Here we go.
Cover Art: Jack Wayne
As far as Ruby was concerned Beacon had gone and stood life up on its head.
She wasn't one to dislike change. Heck, the change from being fifteen and in Signal to getting to go to Beacon early was awesome, as was suddenly getting a team, meeting Jaune and everything else. Change was good. As long as it was happening around her, not to her.
Beacon was supposed to make sense and had for the longest time. She, Ruby Rose, would go, be awkward, make friends despite it, have cool adventures, learn to be a huntress and kick butt. That was the plan. It was a simple plan. A very simple plan.
Becoming the sole source of all advice for people who had a surprising number of friends in need – which totally weren't them, by the way – hadn't been expected, but it was fine. It was still stuff happening around her. It could be ignored. Or rather, not ignored but endured. Case in point with some super mysterious plot to hurt Vale. They'd found a way to pass it on to Ironwood and Ozpin, and they were dealing with it.
Ruby really hoped so.
What am I saying? Of course they are. It's not like the headmaster and a General of Atlas would just ignore all the crazy things going on. Ozpin is probably beefing up security around Beacon even now. I just know it. So, again in some strange way it was happening around her.
But there was one aspect that did not, much to her frustration.
It was not Zwei, who she was walking out in the grounds of Beacon. Zwei wasn't at fault. He was just the catalyst for today's dose of `nope` served straight into her veins. It was a nice day – warm yet not too hot with a touch of a cool breeze in the air.
It wasn't her turn to walk Zwei, but Blake never actually did it and she wasn't sure why they tried to give her a turn in the first place. It wasn't like walking him was hard, though. She didn't even use a leash since he was so well trained. He trotted ahead of her, looking back every now and then to make sure she didn't stray. Meanwhile, thanks to the weather and the festival approaching, all the transfer students were out on the grounds enjoying themselves.
Zwei took full advantage, of course.
Hugs, pets, selfies and adoring compliments were in abundance.
"He's called Zwei."
"Yes, he's friendly."
"He's a corgi."
"You can pick him up if you like."
"Don't worry, he's trained."
Ruby ran off the stock answers to every question. She was long used to them. There was something about people talking at her while interacting with Zwei that made it easier to reply. They obviously weren't actually addressing her, so there was no awkwardness. Really, she felt more like Zwei's butler than his owner.
"You're spoiled," she told him after Arslan put him down from a long and desperate hug. His stubby little tail was wagging happily, the corgi far too happy with all the people around to give him attention. "Don't look at me like that. You're the one causing a scene."
Zwei whined and tilted his head.
"Easy for you to say. You're nothing but confidence."
And now she was talking to a dog. Go figure. Ruby shook her head and walked on after him. It would have been nice to have even a shred of Zwei's confidence. He wasn't afraid to approach and interact with anyone, while she continued to shy away and only talk to people who came to her first. It was easier once she knew them – at which point she'd happily seek them out and spend time with them. Yang said that was proof she knew how to make friends.
But it just wasn't easy to make that first step.
Jaune had been a freak accident thanks to Yang being late. Weiss had been forced on her. Blake came as part and parcel of her sister, while everyone else had been one of their friends first and got to know her through proximity. There were very few people she could say either she approached first, or who approached her.
Except for him.
Ruby's feet stopped as she saw a white and fluffy cloud with legs and black eyes. It looked up at her and wagged its tail, pulling on the lead connected to a collar around its neck, shoulders and under its forelegs. One of those body harnesses that let someone pull on the lead without risking the dog's neck. To her knowledge, there was only one other pooch in Beacon.
Three out of four. Three out of four. There's three people this could be that don't include him. My odds are good! Her eyes trailed up black jeans to a grey top, grey hair, dark eyes and a cocky smirk. Crud.
"Hey there." His smirk grew, someone evolving from cocky to smug. She wanted to throw grass in his face. "Didn't expect to see you here, Red. Out walking your dog? What a coincidence. So am I."
"Is it a coincidence when I know you're not supposed to be walking it?"
