flippantly. I'm not saying you should let me die to prove a point."
"Then why are you saying it?"
"Because it's the only conclusion I can think of. I'm not going to sit there and let myself die. If that woman attacks me, I'll do my best to defend myself. Knowing what she's capable of, I'll do my best to kill her."
"Then why not fight her with me?"
"Jaune, don't tell me you've never fought alongside someone against her. I won't believe that. Pyrrha is stronger than me, and I can guarantee you've been stronger than you are now in your past lives. How did that go?"
Not well, not badly. It went the same as it always did. Even when he trained to the brink of death every single day for two years solid, even then, he wasn't enough. It didn't matter if he fought alongside Pyrrha or not. She died. Cinder won – and he was killed straight after. The weight of the situation settled on his shoulders. Even with Weiss knowing the truth, it wouldn't make a difference. She wasn't Pyrrha Nikos, and he wasn't the Jaune Arc he knew he could be. Even if he was, the result would be the same.
"As I thought…" Weiss took his silence for the answer it was. She didn't look pleased by it, more accepting. "The simple fact is that in all of your past repeats, there is one thing that has remained constant."
"The fall of Beacon…" she corrected. "You told me you've killed her before but Beacon still feel. I doubt we could call that a win for her, unless she hates the school that much." Weiss chuckled at her own joke, even if it wasn't funny. "The one thing that never changes is that Beacon falls. Have you ever tried to survive beyond it?"
"Yes. I tried to gain as much time as I could, so I could go back further and be stronger. There is a future after Beacon, but it's filled with more war, more death. It's not a good future."
"But it exists?"
"Isn't that proof of my theory? If Fate causes you to go back in time whenever you die, and if it's forcing you to be involved with Beacon and Cinder, then it's clear it's working towards some kind of goal. That goal must involve the events after Beacon. Otherwise, it wouldn't encourage you to face them."
"But the maiden-"
Weiss silenced him with a hand over his mouth. "Might be unimportant. In the grand scheme of things, I mean. You're the one who's assigned such meaning to it. You're the one who has spent his time assuming all of this can only be fixed by stopping Cinder and the fall of Beacon. What if it can't be stopped? What if that's not the point of this at all?"
Then he'd wasted his life fighting for a hopeless cause. His hands tightened into fists, and without his aura to protect him, his nails dug deep, drawing blood. Soft fingers touched his skin a moment later. Weiss lifted his hand up before her, gently pulling his fingers apart and rubbing the cuts he'd made.
"This is why I think it has to stop," she said, eyes on the blood that welled from his hand. "You can't keep doing this to yourself, and you can't put everyone else through it either. What happens if you snap, Jaune? What happens if you break and you can't finish this? Does the world end as everyone loses themselves to a never-ending repeat?" She looked up at him. "I don't want that for you, Jaune. More than that, I don't want it for Yang or Blake, either. I don't want it for my friends, my loved ones, or for all the people in Remnant."
"And you think your death will buy all their lives…"
"I don't know." She shrugged. "Maybe I'm being arrogant. It certainly feels like it. One thing is for sure, though. If I don't stop you from fighting to try and save me, then everyone will die. That is a certainty, and you know it."
He did. It was.
But that didn't mean he wasn't going to keep on trying. Weiss called herself selfish, but she didn't have a monopoly on that. He was the most selfish person on Remnant. He should know, since he'd dragged everyone on the planet through a never-ending crusade for his own happiness.
"We're in a situation where there are no good options," Weiss continued. "You can't save me and you can't stop Cinder's plan. Whether you like it or not, she's going to fight me. I'll try my hardest to win, but if things are like I think they are then… well, it won't matter."
Jaune shook his head. "How can you be so calm about it? This is your life, Weiss."
"Is that how I sound?" Weiss asked. Her voice broke on the last word. Jaune turned, and caught the tears that glistened in her eyes. "Funny," she whispered, "I don't feel very calm."
"I'm scared. I don't want to die."
"Then don't. I'll find a way to save you."
"I'll defeat Cinder."
"You can't. You couldn't before, and you can't now."
He bit his lip. "We'll trick her."
"Would it make a difference? Even if she fell for it, she'll still destroy Beacon. When she comes for me the next time, I would have even less people to aid me."
"Then we'll run away," he hissed. "We'll escape into the wilderness. Make a new life. Live on the run." He gripped her shoulders. "Come with me. We can go now. No one would ever find us. We could live a life away from this."
"And condemn everyone else to their deaths?" Weiss smiled a painful smile. "I refuse. I'm scared, but I would rather face my death then know I've sent the people I cherish to theirs."
"Damn it, Weiss! Why do you have to be so stubborn?"
"Because I care for you all," she replied easily. "Isn't that the same reason why you are doing all of this?"
"Yes, but that doesn't count! It doesn't matter if I die. It doesn't matter how many times I die."
"That," Weiss snapped. She poked a finger into his chest. "That is your problem, Jaune. It does matter if you die. You're no less important than anyone else here, and maybe you're more important. If there is something you need to achieve, something so important that Fate drags you back in time to do it, then maybe it's important you live long enough to find out what that is."
"At the cost of your life…?"
"At the cost of a life." Weiss' head was low as she stepped against him. She pressed her forehead to his chest, and he felt her let out a sigh. "If not me, then Pyrrha. Or maybe it will be Yang in another life. Who knows? Do you want that? Is there someone you'd be more willing to send to their death?"
He felt her wipe her tears on his shirt, and his arms came around her shoulders, stroking her back. When she raised her head, there was a resolute calm in place. A mask for sure, but the best she could manage.
