DISC 02 DETECTED.
The Name of the Game
a RWBY/The Gamer crossover, SI.
Disk 02: Volume 01
Arc 09: Initiation
Chapter 33: This is the Day We've Waited For
Stepping off the airship, I nearly stumbled as several notifications popped up in my field of vision.
Congratulations on completing the tutorial! Your efforts have earned you the title 'Overachiever.'
'Ha ha ha. Such funny. Many keks,' I mentally rolled my eyes, then closed the window before quickly going over the rest of it as I walked.
You have enrolled in Beacon Academy and, upon completion of your entrance exam and team assignment you will begin your official training as a Huntsman. Mission availability and pay scale are determined by your Huntsman Rank, which is itself determined by the number of missions you've completed, their difficulty, your grades while attending Beacon, and miscellaneous stats such as measured Aura level and kill count.
Close proximity to a large concentration of people with active Aura of varying strengths has triggered a recalibration of the Level Estimation system in order to more accurately assess Aura levels. This recalibration will not affect Level Estimation of Grimm or creatures created within Instant Dungeons. Recalibration will take place during tonight's routine update.
The second message confirmed what I already knew for the most part, but I suppose my Semblance felt the need to make it 'official' so to speak—minus the part about rankings, which I hadn't known but wasn't surprised by, simply because it made sense to evaluate everyone coming in and pay out based on their worth. 'Pure meritocracy—no 'affirmative action' horse shit here. Which means if you make it that far, you actually deserve to be there.'
The third, on the other hand, was cause for worry—though it was a bit of a good news/bad news situation.
'Good news! Grimm levels have always been accurate. Bad news! Now that it's got a larger group to compare to, it's going to reassess and tell me I'm under-level. If this were actually a game, I'd say it smelled like a back-door nerf was coming… except my Semblance can't, to my knowledge, change other people's power and de-leveling me would be retarded and self-defeating. So, likely only the numbers on my end are going to change. Meaning it was always wrong to begin with, due to Aura Suppression and other bullshit. Not entirely surprising, when even a twelve year old can spoof her Aura level to make my Semblance think she's weaker than she is.'
I could guess at what would happen all day long, but the only real option available to me at the moment was waiting, so I put it on the back burner to deal with tomorrow. Instead, I took the opportunity to take in the campus before me as I waited for the others to get off the airship, since they had decided to make a quick restroom stop before disembarking.
'Didn't really get a chance to appreciate the scenery last time I was here, what with the whole 'girl dying in my arms' thing going on. Or the time before that, since I was trying to get in and out quick.'
It was very… green. There were lots of trees, grass-covered open spaces, fountains, and so on. Of course, I knew at least a few of those fountains contained secret exits/entrances to the underground bunker hidden beneath all of this finery, but it made for very pretty camouflage.
Other prospective students stepped off the ramp leading from the airship and I moved off to the side, out of the flow of foot traffic before turning to find Ruby, Blake, and Yang catching up. Noticing the frown on the blonde's pretty face, I asked, "What's up? You okay?"
"Fine. Some people are just assholes," Yang deadpanned, crossing her arms under her breasts.
Turning to Blake, I asked, "What did she do?"
"Why do you assume I did something?!" Yang demanded, shooting a half-hearted glare at me.
Smirking, I answered, "Because it's you." In response, the blonde stuck out her tongue. "Careful. Keep that up and someone's going to take it as an invitation."
Bouncing on her heels, Ruby asked, "So, what now?"
"I want to look around the school," Blake said, golden eyes turning briefly away to sweep over the campus. "Maybe find the library…"
Beside her, Yang hummed. "It'd give us a chance to do more of this 'research' stuff." A grin crossed the blonde's face and she nodded. "Okay, let's go do that. We'll catch up with you two later."
I nudged Ruby with an elbow, stage whispering, "Sounds like your sister and Blake are looking to ditch us."
"It's like they don't love us," Ruby sniffed, turning a wide-eyed pout up to Yang, and drawing a flinch at the weaponized cuteness on display. "It-it's okay, Yang. I don't mind if you abandon me here in the wilds of Beacon."
"We're not! Cut that out!" Yang denied. "We're just… yeah, we're totally ditching you so we can check the place out. Jaune can keep you company if you're lonely, sis."
"Yang," Ruby glared.
I shrugged. "Split the party. It'll be fine. There should be no encounters here."
Yang sent me a confused look while Blake winced. "Are you trying to get yourself in trouble?" the catgirl asked, casting her gaze about, as though expecting trouble to suddenly pop up.
"Maybe," I said, drawing out the word. "And you do know that's what the whole 'orientation' thing is for, right? We've still got time to check people out and there'll be a sightseeing tour eventually. There's really no point splitting up right now unless you're dead set on getting your hands on those books," I turned an amused look on Blake.
The blonde and brunette exchanged a look before Yang sighed. "Jaune. We're going to go have some girl time. Alone."
"I'm a girl. I like time—" Ruby protested.
Lilac eyes flicked over to silver and the pair engaged in a short stare-down. Finally, Yang reiterated. "Alone."
Ruby shrugged. "Have fun with that. I'll be right here. Not splitting the party."
"Oh. Okay," I nodded in understanding. "No need to make up excuses. Have fun making out."
"We're not—" Blake started to protest.
"We might!" Yang laughed. A teasing smile crossed her face as she shot a look at Ruby. "Besides, I can read a mood. I figured you two might want some 'alone time' of your own. Eh? How about it?" she asked, punctuating the question with an exaggerated eyebrow wag.
"Yang!" Ruby hissed, drawing out the word.
Fishing out her scroll, Yang checked the time before putting it away. "We've got a while before we're supposed to be at the welcoming ceremony. Meet you guys there," she called over her shoulder as she grabbed Blake's hand and dragged the Faunus girl away. "If we get there first, we'll save you a spot!"
"They totally are," Ruby rolled her eyes.
Turning to Ruby, I nodded towards the grounds and we started walking. "See anybody you like for a potential partner?"
"Ehh," Ruby hemmed. "No one that really stood out." Correcting herself, Ruby nodded off towards a girl wearing familiar looking armor and sporting a particularly vivid shade of red hair, "Other than the redhead, but you can't just pick a teammate because they have the same hair color as you. Even if that would be awesome. Team Redheads!"
'Ruby, Pyrrha, and Nora. But who would… Jun. Ozpin's already made the case for snapping up promising young students with Ruby, after all,' Considering it for a moment, I shook my head. 'Nope. Also, note to self: keep Jun away from Nora. I don't need that in my life.'
Ruby turned an annoyed look up at me. "Are you sure we can't just be partners?"
I turned an amused look down on her. "Ruby, don't be afraid to branch out. Try something new. Besides," I added, "this is mostly to see who you should try to avoid and who you can work with, if only from a technical perspective. And with so many applicants, there's a good chance we won't end up together. It's not like it couldn't happen, but the odds are stacked against it. I mean, you see the size of that crowd, right?" I pointed deeper into the campus, towards what my map labeled as an auditorium.
"Maybe," the girl agreed quietly. "And yeah, that's a lot of people."
"By the way, where's your bag?" I asked. I'd noticed she wasn't wearing it earlier and had thought it may be in her Inventory, but I felt I should ask.
Ruby blinked before opening her Inventory. "Uhh… I had it when I got on the—" she groaned. "Crap! I took it off when we went to the bathroom and hung it on the back of the door!"
"Come on, let's go get it," I said turning around and starting back for the airship.
"No, it's fine! I'll go get it," Ruby smiled, turning and blurring away in a small explosion of rose petals.
"Wai—" I called, catching sight of a familiar head of white hair and wincing at the coming disaster—and like watching a train wreck, I couldn't look away. Against all my expectations, Ruby didn't so much as break stride as she leapt over Weiss and her luggage and kept moving towards the airship. Weiss's eyes went wide, tracking the path of quickly dissipating rose petals before narrowing as she turned towards where Ruby had run.
"You! Get back here! Do you have any idea what kind of catastrophe you could have caused?!" she shouted after the retreating redhead, to no avail as Ruby disappeared inside the ship. "Grr."
"You seem upset," I deadpanned, drawing the heiress's attention.
Weiss growled, balling her fists at her side and stamping one foot as she leveled a pretty impressive glare on me. Well, impressive for someone of her stature, anyway. "What gave it away?!" she snapped.
Rolling my eyes, I said, "Could've been the needless shouting in public and causing a scene."
Weiss froze, apparently just now realizing where we were and that while we hadn't drawn an audience, we were getting looks from a few passers by—prospective students exploring the grounds before the welcoming ceremony was scheduled to take place, most likely. Taking a steadying breath, she visibly calmed herself—uncurling her fists and smoothing down her skirt—before saying curtly, "I apologize for yelling."
I shrugged. "I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
Weiss growled quietly under her breath. "Well, if she had stuck around instead of rushing off..."
"She would have gotten yelled at, not apologized to," I pointed out, causing Weiss to huff in irritation—probably because she knew I was right. "I'll tell her to be more careful in the future. No harm, no foul?" I asked, earning a sigh and a slow nod.
"Fine," the heiress grumbled. "Why was she in such a hurry?"
I shook my head. "She left her bag on the airship."
"That doesn't mean she can just zip around the place like a lunatic! Even if she didn't collide with anyone, she could have still caused an accident by surprising someone. It's that sort of lack of forethought and consideration for others that gets people hurt," Weiss argued. Shaking her head and taking another calming breath, she said, "Look, could you just tell her to slow down?"
I snorted softly. "I can tell her, but I doubt she'll listen."
Weiss' pretty face screwed up in distaste for a moment, but she didn't say anything about it. Pulling out her scroll and checking the time, she said, "I should get going. I need to find someone from the faculty to secure this stuff for me, before the welcoming ceremony starts."
"Sure. See you around, Snowflake," I grinned.
Turning an unamused look on me, she asked, "There's no way I can convince you to not call me that, is there?"
"Nope," I denied, shaking my head. "Would you prefer 'princess?' 'Heiress,' perhaps?"
"How about 'Weiss?'" she asked, finally introducing herself. "Weiss Schnee."
"Jaune Arc," I nodded, before gesturing towards the airship. "Ruby Rose."
Frowning, Weiss hummed quietly. "That name sounds…" Looking me over again, she asked, "Are you related to Jonathan Arc?"
I blinked. "Who?"
Weiss rolled her eyes. "Fought in the Great War. His actions and those of his troops were critical during the battle for Vale." At my blank look, she sighed. "You've never picked up a history book, have you?"
"Amnesia," I explained, earning a disbelieving look. "No, really. I have a medical excuse and everything. I'm probably going to have to ask for tutoring specifically for any history classes we have. But that could be my great-great grandfather, or maybe one of his siblings, if he had any. Never heard his name mentioned though."
"Hm." Weiss' clear blue eyes narrowed on me for a moment, before she nodded. "I see."
I resisted asking what it was she saw. Instead, I gestured towards the campus. "Go on. Didn't you just say that if you didn't leave now to lock up your Dust, you would be late for the welcoming speech."
Weiss turned away and took all of one step, before she paused and turned to send me a suspicious look over her shoulder. "How do you know it's Dust?"
I pointed to her hair, the distinctive shade of white that seemed to be one of the hallmarks of her family. "Schnee."
Her weapon, glowing at least three colors I could make out from where I stood. "Dustcaster."
The luggage, covered in Schnee Dust Company logos. "Dust. Why?"
"Don't worry about it," the snow blonde shook her head. Seemingly satisfied, Weiss resumed hauling her baggage up the sidewalk. Faintly, I heard her mutter, "I'm getting paranoid. Damn Shiro."
Leaning in the shade of a tree off the side of the path and carefully hiding my grin, I settled in to wait for Ruby to approach. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait long as the sound of Ruby's Semblance announced her presence before she spoke, a few moments after Weiss departed. "She was kind of…"
I nodded. "She grows on you. You could have said something to her, you know? I know you were there for most of that."
Ruby shrugged. "Well, yeah—it only took me a few seconds to get my bag. I thought I'd practice my stealth and let you guys talk."
"And eavesdrop," I pointed out, to which the girl smiled and shrugged guilelessly.
"I can't help it if she sucks at situational awareness. I wasn't all that far away," the little reaper shrugged. "I hope she doesn't end up on my team."
Raising an eyebrow at that, I asked, "Oh? That bad?"
Shooting me an unamused look, Ruby began counting off on her fingers. "Loud. Nitpicky. High-strung. Made an issue out of absolutely nothing. And she was talking about me behind my back. Yang says those are the worst kind."
Snorting softly at that, I pointed out, "No, I'm sure she'd have been perfectly happy complaining to your face."
"You didn't deny the rest," the little redhead pointed out, and I shrugged. Humming, Ruby asked, "Isn't she the one you've been flirting with at night?"
I turned my head slightly to meet her eyes, raising an eyebrow as I did so. Ruby grinned and took my hand, pulling me down the path. "Where did you hear that?"
"The twins talk, you know? Neo talks more."
"Of course," I chuckled. "It wasn't exactly a secret. And we weren't flirting." Ruby gave a quiet 'mhmm' and I shook my head. "We weren't," I denied.
Ruby nodded. "Sure, I believe you."
"Trying to beat each other silly does not count as flirting," I denied.
"Somebody should've told Yang that," Ruby snarked.
Spotting a familiar pair of faces in the crowd, I grinned and pointed them out to Ruby before taking off, her hand still gripped in mine. "Come on, let's go say 'hello.'"
Ruby allowed herself to be pulled off the path and asked, "Didn't we see them in Vale once?" She frowned, trying to remember, before her eyes went wide. "No!" she dragged the word out. "Don't embarrass me in front of the upper class-men!"
"I wasn't planning to, but keep that up and you'll do it yourself," I warned her with a grin, which produced a pout before Ruby pulled her hood up to hide her face. Something about what she'd said stuck out though, and I asked, "Who even calls them that?"
"What, 'sen—?'" Ruby started to ask, only for her teeth to click closed.
Groaning quietly, I realized what that was. "You definitely hung around Jun too much at Signal."
"She was fun!" Ruby protested.
"And a bad influence." Rolling my eyes, I sidled up to the pair of girls I'd recognized. "We meet again."
The pair of brunettes spun around—one cracking a smile while the other blew and popped a bubble. "Jaune! And Ruby, wasn't it?" Velvet asked, her ears having perked up and swiveled to track me the moment I'd greeted them.
Unlike the last time we'd seen her, she was actually wearing her Huntress outfit. It looked good on her, in my humble opinion—though I questioned the practicality of a body-stocking where her armor didn't cover. For someone supposedly so shy, she was not afraid to show herself off.
The armor looked like brown leather and sort of hid the curves of her breasts, but then it was actual armor and not fantasy game armor with boob slots built in so I wasn't surprised there. The chest piece zipped up the front, came down to just under her breasts, and was short-sleeved. Detached sleeves of the same material covered her arms from the back of the hand up to a small gap at her bicep, which itself was mostly covered by brass-colored spaulders.
She also wore short shorts and a belt, along with what looked like boots or shoes integrated into her body-stocking, with a couple of armor pieces at the toe and heel. Beyond that, there was a very large expanse of leg from upper thigh down that was left covered only with the stocking. The body-stocking itself was semi-translucent, to the point where if she had any freckles they would have stood out.