"Checking up on my schedule?" Mercury placed a hand on a nearby wall, looming over her. "Should I be concerned that such a cute girl is stalking me?"
Don't react. Don't react. Don't react.
Her face was burning.
It wasn't even like she liked the compliment. And Yang called her cute all the time. It was just her stupid body reacting and blushing whenever someone she wasn't familiar with talked to her. Except that she was familiar with Mercury Black, much to her disappointment.
"Not stalking you," she grumbled eloquently.
"But you know enough to say that Emerald and Cinder are the only ones trusted with Snowball here."
"Whatever." He rolled his eyes. "I offered today, and Cinder was busy enough to accept."
Ruby's body shook. Cinder was a big bad – the big bad. If she was busy, that was a bad thing. "Busy with what?" she hissed.
He cocked a single eyebrow. "Curious?"
She wouldn't have asked if she wasn't, would she!? Ruby tried hard not to stomp one foot or let him see how much he was getting to her. It was his smile, she decided. It was stupid and needed to be rubbed in dirt. "Yes," she grumbled. "I'm curious. Now tell me."
"Sure you're not curious about me? I'm a man of mystery."
"It's a mystery how no one has stabbed you yet…"
He laughed at her. "I like that side of you, Red. That bite you have." He wiggled his eyebrows. "I want to see what other secrets you have."
"Don't call me Red. That's what Torchwick calls me…"
"Should I be worried that you and he have a pet name already?"
"No!" she hissed, then doubled down and realised what he'd just implied. "A-And it wouldn't matter if anyone did have a pet name for me. It's no business of yours. Just…" Stay away. Go dunk your head in a sink. Stop smiling like that. Stop looking her up and down. "Call me Ruby."
"No pet name?"
"No pet name."
"I'll have to think up one on my own then," he said. "Something special for the two of us."
"You don't have to!"
"What if I want to?"
Ruby glared at the grass and kicked some blades aside. His eyes were annoying. They were grey, like his hair and his outfit and everything else about him. Seriously, didn't he have some colour in his wardrobe? It didn't make sense how he could be so monochrome yet still manage to be like he was.
And did he have to keep doing the looking her up and down thing? He knew what she looked like by now, which meant he was totally doing it just to mess with her.
It was working.
"Stop that!" she barked, face red and matching her outfit.
His smile grew. "Stop what?"
"T-That! You know what you're doing!"
"Not sure I do, Rubes. You'll have to tell me."
"Not Rubes," she growled. "That's what Yang calls me."
"Hm. Not that, then. I don't want you to think of me as a sibling."
"No worries there!"
"How about gem? Since you're such a precious stone."
Ruby gagged loudly.
"Yeah," he admitted, "That one was bad. I'll put more thought into it."
Nooo. He was supposed to get bored or annoying and go away, not keep trying. If he expected her to give him a nickname, he'd be sorely disappointed. His name was perfect already. Mercury. The nod to a poisonous metal no one wanted around.
Except Yang, of course. She thought this kind of thing hilarious.
"W-Why are you walking Cinder's dog," she asked, trying desperately to change the subject. Anything was safer than talking about him and her. Not that there was anything between them to talk about.
"It's a job that needs doing."
"You said you offered!" she accused. "It didn't need doing."
"Hm. Right you are." He flicked some silver hair from before his face. "Are you always so attentive to what I say?"
"Is that a threat?" Mercury's lips quirked up and he moved closer, surprising her for a moment and leaving her exposed. He pinned her back against the wall – not quite touching her, but instead pinning her with awkwardness. By making it so that if she wanted to escape, she'd need to brush past him to do so.
A cage of embarrassment, with her trapped in the centre, back to the wall, hands clutched before her chest and wide eyes staring into his. Desperately, she looked to Zwei for rescue. Sadly, he'd found team NDGO.
"Oh, he's so cute!"
"Look at him!"
"Who's a good boy? You are! Yes, you are!"
"Can I pet him? Someone take a picture of us."
Damn it, Zwei!
"No more growls?" Mercury asked, stroking a finger under her chin. She shivered despite herself. "That's a shame. I like that side of you. Makes me all kinds of interested."