"When the time comes, Cinder is going to find and face me. From how you've explained things, Yang and Blake are going to suffer against the White Fang." Her eyes hardened. "I want you to protect them. I want you to save them."
"I don't want our family to split apart after my death. I don't want Blake to run away, or Yang to suffer the loss of an arm. Those things can be avoided. My fight with Cinder can't. Shush," she added, and held a finger to his lips when he tried to interject. "You know it's true, Jaune. You've already admitted that your aura won't protect you. You'd hurt my chances by trying to fight alongside me, and I'd have to protect you as well as myself. It would make things even harder for me."
That was undeniably true, no matter how much he wished otherwise. He hadn't been strong enough to face Cinder even with two years of intense training, so he wouldn't be now without his aura.
"You might be able to save Yang and Blake though. At the very least, you can keep them away from that guy, or stop Yang rushing in and getting hurt. That's what I want most in the world right now." Weiss smiled, looking into his eyes. "Please, Jaune. That's my request. Let me fight Cinder. Let me die. But don't let the same happen to any of them."
His eyes closed. "You ask too much."
"Or come and fight with me," Weiss said with a huff. "Sentence me to inevitable death, and then condemn me to watch her kill you as well. Make sure I die knowing nothing I did will matter, that no one will survive and that it won't count for anything anyway, because I shall be wiped from existence." She tried to break out of his arms, but he held on tight. "Does that make it better, Jaune? Does that satisfy you!?"
"Then stop being stupid!" She slammed her fist into his chest, then sobbed and wrapped her arms around his neck. "We're out of time and out of options. You can't beat her. Maybe I can." She shrugged. "You've only ever seen Pyrrha face her. Maybe I have an advantage." She didn't and she knew it. "Whatever the case, you don't have a choice. You can't help me. You would do the opposite. Do what you can do, and save the people we both love."
She linked her hands behind his head.
"Do that for me," she whispered, "and you'll make me the happiest woman in the world."
"The happiest woman, huh?" Jaune smiled bitterly. "Aren't you supposed to save words like that for marriage?"
Weiss blinked, and then giggled against his neck. "Hm, you might be right. Okay then, if I beat Cinder – you have to marry me."
"We'll make it a promise."
"Don't I get a say in this?"
"Are you saying you wouldn't marry me if I could save you from all of this?"
"Well, no," he admitted. Hell, there wasn't much he wouldn't do.
"Then it's a deal. You have to keep Blake and Yang alive to be my bridesmaids, and keep yourself alive as well." She poked his chest and smiled coyly. "Then, when I come back down from the tower victorious, I shall expect you to be waiting for me on one knee."
Hollow words and a hollow promise. He knew that, as, he expected, did she. At that very moment, they were nothing more than empty boasts. A desperate attempt to keep their spirits up in what was otherwise an agonising moment.
Jaune's forehead pressed against hers.
"I'm not very good at keeping promises… but I'll try for this one."
"How funny," she replied. "I'm not very good at letting promises go. If you don't keep it, I'll simply drag you to the alter myself."
"I like to think of it as being assertive. If you liked submissive women, you shouldn't have fallen for me."
He laughed. "I can't help but think it was the other way around."
"No matter," Weiss adopted an imperious expression. "A Schnee gets what a Schnee wants, and I've already made up my mind. You will be mine."
If she could defeat Cinder.
His smile fell.
"Shh…" She shushed him and buried her face in his chest. "Can we not talk about this anymore? It's late and there isn't much time left. Can't we just stay like this for a moment?"
He closed his arms around her waist. "Of co-"
"KISS! WHOO! GO FOR IT!"
Weiss stiffened in his arms, the two of them flinching as the not-so-quiet voice rang out. As one, they looked around to see who it was, but the gardens were empty. The same couldn't be said for above, and Jaune sighed as he looked up see Yang, Blake, Nora and Ruby hanging out the window watching them. Judging from the shock of red he could see, Pyrrha was fighting for a place as well.
"Yang," Ruby hissed. "You were too loud!"
"And they're taking too long. Kiss, damn it. We demand it!"
"Nora demands it too!" said girl shouted. "Less with the talky-talk, more with the kissy-face!"
Weiss laughed, hiding her tears against him. From so high up, it was all but impossible for their team to have heard anything, or to really judge their emotions. They had no idea of the concepts passed about below.
"Those idiots," Weiss giggled painfully. She sniffed and gripped at his shirt. "They're complete morons, but I love them."
"Yeah, me too…"
"Look after them, Jaune. I beg you."
"KISS!" Yang urged.
Weiss laughed again and pushed away. In the dark, he caught the faintest glimmer of the tears that sparkled as they fell. Up above, he also heard the disappointed cries of his team and best friends. He watched Weiss take one step, and then another.
His hand caught her wrist before she could take a third. She cried out in shock as he dragged her back, but no complaint passed her lips. Her eyes closed gently as she surrendered to him.
The peanut gallery cheered wildly.
He could still taste Weiss' lips on his, even ten or more minutes after she'd departed, red-faced, back to their room. He'd have followed, except that he knew sleep wouldn't come with this on his mind. He needed to sort through his thoughts, and he didn't want to return with her and spark an argument. Not in front of everyone else. Instead, he'd excused himself to continue his walk. The cool air didn't help him with the answer, but cooled his fevered skin.