'That was definitely not in canon. Then again, not exactly Rated PG either. Not like it shows off anything indecent though.'
Coco pulled down her shades enough to meet my eyes, her gaze shifting between me and Ruby. "'Sup," Coco greeted.
"Uhh, hi guys," Ruby waved from my side and I rolled my eyes.
Reaching over, I pulled her hood back, exposing her face. "You do realize it wasn't you who ran into them last time, right?" I asked her, mussing her hair again, much to her ire. "So, blatantly changing the subject, you know why we're here. What're you guys doing today?"
Velvet pulled out her scroll and checked the time. "The schedule was changed. Usually, they volunteer second years to show the incoming freshmen around the campus before the welcoming ceremony ceremony. The Headmaster changed the schedule this year, so ceremony has been bumped up to," she checked her watch, "in about ten minutes. They arranged it so that it's before Orientation this year. Meaning we're stuck waiting until he's done and we won't finish until some time before dinner."
"Is that mandatory?" Ruby asked, earning a shake of the head from the other girls. "So what's it involve?"
Coco leered down on the younger girl. "It's where we get to lead around a bunch of young, impressionable, naive freshmen—such as yourself—and show them all sorts of interesting things."
Instead of blushing, Ruby sighed and turned a long-suffering look on me. "I don't know how, but this," she pointed at Coco, "is somehow your fault." Turning back to Coco and planting her fists on her hips, she said, "I meant in comparison to, say, Signal."
"How is it my fault?" I asked, putting on my best innocent look.
"You started it," Ruby grumbled. "It's like starting something with Yang. Or Neo. You know how that goes."
Coco frowned at me. "Not even a blush? That one even got Velvet," she pointed at her friend and teammate, who blushed harder at having the obvious pointed out. Turning back to Ruby, she admitted, "It's basically the same thing here, too."
"Coco," Velvet hissed, in the same long-suffering tone Ruby had used.
"I can usually get a better reaction out of her than that," I admitted, earning a silver-eyed glare from the shorter girl at my side. "But I think she's still annoyed about Weiss complaining about her behind her back. That, or she's finally getting used to the constant teasing… Don't worry, I promise you'll have plenty of opportunities to make her blush later—she's still pretty susceptible to innuendo."
"Traitor," Ruby grumbled.
Pulling her into a side-on hug, I grinned. "We only do it because we love you. Just ask Yang."
Ruby let out a sigh and Velvet giggled, pointing at the shorter girl's face. "You got one."
"Shut uuuup," Ruby muttered, burying her face into my side to hide the blush in question.
Coco gestured towards the campus. "Come on, we'll show you where the welcoming ceremony is being held. After that, you should join our group for orientation." A small smirk crossed her face as she added, "It'll be fun."
"Well, with an invitation like that," I began, "I should probably avoid it like the plague."
"But Jaune, what's a little hazing between friends?" she asked, chuckling darkly.
"Coco," Velvet sighed. "No. Bad. We do not haze friends."
"We don't?" Coco asked, putting on a confused look. "No one told me that."
"Sounds like someone I know," Ruby groused, though from the way her lips played into a smile I got the feeling she was talking about Yang.
"Oh, you know what? You're right," Coco sent a grin at her partner. "I forgot. It's best to wait until they stop expecting it to start the hazing."
"That is not what I meant," the Faunus girl sighed.
Turning a sympathetic look on Velvet, I shook my head. "I see what you have to put up with. You have my condolences."
Coco leveled a challenging look at me over her shades. "You know, humiliation is always best when it's public…"
Ruby groaned quietly. "No. Don't. Anything but that," she said, completely flat, before snickering.
Seeing Coco's confused look, I explained. "She knows I have a bad tendency towards one-upmanship and escalation. If you start something, I'll come back at you with worse. Do we really want to start something like that, first thing this year?"
"Hmm," Coco hummed, considering it for a moment before shaking her head. "No, it'd be too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel." Seeing my unamused look, she added, "Crippled fish. Very small barrel. With a shotgun."
Sighing, Velvet palmed her face and turned a smile on Ruby. "You may want to stand far back from him when the fireworks start. Minimum safe distance is about three meters."
"Well, at least Beacon won't be boring," Ruby grinned up at me before turning her attention back to Coco and Velvet. "So, what can you tell us about our classes?"
"Oh, there's Yang and Blake!" Ruby beamed, pointing out her sister and friend in the crowd.
Blake's bow twitched and she turned around and found us at the entrance, then pointed us out to Yang, who proceeded to cup her hands over her mouth and yell across the room. "Ruby! Jaune! We saved you a spot!"
"Ugh, inside voice, Yang," Ruby sighed. Turning to Coco and Velvet, she asked, "See you guys around?"
"Sure," Velvet smiled down on the shorter girl.
Coco smirked. "Count on it." Turning to me, she said, "Remember, join the cool kids after the welcoming ceremony."
"Gotcha," I nodded. "If I see any, I'll let you know."
"You are not as funny as you think you are," Coco snarked, snagging Velvet by the hand and pulling her away through the crowd.
Ruby likewise took my own hand and started hauling me towards her sister. When I planted my feet and refused to budge, she turned a questioning look on me. "Go ahead, I'll catch up."
"But Jaune, what about…?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"What, you didn't think you were the only ones I'd have doing recon, did you? I need to have a look around for myself," I gave her a smile. Over our link, I sent, 'I need some time to get in contact with Neo and Jen and arrange a switch. I'll need you and the others to cover for us while I'm playing the Fox and Neo's taking my place. That may be easier if I'm alone when we switch and Neo, disguised as me, comes looking for you to hang out long enough for me to get my meeting with Ozpin over with.'
"Oooh," Ruby murmured. "Makes sense. Yeah, go do that. I'll let the others know."
I watched her walk away before finding an empty spot of wall near the door to post up on. Opening my scroll interface, I sent out another text to Neo while watching the crowd. 'Looks like this thing is about to kick off, since Ozpin and Goodwitch just showed up. I'd say you've got an hour, but Ozpin looks dead on his feet and according to the students we've talked to they've rescheduled things so that his speech gets done as soon as possible. Call it half an hour at most. Any word from Jen?'
A moment later, my scroll chimed with a response. 'We thought you might have forgotten that. No reply. I can get there alone if you need.'
'Give me time to contact her,' I sent back before closing the interface and physically pulling out my scroll—since, while I could send texts without looking weird, talking to someone without a scroll in hand or a hands-free set would draw attention.
Pulling up Jen's scroll from my list of contacts, I hit Dial and waited, casting Muffliato around me as I did to prevent eavesdropping. I didn't think I'd have to worry about anyone trying to listen in in a crowded room full of people talking, but better safe than sorry.
The scroll picked up on the third ring. "Jen, where are you?"
"In the air," she answered, over the sound of Bullhead engines. "Sorry. Can't text and fly at the same time."
"It's fine. Neo said you and Joan went out?" I asked, curious about that myself.
Jen hesitated a moment before answering, "Dropping her off at work."
"That's fine, you don't have to ask if you need to go somewhere—just make sure to let Neo or one of the twins know so they can coordinate. They're in charge while I'm here," I nodded, thinking it over. "As soon as you touch down, get in contact with Neo. She needs a ride to Beacon and I'll need you here as well. Ozpin changed the schedule, so we're a little pressed for time."
"Understood," the blonde agreed.
Smiling, I said, "I have to go. See you soon. Fly safe."
"Setting down now. Bye," Jen answered quietly, the words almost lost in the sound of Bullhead engines changing pitch.
Ozpin stepped away from his conversation with Goodwitch and started towards the microphone as I slid my scroll into my pocket. 'He looks… even worse under the lights,' I assessed, taking in his ragged look.
Ozpin's normally immaculate suit looked rumpled and slept in, his hair lank, and his eyes baggy. In short, he looked about ready to collapse where he stood. A glance at the bars over his head for HP and Aura showed both down to just a sliver of what they should have been—which, given there was no numerical value, I took to mean somewhere under the ten percent range.
A quick Observe confirmed what was blatantly obvious to my eyes—the man was running on fumes. 'Sleep deprivation debuff?' I wondered. Well, I now had proof of what happened if one went too long without sleep here—they stopped regenerating Aura. Or Mana. Possibly both if they had access to both.
'Funny, Observe can get a read on Ozpin but not my 'parents.' Wonder why. Doubt it's level difference. Skill of some sort maybe? Intent on his or their part? More open nature? It'd help if I actually knew how Observe worked. Maybe there's some sort of active defense component they were using against it and Ozpin's too tired to be bothered?'
Stopping in the center of the stage, he tapped the microphone once to make sure it was hot and cleared his throat, silencing the crowd of prospective students and drawing all eyes to him. I had to admit, the man had a presence to him—even if he looked like hammered shit at the moment. Glynda, by comparison, was more akin to the man's shadow—present but overlooked. "I'll keep this brief."
Opening my scroll interface again, I sent another text out to Neo. 'Jen's on the ground. Didn't want to text while in the air. She'll get in touch shortly. Let me know when you get here.'
'Will do, my love,' was Neo's reply, and I closed the interface again.
"You have traveled here today in search of knowledge; to hone your craft and acquire new skills, and when you have finished, you plan to dedicate your lives to the protection of the people. But I look amongst you," Ozpin swept his gaze over the crowd, "and all I see is wasted energy—"
I raised an eyebrow at that. 'Hearing it in person as opposed to a voice actor reading off the lines, I don't think that's the speech he had intended.'
A look at Goodwitch behind him showed a brief look of surprise and consternation before she schooled her features. 'She looks annoyed. He's definitely either off script or improvising. Given how bad he looks? Whatever speech he had planned probably got tossed out the window because he couldn't spare the attention to memorize it.'
"—Direction." Ozpin paused as quiet murmurs swept over the crowd, wobbling almost imperceptibly on his feet before taking a slow breath in. "You assume knowledge will free you of this, but your time at this school will prove that knowledge can only carry you so far."
Even from where I stood, I saw his eyes shift to single out Ruby from the crowd. "It is up to you to take the first step," he finished, and I realized that while he may have been speaking to the crowd, those words were for her and her alone.
'Question is, what's he setting her up for?' I wondered. Last I knew, canon hadn't gotten that far into the story—hell, we didn't even know what Ruby's 'Remnant Sharingan' officially did, just that it was a thing that was occasionally alluded to, and had been since the very first episode in a blatant case of the ''uh-oh eyes' trope. They may as well have put up a flashing neon sign.
Then again, I'd put off watching Volume 3, so maybe it came up in later volumes—assuming it hadn't been canceled. RT had made some questionable decisions even in the first two seasons and there had been rumors of issues between the staff, and with Monty's death that aspect of the plot may have completely changed for all I knew.
As Ozpin exited stage left, Glynda took his place at the mic. He hid it well, but the Headmaster's hand trembled on his cane as he cleared the stage and his knees looked ready to give out. "You will gather in the ballroom tonight. Tomorrow, your initiation begins—be ready. You are dismissed."
I waited for Ruby, Blake, and Yang to turn around before waving them over and looking around as students began to stream out of the auditorium, many of them not bothering to stick around for orientation and instead exploring on their own. Spotting Coco and Velvet, I made my way over as Velvet held up a sign labeled 'Group C' and began calling out, "Freshmen here for orientation!"
'What's this about a switch?' Yang sent over our links as I met Coco's eyes over her glasses again, an amused smile tugging her lips up. I felt Yang bump against my right side with her hip as she drew beside me, Blake on Yang's right and Ruby stopping at my left.
"Couldn't find any cool kids, but I suppose you'll do in a pinch," I shrugged at Coco before turning a smile on Velvet and nodding by way of greeting as she continued calling for freshmen.
'The Fox has to attend a meeting shortly. I need you and the others to act as cover for Neo while she's taking my place, then bring her back around for us to switch again when it's time for the Fox to leave. Think you can manage?'
'Sure, no problem,' Yang sent back. 'I take it she's coming in from the landing pads. Can we arrange to meet up somewhere between there and the main building, if we're with a group like this?'
'A larger group should make it easier, rather than harder,' Blake supplied. 'The timing is the biggest issue.'
'I don't like it. You're right, we'd need a lot of luck to get everyone in the right spot, and we'd have to be constantly talking to each other to organize everything. And if they're just sitting in a Bullhead waiting, that'll look kinda weird. It'll be easier if Jaune goes alone,' Ruby suggested.
'Works for me,' I agreed.
"I think this is it," Coco told Velvet, a couple of minutes later. The faunus girl nodded and lowered her sign. "If you'll all follow us, we'll be heading to the cafeteria for lunch, then we'll start the tour."
Sending the mental impression of a grin, Ruby added, 'And there's your chance. Jaune can break off to go to the bathroom or something and switch with Neo.'
I tuned them out and allowed Yang's hand on my arm to pull me in the right direction as we walked with the crowd, opening up my scroll interface again to text Qrow. 'Where is the meeting being held?'
The reply came just a moment later. 'Ozpin's office. Top floor of the tower. You got everything arranged?'
'Yeah, we're good. Who else will be in attendance?' I asked, out of curiosity.
'Besides Oz and Glynda, James and his second. Maybe one more.'
I considered asking who for a moment before deciding against it, since it wouldn't matter if whoever it was didn't show. 'Right. I'm with a group of students, but I'll break off when my escort gets here. I need about twenty, maybe thirty minutes. Is that going to be okay?'
'Should be fine, I think. Still waiting on the last one anyway. Not sure whether she'll show or not, since she was here for our last meeting and she's busy right now, holding Oz's spot with Amber while he's doing this. If they get the install finished fast enough, maybe. Oz is willing to wait and Jimmy's too much of a good soldier to complain to his face.'
The next text I sent to Neo. 'We'll try to switch somewhere between the landing pads and the tower. Let me know when you get here and we'll see what we've got to work with. Ruby suggested a bathroom switch.'
'Change of plans. Penny and Miltia are coming too,' was Neo's reply, and I resisted the urge to groan. I hated last minute changes in plans—especially when I wasn't the one making them. Still, I'd hear her out—there was a reason I'd trusted them with Fox Hunt while I was at Beacon, and it wasn't because we were sleeping together. The girls were smart.
'I'll be disguised as the Fox when we arrive. Jen, Penny, and Miltia will act as your security detail and Head of Intelligence, respectively. I'll throw out a wide-area illusion and veil us all. You and I switch places. I throw on an illusion to make me look like you while you change gear. I go with Ruby and the rest, you go with the others to the tower. Same process in reverse when we leave. Melanie's staying on base in case something comes up—we doubt it will, but better safe than sorry.'
'Okay, that'll work.' A thought occurred and I hastily added, 'Run full Aura Suppression on everyone. Don't need Ozpin and the rest getting a sample of your Auras for later comparison.'
Neo's reply was quick in coming. 'Are you sure that's not overkill? We'll be pretty much flaunting that trick if we do this.'
I considered it for a moment before coming to a decision. 'Risk is minimal vs risk of later discovery because one of them recognizes someone's Aura. Besides, Cinder's already seen it—as have Ozpin, Glynda, and Qrow. The only possible problem is you running around as me with no Aura, so try to stay away from the teachers.'
With that, I looked around and took in our surroundings. I hadn't really been paying attention as Coco and Velvet had lead us around, but a glance at my Map showed I didn't really need to since it was updating itself as we went. I made a mental note to compare it to the official map on the school website and what I'd swiped from the repository—and Cinder—later.