His finger was dangerously close to her mouth. "I'll bite you," she threatened, baring her teeth.
He smiled. "Is that a promise?"
Ruby's lips clamped shut. Her brows drew down and she glared at him, refusing to react as he poked her cheek with his finger, looking almost disappointed that she didn't bite him. Good! Stupid idiot with his stupid eyes and stupid smirk.
Stupid lips, too.
And stupid height. Why was he so tall?
"Nothing to say?" he teased. "I thought you wanted to know what Cinder was doing."
Cinder-? Oh poo! Cinder! "I do want to know! Tell me."
"And betray my team leader's trust just like that? That's a hard pill to swallow, Ruby. Even for someone as cute as you."
"Stop calling me cute!"
"Beautiful, then? Gorgeous?"
The way he said it, so casually, had her burning up even harder. She wanted to knee him in the nuts, but a voice in her head told her he might like that. Instead, she pouted at him, hoping her annoyance somehow won through the nuclear fusion going on under her skin.
"Tell you what, I'll tell you exactly what Cinder is doing right now if you do something for me."
An idiot would have said yes. She was not an idiot, no matter what Weiss said. "Do what? I'm not going o- going on a da-…" Her entire body burned. She couldn't even say it. She looked away, turning her head to the side. "Do what?" she asked again.
"Nothing too strenuous."
"The more you say that, the more I know it is."
Like her dad saying he had a chore for her, and it wouldn't take `too long` meant she'd better set aside the whole afternoon to do it. Or when Weiss said their homework session wouldn't be `too hard` and she knew she had to stock up on painkillers for the inevitable migraine. She had a feeling this was going to be of the embarrassing variety.
His grin said it all.
Ruby was already pulling away, throwing aside caution to barge out of his hold and away. "Nope."
"Hey, hey, come on." He didn't drag her back – probably knowing she'd not let it – instead, he followed, Cinder's dog happy to chase after Zwei by her ankles. "It's a good offer. I'll let you decide how much of a kiss to give me. A peck on the lips is enough, and I'll tell you what nefarious things Cinder is up to today. Don't you want to know?"
She did. She really did. Ruby stopped – and that action damned her, she knew. The very fact she'd shown she wanted to know would have told Mercury he had leverage.
But a kiss. An actual kiss?
Her head spun. Her hands fidgeted with one another.
"O-On the cheek?" she asked quietly.
"Here," he said, holding a finger to his lips. "You're asking me for a lot, you know? Telling on Cinder. That's the kind of thing that can get me in trouble."
She didn't doubt it. If Cinder was behind the breach, then she dreaded to imagine what kind of danger someone who wronged her could be in. Dreaded for Mercury's sake, though? Maybe. He was a pain in her butt and apparently existed to make her life difficult, but she didn't want him dead. And he might end up that if he tattled.
Ruby looked around nervously. Left and right, just to make sure no one was there. Everyone was there, of course. Beacon was packed with people thanks to Vytal. But no one important. No Yang, Weiss or Blake.
Red faced and stammering, she said, "Just a little one?"
Mercury's smug smile grew even bigger. "As little as you like. I won't move a muscle. Promise."
Her heart was beating wildly. Her blood was on fire. Looking around again and seeing her moment, she stepped forward, red as her cloak and glaring at him. "Close your eyes," she said. "I-I'll do it, but you need to close your eyes."
"Heh. You're adorable when you're flustered." He closed them.
Ass! Meanie! Stupid arrogant moron! Ruby resisted the urge to stamp a foot on his shoes – she'd done that more than once and he didn't even seem to notice. Taking a deep breath and looking around for the third time, she stepped closer, dithering in front of him. Really? Her mind asked hysterically. Are we really doing this!?
Only because they had to. Her hands found his lapel. She pushed up onto her tiptoes.
A frustrated whine tumbled from her lips.
"What?" he asked, eyes still closed. "What's up?"
"You… You…" Ruby closed her own eyes. "You need to lean down."