Let her die. It was a disgusting notion. Weiss was correct, and yet so wrong at the same time. Her theory was just that. The whole concept of Fate wanting him to achieve a certain goal was relatively new, but that didn't mean it was right. A long time ago, he'd assumed this back and forth nightmare was a result of his Semblance. The problem was, it kept working long after his aura was gone. After all, it kicked in when he was dead. He'd only started to throw the word `Fate` around recently, and mostly because of the downright ridiculous things that had happened in this life.
Winning Weiss' charity lottery was a ridiculous stroke of luck, especially considering Weiss herself had confirmed even she didn't know there had been one. It was a change so drastic that common sense said it couldn't happen. No one would spring something like that on the heiress of the SDC without asking her.
It was suspicious even before he took into account the fact that Blake's targeted train had turned from a cargo-only transit to a hybrid passengers and cargo train. Who did that? You didn't unload dust and supplies at the same place you did passengers. It would be pointless inefficient, not to mention the nightmare of attaching all the cars together. With all that going on, he didn't even need to consider the sudden heel-turn Ozpin performed in threatening Yang with arrest. Fate was real, and it had stuck its hand in him thousands of years ago. He'd only cottoned onto it now.
That doesn't mean Weiss' idea is the right one though. Even if she dies to Cinder, that might not mean the end of this. What if Weiss is needed later on and it's actually supposed to be Pyrrha who dies?
Would the world be doomed once more, despite her sacrifice?
Did that make her sacrifice any less a good idea? His heart said no, but his mind wasn't so certain – and for that, he hated it. Weiss was wrong about so many things, but she was right about others. He would be no use against Cinder. Worse, he'd drag Weiss down and get her killed. With that in mind, what was the point of him fighting her at all?
If he was doomed if he didn't and doomed if he did, then was trying out Weiss' plan not a good idea? If it worked, everything was great. If it failed... then the world would reset, and it would be the same result as if he'd never tried in the first place. There was nothing to lose where time travel was involved. Weiss would be alive. She wouldn't be his Weiss, but she would be in one piece. She could find happiness in another person, probably Neptune.
His hands tightened into fists. "Damn it…"
Weiss might have had nothing to lose, but he did. He'd lose her. He'd lose Yang and Blake. He'd lose his family – and even his new sibling, who had yet to open his or her eyes and see the world. All of that would be gone, and he'd be back on the track once more. He'd need to train hard once more, which inevitably meant he would have to abandon his family. The relationship he had with his parents, the love for his sisters, his father's respect…
It would all be gone.
It was too cruel. It wasn't fair to any of them, Weiss included, and the fact she could stand in front of him with a calm expression and tell him he had to let her die only made it worse. Where did she get off being like that? How could she have so little respect for her own life? Had she picked that up from him? He knew he was a hypocrite, but that hadn't ever bothered him so long as he could save them. Save Beacon. Who cared about pride, or victory? Who cared if he was wrong, right or an idiot? If he could create a world in which all of his friends survived, then he would do whatever was necessary.
Even letting one of them die…?
No. Never. That price was too high.
Would he be forced to pay it anyway? What could he do? No one else would believe him, and anything he did to drive Cinder away would only make things worse. Weiss had as good as said she wouldn't flee, and he knew that even if they did, Beacon would still fall. Yang would lose an arm, maybe more. Anything could happen in the heat of the moment.
Or… he could listen to Weiss, and save them.
His head throbbed. His eyes clenched shut. There were never any good answers, just more problems. Even if he'd achieved the one thing he'd spent hundreds of repeats trying – convincing someone this was real. Even with that, it just led to more problems. Weiss' idea was insane. It was crazy. It just might work… But that didn't mean he had to agree.
There has to be another way. I'll talk to her tomorrow. This was a rash decision she made because she didn't have any time to think it through. She's being brave and doing the best she can.
Weiss was incredible, she really was. Even so, she had limits. Finding out about all of this must have shocked her. Hell, he was surprised she hadn't passed out. To find that something impossible like time travel existed? What was next, unicorns and fairies? They all existed on the same scale of being outside the realm of possibility. If you accepted one, then you had to accept that others were possible, too.
Once she'd had a chance to calm down and think things through, she might change her mind. Then, he could talk to her. Adapt the plan. Find a way out of this. Nothing was set in stone.
There was still time.
His lungs burned in his chest as he forced himself up the endless staircase. Outside a night sky lit with fire roared away and the heat from it threatened to burn him to a crisp.
An explosion sounded from far above, followed by a shrill scream and a dull thud.
No, no, no, his feet slammed against marble as he ignored his body's desperate pain. Blue eyes remained locked on each doorway before him as he barrelled through, until eventually, with an angry scream – he burst onto the rooftop proper.
Pyrrha looked towards him with an expression of purest shock. She opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a torrent of blood. She fell forwards, transfixed.
Jaune's legs collapsed as he caught her, the girl's slight weight driving him down as he cushioned her fall and cradled her head in his arms. Angry tears burned in the corners of his eyes. "I'm sorry," he gasped, "I'm so sorry. I won't let it happen again."
His partner smiled a beautiful smile as she reached up to touch his cheek with one hand. She tried to speak but the blood prevented it.
Every muscle in his body screamed in agony as he forced himself up the endless staircase. Outside a night sky lit with fire roared away and the heat from it threatened to burn him to a crisp.
An explosion sounded from far above, followed by a shrill scream.
Not this time, not after he'd promised. Jaune Arc screamed in anger as he tripped and fell. He crawled the last few steps and threw himself towards the door and out onto the rooftop.
Pyrrha's knees hit the ground as she looked down at the arrow that jutted from her breastbone. One hand came up to grip the shaft, as though she might pull it free.