"And this is the dining hall," Coco announced as the group pushed through the doors. Directly in front of us, tables and chairs occupied the floor. Against the far wall was a temporary buffet-style setup with a variety of foods available, though I noted that there was what looked like a more normal cafeteria window setup closed up behind those tables. "For today, get whatever you want. If you make it through tomorrow, you'll get to visit the school dieticians and they'll work out a diet plan for you."
So saying, Coco joined Velvet, who was already moving about the various stations and picking up food. The rest of the group quickly followed suit, and we were swept along with them. I wasn't particularly craving anything in particular, so I piled a bit of everything onto my plate to get an idea of what was on offer and the quality.
I dropped into a seat a few places down from where Velvet and Coco sat. Ruby blurred across the lunchroom and sat beside me. Moving at a more sedate pace, Blake and Yang settled into the seats across from us and we dug into our lunch as we listened in on students around us asking the older students questions.
"Do they serve pancakes at every meal?" a familiar, chipper voice asked, and I rolled my eyes.
I almost didn't catch the quiet admonishment that followed, over the din of silverware scraping plates and people talking. "Nora. No. You can't have pancakes for every meal."
"They do, but if you get in late for breakfast you may have to fight for them," Velvet answered, amusement coloring her voice. "And if you eat nothing but pancakes, your dietician will get angry."
"People with broken legs can't fight for pancakes," Nora countered, her voice just as chipper, ignoring Ren's argument about her eating habits with what I suspected was the ease of long practice.
"Remind me not to get here late for breakfast if I want pancakes. I value my legs," a boy's voice spoke up from further down the line, before he asked, "Any suggestions you can share? You know, stuff you wish you'd known the first day."
Coco and Velvet shared a look before the faunus girl began. "Well, firstly, you all passed the very first part of the entrance exam."
"Do what?" someone else asked, prompting the girl to explain.
"Taking help or extra lessons when they're offered, but not mandatory. 'Not mandatory' doesn't mean 'not useful.' Those students who skipped going to Orientation in order to explore on their own will not learn that curfew tonight is at 8P.M. and that if they're late, they'll be summarily disqualified from attending Beacon."
Following Velvet up before anyone could say anything, Coco added, "And if you're smart, you'll keep it to yourselves. Less competition that way. After all, there are limited class slots."
"Seems kind of ruthless," a girl somewhere up the line pointed out. I turned my head to see where she was speaking from but couldn't make her out through the crowd seated at the table.
"Tough shit," Coco shrugged. "As for more practical stuff we've picked up over the last year… The commissary sells meal bars and water purification tablets. Buy them. Keep at least three days' worth on your person at all times. They also sell a water filtration attachment for standard canteens that runs off of Dust. I'd highly recommend it for anything over three days."
Velvet picked up the explanation. "Sometimes, you won't be able, or allowed, to start a fire in the field or during an exercise. Unless it's your day off, you're on call 24/7. Meaning you won't always be able to prepare for something like that the day of, so it's best to prepare early. Sometimes, emergencies happen, and you may be called out at any time, day or night, and not have time to do anything other than grab what's in your locker and go. Sometimes, you won't even have time for that and you'll have to make do with whatever is on your person."
"You can leave your weapons and gear in your lockers, but I'd recommend at least carrying a backup weapon around campus, just in case," Coco suggested.
Beside me, Ruby whispered, "But Crescent Rose is all I need!"
"Most of you will start making those in second year, but now is a good time to get a jump on it. Otherwise, well, sometimes the scrolls or the Rocket Assisted Delivery System fail and you're stuck in the field without your equipment," the fashionista shrugged.
'Something about that sound off to anyone else?' Yang asked, looking up from her plate to trade looks amongst the rest of us while popping a cherry tomato in her mouth.
Blake gave a small nod before turning to look down the table and ask, "Are there things you're not allowed to talk about with us?"
"Yes," Velvet agreed.
"Someone's a smart cookie," Coco grinned.
Someone else—a blond guy across the table and a few seats to my right—loudly asked, "Wait, why the hell not?"
Coco turned and leveled a glare on that end of the table. "Because we were told not to. End of discussion." Her glare faded as a small smirk pulled her lips up. "Besides, you'll find out soon enough. Assuming you make the cut."
"The success rate is really low," Velvet admitted.
Humming quietly, I asked, "So, where do the washouts go?"
"The B-cademies, usually," Coco shrugged. Seeing the confusion on the faces of those around her, she explained. "Everyone knows the names of the four biggest Hunter academies in the kingdoms. And then there's the ones you can't name, or no one bothers to, or those rare few that are so specialized only a select few ever go there. If Beacon's an A-cademy, they're B-cademies. Even our worst tend to be better than their best."
Velvet sighed, nodding once. "We pay a price for that, though. The schedules and courses for the four big academies are all harder and more thorough by comparison. Ours stands out even amongst the best. It's a bit insane at times, to be honest. The courses are selected to ensure that we turn out the most well-rounded Hunters possible. By the time you're done here, you should be able to fill in for just about any role in any team if needed. If you're dropped naked in a forest full of Grimm, you should be able to survive and make it back to civilization unharmed."
"That's not a thing, is it?" a girl a few seats to my left and across the table—wearing a lot of brown snake-skin and with oddly opalescent hair—asked. When neither Velvet nor Coco answered, the girl who'd asked groaned quietly. "It's a thing."
"Bullshit," the boy sitting to the left of me spoke—vaguely Asian-ish features, wearing a lot of green and with some kind of bow and a quiver on his back.
"We all signed the consent forms," Coco reminded. "Besides, think about it this way. Which is more useful: sticking a misbehaving or hard-headed student in the brig to sit on his ass for a few days? Or using the situation as a 'teachable moment' and coming up with something that will humiliate the students involved, serve as visible proof of the consequences and a deterrent for other students, and likely act as a practical review for the stuff they've been teaching?"
"Uh," the guy beside me muttered. "When you put it that way, it seems kind of obvious."
Velvet's smile wavered a bit. "The professors love 'teachable moments.' Even the nicest of them can be... creative. Professor Port once gave a student he caught sleeping in class his pocket knife and told him to kill the Boarbatusk the Professor had brought in."
The scroll interface of my HUD chimed as a message came in from Neo. 'Flying in now.'
I shot off a quick reply, 'Call my scroll.'
"What about—" someone began saying as the scroll in my jacket pocket rang. Fishing it out, I stood up from the table. "Excuse me a minute," I said, turning away and swiftly heading for the cafeteria doors. To Ruby, Blake, and Yang, I sent, 'Going to go swap with Neo. See you in a bit.'
Once I was outside, I pulled up my map and angled my walk towards one of the bathrooms just off the main walkway from the landing pads into campus. "Thanks for that. I needed an out other than needing to take a leak. Bathrooms in the cafeteria are convenient for students, but horrible for people trying to sneak off."
Neo's laugh filled my ear. "Yeah, it's pretty inconsiderate of them. You'd think they would be more accommodating to thieves, spies, and infiltrators. You know, put out things like random hay bales or closets to hide in."
I snorted softly. "No thanks. I don't my life becoming an IRL Assassin's Creed."
"You'll have to explain that later. We're about to land. Where do you want to switch?" Neo asked.
Looking over the map again, I told her what to look for and slipped into the bathroom to wait. A few minutes later, I stepped out with the scroll still up to my ear. I spotted Neo and the rest a moment before they spotted me and sent out party invites. As soon as they were added, Neo started walking towards me and sent, 'Illusion is up. Memory transfer?'
I smiled—it was good to have competent help. We traded places and I switched into my Fox gear. Pulling up the events of the day since we'd left, I passed them to her. 'Are we good?'
'I think so,' Neo agreed. 'Let me know when you get ready to leave so I can break off and meet back up.'
As soon as we were back in our places, 'Jaune' walked away from the restroom towards the cafeteria while my group walked into the administration building at the heart of Beacon and stepped into the elevator. Neo would let me know if something important came up.
Of all of them, the twins and Neo knew me well enough to pull off acting like me in a crowd for a few hours without constant supervision on my part, but Neo had trained to do exactly that for anyone she was mimicking.
'Are you ready?' I sent to Miltia, Jen, and Penny, giving them a quick once-over to make sure nothing was out of place.
Miltia was dressed in her Head of Intelligence disguise—the white, pointed mask covering her face and her Nameless cloak pulled up over her head and hanging about her. Her mask's four red eyes burned brightly under the unnatural shadows provided by the cloak, adding to the overall creepy vibe the outfit gave off. Even with her in party, I could faintly feel Gamer's Mind occasionally trip on the mental effect the legendary rarity bloodline items granted her, nullifying the effect for me.
Jen wore her Fox Hunt uniform with her white Atlas jacket over it, plus her personal green Fox mask.
Penny wore her 'bastard-Schnee' disguise—white hair, blue eyes, and white Fox mask and Fox Hunt uniform with a white cloak over it, which hid her weapons from view.
Getting affirmatives all around, I grinned as the elevator opened into Ozpin's office. Taking in those gathered, I raised an eyebrow under my mask as we moved out from in front of the elevator. Ozpin, Glynda, Qrow, and Ironwood, I had either met in passing or had heard of—either from those present or from the series, in the case of James. Ironwood's 'second,' as Qrow had called her, was a problem waiting to happen.
By the way Jen stiffened upon spotting her, I could see it was a surprise for her as well. 'Jen, calm down. You're okay. We're here.'
'That's not it. I need your help,' she admitted, even her mental voice was quiet. 'Do to me what you do to Miltia.'
'I can't. Ozpin and Glynda would pick that up in a heartbeat, this close. We're linked, though. If something happens, I'll know. Trust me.'
'Okay,' the blonde sent back as we fell into place—Jen to my right, Miltia to my left, and Penny to Miltia's left.
"Is this everyone?" I asked into the sudden silence of the room.
Before anyone could answer, Ironwood settled his hand on the butt of his pistol and glared at something over my shoulder. "What the blazes is that?"
Tilting my head to follow his gaze, I saw him staring at Miltia. No, it was more like him and everyone who wasn't us was staring at her. Well, us and Qrow. "A woman in a mask."
"Magpie," Miltia answered. "Fox Hunt. Head of Intelligence." Her voice came out flat and atonal, without distinguishing features—and if I hadn't heard it before it would have made my skin crawl.
"It can talk?" James asked, seemingly more unnerved, not less. "You have a human-Grimm hybrid—"
"A what?" I blinked at that, before shaking my head. "Well. That's a disturbing thought. Magpie is what happens when you make things other than weapons out of Grimm and give them to someone capable of using them. She's fully human."
Qrow cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention to him momentarily. "I've seen her around. I think. The mental effect makes it hard to remember the details—which I suppose was the point."
"Quite," Miltia agreed quietly. "Shall we proceed with the meeting?"
Ozpin smiled faintly and checked his scroll. "I believe so. Our last guest—"
The doors from the elevator opened behind us and I turned around as a woman's harried voice announced her presence. "Sorry I'm late! The guys Jimmy had doing the install took their sweet time, but we got everything switched over okay."
Lily Arc paused partway into the room as her green eyes locked onto Jen's masked form, then Penny. They stopped on Miltia for a long moment, though eventually she shook her head and moved on. Finally, her green eyes settled on me.
Before the redhead could say anything, Ozpin spoke up. "Thank you, Lily. I appreciate the break. I'm sure there would have been questions if I couldn't make it to my own speech."
"Yeah, yeah," she waved him off, asking, "Who are the newbies? I assume the tall one is the new guy in town?"
Movement from Qrow drew my eye to where he'd brought his flask to his lips to hide his smirk. 'Oh, that bastard. He knew she'd be here,' I sent to the others.
"He is," Ozpin answered, putting his scroll away. "Mr. Fox has worked with us before, on the Signal incident."
"The data theft and subsequent fire? If that is the quality of his work—" Ironwood began, and I cut him off.
"At least I was there to do something about it. I didn't see anyone else on-site stopping the theft, despite the fact that at least two members of this organization either work or live nearby," I countered, earning an annoyed look from the general, who shifted the focus of his ire to Qrow a moment later. Qrow simply shrugged in response.
"Which we appreciate," Ozpin cut in before Ironwood could say anything. "The potential damage caused if that data fell into the wrong hands... Well, I'd rather not think about it." Shaking his head, he shifted his gaze to where I knew Raven to be watching from. "Would Ms. Branwen care to join us?"
"I don't know. Would she?" I asked, tilting my head towards where I knew Raven's viewing portal to be even as Qrow groaned quietly and Ironwood turned a glare on Ozpin. 'Fuck. Ozpin can sense her portals. Well, it's not like this one's somehow my fault. Besides, given Qrow reporting on my involvement with Amber, he's sure to have told his boss about his sister having had a hand in it.'
"She's an intelligence leak," James protested.
Ozpin sighed. "James, we've been over this before. Ms. Branwen's loyalties have not changed, regardless of her lack of participation and focus elsewhere. Though, I would like to know why she is observing today."
I blinked at that under my mask. 'So, Qrow didn't tell him?'
"Yeah, sorry Oz. Meant to tell you, but you've been busy and I didn't want to add more to your plate," Qrow sighed. "She's been keeping an eye on them since the thing with Amber. No idea why she's taken an interest though. You know how it is, she barely talks to me any more." At that last, he cast a glare in the direction of the portal.
"Qrow's lackluster reporting aside," Ironwood shot the man an annoyed look, before gesturing to my entourage. "Just how many of them have been vetted?"
Quiet murmuring from Winter's corner drew my attention but no one else seemed to be paying it any attention. The woman had taken a long look at Penny before dismissing her and focusing on Jen. "Longing, rusted, furnace—"
I frowned, wondering what the hell she was saying. "I understand OpSec, General. I assure you, everyone on my side of the room has been vetted. However, I have to ask about your own shadow. Has she been vetted? And what is she going on about over there?"
That drew the attention of everyone in the room as they went silent, just as Winter finished. "—homecoming, one, freight car."
At my side, Jen stiffened and I felt something shift over the link between us. 'Control phrase? Oh fuck no,' I growled, slapping the blonde with a Forget to wipe the last thirty seconds from her memory. As everything returned to normal on her end, I sent, 'Queen just tried to remote activate something with a control phrase. You might want to do something to dissuade her from doing that again.'
Jen's fist balled at her side and, before anyone could do anything, she had crossed the room in two strides. The sound of an Aura barrier snapping and a sharp crack announced Winter's nose breaking, but the woman barely noticed as her sword cleared its sheath—which would mean very little considering Jen had her skull firmly in the green grasp of her Semblance.
Ironwood pulled his pistol, aiming at the back of Jen's head. It was there before I could react, even as I throttled up Haste, a Plasma Blade spinning up in my left hand and filling the room with chirping as I leveled it at his throat.
Two of Penny's new Dustcaster swords flicked out and pointed at Winter as she maneuvered around Ironwood, a multitude of small, evenly-spaced Bounded Field patterns lighting up along the weapons in Mass Effect blue.
Lily's sword—a one-handed weapon I hadn't gotten the chance to see during my brief match with her the day previous—cleared its sheath and shifted into a short barreled rifle that she leveled at Jen's back.
Glynda's riding crop made an appearance, but she couldn't decide who to direct it at.
Of all of us, only Miltia, Qrow, and Ozpin failed to draw their weapons.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Lily side-step around to my right. Looking between Winter and Jen, her expression shifted between shock as she recognized the Aura holding Winter and thunderous anger as she must have realized some of what was going on. Her rifle, which had been covering Jen, shifted to press against Winter's temple. "Drop the sword or I drop you. Now!"
"Arc, what the fu—" the General started to ask, only for her to shift her head just enough to fix him with a glare while keeping Winter in sight.
"Jimmy, as your friend, I'm telling you to put it away. Because if you don't, you die second," the redhead warned quietly.
Ironwood's eyes shifted between the redhead, his subordinate, and Jen before drifting down to the bright blue bar of electricity at his neck. Before he could finish running the odds in his head, Ozpin cleared his throat, speaking up to be heard over the sound of chirping birds.
"How about we all take a moment to put away our weapons, settle down, and work out what just happened, shall we?" Ozpin asked. When no one moved, he frowned and tapped his cane on the floor—and around us, the gears of the clock tower skipped a beat. "That was not a suggestion."
I met Ironwood's eye and after a beat, we both lowered our weapons—his pistol returning to its holster while I dismissed my Plasma Blade. "Snow. Green. Stand down," I ordered.
A moment later, Ironwood followed up by demanding the same of his subordinate. "Schnee, you too."
Penny's swords folded down and disappeared back under her cloak—I had yet to see her new setup, so I didn't know if she was using something similar to the old backpack or if she had traded it out for holsters—and she moved back to my side.
Lily's sword disappeared back into its sheath but Glynda's riding crop remained out as she folded her arms under her breasts.
As soon as Jen's power released Winter's head, however, the Specialist started up again with, "Rai—" only to be silenced by Jen's power clamping her mouth shut as Lily grabbed Winter's wrist and twisted hard enough to forcibly disarm her.
Turning an unamused look on Ironwood, I said, "Muzzle her or I'll do it."
"Schnee, I gave you an order. What the hell are you doing?" Ironwood growled.
Chuckling, Qrow asked, "Trouble in paradise, Jimmy?"
"Shut up, Qrow," James retorted. "This isn't the time."
When Jen's power let up again, Winter answered, "Classified, sir. Retrieval of Atlas assets. La le lu—lf," her jaw snapped shut again.
"'Atlas assets?' You bitch," Lily growled, the hand holding Winter's sword twitching like it wanted to reunite the weapon with its owner in the most violent way possible.
"I warned you," I sighed, flicking a Silence at Winter. "You can let her go, Green—but keep an eye on her. If she moves funny, grab her. Try to be gentle, if you can. Ms. Schnee is in time out for the moment. Or should I say, Specialist Queen?"
As Jen released Winter and returned to my side, Ironwood turned a frown my direction. "'Queen?'" Ironwood repeated, confusion crossing his face. "I've never heard that designation." Suspicion colored his tone as he asked, "How do you know it?"
"Oh, she didn't tell you?" I asked, chuckling under my mask. "Ladies, gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to former Specialist Sierra, of team SPTR—under Overseer King and, at the time, Specialist, Third Class, Queen. Green, the choice is yours as to whether or not you want to go mask off."
Shifting my masked face towards Lily, I added, "Though, it looks as though someone has already figured it out."
"Sir," she nodded, reaching up and pulling off the green Fox-style mask covering her face.
Qrow turned to Ozpin and put on that insufferable smirk I was pretty sure he knew pissed people off. "Told you so."
Frowning, Ozpin asked, "James? Would you care to explain?"
"I," the man looked between Winter and Jen, "I have no idea beyond that they were both in the Specialist program."
Glynda cut in, asking, "What is the Specialist program? We know the official story, what's really going on there?"
When Ironwood frowned and opened his mouth, I cut him off. "'Classified?'" I guessed, causing his mouth to snap shut with a click.
Lily's green eyes rolled as she fixed the man with a glare. "Cut the bullshit, Jimmy. We need to know at this point."
When Ironwood remained stubbornly silent, I turned to meet Glynda's eyes and answered, "The Specialist program is—"
Winter disappeared and green light flared bright enough to leave me seeing spots for a moment.
I heard something crack at the same time the snow-blonde rematerialized a foot in front of me, her right arm twisted at an unnatural angle in the middle and clearly broken, surrounded as it was by the green light of Jen's Semblance at work. Her sword slipped from her fingers and clattered on the floor. 'Must have yanked the sword out of Lily's hand faster than she could react. Probably the only thing that gave Jen time enough to act.'
Winter's eyes, the same ice blue as her sister, stared into my own, completely devoid of emotion or pain—the same cold mask I'd seen Jen wearing so often before she had warmed up to me.
'That was entirely too close for comfort.'
Turning my masked face to Jen, I reminded her, "I did say to be gentle."
"It wasn't her neck," was the blonde's cold reply as she shoved Winter away and into the waiting arms of Ironwood. "Keep her still, or next time it will be."
Clearing my throat, I continued. "As I was saying, the Specialist program is Atlas's own little black op for creating super-soldiers. Candidates are selected from Atlas academy and sent to one of several black facilities—I'm guessing the one Ms. Arc attended has since been relocated. There, the candidates are exposed to a combination of Indigo Dust and other Dust types—in the food, in the water, and even special lights made with the stuff. This leaves them highly susceptible to suggestion and crude mental programming. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they had a few people with mental Semblances on staff to help things along."
Holding out my hand, I paused, considering what I was about to do before turning a questioning look on Jen. "May I?" At the same time, I sent, 'We have an opportunity to get both Ozpin and Ironwood on your side here. If you don't want me to, I won't.'
Jen's jaw flexed minutely as she grit her teeth, before the twitch relaxed. "Yes."
'I'll make it up to you later,' I promised.
'Okay,' came the hesitant reply.
Nodding, I cast a Genjutsu into the middle of the room, playing back select scenes from the memories Jen had shown me—a highlights reel of the worst I'd seen so far. I had already shown Ozpin this particular trick so I wasn't really concerned with showing it off again. "For unknown reasons, Ms. Arc proved more resistant than most and was able to break her programming and escape. Of course, her handler—King—sent her team to retrieve her. She put them in the ground and fled back to Vale before he could send Queen."
Lily pulled my sister into a hug and it took my enhanced hearing to pick up the words she whispered into Jen's ear. "I'm so sorry. We knew it was bad when we heard, but we didn't know how bad."
Jen stood there with her arms hanging limply at her side for a moment before casting a sidelong glance at me, as though asking for permission. I shrugged, and the blonde slowly—awkwardly—returned the hug. "Not your fault."
I agreed, the Atlas situation really wasn't the fault of the Arc parents. The girls had decided to attend schools other than Beacon for themselves and Jen volunteered for Atlas. They had no way of knowing about the Specialist program, nor would her being out of contact have been out of the ordinary while in what amounted to advanced placement training—at least, as far as they knew.
For all our parents' many fuckups, this one lay squarely at the feet of Atlas.
Turning to Ironwood, I asked, "General, I take it you weren't involved?"
"No, and if I had been involved in some sort of super soldier program, you can bet I wouldn't have been using Indigo Dust to turn out drones," James growled quietly. "I had no idea."
Tilting his head down to the woman who'd gone mostly limp in his arms at this point, apparently realizing there was nothing she could do to escape, Ironwood quietly said, "Schnee—Winter, I apologize. I should have noticed something was wrong sooner."
Turning to Ozpin, I said, "And as much as I would like to lay the blame at Ms. Schnee's feet for this, she is as much a victim as Ms. Arc—save that her conditioning took somewhat better. I don't think it took entirely, or she probably wouldn't be willing to just stand there now that she's been outed. Am I right?" I asked, turning the question on the woman herself.
Winter refused to meet my eyes, giving nothing away. Ozpin sighed, leaning back in his chair. "I was going to ask her to leave anyway, but now that we know Ms. Schnee is compromised, I'm going to have to ask you not to bring her back, James. She'll need to wait outside the building until we're done. Ms. Arc and…" he trailed off, finally really seeing Penny for the first time, before his eyes shifted to Jen, then Miltia and the full Nevermore mask obscuring her face, then back to me.
"Interesting," Ozpin murmured. "Ms. Snow, I believe?" he asked, earning a nod from Penny. "Glynda, if you wouldn't mind keeping them company—and making sure they don't break anything important?"
Lily released Jen long enough to turn a fierce look on the headmaster. "Fuck off, Oz. You're not putting my daughter anywhere near one of the people who brainwashed her with just Glynda for supervision."
The redhead turned an apologetic look on Goodwitch and added, "No offense, Glynda, but even we're not sure what Jen's capable of now. I'm not sure you'd be enough to stop her if she was determined. That also applies to Winter, given that they were in the same program. You may be able to handle one of them, but I don't want to put you between them when they eventually go for each others' throats. Definitely don't want to see those two go at it on campus."
"None taken. I would hate to see students get caught in the crossfire," Glynda shook her head. "Ms. Schnee and—"
I fixed Ozpin with an amused look. "You do realize I'm just going to brief them on anything said here later, considering they make up parts of my command structure and personal security detail?"
"I told you it was a security risk," Ironwood put in.
Beside me, Miltia spoke up. "Either you want to work with us, or you don't. But make no mistake, it is an 'us' you'll be working with."
Turning a frown on the blue-black haired, woman, Ironwood's asked, "And who are you exactly?" His hands twitched as though they wanted to go for his weapon, but he kept a firm hold of Winter.
Several people blinked at that, eyes fixing on Miltia as though suddenly remembering she was there. Qrow groaned quietly. "Right. Mental shit. Forgot about that."
"Are we sure that's safe?" Ironwood asked, directing the question to Ozpin. "The danger an infiltrator you can't remember poses—"
The headmaster frowned, weighing his answer for a moment. "I believe so."
Deciding to intervene, I asked, "General, what would you do with an agent whose identifying features would be forgotten almost as soon as you took your eyes off of them?" The older man's gaze turned considering at that, and I added, "I decided to put her where she could do the most good."
Miltia took that as her cue, repeating her earlier answer. "Magpie. Head of Intelligence."
"Do you have an actual rank?" Ironwood asked, and I noted a hint of sarcasm there.
"Admiral," Miltia answered, adding, "General."
A smirk spreading across his lips, Qrow asked, "So's that mean her dick's bigger than yours, Jimmy?"
"About equal," Ironwood deadpanned. "But it's not the size that matters, it's what you do with it. Not that you would know, Qrow."
"Hey, now. I'm not the one who's—" Qrow glared, pointing his flask at the General.
"Gentlemen," Ozpin interrupted. "We do have business to attend to. But first," he gestured towards Winter. "Glynda, if you would please escort Ms. Schnee out and keep her company."
Glynda turned a no-nonsense look on the Specialist. "Come along," she demanded, moving out from around Ozpin's desk and holding the door open for Winter, who followed only after a nod from Ironwood.
As soon as the door closed, Jen said, "Mom, I'm on the clock. Please let go."
Lily shook her head. "Not going to happen."
Sighing, Jen turned a pleading look on me and I shook my head. "Mrs. Arc, I realize this has taken you by surprise, but could you please release my subordinate so she can do her job?"
Grinning under my mask, I added, "That, and she's beginning to look uncomfortable."
And just below the surface, the anger from the other day returned, leaving me silently irritated and not quite sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, Lily at least cared for her kids. Some of them, at any rate.
On the other hand, it didn't change the facts. I wouldn't begrudge Jen time with her mother—one of them, at least—especially given how much she needed exactly that sort of thing with what she'd been through.
'And really, having Ozpin and the others see her like this humanizes us—reminds them that there are people under the masks. Given how much Miltia unnerves them,in this case, I think the sympathy from Jen's situation may be worth it. It might be enough to balance out their opinion of us and shift it from 'potential threat' to 'sympathetic ally.''
Lily huffed a quiet sigh before nodding. "Fine," she muttered, releasing Jen but not moving from the blonde's side. Turning her green eyes on me, she added, "You and I will be having words later."
'So long as 'later' is postponed indefinitely, preferably until it becomes 'never,'' I did not voice.
"Now that that's settled," Ozpin interrupted, turning his gaze on me. "Can you forward me your information on the Specialist program?"
"And me," Lily added. "I'll give you my black scroll contact later."
I shot a look at Miltia, who pulled out her scroll—presumably to get ahold of Melanie. I'd made sure we kept meticulous records of everything we discovered from Jen, but I hadn't had time to transcribe everything from the last set. "We can have you something to start with soon and update you as more becomes available," I nodded. "Now, what's this meeting about—beyond the broken bird in the basement?" Ozpin flinched at that and I asked, "Is she stable?"
"'Broken bird?'" Lily echoed with a frown. "You mean Amber?" she asked, and I nodded.
"For now," Ozpin agreed tiredly. "Thanks to James, we now have the equipment to keep her that way indefinitely."
Raising an eyebrow, I asked, "When's the last time you slept?"
Ozpin chuckled and shook his head. "Too long," he sighed, settling back into his seat. "I've been keeping her stable myself."
"Ah," I nodded.
Standing from his desk, Ozpin picked up his coffee cup and walked over to a fancy-looking coffee maker in the corner. Pouring himself a cup, he turned and asked, "Coffee?"
Ironwood was the only one to accept and moved to make his own cup as Ozpin sat back down and took a long sip before turning his attention back to me. "Would you care to show us the events surrounding your rescuing Amber again, please?"
Nodding, I cast another Genjutsu into the middle of the room, recreating the scene I had showed him from my encounter with Cinder and Amber—edited as it was to protect Cinder's identity. As they watched, Ironwood frowned while Lily turned a considering look on Ozpin. When the memory ended and I dismissed the illusion, Ironwood shook his head.
"I'll admit, I was skeptical when you first described the event for me," he said, fixing his gaze on the headmaster. "Then I remembered a report from another base and dug up the footage. You need to see this."
Pulling out his scroll, Ironwood flipped through the menus before placing it down on the top of Ozpin's desk, which lit up with blue light a moment later as the scroll and desk synced. A projector built into the table itself cast an image into the air above the desk.
I resisted the urge to wince as I recognized the scene it showed—shot at range, a flock of airborne Grimm blackened the sky above Atlas as a bullhead flew away from the camera before being blown out of the sky by the streak of a missile. Of course I recognized it—I had been there in person, after all.
The fight played out, complete with Penny bisecting the Nameless and our riding off into the sunset on a pair of Griffons. Ironwood picked up his scroll and backed the image up to a good shot of Shiro and paused it there. "A woman using a Grimm to steal the Fall Maiden's power and a man who controls Grimm. Both events took place within a few weeks of each other. It's too much of a coincidence. My guess is, they're both working for her. The question is, who are they?"
Miltia and I exchanged a look and I could feel the woman's smile through our link. 'Do you want to throw yourself under the bus or should I do it for you, dear?' she sent, and I rolled my eyes.
"Is there something you'd like to share?" Ozpin asked with a quirked eyebrow, having noticed the silent exchange.
"Not sure on the woman's identity. She wasn't exactly chatty when I fought her. The other one calls himself 'Shiro' and has been running around Vale causing trouble since around the time Torchwick got himself arrested. I almost had the little shit, but he's got competent help. He's fast and has what I believe to be a stealth Semblance—invisibility, a means of making himself completely silent, and the ability to lower his Aura output to zero without relying on Bounded Fields. Beyond that? He showed no signs of anything that would point to some ability to summon or control Grimm," I supplied.
I thought a moment before adding, "Then again, magic. So who knows? If he does have some hat trick for dealing with Grimm, it may not summon them but it may be capable of controlling them if there are any present. Obviously he couldn't control that big one, so there's some kind of limit to it if he can."
"You fought both of them? The woman in red and this Shiro character?" Ironwood asked, and I nodded.
"I was following up on a lead. He styles himself as a mercenary thief and I'm pretty sure he's either working directly for her or she's hired him to do jobs in the past. That train robbery no one's talking about? That was him and one of his associates."
The General raised an eyebrow at that as his frown deepened. "There is no video footage of the train heist. How do you know—?"
"I tracked a White Fang cell to a meeting in the middle of nowhere on an abandoned rail spur. And I'm not surprised there's no footage. If his Semblance didn't make it obvious, being a ghost is sort of the guy's thing," I pointed out. "As for his partner, I saw her there. She's got a sword like his. Got close enough to eyeball the train itself and there was damage all along the top where they fought off somebody."
"I think we're missing something here," Lily interrupted, gesturing towards the floating hologram. "Back it up," she demanded. James looked about to protest, but a look from Ozpin silenced him. Backing up the footage, Lily stopped on Penny. I was very glad Penny had been in one of her disguises yesterday. "Who is she?"
"I—" Ironwood began, only for Ozpin to sigh and shake his head.
"James, we discussed this. Why did you go through with it?" the headmaster asked.
"You know why!" James ground out, glaring at the headmaster. "If it means not having to send children into battle, then it's worth doing."
Humming quietly, Qrow said, "So, that's the robot that's supposed to replace us Hunters."
"No," Ironwood denied, then shook his head. "Yes. It's complicated. Someone duplicated its hardware platform and this Shiro infiltrated one of our facilities to steal the AI that was meant to run it, then activated the android on-site."
The next words were ground out as James added, "They've made advancements to the design and used what have to be at least Grade 8 Dust crystals to power it. It's got teleportation capability and looks more real compared to ours. It moves like a human."
"We know she has someone capable of that level of tech in her employ," Lily supplied. "It's not hard to imagine he got ahold of the original designs and modified them to suit her purposes." Frowning, Lily's green-eyed gaze narrowed as she quietly added, "She looks familiar, too."
"'Him,' 'her'—you people keep dancing around a couple of names, so let me take a guess," I cut in, hopefully before Lily made the connection. A change in eye and hair color, hair style, along with clothes, did nothing to change her height and build—and I recalled that Penny had used her own face yesterday instead of trying to change it. There was a good chance Lily may put that together and start wondering why 'Jaune' was hanging out with a combat gynoid.
"The 'her' in question is Salem, isn't it?" Every member of Ozpin's little club froze at the mention of that name and turned to look at me. "Oh, should I not know that name?"
"No," Ozpin answered before Ironwood could, "but I would very much like to know how you learned it."
I shrugged. "You're not the only one with contacts. I did some digging. Admittedly, they couldn't find much—but what they did turn up was worrisome. I only got confirmation from a reliable source recently, though. So, do you want to read me in on this or not?"
"Why don't you start by telling us what you know?" Ozpin asked.
"As I said, not much. She sounds like your standard, run of the mill terrorist-slash-cult leader. Based on what he said about Shiro though," I jerked my head at Ironwood, "I'd infer she has some sort of control over Grimm."
Ozpin, Qrow, James, and Lily exchanged glances at that. Finally, Ozpin said, "That is a gross oversimplification, but good enough for the moment."
"In other words, 'need to know, and you don't need to know.' Fair enough," I shrugged. "We're all still working out where we stand, I get it."
Lily cleared her throat. "Right, moving on. Since you were the only ones not here for this yesterday," Lily began, casting a questioning look at Ozpin, who nodded permission for her continue. "We just got back from a little recon around that way."
Ironwood opened his mouth and Lily beat him to the punch. "I'll send the full report later, Jimmy. Short version: she's building up her forces. We think there's a White Fang connection there somewhere around Vale but haven't tracked that down. Qrow said he'd look into it," she said, casting a glance at the taller man, who nodded in answer.
"Adam Taurus," I tossed in, drawing raised eyebrows. "Word has it, the woman in red found him and threatened him and his White Fang buddies into working for her. He was caught in that Dust explosion a few days back."
"But his cell is still alive and kicking, right?" Lily asked, and I nodded. "Figures. There's no cutting the head off that snake. As I was saying, Jack gives it three, five years tops before something kicks off. And when it does, shit's going to get bad."
"What sort of numbers are we talking?" James asked, earning a wince from both Ozpin and Qrow.
"Too damned many," Qrow grumbled.
"Numbers and classifications are in the full brief," Lily answered without actually answering. "Suffice it to say, Qrow's right. The sooner we get out ahead of this, the better. Problem is, I don't think sending in a couple of kill teams is going to cut it."
Miltia rolled her many red eyes. "In other words: lots of Grimm. Too many for a few Hunter teams to handle alone—to the point that you'd need to start pulling teams away from kingdom defense, which would leave openings for this Salem to exploit. Gee, if only you had some sort of standing military force to defend your kingdoms while you send your elite Hunters to take care of the worst of the problem, instead of subcontracting out to other countries."
Ironwood bristled slightly under the implied insult. "Atlas is not responsible for the Vale Council deciding that cutting the kingdom defense budget, then outsourcing non-Hunter related security to Atlas was a good idea."
"This is what you get for letting the council get too big for their breeches," Lily muttered, casting a glance at Ozpin.
Shifting my gaze towards the Headmaster, he interpreted the tilt of my head as asking for details. "I don't have that much say, unfortunately," he sighed.
"Who does?" I asked, earning a shake of the head from the Headmaster.
It was Qrow who answered, however. "Money talks, bullshit walks."
Acknowledging the other Huntsman's words with a small nod, Ozpin sighed, "Moving on."
"You're doing team assignments tomorrow, aren't you?" I asked, and Ozpin nodded. "Bets on who ends up on what team?"
"I'll take some of that action," Qrow started, only for Glynda to cut him off.
"Don't," she warned, earning an annoyed look from the man. "Team pairings are chosen by the Headmaster."
I blinked under my mask and asked, "I thought you had some sort of trial or something?"
"Oh, we do," Ozpin smiled, "But the trial is only half of it."
"So how's it work?" I wondered aloud. "Not how you decide, obviously you've got a system of some sort to match up who'd work best with whom. Probably based on profiles just like the ones that Torchwick attempted to steal from Signal. I mean, how do you control for a few hundred people in a forest full of Grimm?"
"Planning. And cheating," Qrow chuckled. "Tomorrow's a catapult launch, right?" he asked, getting a nod from Glynda. "Oz controls the angle and force of the catapults. There's stuff to measure wind speed set up on poles above some of the trees in the Forest. The catapults measure your weight and there are laser scanners hidden in most of the doors."
Taking that in, I nodded. "So, you control for weight, crosswinds, drag, and so on… it's really just math."
"Correct," Glynda agreed. "The only true variable is the student and their chosen landing strategy, and by telling the students to pursue a specific goal—"
"You point them all in the same direction, so even if someone's moving faster or slower than expected, if the partner you want for 'em is further down the line, you just crank up the launch strength," Qrow chuckled.
Ozpin cleared his throat. "I wouldn't call it cheating—"
"What the hell do you call it, then?" Ruby's uncle asked, incredulous.
"Yes, well," Ozpin had the decency to look embarrassed at being called out, at least. "Team placements themselves are random, based on the order in which the pairs arrive. So while the partner pairs are not random—barring accidents, that is—the teams themselves are determined partly on who arrives first and, for this test, which piece they pick. With pieces limited and the most compatible people paired together, the first through tend to be the best of the group." Turning an amused look on Qrow, he added, "Or lucky."
"What was the point to that?" I asked of Qrow as we rode the elevator down, Muffliato already cast around us to prevent any listening devices in the elevator from picking anything up.
Qrow turned an amused look on me. "Oz is the kind of leader who likes the people working with him to feel included—even if he doesn't need anything from them right that moment."
"So that had absolutely nothing to do with me, until I brought Jen into it," I guessed, drawing the attention of the girl in question. When Qrow nodded, I asked, "You knew?" He grinned and nodded again. "And you left me to worry about nothing. Wow, Goodwitch is right. You are an asshole."
"Pot calling the kettle black, dear," Miltia countered quietly, sending a mental impression of a smile to make up for the lack of tone in her voice thanks to the items she wore.
"Shush," I warned.
Qrow blinked, casting a look at Miltia before huffing out an irritated breath. "Dust that's annoying. Can you maybe turn that off?"
"No," Miltia shook her head. "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll forget about it in a few minutes."
"That's the point," Qrow grumbled.
"Getting back on track," I said, shooting Miltia an amused look. Turning to Qrow, I asked, "Any idea what he's going to do with Winter? She can't go back to Atlas. She knows too much."
Frowning, Qrow shook his head. "No idea. Oz isn't exactly the type to kill people just because they're inconvenient or they're working for the wrong side, if he thinks he can turn them to his own ends." Turning a look on Jen, he said, "If he thinks the Fox had a hand in her recovery, he may ask you for help with that."
"Yeah, the last thing I want to do is get into a literal battle of wills with her," I shook my head. "Not without some serious help. Jen let me in. I doubt Winter would be so willing. And we're still working on Jen. Hell, we're still in the 'figuring out what was done' phase. We haven't even moved on to fixing anything, so I don't have anything useful for Winter."
"It's helping," Jen murmured from beneath her mask, having replaced it when we left the office. "Even that much."
Taking a pull off his drink, Qrow sighed as he found it was empty. "Wish there were more we could do, kid. Most of us are out of our depth on this sort of thing."
"We'll figure something out." The elevator opened and I nodded to Qrow before dropping the muffling spell and stepping out with my entourage. Spotting Neo—in the guise of Jaune—walking just outside the tower by herself.
'You were just on your way to catch up to the tour group. They're heading for the foundry. The burrito you had at lunch didn't agree with you,' Neo snickered as she took my place with the Fox Hunt group leaving campus.
I rolled my eyes. 'Thanks for that. Really. Thank you.'
'I'm sure you'll find a way to get me back for it later. Have fun, my love,' she sent back.
'You bet your ass,' I sent, shaking my head as I took off towards where my map said the Foundry was located. Neo adjusted the illusion around us so the two of us could switch back and the foursome dropped party as they headed for the landing pads.
Rejoining the tour group as they were leaving the building, I found Ruby, Blake, and Yang in front speaking with Coco and Velvet. Well, Ruby was speaking a mile a minute, everyone else was just trying to keep up. "So the school really supplies materials for weapon upgrades? What about exotic materials and components, like storage tech? Oh! And Dust? Do they supply Dust? Crescent could really use some new blade upgrades."
"Ruby, breathe," Yang groaned.
Blake shook her head. "I think she's discovered circular breathing." The faunus girl's ears twitched off to the side under her bow and she turned her head, spotting me as I made my way over.
'How did she ever get away with the bow in canon? Or do people just ignore it?' I wondered, smiling as I rejoined them. "What'd I miss?"
Ruby inhaled and Yang slapped a hand over her mouth. "Just the Foundry. It's for making, upgrading, and repairing weapons and armor while on campus. It was pretty cool. Ew, sis!"
Yang removed her hand from Ruby's mouth, wiping it off on her shorts. "I'm coming back as soon as we get some time away from classes."
"Assuming you make the cut," Coco cut in.
Ruby snorted softly. "We'll make it. Now, answer my questions! Please?"
Velvet put on a patient smile and spoke up before Coco could. "Yes, the school will supply all materials for repairs, upgrades, and new weapon development—so long as it's within reason. Usually, that means a few versions down on things like storage tech, so we should have access to the Gen 4 stuff this year for free, but they'll subsidize up to Gen 6. The materials are typically donations supplied by the companies themselves, for tax write-offs. But to prevent abuse, there is a system in place—essentially, each student has a yearly R&D and repair budget, and the cost of the components you're using can't exceed that."
"In other words, if you blow all your allowance on shiny new toys, you're shit out of luck if they break and you have to pay out of pocket to fix them," Coco explained. "And the more expensive the toy was to begin with, the more it typically costs to fix."
"So, would you recommend going cheaper on things like storage tech initially and then upgrading to newer stuff later, or getting the new stuff now because you may as well get used to it?" I asked.
"That's a 'function vs form' argument. Realistically, it boils down to personal preference and what you're willing to give up to do it. I want my gear to look amazing, so I'm willing to shell out the extra for it. My suggestion? Design your gear so that if you want to upgrade later, you can swap as few pieces as possible at a time. There's no point rebuilding your entire weapon every time you go up a caliber or add a feature. If you want to make it look good, then pay for the new hotness now, and if it breaks it'll be easier to replace. If you want to save money for a larger upgrade at the end of the year, use older tech and when the time comes you just swap out the old junk for new. But... well, if you have an amazing idea that blows everything else out of the water, go for it and damn the development cost. You can always repay it later—assuming you live that long."
Nodding in agreement with her teammate, Velvet continued, "As for Dust, yes. Beacon will supply all the Dust we need. Dust doesn't count towards your Research, Development, and Repair budget because it's expendable—so long as it's Grade 3 and under. So if you add a Dust blade to something and it breaks, feel free to replace it—though the faculty would prefer you melt down the broken blade and use it to make ammunition."
"One Dust blade? I'm thinking four," Ruby muttered, quietly enough that I knew she hadn't actually meant that as a response to Velvet. "I could add a pair of recessed blades and have them deploy so they cover Crescent Rose's forward and rear steel blades. What about another mode shift, though? I already have a straight blade mode, but with Gen 5 tech, I could rework the head and maybe add more blades to the back side..." The little redhead pulled out her scroll and began tapping away at it, lost in her own world as she allowed herself to be guided along.
I left Ruby to her plotting, turning my attention to Blake and Yang. "This could be a good excuse to make backup weapons. If Beacon's footing the bill, it'd be a shame to waste the opportunity."
"Technically, we're footing the bill. I'm sure that's part of why mandatory service is required," Blake pointed out.
"Got it in one," Velvet nodded with a chipper grin. "So if you're going to have to pay for it later, you may as well enjoy it now."
Coco chuckled at that. "So says miss 'spent six years worth of R&D in one go and still isn't done.'"
Velvet winced. "Coco," she hissed.
That got Ruby's attention. "Wait. What? You mean there's a way to get more money? And use it all in our first year? How?!"
With a sigh, Velvet answered, "I'm a Teacher's Assistant. Don't let the fancy title fool you, though. Basically, I'm a glorified gofer. I grade papers, fetch coffee or food, help administer and grade tests, tutor students, and so on—on top of everything else we do."
"She gave up her free time for shiny toys," Coco smirked.
"You forgot to add, 'and a few hours worth of time I could be sleeping every night,'" Velvet groaned. "Totally worth it, though. But I'm kind of the exception, not the rule."
Casting a glance at her sister, where Ruby appeared to be fighting the urge to drool at the prospect of six years worth of funds for weapons development, Yang sighed and asked, "So, how'd you swing that? What makes you the exception?"
Velvet's face went carefully neutral. "A few reasons. Eidetic memory helps."
Ruby pouted. "Well, that rules me out," she sighed. "Oh well, I'll just have to plan my upgrade path carefully—make sure each modification is functional, instead of a complete overhaul all at once. How much is the normal budget?"
Coco quoted a figure that made me wince. 'Jesus, that's almost as much as I paid to have Ascalon made.'
"I think we lost her," Blake smiled at Ruby, who had gone back to her scroll and was quickly pulling up various weapons' parts websites—apparently making a wishlist, now that she knew how much her allowance was.
Considering my current loadout, I said, "I think I should be good for the rest of the year, barring repair costs, and I've already got enough stuff that I don't really need a backup weapon."
"Bullshit," Yang scoffed. "Jaune, you're basically a walking armory. If we let you, you'd make backups for your backups for your backups."
I considered that a moment, then shrugged. I couldn't really deny it. At all. I duplicated everything I owned specifically for that purpose, after all. "Well," I hedged, "it's probably a good idea to track how well it does over the year and look into upgrades or modifications later. Does the budget roll over to the next year if you don't spend it, or is it a 'use it or lose it' thing?"
"I'm surrounded by weapon nuts," Coco sighed quietly.
Velvet snorted softly. "Hunter school, Coco."
"Right," Coco sighed, before turning an amused look on me. "It's a school, bankrolled by the government. What do you think?"
"They're out to screw us twice over," I supplied, and she nodded.
"Yup. Anything unspent is lost and next year's budget is cut for you. Spending it all means you can argue for an increase." Turning back to Velvet, she added, "Unless you spend it all and then some."
"That's not fair," the Faunus girl pouted.
"Anyway, we're here." Gesturing at a door set into the wall of the building we had just entered, Coco spoke up so the rest of the group could hear. "This is one of our training rooms. These things sport a fully modifiable holographic interface. You can change everything from terrain, to weather, to enemies. They're usually used to test out new techniques, Dust, or Semblances outside of actual combat."
A grin pulled her lips upwards as she continued. "Well, that's the official use, anyway. They're also used for sparring, exhibition matches, or grudge matches. For those of you who don't already know, Beacon isn't like whatever school you came from. The teachers here aren't going to hold your hand. If you have a problem with someone, you're expected to settle it yourself.
"If you go running to them with every little problem, they will make all our lives miserable. The first night of sleep I lose because one of you idiots went to Goodwitch of all people to complain about some he-said-she-said bullshit and I will drag your sorry ass in here myself and beat you like a rug."
There were a few mutterings from the crowd and Coco pulled down her sunglasses to glare across the crowd, backing it up with a respectable dose of Killing Intent for her age. "Shut up!" she yelled, silencing the crowd. "Those are the rules as laid down by the Student Council President and agreed upon by the faculty. If you have a problem with them, you can look her up in the school directory and take it up with her—but if you do, it's your funeral.
"As far as the faculty are concerned, there are only a few rules: no permanent harm, do not disrupt class, do not keep someone else from attending class, and never before a field exercise or mission. Beyond that, anything goes. Now," her gaze swept the crowd again. "I'm going to need two suckers—I mean, volunteers."
"Not it!" I called immediately, echoed by Ruby, Blake, and Yang.
Velvet giggled. "They know how to play," she pointed out to her partner, to which Coco pulled her glasses down just so we could see her rolling her eyes.
"Fine, for now," Coco grunted. "You and you," she pointed out two people in the crowd. "Take the hallway to the right. Everyone else, take the left path." Turning to our small group, she added, "You four, come with me."
We entered what looked like an anteroom that split into two halls. The right path lead down a short flight of stairs and curved around out of sight, while the left path did likewise only the stairs lead upwards—putting an entire floor's worth of space between the two levels. We followed Coco and Velvet up into a stadium set above an arena, with seats circling the open area below—which, at the moment, was barren and blank, just a circular floor of what looked like concrete.
"Alright. Anyone looking to place bets, please see my lovely assistant while I get the field set up," Coco called, moving towards what looked like a control booth set at the twelve o'clock position—or north-most end, according to my map—of the circular room. She jerked her head for us to follow as she went.
Velvet stepped to the side, taking out her scroll and putting on a huge smile. "We have a weekly tournament where, for a small fee, anyone can enter and compete and those who want to can bet on fights—either individually, or in brackets. Now, who's first?"
Following Coco into the control booth, we looked around as she moved to a computer overlooking the arena below. "So, what'd you want to talk about?" Yang asked, leaning against the glass wall and crossing her arms.
"How sure are you that you'll make the cut tomorrow?" the brunette asked, as the terrain below began to change, taking on the appearance of a boulder-strewn field with a few bare, dead trees standing or laying scattered across the arena.
"We'll make it," I answered. "Why do you want to know?"
Coco ignored the question, activating the microphone and speaking into it. "The rules are simple. The fight ends on either knockout, submission, or Aura depletion. We're using standard Tournament F rules here. For those of you that don't know what that means: your Aura bars won't replenish as you naturally regenerate Aura." A six-sided jumbotron-like screen lit up above the arena, displaying the faces and names of the two below, along with a blue Aura meter under each. "The match begins in one minute!"
Turning off the mic, Coco turned away from the control panel and leaned back against it, mimicking Yang's crossed-arm pose. "You four look close. Team-like, almost. It would be a shame if you were split up tomorrow, or if one or more of you failed." Smirking, she added, "I just so happen to have information on the exam. I was wondering what it was worth to you…"
We exchanged glances before Ruby spoke up, "So do we. It's not like we're going in blind."
"So the question is, do you have something we don't?" Blake asked.
Grinning, Yang added, "And depending on what it is, it's probably not going to be worth nearly as much as you think."
Coco frowned, apparently not accustomed to being put on the back foot like this. "I know the location, format, objectives, and rules of the test." Holding up a hand, she stopped us long enough to turn around to the mic and flip it on. "First match, begin!" she called, before tapping a series of controls that started a timer and sounded a buzzer. Once she was done, she turned back to us.
"We have most of that," I countered as soon as she turned off the mic again. "What are the rules?"
'We do? You found out the rest?' Blake sent.
'Ozpin confirmed what we already knew earlier,' I bent the truth. Ozpin had confirmed it earlier, actually—just far, far earlier than I was implying. No, what Ozpin had given me today was... worrisome. The man had plans of his own for the formation of partners and the means to carry it out.
A thoughtful look crossed her face for a moment before Coco offered, "It'll cost you a quarter of your R&D budget. Each."
"Get fucked!" Yang blurted immediately, her eyes going wide.
A flash off to my left caught my attention for a second, and I turned to see Velvet with a boxy, old-fashioned camera in hand and taking pictures of the fighters below. 'Is she into photography, or just some sort of fighting/weapon nut who likes pictures?'
Coco pulled down her glasses, sweeping Yang's form up and down once with her brown eyes. "Nope. Not an equivalent offer."
Before Yang could retort, Blake held up a hand to stop her. "Velvet. You're trying to recoup her spent budget."
"No," Coco denied, earning dubious looks from pretty much all of us. "I'm trying to get her more."
"That makes more sense," Ruby agreed with a nod. "Now I really want to know what she built that cost six years worth of funds and still requires more."
"Unfortunately, we're not the suckers you're looking for," I shook my head. "However," I muttered, turning my attention to the crowd. I had spotted her Sigil on my minimap in the crowd with us, along with Pyrrha's… "I know someone who would and could pay that. In cold, hard cash no less. You tell us the rules, I'll send them up."
Coco snorted, looking out the window herself for a moment. "What's to stop me from skipping you and going to Schnee myself?"
I rolled my eyes and pulled out my scroll. Keying in one of the speed-dial entries, I waited. Two rings later, Joan answered. "Jaune? What's up? I thought you would be in orientation by now."
"We are. Quick question. Did you ever see a 'fetch the relic' type Initiation?" I asked.
The Eldest Deadly Sister hummed, even as Coco turned away. "Yeah, the twins were in one. Why?"
Grinning, I asked, "What are the rules? We know you're supposed to be catapulted across the Emerald Forest and retrieve a couple of relics, but beyond that—"
"Jaune, listen," Joan cut me off, her voice sounding urgent. "There are no rules."
I blinked. "None. As in—"
"Yeah," she agreed, "killing is permitted. Frowned on, but permitted. If I had known what type of Initiation it was going to be, I would've warned you this morning." Sighing as someone said something in the background, she said, "Look, I've got to go. Be careful tomorrow. Okay?"
"We will," I promised. "Thanks."
We said our goodbyes and I pocketed the phone. "So," I turned to Ruby, Yang, and Blake. "No rules. Everything is permitted. Up to and including killing." Spotting the frown on Coco's face, I asked, "Want me to get the Snowflake?"
"Would you—" Coco began, only for Ruby to cut her off.
"Be right back," the redhead grinned, before taking off in a burst of rose petals.
Coco huffed a frustrated sigh. "I don't get you."
"Who says we can't both have what we want?" I asked. The buzzer sounded in the background, announcing that one of the two 'volunteers' had lost.
Coco turned her attention back to the mic for a moment. "Anyone interested in volunteering for the second match, see Velvet. If no one has volunteered within the next five minutes, we'll pick two candidates," Coco announced, shutting off the mic again as Ruby returned the same way she'd left. "Huh. Maybe you really will pass tomorrow."
When Weiss showed up, we got a surprise in the form of Pyrrha tagging along with her. "Uh, hello," she waved, smiling somewhat awkwardly as she followed Weiss inside.
Ice blue eyes took us all in, narrowing into an annoyed look at Ruby, before stopping on me for a moment. After a quick round of introductions, Weiss asked, "What's this about?"
"So, how would you like to know how the teams will be determined tomorrow?" Coco asked, her lips turning up into a grin.
Frowning, Weiss asked, "What's the catch?"
Coco quoted her figure and Weiss blanched. It was half of what she'd asked for our group's total. "Take it or leave it," the brunette gave the ultimatum.
Pyrrha shrugged, turning towards the door. "I don't really care to know," she admitted.
Seeing that, Weiss growled quietly under her breath. "Fine! I'll get it to you later." Reaching out, she snagged Pyrrha by the elbow and held her in place. Casting a look our way, she asked, "You already know, don't you?"
"Jaune's sisters went to Beacon, so we kind of had inside information," Yang shrugged.
Weiss nodded before turning her focus back to Coco. "How are they decided?"
Humming quietly, Coco turned away and asked into the microphone, "Contestants ready?" On some signal from Velvet, she adjusted the settings and the terrain below changed again. "Same rules as before. Fight begins in one minute at the buzzer!"
The mic clicked off and Coco turned back to us. "You'll gather in the morning at 8 A.M. on the cliffs overlooking the Emerald Forest. There, you'll be launched by catapult into the Forest. The first person you see upon landing will be your teammate. Don't bother arguing with the staff, they won't change who you get after the fact. In fact, depending on who you try it with, you may get on their shit list, and it's your funeral if you do.
"Following your landing and partnering up, you'll have to navigate through the Forest to a small shrine on the northern end, where you'll be tasked with retrieving a relic. If the pattern holds true, this year's relic should be chess pieces. Whichever partner pair grabs the matched chess piece to yours will be the other half of your team—king with queen, bishops, knights, rooks, pawns, all of them divided by white or black."
"Wait," Weiss said, holding up a hand. "Even if you counted out every single pawn, pairing pawn A with pawn B and so on, just to pad the numbers instead of counting pawns as two pieces per set, that means it's only possible for there to be sixteen teams between both sides. There are hundreds of prospective students here! You're saying only sixty-four will pass?" Coco shook her head at that. "…So, the pawns are counted once?"
"Yup," Coco smirked, popping the 'P.' "Competition's tough. Five teams per class this year. Meaning there's a maximum of forty survivors. And I do say 'survivors' because as for the rules… well, there are none."
Weiss blinked. "No rules? At all?"
"I know I keep saying this, but for some idiot first years we really have to hammer it home. You signed the waivers," Coco cut off any further protests. "And while the professors will frown on killers, well… it has happened in the past and we are trained to fight against and put down sentient targets, not just Grimm. Usually, though, the ones attacking other applicants for their pieces just rough them up a bit.
"Be thankful it's not an Elimination type selection this year. Those are fun from what I've heard, and they cycle through every few years so we should have one coming in the next year or two. Basically, all the upper years get to go set up camp in the Forest the day before, it lasts all day, and only the ones who make it out get to pass. The actual students aren't supposed to kill anyone, but accidents happen."
The buzzer sounded and Coco turned back to the mic. "Last round, then we'll break up for the day. Velvet will be choosing this round's competitors."
"This doesn't change anything," Blake shrugged.
Yang turned an annoyed look on the Faunus girl. "No, just makes it potentially lethal."
"And the life we're choosing isn't?" Blake countered, raising an eyebrow.
"She has a point," Weiss agreed. "I'm not backing out just because the stakes are a little higher. I won't."
Weiss fixed a look on Pyrrha, who simply smiled. "Mistral's entrance exam has similar rules, so I was honestly expecting something along these lines."
Ruby shook her head as the buzzer sounded and Coco announced the next match had begun. "It seems needlessly dangerous this early on."
"Exactly!" Yang nodded her agreement.
"Except this is the only time they can do it," Coco countered. "The faculty aren't going to pit the students that passed against each other in life-or-death battles. Not intentionally, anyway. Against Grimm? Sure. During the Vytal Festival? Accidents happen, but intentionally going for the kill or maiming someone will get you arrested. In class? Dust no. There are rules in place to prevent us from hurting each other too badly, specifically because they don't want to end a career before it's begun and waste the resources put into us."
Shifting her gaze to Pyrrha and Weiss, Coco asked, "So, you two already decided to partner up?"
"Yes," Weiss nodded.
At the same time, Pyrrha said, "No."
The pair exchanged a look, a small grin crossing Weiss' lips. "She's being stubborn."
"I'd rather just… let whatever happens, happen," Pyrrha countered.
Ruby shot an amused look my way. "I still say that sounds like loser talk."
Pyrrha chuckled quietly while I rolled my eyes, before turning my gaze to Weiss. "What part of 'launched by catapult' was hard to understand? It's random." Well, semi-random—not that I was going to tell her Ozpin had the launch down to a science.
Before the girl could argue, the buzzer sounded and Coco turned on the mic again. "That's it, folks. Good luck during the test tomorrow. I'd suggest heading back and making an early night of it."
The door to the control booth opened as Coco killed the mic again, allowing Velvet to enter and make her way over to Coco. Counting out Lien, Velvet handed her partner a stack of plastic cards before turning a smile on Ruby, Blake, Yang, and I. "We're pretty much done with orientation so we're heading back to our dorm. If you guys make it…"
Coco picked up where Velvet left off. "Swing by some time and we'll introduce you to the boys."
"Will do," I agreed. Digging out my scroll, I brought up the option for number exchange and held it out. Velvet smiled and tapped her scroll to mine, swapping our numbers, and Coco followed suit a moment later, before the pair did the same with the rest of the girls, minus Weiss and Pyrrha. "See you two later."
"Later," Coco agreed, tossing a wave over her shoulder and pulling Velvet along and out of the booth.
Turning back to Pyrrha and Weiss, Weiss huffed out a sigh and turned for the door. "Come on, let's go. We can continue our discussion over dinner."
"Sounds fun," Yang agreed as we followed the heiress out of the control booth to the stairs. "But isn't it a little early for that?"
Blake shook her head. "Not really. As Coco said, it might be wise to turn in early tonight."
"A soldier or Hunter should take advantage of food and rest as they're available," Pyrrha spoke up. "Because it might not always be."
"Agreed," I nodded. "So, as I was saying, the partner pairs are random. Headmaster Ozpin plans to literally let the chips fall where they may."
Weiss scoffed at that, shaking her head. "It's only semi-random, if you think about it."
"What do you mean?" Pyrrha asked, raising an eyebrow as we exited the building and made our way towards the cafeteria.
Smirking, Weiss took out her scroll and waved it once before pocketing it. "Think about if. If we knew beforehand who we wanted to partner with, all it would take is staying in touch. Call your partner, figure out where you are, meet up, then make your way to the objective. Then call the other half of the team you want, pick up two chess pieces that match, and stick around to give them the other half of the set. It's only random if you don't plan."
I shrugged. "Fair enough, you could game the system that way I suppose. You'd have to be careful about avoiding un-partnered people before meeting with your partner, though."
Blake hummed. "Even that's not really random," she pointed out. "Some of us have means of maneuvering, once we're airborne." At that, Weiss' face lit up in a grin that would make the Grinch green with envy, before swiftly pulling it back into a neutral expression.
"That only makes it semi-random, since you can't account for every variable," I countered. "Launch timing, wind, other people, Grimm, and so on."
Entering the cafeteria, we put the conversation on hold long enough to put together a couple of plates and took an unoccupied table some distance away from the serving stations. "So, who were you guys looking to team up with?" Yang asked as we dug in.
"Not sure yet," Weiss shrugged. "I haven't seen anyone that truly stood out as worth pursuing yet. You four come the closest, but you're clearly already planning to get into a team together."
"Most of us are," Ruby grumbled, turning a look my way.
Reaching out, I patted her arm. "I didn't say I was against it, just that the odds aren't in favor of it. Even if we plan, and plan, and plan some more there are still ways things can go wrong tomorrow. No plan survives contact with the enemy."
"Then you don't have enough plans," Weiss rolled her eyes.
"Okay," Blake's eyes narrowed on the snow-blonde. "You want to partner up with Pyrrha. She clearly doesn't care one way or the other—or, at least, she's willing to humor you."
Pyrrha smiled at that. "I left Mistral to escape the fame, media, politicking, and social parasites—people looking to be 'friends' only because I was famous. I came here to make friends, but I knew I couldn't escape it entirely. Weiss, in her own way, at least is honest in her intentions."
"I want the best possible partner. I'm not going to pretend you're some nobody. Those kind are the worst, because you never know if they're being honest or not," Weiss shook her head. "Besides, you'd have to live under a rock not to know the name 'Pyrrha Nikos.'"
Sending the heiress an amused look, I pointed out, "Knowing the name is not the same as knowing the person. Like any athlete, all you know is their name, their looks, and their record. You know nothing about them as a person."
"That can come later," Weiss shrugged.
"Ideally, it should come first," I countered, before admitting, "But to be fair, this situation is not ideal and most people won't get the choice. For the majority of people, their partner will be random and they won't know anything about them beyond the most obvious."
"Doesn't apply to us," Blake cut in. "Now, suppose Pyrrha changes her mind between now and tomorrow and decides she doesn't want you as her partner and will do everything she can to avoid it. How exactly would you plan around that?"
Weiss narrowed her eyes in thought for a moment. "Start with launch. If that doesn't work, pursue through the forest then pick the same relic. If we got separated even further, get to the relics as fast as possible and wait."
"What if she's faster than you?" Yang asked, trading a look with Blake.
"Run above tree-top level to skip the Forest. It would suck, but I have the Aura and Dust for it," Weiss shrugged.
Blake shook her head. "The air is full of Grimm."
"Run through the trees, then."
Blake hummed, nodding. Yang asked, "What if she arrives in a group?"
Weiss grinned. "Observe how they arrive—their placement, who is talking to whom, and so forth. Then wait and see who picks what piece."
"And if they pull a bait and switch?" Yang added.
Rolling her eyes, Weiss asked, "I don't think anyone would go that far—"
"I would," I countered. "If I had a specific plan in mind."
"See?" the blonde on my left grinned. "Well?"
Turning an annoyed look on me, Weiss grumbled, "Then I suppose it would come down to either luck, or bartering with the other half of the team to trade pieces."
"Double bait-and-switch," I grinned, getting in on the action just to rile her up.
"What?! Explain," Weiss demanded.
Using my fork, I arranged a few vegetables on my plate. "These two, this pea and this carrot, arrived together in a group with this bellpepper and this piece of corn—pea with carrot, bellpepper with corn. You assume those are the actual groups. They pick the same pieces. You, Snowflake, want to be paired with the carrot, so you barter with the bellpepper to take their piece. They agree. The bellpepper is actually the carrot's partner, and you're now stuck with the pea and the corn."
Weiss opened her mouth, and I added, "And just for fun, triple bait-and-switch: as soon as you accept the piece, they all replace their pieces and grab new ones, then leave—sticking you with whatever you've got in your hand."
"That's our Jaune. A master baiter," Yang grinned, earning a groan and a smack from Ruby. At the same time, I palmed my face while Blake rolled her eyes.
"Yang. No. Bad. Bad Yang!" the younger girl chastised. Pyrrha giggled and Ruby turned an annoyed look on her. "No! Stop! Do not encourage her! You'll only make it worse."
Weiss, however, disregarded the shenanigans, turning a calculating look on me for a moment before her gaze flicked to Pyrrha. "Then I suppose I'd better make the first attempt count," she murmured, turning her attention back to her plate.
"You know," Pyrrha began, a thoughtful look crossing her face as she turned an amused look on Weiss. "You two might not make a bad pairing. You love making plans and Jaune appears to love throwing a wrench into them."
Weiss looked up from her plate for a moment and met my eyes. Throwing her an amused look, I grinned. "Could be fun," I teased. "You know what they say, Snowflake. Friction makes sparks fly."
"Absolutely not," Weiss denied. "I'd murder you in your sleep."
"He snores," Blake nodded in agreement.
Turning a hurt look on the Faunus girl, I protested, "I do not! Besides, at least I don't li—"
Golden eyes went wide as Blake cut me off. "Shut up!"
"And that's too much information for me," Weiss sighed, standing up from the table. "Good night." Turning to Pyrrha, she asked, "You coming?"
Casting a look around the table, Pyrrha nodded and stood. "Sure. Hope to see you all again later. Good luck tomorrow."
"You too," I said, which was echoed by the others. Once the pair had gone, I asked, "So, we ready to go too?"
"Dessert!" Ruby demanded, before disappearing for the dessert table.
"Oh, yeah, I could go for some chocolate cake," Yang quickly hopped up as well.
Sharing a shrug with Blake, we followed. As I selected my own dessert—a bit of chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top—and returned to my seat, I turned over everything I'd learned during the meeting with Ozpin and his group. 'I am in so far over my head… Well, at least I don't have to juggle Shiro and Cinder for a while, so there's that.'
My spoon scraped my plate and I blinked, looking down to find the smeared remains of dessert I didn't remember eating. "Are you back with us?"
Turning an amused smile on where Blake was sending me a concerned look, I shrugged. "Sorry, a lot on my mind. Tomorrow's a big day." That said, I sent to the group, 'Trying to sort through everything I found out during that little meeting with Ozpin and decide where to go from here.'
'You're not going to share, are you?' Yang asked. Aloud, she said, "Ready to call it a night?"
"Sounds like a plan," Ruby agreed, popping up from the table and taking my hand as her sister and Blake followed. "I want a shower."
"Shower sounds nice," I agreed, allowing myself to be pulled along. 'Sorry, guys. Not tonight. Soon, though. When everything settles down and we've got some time to talk without being interrupted, or observed.'
Curiosity and worry spilled across the link from Blake before she sent, 'Then it's bad. What—an 8 or 9 on a scale of 10? Immediate danger or something we have time to prepare for?'
'Yeah, about that. And we have some time, I think. Probably less than we'd like, though. Initial estimates are between three and five years. My gut tells me less.'
Further conversation on the topic was put on hold as we found the ballroom, which had been converted into a communal sleeping area for the night. Glynda glanced up from where she stood in front of the doors with a tablet-sized scroll in hand as we approached. "You're early," she pointed out. "Turning in for the night?"
"Yep!" Ruby nodded.
"Well, maybe. Depends on where we're supposed to shower and change. No point heading in if we're just going to have to leave and come back," I said.
Frowning, Glynda checked something on her tablet before sighing quietly. "My apologies. It seems Ms. Adel forgot to inform you of some things. I will be having words with her," she said, her voice tinged with annoyance and a hint of threat. "The ballroom has an attached locker room—where you'll store your gear tonight until you're assigned a permanent locker tomorrow, should you pass—along with showers. It's on your right as you enter."
Green eyes shifted between Blake, Yang, and myself before focusing on Ruby as Glynda added, "Like most of the facilities in Beacon, it's coed. If you would prefer private accommodations, I can arrange something. Several students have already made the request, so don't hesitate to ask if you feel the need."
Ruby turned a confused look on the teacher, asking, "Wait. You mean they're for everyone? At the same time?"
"That's what 'coed' means, sis," Yang sighed. "Didn't they go over this… oh. That was supposed to be this year for you," she muttered.
Glynda nodded. "That is correct. There are small, attached private bathrooms with a shower in each dormitory unit, but for the most part you should be using either the locker rooms or bathing facilities. As I said, arrangements can be made if needed while on campus but in the field, privacy is a luxury that you most likely won't have available. That's why the facilities are coed—to get you used to the idea in a safe environment, so that when you are in the field, you aren't distracted."
"Makes sense," I nodded in agreement. Ruby turned back to the three of us and I shrugged. "Go ahead, we'll meet you inside."
Coughing quietly to catch our attention, Glynda turned her intense green eyes on me. "While the facilities are coed, there is to be no horseplay and no… shenanigans."
I rolled my eyes, earning a mild glare from the woman. "I don't think you'll have to worry about that from us, Ms. Goodwitch." My lips twitched in a grin. Something about the woman's attitude made me want to antagonize her—ruffle her feathers and get some sort of reaction out of her, but caution and Joan's warning not to mess with her won out.
Despite her attitude and demeanor, she wasn't that much older than Joan—making her thirty at most. 'If she keeps that up, Aura or no she'll have wrinkles before she's thirty-five.'
Yang took my arm and began pulling me inside. "Come on, let's get a good spot. We'll see you in a few, sis."
My eyebrows crept towards my hairline as I heard a quiet growl from the little reaper before Ruby hurried after us, Blake trailing in her wake. I turned a questioning look on the redhead, who blushed but refused to leave. "She's right. May as well get used to it," the shorter girl muttered.
I opened my mouth to argue, but a silver-eyed glare cut me off. Apparently, 'stubborn' had won out over 'embarrassed' today. "Okay, then," I finally nodded. Turning a glance back to Blake, I raised an eyebrow. 'What about your bow?'
'If we pick a spot near the back, I can probably use you and Yang to block lines of sight from anyone else. Once I'm under the water, they shouldn't stand out,' she suggested. 'As far as Faunus traits go, mine are fairly easy to hide.'
'Not that I'm encouraging you to hide them. I happen to think your ears are cute,' I sent, earning an eye roll and a faint smile in answer.
Yang pushed open the door to the locker room, holding the door for us and fishing out her scroll. "I've got number ninety, what about you guys"
"Sixty-three," Blake answered after a glance at her own scroll.
"Seventy-two," Ruby supplied.
Visibly checking my own scroll, I hummed. "One-one-seven."
We split up to change out of our gear and I made my way over to my locker for the night. The place was a bit crowded, but not so much that it was uncomfortable—I guessed most of the students hadn't gotten around to calling it a night yet. Opening it up with my scroll, I hummed as I found a robe bearing the Beacon logo stitched over the breast neatly folded on one of the shelves.
I unslung the backpack from my back and stuffed it inside before hitting the quick release straps for my armor and weapon holsters. Hanging what I could on the pegs provided and piling the heavier pieces at the bottom of the locker, I quickly stripped out of my clothes and pulled on the robe. Closing the locker, I made my way over to the shower area.
The locker room was divided into three sections: a section for lockers for gear, a section for locked cabinets that held toiletries, towels, and other shower supplies, and the last section for the showers themselves. Seeing that the cabinets lining the walls of the second room were all numbered, I made my way over to the one labeled 117. Sure enough, it opened for my scroll. Shrugging, I tossed my scroll inside and grabbed soap, shampoo, and the supplied wash cloth before closing it. The screen flashed a four digit code before clicking locked.
Before I could turn for the shower, a pair of arms slipped around my neck and a warm body pressed flush against my back. "Glynda said no hanky-panky in the showers," I sighed, turning an amused look over my shoulder on Yang, whose robe hung open at the front.
The blonde put on her best innocent look. "I'm not doing anything. And no she didn't, she said no shenanigans."
"Yes you are, and they're the same thing," Blake snarked as she drew alongside us, before jerking her head towards the showers. "Come on."
With a quick hop, Yang pulled herself up onto my back and wrapped her legs around my hips. "Mush!"
"Yang," I began, reaching back and cupping her ass. "You realize you're giving anyone to the side of us a free show, right?"
"Hmm," the blonde on my back hummed, before smirking and leaning forward to nip at my ear. "Let 'em look, you can't see much. That's all they'll be doing. First one to touch me gets his hands broken. Now, forward!" she pointed from over my shoulder.
I shot a look at Blake, who sighed. "Yang, I'm trying not to draw attention," Blake reminded.
"Yup. Which is why this plan is perfect. They'll be too busy looking at me to notice you," the blonde nodded as I carried her into the shower room and Blake followed.
"That plan's not actually half bad," I muttered, heading for the back of the room. A look at the wall confirmed my hopes—there were hooks for the robes, so we wouldn't have to throw them on the floor or go back to the cubby holes to drop them off.
Thankfully, there were only a few other people here at the moment. 'Most of these people won't be here after tomorrow anyway,' I mused.
There were few enough people that everyone there had one of the four-person shower units to themselves. Depositing Yang on the ground, I pulled off my robe and hung it on the closest wall hook before moving to the shower and flipping on the hot water. I groaned quietly as it washed over me.
Blake positioned herself directly in front of me, putting the pole the shower heads were mounted on and my body between her and most of the room, while Yang took up the spot on my left, effectively hiding the faunus girl from view. "So, where's Ruby? Did she get lost?"
"I think she chickened ou—" Yang began, only for the sound of Ruby's Semblance to announce her presence and cut the blonde off.
Looking over my shoulder, I spotted a red blur crossing the bathroom. The redhead's eyes went comically wide as she tried to stop on the slick floor and failed, sliding straight towards us as her arms pinwheeled madly at her sides.
I had time to think, 'Oh, this is going to suck,' before turning around and catching the girl as I anchored myself to the ground with Surface Walking to keep either of us from slamming into the shower, or the walls. Ruby slapped face-first into my chest with a meaty smack! and explosion of rose petals, along with a flash of red and white Aura. I quickly closed my arms around her to keep her from falling.
"Ow," I muttered, looking down to the girl in my arms. "You okay down there?"
"No," Ruby whined pitifully.
"You hurt, sis?" Yang asked, mild worry in her voice as she made her way over.
"Just my pride," Ruby whimpered. "I think it took a critical hit."
"Well, nice as this is," I began, squeezing the girl in my arms and earning an 'eep!' as she finally registered just where she was, "you should probably let go before someone gets the wrong idea and sics Goodwitch on us."
Ruby jumped away like she'd been burned—an idea lent support by the full body blush she sported. "Oh Dust, just kill me now," she whined, quickly yanking off her robe and throwing it on the hook before stepping under the shower to my right and hanging her head, letting the water pull her hair down over her eyes.
"Could've been worse," Yang grinned. "You could have fallen on your ass and given everyone a show if the robe came loose."
Blake turned a scolding look on the younger girl. "No more Semblance in the showers."
"Yes, mom," Ruby stuck her tongue out.
"She's right, you know," I pointed out, grabbing the shampoo as I began the task of actually getting clean as opposed to simply enjoying the water. I had to wonder though, given both Summer's death and Raven's... child abandonment, if they didn't say things like that in order to help get past it.
"Don't finish that," both Yang and I cut the younger girl off.
Ruby's face scrunched up in disgust. "Ew. Ew ew ew! Now it's in my head!"
"It's your own fault," Yang sighed, holding out her fluffy whatever-it-was-called. "Wash my back?"
"Sure," I agreed as the blonde turned her back to me. Movement from Yang's other side caught my eye as Blake passed Yang her own cloth thing.
"That's not fair. Who's going to do my back?" Ruby sighed.
Rolling my eyes, I finished up Yang before taking Ruby's and gesturing for her to turn around. "Whipped," Yang chuckled.
"Totally," Blake agreed.
I shot the pair an amused look. "I'll remember that the next time you want something special, intimate, or otherwise fun. Wouldn't want to look whipped, now would I?"
Blake and Yang exchanged a wide-eyed look before the blonde shook her head. "I take it back," Blake quickly said.
"Don't cut me off!" Yang whined.
"Now who's whipped?" Ruby giggled. "Ooh, that's nice. Lower?"
The blonde at my side snorted softly. "Someone's feeling brave." Ruby turned an annoyed look on her sister before sticking out her tongue. Returning the gesture, Yang grinned. "They grow up so fast."
"Right, you're done," I passed Ruby her floofy thing back. A bundle of blonde energy and curves molded against my back and I groaned softly as Yang rubbed her soft, soap-covered skin against my own. "Yang. Stop."
"Not shenanigans," the blonde leered. "I'm just helping you get clean and returning the favor."
"And if you don't stop, I'm going to push you down and fuck you on the floor in front of God and everybody," I growled softly, which only made the girl laugh.
"Fine, fine," she nodded, stepping back. "So, we're sneaking out later, right?"
I sighed, casting a glance down and gesturing at the obvious physical reaction to Yang's teasing. "What do you think?"
From my other side, I saw Ruby had frozen in place. Noticing my gaze, silver eyes tracked up to my blue, going slightly wide before she broke eye contact. I was not oblivious to the fact that she continued peeking every now and then, however. Not that she hadn't been before, but this was blatant.
"Dibs on tomorrow night," Blake called quickly. "Are we done?"
"Give me a minute for this thing to settle down. I don't need to walk out with my robe hanging off a hat rack," I muttered, glaring at Yang.
"I have an idea." The mischief in the blonde's eyes caused warning bells to go off in my head. Her eyes darting over to the shower knob told me exactly what she had in mind.
"Woman," I glared, earning a catty grin. "Don't you dare." Yang's hand began creeping towards the knob. "Don't you dare." Her hand grasped the knob and turned it over to 'Cold,' before she grabbed her robe and bolted for the door, cackling while I cursed at her back.
"And there she goes," Blake sighed as I hurried to cut off the freezing water.
We grabbed our robes and I stalked towards the door, Blake and Ruby following. "Going to kill her. Ruby, I am going to smother your sister in her sleep."
The little redhead rolled her eyes. "Don't bother, it'll just encourage her."
Hurrying back into the locker room, we toweled off and changed into sleeping clothes for the night. Leaving the rest of our gear in our lockers, we made out way out into the ballroom where we found a quiet place off to one side to bed down for the night. Surprisingly, the crowd was much thinner from this morning. That was when I remembered the warning Coco and Velvet had given us. 'Ah, so we lost about a third of the people who were trying out because they couldn't be bothered to go to orientation. Well, less competition for us, then.'
"I'm so excited! I don't think I'll be able to sleep," Ruby bounced atop her sleeping bag.
"So, did you two find anyone interesting?" Yang asked, dropping onto her bag beside her sister and propping her head up with one arm. My eyes trailed down to where her short-shorts and shirt had ridden up, exposing her toned thighs and midriff. Meeting my eyes as they trailed back up, Yang winked as a grin pulled her lips upwards.
Ruby shrugged. "No one I want to partner with." Turning an annoyed look on me, she added, "I still think this is a dumb plan. We should just try to get on a team together."
Humming, I opened up my sleeping bag and dropped into it to sit cross-legged. "Name a color that contains the letters R, B, Y, and J."
Yang opened her mouth, frowned, then closed it with a click. "There isn't one," Blake supplied, not bothering to look up from her book.
"Nope," I nodded. "Not one that doesn't suck and require twisting things anyway."
"JYBR, if you called it 'Cinnabar' maybe," Blake suggested. "Or Jasper."
"If we throw in last names, ARBY could, with a stretch, make Ebony. AYBR could be Amber, I suppose," I supplied. "Full breakdown of possibilities is: JA, RR, YX, BB. Remove the repeats and you've got JARYXB to play with, but you can't have both JA or YX. That gives you four possible combos: JRYB, JRXB, ARYB, and ARXB—or variations on those."
Ruby grinned. "Why not JBRY: Jazzberry?"
"Ugh," Blake grunted.
I pulled a face. "Terrible."
"ABRX or ABRY could be Auburn," Yang pointed out. "And it works regardless of the order of the last two places."
"Yeah," I agreed, "That, Ebony, and Amber are some of the very few that don't suck." Grinning, I added, "You also have to account for all the team names currently in rotation—at least within Beacon, possibly all four of the academies since, if they work together often, they wouldn't want confusion over repeats."
"Okay, but that's a dumb reason for not being on a team. It's not like the headmaster chooses teams based on their names," Yang countered.
Turning a page, Blake sighed, "Yang, it's pretty obvious he already has someone in mind." Looking up, golden eyes met my blue and she asked, "Pyrrha?" Her bow flicked once and she added, "Possibly the Schnee?"
I grinned. "Maybe. I could see it. If we substituted Pyrrha for Ruby, we'd get Team PBJY—Peanut Butter and Jelly."
Blake shot me a funny look, mouthing those words out to herself and shaking her head. "Disgusting."
"Pretty sure teams are also only ever one word," Yang countered.
Ruby snorted a laugh before quickly covering her mouth. "Almost worth it just for that. 'So,'" she began, pitching her voice up a bit, "'what's your team called?'" Her voice pitched down and she sent a mischievous look at me, "'Team PB&J.'"
"I do not sound like that," I deadpanned. "And if that's your Batman voice, it's terrible."
Blake raised an eyebrow. "I don't know. I've heard the 'Batman voice.' It was pretty accurate."
"Traitor," I grumbled. "Just for that, I'm going to make sure you end up with someone who will annoy you to no end."
"I thought you didn't want to be on our team?" Yang asked with a smirk. I rolled my eyes and flipped her off in reply.
"Good one, sis," Ruby chuckled. Turning a speculative gaze on me, she asked, "So, was Blake right? I could see Pyrrha—I mean, she's Pyrrha Nikos."
"Not necessarily. As for Pyrrha," I shrugged. "Weiss had a point about one thing—she's kind of a badass and having her on board would be nice. Which is why, again, I am suggesting splitting up so we can get eight people and have more talent than just the four of us. Even if it's divided as Ruby and I, and Blake and Yang, if we split into two groups we'd each have two more members who could add something to the overall team."
That, and canon teams would make events at least somewhat predictable. Maybe. Things were going to change, regardless—that was inevitable. 'My options boil down to: force canon teams and try to steer things so my future knowledge is still relevant, or take Pyrrha's approach and just let things happen, in which case that knowledge becomes mostly worthless.'
Humming at that, Yang shook her head. "I still don't like it. And wasn't Weisscream the one in Vale who you—?"
"Yes," I interrupted. "She'd be very useful to whatever team she wound up on. She just… needs some work on her attitude and someone to treat her like a normal person. I imagine that in Atlas, she's used to getting her way."
A thought occurred, and I frowned. 'And then there's the girls' reactions. They don't know and I can't tell them yet. I'm basically asking them to blindly trust that I know what the hell I'm doing.' A quiet snort escaped my throat at that. 'I sound like Jack. God, I've come full circle. I've become my father from another world.'
"What is it?" Blake asked, looking up briefly from her novel.
I considered not telling them, then shook my head. "So I think if we all cluster up at one end of the launch platform, we should be able to manage getting in pairs together. If we take Weiss' advice and keep in touch via scroll, we can arrange to meet up and get to the relics together, then pick the same pair."
Yang and Blake exchanged incredulous looks, while Ruby went wide-eyed. "I thought you wanted more people?" the redhead asked.
Chuckling, I reached out and mussed her hair. For once, she didn't protest or make a face. "I kind of just realized how that sounded and that I was being a dick without meaning to. I have—had—something in mind, but, well, it doesn't really matter. This will work out better for us anyway."
The trio of girls traded looks—and likely conversations via Telepathy—before Blake asked, "You're sure?"
"Don't say that, he may change his mind and try to ditch us again," Yang shushed the Faunus.
I winced. "I deserved that. I wasn't trying to ditch anyone, but yeah, I guess it could have looked that way. I'm sorry."
Ruby hummed. "We'll forgive you, but you're definitely going to be making up for it for a while."
"What's this 'we' stuff? You're not even dating him," Yang pointed out, earning a raspberry from her sister.
"Regardless," I interrupted the two, "there's no point worrying about it tonight. We can work things out in the morning."
"Well, at least tomorrow's going to be fun. I'm not looking forward to classes after that," Yang sighed.
I resisted the urge to groan, even as Ruby failed. "Ugh. Class."
The lights above us clicked off without warning. "Lights out," Goodwitch called from the doors. "I expect to see you all tomorrow morning, 8 a.m. sharp, at the cliffs on the north side of the academy overlooking the Emerald Forest. Good night."
With that, the doors closed and the sound of students' voices filled the ballroom again. Grinning in the low light streaming in through the windows, Yang slipped out of her sleeping bag and into mine, settling onto my lap as her lips found my own. "Every Faunus in the room and many of the other students can still see you," Blake quietly reminded. "In fact, you have an audience."
I felt a shiver run down the blonde's spine and she shifted in my lap, grinding herself down against me. "Don't care."
Sighing quietly, I mustered up a monumental effort of will and pushed the blonde back. "Bad Yang. Down girl. Don't make me get the hose."
"But-but… my night," she whined, her lips pulling into a pout.
A pillow smacked into Yang's head, thrown with deadly accuracy by her sister. "Yang, knock it off. It's just one night. Trust me, you'll live."
Grinning, I added, "Besides, consider it payback for the cold shower treatment."
"Says you," Yang grumbled. Stealing one last kiss, she fled back to her sleeping bag. "Fine. I'll just be over here. Doing… stuff."
Watching as the blonde pulled her bag up and curled down in it deep enough to hide, I shook my head and flopped back down on my own bag. My eyes flicked through my menus, quickly setting an alarm for 6:30 tomorrow. "Right. Sleep. Night all."
Yang and Blake gave calls of the same, while Ruby hummed a quiet note and pulled out her scroll, rapidly typing something out with her thumbs. A moment later, her scroll buzzed. "Heh."
Rolling over, I closed my eyes, listening to conversations die down around us and people slowly drop off to sleep. 'Ugh. I hate sleeping in a new place, surrounded by people I don't know.'
A shuffling sound from nearby caused me to open my eyes, and a moment later I felt the zipper to my sleeping bag open up. Raising an eyebrow, I spotted Yang in the low light, attaching her bag to mine. Once she was done, she scooted over and rolled around pressing her back up against me. "My night."
The smell of honeysuckle and Yang's arousal hung heavy in my nose and I groaned silently. "Taking this out on you later."
Laughing quietly, Yang settled into a more comfortable position and relaxed. "Sounds fun."
LS: Sorry for the delay on this. Between workload and schedule changes, we haven't been able to get done nearly as much as we had hoped, unfortunately. We're a little ahead though, so, for now, we're still looking at a monthly release cycle, though there's no guarantee. I'll just go ahead and say release dates are probably going to be more towards the end of the month than the beginning.
I have—or will have—uploaded a copy of the story to Ao3 under the name literalsin, naturally. If not by the time I've posted this, then by Saturday.
As mentioned in the author profile update the 24th, I'm looking to get some idea as to interest in original content. I have a number of projects I've been playing with for a while now, but the most promising are, in no particular order:
(these are not titles, so much as internal reference project names)
1.) Necro – I made a Western 'isekai' genre story. Yes, I realize The Name of the Game is technically also of a similar genre, so sue me. Guy from Earth with superpowers gets isekai'd to a foreign world where magic is real, winds up becoming the villain.
2.) Wizard – A companion story/sequel to Necro, set in the same universe, follows the necromancer's master.
3.) Hero – 'Prequel' set on the other side of Neco, in 'hero world.'
4.) GameLit – Kind of like Necro on steroids. Where Necro doesn't have the GameLit genre stuff, this one does.
5.) Dungeon – Another GameLit style story, in the 'dungeon' genre, taken to the logical extreme.
Ozpin stared at the chess board in front of him. It was a relic of a bygone age, but despite its age it had clearly been well-cared for. Its warm, cherry wood surface was polished to a high sheen, as was each and every piece.
The pieces were all hand-carved and highly detailed, carved not by tools, but by his very own magic. The white pieces were all crafted from a pure white marble, while the black pieces were all of obsidian. Both sides were decorated with inset jewels.
Shaking his head tiredly, he glanced at the coffee pot in the corner of his office longingly before deciding against it. Before him, Professor Port finally made his move. "Black Bishop takes White Rook."
"Knight takes Bishop," Ozpin countered, glancing over at the pieces beside them.
Port hummed, before moving a piece forward. "Pawn takes Knight."
Ozpin moved another piece and Port grinned.
"Careless. The White Queen is exposed," the larger professor pointed out.
Ozpin did a double-take, before realizing he had indeed accidentally exposed his queen. Port's Black Knight moved forward, sweeping Ozpin's Queen from the board. "I'm sorry, my friend. I believe this is where I'll have to concede the night. This should have been done weeks ago," Ozpin sighed, toppling his King before cracking a massive yawn as the exhaustion he had been staving off ever since the Fox brought in their Fall Maiden finally reached the point where he could no longer safely ignore it.
"No, no. I understand. The Maiden had to come first. But it seems we have enough to determine the classes," Port smiled, gesturing to the pieces off to the side.
Standing and gathering the fallen pieces, Ozpin laid them all out. "So it would seem."
"Now, the only question is, who will pick which piece," Port murmured, looking them over. "Any guesses?"
"A few," Ozpin admitted. "It all depends on who gets there first." Picking up his suit jacket from off the back of his chair, Ozpin made his way towards the elevator. "Lock up for me, Peter?"