Stupid height! He chuckled darkly, a rich and soft sound as he kept his eyes closed but bent his knees a little, dropping by a few inches. It wasn't her fault she was as tall as she was. She was actually average height for a girl. It was him who was a flipping flagpole. But of course, life couldn't avoid throwing one last humiliation at her.
When he was low enough, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, leaning in.
Their lips touched.
It was supposed to be short and nothing more, and to be fair he didn't break his promise not to move. The problem was her stupidly keeping her eyes shut, which meant she misjudged the distance. Instead of the briefest of touches, she all but smashed her lips against his.
She was away a nanosecond later. Her lips felt like they were on fire.
"There!" she yelled, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Ew! Ew! Ew! "I gave you your kiss. You have to tell me what Cinder is doing now."
"Hm." Mercury opened his eyes. "Guess I do. And that was better than I expected."
Was he insulting her with that?
"Heh. Nothing, Ruby. I was just confirming something. And you exceeded all expectations." He stood back up, pointedly not wiping away the remains of her touch. She almost wanted to do it for him. Maybe with her fist. "A deal is a deal. I'll tell you what Cinder is doing today."
"Good." Ruby breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay. Tell me."
"She's out in Vale. On a task most important."
"She is…" Mercury leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Clothes shopping."
Ruby waited for more.
When it didn't come, her face fell. Her mouth opened. "Wha-?"
"That's it," he said. "With Vytal approaching, she needs a combat outfit for the tournament and Emerald offered to help. Once that's done, she'll be coming back to rest and have dinner."
"B-B-But her nefarious plans!"
"You're the one who assumed she was up to something," Mercury pointed out. "I only said she was busy." He waited for that to sink in, and for her entire body to bristle. "But I'll tell you what, I'll come walk Snowball again tomorrow. If you want to get a heads up on what's happening, it'll be the same deal, except you have to make it last a second longer. A second longer per time you ask. Seems fair to me."
"See ya later, Ruby. And don't worry, I'll keep our steamy encounter secret. C'mon, Snowball."
"It wasn't steamy!" Ruby yelled angrily, stamping her foot down. "And its name is Snowfall!"
Mercury Black waved a hand over his shoulder as he sauntered away.
Ruby wanted to scream.
"Arf!" Zwei said, wagging his tail happily.
"FAT LOT OF GOOD YOU WERE!"
"What happened after?" Jaune asked. He was in his usual outfit, now able to walk, albeit crookedly. The diner was open but fortunately Russel and Velvet were manning it, letting him sit on his bed beside Ruby, who was laid back with a hand over her eyes, looking like someone dying from a terrible illness.
"Ugh. I went back to the dorm and Yang said it took me a while – suggested I'd snuck out to kiss some boy."
"No." Ruby groaned loudly. "At least not until I went bright red and screamed `he promised not to tell` at the top of my lungs."
"Ah." He winced. "That'd do it."
"Yeah. Yang almost fainted and Weiss looked shocked. Not to mention Blake. It's the first time I've ever seen her drop one of her books. Stupid Mercury! It's all his fault!"
Jaune hummed his agreement, deciding not to point out that Mercury had in fact kept his promise and Ruby was the one who blurted it out. He ought to have been a little more flustered by a young woman in his bed but somehow it being Ruby took that away. It was more like having one of his sisters coming to talk with him.
"I take it Yang's being insufferable about it?"
"What else is new? Can I move in here? I give up on Beacon. I want to be a barrister."
"You'll need law school for that." He laughed as she slapped his arm. "And it won't be so bad. Honestly, it sounds like you have pretty much the same relationship Miltia and I do."
"Nooo," Ruby groaned. "Not you as well."
"Not saying you're together, just the teasing. She was the same, you know. Always trying to make me flustered and react. She told me she didn't even like me that way back then, just that she found it fun. It grew from it, though."
"Jaune, the `bully the person you like` thing is stupid. And made up."
"I don't think it is. At least not in the way you'd think. Bullying might not mean liking someone, but it's still having an interest in them. And Mercury is more teasing than bullying from what I can see. He does it to get a reaction out of you."
"So I should ignore him? Is that what you're saying?"
Ruby's silence said it all.
"The point I'm making is that he likes getting a reaction from you. Whether that's genuine interest or not, it's still interest. Just like Miltia was with me. It makes more sense for him to come to like you through that then something corny like love at first sight."
"Except I don't want either. He's evil!"
"So is Miltia."
"Jaune, your girlfriend works in a bar and occasionally fights people. Mercury works for Cinder, who, in your own words, is a murder-hobo."
He winced. She had him there.
"I don't know what to do!"
"Do you have to do anything?" he asked. When Ruby lowered her hand to glare at him, he said, "What I mean is that he isn't forcing you to kiss him for information. You don't have to do it. You already showed Ironwood and Ozpin that someone is planning something. Isn't that job done?"
Ruby laid on the bed, eyes on the ceiling. "But what if it isn't? What if he has more…?"
"What if he doesn't?"
"Then she isn't planning anything," Ruby said. "A-And it's just a kiss, right? It doesn't mean anything. Right?"
He wasn't sure how to respond to that one. Kisses with Miltia meant a lot, especially lately. She'd made it clear that once he was fully healed she was taking him to bed and breaking his pelvis. Ruby probably didn't need to hear that, though.
"I'm not sure it's `just a kiss` if you're this worked up about it."
"Y-Yeah, but maybe that's just me." Ruby sat up. "I mean, if getting this information saves lives then it's worth it, isn't it? It's just touching my lips to someone else's. He's not even my first kiss. Heck, I could kiss you and it wouldn't mean anything." She held out her hands. "Kiss me."
"Right. Wouldn't want to upset Miltia." She laughed nervously. "B-But it's just a little kiss. A little longer each time, but that's all. Two or three seconds isn't a lot."
No, but ten was, and she'd be working toward that soon enough. Jaune's eyes narrowed. "Ruby."
"Are you justifying reasons to kiss him?"
"What!? Pft. Nooo. Ha. You're crazy."
"How did it feel?"
"Rubbish," she said offhandedly. "He's just too smarmy."
"Smug?" he asked.
"Acts like he knows better."
"Yeah, he is." It took Ruby a second or three to catch that. "-n't!" she cried, jerking up. "Isn't handsome. Isn't!" The pillow struck his face a moment later as a red-faced Ruby Rose smacked him round the face three times. "Jaune, no! Bad! You go out with him if you think he's so hot!"
"Who said anything about going out with him?" he asked, catching the pillow. "We just mentioned kissing. Is there a reason your mind is jumping to that?"
"B-Because! Just because!"
"You know, there's nothing wrong with liking someone."
"I know. I like lots of people. I like you, Weiss, Blake, Pyrrha, Velvet, Russel-"
"Pft. Who'd like him? He's stupid, arrogant and pins random girls up against walls. He's a pig. He's the kind of guy Yang always warned me against, the ones who make your heart race, then leave you behind."
"Your heart was racing, then."
"JAUNE!" Ruby yanked the pillow back and clotheslined him with it. "You're supposed to be on my side! I don't need Yang Version 2.0. I need you!"
"Okay, okay." Maybe he'd taken the teasing a little far. Ruby was so red she had to be suffering blood loss to her legs. And she'd probably put up with more than enough teasing as it was. It really wasn't his place to add more. "You're right. I'm sorry. So, what's the real problem, then? I know what he did was embarrassing but you already said it was just a kiss. A kiss isn't a contract. It doesn't have to mean anything if you don't want it to."
"That's just it. I don't know what it means. To him, I mean."
"Yeah." Putting the pillow down, she sagged back onto the bed. "Like, is this just teasing? Is he just trying to get a reaction? What if he's serious and I'm being the meanest person ever? Shouldn't I let him down properly? But what if I try and he isn't serious, and I look like an idiot?"
Sounded rough. And he couldn't say he was the best to speak with on that regard. Ruby didn't have a lot of choices, though. "Do you want to let him down?"
She glared at him.
"I'm serious. Best friend confidentiality here." He shuffled closer. "If he really did have genuine feelings for you, would you turn him down?"
Ruby glanced away. "I – I don't know…"
"You don't know?"
"I don't," she said, glowering just a little. "It's not as easy as just saying yes or no. I'd say no now, but that's because I feel like he's just playing games. But if he wasn't and he was serious…? I don't know. He's a bad guy. He's done bad things. And don't give me the `haven't we all` speech. I'm not talking about stealing cookies or mixing Yang's shampoo with black hair dye."
"You did that?"
"I confirm nothing! I'm talking abut real bad things." Ruby bit her lip. "But what if I could make him stop?"
"That's a dangerous line of thought. There are people who date condemned prisoners because they feel they can `bring them back` or something. It often ends in disaster, and not just for them being murdered. You shouldn't make yourself unhappy out of some sense of duty."
"I didn't mean it like that."
"Hm. Did you mean it in the way that you wouldn't mind turning him to good?"
Ruby glared from between her fingers.
"What do you want?" he asked instead. "In an ideal world, if I could answer one question for you right now about him, what would that question be?"
She thought for a moment, then huffed. "I'd want to know if he's serious and why he's doing this. Why he's teasing me and asking for kisses. If he really l-likes me, or if it's just some stupid game he's doing because he's bored."
That was a good question all things considered. One he sadly didn't have the answer to. Mercury was a regular of sorts, but not one that spent a lot of time talking to him. He was more of a spectator; someone who liked to watch the world go by and find amusement in it. He ordered the same drink every time, was polite and stayed out of trouble.
He gave nothing away. At least, not to him.
"I might know someone who can help."
Ruby looked up hopefully. "Really?"
"But it's a long shot. A really weird and convoluted long shot."
Adam Taurus lowered his mug. "What on Remnant possessed you to come to me for relationship advice?"
"Would you believe it was a weird and convoluted long shot?" the girl in red asked.
"Yes," he said. "It would almost have to be..."
The girl's approach had been unexpected. The way she drew out the chair opposite and sat down at his table even more so. He recognised her, of course. She was the one Blake brought along for their little talk. Their piece of closure. It was that which convinced him not to stand and walk away, for whatever their differenced and whatever their future, this girl had stood beside Blake and provided for her in her hour of need.
That won her some time.
Though not understanding, since he was still struggling to comprehend why Jaune would point her in his direction.
"It's about Mercury."
"Ah." He ran a finger around the rim of his mug.
"Not about what he's doing or why he was with you. More… about him as a person."
"I… I just…" The girl slumped. "Ugh, I can't believe I'm trying to explain this to you of all people." She looked up, firm and ready. "But you're the only one who knows what he's actually like. I can't tell if he's serious when he teases me or just being a… a…"
"A prick?" Adam offered.
"A little of column A and B, I would imagine." He knew that wouldn't satisfy her, and lo and behold she made to argue. He held up a hand, buying some silence as he conducted a better answer. "I could give you a speech on how my confidence is not so easily bought, but there aren't many secrets I could tell you. Mercury and I talk. We don't talk about ourselves or our pasts, more the world around us. About events, feelings and even the recent news. From that, I have some grasp of his character, though I cannot promise anything."
"Anything will do," she said weakly. "I don't know what to think."
That much was clear. He would need to have words with Mercury the next they supped together – and Adam was not lost to the irony of him staging an intervention on behalf of a human huntress he ought to care little for.
Really, though. Mercury was being far too clumsy.
"Mercury is someone who has little understanding of his thoughts and feelings," he said, picking each word carefully. "From the time we've spoken, I've come to realise he is… seeking entertainment in all things."
Her face fell a little. "So, he's playing with me?"
"I would not say that. Entertainment doesn't necessarily mean a lack of sincerity. People naturally seek to spend time around those that bring them happiness, and that applies to lovers, friends and even people who own pets. Life is a search for fulfilment, or so I've heard it said. Mercury is someone who has nothing in life that fulfils him."
"I can't comment on his past but the feeling I get of him is that his current situation is novel to him. He watches people and baits them not because he wants to hurt them, but because he wants to see their reactions. More than that, they often surprise him, which leads me to believe he's experiencing these things for the first time." Adam paused to look at the girl. "It would not surprise me if he admitted you as being the first person he has ever kissed."
Ruby `yipped` and covered her cheeks with both hands. It was, he admitted, somewhat endearing.
"My first thoughts were that he was a shut-in but that doesn't properly explain his behaviour. It's more like he has lived away from people, only just entering the civilised world. Even that has holes, for while his inexperience shows, he can be polite and charming when required."
"Y-Yeah. He knows what he's doing."
"He does," Adam admitted, "But it is as though he knows it from a distance."
"Like he's read it from a book or seen it on TV."
"Yes." He sipped his coffee. "I never sense any real loyalty or friendship between him and his team. The fact he comes to me for companionship should be proof of that. And, perhaps, the fact he approaches you could be said to be the same."
"I don't understand…"
"I imagine he's much the same. Not understanding what he feels towards you but finding something exciting – or perhaps enticing – about the reactions either you give, or he experiences. You are new and exciting, and he can't escape that. As such, he pushes and prods in a desperate attempt to understand what he's feeling."
The more he spoke, the more the girl shrunk in her seat. It was a sign she understood what he was saying – that he could not provide her answers because Mercury himself did not have them. That she was on new and unchartered ground.
Or perhaps that she was the unchartered ground.
"That doesn't help at all!"
"It doesn't." He admitted it freely. "But I can offer some small advice, should you wish it."
To his amusement, she nodded furiously. Advice from a terrorist. Funny, in a way. "My advice would be twofold. The first, would be that you not read too much into anything he says or does. There's not much use looking for hidden meaning when he is exploring this as well. If he wishes to steal kisses from you, it is not because he has some agenda. It is because he enjoyed the kiss and desires to experience it again. Nothing more."
Her face burned hot, the red seeping down her neck and collar.
"Secondly, I would advise a little more clarity on your end. Tell him when he is doing wrong and make your position clear. He hardly understands what he is doing, so make your position clear if he pushes. And clearer still should you desire to take things further."
A denial hovered on her lips, but his expression made it clear he wasn't interested in hearing it. This was advice – not evidence. Understanding, she nodded, biting back her retort. "O-Okay. So, I shouldn't be afraid to explain if he makes me uncomfortable?"
"Yes. Your current methods of doing that are… not clear."
"I tell him to go away all the time!"
"Yes. While being red in the face, looking away, letting him stand near you and even agreeing to kiss him." Adam rattled the points off while she slipped lower and lower in her chair. "I'm sure you can see how that might be confusing to someone, let alone Mercury."
"You make it sounds like I'm the one at fault…"
"You're not. It takes two to tango and a more experienced person would be able to discern your true meaning. This is hardly your fault, but it is the situation you find yourself within so…" He shrugged. "Expectations change. Ultimately, it's your decision. Don't let anyone make it for you, not him, myself or even Jaune."
"Then what should I do?"
"Is the answer not obvious? Do what you want to do. If his presence aggravates you so, make it clear you don't want it and he will go away. If not, well, the choice is yours." He leaned back. "I can't offer anything more."
Adam ignored her as she whispered her thanks and left. He didn't really care for it beyond helping Blake with an issue. He didn't consider it an affront to Mercury, either. He offered no loyalty in that quarter. Still, the manner in which Cinder kept him was an affront of sorts. Not so different from how the SDC enforced the loyalty of faunus in their mines. His interest in striking out for his own desires was something to encourage.
The bigger question, and one he neglected to raise to Ruby, was whether Mercury was a sociopath by condition or by raising. He certainly fit the bill, having little understanding of other's emotions and the effects he had on them, but if that was learned behaviour born of inexperience, then it could be fixed. If it was not…
Time would tell. He finished his drink and stood, leaving some change on the table as a tip for Velvet.
If nothing else, the conversation had been interesting.
Mercury brought Snowfall out the next morning, having won permission from Cinder as she prepared for the day ahead. Nothing nefarious, not today, but he wouldn't make that apparent to Ruby unless she wanted to buy the information.
"C'mon, you little poo factory," he grumbled, looking away as Snowfall did his business. He knew the thing's name, of course. Forgetting it around Cinder was a one-way ticket to trouble. He chose to mistake it around Ruby just to see her reaction. She was nothing like Cinder and Emerald. Nothing like Neo either, though that was another kettle of fish.
Once Snowfall had kicked some grass over his business, Mercury moved on. It wasn't unusual for people to stop and ask him about the dog. He replied with a smile each time, giving what information he could and waiting impatiently as they obsessed over it. The mutt liked it. He didn't so much mind, stealing glances at girls as they bent over or hugged the thing to their breasts.
Apart from the physical benefits, it didn't really interest him. Even when they did ask questions about him, he answered with quick and easy lies, doing what he had to in order to keep his cover. Yes, he studied at Mistral. Yes, he was going to compete in the tournament. Sorry, he didn't have time to spar with other people – his team wanted to keep some secrets for the fights.
One or two of the girls looked disappointed at that.
He had a feeling he knew why but never called them out on it. It sounded much too tiresome.
Instead, he moved on, keeping an eye out without trying to make it obvious. Snowfall did as well, having decided the only other dog on campus was his best friend. It was Snowfall who spotted them first, suddenly tugging on the lead and making him lurch to the left.
"Calm down you little shi-" He spotted Ruby over by the back wall. "Good boy."
Sauntering over, he watched her reaction, especially when she saw him. Her eyes widened and darted away and back again. Her feet shuffled, left one sliding back like she wanted to run but then catching herself. She turned to face him, almost defiantly. Her jaw hardened, lips pulled thin and her eyes narrowed.
She looked like a small finch sizing itself up against an eagle.
No one else reacted like that. Such a crazy mix of contrasts. It struck him every time.
"Hey Ruby. Fancy bumping into you here."
"Yeah," she snarked. "Such a wild coincidence."
He chuckled. That was another thing he liked – how she could be so shy and awkward around most people, happy with her team and then like this with him. It didn't matter that it was a negative emotion, only that it was his. He was confident there wasn't another person in Beacon that got the reaction he did out of her.
That made it his.
"Looks like I'm stuck walking Snowball again." Her face twitched. He wanted to poke her cheek to feel it. "Cinder is busy again." He shrugged candidly. "Such a busy woman she is lately. Almost like she's up to something." He kept an eye on her, smiling teasingly. "I wonder what that could be."
"Can I ask you something?"
Surprised, he paused. "Uh. Sure, I guess. What?"
Ruby looked away angrily, then down at the floor and finally at him. Not at his eyes, but his chest. She fixed her attention there and refused to look any higher. "I want an honest answer. A serious answer. It's not about Cinder. It's about… It's about me."
Her…? Interesting. This was a new side of her he hadn't seen. Almost challenging. It wasn't half bad.
"Ask away. I'll answer if I can."
"Did you enjoy kissing me?"
Mercury stared at her. She didn't look back but that was endearing in its own way, especially when she kept getting tenser and tenser. He'd better answer, though. Did he enjoy it? The question surprised him, though not as much as the answer.
"Yeah, I did." It had been short and not quite as spectacular as he'd heard some people say it, but he couldn't say it was disappointing. If it was, he wouldn't have come out quite so early looking for another. "I liked it." He grinned suddenly. "And you'll have to give me another if you want to know what Cinder is up to today."
Her eyes met his. Her cheeks darkened. "Two seconds, right?"
His eyes opened wide. He nodded, licking his lips. "Yeah."
Ruby looked left and right, bit her lip and teased it with her teeth. Finally, she looked back to him.
"You need to lean down."
Sheesh, you're so derpy, Mercury. And Ruby. Come to think of it, this isn't the first time I've had Mercury get involved with someone. There was Velvet in White Sheep. I can't even say he's one of my favourite characters. My favourite crook is Roman because look at the guy. So much character, so much personality, and all delivered through his voice and actions. I love him.
But I dunno. Mercury is convenient for being in Beacon, I guess.
Next Chapter: 24th September
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur