Shield charge, forward stab, shoulder charge, shield swipe, all fast and hard enough to crack the skull of a Beowulf. I dodge, deflect, block, and dodge again, savoring the variety of attacks Jaune brings to bear. A dramatic change from how he was at the beginning of the semester, or even just a few weeks ago. Certainly he's learned to use the width of metal on his arm for more than just defense, thought like any child with a new toy he has yet to learn how to use it conservatively.
The next time he goes for a shield charge, I meet him, flail circling around his obstructed vision to strike him in the back of the head. He falls onto my oncoming knee, head snapping back as a small gasp of pain escapes him. I let him fall to his knees, shield arm coming up to his face and grasping at his nose.
"While it's good to see you embracing the versatility of your toolset, remember that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. The shield is heavy, yes, but it is not primarily an offensive tool. Use it to supplement, not replace, your regular strikes." With this, he's almost caught up to an average student in a primary combat school. A few more months and he'll be a proper Huntsman-in-training.
That is, if he stays focused.
"Again," I say, lifting my weapon. That's enough to start the spar again and Jaune dashes forward, blade coming out in a short, vicious cut. I nod internally and play defense for a few moves, letting him find a reasonable balance between blocking and attacking with his shield. I can tell him a ratio to use, but that would provide a needless anchor that could never be generalized. Best to let him figure out what makes the most sense. Such lessons stick the longest.
If only I could do something about his damnable stance!
I bat Jaune's latest stab aside with the back of my hand (one he chose to overstep into) and whirl the head of the fail into his solar plexus, right beneath his armor. This time when he falls, I spin into his chest and shoulder throw him onto his back, eliciting a short hacking cough and his breath leaves him. He scrambles to get up, but I just shake my head and swing the flail over my shoulder, signaling an end to the round.
"You've fallen back into your bad posture," I say, less angry and more disappointed. He had been making progress, and plenty of it. "I do not tell you to change your form because it is amusing, but because it prevents me from throwing you around like a toy. Using your body to swing your sword without leaning into it is within your capabilities: why do you struggle?" It genuinely confuses me how a previously hale young man went from eager and adaptable to listless in the span of five days.
"Sorry, Goodwitch, I'll do better," Jaune says, face downcast and drawn. He stands up straight and takes a moment to center himself. As he does, I study him. His shoes are only knotted once, which wouldn't be odd if he hadn't made a point of tying them twice each and every other session. His blonde mop seems far more tusseld than usual, but he lacks the bruises at his neck or at his lips that would accompany the usual methods for achieving such a disheveled look. His eyes...
"Jaune, do you have bags under your eyes?" I ask, striding up to him and tilting his face into the light. A flush comes onto him as he begins to stammer, but I pay it no mind and look closely. They're slight, but they're there, a pair of dark arcs under each orb. That, and the eyes themselves are also bloodshot, the blue and red constrasing with one another in a way that I could find beautiful if it didn't mean my student was destroying his body!
"When did you stop sleeping?" I demand coldly, shifting his face so I can look him in the eye, hand on his cheek and leaving his jaw free.
"I didn't stop sleeping," he says, batting my arm aside with a trace of sullenness I recognize from far too many other teenagers. "I just needed a few more hours in the day. I'm still getting rest, still staying awake in class-"
"And failing to truly learn the material because you gorge yourself without understanding, losing focus as your body slowly becomes more and more worn down, culminating in a failure of either the brain or muscles as your Aura finally runs out of raw material to rebuild your body and you collapse," I rant, watching him shrink under every word. "Aura is not some sort of magical catch-all that will keep you running on fumes, and depriving yourself of sleep when you're putting on muscle and trying to develop new skills is an excellent way to destroy your ability to learn." I take a breath, then let it escape through my teeth. Enough venting. "Your grades can suffer. So can your combat skills. Both of those can be rebuilt with effort. Medical leave, however, takes substantially longer to recover from." I press a button on the flail, turning around and walking out of the ring. The chain retracts, the flanges on the head fold in, and soon enough the weapon appears to be nothing more than a metal stick. "This session is over."
There's a familiar rasp of steel on steel as Jaune sheaths his sword, followed by a short muttered phrase he probably doesn't think I can hear. No matter, it won't be the first time a student has cursed at me. Of late I've learned to ignore it. Best to let them blow off steam however they can, and when they're more level headed-
I stop walking and turn my head, quirking an eyebrow. Jaune is standing there, hands at his side and a pained yet honest expression on his face. He swallows once and averts his gaze.
"There's a paper in Oobleck's class and I'm useless for researching," he says, holding himself still and keeping his voice even. "So I agreed to do the write up. Figured that was the most fair division of labor. I need to read all the manuscripts too, though, so I've had to cram as much as I can." He lets out a shuddering breath. "I'm trying to cover all the years I missed while getting on the same level as my teammates while trying to keep my grades up and it's getting a little tricky," he finished, a tiny note of hysteria creeping in his voice. "So I skip a few hours of sleep to try and make it all work and if I can't do that I don't know what to do." He looks up, eyes tight and desperate. "I'm sorry, but I need more time."
In that moment, I recognize the anger.
He's mad at himself.
That is unexpected.
"Is that it?" I ask. He blinks and his face drops from self-loathing to surprise. "Is that the sum total of your assignments so far?" I clarify, mind whirling. Hmm. I haven't had to work with a student that complained about overload recently, but I still remember the methods for handling it.
"Yeah," he says, eyeing me warily. "Just three classes and three different training sessions," he says. I let the sarcasm go and rub my chin thoughtfully. His sessions with Miss Nikos, with me, and whatever additional studying he's doing to turn his transcripts into a genuine representation of his skill. Assuming that each is as intensive as an actual course, he should have enough time in the week, even allowing for leisure activity.
I suppose he has yet to realize that one needs to work smart as well as hard.
"Do you have a prior appointment on Sunday afternoon?" I ask. His eyes unfocus for a moment, presumably reviewing his schedule, and then he shakes his head.
"Uh, no, why?" he replies. I nod and smack my palm with the collapsed flail. Excellent.
"Meet me at my office at three o'clock in the afternoon," I say. When his eyes go wide with surprise, I wave a hand dismissively. "You are hardly the first student to be overwhelmed by a flood of material, and you will certainly not be the last." Every semester it seems that there's a third- or fourth-year whose eyes are bigger than their stomach, and while some prefer Bart's method of dealing with an excess of labor, most simply do not have a strong enough heart to survive that much caffeine. "For now write up a comprehensive list of all your work and your methods for completing it." If he's anything like past examples I'll be spending half my time breaking bad habits.
"Y-yes ma'am," he says, still a little shocked. After a moment, he sets his jaw and nods. "Thank you, Professor Goodwitch," he says, this time more confidently. "I'll see you tomorrow." With that he turns on his heel and marches towards the men's room, standing a little straighter than before. I indulge in a small smile before heading to change myself. All of the students assume that their challenges are unique, and that they alone have to face their trials. Few bother to ask around, and fewer still stop in on office hours to discuss their issues. Provide them with permission to fail though, and they will be more than willing to take advantage of every opportunity you can give them.
Okay, so I've got the list, the next three books I want to read outside of class, the first third of the rough draft of Oobleck's paper (not due for another three weeks and the research is already done but argh it still doesn't feel like enough time!), and enough pencils to kill a Beowulf. Don't think I'm forgetting anything else- scroll! Right, need that to get back into the room. I slide the small device into my pocket, zip up the backpack, and hum contentedly. There, preparations done. I check the time on my scroll. Done early, even. Still, better get moving.
"Heading out, guys," I call to the room. Ren lifts his head from his book for long enough to nod politely while Nora twists in her seat to face me.
"Where are you going?" she asks, leaning back on two legs of her chair. "Got a hot date?" she jokes, a smile spreading across her face. I laugh and shake my head. As if.
"Nah. Goodwitch said she'd give me some help with school stuff," I answer, slinging my bag over my shoulder and walking over to the door, pausing in the entryway. "Anyone need me to grab something while I'm out?" Ren usually does the shopping, but I've made a habit of asking before I head out for a long period of time. No sense in people taking multiple trips.
"How long do you think you'll be gone?" Pyrrha asks from her corner of the room, not looking up from her desk. There's something in her tone, something I'll have to ask about later, but for now I just shrug. Better to put it off and do a good job when I have the time to dig into it rather than a rushed bad one.
"No idea," I say. "Could be thirty minutes, could be an hour. Why?" I see Nora and Ren exchange looks out of the corner of my eye. Something big then.
"I was wondering if the two of us could head out later tonight," she says lightly. I shrug.
"I don't see why not," I say. "What time were you thinking?" Early means heading into Vale, which might not be the best idea on a Sunday. On the other hand, late means cafeteria, in which case why would she be asking? Not like there's another place to eat on campus.
"Around five thirty," she says. The weird thing in her voice is gone, replaced by happiness. Crisis averted. I smile and nod.
"See you then," I say, stepping out into the hall and closing the door behind me. Then I let out a breath and start walking, playing back the conversation in my head.
Managing the team... it's hard. Part of that is because I'm so far behind them on every conceivable level, and part of it is because I'm not good enough at reading them yet. Ren and Nora seem to have a whole nonverbal language that no one else gets, I still don't completely know what'll accidentally send Pyrrha into her 'public face' mode, and I need to be more in-tune with my team in general. We've been together long enough that I can generally know when things are happening and why they happen, but they can still keep secrets from me.
I snort. Turnabout is fair play, I guess.
I don't want to pry. I don't think whatever they're hiding is going to be anywhere near as bad as faked transcripts, and since that turned out alright I think I can let it go. Still going to have to figure out why they think they need to hide it from me, but I also want to trust them. If it's a big deal, I'll let them tell me rather than stick my nose where it doesn't belong.
Well, not unless I absolutely have to.
I nearly bump into a door and blink rapidly. Huh. I'm at Goodwitch's office already. Got a lot on my mind I guess. I reach up my knuckles, hesitate for a moment, then knock quietly three times. I know I'm expected, but there's something about being called to her office that's just scary.
"Enter," she says and I push open the door, taking in the room. It's more spartan than I imagined, with two of the three bookshelves completely empty bookshelves and lots of open space. The desk in front of her is big enough that I'd feel comfortable spreading three pieces of paper without overlapping them, but probably not four. I can make out a small kettle by the back window, with a small wooden box and two mugs next to it.
"Hello, Jaune," she says and I refocus on her. She's back in her usual outfit, scribbling away at a sheet of paper. "If you could take a seat I will be right with you."
"Sure," I say, grabbing a chair and pulling it up to the desk. Unlike the principal's office in middle school, these chairs are actually comfortable, and tall enough that I don't have to stretch my legs out too far in order to keep my feet flat on the ground. The pen in Goodwitch's hands makes a few final mark, then the paper gets thrown into a drawer and the pen goes into a cup and I find myself the subject of a startling green gaze.
"Show me your work," she says, her voice hard and firm, just like in the ring. I nod back and pull out my list.
"Here it is," I say, dropping the three sheets of note-covered paper onto her desk. "All the assignments Oobleck, Port, and you are giving out until the end of the year, plus a list of books I want to read, and when I want to have read them by." I'm pretty proud of that, actually. I mean, it's just a bunch of syllabi collated into one thing plus a reading list, but actually having it all on paper makes the problems seem so much more manageable. Goodwitch scans it for a moment before nodding her head.
"This appears to be a manageable amount of work. Tell me, how do you intend to read these books?" she asks, pointing to the list along the side.
"I read at the end of the day," I answer, clasping my hands and bouncing a knee up and down. I'm better at doing the school stuff than I was at the beginning of the year, but that doesn't mean I like it more than combat class. "Once things wind down for the night, I pull out whatever's at the top of the list and start slogging through it." The whole thing 'falling asleep reading a book' thing doesn't happen to me, but it's actually kind of relaxing to just sit back and chill.
"Have you tried an on/off schedule?" she asks. I blink, then shake my head.
"Never heard of it," I say honestly. She sighs.
"It's a method where one switches between reading and a variety of other tasks, with regular increments," she says, and I can practically feel the disappointment rolling off of her. "While it is good that you actually are reading, the shape of your schedule seems to show that you place it at the bottom of your priorities." I wince but don't contradict her. I mean, if I have to choose between turning in an assignment and finishing a book, the decision isn't hard.
"The problem with that approach is that it ignores the fact that the books are the lesson," she says, stressing the last few words and meeting my eyes, not glaring but... intense. "Reading is not a supplement to the lectures. It is the lecture, presented in a different medium in an attempt to drive the knowledge home more cleanly and more completely. Try starting with twenty minute breaks during your projects." I suppress a sigh and nod.
"I'll start as soon as I can," I promise, already thinking about my schedule and trying to figure out how to incorporate this into it. Ren and Pyrrha tend to just plop down at a desk and grind through whatever they need to do. I don't want to interrupt them, so that means working on my own or with Nora. That's going to be an interesting change of pace.
"Turning to the projects themselves" — oh boy here we go — "I'm astounded that you can complete any of them," she says, rapping the paper twice with the back of her hand. "You've set yourself up to burn out more effectively than any other student I've ever met, and that includes Miss Schnee's initial academic plan." Wait, what about Weiss? "You must either be receive an incredible amount of assistance from your classmates or put in far more effort than is practical or intended."
"Try both," I joke. When she doesn't smile I shrug. "I'm three years behind. I didn't expect it to be easy." I also didn't expect to start losing sleep but I figured that was normal.
"It shouldn't be impossible," she retorts. "As is, you're in a situation where you're forced to remain focused on a monotonous task for hours on end, followed by sessions of intense physical activity to wipe you out, which you chase with more monotonous labor." She shakes her head. "Multiple methods may achieve the same goal, but some methods simply achieve that goal better." I bite down a defensive comment, take a breath, and process the information.
She's not attacking me. She's commenting on what I do, dispassionately, and saying that it's not ideal. It's a critique of the system, not the user.
Framing it like that helps. A little.
"What's a good method?" I ask, looking her in the eye. "I mean, how do I get better?" Goodwitch raises an eyebrow.
"Add leisure time," she says.
I look at her in silence, jaw dropped, long enough for her to flare her nostrils in irritation.
"Do you know what one of the driving forces behind limiting the workday during the founding of Vale was, Jaune?" she asks commandingly, and reflexes born in Oobleck's class spring into motion.
"Grimm feed on negativity and the extended hours were leading to an increase in Grimm attacks, sir!" I say, getting out the last word before blushing and dropping my head into my hands. Damnit Jaune, wrong teacher!
"I see there's hope for you yet," Goodwitch says and I lift my head up. She's smirking, and with a wave of her hand she summons a book. An Abridged History of Early Vale. The text for Oobleck's class. "While that was one of the reasons for doing so, the frequency of Grimm attacks was theoretically manageable. This is a subject Oobleck and I disagree on, but I believe that a more important motivating factor was the quality of work obtained. Simply put, the second hour of work is never more productive than the first, the third never better than the second, so on and so forth." I nod along, trying to put the pieces together in my head. "By having craftsmen do subpar work on difficult-to-replace product like housing and roads, Vale could have inadvertently crippled it's infrastructure."
"Haste makes waste," I comment.
"Indeed," Goodwitch responds, opening up the book and flipping to a page near the end. "To his credit, Oobleck choose a volume that gives many possible explanations equal examination. Because he teaches Huntsmen, he may focus on the factors that apply to them, but that does not mean they're the only factors. Now, why is that important?" she asks, snapping the book shut.
"I'm sorry?" I ask. What does she...?
"Why is it important for Huntsmen to know about more than just the factors that relate directly to their careers?" she asks, looking me in the eye and not turning away. "Why is it important for you to know about the work habits of carpenters from hundreds of years ago?"
"When you put it like that..." I say nervously, wracking my brain for answers. Come on, think! "Well, some of their customs are applicable to-"
"Too literal," she says, cutting me off. "Think about the original question, then try to answer it."
I bite back my next off-the-cuff response and look at the floor between my feet. The original question... Why is knowing about stuff outside of being a Huntsman important? I mean, clearly it is, otherwise we'd just have combat class all day and drag around a bunch of lawyers to negotiate contracts for us. Practically, it makes us more self-sufficient, but that seems a little shallow. Why would knowing the cause-
"Because sometimes the Grimm might not be the problem," I say sitting back up with a jolt and slapping a fist into my hand. "I mean, if you send in a Huntsman to kill Grimm, that'll solve the problem then, but what if there's a well of negativity? You have to treat the source along with the symptoms."
Goodwitch smiles at me, bright and happy, and I feel a shiver of pleasure.
"And that is why we teach history," Goodwitch says. "Now, onto Grimm studies. How do you propose to prepare yourself for the final exam?"
We're in the middle of a discussion on the adoption of mechashift weaponry when Jaune's scroll goes off.
"Lean on me, when you're not strong~"
"Sorry!" Jaune says, scrabbling at his pocket as a flush rises to his face. "I swear I put it on vibrate!" I raise an eyebrow as he finally pulls the device out and checks the caller ID, face falling. "It's my partner," he says apologetically, sending a pleading look my way. I wave magnanimously at him and nod.
"Go ahead," I say and he smiles gratefully, swiping it open and holding it up his ear.
"Hey Pyr, what's up?" While he talks with his partner I look to the clock and have to suppress my surprise. It's already near six.
When did I lose track of time?
"I'm so sorry!" Jaune says, a note of panic seeping into his voice. "I totally lost track of time and I promise I'll make it up to you! Heading out now!" There's a pause, his face screwed up in worry as he starts piling papers into his folder with one hand. "No Pyr, it does matter. I said I'd do it and I didn't. That's on me, and I promise it won't happen again." Another pause as he shifts the scroll to his shoulder, shoving everything into his bag and zipping it shut. "Yes, I'm sure. See you soon," he finishes, slinging the bag over his shoulder as he gets up and looking at me. "I gotta go. I said I was going to meet my partner at five thirty for dinner and she's been waiting all this time and-"
"Jaune," I interrupt, raising a hand. "You had a prior arrangement that wasn't supposed to be impeded by this. It is fine for you to leave. By all means, attend to your team." I smile. "If you have more questions, I have office hours. Now go off and enjoy your date." If I had a lien for every partner pair that had ended up at least trying to make a romantic relationship work, I'd buy another floating island and build my own school on top of it. Jaune laughs and shakes his head, stepping out the door.
"We're just partners," he says as the door closes.
I sit there in silence for a moment. Then I stand up, go to the table with the tea pot, and start brewing as I consider his words.
Miss Nikos trains Arc in her spare time. Certainly there are benefits to teaching those less skilled than one's self, but such benefits can be gained from a single night a week. Beyond that, the girl waited thirty minutes before she called. Why not do so after five? After ten? A hope, perhaps, that the desired is on the way. That, or a fear of seeming pushy, of seeming like too much work. Not motivations that a purely platonic partner would harbor.
I wait for the tea to brew as I step into the shoes of a much younger self. One who would see an attractive peer and be both afraid to approach and cautiously lustful. I take a moment to relive those years, with all the poor decisions, pressing yet inconsequential problems, and mindless joy. I remember looking at Drake as a potential lover for the first time, a too-serious boy that was the only one willing to match me hour for hour in the library and in the ring.
Then I overlay Jaune onto the memory, replacing quiet intensity with exuberant optimism, sharp green eyes for warm blue ones, and restless competition for affectionate nurturing.
I ask myself if a girl alone at the top would look at this boy and want to be more than partners.
The kettle whistles and I have my answer.