The heat from her body was familiar as he cradled her. His hands desperately – futilely – tried to staunch the blood that pooled atop her. He knew it wouldn't be enough. "I won't let it happen again," he sobbed atop her. His forehead pressed against hers as tears coursed from his eyes.
His partner smiled a beautiful smile as she reached up to touch his cheek with one hand, but the words she tried to speak were lost.
His body was dull and his mind duller as he took the steps two or three at a time. The pain had long since ceased to mean anything, the ache in his muscles nothing more than the whimpering cries of a body that longed to die. He did not let it. Outside the fire roared and the heat from it threatened to burn him to a crisp. Like it always did… like it always would.
An explosion sounded above him.
The tower of Beacon was a familiar sight, even with its great cogwheels and broken masonry. Pyrrha turned to regard him with an almost calm expression. The blood that bubbled from her lips didn't seem to surprise her, nor did she reach for the arrow that killed her.
Jaune's mind was numb as he caught and lowered her to the floor once more. The tears no longer came, though something like fire burned away at his heart. His breath escaped him in a gasp as he stared into her emerald eyes. "I won't let it happen again…"
His partner smiled a beautiful smile and reached up to touch his cheek with one hand. Her hair blew away from her face, but something was different. That hair he'd thought red was anything but. Stained red with blood, pale blue eyes stared up at him with love and hurt.
"You need to," Weiss whispered. "This is what I want."
Blood ran from her mouth as she smiled.
"I want you to let me die."
Jaune's eyes snapped open. He lurched forward with a gasp, upsetting the corgi that had been stood on his chest, lapping at his face in a desperate attempt to stop the nightmare. His heart hammered in his chest, even as Zwei pushed back up and tried to snuggle against him. Tried to shower the terrified man with affection. Tried to distract him.
That dream… it changed.
He tried to move a hand up to pet the worried corgi, but something had hold of it. He almost yelled out when he noticed a pair of yellow eyes glowing dimly from beside his bed. "B-Blake?" he whispered.
"You were having a nightmare," she said, voice low so as to not disturb the others. Yang still snored away, while Weiss was probably too exhausted mentally to wake up. His faunus teammate looked worried. He could see that, even in the low light from the moon outside their window. "Zwei tried to wake you up, but it wouldn't work. This one looked worse than the others. I didn't know what to do, but I thought it might help if you had someone with you."
He glanced down to their linked hands. Blake had thought it would help if she held onto him? He wasn't sure where she'd gotten the idea, but he felt a rush of warmth nonetheless. He tugged her closer, and against all odds, she allowed it. She sat on the side of his bed, with him sitting up next to her.
"Thank you, Blake."
"What was it about?"
He thought to lie, but held himself back at the last second. Was there really any point now? "It was about Weiss dying," he said. "I dreamed of Weiss being killed and my being too weak to stop it."
Blake didn't let go of his hand. In fact, she squeezed it tighter. He smiled and gripped it back. A moment of weakness, perhaps, but in the dark of night and with no one watching, she seemed willing to both allow it, and to put up with being the one to help him. Had the others been awake, he doubted she would have felt so confident.
"She's still here. We all are."
"I know. Sorry for waking you up."
"You shouldn't apologise for things like this." Blake sighed and sat a little closer. "It's hardly your fault this happens. It's not the first time I've seen it either." She looked a little ashamed when he turned to her. "Back near the start of Beacon, I saw you struggling to sleep. I didn't think anything of it back then. It was when we weren't close. I thought about asking you, but… I guess I never did."
"I didn't realise it was that obvious," he said.
"It's not. The others never noticed them. I suppose it was my eyes that gave me an advantage. I couldn't say that to anyone though, not when they'd ask how I could see in the dark." She sighed. "You weren't ever obvious about it either. You don't make any noises and you don't thrash about. Mostly, it's just rapid breathing, or sharp gasps. Sometimes you move or twitch slightly. Your face is the worst though. You always show what you're thinking." She smiled bitterly. "It's never a happy expression."
"They're not often happy dreams." He saw her start to feel sorry for him and quickly bumped his leg against hers. "Hey now. Don't borrow misery. They're just dreams."
"It's not that. I just wish I'd done more to help you."
"You didn't trust me back then. We weren't close."
"After that," she explained. "That was my excuse early, but we became close after you saved my life at the docks. I still didn't help when you had nightmares. I'd just watch and feel terrible, wishing they'd go away. Sometimes I would hold a pillow over my ears and try to ignore the painful sounds you made." Her ears fell flat against her hair. "I should have done something to help, but I didn't know what. Instead… I did nothing. I just laid there and pretended I didn't hear or see anything."
"Blake, it's fine."
"It's not!" Her eyes flashed angrily, but it was directed inwards. "When I joined the White Fang, one of the things I hated most was how people said cruelty against faunus was bad, but wouldn't intervene if they saw it. They were too afraid to do anything, or didn't think they were strong enough. Either way, they'd sit back and watch as it happened. Typical bystander behaviour. I swore I'd never be like them. I swore I'd never just watch something happen and not do anything I could to help. Yet… I did." She ducked her head. "I'm sorry."
Jaune sighed and wrapped an arm around her. Zwei snuggled under his other, and although she glared at the dog, she didn't break away from him. "You're too hard on yourself." he said. "Or maybe it's just that you demand too much. It's always how you need to bring equality to the faunus, or how you need to atone for what the White Fang have done. Right now, it's how you should have somehow solved all of my problems and saved me from my nightmares." He grinned. "Don't put so much pressure on yourself. You don't have to solve every little problem in the world."
"Couldn't the same be said of you? You always take everything on your own shoulders to try and help us. You did it at the docks, and again when you chose to undercut me at those warehouses." Her eyes narrowed. "Yes, I figured that one out, Silver. Your tracking anklet painted quite the nice picture there."
"You never told anyone?"
"What, and put you in danger?" Blake sighed. "I'm fairly sure the headmaster already knew, and if he didn't, I wasn't going to tattle on you. Why did you do it?"
"Do you honestly need an answer?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. You did it because you felt it was the right thing to do, or because you were willing to take a risk with your own life to protect mine. That's my point. If you refuse to slow down and trust others to help you, why should I? You can't say one thing and do another."
"Can't I? I thought a good daughter had to follow her father's instructions."
"A good father would lead by example."
"Do as I say. Not as I do."
"I refuse." Blake smiled and elbowed him in the side. "You're not my father anyway. I already have one."
"Then what am I?" he asked, curious.
"My teammate. My leader." She glanced at him. "Something else… It's hard to explain. Yang is probably my best friend, but you and Weiss are something beyond that. Like an older sibling or someone I feel I can trust implicitly. It's an odd feeling. Not a bad one though," she added. "I don't suppose there's a word for it. You're my team. That means something, but not just the standard definition of the word. You're the team leader of a team I never want to leave. A part of me imagines we'll still be a team in twenty years' time."
His eyes closed. "I hope so, Blake."
"I wouldn't have it any other way." She smiled and wrapped her arms around him. "This is our team. This is my only team. I can't imagine not being a part of Team Jazzberry."
"But she won't be our Blake…"
If he went against Weiss' plan and died alongside her, then the world would reset. Blake would be someone else. She would still be a part of the White Fang, and would later join Team RWBY. She'd never know Team Jazzberry. Never be a part of it.
Was preserving that more important than saving everyone?
Jaune hugged her tight against him, hiding the anguish he felt. "Me too," he whispered. "I can't imagine leading any other team." He took a deep breath and tried to keep it from breaking. "Thanks. I'll be okay now. Get some sleep."
"You too," she said, and smiled as she untangled herself from him. "After all, we have a big day tomorrow."
Things didn't look any better come the morning. They were just a different shade of bad. He didn't know how Weiss managed it. Keeping her poker face, that was. He struggled even now, and the effects always got worse as he approached the end. It was when the reality of another life failed started to settle in that his hands began to shake. Weiss, on the other hand, gave Yang a wide smile and patted her shoulder.
"You'll be fine," she said. "I believe in you."
"I know. I'm just a little nervous." Yang proved it with how she twitched in her seat, occasionally licking her lips or wiping her brow as she stared down at the arena. "If it's Pyrrha, I think I'm screwed."
"None of that! Even if it's her, we have faith in you. Right, Jaune?"
He flinched as the attention turned to him, but instincts and his self-imposed training kicked in. "Of course," he said. "You'll do great, Yang. You've just got pre-fight jitters. That's normal. Though I have to say, I never expected it of you."
"Ha! Well, I'm not normally like this. This is just a big one, you know?"
He did. The first day of the singles rounds of the Vytal Festival. The crowds were as packed as ever, and none of them the wiser as to what would happen in just a little over twenty-four hours. This day was important too, and Yang had no idea how much of a role she normally played in it. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to find out.
Cinder and her crew are in the stands, he thought, eyes shifting over to face them. The four were sat in their usual spots, with Cinder wearing a calm and confident smile. This is the day they frame Yang against Mercury, but with him out of the fight, that won't be an option.
That didn't remove the danger, however. They could just as easily force Yang to hurt someone else, or trick an opponent into harming Yang.
"I'll bet you're not the only one feeling nervous," he said. "Be careful out there. People get desperate when they think they have to win. Make sure you don't get caught off-guard, and don't underestimate your opponent."
"Yeah, thanks Dad," Yang said, rolling her eyes. "I'll also remember not to look down if they tell me my shoes are untied."
"Jaune is the master of obvious advice," Weiss laughed. "Even so, he's not wrong. Watch over yourself. Stay safe."
"Ugh. You're both being weirdly over-protective. Help me, Blake! Mommy and Daddy are smothering me."
Blake, the final member of their dysfunctional family, raised a single eyebrow. She made no move to help her beleaguered sister, and instead made a show of settling down into her seat with a little smile. "No pressure, Yang," she said. "We'll just hold it against you forever if you lose."
"That… That doesn't help at all!"
He laughed and turned back into his own mind as the three carried on. Pyrrha had already had her match, in what was a change from normal events, but not anything to worry about. The arrangements were random, at least when he or Cinder weren't meddling, so it was up in the air who and in which order the contestants would fight. Yang's opponent would be whoever was left, but he'd watched Cinder and her merry band like a hawk all the way through Pyrrha's bout. They hadn't made any overt moves.
No covert moves either, he had to assume, since absolutely nothing had happened to break the calm. Their plan was always to generate negativity on this day, then repeat it on the second – using the virus in the CCT to enable them to shut down Cross-Continental broadcasts, and ensure that only Vale saw her faked one. That would leave international relations in disarray, and Atlas on the chopping block.
Cinder needed some kind of event today, however. Otherwise there might not be enough on the second. Yang's alleged crippling of Mercury was tragic, but it had been a sudden and shocking thing. That was the key factor. There hadn't been enough time for it to make people angry, because it had been so out of the blue, it had taken time to sink in. When Pyrrha killed Penny, however, Cinder had been able to expand on the resentment that had festered overnight. People were already upset with Beacon students because of Yang, and Pyrrha only reinforced that image.
The people of Vale weren't stupid. They wouldn't believe Cinder if she blamed Ozpin for everything and there was no proof. One accident could be just that, but to have something happen twice in as many days was a little beyond. What was that old saying? Once an accident, twice careless, and the third time intentional. In a way, Penny acted as the third – more proof that the people in charge couldn't be trusted. After all, who brought a super weapon to a fight against children?
Even now, he barely understood Ironwood's motive there. Combat experience was all well and good, but Penny's inclusion was definitely cheating. Even Ozpin hadn't known. Was the international kudos for winning this really worth going so far? Apparently, it was.
Jaune hummed under his breath and made sure to keep Emerald in the corner of his eye. While there weren't any obvious signs when she used her Semblance, he would at least be able to see and act if the fight took an unusual turn. They might not even target Yang at all. If they already suspected he knew too much, then tempting fate like that would be risky. They might choose someone unconnected to him. He'd still intervene, of course. But that didn't mean they might not try it anyway.
Honestly, he was impressed at Weiss' self-control. Her eyes had scanned over the stadium when they arrived, but she'd not focused on them any longer than she had to. Instead, she'd spent her time talking about the upcoming fight. Whether that was an attempt to distract herself, or a way of enjoying what could be her final day with them, he had no idea, but he respected it nonetheless.
I just wish we could have had a chance to speak in private.
He hadn't been able to get her alone since they woke up, and not for a lack of trying. She saw his gestures and attempts to separate them from the rest – and Yang and Blake wholeheartedly supported him, no doubt thinking he had something a little more romantic in mind. She shot each and every one of them down, however. How she managed it, he had no idea. Worse, she'd somehow convinced Yang and Blake she was doing it without realising. Who was she trying to pretend to be, Ruby!?
I suppose we'll have to wait until tonight. She's probably still thinking things through on her side. Once the fights are all over and we're back at Beacon, I'll ask to talk with her in private. Even if she refused, he could just wait until she went for a shower, and throw a quick hint to the others. They'd vacate the room gladly. Yang had been insufferable last night, and it only got worse when he wouldn't confirm anything. Despite her quiet nature, it was clear Blake was pleased with the turn of events also. Those two were more alike than either cared to admit.
The morning hadn't brought the answers he craved, but it had lessened the blow somewhat. Weiss was still alive when he woke, and the team was still in one piece. That meant there was potential for things to be averted. For now, it was more important to make sure nothing happened to Yang, both for her sake, and so that Weiss wouldn't be too distracted to talk with him later.
He scanned the civilian parts of the crowd as well, and although it took him a lot longer, he was finally able to spot the larger-than-average host of blondes. One of them, it was hard to tell from the distance but he thought it was Amber, waved. He waved back. They were huddled together, and totally safe in the crowd. If Qrow was to be believed, then they'd also have a few extra watchers looking over them. That was enough for him. A professional huntsman was stronger than he was now. Along with his father, they'd be enough to ensure his family's safety.
I can't believe there's so little time left. It feels like only yesterday when I went to the arcade with Amber and bumped into Ren and Nora.
The memory brought back a small smile, and that grew when he recalled pranking Sun and Neptune, teasing Weiss, joking about not knowing Blake's name. All the little things they'd gotten up to in this life that were so much more unique than any other. He regretted that it would come to an end, but he didn't regret living it. The pain would be far worse for him `going native`, but that wasn't something he was unused to.
The fight before them came to an end. The roulette rolled, and Yang gripped the railing tight. The wheel slowly came to a halt. The first selection was a man Jaune recognised but didn't know. With tanned skin, a cross-shaped scar on his cheek, and leather clothing, he cut a dashing figure. The second wheel turned. He let out a sigh when it fell on Yang.
Yang swallowed. "Welp. Looks like I'm up. Wish me luck?"
"Not that you need it, but sure." Weiss touched her arm. "You'll relax once you're down there. Just pretend the crowd doesn't exist."
"I know, I know. Sheesh, I was fine when it was you and me against those other two. I'm not sure what's come over me."
Nerves, most likely. It hit the best of them, and there was a vast difference in standing before fifty-thousand plus people in a group and alone. She'd forget all about it once she got stuck in. She always did. He watched as Blake clapped Yang's arm and whispered something to her. The blonde nodded, but quickly perked up as she hopped over to him.
"Daddy, Daddy. Do I get a good luck kiss?"
He raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and leaned in. Yang's eyes widened, the girl quickly trying to dodge, but he caught her shoulders before she could. Yang yelped and clenched her eyes shut. She opened them again when he planted a chaste kiss on her cheek.
"Looks like Yang expected something else," Blake drawled. "I didn't know you felt that way about your own father."
"Shut up, Blake." Yang growled. Her cheeks were red, and it only got worse as she wiped furiously at the one he'd kissed. She spared him a glare. "For a second, I actually thought you were going to try something."
"You asked me for a good luck kiss. What was I supposed to do?"
"Blush, stammer, look awkward… Ugh, I can't believe I forgot who I was talking to. Don't try anything, mister!"
"I didn't." He smirked. "You're the one who assumed I would. I wonder what that says about you."
"That she's arrogant, maybe?" Weiss teased. "To assume every man who comes close will fall for her. That's kind of an impressive degree of confidence. Overconfidence, one might say."
"Or that she wanted you to," Blake joined in, trying and failing to hide her smirk.
"Well, Yang. Which is it?" he asked. "Were you being arrogant or perverted?"
"Ah…" She looked between the three of them, eyes wide and mouth opening and closing. He wished Ruby was there, if only to drive the teasing home. As it was, it looked like they were doing a good enough job themselves. Yang perked up and looked over her shoulder. "Oh look, my fight! Got to go guys, I'll see you later. Bye!"
"That was cruel," Weiss admonished once she was gone.
"You're the one smiling. Both of you are."
"I didn't say it wasn't funny."
Blake laughed and sat back down, "At least it took her mind off the fight. I suppose that's the real reason you did it, wasn't it?"
"Sure, why not…"
He'd actually just wanted to embarrass her. At times like this, it was the little things like that which kept you going. Huh. Maybe he was acting more like a father than he'd realised. Was this his first ever Dad Joke?
"Her opponent is an unknown," Weiss said. She glanced at him. "Will anything happen?"
Will, not could. She wasn't asking about Yang's foe, but rather the future. He considered hinting at Emerald's plan, but instead shook his head. He could deal with it and a quick glance confirmed those four were still sitting pretty in their seats. He had a can of grape soda nearby just in case. If something went wrong, he could trip and throw it all over Emerald, breaking her concentration. It would as good as confirm all of Cinder's suspicions, but if she was sending Neo after him, then his secret was probably already out.
"So long as Yang is careful, she'll be fine. It's not like her opponent is some kind of killer."
Weiss took the barely veiled message and nodded. The relief was clear as she sat down. Blake was a little more confused by the opaque wording. Her eyes narrowed, but she turned back to await the fight without comment.
Yang and her opponent squared off against one another. In contrast to the previous fights, there was no special arena for the singles rounds. He didn't really understand that, but it was always the same. Maybe they thought it would be unfair in a test of skill, but that could have applied to any of the other fights. It wasn't like the whole arena made of ice hadn't been a massive advantage to Team RWBY whenever they ended up fighting on it – usually against Team ABRN.
Either way, this worked to Emerald's advantage. Too much terrain might have blocked off her Semblance. She leaned forward in her seat, arms crossed over the railing as she yawned. It was subtle, but not unnoticeable. He glanced at Weiss, but she wasn't paying attention to them. He wasn't sure if that meant she was brave, foolish or just distracted.
"Begin!" Port yelled.
Yang and her opponent dashed in, the blonde ducking below a thin sword and driving a fist up into his stomach. The man recovered well, blocking her follow-up and twisting away from her kick. He elbowed her in the back of the head and backed away to create some distance. The two circled one another warily.
She was taking him seriously. Good.
The battle raged on for another five minutes or so, not much time in the grand scheme of things, but one which must have felt like an eternity to those two. Sweat poured from them, and while Yang had the definite advantage, her opponent gave as good as he had, scoring light wounds on the faster and stronger fighter.
They never went further than should have been expected, however. Neither lost themselves like Pyrrha had, and the fight was never pushed beyond what could have been considered a competitive one. I guess Cinder wants to recreate the usual approach. Once Yang wins, she'll have Emerald force her to attack her opponent in what she thinks is self-defence.
It looked like that eventuality was coming closer. Yang scored a blow that caught the man's wrist, forcing the sword from his hand. He ducked and rolled after it, and would have reached it if it wasn't for Yang shooting a blast at it. The weapon skittered off of the arena and out of bounds. If he followed, he'd be disqualified. The crowd cheered wildly. Weiss and Blake shouted their support. Emerald leaned forward.
Jaune's fingers wrapped around the can of soda. He moved subtly, gently rising from his seat as he prepared to throw. It would reveal him for sure. There was no way this could be mistaken as an accident.
But if it could save Yang the grief she faced, then he would do it.
"Yang Xiao-Long wins!" Port crowed, followed by an enthusiastic cheer from the audience, which drowned out Oobleck's analysis of why Yang had taken the match. As the crowd cheered and Yang basked in it, she turned and noticed her opponent down on one knee. She smiled and strolled towards him, her gauntlets slipping back into a dormant state. She stopped before him, and then extended a hand to help him up. Her opponent took it with a grimace. He said something no one could hear, and Yang nodded back.
Jaune's muscles tensed.
Yang and the guy waved to the audience, before he limped off to the changing rooms, clearly out of breath. There was no sign that he might turn back, and none that Yang saw him doing anything different from what they did. Instead, she held one arm up as the crowd roared, and then looked to their position in the crowd. She waved happily at them.
Nothing? Cinder isn't going to try anything?
Weiss batted his arm with hers. "What's wrong with you? You've been staring off into the crowd for the whole fight. What's happening?"
"I'm watching Cinder," he hissed back. "Just making sure she doesn't try anything."
"What are you talking about? I haven't seen her anywhere."
What? But she- Jaune spun back to face them. Cinder and her cronies were still there, sat peacefully in their seats. Fear shot through him as he reared back one hand and threw the can for Emerald's face.
It passed straight through her. Her frame shimmered, those of her teammates too. Before his eyes, they dissipated into nothingness.
No. No. No!
Emerald hadn't used her Semblance on Yang or her opponent. He'd been so certain she would that he'd forgotten one other possibility. That she could have used it on him. His eyes scanned the crowd, finally locking onto green hair. The girl stood toward the exit to the competitor's stands. She caught him watching and smiled cruelly before she stepped out of the stadium.
Jaune stood and made to follow.
An explosion shook the Colosseum.
Weiss stumbled against him, and he caught her instinctively, even as silence reigned over the crowd. A thick plume of black smoke came from the back of one of the stands. It took a second or two for the audience to realise what was going on, but the screams began a second later.
A bomb? That didn't make sense. What was going on?
"People of Vale," a voice boomed. The large screens flickered and flashed, replaced by a chess piece he'd seen countless times before. The voice was new, however. Not so new that he didn't recognise it, but not Cinder's. It was the voice of Adam Taurus. "For too long has humanity oppressed and harmed faunuskind. For too long have we put up with life under the yoke of slavery. No longer. Our war begins now, and we strike the first blow here today."
"Adam," Blake gasped.
Weiss pushed over and grabbed Jaune's arm. "What's happening?" she hissed. "You said this was supposed to happen tomorrow! You never said anything about the White Fang!"
"Because this doesn't normally happen. This only happens when Cinder is killed. She spreads it out over two days to turn people against the headmaster." His eyes widened as realisation dawned.
The people turned against Ozpin because of a wide range of failures that had stacked up. It started with the White Fang attack on the docks, and then went through to the Breach. From there, it took advantage of Atlas' presence and the lack of faith in Beacon to drive animosity between the two nations.
But he had interfered in the docks. He had tricked Qrow into closing down several White Fang operations. He had made sure the Breach didn't take any innocent lives. He'd won Ozpin control of the security of Vale.
All of that meant that Cinder wouldn't have been able to turn people against him. Ozpin had too much of the public's confidence, especially after being seen to save them from terrorist attacks on numerous occasions. The people loved the headmaster now. Cinder knew that.
If she couldn't generate the required negativity through framing someone else, then why not go for a more direct approach? There was more than one way to drive all the people on Amity into a hysterical mess. More than one way to have over fifty-thousand people experience negativity in one moment. Enough negativity to awaken the Dragon in Mountain Glenn.
Why use hate when fear worked just as well?
"Cower like the sheep you are," Adam finished. "Know that when this war ends, it shall be you who suffer. Now… DIE!"
Another explosion went off, this one in one of the stadiums itself. A hundred or more were killed instantly, and the resultant chaos no doubt injured countless more. The screen went black for a moment, before it was replaced with a yellow warning.
"ALERT LEVEL NINE DETECTED!"
"Calm down!" Jaune yelled, leaping onto a seat. "Everyone, calm down!"
It was hopeless. Even if his voice could be heard over the screams of panic, fear and pain. Even if everyone cared to listen to him, there was no stopping the human reaction. Terror reigned. No more explosions went off – Cinder wanted people alive. The possibility that it might happen to any one of them drove the people into a screaming mess.
An inhuman screech sounded from above.
"Jaune," Weiss gasped. "Is this…?"
"It's early. I… I made it happen earlier than it was supposed to…"
This couldn't be happening. Not now. Not so soon. Cinder must have become nervous. Seeing that her every plan was being countered, she'd done the only thing she could. Change her plan. She'd started it early because she suspected he knew what the real plan was. She'd hoped to catch him off-guard, then sent Emerald to make it seem like everything was going as normal. That everything looked like it was following her original plan. Meanwhile, she, Mercury and Neo would have been free to set as many explosives as they felt they needed.
Even the increased White Fang presence. He'd assumed it a plan to get rid of him, or get revenge. What if that had just been the precursors to this?
Weiss' hand cracked against his cheek. "Snap out of it!" she hissed. "Jaune, we need you here now!" Her eyes were wide with panic and fear, but she gripped his collar and shook him. "What do we do? What happens next?"
"B-Beacon is attacked."
"How do you know that?" Blake asked.
"There's no time for him to explain! Jaune, what's our next step?"
"We… We need to get everyone off Amity and back to Vale. Help the civilians evacuate."
There was a loud crash as a Griffon broke through the barrier and landed in the arena. Yang stood before it, weapons deployed, but it was clear she was still winded from the fight. "Yang!" Blake yelled. She vaulted the barrier and leapt down into the pit. Further down the stands, Ruby and her team did the same, rushing to Yang's aid.
Weiss stared into his eyes. "This is really it, isn't it? This is the end?"
"I'm sorry. I caused this. I messed everything up."
"No. It's fine." Weiss laughed. "This was going to happen eventually. Might as well get it out of the way now, right?"
"There's no time." She squeezed his hand. "Have a little faith in me."
He tried to respond, but she'd already backed away and vaulted over the railing to help the others. His hands tightened on it, wondering if he should do the same. Cinder and her people were already ahead, and he had no idea where she was. Had she gone to Beacon already in search of the maiden? Was she waiting in ambush somewhere? His eyes scanned the crowds, but he couldn't see them anywhere. What he could see was huntsmen and huntresses keeping the Grimm busy, enabling people to escape. With no Atlas Paladins to help them, the Grimm struggled – and the White Fang would surely falter as well. Would that make a difference? Would it be enough to defeat Fate itself?
He didn't have an answer. And as he hauled himself over the railing to help the others, he realised that it wasn't the only thing he didn't have an answer for.
The Battle for Beacon had begun, and he still hadn't decided what to do with Weiss' request.
It begins. Jaune has changed things, and Cinder changed her plans too. As much as I felt Cinder was a little… empty in the show. A lot of the villains are. Neither Salem nor Cinder seem to have any "reason" for what they do other than "We are villains", I still thought her actual scheme wasn't a bad one. It was well-executed if nothing else.
Here? Well, things are different as you can see.
Just to let people know, there will be a new fic from me tomorrow, which will replace Professor Arc on the Sunday's slot. If you're interested, then feel free to check it out. I'm not sure at what time I'll update it, but since the majority of my readers are from the US anyway, the time difference will probably make it in the morning for them.
Next Chapter: 22nd July
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur