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A Fight to Remember

Chapter Text

Mercury hated meetups. Granted, he’d never actually been to one. He just hated the idea of them. The whole lets-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya-while-pretending-our-disabilities-don’t-make-us-any-different-from-everyone-else didn’t sit well with him.

So, yeah. He hated it. Almost as much as he hated the stone-faced, white-haired man forcing him to go to said meetups.

Marcus Black assured his son that these sessions would be “good for him,” and “help heal him,” but both Blacks knew full well that there was no healing the amputation of two legs. Not unless some mad scientist had harnessed the unique ability lizards possessed to regrow their own tails—and even then, Mercury wasn’t sure he wanted to be a test subject for such a crazy experiment. He’d become enough of an outcast just by losing the bottom half of his legs. God only knew what having a tail would do to his social status. Well, what little social status he still retained.

The meetup took place in the most popular Methodist church in town. The Blacks weren’t particularly religious, so this was Mercury’s first time there. With its square shape and simple design, the modern structure looked more like an office building than a place of worship.

“I’m not going,” Mercury said flatly with folded arms as he sank down into the passenger seat of his father’s 1970 Chevrolet pickup truck. The setting sun was reflecting in the tall glass windows comprising the front of the church, and the blinding shine was making Mercury’s almond shaped eyes narrow even more than his poor attitude.

“You don’t have a choice,” Marcus said equally flat, putting his truck in park and unbuckling his seatbelt.

He was probably trying to save on gas by not turning the engine off, but this frugal decision was Mercury’s window of opportunity. The second Marcus stepped around the hood of the truck in an attempt to manhandle his son out of his seat, Mercury slid over to the driver’s side and took off.

His prosthetics definitely made driving trickier. For the most part, the metal limbs complied with Mercury’s nerves and did what his brain told them to do, but they would never be able to emulate the sensation of touch. Everything below his thighs was numb to him, including the feel of the gas pedal and the brake pad. So, yes. The prosthetics definitely made driving trickier, but not impossible. What made it impossible was his father’s unwillingness to allow him behind the wheel of a moving vehicle ever again.

Despite the devil on his shoulder urging him to do it, Mercury was kind enough not to run over his father. He instead put the Chevy in reverse and made a backwards beeline across the church parking lot, nearly running over two of the three wise men from a life-size nativity scene on the front lawn. He stopped just in time to give the light-up statues a tiny love bump before tearing into the grass and gravel and speeding out of the lot.

He managed to make it to the third stoplight from his home when the red and blue lights started flashing in his rearview mirror. The darkening sky made the lights all the more bright and annoying. Mercury knew there was no escaping them, but he did wait until he made it to the driveway of his house to stop.

“Evening, officer,” Mercury said with an attitude much too cheerful for someone getting pulled by the cops as he manually rolled his window down.

“Evening, Merc,” the officer said in a gruff voice. His pale red eyes were dazed with a hard day’s worth of work and the stubble on his chin was a bit scruffier than usual.

“Oh, hey, Qrow,” Mercury greeted congenially upon recognizing the policeman. He casually rested his arm on the window of the truck. “Of all the cops to chase me down, I get you. Lucky me, huh?”

Qrow scoffed. “Yeah. Lucky,” he said. He sighed so heavily Mercury thought he might collapse from the weight of it. “Why’d you do it, kid?” he asked, his voice more tired than intrigued.

Mercury averted his gunmetal gray eyes, his lightheartedness gone. “My old man wouldn’t take me home, so I did it myself. It’s nice to know I’m still capable of getting around on my own.”

“Grand theft auto is not getting around on your own,” Qrow pointed out.

“I didn’t steal it!”

“The car isn’t in your name and you didn’t have consent. Under federal law, that’s classified as stealing. Plus—if memory serves—your license is revoked, is it not? You’re all sorts of illegal right now.”

“Well, I’m pretty sure my old man was breaking some kind of law by depriving me of my freedom to choose whether I go to that stupid meetup or not.”

“You know how much of a brat you sound like right now?” Qrow asked with a weak, slanted smile and a raised eyebrow.

Mercury’s jaw tightened to prevent anymore bratty remarks from escaping his lips.

“Look, I’m not here to force you to go to therapy or get along with your father, but I do need to make you aware that just because you’re upset doesn’t give you the right to break the law. This was a minor hiccup, and I’m gonna let it slide, but further on down the road I’m not going to be so kind. Your father, on the other hand, can punish you as he sees fit.”

Mercury held up his wrists together. “Honestly, I think I’d rather just go to prison,” he said with the utmost sincerity.

Qrow chuckled and ruffled the top of Mercury’s silver hair. Before another word was spoken, a second set of headlights pulled up in the twilit driveway of the Black residence and a man with stark white hair got out of the squad car with a second police officer.

I wonder how many times he’s been in a cop car, Mercury mused as he observed his father in the Chevy’s rearview mirror.

“Thanks for the ride, James,” Marcus said, nodding to his driver.

“Don’t mention it, Mark,” James replied with a firm nod. “It was a fairly quiet day at the station for me, so this gave me something to do.”

“You hear that, old man?” Mercury called from the window of the Chevrolet. “I made their day worthwhile. You gonna punish me for that?”

Marcus was not amused. “I’m going to punish you by making you go to the meetup.”

Mercury breathed out a huffy sigh through his nose before throwing the creaky truck door open. It might’ve hit Qrow had the perceptive police officer not sidestepped in a timely manner.

“We’re already home. Why bother going all the way back?” Mercury grumbled.

“Because James doesn’t mind taking you,” Marcus said with the smallest hint of satisfaction in his tone.

Mercury’s eyes darted to the new nemesis. “Seriously, Ironwood?”

The well-built officer widened his stance and clasped both hands behind his back in a dignified manner. “Often times it is the things we loathe to do that are the things we need to do most.”

Mercury cocked one eyebrow. “Did you get that off the fortune cookie you ate at lunch or something?”

Ironwood cleared his throat. “In any case, we best be on our way.”

Yep. He totally got that from a fortune cookie.

It was a ten-minute drive back to the church, but the silence they sat in made it seem far longer. Mercury didn’t have much to talk about with James Ironwood. He was one of the police officers that had been there the night of the accident. He’d had a hand in saving Mercury from the wreckage, but anytime he saw him—be it a hospital room or a courtroom—Ironwood tended to let his partner, Qrow, do most of the talking. Well, most of the talking to Mercury, at least. From what Mercury could tell, Qrow was the people-person cop. Ironwood was the by-the-book cop. They complimented each other well and were both nice enough human beings, but anytime Mercury encountered them, he was reminded of… things he desperately wanted to forget.

“We’re here,” Ironwood announced as he pulled up to the curb of the church.

Mercury sat in defiant silence, staring blankly at the caged bars in front of him. He might’ve made a move to open his door, but it was impossible to unlock the backdoor of a cop car from the inside. No, he had to wait for his buff and broad-shouldered chauffeur to come around and escort him out of the vehicle.

“I got it from here,” Mercury said when he noticed James following behind him.

“I was asked to make sure you made it safely inside,” the cop dutifully responded.

Mercury sighed. “You truly are an upstanding officer, Ironwood…” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his dark jeans and limped inside.

Mercury was still adjusting to the prosthetics. The only kind of therapy he actually enjoyed was the physical kind. Being able to stand up again was the best feeling he’d had since the accident. He got better at walking every day, and that made things somewhat easier, but the collateral damage his injury had cost him was a bit more difficult to bounce back from. The loss of his friends. The loss of his scholarship. The loss of his girlfriend. Those were the things he’d never get back no matter how good he got at maneuvering with fake legs. Those were the pangs that hurt the most.

The meetup was held in the church’s gymnasium. Why a church needed a full-sized basketball court with an indoor track around its second level was beyond Mercury. He guessed sportiness was next to godliness or something.

The double doors Mercury pushed through squeaked open in an annoyingly noticeable way, and all eyes fell on Mercury and officer Ironwood as they entered the gym.

The group was gathered in a circle shaped more like a blob around the half court line and consisted of the biggest assortment of misfits Mercury had every seen. There was an emo-looking girl with bright periwinkle eyeliner and a big black bow that was much too girly for the rest of her attire. There was a kid with bright red hair wearing a white mask that was pointed like a bird’s beak and hid the upper half of his face. There was also a girl with two-toned hair who was so tiny Mercury wondered if being small was her disability.

A middle-aged woman was the only one to stand and greet them. “Welcome,” she said with a gentle tone and smile. She was an attractive older woman with a fair complexion and a short bob of black hair that suited her lovely face just fine. “I’m Kali Belladonna. It’s so nice to have you here, Mercury.”

“You know me?” Mercury asked, furrowing his brow.

“It’s hard to forget Haven Academy’s star soccer player, even if your daughter goes to a rival school,” Kali said with words much too sweet to sting the way they did, but little did the kind counselor know how mentioning Mercury’s glory days twisted the knife perpetually lodged in his heart. “Come, sit down! Sit down!” Kali continued, oblivious to the pain she’d just inflicted and gesturing for Mercury to occupy her foldout chair.

Reluctantly, Mercury limped over to the plastic piece of furniture and took a seat while Ironwood helped Kali retrieve a replacement foldout chair from the supply closet in the corner of the gym. Once Kali rejoined the blob, the officer took his leave of the group, assuring Mercury he’d be there to take him home at the end. Mercury could feel the embarrassment creeping across his cheeks in warm, rosy splotches.

“You came on a great night, Mercury,” Kali said, her honey colored eyes sparkling with eager anticipation. “We have a few new faces, so this’ll be a fun time to play the name game!”

Across the blob, a pale, petite hand shot into the air. “Oooh! I’ll start!” a young girl with ginger hair volunteered. Even from a distance, Mercury could make out the sprinkle of freckles across her cheeks. The girl was innocence incarnate. Not to mention the button-down dress she was wearing practically screamed, “Either I’m getting married or I’m dying a virgin!”

The spirited redhead cleared her throat and placed her hands on her thighs. She then pat them twice before clapping twice and then snapped twice. She repeated this rhythm until the rest of the misfits comprising the blob joined in.

As she snapped on her third pass, she said, “Pen-ny!” Her syllables were on beat with the snaps. She repeated the rhythm once more, but this time around she said, “Blake!” on the second snap.

The emo-girl with periwinkle eyeliner spoke up on the next set of snaps saying, “Blake.” After another set of pats and claps, she said the name, “Ad-am,” in time with her snaps.

The weirdo with the mask perked up next to her and played along. “Ad-am.” Pat, pat. Clap, clap. “Ne-o.”

Pat, pat. Clap, clap. Snap, snap.

Mercury was confused when no one answered to Neo. Then he noticed the girl with two-toned hair, smiling in a playful way. She bobbed her head side to side on the snaps and made soft sounds that almost could’ve been words. Maybe. On the next set of snaps, she nodded up and down in Mercury’s direction. Luckily, Mercury was a fast learner.

“Merc-ury,” he said as he snapped, making the mute girl smile big enough to squint her eyes. He somehow found himself half-smiling, too, but this moment of triumph vanished when he realized he needed to say someone else’s name on the next set of snaps. His eyes frantically scanned the group of kids around him—some in foldout chairs, some in wheelchairs. He had no freaking clue who any of these people were.

Pat, pat, clap, clap, “Merc-ury,” he said on his second round of snaps.

Everyone laughed at the repetition, yet no one ceased the rhythm since Mercury hadn’t broken it. He repeated his name for a third time, instigating another bout of laughter, but then his eyes settled on a girl sitting directly across the blob from him.

She had long, golden hair that fell all the way to the seat of her chair. Her shorts and thigh-high stockings did an excellent job of accentuating her long legs, and her tight-fitting top did just as good at emphasizing her…smile. Her lilac eyes locked with his and suddenly, his mind went blank.

“Hot-chick,” he said absentmindedly as his fingers snapped on beat. That time, everyone laughed hard enough to pause the game.

“Now, now! Settle down everyone. That’s the point of the game; so we can learn each other’s names,” Kali said in a motherly tone. She looked to Mercury. “If you can’t think of anyone’s name, remember you can always say mine,” she told him.

“Will-do,” Mercury said on beat with two more snaps. More laughter ensued.

“Pyrrha, why don’t you start us up again?” Kali suggested once the blob of misfits was quiet enough to continue.

A fairly athletic girl with a long, red ponytail nodded and began the beat.

Pat, pat, clap, clap, “Pyr-rha.” Pat, pat, clap, clap, snap, “Yang.”

The hot chick smiled.

Pat, pat, clap, clap, snap, “Yang,” she said.

Yang.

Her name was Yang.

Chapter Text

“H-hey!”

It wasn’t his best pickup line, but neither was “hot chick.” It might’ve come out smoother had he actually premeditated what he was going to say, but Kali ended the meetup rather suddenly and he’d acted on instinct when Yang walked past him. Regardless of how inarticulate he came off, Mercury’s stammering worked in getting the blond beauty’s attention.

“Hm?” Yang hummed, spinning to face him so that her long, wavy hair whipped wildly around her. Mercury had to struggle to find his breath after that lone movement took it away.

“Uh, I just wanted to apologize for the name game,” Mercury said, albeit the words came out much too fast. Why was he getting so worked up? She was just a girl. A really, really, really pretty girl with eyes the color of wisteria and hair as golden as the sun.

“No need to apologize. Happens all the time,” Yang said with a wink and a smile. Mercury felt like he’d do just about anything to keep her smiling like that.

“People slip up your name all the time? I find that hard to believe,” Mercury said with a laugh as awkward as anything else he’d said or done since laying eyes on the goddess before him.

“I meant people call me hot all the time,” Yang clarified.

Most people might’ve been turned off by such conceitedness, but Mercury found it positively captivating.

“Seriously, don’t worry about it,” Yang assured him, reaching her arm out to give him a congenial pat on the back.

That’s when he recognized the reason Yang was at the meetup to begin with. In the middle of where her human bicep should’ve been was where her prosthetic arm started. It was made of a metal similar to the one comprising his legs, but colored with sleek black and yellow paint. Her metal fingers felt feather-light as they brushed against his shoulder, moving as naturally as flesh and bone. Mercury wondered if the sensation was from a lightweight metal or if everything Yang did was elegant and dreamlike. Pretty people had an aptitude for those kinds of things.

“Hey, Yang! We’re gonna go grab some pizza at Shopkeep’s Pizzeria! You wanna go?” the emo girl with the periwinkle eyeliner called from the double doors leading out of the gym. She was once again accompanied by the red-haired dude in the mask, but this time she was also flanked by the cute mute with two-toned hair.

Mercury felt slightly guilty. Even after playing the name game for twenty minutes straight, he still had a hard time remembering what to call everyone. The only name that had been completely seared into his mind started with a Y and ended with an ang.

“That short girl with pink and brown hair is… uh… Neo, right?” he asked, nodding in the mute midget’s direction.

“Yeah,” Yang confirmed, offering her metal hand for a high-five. Mercury wasn’t sure that was something worth celebrating, but he wasn’t about to leave the hottie hanging. He slapped her metal palm with his human one and tried to ignore the shock it sent coursing through his body. This girl was pure electric. Did she sense their chemistry, too? “I have to say, I was impressed with how quickly you picked up on communicating with her,” Yang added, glancing from Neo to Mercury.

“You were?” Mercury asked, cocking an eyebrow and trying to keep his mouth under control. It was fighting to curve up into the cheesiest, Cheshire cat grin he was capable of.

Yang nodded. “Yeah. Most people aren’t sensitive enough to pick up on things like that.”

Great, Mercury thought bitterly to himself as all muscles fighting to smile went slack. She thinks I’m sensitive. That was the first step to getting eternally friend-zoned. He’d have to focus on asserting his bad boy image before it was too late.

“So?” Yang asked, looking expectantly at Mercury.

Mercury furrowed his brow in confusion. “So what?”

“Are you going?”

“Where?”

Yang giggled. “To Shopkeep’s Pizzeria.”

“I…” Mercury gazed past Yang’s shoulder to the faces of her friends still waiting by the double doors. Neo seemed amicable, the emo girl seemed indifferent, and the masked one seemed like he was ready to walk out the door five minutes ago. “Why not?” he decided.

If it was possible, Yang’s smile got even sweeter. “Cool. You can ride with me,” she said.

Hell yes! Mercury shouted victoriously in his head as he moved to follow behind Yang.

For a fleeting moment, he felt lighter than air, but that moment ended when a new, more demanding feeling zapped his euphoria and grounded him back down. It was the feeling of Ironwood’s firm grip on top of his shoulder.

“Time to go home, kid,” the officer said, oblivious to the giant bubble of happiness he’d so callously popped.

“But,” Mercury gave Ironwood big, puppy-dog eyes as he glanced from his captor’s face to the back of Yang’s blond, beautiful head getting further and further away from him.

“Did you make some new friends?” Ironwood surmised.

“Not really,” Mercury admitted. “But they might be if I hang out with them more. One just invited me out for pizza. Can I go with them?” he asked, shrugging Ironwood’s hand off his shoulder.

“You seem to forget that you’re undergoing your father’s punishment for stealing his truck earlier this evening,” Ironwood said in the steadfast tone he’d grown so accustomed to using no matter who he was talking to or what they were discussing. “I think it would be inappropriate to permit you to venture out to a pizza place without your father’s permission.”

“I’m seventeen years old! I don’t need my old man’s permission to do shit!” Mercury snapped. He knew his attitude wasn’t going to win him the argument, especially not with Ironwood, but he felt like it was something that needed to be said.

“Unfortunately, you do. And what’s more unfortunate is that it’s my job to see that you do,” Ironwood said sternly before lifting Mercury up over his broad shoulders and carrying him out of the gym.

“Hey! Come on, Ironwood! At least handcuff me or something!”

Alas, Ironwood did not handcuff him. He proceeded to carry Mercury in that humiliating manner all the way to the front of the church where everyone from the meetup was parting ways, including Yang.

He almost didn’t want to look to see if she’d seen him, but his curiosity got the better of him and he glanced out of the backseat window of the squad car just before Ironwood turned on the engine. Everyone was looking in his direction, some snickering, some shocked, but not Yang. Almost expressionless, Yang bent her prosthetic arm and waved goodbye.

He wasn’t sure if she could see him through the tinted windows of the car, but Mercury gave her a two-fingered salute as Ironwood pulled away from the curb.

Mercury let out a long, exasperated sigh, releasing his neck and allowing the back of his head to rest against the seat. “Are you happy now?” he asked, gazing out of his window and up at the stars shyly twinkling in the clear night sky.

“Why would I be happy?” Ironwood asked.

“Your unwavering devotion to following rules may have just ruined any chance I had with that girl.”

“What girl?”

“The hot one.”

“Mrs. Belladonna?”

“Well, you’re not wrong, but no. The…” Mercury paused and tried to think of a better way to describe Yang, “amazing one.”

The light from several passing street lamps had time to seep in and out of the car before Ironwood thought to say, “I apologize if I embarrassed you, Mercury. Next time I’ll handcuff you as I escort you out.”

Mercury sincerely hoped there wouldn’t be a next time, but knew his bad boy image could definitely use some sort of stunt like that to build back up his reputation.

He closed his eyes and laughed to himself as he imagined the scene unfolding at the coming week’s meetup. “Thanks,” Mercury said, smirking to the side of his mouth in the cocky way his father always gave him crap for.

They spent the rest of the drive in silence.

Chapter Text

Emerald Sustrai had been Mercury’s best friend since the second grade. They’d initially been enemies after Emerald stole Mercury’s favorite mechanical pencil, but as time progressed, so did their relationship. Although their interactions as of late mainly consisted of Emerald bringing Mercury his schoolwork since Mercury refused to set his metal feet back on school grounds, they were the closest thing to bosom buddies Mercury was ever going to get.

“What game have you been getting your ass kicked at today?” Emerald asked just before opening the door to Mercury’s bedroom. Sure enough, the predictable gamer had his butt buried deep in his galaxy-print beanbag chair, Xbox controller in hand and eyes fixed on the small screen of his hand-me-down TV set.

“Hey, Em,” Mercury greeted apathetically, his eyes glued to the TV.

The green-haired girl flopped the folder of papers she’d brought over for Mercury to ignore on the pile of previous assignments stacked haphazardly on his bedside table.

“This tower is high enough for Rapunzel to live in,” Emerald noted.

Mercury shrugged. “Then stop bringing over assignments to add to the heap.”

Emerald sighed. “If I did, then I really wouldn’t have an excuse to barge into your house and see you,” she explained.

She crossed the room and plopped down on the floor next to Mercury. Had Mercury entertained guests frequently enough, he might’ve bothered to better furnish his room. Regardless of her seat or lack thereof, Emerald waited until Mercury’s avatar died before she spoke again.

“Do you know how many people would kill to have the brain you have?” she asked.

Mercury took a drink from the glass of water he had resting at his feet to avoid answering her question.

“Why are you letting all of that natural talent go to waste? Why not just do your schoolwork? The teachers aren’t even making you go to school to do it.”

“Why do you give a flying fuck?” Mercury countered, tearing his gaze away from the loading screen to glare back at the ruby red eyes cutting into him.

“Because that’s what friends do. They give the fucks that their idiotic buddies are too thickheaded to give!”

“I went from having a brain to kill for to being a thickheaded idiot in less than ten seconds,” Mercury pointed out. “I guess you were too late to save me after all.”

“Cut the crap, Mercury,” Emerald said, slapping the controller out of his hand and sending it skidding across the wood floor and underneath his bed. “You really plan on wasting away in your house playing video games for the rest of your life all because you feel sorry for yourself?”

Mercury might’ve replied had Emerald given him time to.

“Well, I don’t!” she said, all but shouting now. “You’re so much better than this! So what if you can’t play soccer anymore? You’re alive! You still have your mind, which, as infuriating as it can be, is actually also really impressive. So put it to good use, do your damn homework, and stop this melodramatic pity party you’ve been throwing every night and day since the accident. I get it, you need time to grieve, but three months is long enough. You need some sort of normalcy back in your life, and studying is the easiest way to start. You don’t even need to leave your home! So just suck it up and do your goddamn homework!”

Mercury’s face remained calm and expressionless while Emerald let the remaining embers of her anger fade away in big, huffy breaths.

“You finished?” he asked.

“You fucking fucktard,” she added much more calmly.

Mercury nodded as if that had been the final touch he thought her speech needed. “Nice,” he said before getting up to retrieve his controller from the dusty crevice beneath his bed.

“Cinder has a new boyfriend,” Emerald mentioned out of nowhere, making Mercury freeze with his cheek pressed to the cold floor and his outstretched hand a fingertip away from reaching his controller.

“Oh, yeah?” he replied, trying his best to sound as casual as possible.

“He’s a douchebag, but then again, that does seem to be her type.”

Mercury chuckled at the indirect insult, “Yeah, I can’t argue with you there,” he admitted, snatching the controller with a jerky stretch of his arm. Minding his prosthetics, he stood up and limped over to reclaim his deeply indented beanbag chair before selecting the Continue option the game was offering him.

Emerald let out a sharp, exasperated sigh, “So that’s it? You’re not even going to fight for her?” she snapped.

“There’s nothing to fight,” Mercury said evenly. “She had a choice, and she chose to leave. You’re the only one who bothers spending time with me anymore. Almost makes you wonder why we’re not dating…”

“Please, don’t make me vomit. I had a really good lunch today, and I’d rather keep it down,” Emerald said flatly.

Mercury smiled. He knew the two of them were perfect as friends, but even if Emerald were attracted to men to begin with, they would never work as a couple. That didn’t stop him from teasing her about it, though.

“So you really don’t care?” Emerald asked as Mercury restarted his game.

“Isn’t life easier when you don’t?” Mercury countered.

“Maybe,” Emerald said. “But most things in life worth having aren’t easily attained. You have to fight for them.”

“Have you and officer Ironwood been getting Chinese food together?”

“What?”

“Nothing,” Mercury muttered. “You just sound like you’ve been saving the slips of paper from your fortune cookies for me to hear.”

Emerald stood up to leave. “You know I hate sweet stuff. Especially cookies,” she said before walking away. She paused in the doorframe and glanced back over her shoulder. “If you do your homework, I’ll give Cinder a message for you. Any message you want.”

Mercury rolled his eyes. “Is that supposed to be incentive?”

Emerald turned to face him so fast she almost lost her balance. “I don’t know how else to motivate you! You throw everything I have to say back in my face!” she yelled.

“Yet here you are, three days a week… Why bother?”

Emerald bit her bottom lip as she took a brief moment to consider. “I’m starting to really wonder that myself.” With that, she pivoted like a regular solider and left.

“No one understands,” Mercury sighed, absorbing himself in the bombing mission his avatar was caught up in. Just then, a brief image of the girl with hair as yellow and glossy as the metal of her arm flashed through his mind.

Mercury quickly shook her from his thoughts and focused on blowing up the enemy’s base before time ran out. Yang might’ve experienced a similar trauma to him, but even she didn’t know what it was like to go from being the best to the worst overnight.

Does she…?

~*~*6 days later*~*~

“Alright, son. Time for your meetup,” Marcus Black said from Mercury’s bedroom doorway, although the disheartened way he spoke made it sound like he was already exhausted from the fight sure to follow his announcement.

Mercury, who was comfortably settled atop his bed with pillows propped up behind his back, set the comic book he’d been reading down and turned off his bedside table’s lamp. “Okay.”

Marcus blinked in surprise. “Wh-what?”

“O. Kay. Let’s. Go,” Mercury said, enunciating every syllable. He hobbled over to his closet to grab his favorite leather jacket before shouldering past his father who was still frozen in place between his room and the hallway.

“Who are you and what have you done with my son?” Marcus asked when he passed.

“Heh. If you promise not to scream, I’ll tell you where I hid the body,” Mercury joked.

Chapter Text

Mercury arrived a few minutes late, so all eyes were once again on him as he made his awkward way to the blob of misfits in the center of the church’s gymnasium. He scanned the crowd of faces he still had yet to properly identify and paused momentarily when his eyes locked with Yang’s. She was sandwiched between her emo friend that had invited her out for pizza and the cute mute, Neo. When he saw Neo gesturing for him to take up the empty foldout chair next to her, he crossed over to their side of the blob and had a seat.

“Are you on parole?” Yang asked with a sassy smile. Neo leaned forward to better see his face. Apparently, she was just as interested to hear his answer.

That’s right, Mercury thought to himself. The last time they saw me, I was being manhandled into the backseat of officer Ironwood’s squad car.

“Good behavior,” Mercury corrected, trying to shake the embarrassing memory. “I go back to the slammer tonight, but my sentence might be reduced.”

Good behavior?” Yang echoed playfully. “So are you a good guy or a bad guy?”

You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself, he thought as he tilted his head and offered a smirk that was charming enough to make the cute mute blush. Not Yang, though. Yang responded by confidently sitting back in her chair, arms folded and a smirk of her own firmly in place.

“All right. Challenge accepted,” she declared.

Mercury wasn’t sure whether she’d read his mind or his expression, but he found it ridiculously attractive either way.

The meetup passed the same way it had the previous week. Kali reintroduced herself, started things off with a game, had a guest speaker talk to them about some random moral, and then opened the floor up to whoever wanted to share. Since no one was willing to be vocal about their issues that week, Kali decided to spend the remaining time they had playing one more game.

“I got this one from a Korean variety show! It’s called Pepero!” Kali said enthusiastically, retrieving a box of king-sized Pocky from her purse. “The rules are simple. First, I need everyone to pair up.”

Mercury’s first instinct was to turn to Yang, but he wasn’t alone. Almost every guy in attendance was crowding around the overwhelmed blonde before Mercury ever had a chance. He was debating whether or not he really wanted to fight his way through the throng when he felt Neo’s small, gentle fingers on his hand.

He looked from their hands to her face. It was the first time he’d really taken the time to look Neo in the eyes, and he realized she had different colored irises—one brown and one pink. They matched her hair, actually. Cool, he thought.

“You wanna be my partner?” he asked.

The cute mute nodded, her two-toned hair falling in front of her face with the motion.

The corner of Mercury’s mouth tugged at his lips and formed a semi-smirk. “Let’s give ‘em hell,” he said.

Even if he couldn’t be Yang’s partner, maybe he could impress her by winning the game. Neo was small, but there was a certain spark she possessed that told Mercury not to take her too lightly. He had a feeling they’d be a force to be reckoned with.

Once everyone paired up, Kali made her way to the center of the blob. Mercury couldn’t help but cast a sideways glance at Yang and her partner whom, much to his surprise, wasn’t a dude. It was her emo friend. What was her name? Bryn? Beth? No, those didn’t sound right.

“Alright! Now that you’ve teamed up, I need one pair to come demonstrate,” Kali announced with a soft clap of her hands. She turned to look at Yang’s partner. “Blake, would you be so kind?”

“Sure thing, Mom,” the emo said.

Blake! That’s her name! And she’s Kali’s daughter? The fuck?

As he watched Blake and Yang step forward to join Kali at center stage, Mercury realized the resemblance between the two Belladonnas was uncanny.

“Ladies, the rules are very simple. You’re going to place both ends of one of these Pocky sticks,” Kali explained, bestowing her daughter with the king-sized chocolate treat, “in each of your mouths.”

This rule instigated quite a bit of chatter among the onlookers as Blake and Yang gave their own puzzled reactions. Nevertheless, the two girls did as they were told, Yang placing the chocolate-covered end between her teeth and Blake doing the same with the opposite end of the biscuit. They giggled like the schoolgirls they were when they realized the kind of position they were now in. Even the king-sized Pocky sticks were less than a foot long, so it made for quite the awkward situation.

Hoots and wolf-whistles from the peanut gallery made Blake shift uncomfortably on her feet, but Yang totally owned it, quickly getting over her embarrassment and standing strongly with feet shoulder-width apart and arms held behind her back. She was obviously the kind of person who liked to compete, and Mercury was the kind of person who liked that about her.

“When I say go, you two will race to eat your stick, but make sure you don’t eat all of it! You have to bite off the smallest piece you’re capable of biting off! The team to obtain the smallest bit of Pocky is the winner!”

“WHAAAAT?!” a chorus of socially inept teens rang out.

Mercury was a bit surprised by the rules, too, but he wasn’t near as uncomfortable as his fellow adolescents. Verbal protests about virgin lips, first kisses, and the fact that they were playing in a church were uttered one right after the other, most of them hushed, but all of them audible to his ears, at least. Neo didn’t react vocally—which was completely normal for her—but her cheeks did get almost as pink as one side of her hair.

“Don’t worry,” Mercury assured her. “I won’t take your first kiss. The point is to break off the Pocky before that happens.”

Neo suddenly became very interested in her toes, but gave a firm nod so he knew she understood him. To be honest, Mercury wasn’t even sure if it would be her first, but judging from how shy she was acting, he was willing to bet money it was.

Once the commotion died down, everyone’s attention was brought back to the center of the blob where Yang and Blake were about to demonstrate the first round of the crazy Korean gameshow knockoff.

“You’ll be timed in the event of any ties. So time is of the essence,” Kali said. Yang had her game face on, but Blake still looked like she’d rather be anywhere other than at the end of that Pocky stick. Mercury would’ve gladly traded places.

“On your mark,” Kali prompted, “get set… go!”

Yang was halfway through her side of the stick a breath later. It looked like she practically inhaled the Pocky. Even Blake was startled by Yang’s zealous appetite and had to take a tentative step back to steady herself, but she managed to keep her end of the stick wedged between her teeth. Yang was in Blake’s face milliseconds later, tilting her head and giving off the illusion that they were, indeed, going to kiss. But such was the point of the game. The cheers of the spectators got louder and louder as their hungry lips drew closer and closer until snap. Yang bit off the stick and caught what remained of their biscuit in her metal palm.

Kali gingerly pinched the product of their efforts between her fingers and measured the tiny morsel.

“1.7 centimeters! Quite impressive for our first round!” Kali announced.

Yang seemed pleased with herself, while Blake just looked relieved to retreat to the sidelines.

“So who’s next?” Kali asked.

Yang and Blake’s score held strong for the entirety of the contest. This was partially because people kept getting embarrassed and breaking their Pocky before they managed to make it past the 5 centimeter mark. Mercury couldn’t blame them. Any number of normal teenagers had a hard enough time overcoming the awkwardness of hooking up. Add the self-consciousness of possessing a debilitating quality at their age, and you’re most certainly going to get a bunch of never-been-kissed sissies who cringe at any and all public displays of affection.

“5.6 centimeters!” Kali announced as the latest pair of competitors skittered away with flushed faces. “Blake and Yang are still the team to beat!”

A few impressed claps echoed through the gym and Yang soaked them in like a true champion, arms crossed, expression confident. Mercury wasn’t sure why, but he had an indescribable desire to wipe that smug look off her face.

“Last up we have Neo and Mercury!”

Mercury strode forward with the smoothest gait his mechanical legs would allow him. Neo followed close behind.

“You know the drill,” Kali said, handing him their Pocky stick. “Start munching when I say go.”

Mercury offered Neo the stick so she could place her preferred end in her mouth. She went for the chocolate side.

When Mercury realized how much height difference there was between them, he jokingly lowered himself to his knees. This made most people laugh, but Neo’s unamused expression was enough to make him promptly rise back to his feet and bend forward like a gentleman.

“Ready? Set. Go!”

If there’s one thing Mercury was good at both before and after the accident, it was eating, and this game proved no different. He devoured the Pocky like a man on the brink of starvation. Despite her seemingly nervous demeanor, Neo was just as enthusiastic to eat her side of the stick. Maybe she just really liked Pocky. Either way, Mercury was fairly confident they were the fastest contenders, and that included Yang and Blake.

Although they were moving fast, Mercury still managed to gauge the distance between their mouths. The squeals their proximity elicited from their onlookers helped further his awareness, but right before he was able to break off their team’s piece and claim victory, Neo consumed what was left of their Pocky, resulting in the direct contact of their lips.

The squeals escalated to straight up hoots and hollers as the entire gym echoed with the excitement that followed their accidental kiss. Mercury felt his eyes go wide in surprise and pulled back as soon as the act registered in his brain, but every move he made past that point was too little too late.

Neo just as quickly withdrew, returning to the timid little thing she had become since Kali announced they were playing Pepero.

“Settle down! Settle down!” Kali called in her attempt to regain order. “It was just a peck. Hardly anything to get excited over.”

We’re a group of teens with raging hormones. She should’ve known better if she didn’t think they’d get riled up over something like that, Mercury thought.

Once the gym quieted, Kali turned to face Neo and Mercury. “Although you did get the farthest the fastest, unfortunately, you two are disqualified since you don’t have a piece to measure.”

“Pretty sure zero counts as a number!” a blind kid called Fox shouted. Mercury had taken note of his badass name when Kali called him up for his turn at Pepero.

“Not in this game,” Kali clarified. “So our winners are Blake and Yang!”

Compared to the commotion Neo and Mercury’s kiss caused, the applause that followed this announcement was lackluster to say the least. Nevertheless, Yang took several exaggerated bows while Blake clapped just as unenthusiastically as the rest of the group.

“And that’s it for today’s meetup!” Kali said. “I’ll see you all again next week! Remember, it’s going to be our last meetup before the holidays. If you’d like to participate in our White Elephant gift exchange, make sure you bring a present next week!”

A tug on his elbow drew Mercury’s attention back to Neo. He looked down at the pint-sized person and felt the tiniest shred of guilt creep into his chest.

“Sorry about that,” he said, scratching the nape of his neck. “I honestly didn’t mean to kiss you… come to think of it…”

You kissed me. At least, that’s what he wanted to say. But in order to avoid confrontation, he ended with, “It was actually pretty good. Your future boyfriends are in for a real treat.”

He pat the top of Neo’s two-toned head and together they made their way to the church parking lot. He didn’t see his father’s truck anywhere, but he did see Yang. She was saying her goodbyes to her friends, though as soon as their eyes met she excused herself and headed his way.

“For a second there, I thought my title as the all-time game champ was in jeopardy,” Yang said with a smile so bright Mercury would’ve sworn the sun was out again.

“There’s always next week,” Mercury replied cooly.

Two honks from a nearby car alerted their attention, and more specifically Neo. Her ride had just pulled up to the curb.

“Bye, Neo! I’ll see you tomorrow at school, okay?” Yang said before giving her tiny friend a tight side squeeze of farewell.

Neo nodded happily and with one last glance at Mercury, she scampered over to her ride and disappeared behind the passenger door. Mercury scanned the parking lot in search of his own mode of transportation, but had to stifle a scoff when he realized his father’s Chevy was nowhere in sight.

Drunk on the sofa watching reruns again, huh?

“Gah, Neo is so cute. I don’t blame you for kissing her,” Yang said, drawing Mercury out of his pessimistic thoughts and back to a reality he could’ve very well been dreaming up on his own. He was alone with Yang, after all.

“For the record, she kissed me,” Mercury clarified. He wasn’t sure why it mattered, but for some reason it did.

“No, I’m pretty sure she just really likes Pocky,” Yang explained with that damnably adorable smile again.

“That’s what I thought,” Mercury confessed.

Their eyes met briefly before just as quickly glancing off in opposite directions. They stood in awkward silence, he with his hands shoved in the pockets of his leather jacket, she with her human hand clutching her mechanical arm, until both turned and said, “So,” simultaneously. They paused, waiting for the other to continue with an embarrassed smile before starting again. “No, you go first,” they said in unison. Their smiles got bigger.

“Seriously. You go first,” Mercury said, managing to speak before Yang this time.

“Actually, I have a surprise for you,” she said.

Intrigued, Mercury followed behind her to a dazzling blue sports car on the edge of the parking lot.

That’s not just any sports car, Mercury excitedly realized upon closer inspection. His eyes got wider to better take in the magnificence he was beholding.

“You got me a Lamborghini?!” Mercury exclaimed so incredulously his voice went up three octaves. He was kidding, but in all seriousness he hoped Yang’s surprise involved a joyride around the block.

Yang giggled. “Not quite,” she said before stepping over to the driver side of the sports car of all sports cars and motioning for whoever was inside to roll the window down.

All it took was one smile from Yang to brighten Mercury’s day, just like all it took was one look at the pretty boy behind the wheel to ruin it. His hair was a shade more blue than the car and his smile was a tad more blinding than the headlights, but his attractiveness didn’t make him any less of a sleazebag in Mercury’s eyes.

“Neptune Vasilias,” Mercury greeted, his voice void of the congeniality that had been there mere moments before.

Neptune’s welcoming smile withered away just as fast as Mercury’s before lines of awkward uncertainty etched themselves across his face.

“Oh. Hey there, Black. Long time no see,” Neptune said. “I didn’t realize you went to this support group, too. But I guess it makes sense what with… what happened.”

“You’re as sharp as ever,” Mercury mockingly replied.

Yang looked from the uncomfortable face of Neptune to the clearly disgruntled expression Mercury was by no means trying to hide. “I figured you two knew each other since you both play soccer at the same school…” she tentatively explained.

Played soccer,” Mercury corrected with a spiteful tone he never thought he’d address Yang of all people with.

A look of understanding dawned on her face. Her special surprise had been more surprising for her than either Mercury or the prick with the Lambo.

“I guess I just assumed…” Yang trailed off, her eyes glancing down to Mercury’s legs before guiltily meeting his eyes.

“Well you know what happens when you assume. You make an ass out of U and ME.” Mercury hated quoting cliche literary sayings, but it was the first acceptable thing that came to his mind since the rest of his thoughts were telling him to either make like a baby and head out first or make like an angry ex-girlfriend and trash Vasilas’s souped up ride.

Yang apparently didn’t care for his tone and her apologetic expression soon contorted into something far more rigid and defensive. “Look, I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I just thought you might like to see one of your school friends.”

Mercury sighed, creating a cloud of fog when his warm breath met the cool night air. “Did it ever occur to you that not everyone I go to school with is my friend?” he asked. “I mean, you’re not friends with everyone you go to school with, right?”

“Yes. I am,” Yang said with a challenging edge to her voice and an unflinching sincerity to her eyes.

This, shockingly, was something Mercury didn’t doubt for a second. Yang was the type of person who could get along with anybody, hence why she’d bothered wasting so much time with Mercury.

“So what exactly happened between you two to make you… not friends?” Yang asked, darting her eyes from one boy to the other.

“Babe, maybe now isn’t the time,” Neptune said, gripping the steering wheel like he was ready to go from zero to sixty in five seconds flat. Mercury couldn’t blame him. It was taking all of his self-control not to flick him off with both hands and moonwalk to the other side of the church. If he was going to leave, he was going to do it in style.

And did he just call her babe?

Yang turned her head so fast Mercury was almost whipped by the tips of her hair. “When would be a better time? When Mercury isn’t around so we can talk behind his back?” she snapped. “You obviously were both there for whatever went down between you. So you can either both tell me your side of the story at the same time, or I’ll pry them out of you individually.”

Neptune grimaced. “I think I’d prefer the latter option,” he admitted.

Yang looked momentarily dumbfounded before her fiery sassiness came back with a vengeance. “Fine. Mercury goes first, then,” she said before taking Storyteller Number One’s hand and leading him back towards the church.

“Babe! But what about date night?” Neptune called, leaning so far over his window he nearly toppled out of it.

“I’m sure Sun is looking for something to do. Spend it with him!” Yang called over her shoulder as she practically dragged Mercury along in her angry march across the parking lot.

Mercury snickered under his breath. Back when he and Neptune had been on better terms, he and the rest of the soccer team used to tease Neptune and Sun about being gay for each other. It was funny how Yang had picked up on the same joke. Almost funny enough to distract Mercury from the realization that there was ninety-nine point nine percent chance the girl of his dreams was dating the douchebag of his nightmares.

The doors to the gymnasium were open, though anything worth stealing was safely locked away. Luckily, all Yang and Mercury needed was a place to talk. The main lights were off, but two floodlights on opposite ends of the basketball court were enough to keep them from tripping over their own feet. Once they found a blank spot on the wall underneath the scoreboard, Yang finally released Mercury’s hand and pressed her back to the cool bricks.

“You know, you’re really bad at surprises,” Yang told him, as if the whole ordeal had been his fault.

“I do tend to cause problems everywhere I go,” Mercury admitted.

He pressed the top half of his back against the wall before sliding down to the hardwood floor. He had a feeling he should get comfortable with how abrasive Yang was being about getting her story. He was going to be there for a while.

“So what do you want to know, Blondie?” Mercury asked.

Yang furrowed her brow. “Why are you calling me Blondie all of a sudden? What would you do if I started calling you Blacky?”

Mercury smirked. “You wanna find out?”

“Seriously, though. You became an entirely different person when you saw Neptune,” Yang noted. “What gives?”

“I guess enemies tend to have that effect on me,” Mercury said.

“How—”

“As much as I appreciate you wanting my side of the story, I’m sure your boyfriend’s version is the only one you’ll need.” It was dark and Mercury wasn’t directly facing her so he couldn’t see her reaction, but he listened for little nuances that might suggest he struck a nerve—especially about the boyfriend part. But, much to his dismay, she didn’t deny it and no subconscious breath or movement betrayed her. “Besides,” Mercury added, “as you’ve most likely figured out, sharing my feelings isn’t really my forte.”

“Wisecracking sure is,” Yang muttered under her breath.

“Says the first person to ever dub me Blacky.”

“You gotta admit, it has a ring to it.”

“If I were a horse.”

“What year were you born in?”

“Dragon.”

“Oh! Same as me! Not a horse, but still cool!”

Mercury could hear the smile in Yang’s voice and was back to wondering why it was so easy to talk with this girl. He was pissed she was taken, and even more pissed that Neptune was the guy responsible for the taking.

That bastard…

“I know I don’t know you that well,” Yang said after a moment of companionable silence, sliding her back down the wall to join Mercury on the floor, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to. If you’d be up to telling me about it…. I’d really like to know what happened between you and… my boyfriend.”

Mercury sighed, silently staring into the shadows all around them as he contemplated his decision. “It was about three months ago. I had my soccer team, my friends, my scholarship. But best of all? I had my legs.”

Chapter Text

“Assemble, grunts!” Mercury bellowed to the number of boys scattered about the locker room. Most of them were freshmen, some of them were sophomores, but all of them were his to command. The underclassmen hurriedly lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and stood at attention like they were regular soldiers, all eager to please the team captain of Haven Academy’s male soccer team.

“Easy there, Merc. This is soccer, not JROTC,” Neptune said as he sauntered into the locker room behind his captain.

“Just because we’re not training for the military doesn’t mean we can’t implement a little militant behavior. I support it, Cap’n!” Sun declared with a salute as he, too, made his way into the locker room. Sun’s bright white smile seemed even brighter and whiter against his perfectly tanned skin, not to mention how it complimented the highlights in his sandy blond hair. School let out a mere fifteen minutes prior and the beach bum of a boy had already ditched his school attire in favor of a button-down shirt he neglected to button down at all. Mercury couldn’t blame him, though. If his abs were half as ripped as Sun’s, he’d go around shirtless as much as possible, even on snow days.

“I appreciate your support,” Mercury said with a nod in Sun’s direction, “because this year is going to be an important one, so I’m going to treat it as such,” he continued with a commanding tone—the tone of a leader. Mercury was nowhere near the level of a drill sergeant, but he didn’t need to be. Talking louder didn’t necessarily grip people. Talking like he would literally kick the crap out of anyone who contradicted him did, however, and that’s precisely how he carried on.

“This year marks my fourth year on this team,” Mercury said before glancing back at his fellow teammates as they finished filing in through the locker room’s entrance. His eyes met Neptune’s specifically. “And I’m not alone in that. A lot of us have grown up together on this team, and for the past three years we’ve managed to win the championship, making Haven the number one school for soccer in the entire region. That’s the first time that’s happened in the academy’s history. That’s a big deal. And that might even be why some of you are here today.”

Mercury’s eyes scanned the crowd of fresh faces. “How many of you transferred to this school for the sole reason of joining the soccer team?”

It took a moment, but a few tentative hands found their way into the air. Mercury nodded, unsurprised. “You want to know why that is?” he asked, locking eyes with a mousy boy who had hair as brown as tree bark and irises as green as a ripe avacado’s. “It’s because greatness breeds more greatness. Winners attract winners. You all came here because you wanted to be surrounded by greatness and winners, which makes perfect sense. Talented people don’t get any better if they don’t challenge themselves daily. The same goes for soccer players. You can’t get any better if you’re constantly playing alongside people beneath you. You need to up your game every day. Do that, and you might have what it takes come tryout time.”

Mercury’s lips curved up into a confident smirk. “Now, I know it’s just the first day of school and tryouts are a ways away, but that doesn’t mean we can’t condition for them. We’re going to meet here every day after school. Some days we’ll weight-train, some days we’ll work on endurance, and some days we’ll just goof the fuck off.”

A ripple of laughter echoed throughout the locker room before Mercury continued. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t be working on our teamwork. Those days might seem like the ones you can skip, but in reality, they’re the ones you’ll get the most heat for if you do. Because no matter how good you are, soccer requires eleven players to play. You can’t win a game by yourself. You win it with your team.”

Mercury paused one last time to let the weight of his words sink in. He’d gotten fairly decent at motivational speeches over the past few years. A sophomore being named team captain was unheard of, but that’s exactly what happened to him. It wasn’t a decision he was overly fond of at first or even wanted to agree to, but thanks to the encouragement of his teammates, Mercury unintentionally came to be one of the best captains Haven had ever seen.

“Alright, let’s hit the gym. It’s leg day!” Mercury announced, instigating a boisterous eruption of cheers and shouts from fellow leg-day-enthusiasts. He was glad to see everyone so pumped on the first day. It was a good omen. Or so he thought…

On their way to the weight room, Sun surprised Mercury with a sneak attack from behind. “That was some good stuff, Cap’n! Really got me right here,” the earnest blonde said, hooking one arm around Mercury’s neck and using the opposite fist to hit his chest, indicting just where the speech had gotten him.

“That’s too bad,” Mercury said with feigned disappointment. “I only got you in the pecs? What’s it take to get you in the abs? Now that would be an accomplishment.”

Sun threw his head back in a gut-powered laugh. “Well, you’ll just have to surround yourself with more greatness. Transfer to a school with better public speakers and compete with them till you’re on their level. Maybe then you’ll attain ab worthy feels.”

Mercury rolled his eyes and tweaked Sun’s nipple as a means of shutting him up. If Sun was going to mock him, he was going to suffer the consequences. The maneuver worked like a charm, dislodging Sun’s arm from around him as well as sending the boy jumping out of reach.

“C’mon, Cap’n! You know how sensitive those are!” Sun whined, crossing his arms in front of his exposed chest defensively.

“Seriously, Merc. You’re gonna make Neptune jealous,” Sage warned with a smirk as smug as the one Mercury was wearing.

“What was that now?” Neptune piped up. He was following a few steps behind, but was most certainly still in range of the conversation.

“Nothing, nothing,” Sage said as innocently as a strapping, six-foot-tall bag of tattoos and muscles could say.

“How many times do I have to tell you I’m not gay?!” Neptune demanded.

“Prove it,” Scarlet challenged, much to Mercury’s amusement. With his smaller build, numerous ear-piercings, very fashion-forward side cut of crimson hair, and strong dislike of getting his shoes dirty, Scarlet was just as suspect as Neptune, if not more.

“Give me any girl and fifteen minutes, and I will!” Neptune vowed with a determined look in his dark blue eyes.

“Really? Fifteen minutes? That’s it?” Mercury teased. “Pfft. I would’ve thought you’d at least have twenty in you. Guess we’ll make this a stamina day, too. Just for your sake, Vasilias.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was the start of our senior year and we were the kids in school everyone wanted to be. We had our colleges lined up and a few of us even had our scholarships secured, myself included. We felt indestructible. I felt indestructible.

I had no idea how wrong I was…

It happened at the first party of the year. We were only a week into school, but that’s one of the biggest reasons we had the party—to celebrate the start of a kickass year. That, and because Neptune’s parents were vacationing on some exotic island and left Neptune alone to housesit his three-story mansion with its own olympic-sized pool, movie theater, and built-in elevator. I’m sure you’ve probably seen it…

The party was off to a great start—pretty sure everyone who was anyone at our school was there. But, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and they sure as hell did that night.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Mercury was on his way to change the playlist blasting out of the living room’s stereo when he noticed a boy sitting by the fireplace with a droopy look on his face. Mercury recognized him as one of the transfer students who’d been conditioning for the soccer team all week.

“Oscar, right?” Mercury asked, walking over to join the mousy kid on the fireplace’s brick ledge.

The boy perked up instantly, straightening his slouched position like he’d just been electrocuted. “R-right! I’m Oscar Pine,” he blurted out, regarding Mercury like a fan might regard his favorite celebrity. “What are you doing here?”

Mercury gestured around the living room. “It’s a party. And I’m kinda one of the ones responsible for throwing it.”

Oscar shook his head, smiling at how silly his question must’ve sounded. “No. I meant why are you here talking to me? You could be talking with anybody. You’re Mercury Black.”

“Exactly,” Mercury said, lounging back in an attempt to get as comfortable as possible on the cool bricks comprising his seat. “I can talk to anyone I want. Why can’t that include you?”

Oscar pulled his arms and legs in to make himself seem smaller than he already was. “Because I’m a nobody.”

Mercury cocked an eyebrow. “Nobody’s don’t have names, and I’m pretty sure you’ve got a cool one.”

Oscar turned to look at him, his vivid green eyes analyzing Mercury’s in search of any trace of mockery. When he realized Mercury wasn’t being facetious, he softly smiled. “You really think so?”

“Totally!” Mercury said. “Sounds like the name of an author or a Nobel Prize winner.”

Oscar’s amusement faded and his eyes fell to his toes. “But not a soccer player.”

“Hey, I didn’t say that. I just meant you’re bound for greatness.”

“Soccer greatness?”

“I’d have to see you play before I could tell you that,” Mercury admitted. “But if you play anything like you train, something tells me you’ll be impressive.”

Oscar met his eyes again, and this time Mercury saw some budding confidence in them.

“Where did you transfer from again?” Mercury asked.

“Oh. Somewhere very south of here. I was home-schooled on a farm until this year. That’s kinda why I suck at… parties. This is my first one, and I hardly know anyone.”

Mercury smirked. “Easy fix,” he said, grabbing Oscar’s arm and yanking him to a standing position.

He led the former farm-boy into the kitchen and stopped when they came to a gaggle of freshmen girls gathered around a beer pong table watching four gawky guys miss toss after toss.

Without a word, Mercury bumped the corner of the refrigerator with his hip, sending the large ceramic vase on top falling towards them. Mercury grabbed Oscar’s arms, outstretching them just in time to catch the massive piece of pottery before sinking to a kneeling position, the tips of his spiky hair brushing against the smooth clay of the vase.

“Woah! Oscar! That was amazing! You just saved my life!” Mercury exclaimed. “Did anyone else see that?!” he asked, standing up and pacing the kitchen. “This guy’s a hero!”

“I saw the last second of it!” some random dude from the other side of the counter said.

“Me, too!” one of the freshmen girls chimed in. “You’ve got some amazing reflexes!”

“Right?” Mercury agreed proudly. He relieved Oscar of the vase with one hand and pushed him closer to the impressed female with the other. “You should go talk about those amazing reflexes,” he said with a wink.

“Way to go new kid! Three cheers for the guy who saved Mercury’s life… uh… what’s his name?”

“Oscar,” Mercury happily informed them.

“Three cheers for Oscar! Hip, hip!”

“Hooray!”

“Hip, hip!”

“Hooray!”

“Hip, hip!”

“Hooray!”

Although Oscar looked more embarrassed than grateful as his new friend pulled him away, Mercury knew he’d come to thank him. Eventually.

After returning the vase to the top of the refrigerator, Mercury meandered into the study where he found yet another soccer buddy, only this one was drunk as a skunk.

“Merk-er-ee… there’s a problem,” Neptune slurred as he tried to maintain his balance.

“You mean besides the way you just pronounced my name?” Mercury asked. He kept his arms folded, but he was ready to reach out should Neptune start to tilt a little too far to either side.

Concern washed over Neptune’s face like a bucket of cold water. “What’s wrong with the way I say your name?” he asked. “Are you mad because I don’t call you ‘Cap’n’ like Sun does? Look!” Neptune’s hand shot to Mercury’s arm. It was meant to be attention-grabbing, but wound up being what kept him from falling face-first into the floor. “I still think you’re the best captain out there! Jez because I don’t address you by your fancy title all the time doesn’t mean—”

Hiccup.

“—doesn’t mean I don’ respect chu…”

Hiccup.

Keeping his hand loosely attached to Mercury, Neptune leaned forward until his forehead was resting in the crook of his neck.

Mercury lightly chuckled. “I think that’s enough booze for you tonight,” he said, taking the half-empty bottle from Neptune’s lazy grip.

“I don’ get it…” Neptune mumbled, releasing Mercury and attempting to stand on his own again. “How are you able to hold your alcohol so well?”

Mercury held up the bottle by its neck and wiggled it between his fingers. “Because this is the only way I hold it. I don’t actually drink it.”

It took Neptune a moment to grasp the concept, but once he had it, it might as well have been the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

“I knew that!” he said once his laughter finally died down. “Really. I did.”

“I know you did, buddy,” Mercury said, giving Neptune’s arm two pats before walking off to find another drunken teammate to poke fun at.

“Wait!” Neptune rang out. “I still didn’t tell you what’s the problem!”

Mercury slowly pivoted on his heel, debating how much he really wanted to indulge his plastered friend.

“We need to initiate the newbies!”

“Huh?”

“Remember when we were freshmen and undergoing our first year of training for the soccer team? The upperclassmen hazed the shit out of us!”

“Oh, I remember,” Mercury said.

“It’s our turn to be the hazers. We need to hold an initiation!! All of them are here!! It’s a perfect time!!”

Mercury shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I really don’t think—”

“Initiation?! Fuck yeah!” Sun shouted, popping up out of nowhere and immediately joining the conversation like he had a tendency to do. “It’s about time we got a little vengeance from our year as fresh meat! I still have nightmares about drinking soda through my dirty socks…”

“You realize this vengeance will be meaningless since we’ll be taking it out on underclassmen who had absolutely nothing to do with our initiation?” Mercury pointed out.

“So?” Sun shot back. “It’s a rite of passage! Plus, serves them right for being younger than us!”

Mercury let out a heavy sigh. “And once again drunken logic has won out over actual logic…” he said. “We’ll put it to a vote. If Sage, Scarlet, and Yuma are in favor of holding an initiation, we’ll do it.”

Mercury should’ve known better. It was the first house party of the year, so of course everyone was going to drink way more than they usually did. So of course Sage, Scarlet, and Yuma would be just as gung-ho about subjecting the young, potential teammates to humiliating acts of abuse.

“We all did it!” Sage declared. “I’d like to think it’s what made our brotherhood stronger.”

Sage knew that word would get to Mercury because it was something he truly believed their team needed in order to succeed. But, in all honesty, Mercury had loathed their initiation, and deep down he always hated the upperclassmen who forced them to do it.

“It’s not team-building. It’s sick,” Mercury countered, but his argument fell on drunk, deaf ears. “I’m putting my foot down. The answer is no.”

“Fine! You don’t have to head it!” Neptune said decisively. “This’ll be the one thing I do better than you, Black. So keep outta my way.” As if his words weren’t enough, he physically shouldered past Mercury to better get his point across. He was doing this with or without his team captain’s permission.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Neptune rounded up the rookies and headed out to White Rock Lake. They shouldn’t have been driving and I’m pretty sure the newbies knew it, but Neptune made it clear that anyone who disobeyed would be cut before they even set foot on the field come tryout time. Not a single one of them backed out.

My girlfriend was at the party, too. She took me upstairs and tried to take my mind off of things…

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Cinder was hot in every sense of the word. Her body was like a personalized heater for Mercury so he always wound up taking his shirt off when she got too close if only as a practical means to stay cool.

That night wasn’t practical, though. His shirt was off for other reasons.

“Kiss me like you mean it,” Cinder whispered against his lips, her fingers curled around the tufts of hair behind his head, her weight on top of his sinking them deeper into the mattress.

Mercury used one of his favorite grappling moves to reposition them on the bed, swiftly rolling Cinder onto her back and planking himself on top of her. He plowed his face into hers, mashing their lips together in a kiss that was more teeth than anything.

Cinder pulled away, her tongue running over a fresh bloody mark on her lip. “Okay, your mind is clearly elsewhere right now,” she said flatly.

“Then help me bring it back here,” Mercury told her in a low, gravely voice. It was positively primal, and he knew Cinder loved it when he talked like that.

Sure enough, his predictable girlfriend threw her arms back around his neck and kissed him the way he should’ve kissed her.

But she was right. His mind was elsewhere. And not even sex was enough to beckon it back it.

With a groan that was a mixture of frustration and disappointment, Cinder released her boyfriend, allowing her arms to fall like limp noodles to either side. “I can’t do this if you can’t do this,” she said, not an ounce of flirtation in her tone.

Quietly, Mercury rolled off of her and into a sitting position with his feet hanging off the bed’s edge. “I need to go,” he said decisively. “I need to stop them. It’s not right…”

“It’s just a little fun,” Cinder said, her seductive tone making a comeback. She crawled over to his side of the bed and tangled her arms around him, her chest firmly pressed against his back. “You love fun,” she reminded him.

A part of Mercury ached for him to give in, to just let it go, let the other upperclassmen have their initiation, and let Cinder have her way with him. But it wasn’t strong enough. A brief image of the freckled farm boy was all it took for Mercury to pop off the bed and retrieve his shoes.

“Seriously?” Cinder cried, the mood completely gone. “You’re choosing your team over me? What’s more important?!”

“You really don’t want me to answer that,” Mercury told her as he shoved his heel into his sneaker.

Cinder pouted like a toddler in timeout as she watched him put on his second shoe. “I swear, if you walk out that door, it’s over between us, Mercury. I mean it this time.”

Mercury rolled his eyes. Like he hadn’t heard that before. “So I’ll see you on Monday? Lunchtime around the orchids?” Mercury asked mockingly as he pulled his head through his shirt collar. He was calling her bluff, but the more he egged her on, the tighter her fists became.

“I mean it, Mercury. We are over,” she shrilled.

“Eh… At least I still have you,” Mercury said, looking down at his hand before using it to give a two-fingered salute as he strode out the door. He could hear Cinder screaming his entire walk down the hallway.

Not even a full minute later, Mercury was in his Nisan 240 SX—a lowrider to be sure, but it could turn on a dime despite being just as old as its driver. His need for speed was evident from the instant his key cranked into the ignition. He even tried to accelerate before his engine fully roared to life.

Once Mercury hit the highways, he was possessed by a speed demon. He ran red lights and stop signs like they were checkpoints in a marathon, drifting round corners like a regular street racer and pushing the nimble car to its limits.

That included pushing it into the side of an eighteen-wheeler.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was my fault. It was a stoplight after all. But stopping was the last thing I wanted to do at that point in time, and that lapse in judgment cost me more than just my first car.

I faded in and out of consciousness, so I don’t remember too much about the actual accident other than what the officers and EMTs told me. Oh… and from what I’ve seen in pictures. Considering the pancake I turned my car into, everyone agreed it was a miracle the only thing I lost was my legs….

Psh… Some miracle…

I got my license revoked and, obviously, my car was totaled. The other legal stuff isn’t really important to the story. What is important is the first and only time Neptune came to visit me in the hospital.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Hey.”

Mercury turned his head, but kept it resting against the pillow of his hospital bed. It was bent so that he could comfortably sit up and was the closest he’d get to being upright until his amputated legs healed properly.

“Hey,” Mercury greeted, his voice coarse from using it so little. The only people who routinely visited him were officer Qrow, officer Ironwood, and Emerald, but that particular day had been a lonely one. Not even his father bothered to see him anymore, not that Mercury minded. Marcus Black could hardly bring himself to look his son in the eyes on the select days he wound up at the hospital, so Mercury preferred avoiding the whole awkward situation altogether.

Neptune cautiously stepped into the white room. Everything seemed so clean. Mercury couldn’t tell if Neptune had his hands in his pockets because he was uncomfortable or because he was afraid he might contaminate the room.

“You look pretty good,” Neptune said.

“Thanks,” Mercury said coldly, choosing to gaze out the window so Neptune could get a better look at the colorful bruises along his face. It had been ten days since the accident, but his injuries were more purple and blue than ever. Mercury could tell from the way Neptune’s breath hitched in his throat that he was regretting his choice of words. Pretty good was not an accurate description.

“You wanna continue the small talk, or should we just cut to the leg jokes?” Mercury asked, his eyes focused on the leafy tree swaying in the late summer breeze outside his window. “You’ve had ten days, so I’m sure you’ve compiled quite a few.”

“I didn’t come here to make fun of you,” Neptune said somberly.

“Was it to apologize?” Mercury scoffed. “Because I honestly think I’d rather hear a leg joke.”

The silence that followed was so awkward, Mercury could’ve sworn his father was in the room.

“Actually, I came to tell you I’m the new team captain.”

Mercury finally turned to face him again. “What?”

“Coach Hazel informed me yesterday. We still need someone to lead the team through conditioning… So he asked me to take the reigns.”

A burning sensation stung Mercury’s eyes as something much more powerful bubbled up from the pit of his stomach and overtook his whole body. A combination of outrage, injustice, and jealously surged through him, igniting every fiber of his being.

“You came to tell me that?” Mercury asked, his voice soft yet strained. “That was worth driving all the way out here? That was worth showing your sorry self in front of my death bed for the first time since it happened? To tell me that?!”

“Don’t be such a drama queen, Black. You’re not dying.”

“I might as well be!” Mercury screamed, ripping off his covers and exposing his legs—or what used to be his legs. All that remained were two stumps of flesh, bandaged at the ends and incapable of walking ever again. “My legs were my life! Soccer was my life! And that all ended because of you!”

“Hey! I wasn’t the only one who went along with the initiation—”

“But you were the asshole to suggest it! You were the asshole hazing freshmen! You were the asshole drinking and driving! You were the reason I was even at that intersection!”

“And yet you were the asshole to crash his car into a semi-truck,” Neptune said flatly. “Look… You can place blame all you want, Black. You can blame me for the stupid reasons you obviously do. You can blame the truck driver for crossing the intersection at same time you did. Hell, you could even blame that Oscar Pine kid for being so fucking adorable you just had to get there as soon as possible to save him from the evil seniors. But at the end of the day, no matter who you blame… it won’t change what happened. So you can hate me all you want—”

“Oh, I intend to,” Mercury said, his rage coursing through every vein. “I might only be half a person now, but I promise I will devote every particle I have left to wholly hating you.”

Neptune tightened his jaw and shook his head. “You know… I didn’t feel sorry for you when I first walked in here… But now I do. What happened to you? You went from being the guy who knew exactly what to say and do to being… well… this.” He gestured to what remained of Mercury Black.

“Why don’t we cut off your legs and see if that changes anything about you?” Mercury suggested.

Neptune stood as stiff and motionless as a piece of wood, staring his crippled captain down with fierce blue eyes. Mercury lost interest in their staring competition and whimsically began counting off numbers on his fingers.

“I’ve lost my legs, I’ve lost my license, I’ve lost my car, I’ve lost my team… are you fucking Cinder, too? Or are you working your way up to that one?”

“God damn it, Mercury! I didn’t take your legs! I had nothing to do with your accident!”

“You had everything to do with my accident because I wouldn’t have even been there to begin with if it wasn’t for your idiotic ass!”

“I was drunk! I didn’t know half the things I was saying and doing!”

“But you knew the things I was saying and doing, and I told you not to go. But you did it anyway! I put my foot down and said no, and now I don’t even have a foot to put down anymore!” Mercury’s anger was ever present, but he managed to slightly calm the storm swelling in his chest. For the time being, at least.

“You’re seriously gonna pin the blame on me?” Neptune asked. He took a deep inhale before exhaling in surrender. “Fine. You win. Hate me till your heart’s content. Because I doubt it ever will be.”

The tall, blue-haired boy turned to leave, but wound up turning right back around as one last thought occurred to him. “You’ve already lost your legs… Do you really want to lose your friends, too?”

“Dead people don’t need friends. Especially shitty ones like you, Vasilias,” Mercury said.

Neptune’s jaw twitched in response, but he stayed silent as he crossed to the door and left Mercury to brood by himself. The way he liked it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Yang’s human hand found its way to Mercury’s shoulder. He melted into the touch. Simply recalling how long it’d been since he felt affection like that made him realize how much he craved it, though his mind stayed focused on the hatred he still harbored for his former teammate.

“You can’t still be mad at him, though,” Yang said. “Why hate him?”

“Why like him?” Mercury countered. “He’s done nothing deserving of my friendship or approval. Or my forgiveness, for that matter.”

“But holding so much negative energy,” Yang said, using her hands in a sort of interpretive dance of what that built up negative energy looked like to her, “doesn’t it get exhausting?”

Mercury took a moment to actually consider his answer. “Not really,” he said. “I’m kind of an insomniac, though. I don’t get exhausted easily.”

Yang breathed out a light laugh. “I meant… doesn’t it bog you down? Make you feel worse than you have to?”

“I feel pretty bad constantly, so I doubt there’d be a difference regardless of how I felt about Neptune.”

“Well, that,” Yang said before abruptly rising off the floor to her feet, “is just going to have to change.”

Mercury followed suit, using the wall to help steady his wobbly prosthetics as he also rose up. “Why does it matter if I like your boyfriend or not?” he asked.

“It doesn’t,” she said bluntly. “It matters if you hate him though. Hate isn’t something you should carry around with you… The only good that can come from hate is the growth someone experiences by letting it go.”

Mercury silently regarded Yang for a moment. “Ever think about going into the Fortune Cookie business?”

“No, but I’d make a fortune if I did!” Yang was so proud of her pun she let out a hearty laugh and slapped her knee. “But seriously,” she said, clearing her throat and regaining her composure like she’d never lost it, “why don’t you meet me after school tomorrow? I’d like to show you something.”

Mercury cocked an intrigued eyebrow. “Oh, yeah?”

Yang happily nodded, her eyes bright even in the shadows of the darkened gym. “Yes,” she said.

“You sure your boyfriend won’t mind?”

“Even if he does, that’d make you all the happier to oblige,” Yang pointed out.

How very right she was.

How very right she was.

Chapter Text

Yang was in her senior year at Beacon Academy—Haven Academy’s biggest rival. Mercury didn’t consider himself a student of Haven anymore, yet he couldn’t help but feel a tad bit traitorous walking the enemy school’s halls. He tried to put a spin on it like he was a secret agent on an infiltration mission, but then he had to resist the urge to crouch down against the walls and point his finger gun around every corner he turned.

Or did he?

Looking both ways to ensure no one was around, Mercury pressed his back against a long set of lockers and cautiously crossed one foot in front of the other, finger gun at the ready. The one nice thing about his prosthetics was how quiet they were. It made pussyfooting fairly easy—not that he had many opportunities to put this to good use.

Once he reached the wall’s end, Mercury peeked his head around the corner to find the coast clear. In true secret agent fashion, he went from moving slow and stealthy to quick and nimble, sliding into view and somersaulting forward for no reason whatsoever. His prosthetics didn’t like the idea of pulling all of his weight up from the sudden surge forward, and he wound up flopping down to the tiled floor before he could rise up. He nearly got the wind knocked out of him when his back hit the ground.

Now Mercury really hoped no one was around to see him. The only thing lamer than being caught acting like a secret agent was being caught wiping out from acting like a secret agent.

“You okay there?” Yang asked, looking down at him so that all of her golden hair fell over her shoulders. Although her question was probably asked out of genuine concern, Mercury could tell she was trying hard not to smile bigger than she already was. She clearly found his little spill absolutely hilarious.

“I might be, but I can’t say the same for my dignity,” Mercury said, rolling to his side to push himself to a sitting position. Yang held her mechanical hand out to him and helped pull him to his feet. “Where did you come from anyway?” he asked. He could’ve sworn no one was there before he dove around the corner.

“Your assassination skills need some work. I’ve been tailing you for the past two minutes,” Yang said with such pride Mercury was surprised she didn’t brush her shoulder off at the end of it.

“Actually, I was a secret agent.” Mercury didn’t know why he bothered correcting her, especially since assassins were a little more badass than secret agents in his book. He was just overcome with a strange urge to one up her anytime she got sassy like that, so anything he could say to counter her simply rolled off his tongue.

“Funny… You just strike me as more of an assassin…” Yang said rather pensively for something so trivial. “Well, whether you were an agent or an assassin, you were also a man because you were going the wrong direction. The gym is this way.” Yang pointed back down the hall and pivoted on her heel to lead the way.

“You know, you didn’t exactly make it a cakewalk when you told me how to navigate this place,” Mercury said as he followed behind her.

“Of course not. Where would the fun in that be?” Yang teased.

School had let out for the day, so the only people left scattered throughout the campus were teachers and students involved in extracurricular activities. Yang’s extracurricular activity took place in the school’s gymnasium which, oddly enough, was slightly smaller than that of the church where they first met. Mercury wondered how many cookies and chocolate bars the church had to sell to get their gym since he knew Beacon’s sports department—much like Haven’s—depended on fundraisers to exist. He guessed it didn’t really matter. What did matter was that gyms were apparently becoming a thing with them. He liked that they had a thing.

Upon stepping into the brightly lit indoor basketball court, Mercury realized whatever Yang had planned was going to involve more than just the two of them after all. A full-sized volleyball net was set up along the half court line and a handful of girls in sports apparel were peppering volleyballs back and forth on either side of it. Among them was one older woman—the coach, Mercury assumed. She had her platinum blond hair pulled back in a tight bun and a pencil skirt equally as tight. Mercury wasn’t sure how the middle-aged woman would be able to demonstrate certain moves in a skirt so restricting, but he was dying to see her try.

“Hey, Yang!” a girl with a bob of dark red hair cried out as they approached. Her shout caused the other girls to stop and look, too, so that all eyes were on Yang and Mercury as they made their way over. “Who’s this?” the red-haired girl asked, looking Mercury up and down with pale blue eyes—or were they silver? She was still too far away to tell for sure.

“This is Mercury,” Yang announced, glancing around the group of athletic ladies. “He’s going to be helping us practice today.”

“But, Yan—I mean captain—he’s a boy,” the red-haired girl protested.

Yang pointedly looked down at Mercury’s crotch with a confused look on her face. “Would you look at that. I think you’re right, Ruby!”

Yang made a move to give his junk a test squeeze as a means of verification, but Mercury stepped out of reach, knocking her hand away with his. He warned her with his eyes that she was taking the joke a little too far.

“The point is,” Yang said, turning her attention back to the girls and leaving Mercury’s manhood be, “Mercury isn’t joining our team—he’s helping it. The championship is this Friday, so we need all the help we can get to be on our absolute best A game. Right?”

“Right!” everyone agreed in unison.

“Captain. I imagine you’ve got some sort of reason for implementing him into our practice today,” the coach said, her green eyes the definition of skeptical.

“You imagine correctly, Coach Goodwitch,” Yang confirmed.

Coach Goodwitch sighed. “Fine, then. Let’s start with five laps. Winner gets to lead stretches today.”

The girls didn’t hesitate. They pushed off right where they stood, dropping their volleyballs and heading for the outskirts of the court to make their laps.

“You’re a volleyball captain?” Mercury asked. He couldn’t tell if he was impressed or just falling harder for this girl. It was probably both.

“Yep,” Yang confirmed with a deep nod, “And today, you’re my teammate of honor. Which means you have to take your laps just like everyone else. So hop to it!” She gave Mercury’s shoulder a playful pat as she jogged past him to catch up with the rest of her team.

Mercury stood motionless as his mind tried to comprehend what she could’ve meant by teammate of honor. Surely she didn’t expect him to run. Why, that would just be cruel. She knew better than anyone that that kind of physical activity was simply not possible for him anymore.

Yang spun around and started jogging backwards so she could face Mercury again. She was smiling with encouragement, not cruelty. She wanted him to run, but not to embarrass him. She was trying to help him.

“If I fall on my face, you owe me a hundred chicken nuggets,” Mercury called out, removing his jacket and tossing it to the sidelines. Yang responded with a laugh that only encouraged him further.

With a deep breath to steady his nerves, Mercury pushed off the slick wood of the court and propelled himself forward. His steps were slow and awkward at first—his prosthetics moved nothing like his natural legs. But once he found his rhythm and pacing, he caught up with Yang in no time at all. The look she gave him once they were running side by side was downright beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that it made him lose his balance for a split second. Luckily, Yang’s prosthetic hand instantly shot out to his arm and didn’t let go until he powered through his stumble. She wasn’t going to let him fall if she could help it, and he loved that more than anything about her.

Mercury didn’t know what Yang would have in store for him that day, but being part of a volleyball team was a possibility that never once crossed his mind. What was even more surprising was that he actually knew some of his honorable teammates. Neo was there in all of her pink-pigtailed cuteness along with the exquisite emo, Blake, though the latter managed to stay true to her apathetic nature and avoided plays that required too much energy.

He remembered the girl with the long red ponytail from the meetup group, but he couldn’t remember her name for the life of him. That’s why he was sure to commit it to memory the second the squirt named Ruby called it out.

“Heads up, Pyrrha!” Ruby shouted as she set the ball high in the air for someone to spike. The athletic girl bounded from the back of the court, jumping high to meet the ball with her open palm before smacking it down to ground with such strength Mercury could’ve sworn it left a dent in the sheen wooden floor.

“What is someone like her doing in a support group for people with disabilities?” Mercury asked in pure amazement. It was a rhetorical question. Heck, he didn’t even mean to say it out loud. That’s why he was somewhat startled when Yang answered him.

“She used to have a disability, but she managed to overcome it,” Yang explained, stepping close enough to whisper as they watched a girl named Ilia chase after the runaway volleyball. “She still goes to the meetups because she likes to motivate people to not give up hope. To keep moving forward.”

“How noble,” Mercury said with a mocking roll of his eyes. He wanted to be more cheeky about it, but the truth was he really did think it was kind of noble, so he left it at that.

The practice continued with a five-on-five scrimmage between teammates. Yang was the captain of a team consisting of Blake, Ruby, Weiss, and Ilia, while Mercury headed the team with Neo, Pyrrha, Nora, and Coco. Mercury was pretty proud of himself for remembering all nine names. The fact that they were all pretty hot kind of helped. Even the coach looked good for her age. If the upcoming championship had been a beauty pageant, Beacon would’ve been the school to beat.

Mercury thought he’d be at a disadvantage for more reasons than just his legs. Volleyball was nothing like soccer, and soccer was the only sport he’d devoted time to dominating. Had it been beach volleyball, Mercury would’ve been able to use his legs and feet, but this was court volleyball—meaning the seasoned kicker had to rely on his arms alone to bump, set, and spike.

His arms might’ve lost some of their definition in the past three months, but he soon found they were still powerful enough to pack an impressive punch—or spike, for that matter. He didn’t thank his old man for much, but he had to hand it to him for passing down such good genes. He made a mental note to give him a fist-bump the next time their paths crossed.

Mercury had lived with his fake legs for about two and half months now, yet this was the first day he’d tried maneuvers more complicated than walking. He should’ve attempted them sooner, for Mercury was digging and diving with the same finesse as Yang and Pyrrha, making near impossible saves and popping right back up to do it again. The more things he discovered he was capable of doing, the more he wanted to push his mechanical muscles to their limits.

He wound up pushing his limits so hard he made two screws clink out from under the cuff of his pants and roll away. He would’ve scooped them up before anyone noticed had the ball not been coming straight for him. Letting competitive instinct take control, Mercury leapt up into the air. He was one of the furthest players from the net, but that didn't stop him from slamming his hand into the ball’s center and sending it rocketing across the court. The ball cleared the net with room to spare, and despite Yang’s valiant effort to stop it from hitting the floor, she had no control over her aim and wound up knocking it out of bounds. That was game point for Mercury’s team.

Neo, Nora, Pyrrha, and Coco victoriously cheered, rushing to surround their captain in a group hug and accidentally tackling him to the ground in the process. The missing screws made Mercury’s right leg extremely off-balance, so tackling him was something Neo probably could’ve accomplished by herself.

Once the wave of crazed females ebbed, Mercury attempted to get back to his feet only to slump right back down to the floor.

Damn it… Where did those screws go?

Mercury searched the floor around him, but the tiny pieces of metal appeared to have vanished. Before he could anger Coach Goodwitch by swearing, Neo bent down so that she was at eye-level with him—one hand on her knee, the other outstretched to him in a closed fist. With a smile so darling she could’ve been a baby doll, Neo tilted her head to the side and opened her hand, revealing two shiny silver screws in the middle of her palm.

“Hey. Thanks!” Mercury said, gladly accepting her gift. He was so grateful he almost felt like returning her tackle-hug.

Mercury rolled up the leg of pants and scanned for holes that should’ve had screws in them. It was so normal for him he didn’t understand why almost the entire volleyball team suddenly let out sharp gasps of astonishment.

“What?” Mercury asked, snapping his gaze up to meet the wide eyes of the Beacon beauties. When he realized the thing they were staring at—the thing that had shocked them—was his metal leg, Mercury felt his heart sink. This was even more embarrassing than Yang catching him playing secret agent man.

“I… uh… Yeah…”

Mercury didn’t even know how to begin his next sentence. Did he want to play it off as a joke? Did he want to point out how rude they were being? Did he want to ignore everything and pretend like nothing happened? Not all of them were shocked. Blake, Neo, and Pyrrha weren’t nearly as taken aback as the others. But that didn’t keep any of them from staring.

“That’s right, ladies,” Yang’s familiar voice rang out as she stepped forward and crouched down next to Mercury. “The guy that just kicked all of your butts doesn’t have the legs he was born with. But that didn’t stop him, did it? He still got out there and gave it his all. So come game time, if you’ve got a stomach ache, a sore throat, or a bad attitude because you failed a test you should’ve studied harder for, I want you to remember Mercury Black,” Yang said, taking one of the screws from Mercury’s hand. “Remember how someone who was probably told he’d never be able to play sports again was literally running laps around all of you.” She found the proper hole and twisted the tiny stud into place. “Because at the end of the day, it’s not about what your muscles are made of.” Yang pinched the second screw between her fingers. “It could be tendons or it could be… metal.” Her hand glided up Mercury’s leg, and by god if he didn’t wish he could feel it. She was searching for the last hole and smiled when her finger traced over the empty groove near his prosthetic kneecap. “It’s not about what your muscles are made of,” she repeated as she finished replacing the screw. “It’s about what your heart is made of.” She stood to face her team, lifting Mercury to his feet along with her. “So long as you give it your all and really put your heart into it, then we can walk away from that game with our heads held high, win or lose. Got it?”

Yang’s speech was met with cheers so thunderous he could hardly believe just eight girls were responsible for them. Even Blake was being more animated than usual. Neo didn’t add to the shouting, but she was clapping louder and harder than anybody.

Yang wasn’t just a captain, she was a damn good captain.

A brief image of Mercury’s soccer buddies flashed through his mind. Sun, Scarlet, Sage, Yuma, Oscar… Neptune…

His nostalgia soon turned to anger and his warm, fuzzy feelings evaporated.

“Well said, Xiao Long,” Coach Goodwitch said with an affirmative nod to Yang. “And great practice overall,” she added, turning to the rest of the team. “That’s it for today. I expect to see all of you here dressed and ready to go same time tomorrow. Dismissed!”

Practice may have been over, but no one went to retrieve their bags and leave. Everyone instead crowded around Mercury.

“I’m sorry,” Pyrrha said, her voice genuinely apologetic. “I didn’t mean to stare. I knew you walked with a limp, but I had no idea your entire leg was missing.”

“It’s all good,” Mercury assured her.

“I went through a bit of a leg injury myself…”

“Yeah. Yang said that’s how you ended up at the support group. But you got better.”

Pyrrha seemed surprised Mercury knew so much about her story. “That’s right,” she said. “I like to help people who were like me… So if you ever need someone to talk to or train with, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll give you my number.”

“Oooh! You can have my number, too! I’d love to help any way I can!” Ruby said.

“My mom says friends are the best things to have in tough times, so I’ll give you mine, too,” Blake chimed in.

Neo couldn’t talk, but she was the first one racing to her bag to retrieve her cell phone, darting back just as fast to shake the device at Mercury until he was part of her contact list.

Mercury needed to crash volleyball practices more often. After a mere two-hour session, he had eight new numbers. The only one he was missing was Yang’s.

“Neo already sent me my first text,” Mercury said, thumbing through his notifications as he and Yang walked to Beacon’s student parking lot. Even when he was the most popular guy in Haven, he’d never gotten eight phone numbers at one time. He seriously felt untouchable. He could walk, he could jump, he could run, he could play like the baddest player there was in every sense of the word in every game imaginable. For the first time since the accident, he felt like his old self.

“And it’s all thanks to you,” he said, rounding on Yang so that he was directly in front of her.

“Me? What’d I do?” Yang asked. Either his smile was contagious, or she was smiling for reasons of her own.

“Everything,” was all he could think to say. “I was running. I was running! I never thought I’d be able to full-out run again. Not like I used to…”

“And some things will never be like they used to,” Yang said, a hint of longing in her voice as her human hand latched onto her mechanical limb. “But that’s just because you should constantly be improving. You should always be striving to be better. You can’t get better if things never change.”

Yang started walking again and Mercury joined her, putting a little more pep in his step now that he knew he could.

“How’d you know I’d be able to do all that stuff?” Mercury asked, pocketing his phone so he could give his savior his undivided attention.

“I didn’t,” Yang admitted. “I’m the kind of person who teaches someone how to swim by pushing them in the water. Either you get it or you don’t. I would’ve been their to jump in and save you from drowning, of course,” She turned to offer Mercury a smile so sweet it could’ve given him a cavity. “But you were a swimmer. Just like me.”

“You?”

“Well, yeah… How do you think I learned how to use my mechanical arm? I was really bummed out at first. You could even say I had crippling depression!”

“Stop, please,” Mercury begged. The moment was too good to be ruined by puns.

“But one day coach called and told me to just try. She said I technically only needed one arm to play anyway. And she was right. My prosthetic actually has way more strength than my human arm ever did! And it doesn’t wear out as easily… There are some really neat perks to having mechanical limbs, especially for athletes. So when you told me one of your biggest regrets was losing your ability to play sports… I wanted to see if that was really true.”

Mercury shook his head. “I never even thought that these things could be just as effective as my actual legs.”

“Why not? Technology is constantly advancing. Which means our prosthetics will only get better, too,” Yang said.

They were outside now. The sun was starting to set, and the sky was the most beautiful mixture of colors he’d ever seen. The mid December air was the perfect temperature for light jackets and a healthy coating of sweat—both of which Mercury had. The world as a whole just seemed so much more wonderful now that Yang had opened his door of possibilities again.

Suddenly, Mercury stopped walking. Yang took a few more steps before she stopped and turned to face him.

“Why did you help me?” he asked. “Was it because you felt sorry for me?”

Yang shook her head. Her smile was soft this time, like she found his words both amusing and naive. “Mercury. Do I need a reason to help people? Can’t I just do it because I want to?”

Before he could stop himself, he was taking the strides it took to close the distance between them, cupping her face in his hands and pressing his lips to hers. He felt her tense and heard her squeak in protest, but she didn’t back away. Mercury wished he could convey how thankful he was to Yang in that kiss, that she could feel every fire she’d ignited in his soul, for there was an inferno blazing within him now. He moved one hand from her face to her back, holding her closer and kissing her deeper, but Yang finally found the strength to put her hands to his chest and shove him away.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” she shrilled.

“Do I need a reason to kiss you? Can’t I just do it because I want to?” Mercury asked.

Yes! You do need a reason! And, no! You can’t just do it because you want to!” Yang shouted.

Mercury took a step closer, but Yang was just as quick to take a step back. “You seriously didn’t feel anything just now?” he pressed, unable to believe she was numb to all the passion he put behind that kiss. She had to have felt something. He’d never kissed anyone like that. Not Cinder, not any of his past girlfriends. No one.

“The only thing I’m feeling is a complete invasion of personal space,” she shot back, her eyes starting to water. Was she about to cry?

“Look, Yang… I didn’t mean to offend you…”

“I have a boyfriend!” she screamed.

“I know… I just thought—”

“Really? You were thinking? There was brain activity going on up there?”

“Hey! Don’t you think you’re overreacting? I was caught up in the moment. Sue me!”

“Maybe I will!” she snapped, whirling around and storming off towards the parking lot.

Mercury had half a mind to let her go. But he had half a body that could run after her, and now that he knew he could, he did.

“Yang, I’m sorry.”

“Save it, Mercury. I don’t want to hear it,” she shouted over her shoulder.

“What can I do to make it up to you?”

“You wanna make it up to me? Then leave me alone!” she said before climbing in her Jeep and slamming the door shut. The bright yellow Renegade roared to life with the same ferocity as its driver before reversing out of its parking spot so abruptly it nearly ran over Mercury’s metal toes.

Mercury stood in silence as he watched the Jeep speed off and out of sight. It wasn’t until his text notification went off that he even thought to move. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone.


Neo <6:27 PM>
Need a ride? ;)

Mercury lifted his eyes from his phone and searched the lot. Neo was waving from the window of her bright white Volkswagen Beetle two aisles over.

The stranded boy shrugged. He figured he’d done enough with his feet for one day. It would be nice not to have to hoof it home.

Chapter Text

Although Mercury thought his ride home with Neo would be the epitome of peace and quiet, little did he know the kind of sound system the itty-bitty buggy was packing. The woofers practically took up the entire backseat, and Neo kept them blaring with some of the best rock n’ roll songs the past few decades had to offer. The tiny two-toned mute—who literally needed a booster seat to see over the steering wheel—had phenomenal taste in music, and the mean air guitar solos she and Mercury took turns shredding were so fun he almost completely forgot about being rejected by Yang.

Almost.

The moment he set foot into his bedroom, he flopped face-first onto his mattress, letting the weight of his humiliation drag him down.

“I’m such an idiot,” Mercury murmured into his pillow. He might as well have been on a rollercoaster with all the ups and downs the day was throwing at him.

He couldn’t figure out what had come over him—what brazen idea made him think it was okay to kiss another guy’s girl.

Then he realized it wasn’t some strange impulse that popped up out of nowhere. It was something he’d been suppressing—something he’d been wanting to do from the first smile Yang cast his way. And he was kind of relieved he didn’t have to fight it anymore.

It was a fight to remember, though, he thought with a dramatic sigh. Woe was him.

“Ay, Mercury,” a strained voice called from the other side of his door before his father swung it open. The heavy scent of alcohol wafted into the room with the swinging door’s assistance as Marcus Black staggered forward, vodka bottle in hand.

Mercury sat up, his nostrils flaring in anger and irritation from the smell. “What do you want?” he asked.

Marcus made a sound that was somewhere between a chuckle and a hiccup. “Oh, now you care,” he said. “After everything that’s happened, now you care.”

“Care about what?”

“‘Bout your scholarship!” Marcus shouted. “‘Bout your future! You were ‘posed to have a free ride and get the education I never had. You were gonna be great! Now look at ya.” Marcus threw both arms out and gestured at the bottom half of Mercury, spilling a good bit of his vodka in the process.

Mercury watched the rank liquid slap against the hardwood floor before lifting his gaze to meet his father’s. “Believe me, old man, no one is more disappointed that I’m stuck here with you than I am.”

Marcus laughed. “Oh, that’s nice. Real nice. Make it seem like I’m the bad guy. Your mother used to pull the same shit…”

Mercury never knew his mother and he blamed his father wholeheartedly for that. Mentioning her was all it took to get his blood boiling like the center of an active volcano.

“Maybe she had the right idea!” Mercury spat, jumping to his metal feet. His anger fueled his momentum and he almost fell right back down from the excessive energy. After finding his balance—and managing to look mildly intimidating doing it—Mercury squared off with his old man.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Marcus asked, intentionally barring Mercury’s path to the doorway.

“The hell away from here,” Mercury retorted.

“Tch. Like you can get very far on those things,” the drunk sneered, getting lost in the amusement he found in envisioning the feat. Mercury decided envisioning wasn’t enough. He was going to let his father experience it firsthand.

Channeling the same power and balance he’d harnessed during volleyball practice, Mercury bounded forward, diving between Marcus’s wide stance and rolling to a standing position in the barricaded hallway before darting out of the house. He was already down the driveway and past the mailbox when his father made it to the front door.

“Good luck getting very far, ya no good cripple!” Marcus shouted, hanging onto the doorframe for support. “If you see your mom, tell her I said, ’Fuck you!’”

Mercury didn’t know why, but something was stinging the corners of his eyes. Hastening his pace, he grit his teeth, blinked back the would-be tears, and ran toward the large golden ball of light hanging just over the horizon. His shadow stretched thin along the pavement as he went.

Running was his escape in every meaning of the word, and this was his first time fully escaping since the accident. The feel of the cool evening air pumping in and out of his lungs was calming—a feeling he desperately missed—and despite being cluttered with a day’s worth of unfortunate events, his mind became clearer and clearer with each stride he took.

Mercury wasn’t even sure where he was going. Part of him wished he’d thought to grab the keys to the Chevrolet before bolting, but a bigger part of him was thankful for the adrenaline rush his run gifted him.

Wherever he was headed, Mercury didn’t have to worry about his father coming after him. At least not yet. Marcus Black had one too many DUIs on his permanent record. He wasn’t about to risk another one on behalf of his no good cripple of a son. The only thing Mercury might have to watch out for was cops. Marcus went way back with a few officers, and should he phone in and say Mercury was missing, enough of them knew his face for that to be a bit of an issue.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

By the time Mercury stopped running, the last glimmer of daylight the sky had to offer was fading behind the shadowy silhouette of distant trees. He’d made it all the way to the swankier part of town, a place he never really had any business being in. Mercury took one glance down at his sweaty shirt, ripped jeans, and beat-up Converse Highs and thought about jogging a few blocks more. He then realized being in a part of town people weren’t used to seeing him was perfect. If anyone was searching for him, they wouldn’t think to go there.

Decision made, Mercury slicked his sweaty hair back and meandered down the unfamiliar street. He did his best to ignore the looks of distaste from the more uppity passersby, but he was sure to thank the gentleman who handed him a twenty dollar bill. Did he seriously look like that much of a bum?

The coolest part of Uptown—apart from getting money from people who thought he was homeless—was all of the lights. The city’s largest movie theater was a block away, and Mercury could already see the giant billboard listing the current movies being shown in big bright letters. He didn’t know the exact number of lightbulbs comprising the theater’s massive awning and displays, but it wasn’t a number to scoff at.

Street lamps, store windows, artworks, and advertisements of all shapes and sizes illuminated the perfectly paved sidewalks. Even a hotdog vendor had a neon sign that told everyone where to find fresh wieners. Mercury had to stifle a laugh as he imagined how many times the vendor had to replace that sign. He could think of a few guys his age who would get a good laugh out of stealing something like that, himself included.

“Actually, a hot dog sounds pretty good,” Mercury said, unconsciously licking his lips.

With a loud growl of encouragement from his stomach, Mercury made is way over to the balding hotdog vendor and used his newly acquired twenty to purchase some dinner. The kind cook was nice enough to drown the freshest of fresh wieners in excessive amounts of chili and cheese, making Mercury’s eyes bulge and his mouth water. He even gave him a footlong at no extra cost because Mercury complimented his sign. Uptown people were so much nicer. He needed to come here more often.

One bite into his chili cheesy goodness and he was in heaven. He didn’t even feel the slightest shred of guilt for eating something so awful for him. After all the exercise and stress he’d endured that day, Mercury felt like he deserved about seven more of those things.

He was polishing off the last bite of his delicious chili cheese dog when his phone’s text alert sounded. Mercury quickly licked his fingers clean and grabbed his phone out of his back pocket.

It was from Emerald.

Emmy <7:38 PM>
What are you doing?

What the hell? Why does she even care?

Mercury <7:38 PM>
I’m knitting a sweater.

The tyrannosaurus rex roar from Jurassic Park was an iconic sound, especially to Mercury because his best friend had it set as her alert anytime he shot her a text. So when the familiar dinosaur cry echoed from somewhere close by, Mercury immediately started searching for a shock of mint green hair among the crowded sidewalk. He found it directly behind him, accompanied by an outfit he wasn’t expecting to see.

“Em? What are you doing here?” Mercury asked as he approached, his eyes roving up and down the elegant evening gown draped across his friend’s dark skin. The gown’s cream color suited her remarkably well, as did the golden accessories and equally golden gladiator styled sandals peeking out from the dress’s slit. He wasn’t sure why, but Mercury felt a small sense of pride seeing his normally tomboyish best friend all gussied up. She looked like an Egyptian princess straight off of an ancient hieroglyphic slab.

“I come to the ritzy district more than you might think,” she said. Although her clothes and makeup were doing a fantastic job of disguising her, Emerald’s tough girl demeanor seeped through like the ink of a permanent marker. Everything from the tone of her voice to the way she stood shouted don’t fuck with me! Classic Em. “It’s my dad’s birthday, so mom wanted us to have a nice dinner together,” she thought to add.

And suddenly the pieces started falling into place. He didn’t know much about Emerald’s family, and he’d only encountered them a handful of times, but rumor had it they were wanted thieves in seven different countries. So while Emerald’s folks were indeed loaded and it made perfect sense for their daughter to be walking the bright streets of Uptown like she ran the place, how they’d acquired all that money was somewhat questionable at best.

Mercury didn’t care, though. He figured if they were good enough not to get caught in seven different countries, they pretty much deserved whatever they stole. Mercury tried not to let the reputations of parents affect how he viewed their children, for he knew he’d appreciate being shown the same courtesy.

Besides, Emerald was just as her name suggested: a real gem. She was the only friend who stood by his side through thick and thin, despite his best attempts to push her away. Thieving parents or no, she would always be his diamond in the rough—no matter how annoying she was when nagging him to do his homework.

“Your turn,” Emerald said, folding her arms in front of her rather low neckline. “What are you doing here?”

“I was… just out for a nice jog,” Mercury replied.

Emerald cocked an unimpressed eyebrow. “A jog,” she repeated.

“Yup,” Mercury confirmed with a tightlipped smile.

Emerald cast a fleeting glance down at his legs before returning her eyes to his. “You expect me to believe that?” she asked.

Mercury ran a hand through his hair, reminding himself of how sweaty he was. “I expect you to be amazed,” he said, the pinnacle of confidence.

Just as he pivoted on the ball of his prosthetic foot and readied himself to start sprinting down the sidewalk, a nearby car horn blew so loud it startled the poor boy right down to his core and sent him crashing to the pavement.

“Dumbass,” Emerald muttered with a shake of her head before crouching down to help her fallen friend back to his fake feet.

“What kind of asshole honks a horn this close to pedestrians?!” Mercury cried, his eyes wild as he released his hold on Emerald’s helping hand and sought out the unjust culprit.

As if on cue, a pearl white limousine pulled up to the curb, stopping so Emerald and Mercury were directly in front of the backseat window. The tinted glass slowly rolled its way down, revealing one of the prettiest assholes Mercury had ever seen.

Her complexion was so pale and soft it was more comparable to porcelain than skin. The thin pink scar across her left eye seemed a little out of place, but it had a petiteness to it that did more to add to her beauty than detract. If anything, it served to make her more mysterious. Her long white hair was pulled into a tidy side ponytail that cascaded down her shoulder in sheen, silken waves.

“Get in losers, we’re going shopping,” the white angel said with more attitude than he was expecting her to have.

It took Mercury a moment to recognize her out of her sportier clothes, but there was no mistake. This girl was one of Yang’s teammates.

“You were at practice today, weren’t you? For Beacon’s volleyball team?” Mercury asked.

The porcelain princess offered him a pleased smile. “You get brownie points if you can remember my name,” she said.

Mercury was good at a lot of things, but memorizing peoples’ names wasn’t one of them. “Bonquisha Funk Nasty?” he guessed.

Emerald rolled her eyes and elbowed him out of the way. “Ignore him. He’s an idiot. But I’m not. I’m Emerald.” She extended her hand out for a handshake.

The girl kept her delicate fingers clinging to what little of the window had yet to roll down. “But that really is my name,” she said with such a straight face even Mercury almost believed her. He stayed quiet, though, just so he could enjoy Emerald’s flustered reaction.

“I, uh—I’m sorry. You just don’t, um, really strike me as a Bonquisha, let alone a Funk Nasty. But It’s a really fun name! Lots of character! I like it!”

Neither Mercury nor the mystery girl could hold in their laughter just as Emerald couldn’t hide how humorless she found their little joke.

“Ha, ha,” Emerald said dryly, her tough girl demeanor going full force.

“I guess it’s my turn to apologize,” the girl said, wiping a tear of happiness from the eye with the scar. “I’m Weiss. And, yes, I attend Beacon Academy and serve as the volleyball team’s main setter.”

Still a bit miffed, Emerald re-extended her hand and Weiss congenially returned the gesture with a firm shake.

“Sorry I forgot your name, Weiss. It won’t happen again.” Probably, Mercury felt he should’ve added.

“It’s fine,” Weiss said with a flick of her wrist, brushing the matter aside. “Anyway, I was kidding about going shopping. That’s just a line from one of my favorite movies, and I always wanted to say it. But I seriously do want you to get in.”

As if waiting to be summoned, the chauffeur magically appeared by the limousine door. He opened it wide and gestured for Mercury and Emerald to enter the shiny white vehicle.

“My mom always told me to never get in fancy cars with pretty girls,” Mercury said, his feet firmly planted.

“Your mom left right after you were born,” Emerald murmured so only he could hear.

Mercury turned his head to look his best friend in the eye. “Ouch. That one stung.” While he wasn’t lying, he was mostly kidding. There were certain things only Emerald could get away with joking about, and since the remark was both light and true this time, he decided to let it slide.

“I promise I don’t bite,” Weiss assured them. But the devilish way she smiled made Mercury debate the integrity of that statement.

“Where are you planning on taking us?” Mercury asked.

“To my house. To get outfitted,” Weiss replied evenly.

Mercury exchanged glances with Emerald. “Outfitted?” he repeated.

“Right. With Connect Tech’s latest prosthetic legs.”

Now Mercury was really confused. “You have some Connect Tech prosthetics? They’re the leading name in automated body parts. What’s a brat like you doing with Connect Tech just lying around your house?”

Weiss cleared her throat. “Well, when a brat like me is the heiress to the Connect Tech family fortune, that tends to happen,” she explained, getting some slight pleasure out of the wide-eyed, slack-jawed faces Mercury and Emerald made upon receiving this news.

“You can’t be serious…” Emerald said in disbelief.

“Dead,” Weiss countered with the daintiest smirk Mercury had ever seen. He’d have to practice that one. It was kind of cute.

“Okay. Say you really are the heiress to the Connect Tech family fortune and you really do wanna outfit me with the latest set of legs… Why?” He wasn’t sure why he needed to know. Most people would just say thank you and hop in the limo at this point. But it just seemed too strange. Too convenient. Life liked to throw him curveballs, not meatballs. It liked to give him lemons, not lemonade. What was the catch?

“Well for one thing, your friend is hot,” Weiss said, looking past Mercury to give Emerald an appreciative nod.

As happy as he was that his best friend was just hit on by a really rich and pretty girl, that did little to answer his question. “And for another thing?” Mercury pressed.

Weiss’s icy blue eyes shot back to his. “Yang asked me to.”

And that was all it took to get him in the limo.

Chapter Text

From how well she spoke to how straight she sat, it was evident Weiss did indeed come from a finer upbringing than most. That much Mercury knew. What he was still skeptical about was her being the heiress to such a renowned company, especially when she was living in such a small town, attending such an ordinary school. That skepticism faded into nothingness, however, the moment the pearl white limousine passed through a gilded gate with the Connect Tech logo on it.

“The CT part of the logo, I understand, but what do the two snowflakes have to do with robotics?” Mercury asked as the the limo followed along the winding driveway.

“My last name is German for snow.” Her monotonous drawl made it sound like Weiss had explained the very same concept countless times before. “My grandfather just thought it would be neat to incorporate the snowflakes to pay tribute to the Schnee name. Plus, the tips of the flakes are connecting, just like Connect Tech connects to living organisms.”

Made sense.

They spent the remainder of the surprisingly lengthy drive through the grounds in a silence that was only broken when Mercury caught his first glimpse of Weiss’s home. Mansion felt like an understatement. The thing was a freaking castle! Complete with crystal-topped turrets and everything!

“Woah! I thought you said we were going to your house not your palace!” Mercury exclaimed, gazing at the turret tops with sparkles in his eyes. Part of him was genuinely disappointed when he saw no alligator-filled moat or drawbridge to compliment the other fairytale features. A dragon would’ve been a nice touch, too.

“Wait till you see the lab,” the heiress said with a proud smile—a smile that slightly faltered when she noticed Emerald’s lack of enthusiasm. “You don’t seem as impressed.”

Emerald shrugged. “I’ve seen bigger.”

“Oh?” Weiss’s smile stayed, but transformed into something far more intrigued.

“Yeah. Em’s kind’ve from the higher end, too,” Mercury explained. Though her house didn’t have any moats or dragons either.

“What do you mean 'kind’ve?'” Weiss asked.

“He means my family is new money,” Emerald quickly cut in, most likely before Mercury could say anything stupid. For all he knew, the Schnees might’ve been one of the families Mr. and Mrs. Sustrai had stolen from to acquire their new money status.

Weiss relaxed back into her seat cushion. “I had a feeling that might be the case. No one wears Christian Dior like that without having a little extra in the piggy bank. At least not around here,” she said.

Mercury was suddenly very aware of his damp and dirty Incubus shirt and tattered Old Navy jeans. He looked like a trashcan compared to the two posh princesses at his side.

“Don’t worry. I plan to outfit you with more than just new prosthetics. I’m starting a new fashion line soon, so I have plenty of samples for you to try on,” Weiss happily informed him.

“You’re an heiress, a fashion designer, and a mind-reader?” Mercury asked, more impressed with the mind-reading talent than anything. How did she know what he was thinking?

“There’s a difference between reading minds and reading people,” Weiss replied. She gave him a knowing look. “Maybe you should try it sometime.”

Mercury’s spine stiffened ever so slightly. Was she referring to the earlier kiss he shared with Yang?

Maybe shared wasn’t the right word. That would’ve required Yang to kiss back, which—much to his dismay—she did not do. Forced seemed too strong… Partook, maybe? Yeah. Partook sounded good.

Thankfully, Mercury didn’t have time to ponder the matter for long. The limousine coasted to a stop at the base of the white stone staircase leading up to the castle’s wrought iron front doors and the chauffeur, without delay, came around to escort the trio out of the luxury vehicle.

“Thank you, Klein,” Weiss said, dismissing the dedicated attendant to go about his other duties.

“Of course, miss,” Klein replied with a respectful bow of his bald head before taking his leave of them.

Weiss had told Mercury to anticipate the lab, but he was not ready for the awesomeness that was the rest of the Schnee residence. Apart from the massive dome ceiling and beautifully crafted crown molding, there was a double staircase framing the foyer with intricate designs of spirals and snowflakes worked into its silver railings that complimented the blue hues of the walls perfectly. Ice sculptures of every animal known to man lined the main hallway, all with refrigerated display stands cold enough to create a billowing fog around each statue’s base. Portraits of past Schnees decorated the spaces between the sculptures, though not a single framed face looked very happy to be displayed in such a way.

“Is it tradition not to smile in family paintings?” Mercury asked, lightly laughing at his own joke. He could imagine Yang joking about how cold they seemed, too.

Damn it.

He hated how much he missed her already. It’d barely been two hours.

“As of late, most definitely,” Weiss confirmed. She answered a little more darkly than he found characteristic of her, prompting Mercury to drop the topic. The only thing he deemed worse than explaining family drama was losing his legs, and he could tell from the tense air about her that miss Schnee probably shared similar sentiments. Maybe his people-reading skills weren’t such crap after all.

At the end of the main corridor was an elevator they rode a few floors below sea level.

You have reached Connect Tech Innovation Laboratory, a friendly digitized voice informed them before the elevator doors opened and revealed one of the coolest sights Mercury had ever seen.

Blue was a constant theme throughout the manor, and the laboratory was no exception. Midnight blue metal with microchip like panels framed the massive space, while computers with equally blue hardware comprised the room’s center. Workbenches littered with shiny silver tools were evenly spaced throughout, some with heavy-duty machinery hovering above while others had helpful gadgets built right into the table. About a dozen engineers in pristinely white jumpsuits busied themselves with the machines and computers, diligently focused on their tasks. In fact, they were so absorbed in what they were doing, they didn’t even acknowledge Weiss and her guests when they entered through the automatic sliding glass doors.

“You weren’t kidding. This place is unreal,” Mercury said, his eyes lingering on a prosthetic arm one worker was tweaking as they passed him by. Small golden sparks flew from where the man’s laser-ended tool met the arm’s interior, further captivating the awestruck boy.

“It’s real, alright,” Weiss assured him, her heels clinking against the metal floors.

“But this can’t be the base of operations for such a colossal company,” Emerald said. “How can such a small number of people pump out such a vast number of product?”

“I never said this was the base of operations,” Weiss pointed out. “Think of this as a personal lab—similar to how some people designate rooms in their homes to serve as a type of office. While this is the place where the most invention for our company happens, it is by no means a factory to mass produce Connect Techs. Those exist elsewhere. Our lab is designed for progress—to keep building upon the technology we already have and making it better.”

Technology is constantly advancing. Which means our prosthetics will only get better, too. Yang’s words echoed in Mercury’s mind, creating a hollow feeling in his chest that the soft echo continued to reverberate through.

“When did Yang ask you to help me?” he asked before his logic could convince him not to.

Weiss seemed a bit perplexed by the question, maybe unsure of why it mattered. “She mentioned you for the first time last week,” she answered. “I told her I had a Connect Tech in mind, but it wasn’t ready. In fact, it was sheer luck I recognized you back in Uptown. I just got the green light to outfit it about an hour before bumping into you.”

“Weren’t you one of the girls who gave me her digits after volleyball practice? You could’ve just messaged me.” Mercury pointed out.

“Weren’t you the dolt who never texted or called so I would have your number, too?” Weiss fired back.

“I would’ve texted you immediately,” Emerald interjected.

Weiss gave her a playful smile. “That’s a hypothesis I’d be willing to test.” Spoken like a true scientific engineer. And lesbian.

“Phone numbers aside, can we get back to the Connect Tech?” Mercury asked. The ladies could flirt later.

Weiss stopped walking and regarded Mercury with a more serious expression. “If you’re willing to test it out, I’m willing to give you my Connect Tech free of charge. You have to agree to weekly checkups, though, so we can document its compatibility and performance.”

“You want me to be your test dummy?” Mercury clarified.

Weiss swished the words around in her mouth, not really sure of their taste. “I wouldn’t say dummy per se…”

“For how long?” he asked.

Weiss placed her hands on her hips. “For however long I say,” she told him. Clearly, this was nonnegotiable. It was her way or no way.

Mercury shrugged. Getting his thighs on some state of the art prosthetics at no monetary cost to him? He figured he could stand a checkup or two, especially if he were actually standing for them—preferably running, jumping, and even kicking, too. New legs meant new possibilities, and new possibilities meant more to him than anything.

“Deal,” he said with an affirmative nod.

Weiss moved closer to shake his hand. Just as her fingers released his, a commanding voice sounded from across the room.

“Weiss! What have I told you about notifying me when you make appointments?”

Weiss, Mercury, and Emerald all snapped their heads at the same time to see an older, taller, yet still elegantly stunning version of Weiss standing on the second story walkway above them. The woman in white rested her gloved hands on the walkway’s railing, her solemn expression unmistakable even from a distance.

“Winter! It’s so good to see you!” Weiss exclaimed, her voice alight with adoration. Her features suddenly changed, however, almost as if she realized her emotions were showing when she needed to keep them in check. Recomposing herself quickly, Weiss cleared her throat. “My apologies, Sister. It was a spur of the moment sort of situation. I received news of the SK2’s completion earlier this evening and thought it best to undergo the human testing as soon as possible.”

Winter is a fitting name for this woman, Mercury thought as he observed her frigid movements and icy stare. She’s as cold as a frost-covered pint of ice cream at the back of a freezer that’s twenty degrees colder than it should be. She doesn’t even seem like she’d be a fun flavor…

The vanilla-esque woman took a few dignified steps from where she stood, stepping onto a platform that immediately began descending to the lower level once her weight was distributed. Hands clasped behind her back, she approached.

“I don’t have time to properly outfit the SK2 set. I have to prepare for a… prior engagement.” Winter’s formal tone snagged on the last few words just as her pale blue eyes darted to the side.

Prior engagement? Mercury repeated in his head. “What? Like a date?” He didn’t mean to say it out loud, but that didn’t stop it from happening.

Winter let out a heavy sigh, almost as if she was surrendering to a long, drawn-out battle she was tired of fighting. “Yes. I suppose you could classify it as a… date,” she admitted.

“Oh! I didn’t realize,” Weiss said, her face sincerely sorry for the inconvenient timing. “But, if it’s alright with you, I can outfit him myself. It would be good practice for me.”

Winter mulled that proposition over with a tilt of her head before deciding, “I would still prefer giving you a hand. Especially with such advanced tech.” She then rolled up the clean white sleeve of her blazer and looked at her wristwatch. “Do you suppose we could accomplish this in ten minutes?”

Weiss nodded. “I’ll only need seven!” she said confidently.

Winter led the way over to the far end of the facility where large display cases illuminated with beams of neon blue light housed some of the most magnificent pieces of machinery Mercury had every seen. His eyes were automatically drawn to one pair of Connect Tech legs in particular. They were as platinum as his hair and sleek in design. They seemed strong yet swift, just like him.

Much to his delight, the Schnee sisters approached that very case and used an adjacent keypad to unlock it. The neon lights vanished and it occurred to Mercury that those beams might’ve been doing more than simply showcasing the shiny Connect Tech. They were protective lasers.

“You guys don’t play around with your security, huh?” Mercury noted.

Weiss cast him a glance over her shoulder. “The worst thing about being number one is how all the competitors are constantly gunning for that same spot,” she said with the tone of a sophisticated business woman.

“We take proper precautions when necessary,” Winter added before returning her attention to the precious prosthetics.

With the lasers gone, the display lowered so the legs would be easier to access. Weiss took one leg and cradled it like a child. “I can’t wait for you to try them. These babies are gonna feel as real as the ones you used to have.”

“Psh, we’ll see.”

Mercury didn’t want to sound too eager for fear of being disappointed, but there was no denying the quickened pace of his heart or the toothy smile plastered across his face. He felt like a kid at Christmas—one who actually believed in Santa—getting ready to receive his ultimate present from the jolly old man himself. Heck, the beloved holiday was just around the corner. Maybe this was his Christmas miracle come early.

Mercury was escorted to a room that reminded him of a doctor’s office. There was a plush exam table for him to lie on and a basket for him to set his clothes in. Actually, maybe it was more like a well-lit massage therapist’s room than a doctor’s office. All that was missing were the scented candles and the sounds of nature playing softly in the background.

Regardless of what the room was or wasn’t like, Mercury stripped down to his boxers and sat as straight as he could atop the cushioned table as Weiss and Winter got to work dismantling his current prosthetics. The girls worked fast with focused determination. They were real pros. What Mercury found the most fascinating about the way they worked was how much they mirrored one another’s movements. Even if the resemblance wasn’t uncanny, the identical way they raised their arms, twisted their wrenches, and shifted their eyes was a dead giveaway as to what relationship they shared.

“This is the part that’s going to hurt,” Weiss informed him, glancing up at him from her crouched position by his thigh. “I’m going to connect the nerves.”

“Yeah, I know. My last set had nerve tech in it, too,” Mercury said, brushing the warning off like no big deal.

“But we’re connecting a lot more of your nerves than you’re used to,” Winter elaborated. “This Connect Tech is designed to be even better than human legs, complete with the virtual sensation of touch. In order to provide you with that sensation, however… we need to connect as many nerves as possible.”

“Should I be unconscious for this?” Mercury asked, his concern causing his pitch to rise an octave or two.

“You can handle it,” Weiss assured him. “Just hold onto something.”

Emerald walked over from the corner of the room she’d been tucked away in. “Here,” she said, extending her open hand to Mercury. “Hold onto me.”

Mercury held Emerald’s gaze before her hand, thanking her in a way more meaningful than words. They both knew should their roles be reversed, he’d be right there with his hand extended to her.

“One,” Winter counted.

“Two,” Weiss continued.

“Three!” the sisters shouted together, turning their levers and inciting a chain-reaction of miniature explosions inside Mercury. The blasts rippled through his body from head to toe, escaping him by way of his strangled scream. But that was the beautiful thing about it. He could actually feel pain from head to toe! While the pain was excruciating, it did subside within a matter of seconds, leaving a new feeling to wash over Mercury: pure unadulterated happiness.

The pain was enough to make tears well in his eyes, but the laughter that followed was what pushed them over the edge. Hot droplets streamed down his face as Mercury was overcome by hysteria.

“Ba, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I could feel that. I could feel that!” he exclaimed through peals of laughter. His slack fingers released Emerald and flicked the platinum metal of his new set of legs. He could feel that, too.

“How does the room feel? Hot? Cold?” Winter asked, clipboard in hand. Where had she even been hiding that?

“It feels… nice. Not too hot, not too cold,” Mercury said, finally starting to come down from his high, but not much. Just enough to keep his laughter under control.

“Of course. The thermometer in here is set to adjust to the body temperatures of those present in the room,” Winter explained. Even if she was just saying that to show off how fancy her facility was, Mercury didn’t care. She could show off her entire stamp collection followed by her Pokemon cards if she wanted to. He was indebted to the Schnees and their masterful creation, and he’d gladly validate their accomplishments no matter how big or small.

“What does SK2 stand for?” Emerald thought to ask, her eyes watching the mechanical joints move as Mercury rotated his ankles and flexed his feet, the gears whizzing and whirring in crisp, clean sounds.

“Schnee Kinetics,” Winter said, feeling that succinct explanation was sufficient. She then turned to her sister. “I have to prepare for my evening, and I haven’t quite decided on what dress to wear. I trust you will finish things up here?”

Weiss laced her fingers behind her back and embraced her cute side. “Actually, the fashion floor is our next stop, too,” she said. “Mercury needs some new clothes to match his new legs.”

Winter looked Mercury up and down like he was the wrong thing she ordered at a fast food restaurant. It was also the first time she seemed to take note of him being in his skivvies. “So long as my outfit is top priority, I see nothing wrong with using the fashion floor as his testing grounds,” she concluded.

Thank goodness the uppity bitch had her chill moments, too.

As they made their way from the laboratory to ground level, the attendant, Klein, intercepted them.

“Forgive me, ladies Schnee, but your guests have arrived ahead of schedule,” the short and portly butler informed them. He was even nice enough to look Mercury in the eye despite the fact that he was walking around in nothing but his boxers. “Might I have them wait in the drawing room?”

Weiss looked to Winter who looked grumpy yet also too done with the day to care. “He’s never on time…” she muttered to herself before addressing Klein with much more volume and diction. “Tell him he can help select my attire. Since he’s planning tonight’s events, he’ll have a practical outlook on what may or may not be a good idea to wear.”

“Guys don’t care about clothes,” Mercury mentioned as they followed behind Klein to the front of the manor. “She could probably rock a trash bag and get away with it if the dude is really into her.”

“Says the guy wearing nothing but his underwear,” Emerald teased.

“Exactly. Clothes aren’t all that important,” Mercury reiterated.

“And it’s precisely that sort of thinking that makes me relieved I prefer women,” Weiss said decisively.

Mercury pretended not to notice the smile that put on Emerald’s face. He was witnessing a romance in the making, and it was making his own romantic failure bubble to the forefront of his mind.

Let it go, Merc. You’re probably never going to see her again. At least not for a while, he told himself, but oh, how the universe just loved proving him wrong.

Once they made it back to the grand foyer with the twin staircases, they were greeted by two faces Mercury was not expecting to see. One belonged to officer Qrow, his favorite policeman in the county. Mercury was both excited and confused to see him in all his disheveled glory, most of the confusion stemming from the fact that Ironwood wasn’t with him. The person accompanying Qrow in Ironwood’s stead was tall, blond, beautiful, and looked about as shocked as Mercury felt when their eyes met.

“Blondie?” Mercury breathed. He didn’t even say it loud enough for anyone to hear him.

“What are you doing here?!” they shouted simultaneously.

Chapter Text

Mercury’s mind was running a race against his heart; a race he felt both vital organs were going to wind up losing despite their valiant effort. Yang seemed just as flustered, and when her eyes wandered from his and registered the level of nakedness Mercury was currently experiencing, her cheeks got as red as a cherry and her gaze immediately shifted to the crystal chandelier dangling overhead.

“Nice prosthetics, kid,” Qrow cut in with a lazy smile.

Suddenly Mercury was rethinking his philosophy on how necessary clothes were. “Thanks,” he said, folding his arms in front of himself. He did this more so for comfort than covering, for at this point it was futile to even try. Yang and her virgin eyes were just going to have to cope. “I didn’t know you had an outfit other than your uniform,” Mercury noted in hopes that mentioning Qrow’s attire might divert everyone’s attention from his lack thereof.

Qrow chuckled. “There are a lot of things about me you don’t know,” he said, his voice gruff and mysterious.

“Like how you’re shacking up with a Schnee?” Mercury challenged.

“Mercury!” Emerald hissed, moving to stand between the crude commenter and Winter. The elder Schnee sister looked ready to kill, and Emerald apparently didn’t want to tempt her any further.

“This is really why you need to start socializing more, kid,” Qrow said with raspy sigh and a shake of his head. “It’ll help with your people skills and it might even help you remember to put on pants.”

So much for diverting attention.

“That’s my fault, actually,” Weiss admitted.

Qrow and Yang both looked questioningly at the petite princess. “His pants are off because of you?” Qrow asked.

“What? No! I mean, yes, but not like that,” Weiss clarified. “I told him he could have some samples from my collection. The clothes he came in were all stinky and sweaty. You can believe me when I say I did us all a favor and incinerated them.”

Mercury turned on Weiss. “You incinerated my clothes?!”

Weiss put a hand on her hip like the sassy girl she was and held Mercury’s wild eyes with a cool, impassive stare. “What? It’s not like the clothes I’m giving you aren’t going to be ten times better in every way.”

“I got that shirt at a concert! It had…” he trailed off. He didn’t want to sound like a pansy by voicing the sentimental value the shirt possessed. Fortunately, he didn’t need to. Weiss read between the lines, let out a huffy sigh like she was about to do something tiresome, and looked to her butler.

“Klein. Will you see if you can retrieve the memento before it goes up in smoke?” she asked.

The portly shorty nodded. “Of course,” he said.

As Mercury watched Klein walk away, he resisted the urge to shout, “Run, asshole!” At the leisurely rate the well-mannered midget was going, Merc’s shirt was as good as toast. Very burnt toast.

“Shall we be on our way as well?” Weiss suggested.

“Yes. It is getting rather late. I was hoping to be the epitome of perfection no later than nine thirty,” Winter said.

Mercury glanced from the prim and proper Winter to the loose and scruffy Qrow and tried his damnedest to discern how two people as opposite as night and day could possibly end up dating.

Weirder things have happened, Mercury supposed. Heck, his entire evening was enough to verify that statement. A few hours ago he was getting rejected by his crush and disowned by his father. Now he was halfway through his extreme makeover in the home of one of the wealthiest families in the world.

Yeah. Maybe weird was just normal for anyone associated with the Schnees.

“I’ll get to your prosthetic after I finish up with Mercury,” Weiss told Yang as they resumed their journey to the fashion floor.

“So that’s why you’re here?” Mercury asked.

Yang, still refusing to look at him, kept her focus straight ahead. “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes. That’s why I’m here.”

Qrow put a pacifying hand on Yang’s shoulder. “Easy there, Firecracker. It was a simple question. No need to be cruel.”

Mercury felt another simple question forming in his mind at the sound of the strange pet name. “Firecracker?” Mercury echoed.

Why is Qrow being so affectionate? Surely their being here at the same time is mere coincidence. They don’t actually know each other, right? Mercury silently considered.

Yang scoffed. “Are you going to ask stupid questions every time someone opens their mouth?”

Damn. Yang was downright mean when someone got on her bad side, however Mercury found her fiery temper more amusing than anything. For some inexplicable reason, pissing her off struck him as fun, and he was in the mood for a good time.

“Are you going to avoid looking at me until I have clothes on because you can’t keep your eyes on my face?” Mercury countered.

Yang turned to glare at him, but doing so only proved his point. Her eyes were on his for half a second before falling to his exposed upper body. Just when the blush started creeping back into her cheeks, she snapped her head forward and acted as if it never happened.

Mercury smirked with pride, but the smug slant of his lips faltered and faded when he realized the real reason he was so satisfied was because he was with Yang. Even fighting with her was better than talking to most every other person Mercury had ever encountered. He couldn’t say the same for anyone else, not even Emerald. There was something about the spirited blonde that pushed his buttons in all the right ways. He just wished Yang came with some sort of instruction manual so he could return the favor. At least he’d worked out her lips served as her escape button, and he’d be certain not to trigger that one again.

Once they ascended the the staircase of the main foyer, they were officially on the fashion floor. A runway long enough to take ten wide strides stretched out in front of them, complete with fancy lights and a large trifold mirror. There was even a disco ball spinning overhead. Mercury was so transfixed by the elaborate stage, he didn’t even notice Weiss walk away to access a computer built into the wall. After a few boops and beeps, a panel of the same wall sank into the floor and revealed a small closet of clothes. The closet didn’t seem impressive, holding maybe twenty outfits at most, but that was before Mercury realized the rack revolved.

“How many clothes does this collection of yours have?” Mercury asked as he watched shirts, shorts, pants, and jackets of all colors, styles, and sizes whizz in and out of view.

“Enough,” Weiss said simply, her icy blue eyes fixed on the computer screen. When Mercury moved closer to see what she was so focused on, he was taken aback to find a spitting image of him striking a catalog pose while Weiss’s spidery fingers danced around the screen and changed the clothes his digital self was wearing.

A part of him was intrigued as to how Weiss acquired such an image in the first place. Another part of him felt slightly violated. Yet the biggest part of him elbowed his fashion consultant out of the way so he could play with the video game version of himself.

“Do I get double points if my outfit matches?” Mercury asked as he figured out the touchscreen through trial and error.

“This isn’t a game. This is fashion!” Weiss retorted, shoving Mercury aside and regaining control of her computer. “Besides, there’s a block on fashion faux pas, so you couldn’t mix and match even if you wanted to.”

Mercury was so distracted by the high tech closet that he didn’t even notice everyone else venturing over to the other side of the room to watch Winter fiddle with a similar contraption.

“The other side is for girls?” Mercury guessed.

“Women,” Weiss corrected, as absorbed as ever in the task at hand.

Mercury was sort of touched Weiss was taking this so seriously. Either that, or she was figuring out which outfit she’d miss the least if she gave it away. Regardless of her motives, Weiss managed to find a suitable ensemble complete with socks and boots in just under ten minutes.

“These are sized to fit around your prosthetics, so you shouldn’t have any problems squeezing into them,” Weiss said as she handed him the footwear to go along with the other clothing items in his arms. She then directed him to a changing room that connected to the runway. “Just so you know, this door is going to lock behind you. The only way out is through the catwalk,” she added.

Mercury had to consciously stop himself from scowling as he spoke. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m nice enough to give you free clothes. Free designer clothes. The least you could do is humor me,” Weiss said.

He actually considered handing the clothes—the designer clothes—right back to her, but his new prosthetics were doing an excellent job of providing him with his long lost sense of touch. That meant they were also doing an excellent job of making him cold. Granted, the Schnee manor wasn’t exactly the warmest place he’d ever been, but it was also the middle of December. The walk home was going to be a nippy one, and something told him denying the clothes would mean losing any chance of hitching a ride out of there. Best to play it the posh princess’s way. For now.

With a typical sullen teenager attitude, he stepped into the dressing room.

Apparently Weiss had really been putting some thought into Mercury’s new look, for not only did the clothes fit him perfectly, they suited his personal taste as well. The silver accents in his dark gray shirt brought a sort of brightness to his eyes that the naturally dark irises didn’t possess on their own, and although he didn’t typically go for ripped jeans, the faded black ones Weiss selected felt just as great as they looked. They were a little more snug than he was used to, but they made his ass look better than most girls he knew. The boots were big enough to fit over the cuffs of his jeans, and he left the laces fairly loose. The thing that really pulled the whole ensemble together, though, was the jacket. It had more useless zippers than functional ones, but it looked damn sharp.

“Ready?” Weiss called.

Mercury took one last look at his handsome self in the dressing room mirror. “Ready,” he replied, and boy, had she been waiting for that confirmation.

I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt instantly began playing and Mercury instantly began regretting his life choices. The song was a bit muffled from his safe haven in the dressing room, but he had no doubt it would be crystal clear the second he set foot on that catwalk.

Mercury closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. “She’s giving you cool Connect Tech. She’s giving you cool Connect Tech,” he chanted. A painful sixty seconds wouldn’t outweigh a lifetime of amazing prosthetics. He could do this. After one last deep breath, he opened his eyes and emerged from the only door he could.

Sure enough, the music got five times louder and his impulse to bolt off the stage got ten times stronger. Somewhere between striking his first pose and making it halfway down the runway, though, he realized how ridiculously smooth his gait was thanks to his new prosthetics and decided to have a little fun. He ran his fingers through his hair, put on his best smolder, and even did his little turn on the catwalk. Yeah on the catwalk. On the catwalk. He shook his little tush on the catwalk.

If he didn’t feel confident before walking the runway, he sure as hell did after he saw Yang’s reaction. Qrow clapped, Weiss smiled, and Emerald whistled, but Yang’s charming rosy cheeks were back, only this time she was blushing in awe, not awkwardness. Mercury preferred the awed kind a million percent more, especially on Yang. It was precious enough to make him blush, too, but the mock model just spun on his heel, struck a pose that probably made his butt look even more amazing, and strutted back down the runway before anyone could notice his flushed face.

Winter was next, but her walk wasn’t nearly as entertaining. She didn’t bother hamming it up like Mercury had, choosing instead to model like a haute couture professional. Her hands didn’t leave her hips and her deadpan expression never left her face as she set one stiletto in front of the other. She was beautiful to be sure, but in a harsh, intimidating way. Mercury was finding it hard to pinpoint what exactly Qrow saw in the frigid woman, and sincerely hoped the good-natured guy wasn’t in it for the money.

“I like it,” Qrow concluded after actually considering the blouse and slacks gracing Winter’s form.

“It’s not too plain?” Winter asked, turning and popping her toe so Qrow could see her from a side angle.

“I use a lot of words to describe you, Winter, but plain definitely isn’t one of them,” Qrow answered.

Wow. Mercury felt like he should’ve been taking notes. That was a damn good line.

“W-well, I suppose now that that’s settled, we should be going if we want to arrive promptly,” Winter stammered out. Either Yang’s blush was contagious, or Qrow was slick enough to bring warmth to an Ice Queen’s face. Suddenly, Mercury could see the pair of them as a couple rather than two individuals who just happened to be dating. A laid-back cop and a high-strung business woman? Sure. Why not? They balanced one another.

After bidding the adults adieu, Weiss turned her attention to Yang. “Alright, missy. Your turn.” She made a move towards the staircase that led back to the foyer, but paused on the first step and darted her eyes to Emerald and Mercury. “What are your plans for the remainder of the evening?”

“Us?” Emerald clarified, pointing between herself and Mercury. “I’m kind of just along for the ride. But I can see myself out whenever.”

“Ditto,” Mercury instinctively chimed in, though he silently wished he wouldn’t have. The only thing he wanted to do before the night was over was apologize to Yang, and leaving would make that much more challenging.

“Don’t be silly,” Weiss said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I wasn’t asking because I want you out. I was asking to see if you wanted to stay longer. We can watch a movie once I’m finished with Yang’s upkeep.”

Weiss was becoming Mercury’s new favorite person with each passing moment. Emerald needed to watch out if she didn’t want to hand over her championship best friend belt, though he had a sneaking suspicion dear Emmy’s fondness for their hostess with the mostest was growing even more rapidly than his own.

Mercury cast Yang a sidelong glance, curious to see how she’d respond to the idea of their stay being extended. She was the most quiet he’d ever seen her, and if she had any ill will about Mercury hanging around, it didn’t read on her face in the slightest.

For such an emotional person to suddenly be so placid was strange. It most likely meant Yang was doing more thinking than anything, but what those thoughts consisted of, he could only guess—his best guess being how stupid it was for him to kiss her.

“We love movies, don’t we, Mercury?” Emerald prompted, looking to Mercury with a box-shaped smile that was much too wide to fit her small face. She was practically begging him to take the young heiress up on her offer. Mercury had never mentioned Yang to Emerald before, so his oblivious friend had no clue how keen he was on staying even without her obvious attempts at being unobvious.

Despite having every intention of complying, Mercury decided to play a little hard-to-get. A chance to piss Emerald off was always too good to pass up.

“I dunno… My old man’s probably worried about me…” Mercury said, scratching the back of his neck. The lie left a bitter taste on his tongue, but he managed to get it out without giving the game away. And, oh, the blood-stained daggers Emerald’s crimson eyes were glaring at him. They were worth every agitated tastebud. “But,” Mercury continued before Emerald’s balled fist could prep for a punch, “I suppose I only get to be young and rebellious once. I’m in.”

“M-me, too!” Emerald eagerly added, a wave of happiness washing over her abrupt spurt of anger as she and Weiss exchanged smiles.

Teenage girls and their mood swings… Mercury thought with a tut on his lips and a shake of his head.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Mercury was looking forward to venturing back down to the basement to see the Connect Tech lab again. That’s why he was somewhat disappointed when they wound up in Weiss’s room for Yang’s maintenance. Whatever lack of excitement Mercury expressed for their destination, Emerald more than made up for, though. They might as well have been in a museum from the way Emerald was scrutinizing every picture and knickknack like the held the key to solving some renowned murder mystery.

At least someone was having a good time.

Although he was glad to have a prolonged opportunity to patch things up with Yang, Mercury still had to endure the tense air between them until that actually happened. He examined small models of much older Connect Techs Weiss had lined up on one of her bookshelves as a means to keep himself busy. If he allowed his eyes to wander too much, they always wound up going right back to Yang—like a moth to a flame, no matter how much that flame despised the foolish creature.

“You should really be watching this,” Weiss said from across the room. It took Mercury a moment to realize she was talking to him. “You’re going to be undergoing similar treatment in the weeks to come. This’ll give you an idea of what to expect,” she explained.

Weiss was either the best wing-woman ever, or she was just coincidentally saying and doing all the right things at exactly the right times. Or she was a secret genie granting all of his innermost wishes. It was definitely one of the three.

Now that he had permission to approach, Mercury crossed over to their side of the room, grabbed a chair out from under a writing desk, and spun it on one leg until it was facing him. He sat down with the splat of the chair pressed to his chest and comfortably folded his arms atop the crest rail of the victorian piece of furniture.

Emerald gave him a disapproving look for his treatment of the antique. “Must you be so uncouth?” she asked with a sigh.

“Must you be so judgmental?” Mercury countered.

“Must you be so noisy? I’m trying to concentrate,” Weiss interjected.

That was all it took to shut them up. But it wasn’t for long. Weiss worked fast and Yang seemed to know exactly how to turn her arm without having to be told. She and Weiss had definitely done this a time or two before.

Mercury actually managed to focus on the mechanics for the majority of the process, but the one time his gaze fell upon Yang’s face, her eyes fluttered to meet his and wordlessly put an end to that.

She’s gonna think you’re a perv if you don’t cool it, Mercury chided himself. He needed to express feelings of a more platonic nature if he was ever going to make amends, and looking longingly at her probably wasn’t helping matters.

“That should do it,” Weiss declared with one last turn of her screwdriver. “Just make sure you oil it daily. I can tell when you don’t.”

“Right, right,” Yang said, rotating her arm every which way and stretching her mechanical muscles. “It feels great. We should have no problem dominating the championship this Friday!”

“That is the plan,” Weiss agreed. “But enough volleyball talk for one day. I’m beat. What I need now is a bucket of caramel popcorn, a venti decaffeinated coffee, and the cheesiest romantic comedy imaginable.”

“You like caramel popcorn, too?” Emerald asked. “On the count of three say your favorite romcom. One… Two… Three!”

“10 Things I Hate About You!” they both shouted at each other before cracking up in hysterics.

“The Princess Bride is a close second, but it’s so much more than a romcom. It has action and adventure, too,” Weiss said.

“Oh, for sure! That’s how I feel about Stardust.”

“You think Stardust is a comedy?”

“Tell me you don’t bust a gut every time you see Robert De Niro spinning around in a tutu.”

Weiss’s eyebrows raised, her mind seemingly changed. “You do have a point.”

The pair gushed like that the entire trek from the third floor bedroom to the first floor theater, leaving Mercury and Yang to silently follow behind. Weiss and Emerald were too wrapped up in their own world to worry about the one crashing down around Mercury. He should’ve jumped at the chance to say something now that they could get away with a semi-private conversation, but he was having a difficult time figuring out what those first select words should be. If he didn’t choose them wisely, Yang would just shut him down again.

“A polar bear fell through the ice,” he blurted out.

Yang shot him a quizzical look.

“That was the best icebreaker I could think of,” he explained.

It took a moment for the pun to register, but the second the lightbulb went off in her head, it served to illuminate her smile just as much as her mind. It didn’t earn him a full-on laugh, but it was a step in the right direction, and a damn promising one considering where his starting line was.

“Funny,” Yang admitted, her toothy grin shrinking into a tight-lipped smile.

“So why’d you stick around for the movie?” Mercury asked. Not that he minded, but he was curious as to why she didn’t make like a baby and head out first.

“Uncle Qrow and I drove here together, and he likes to be the one to drive Winter around when they go on dates. It makes him feel more chivalrous, or something like that. So Weiss and I usually just plan sleepovers since I need routine maintenance anyway,” Yang explained.

“Uncle?” The word caught Mercury a bit off-guard. “As in your blood relation?”

“Why is that hard to believe?” Yang asked.

“It’s not. Just small world.”

“Or town.”

“Or town,” Mercury agreed. “So why does your uncle use your car and not his? Or Winter’s for that matter?”

“Winter has offered to let him drive one of her many sports cars, but they don’t like to draw too much attention when they go out. They prefer being more low-key. And as romantic as driving around in a squad car sounds,” Yang started, but Mercury halted her with his hand.

“Alright, I got it. Cop cars don’t make good date cars,” he concluded.

“Not unless you have an imagination,” Yang said.

And suddenly Mercury’s mind was thinking all sorts of things it shouldn’t have been.

“How do they feel?” she asked.

Mercury wasn’t sure what she meant. His emotions? Her boobs? He was too caught up in his cop car fantasies to properly process the question. Then he realized she was gesturing to his designer jeans.

“These? A little tight, but I feel like they make my ass look outstanding,” he confessed.

A breathy snicker escaped her this time. “No, I meant your Connect Tech. How do they feel?”

“Oh.” Right. He knew that. “They feel… everything,” he said, hardly able to believe it himself. “I’d heard Connect Tech was working on sensory technology, but I didn’t realize how far along they’ve come.”

“That’s because yours are still in the prototype phase,” Yang reminded him. “But I wouldn’t have recommended you as a tester if I didn’t stand behind their products one hundred percent.”

“But that was before…” Mercury trailed off, deciding it best not to finish that sentence. Unfortunately, he didn’t need to. Yang knew exactly where he was going and her discomfort showed plain as day across her face.

“That was before,” she agreed.

Damn it. He was losing her. It was now or never.

“Look, Blondie. I—”

“We’re here!” Weiss announced.

Mercury looked straight ahead to find a set of ornate double doors before them. He didn’t even notice, but they’d been walking a red carpet that stretched so far back Mercury couldn’t tell where it began. Movie posters surrounded in big lightbulbs lined the walls on either side. If he didn’t know better, he’d think they teleported to an actual movie theater. The interior was even more misleading. It had its own concession stand, mini arcade, and bathrooms—both for men and women. The major giveaway that this was in the Schnee manor and not somewhere public was that Klein was the only soul there apart from them.

“The usual, I presume?” the devoted butler asked from behind the concession counter. He didn’t even wait for a reply before he got to work fixing Miss Schnee her giant container of caramel popcorn. Her coffee was ready seconds later.

“Aren’t you supposed to be making sure my clothes didn’t get incinerated?” Mercury pointed out.

Klein ducked behind the counter and resurfaced holding a clear bag containing all of Mercury’s belongings, Converse shoes included. Mercury graciously accepted the bag, happily surprised to find that everything smelled fresh and clean. As thankful as he was, Mercury couldn’t help but wonder if Klein was the only Klein. The stout little man had been a chauffeur, a messenger, a laundryman, and now a soda jerk.

“Now that’s what I call service,” Mercury said.

“Klein’s the best. Sometimes it feels like he can be seven places at once,” Weiss mentioned, and Mercury didn’t doubt it.

With snacks and beverages in hand, Weiss, Emerald, Mercury, and Yang all entered the viewing part of the theater. It had stadium styled seating that could comfortably accommodate eighty more people apart from them.

“Why so big?” Mercury asked as they ascended the carpeted steps to one of the middle rows. For a private, in-home theater, that seemed rather extravagant.

“Why not?” Weiss countered.

Touché, he thought.

He couldn’t decided wether to be sad or relieved that Yang chose to sit on the far side of Weiss, leaving the other ladies as buffers between them. His indecisiveness didn’t last long. A brief moment after getting situated, Weiss rose back to her feet.

“I forgot to tell Klein which movie we want to see. If I don’t tell him, he’ll automatically start playing Frozen.”

“Mind if I go with you?” Emerald asked.

“I’d be delighted. I was planning on showing you my movie collection anyway,” Weiss said. The two sidled past Yang and practically pranced down the steps and out of the theater, chattering on the entire way.

For as lively and talkative as Emerald and Weiss were, Yang and Mercury were just as stone-cold silent. The vast space of the theater made their silence all the more awkward. If he strained his ears hard enough, Mercury bet he’d be able to hear crickets chirping.

“I actually like Frozen,” Mercury said.

“Another attempt at an icebreaker?” Yang guessed.

Damn. She was onto him.

Physically she was only two seats away from him, but mentally she might as well have been oceans apart. He needed some kind of vessel to span the distance. If Disney couldn’t do it for him, what could?

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, deciding it best to get right to the heart of the matter. No more stupid ice puns. “I don’t know what I was thinking, and I wish I could take it back—”

“You do?” Yang asked.

He hadn’t been looking at her, but that question earned his attention. “Well, I…” Did he want to be honest? “Actually, no. I wanted to do that pretty much since the first moment I met you. I’m just sorry I did it knowing you had a boyfriend.” Mercury tried his best to erase Neptune’s image from his mind. This wasn’t about Neptune. This was about him and Yang.

“I’m sorry, too,” Yang said, throwing Mercury for a loop.

“You’re sorry? What the heck are you sorry for? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I may have overreacted,” Yang unevenly admitted. “It was just a kiss, and you didn’t mean anything bad by it.”

“Definitely nothing bad,” Mercury confirmed. “And I took the hint loud and clear. If all you want is friendship, then that’s cool with me.”

Yang stayed quiet, which was a cause for concern.

“Or if friendship isn’t on the table, maybe accountability partners?” he suggested.

“Accountability partners?” Yang echoed, finding some slight humor in the phrase. “For what?”

“For Connect Tech. We’ll remind each other to oil daily and keep our appointments with Weiss and Winter. We can even organize training sessions to keep in top shape. Kinda like workout buddies,” Mercury said.

Yang smiled and a big gulp of popcorn-scented air relieved Mercury’s tight chest. “I’d like an accountability partner,” she confided. She reached underneath her seat, pulled out her purse, and searched its contents for her phone. “What’s your number?” she asked.

Mercury felt a ray of heaven shining down on him as the clouds parted to make way for the parade of angels singing hallelujah in an immaculate chorus. He and Yang exchanged information just in time for Emerald and Weiss to come giggling into view.

“What movie did you pick?” Yang asked, slipping her phone back into her purse as the girls retook their seats.

“Gym Possible,” Emerald said proudly. “It’s about how two accountability partners fall in love.”

“Classic,” Weiss added with a wink.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Klein escorted both Emerald and Mercury back to their homes by way of the pearl white limousine. Although the Schnee manor had rooms to spare, Mercury knew better than to overstay his welcome, especially if Yang were spending the night, too. He could tough things out at home. He was used to it.

Unsurprisingly, Mercury found his father passed out on the couch upon his return. It was one in the morning, so it wasn’t uncommon to find Marcus snoring like a freight train, especially after an evening of heavy drinking.

Mercury twisted the empty vodka bottle from his father’s slack grip and splayed a blanket out over him before tiptoeing to his room. His new prosthetics made his footfalls featherlight, and he couldn’t help but smirk at the thought of all the ninja-like things he’d be capable of now.

Not even bothering to change into pajamas, Mercury kicked off his boots and collapsed on his bed. He reached for his phone to put it on silent and found he had one new message from Em.

Emmy <1:12 AM>
Ahhh! Weiss wants to go out for dinner tomorrow night!

Mercury had to really focus his energy into his fingers to type a response. He was fading fast.


Mercury <1:12 AM>
Congrats, Em. Go get her tiger

His arm didn’t even have time to relax before his text notification went off.

Emmy <1:12 AM>
You have to go with me!

Mercury groaned.


Mercury <1:13 AM>
I really don’t think you want me to tag along as your third wheel, do you?

Emmy <1:13 AM>
Not a third wheel. As a double date!

Mercury felt tempted to send Emerald a picture of how confused he looked.


Mercury <1:14 AM>
With which imaginary girlfriend are you referring to?

Emmy <1:14 AM>
Weren’t you bragging about getting the phone numbers from an entire volleyball team? Surely one of them is desperate enough to go out with you.


Mercury <1:15 AM>
Insulting me might not be the best way to win me over…

Emmy <1:15 AM>
Did I type desperate? I meant DREAMING to go out with you. Silly autocorrect (“^^)>

Uh, huh. Sure… Mercury thought.


Mercury <1:16 AM>
What’s in it for me?

For the first time in five minutes, it took her longer than two seconds to text back. Mercury almost dosed off waiting for her reply.

Emmy <1:18 AM>
I’ll stop bringing you homework.

Mercury considered her proposition.


Mercury <1:19 AM>
I’ll see what I can do.

Emmy <1:19 AM>
:)

Mercury pulled up his contact list and scrolled through, thinking of his prospective dates.

Weiss is obviously out. I’m pretty sure that Ilia girl wasn’t that into me, either. Blake might be fun… but I think she and that Adam guy are a thing. Ruby is kinda cute, but she seemed a little too young and innocent… Coco is hot, but I have a feeling she’ll blow me off faster than she would her freshly polished fingernails if I ask her out. Nora seemed a little too aggressive for my liking, and I remember Pyrrha mentioning something about having a boyfriend named Jaune…

That narrowed his options down fairly quickly.

He’d been aimlessly thumbing through his contacts while lost in thought, unconsciously coming to a stop when he reached the Y category.

Yang was at the top of the list.

His thumb hovered over the four small letters—she’d even added a little sunflower emoji to her name when she plugged her info into his phone.

“Don’t be dumb,” he told himself. It was a miracle he’d managed to befriend her again in such a short amount of time. To break what little faith in him she still retained by asking her out on a date was the definition of idiotic.

He scrolled up a ways and found a better option.


Mercury <1:23 AM>
Hey. Random question is random, but would you want to go out on a double date with me tomorrow night?

Mercury put his phone by his bedside table, content with finding out her answer after he got a little sleep. No sooner had he closed his eyes did he hear his phone vibrate against the wooden surface. Curiosity getting the better of him, he checked her response.

Neo <1:24 AM>
I’d love to! <3

Chapter Text

Qrow and Winter might have had qualms about going on dates in luxury cars, but Weiss expressed no such reservations. Her pearl white limousine was pulling into the driveway of the Black residence exactly one minute before it’s scheduled time of arrival, the crushing sound of gravel beneath freshly inflated tires alerting Mercury’s ears to its presence seconds before his phone did the same.

Emmy <5:59 PM>
Get your butt out here!

Mercury parted his bedroom blinds with two fingers to peer out at the long, shiny mode of transportation.


Mercury <5:59 PM>
I can still say no to this whole double date thing.

He was mostly joking, but wanted to remind Emerald whose ass she needed to kiss if she wanted him to continue playing along.

Emmy <6:00 PM>
Please? :D

Eh. Not quite the level of groveling he had in mind, but the night was young. There would be plenty of opportunities to give Em a hard time, and Mercury would be sure to take advantage of every single one.

He pulled his arms through the jacket Weiss had gifted him the night before and walked to the front of his house.

“You be careful out there,” Marcus called as his son passed by. He even went so far as to pause the movie he was watching so his voice could carry and his eyes could meet Mercury’s.

Mercury took one look at the screen and his blank face shifted into an amused smirk. “You still think Diehard is a Christmas movie?” he asked.

“Feh. It’s the best Christmas movie!” Marcus replied, as if saying otherwise would be sheer blasphemy.

Mercury nodded, briefly scanning for any traces of bottles, be they empty or not. There was only one beer atop the couch’s side table, so it seemed Marcus was taking it easy that night. Mercury wasn’t sure how much of their argument his father remembered, but it was apparently enough to lessen his alcohol intake… for that evening, at least.

“You be careful, too, old man,” Mercury said, turning to leave before his father could get defensive or sentimental. Mercury didn't feel like dealing with either of those outcomes.

Klein was waiting for him beside the sheen limousine, ready to open the door and welcome Mercury into the lap of luxury for the second time in two days. He had to pinch himself five times after waking up that morning just to make sure it hadn’t all been some wildly amazing dream. Not only was he the proud owner of some of the most advanced Connect Tech the world had ever seen, but Yang was back on speaking terms with him. So many good things had happened to him within the past twenty-four hours, he couldn’t help but brace himself for something awful to slap him across the face and balance out his life.

Just let me have one full day, Mercury pleaded with the universe, gazing out his seat’s window at the cotton candy clouds comprising the twilight sky. One day where I can feel like a winner again… Just. One. Day.

“So you and Neo, huh?” Weiss asked, commanding Mercury’s attention. “When did that happen?”

“Volleyball practice,” Mercury said. “Apparently, she liked how I handled my balls.”

“Mercury!” Emerald hissed so sharply she could’ve cut him with his own name.

“But didn’t you know each other from Mrs. Belladonna’s group for kids with disabilities?” Weiss pressed, completely unfazed by Mercury’s crass humor.

“If you knew that much, why did you even ask?” Mercury retorted. His mood was becoming grumpier with each passing question.

“I like to get my information straight from the source,” Weiss said proudly. “I don’t like to assume things because it makes an ass out of u and me!” She paused long enough to make it awkward. “You get it? Because of how you spell assume and—”

“Got it,” Mercury confrimed.

“Yes! I understood, too!” Emerald chimed in with an enthusiastic nod. “That’s a great outlook to have. I try to do that same thing since I tend to get judged a lot because of rumors…”

Weiss tilted her head like an intrigued kitten. “Rumors? Like what?”

“So! Mercury! You didn’t finish telling us about how you met Neo!” Emerald said a little too loudly, placing her elbows on her knees, resting her chin in her open palms, and focusing her undivided attention on her get-out-of-awkward-conversations-free card—otherwise known as him.

The Sustrai family business must not be a topic for first dates, Mercury guessed.

He was fully committed to making Emerald regret asking him on this stupid double date, but he wasn’t about to force her to elaborate on her family’s shady side—especially since he could tell Em really liked this girl. There was a difference between being a dick and being an asshole and that difference was called tact. The other difference was called anatomy.

“We played a game at a meetup that involved eating two ends of pocky, only we sucked at it and wound up making out instead.” Mercury knew he’d blown the entire story way out of proportion, but it was easier than explaining the actual scenario.

It didn’t matter. The look on Weiss’s face told him she hadn’t bought it anyway. “Neo is pretty reserved. I doubt she’d make out with someone in the middle of a church.”

“Does a gym really count as a church?” Mercury asked.

“It does in the this instance,” Weiss said decisively. She gave a slight pout of her bottom lip and a soft shrug of her shoulders. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to see Neo out and about doing normal, teenager things again.”

Mercury cocked an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t she be? Because she’s mute?”

Weiss shook her head. “No. Because of what happened this past summer.”

He opened his mouth to pry further, but the prim and proper princess was already switching into story-telling mode.

“Neo has always been mute, but that never stopped her from doing anything. She just communicated a little differently. No big deal, right? But over the summer her favorite teacher, Mr. Torchwick, passed away. He was one of those cool teachers that everyone loved—very charismatic. You could tell he actually enjoyed teaching. He took quite a shine to Neo, and vice versa. He even gave her a dry erase board so she could participate in class if she knew an answer. She went on to use it in other classes, too. That’s just the kind of innovative guy he was. We were all sad when we heard the news, but Neo was absolutely devastated. The poor girl went into complete shock. That’s why she attends Mrs. Belladonna’s meetups. Not because she doesn’t speak, but because she’s recovering from a trauma.”

“Mental traumas can be just as difficult to recover from as physical,” Emerald said, her voice soft and sympathetic. “How did he die?”

Weiss hesitated a moment before saying, “Suicide.”

A heavy air fell over the three of them, the whooshing sounds of passing vehicles serving as their only audio.

“It’s always the happiest, most helpful people that tend to be the saddest,” Emerald said.

“The stereotypical sad clown,” Mercury added. “They’re so busy helping others deal with their pain, they don’t have time to focus on their own.”

“It’s very tragic,” Weiss agreed. “We all wish we would’ve known he was suffering, but there were no indications leading up to it. No red flags at all.”

“Did he leave a note?” Emerald asked.

Weiss nodded. “He left a message on his computer monitor. It was ‘One lie is enough to question all truths.’”

Well, if that wasn’t confusing, Mercury wasn’t sure what was. “What did it mean?” he asked.

Weiss lifted her open palms and shrugged her shoulders in an unsure gesture. “No one really knows.” At least Mercury wasn’t the only one. “We assumed the reason he was hurting so much was because someone had lied to him, but I’m pretty sure the investigation didn’t figure out much beyond that.”

“Well, you know what happens when you assume,” Mercury reminded her, a small smirk tugging at his mouth as his tongue-in-cheek humor set in.

Weiss puckered her lips as if the awful A word had left a sour taste in her mouth. “Touché,” she finally said once her mouth relaxed enough to form words again. “We’re all asses in that we weren’t able to save Mr. Torchwick.”

Deciding there was a time to be somber and a time to lighten the mood, Emerald thought to say, “That’s okay. I’m an ass-woman, anyway.”

Mercury almost felt like applauding his best friend. “Smooth, Em. Very smooth.”

Weiss made a few faint coughing sounds to clear her throat. Too bad she couldn’t just as easily clear her face. It was as pink as the rosy sunset. “Asses aside,” she said, turning to Mercury, “I just wanted to thank you for being so sweet to Neo.”

“No biggie,” Mercury said, and he really meant it. When people were nice to him, it made it fairly easy to be just as nice back. Even if he wasn’t viewing this as an actual date, he did at least think the two of them might have a good time together.

The limo arrived at Neo’s home a few minutes later. She lived in a pretty average subdivision with lots of cookie cutter homes obviously built by the same company. Her particular cookie was made from a two-story model and painted a light pink color with chocolate brown shutters. A white picket fence lined the backyard, and although Mercury could barely see the furry creature through the planks of wood, he could hear the high-pitched yelps of a small dog barking from behind the enclosure.

Neo emerged from the front door before the limo had even cruised to a stop. Her two-toned hair was woven in a french braid, the pink and brown hues blending together in a remarkable way, with a few loose tendrils on either side bouncing lightly by her ears. The glittery beige dress she wore would’ve been considered short on anyone else, but because it was Neo, the hem came down to the middle of her calves. The color made her pale skin glow and the fit of the tight ensemble reminded Mercury he was every bit of an ass-man as Emerald was an ass-woman. Neo might have been small, but her curves definitely were not.

“Hi, Neo!” Weiss greeted as the pixie-like girl stepped into the vehicle.

Mercury offered a hand to help steady her and one would think her fingers were a sort of trigger for her face, for her cheeks instantly began flushing. Mercury pretended not to notice and instead turned his attention to her shoes, which—much to his surprise—weren’t more than two or three-inch heels.

“What gives?” Mercury asked, gesturing to her feet. “I thought you might take advantage of this opportunity and sport some platform boots or something out of a Lady Gaga music video, you know? Those barely pass for Selena Gomez.”

Neo’s face turned a mixture of offended and amused—the exact reaction Mercury was aiming for. He attempted to dodge the playful punch she threw at his shoulder and then fought to keep a straight face when he realized the little lady actually packed quite a wallop.

“Neo, you’re perfect the way you are,” Weiss assured her before giving Mercury a look that made him guess she was reevaluating her earlier expression of gratitude.

That’s what she gets for assuming I’m a nice guy, Mercury thought to himself.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Their destination was an Italian restaurant Mercury had been to a few times before. It was a nice place for teenagers to take dates because the lighting was low enough to be romantic and the pricing was low enough to be affordable.

“Mom and Dad cut you off this month?” Mercury murmured in Emerald’s ear as they were ushered to their table by a friendly hostess. He knew Weiss and Emerald could afford much fancier food, but he also knew they wouldn’t expect him to do the same. Little did Weiss know Emerald was footing everyone’s bill that evening, as per their agreement.

“It’s not supposed to be obvious I’m buying for you and Neo,” Emerald whispered out of the corner of her mouth. “Going to a place like this at least gives off the illusion you can pay.”

“Gee, thanks for taking my peasant background into consideration upon your restaurant selection,” Mercury teased.

Emerald shot him a threatening glare. “Don’t you dare screw this up for me. I get a double date, and you get free food. We had a deal!”

“Next time, get in a writing. Blood would be even better,” Mercury sassed back before sliding into his side of the booth behind Neo. He suppressed the laugh that wanted to burst from deep within his chest at the sight of Emerald’s very frightened face before reaching for a menu and figuring out what sounded the tastiest.

Neo’s petite finger crossed over his arm and pointed at the caprese appetizer.

“Hm. I could go for that,” Mercury said after consulting with his stomach. He looked to the ladies on the other side of the table for one last consultation. “How does the caprese appetizer sound to you two?”

Emerald made a face. “I’m not big on tomatoes…”

Mercury returned her face with a face of his own—his being much more deadpan. “Which explains why you picked an Italian restaurant where over seventy-five percent of the food has tomatoes in it.”

Emerald’s next face included her tongue sticking out.

“Fine. More cheese and tomatoes for us,” Mercury said. Just because Emerald was buying the food didn’t mean she had to eat it.

Once the waitress returned with their drinks and they put their appetizer order in, Neo’s hand reached across Mercury once more, only this time she wasn’t pointing at the menu. She was pointing at something on the other side of the restaurant.

Mercury’s eyes followed her finger until they fell upon four familiar faces: the beautiful Blake Belladonna, that masked dude, Adam, Mercury’s old frenemy, Neptune, and last but most certainly not least, Yang. They were a mere six tables away.

“Shit,” Mercury said much more loudly than he should have, for Weiss and Emerald were suddenly craning their necks and seeking out the cause for concern.

“Oh, hey! Yang and Blake must be on a double date, too!” Weiss exclaimed a little too excitedly for Mercury’s liking. She turned back to the rest of the table with a dangerous glint in her icy blue eyes. “We should turn our double date into a quadruple date! It’ll be fun!”

“Weiss, I don’t think—” Mercury started to say, but the inspired heiress was already out of her seat and strutting towards her friends, immune to any reason he might’ve talked into her. A sickening feeling crept into his stomach as he watched Yang go from being pleasantly surprised at seeing her friend to perplexed and apprehensive about whatever Weiss was saying.

“Oh, no…” Mercury groaned, hiding his face in his hands so he wouldn’t have to meet Yang’s eyes when she finally looked over at him.

“Mercury. It’s okay. I can talk to Weiss,” Emerald said reassuringly.

Mercury lifted his head out of his hands to stare at his astute friend, curious as to how she’d pieced together his relationship with Yang without him telling her a thing.

“Once I explain the history you have with Neptune, I’m sure she’ll understand why we don’t want to sit with them,” Emerald added.

Oh, Mercury thought. He was so caught up in trying not to cross Yang’s very fragile lines that the grudge he held against the blue-haired bastard lucky enough to call himself Yang’s boyfriend was a distant warning light in his mind. Still present, just nowhere near as strong as the blaring siren screaming: “GIVE HER SPACE! GIVE HER SPACE!”

“I’d appreciate it if you did,” Mercury said.

Neo put a hand on Mercury’s shoulder, a touch he instantly turned towards. “I’m okay,” he told her, attempting to alleviate her clearly concerned expression. “I just don’t really care for that guy.” It might not have been the whole truth, but at least it wasn’t a lie.

Weiss returned to the table beaming so brightly one would think she just snagged the Nobel Prize for her latest Connect Tech. “Wonderful news! Our waitress is the same person, so they’re going to pull up a table so we can all sit together!”

Emerald offered a fake laugh through an even faker smile. “Eh heh… That’s really nice, but Mercury and Neptune aren’t exactly on great speaking terms…” she said.

Weiss fixed Mercury with a look he felt was more hostile than the situation called for—as if she wanted to say, How dare you spoil my evening with your lame-ass adolescent baggage. “Neptune seemed fine with it,” was what she actually voiced, though. “But, if you wanna be a baby about it…” Weiss added, obviously goading him to build a bridge and get over it.

She’d only known him for a day, yet she already knew just how to get to him.

Mercury sighed in surrender. “Whatever,” he said.

Just like that, Weiss was back to her more agreeable self and the four of them scooted out of their booth and made their way over to the other set of double daters. Weiss took the chair next to Blake while Emerald took the chair next to Weiss, leaving the chair next to Yang wide open. Mercury gestured for Neo to have a seat, but the cute mute claimed the chair on the end as her own. Mercury pulled at his collar before just as uncomfortably pulling at his chair and sitting down between Yang and Neo.

“Sorry about this,” he whispered to Yang.

Yang shook her head. “It’s fine.”

Whether it was actually fine or not, Mercury was determined to make it as fine as possible. He wanted to prove he could be just friends with her. This might’ve been his golden opportunity to do just that.

“Look, babe. They have a really nice salmon dish,” Neptune said, showing Yang his find on her menu. While Yang ducked her head to better read the tiny print, Mercury’s eyes caught Neptune’s. He wasn’t sure if Yang had told her boyfriend about the move Mercury made on her the day before, but the piercing glare Neptune was shooting his way told him he might not live should he choose to make another.

Mercury held his gaze with just as much ferocity until Yang’s untamed mane rose up and blocked their view again.

“I dunno… Fish doesn’t sound that good tonight,” Yang said. Surprising him a little, she looked to Mercury. “What are you getting?” she asked.

“Me? I, ah, well, I…” Mercury knew how to talk. He was really good at it most of the time. Why did Yang have this bizarre ability to throw his entire world out of whack? “Neo and I ordered some caprese as an appetizer,” he said when his words finally stopped failing him. “And I was thinking of trying the Tour of Italy. It has a little bit of everything, so if you don’t like one thing you can just move on to the next.”

Yang smiled. “Good idea. I think I’ll do the same!” she decided.

Mercury almost wished Yang would duck down again so he could see the look on Neptune’s face. No doubt it was annoyed.

Once their orders were in and their menus could no longer serve as distractions, the odd eight were forced to make small talk among themselves. Mercury decided not to speak unless spoken to, but it took all of two seconds for Weiss to focus the conversation around him.

“Mercury got outfitted with our latest Connect Tech yesterday,” she told the table proudly. “We’ve got him in the SK2 model! Don’t they feel amazing?”

“They really do,” he admitted, his fingers drumming against his metal kneecaps underneath the table. “The key word being feel.”

“I noticed you don’t walk with a limp anymore,” Blake mentioned with a soft smile. “That’s really great. Maybe you can share your success story at next week’s meetup? I know Mom loves to hear stuff like that. It gives the other kids hope, too.”

“Maybe,” Mercury said, and he left it at that. He used to be really good at public speaking, but nowadays that wasn’t really his forte.

“You could mention how well you did at volleyball practice, too,” Yang suggested. “And that was when you had your old prosthetics, which I think is even more amazing.”

“Don’t knock my work right in front of my face,” Weiss said defensively.

“I wasn’t knocking! Connect Tech makes physical activity as natural as the body parts we were born with. Average Joe prosthetics are a little trickier to maneuver, but Mercury did it like a pro.”

“Thanks,” Mercury said, daring to steal a glance at his blond advocate. She was smiling as genuinely as she ever did and he suddenly felt like any weirdness between them really was all in the past.

“Are they good enough to play soccer with?” Neptune challenged before taking a sip from his cappuccino.

Weiss folded her arms in a huffy manner. “Of course they are! He could climb Mt. Everest if he wanted to. The SK2 has a temperature adjuster, so he wouldn’t get frostbite from where the flesh meets the metal.”

Mercury raised his eyebrows. “Good to know,” he said, honestly impressed.

Rather abruptly, Adam scooted his chair out from under him and stood up. “Excuse me,” he said gruffly before turning to walk back towards the front of the restaurant.

“Is… he leaving?” Emerald asked.

Blake took the napkin off her lap and set it on the table before chasing after him.

Weiss sighed. “Here we go again…”

“This happens a lot?” Mercury asked.

“Kind of,” Yang admitted. “Adam is diagnosed with a bi polar disorder. He has medicine, but he doesn’t like to take it. He says it doesn’t make him feel like himself.”

“So… is that where he’s going? To take his medicine?” Mercury asked.

“He’s going to take his unprescribed medicine,” Weiss clarified, being sure to use air quotations for the word unprescribed.

Neo nudged Mercury in the ribs and mimed smoking an invisible joint.

“Ah,” Mercury said, Weiss’s air quotations making much more sense. “Should we do something?”

“Blake handles him best,” Weiss said flatly. “They’ll just both wind up getting mad if we get involved.”

Mercury nodded. “Gotcha.”

The rest of the dinner was less eventful, with Adam returning to the table much more chill and much more hungry for he devoured his steaming plate of pasta with the gale force of a vacuum cleaner. Either he hadn’t eaten in a day or two or he had a serious case of the munchies.

Neo got a bowl of chicken dumpling soup that she wouldn’t stop feeding to Mercury. Not that he was complaining. It was fucking delicious. To return her kindness, Mercury offered Neo choice bites off his own plate, though he let her use her own utensils to pick them off. Cutesy things like feeding someone weren’t really his style, not on a first date at least.

“What’s your favorite thing?” Yang asked in between bites. “Mine’s the lasagna.”

“Spaghetti,” Mercury said before stuffing his face with a forkful of said food.

“That’s the simplest Italian food there is!” Yang argued.

“I’m a simple man,” Mercury countered, continuing to chew on one last piece of spaghetti to reach its end, only its end was in Neo’s mouth resulting in a full-on Lady and the Tramp moment. They just needed the chefs to come out and start singing Bella Notte with an accordion and it would’ve been a perfect reenactment.

They broke apart fast enough, but not before Blake caught them in the act.

“Do you two have to be eating food every time you kiss?” Blake asked, though the giggle that followed made her remark more playful than reproving.

“You’ve kissed?” Weiss and Emerald asked simultaneously.

“I thought you were joking about the make out session in church!” Emerald all but shouted.

“Can you be a little louder, Em? I don’t think the entire restaurant heard you,” Mercury said through gritted teeth.

“Make out session, huh?”

Mercury turned to look at Yang who appeared less than impressed.

No! He’d been doing so well!

“It was a joke! I was joking,” Mercury explained. “I suck at answering stupid questions. I’m sorry!”

He turned to Neo who was moving like she was laughing, but she barely made a peep. He could faintly hear sporadic gasps that sounded like a paper towel wiping a windshield. That was all Neo was capable of. It was actually pretty stinking adorable.

“At least Neo thinks it’s funny,” he said, surprised that he was smiling, too.

“You two make a cute couple,” Blake observed.

Mercury didn’t know how to respond to that, choosing to fill the silence by filling his face. His mouth couldn’t get him in more trouble if it were busy eating—not unless Neo tried another food kiss. Fortunately, Neo had gone back to eating her own food, so no such crisis occurred.

After dinner, the eight of them lingered in the parking lot deciding on what to do next.

“It’s half-price night at that putt-putt place down the street,” Yang mentioned. “You get free games for a year if you get a hole-in-one on the last hole!”

“That’s not challenging enough,” Mercury said. “We should have our own stakes.”

“How ‘bout the loser has to kiss the winner?” Emerald suggested. Everyone was preparing their rebuttals when she threw her hands up defensively and added, “as in the loser between couples. So we’ll be playing each hole together, but our score only counts against our date’s.” She paused before looking between Neo and Mercury. “Don’t worry. We’ll stop at a convenience store and get you two a candy bar to share for your kiss.”

Mercury thought she was joking, and in all honesty Emerald probably thought she was too, but Weiss apparently loved the joke so much that she asked Klein to stop at a nearby convenience store so Mercury could select said candy bar. Since everyone was riding in the limo now, Adam got out to make a purchase as well.

While standing in the checkout line, Mercury glanced down at Adam’s empty hands.

“Are you getting lottery tickets?” Mercury asked.

Adam’s mask made it hard to distinguish his age, but if his height was any indication, he was just as old as Mercury if not older. Not to mention how low his voice was—when he actually talked. Now he was as silent as a statue and ignored Mercury’s inquiry as if it were a passing breeze.

“Cigarettes?” Mercury guessed, more so to agitate him than to get actual answers. This dude was a giant prick. Mercury leaned forward so that his lips were right next to Adam’s ear when he said, “Porn?” finally succeeding in getting a rise out of his fellow quadruple dater.

Adam turned so fast Mercury had to take a step back in anticipation for the lunge he thought the raging youth might make at him. “You think you’re so damn funny, huh?” Adam all but spat at him. “I’ve got news for you. No one thinks you’re funny. No one thinks you’re cool. Everyone just feels sorry for you because you’re a goddamn amputee who wouldn’t be shit without Connect Tech, so you can take your cocky attitude and shove it down your throat and choke on it for all I care. I’m not here to make friends. I’m just here for one thing, and one thing only.”

“And what’s that?” Mercury asked, fighting the overwhelming urge he had to ram his shaking fist into Adam’s gut.

Without a word, Adam turned back around and snatched a box of condoms off the checkout counter. He slung them down for the cashier to scan along with his driver’s license.

“Six fifty,” the cashier said, oblivious to the ridiculous amount of tension between his two customers.

Adam threw a handful of crumpled bills on the countertop. “Keep the change,” he said before grabbing his box and his ID and heading for the door.

“That asshole…” Mercury muttered under his breath as he watched him go.

Blake was too good for him.

Chapter Text

The mini golf place was Peter Pan themed, which was whatever. What wasn’t whatever was that it was run by the father of Mercury’s old teammate, Scarlet.

“Well, yer a sight fer sore eyes!” Mr. David exclaimed upon recognizing Mercury. The large bearded man had a bit of a slur to his boisterous words that kind of made him sound like a pirate. Mercury would’ve thought it was an act to go along with the Peter Pan theme, but he recalled Mr. David sounding like just as much of a sea rover on the soccer field sidelines during games. “Good t' see ye 'n Neptune are gettin' along!”

“Argh. We be tryin’,” Mercury said in his best pirate impersonation. He could hear several people slapping their palms to their foreheads behind him, but Mr. David seemed to find his impression entertaining enough.

“Ha, ha, ha! And yer in good spirits t’ boot!” Mr. David bellowed with a mighty guffaw that nearly shook the walls of the small wooden cabin. “Tell ye wha’, lad. If ye can guess th' answer t' me riddle, I'll let ye 'n yer hearties play fer free. Savvy?”

“Wait. Seriously?” Mercury asked, dropping his pirate accent like a three hundred pound anchor.

“Aye,” Mr. David said with a nod and a smile that showed an impressive amount of pearly white teeth through his bushy red beard. “Consider it thanks fer helpin' me son, Scarlet, fer th' past four years. But only ye can answer. No help from th' others.”

“That’s fair,” Mercury agreed. “Game on.”

The burly man put both hands on the desk separating him from Mercury. “Riddle me this,” he said with a gleam in his bright green eye. “Wha's a pirate's fav'rit letter o' th' alphabet?”

Mercury thought for a moment. There was one clear answer, but it seemed way too easy. That’s when another, more dad-joke answer popped in his head. Mr. David was a dad, after all. “Ye’d reckon it'd be R, but his true love be th' C,” Mercury said, his pirate persona making a complete comeback.

Mr. David let out the heartiest of hearty laughs, throwing his head back as his chest heaved with joy. “Yer as sharp as ever, sprog! A promise be a promise, so go pick out yer balls 'n putters 'n 'ave a good time!”

Feeling a bit proud of himself, Mercury smirked and moved toward a big barrel full of colorful golfballs.

“I’m only gonna say this once, but that was really cool,” Emerald told him after grabbing the first green golfball she saw, giving him a pat on the shoulder as she passed by.

“Or really geeky,” Weiss added as an afterthought before picking out a classic white ball and following Emerald.

Neo tugged on his sleeve and offered him a high-five he gladly accepted, snagging a light pink ball in the process. Blake plucked a black ball and a red ball from the barrel, casting Mercury a swift smile before turning to offer Adam the red one. Adam snatched the ball without so much as a thank you to Blake or Mercury and sauntered over to select his putter.

What does she see in that guy? Mercury wondered with a shake of his head as he watched the pair argue over which putters worked best for their respective heights.

“Nice going, Black,” Neptune said from the opposite side of the barrel, rolling a golfball as blue as his hair between his fingers. His eyes were focused on the ball, so Mercury couldn’t meet them, but that didn’t stop him from saying thanks.

Mercury could tell it was uncomfortable for Neptune to keep his face so serious. Being a stone cold hard-ass didn't suit the laid-back teen anymore than normal colored hair did. Was it more difficult to be upset with him than it was to be at peace with him? Mercury didn’t get a chance to ask. Yang stepped between them to select her ball next.

“I got yours already,” Neptune told her, handing Yang a bright yellow ball that matched her prosthetic arm.

“Oh. Thank you,” she said, a bit embarrassed by her own predictability. “What color are you getting, Mercury?” she asked upon observing his balless self.

“Right. I should probably get one of those…” he said, sifting through the rainbow of golfballs the barrel contained. “Can’t do black since Blake already grabbed that color…” He dug a little deeper until the sheen of a silver golfball caught his eye. “I’ll use this one,” he declared, rolling the small silver sphere up his arm, popping it off his elbow, and catching it in his hand.

“It suits you,” Yang said with a smile that spread from her mouth to her eyes.

Neptune regarded his girlfriend with a raise of his eyebrows before he wordlessly walked away, his footfalls clunking against the cabin’s wooden floorboards as he went.

“Does he know about the kiss?” Mercury asked in a hushed voice once he felt Neptune was a safe enough distance away.

“No. But he’s still peeved about that night I dragged you to an empty gym and made you tell me what happened between you two,” Yang replied. “He’s just being a big baby. He has nothing to worry about.”

“Right. Absolutely nothing,” Mercury agreed.

“Zero percent chance of anything happening between us,” Yang said with an airy laugh.

“I've moved on t' other fish in th' sea.” Mercury’s pirate accent was as swashbuckling as ever.

“Right, because you have Neo and I have Neptune,” Yang pointed out.

“Right,” Mercury concurred.

“Right,” Yang said for what felt like the umpteenth time.

Who was Mercury kidding? It was taking every fiber of his self-control not to grab Yang by the waist, dip her back, and kiss her like there was no tomorrow. His mental sirens were starting to sound again, so he did the smart thing and sought out Neo. He found his darling date trying to convince Mr. David that she didn’t need the putter designed for children, but finally conceded when Mercury said it’d make her all the more cute if she used it.

The course itself was remarkably interactive for a mini golf place, complete with animatronic mermaids, pirates, and even the tick-tocking crocodile that swallowed Hook’s hand.

“You could always trade out Yang’s arm for a snazzy hook,” Mercury told Weiss as they waited for Emerald to set up her ball three holes in. “Something nice and flashy.”

“I’ll have Winter get right on that,” Weiss scoffed before watching her date make a fairly impressive putt. “Way to go, Em!” Weiss exclaimed as the ball rolled to a stop right next to the hole.

“Looks like someone’s excited about getting some sugar,” Yang mentioned with a wink. “Don’t forget the terms for winning and losing.”

“How could I forget? You guys made me buy a chocolate bar,” Mercury said before looking to Neo. “You still have it, right?”

Neo unbuckled the small purse she had dangling off her shoulder near her waist and revealed the cookies and cream bar in mint condition. Out of all the couples, Mercury and Neo were the only ones getting actual sugar at the end of the game. That was a win-win situation in his book.

By the tenth hole, the group had wound their way up the mountainous landscape, passing through Hook’s pirate ship and Deadman’s Cave along the way. It was their first hole out in the open since the fifth, and Neptune overdid it by launching his ball into a nearby stream.

“Did anyone think to grab a backup ball?” Emerald asked as they watched the blue orb wash away with the current. She was answered with six shaking heads. Adam didn’t give a fuck and remained motionless and unresponsive.

“It’s cool. I got this!” Yang said, pulling the handle of her putter through the belt loop on her skinny jeans and bounding across the course. She jumped from fake rock to fake rock, making her way down the steady stream that was much too teal to be its natural color.

“Yang, you’re not Indiana Jones,” Weiss called out as Yang parkoured her way to the edge of the cliff where the stream dropped off into a waterfall. “Neptune, do something. She’s going to hurt herself.” The order wasn’t urgent, which made Mercury feel like Yang had a habit of doing stuff like this and Weiss was completely over it.

“I uh…” Neptune looked anxiously from the flowing water to his daring girlfriend getting ever closer to the mountain’s edge. “I… um…”

Mercury glanced from the rushing stream to his former teammate.

He’s still hydrophobic, he realized.

He could’ve easily let Neptune out himself and look like a total wuss in front of all of Yang’s friends, but something in Mercury made him want to take the higher ground. This time, at least.

“Relax, Vasilias. I’ll do it,” Mercury said casually. “I was looking for an excuse to test my new legs.” He handed his putter to Neo. “Be right back,” he told her before following the path Yang had taken.

“I almost got it! It’s stuck in this cage thing!” Yang called when she noticed Mercury approaching. She was straddling the top of the waterfall and using her putter to dig into the stream.

Mercury carefully hopped closer, taking note of the more slippery rocks. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be that far out, Blondie,” Mercury said, the bottom of his stomach evaporating as he realized just how far down the drop was. He could see the mechanical mermaids waving at them from below, beckoning them to their deaths. He didn’t trust his new legs to take him any further, so he reached out his arm from his safe stance atop two dry rocks. “C’mon. Give me your hand, and I’ll pull you back.”

“But it’s right here, I’ve almost got it,” Yang said through clenched teeth as she continued to maneuver her putter through the water.

“It’s a stupid golfball. We can get another one back at the entrance.”

“But then we’ll have to climb all the way back up here to finish, and that’s no fun.”

“Neptune can have my ball and I’ll stop playing.”

“That’s even less fun!”

“Dammit, Blondie! I’m not kidding around! Just take my hand!” Mercury shouted, stretching his fingertips as far as they could go.

“Aha! Got it!” Yang sang out, squatting down to fish the bright blue ball out of the obnoxiously teal water with her human hand as her robotic one handled the putter.

Mercury breathed out a sigh of relief as she stood up, perfectly balanced. “Good. Now just give me your hand and I’ll—”

“Fore!” a loud voice cried out.

Everything after that happened so fast, yet the world around Mercury warped into a sort of slow motion he only ever saw in super hero movies. He watched Yang’s eyes scrunch up in pain as a crimson golfball collided with her forehead just as he watched the shock form on her face when she felt her equilibrium slip. The moment Yang’s feet lifted off the rocks and her body started to go lateral, Mercury ceased all logical means of thinking and let adrenaline take over. He dashed forward, splashing through the shallow edge of the stream before launching himself off the side of the cliff.

Catching Yang was the easy part. Surviving the fall was where he was going to run into trouble.

Mercury tried to turn their bodies so that his back might help break Yang’s fall, but wound up spinning them so that they’d hit the lake feet first. Instinctively, he bent his legs to cushion the crash into the water, but doing so unknowingly activated some dormant mechanism in his legs.

A strange beeping sound went off and before he knew it, Mercury’s heels were emitting jet streams. The air currents weren’t strong enough to elevate them, but they were strong enough to slow their fall and make their dip into the lake much less sudden and painful.

Yang was still clinging to his neck when they submerged, which might’ve made it more difficult to resurface had his feet not continued emitting the powerful airflow even while underwater. The boost rocketed the pair of them to the surface and helped propel them toward a nearby bridge once Mercury regained his bearings. Yang tried to help by using her free arm to paddle, but it was really Mercury who was doing all the work. Well—Mercury’s Connect Tech.

Mercury made sure Yang was able to pull herself up on the wooden planks before he climbed out himself, both gasping for the air the panic had stolen from them.

“Yang!” came Weiss, Blake, and Neptune’s anxious voices as everyone came scrambling down from the course’s peak.

“Mercury!” Emerald cried, equally as anxious.

By the time the rest of the gang reached them, Yang and Mercury were able to compose themselves enough to close their mouths while they breathed, but the chilly December air wasn’t making their wet clothes any more comfortable than wet clothes were to begin with.

“Jesus Christ, Yang. You must be freezing!” Neptune said, shrugging his jacket off and enveloping Yang in its warmth, giving her a hug from behind.

“I lost your ball,” Yang croaked out, turning her head to meet Neptune’s eyes.

Neptune let out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and sigh. “Babe, we really need to have a talk about your priorities.”

Emerald didn’t have a jacket to loan Mercury, but that didn’t stop her from lending him her body heat. She closed her arms around him in a side hug without any regard for how damp her designer dress was getting.

“You could’ve been killed,” Emerald said, her voice distant, almost like she couldn’t believe how true that statement was.

“It’s not the first time someone’s told me that,” was all he could think to say.

Neo reached for his hand with tears in her eyes, and suddenly Mercury felt guilty. The poor girl was probably having flashbacks of that Torchwick guy and reliving some pretty awful memories. He didn’t know how to respond, so he settled for giving her hand a squeeze that he hoped was as reassuring as it was apologetic.

That’s when Mercury noticed Adam standing behind everyone else—arms crossed, head down, chuckling to himself—and a wave of an entirely different emotion swept over him.

“You think this is funny?” Mercury asked, breaking away from Emerald and Neo and taking a step closer to the masked punk.

“Heh, heh. I suppose I do. I should retract my earlier remark. You really can be quite hilarious. Under the right circumstances,” Adam said, his words trickling with more chuckles.

“Yang almost died,” Mercury said, his tone getting darker and his volume getting louder as his steps brought him closer. “I almost died. We almost died!”

“But you didn’t,” Adam said. “Isn’t that what matters? You should be on the ground thanking me right now. I made you look like a total hero.”

A lightbulb went off in Mercury’s head that immediately shattered to the floor and started a house fire.

“You hit that golfball on purpose?!” Mercury screamed, though he dove and tackled Adam to the ground before giving him a chance to answer.

The two rolled across the artificial grass with Mercury coming out on top and landing the first punch square in Adam’s mouth. Adam didn’t stay down for long, though, managing to overpower his aggressor by repositioning his foot against Mercury’s abdomen and thrusting him off. Mercury backpedaled three steps before regaining his forward momentum and charging Adam again, keeping him pinned to the ground as he took another swing. And another. And another.

“Mercury! Stop!” Emerald shrilled, trying to grab hold of one of his arms and failing miserably.

“Please, stop!” Blake begged.

Neo leapt onto Mercury’s back and clung to him like a human bookbag. Her excess weight was bothersome, but not enough to stop him. He stood up and used his metal appendages to deliver an onslaught of kicks until Neo eventually lost her hold on his torso.

Yang and Neptune dared to get close enough to grab him and actually succeeded, mostly due to his own fatigue.

“Dude, that’s enough,” Neptune told him as he pulled him away by his arm. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“That psycho tried to murder someone! And laughed about it! You can’t just tell me that’s a wrong!” Mercury snarled, his heels scraping against the sidewalk they were dragging him along.

“I’m going to notify my uncle, so the cops will handle it,” Yang said, her arms locked around his arm and her heart pounding against his heart as she used her body to keep his from flailing about. “This isn’t your problem. Let the proper people deal with it.”

Mercury did his best to calm his erratic breathing while Neptune and Yang found an outside bench to plop him on.

“I’m gonna make sure Adam doesn’t try to bolt before your uncle gets here,” Neptune told Yang. He then nodded to Mercury. “Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

“Okay,” Yang meekly agreed, taking a seat next to her charge on the bench.

Mercury could hear the others talking loudly in the distance, but they were completely out of view and their words were too muffled to comprehend. Neptune and Yang had hauled him all the way to the faux pirate town by the entrance. He deduced it was a restroom area when he noticed the building directly in front of them had two separate signs telling scalawags and wenches where they could take a leak should the need arise.

“I would go see if Mr. David has any blankets, but I’m afraid of what you’ll do if I leave you alone,” Yang said after a silence that seemed like it might never end.

Mercury would’ve told her to do what she wanted, but he couldn’t promise her he’d sit still if she left him to his own devices. Thus, he remained quiet.

“Neo must be rubbing off on you,” Yang remarked when it became apparent she wasn’t getting a verbal response from him.

“Maybe,” he said, nullifying that theory. The image of Neo’s face on the brink of tears formed in his mind and his urge to beat up Adam surged. “Damn it. I made her cry because of that asshole,” Mercury said bitterly.

“Neo?”

“Yeah… She was probably thinking of that teacher that died over the summer when we went diving off the edge of that cliff.”

“Who told you about Mr. Torchwick?” Yang asked.

“Weiss.”

Yang nodded. “I should’ve known.” She paused before adding, “You’ve been getting pretty close with my friends lately.”

Mercury cocked an eyebrow. What an odd thing to say.

“Is that a problem?” he asked.

“No. No, it’s fine,” Yang amended.

“Because you’re the one who recommended me to Weiss, you know. You’re the one who introduced me to all of your volleyball teammates.”

“But I didn’t intend for you to date my volleyball teammates.”

Mercury took a moment to let those words sink in, really searching them for underlying meanings and tones before he felt confident enough in his findings to say, “Is that jealousy I’m sensing?”

Yang let out a laugh as fake as the surrounding village. “Jealous? Me? Of what? You?”

“Is that really so surprising?” he asked, sitting up in a less lax position and devoting his attention to catching any physical signs that might give her away. His anger for Adam wasn’t nearly as consuming now that he had something to tease Yang about. He even managed a smirk.

“I’m not jealous. I have Neptune.”

“You keep reminding me of that…” Mercury said, a bit disinterested.

“You have Neo.”

“Which bothers the hell out of you.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No.”

“Not even a little bit?”

“No.”

“What about that spaghetti kiss?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

“No.”

Mercury’s smirk got twice as big and Yang’s face got five times as red.

“I meant, yes! Yes, I’m sure!” Yang hastily corrected. “Mercury, can we just drop it?”

“If it were that easy,” Mercury said with a shrug. He should’ve kept his mouth shut, but the fury he felt for Adam was suddenly replaced by the fondness he felt for Yang, and once again he was out of control. “I wish I could stop liking you with a flip of a switch, but I don’t think it works like that.”

Yang bit her bottom lip and said nothing.

“I’ll grow out of it eventually, I’m sure. But I don’t think being friends or accountability partners is going to help that.”

Mercury shoved his hands in his soggy pockets and looked up at the sky. It was a clear night and the stars were softly twinkling overhead. He breathed out a huffy sigh that instantly condensed into a cloud of fog. Damn, it was cold.

“I think you’re right.”

And suddenly the cold didn’t matter anymore because Yang just said Mercury’s four favorite words.

“There’s something between us that makes being friends impossible,” she continued. She turned to Mercury with a look in her eyes he couldn’t quite place. It seemed like some sort of fear mixed with courage. Like she was about to do something she absolutely dreaded. “I lied,” she said.

Mercury furrowed his brow in confusion. “Lied about what?”

“I felt it.”

Mercury’s first instinct was to check his pants. Once he realized he was behaving himself, he went back to being confused. “Felt what?”

“When you kissed me… you asked me if I felt anything. I lied and told you I didn’t, but I did,” Yang confessed, her round lilac eyes locking with his. “At first I thought I couldn’t forget about it because I was upset. But then I realized I couldn’t forget about it because of how it made me feel.”

“And… how did it make you feel?” Mercury asked.

“A lot like how I felt after you saved me just now... Alive,” she said with a smile as a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Mercury put his hand to her face and rubbed the wet streak away with his thumb. “You’re already in serious danger of catching phenomena,” he said, keeping his hand in place. “You need to keep the waterworks in check, Blondie.”

Yang breathed out a light laugh. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

“Wait, what was that?” Mercury asked.

“I guess you’re right,” Yang repeated.

“I’m sorry, I think I still have lake water clogging my ears.” He made a motion to knock the imaginary lake water out of his head. “Could you run that by me one more time?”

“Shut up, idiot,” Yang said. She grabbed him by his jacket’s collar and and shut him up herself by pressing her lips to his.

The cool night air against their damp skin served as a refreshing contrast to the warmth of their mouths. Mercury was feeling hot and cold, excited yet calm, nervous yet ready. He’d revisited their kiss in his mind more times than he cared to admit, but the fireworks going off this second time around made the first go look like the embers of a dying sparkler. The difference, if he had to guess, was that Yang was kissing him just as much if not more than he was kissing her.

They slowly broke apart for air, their breath rising up in front of them in wispy clouds. Mercury didn’t want to screw it up by saying the wrong thing, so he waited for Yang to speak first.

“Wow…” she breathed out, her warm exhale emitting a particularly big cloud into the chilling atmosphere. She almost looked like a dragon the way she did it.

“Still feeling it?” Mercury asked, though he already knew the answer.

Yang nodded. “Not just a fluke,” she confirmed before reaching her hand behind his neck and putting their chemistry through one more assessment. Mercury had always been annoyed with trial and error testing in his science classes, but now he finally had a sincere appreciation for it.

Mercury tensed when he sensed someone’s presence and stopped kissing Yang an instant later, but that instant was too little too late. The astonished look in Neo’s two-toned eyes told Mercury she’d seen all she needed to.

“Neo…”

Neo scrunched her eyes shut and shook her head—a clear indication she didn’t want to hear anything he had to say. Dropping the blankets she’d no doubt been on her way to give to them, Neo went sprinting off in the opposite direction. Her purse flew off her shoulder in the process and its contents spilled all over the cobblestoned street. The cookies and cream candy bar went skidding to a stop near his shoe and Mercury suddenly felt like an even bigger asshole than Adam.

“Fuck.”

Chapter Text

Mercury chased after her the instant his brain rebooted and started complying with his Connect Tech again, but by then it was too late. Neo was as fast as she was small and darted through the pirate village, past the gift shop, and out into the parking lot like she was trying to win an Olympic gold medal. Mercury wished he knew a way to activate his legs’ jet propulsion feature that didn’t involve free-falling to his doom. He would’ve used the boost to catch her. Alas, it was all his metal muscles could do not to malfunction up as he pushed them past their limits.

“Neo! Where the hell do you think you’re going?! You can’t run home!” Mercury called after her. He was hoping she might slow down as she realized the logic to his words. That’s why he was so shocked when the opposite effect took place and Neo picked up speed. She was a dot in the distance before he knew it, weaving between parked cars and out of sight.

Mercury jogged to a stop, crouching down to his mechanical haunches as he caught his breath. As fake as his legs were, they got his heart pumping just as fast as his old ones. The rush of blood was still pounding in his ears when he heard footsteps approaching from behind him.

“Where is she?” he heard Yang ask, her voice equal parts meek and anxious.

“Your guess… is as good as mine,” he answered between pants.

“Oh, Neo…” Yang said forlornly. “What have I done?”

“Nothing,” Mercury told her, finding the strength to stand as well as the air he needed to keep his ragged breaths under control. “You didn’t do anything. I did this. This is my fuckup. Not yours. So don’t even start playing the blame game. I win this round.”

“Mercury. You didn’t—”

“I did!” Mercury said. He was practically shouting now. “I asked her out vaguely knowing how she felt about me. I asked her out even though I still had feelings for you.”

“But I kissed you!”

And Mercury’s head was still spinning because of it, though he was starting to wonder if something bad was going to happen every time he and Yang locked lips. He never really cared for Romeo and Juliet because he thought they were stupid kids who fell in love way too fast, but he was starting to empathize. Being a star-crossed lover severely sucked.

“Why did you kiss me?” he asked, a slight calmness beginning to sink in.

“Do I need a reason? Can’t I just do it because I wanted to?” They were originally his words—not hers—and Yang couldn’t hide the smirk that came along with them.

“Yes you do, and no you can’t,” Mercury replied, though he was smirking now, too, for their roles had been completely reversed.

“Because I’m an idiot,” Yang told him matter-of-factly, as if nothing else needed to be said. And nothing else was.

With a smile that held a hint of sadness to it, she handed Mercury one of the blankets Neo left behind and together they retreated back to the entrance cabin of Hook’s Adventure Golf. There, they reunited with the remainder of their group, though Blake and Adam were not among them. Mercury didn’t give a rat’s ass about where that masked scumbag went off to. What did bother him was that Blake was undoubtedly with him.

“I’m just here for one thing, and one thing only.”

Every fiber of Mercury's being wanted to yell at Blake until she had enough sense to dump her psycho boyfriend’s sorry ass. Fortunately for Adam, there was a more pressing matter for him to attend to.

“Where’s your date?” Weiss asked upon their rendezvous. “Didn’t you get those blankets from her?”

Mercury’s fingers clutched said blanket, the word date stinging like a paintball pellet to the chest. He didn’t have the right to call her that anymore. He could tell by the uncomfortable way Yang shifted beside him that she was thinking the same.

“We did,” he confirmed. “But then she bolted for some reason.”

Mercury could meet the eyes of Emerald and Weiss just fine, but looking at Neptune was proving rather difficult. He was afraid of what his former teammate might see there. The lie. The betrayal. As much as he didn’t like the guy, there was no justification for stealing another man’s girl, and Mercury knew it.

“She was probably picked up by her parents if she texted them telling them what happened,” Yang said. She turned to look at Mercury directly. “Her parents are really overly protective. If they found out two of her friends went falling off the edge of a mini golf mountain—especially at the fault of someone else—they’d drive out here in a heartbeat.”

Was Yang straight up lying? Or was that her way of telling him Neo might not be wandering the streets by herself at such a late hour.

“That is true, but she could’ve at least said bye,” Weiss grumbled, slightly saddened at the lack of consideration the scenario suggested.

“When’s the last time she really said anything, though,” Yang pointed out.

Mercury couldn’t decide if he wanted to pat Yang on the back for such quick thinking or smack himself on the forehead because it came at the cost of a pun.

Weiss rolled her eyes, “Bad joke, Yang, but I suppose you’re right. Have any of you texted her?”

Mercury’s eyebrows raised. That wasn’t such a bad idea. At least it didn’t seem like a bad idea until he went to grab his phone from his back pocket. The damp feel of his jeans was a quick reminder of the little swim he’d taken with Yang and just how poorly water mixed with electronics. Although his cellular device was still in one piece, it didn't do much good if that one piece was a piece of shit.

“Just put it in rice,” Emerald suggested after gauging Mercury’s despondent reaction to the death of his phone. “Dry rice helps absorb the water in phones when they get wet.”

“That’s why you put it in rice? I thought it was sort of like a Santa Claus cookie thing. If you leave your phone in the rice overnight, Asians come in and fix it for you by the next day. Just like a Christmas miracle!” Mercury sassed.

“That’s so racist, it’s not even funny,” Emerald said flatly.

“Oh, come on. Like you’ve never told a racist joke before,” Mercury scoffed, shoving the useless phone back in his soggy jeans. No amount of rice would be able to fix it, regardless of the number of magically summoned Asians it produced.

Yang faced a similar situation, pinching her unresponsive phone between her fingers like a dirty diaper. “Remind me to punch Adam the next time I see him. With my metal fist,” Yang said.

“I’ll hold him down,” Mercury assured her.

“Yang. You don’t mean that. You’re just upset,” Neptune cut in. He put a pacifying hand on Yang’s human arm, and Mercury silently assessed the looks the presumed couple exchanged. Neptune had a soft glow of concern to his eyes, while Yang’s seemed nervous. Maybe even apologetic. Oh shit… Was she going to get it out in the open—tell him how she felt about Mercury. It would be better to hear it from her rather than Neo.

Fuck. Neo…

Mercury still needed to text her.

“Hey, Em. Can I borrow your phone?” Mercury asked.

“Why?” Emerald pressed, though she was already reaching in her handbag in compliance.

“I wanna make sure Neo is okay,” he explained.

“You know her number off the top of your head?” Emerald asked.

Crap.

Technology made everything so easy, but it always sucked when it stopped working and made everything ten times harder.

“I already shot her a text,” Weiss revealed, sending a nervous chill down Mercury’s spine. “She hasn’t responded yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as she does.”

Mercury gave a curt nod. Better Weiss to find out the truth before Neptune. She struck Mercury as the type of person who could moderate a falling out between friends—someone who would seek out solutions, not sides. Then again, he’d only known her for a few days, and suddenly he was thinking about how grateful Weiss was for Mercury taking Neo on a date. How appalled would she be to learn his true motivations for dating her? Would it be enough to make her want to strip him of her precious Connect Tech and banish him from her circle of friends? Enough to make her dump Emerald because of his loyal friend’s association with him?

God, he hoped not.

Please let Weiss be a moderator, not a hater, Mercury devoutly prayed.

“Where’s Blake?” Yang asked, drawing Mercury out of his thoughts—a place that was very much starting to scare him.

“She wanted to take Adam home,” Neptune said. “Before the cops intervened…” he added.

Yang was clearly displeased by this, most likely for the same multitude of reasons Mercury was. “If my phone wasn’t drenched to the core, I might be able to call my uncle and tell him not to bother.”

It wouldn’t have made a difference. Bright blue and red lights shined in through the cabin’s front window as a squad car pulled into the parking lot. Pursing her lips in frustration, Yang walked outside to meet the unneeded officers, the remainder of their ragtag group following suit.

Mercury felt a weird sense of nostalgia upon seeing Qrow accompanied by his partner, Ironwood, as opposed to his niece or girlfriend. The two had a bromance that all men dreamed of. All women for that matter, too. But as congenially as the perfectly complimentary pair of officers greeted them, the smiles on their chiseled faces faded when Yang explained the situation to them.

“Adam went too far this time,” Ironwood said with a grave shake of his head.

The words this time stuck out to Mercury and sparked his imagination to create all sorts of scenarios where Adam was being a dick and pulling complete dick moves. He wondered exactly how many times preceded this time and why no one had stood up to the perturbed teen before now and prevented this time from happening in the first place. It almost made him angry at everyone else, but he managed to keep a cap on it.

“There was some good that came out of it,” Weiss thought to mention. “Mercury got to test one of his legs' main safety features.”

Most people might not have seen that sort of thing as any consolation, but being the huge comic book nerd he was, Mercury was beyond thrilled to know he had Iron Man like capabilities at his fingertips—or toetips, to be more specific—and did indeed view this silver lining as something very, very good.

“Do they shoot out energy beams, too?” he asked his engineer with a hopeful gleam in his eyes.

Weiss apparently wasn’t as into comic books as her SK2’s safety feature made it seem. She fixed him with the kind of reprimanding glare a mother might give her misbehaving child, crossing her arms in front of her in a more intimidating stance.

“If you’re thinking about becoming a nighttime vigilante, better think again. Those legs are meant for walking, not flying. That’s why I’ve programmed them to involuntarily activate only when they need to. You can’t mess around with them even if you tried,” she told him.

We’ll see about that, Mercury thought, though he might have thought it a little too loudly. The affirmative nod he gave Weiss in reply didn’t seem to throw her off his true intentions one bit.

She narrowed her eyes and lowered her chin. “I mean it, Mercury. No. Stupid. Super stunts.”

“Not unless they involve saving my niece,” Qrow added, his gruff voice painted with every color of grateful. “Thanks, kid. I owe you one.”

“Ah. Don’t mention it,” Mercury said. He looked from Qrow to Yang, her lilac eyes perceiving him in a way he’d never seen before, but—by god—if it didn’t take his breath away. He knew he’d let his gaze linger a little too long on hers, for the next person who caught his attention was the blue-haired boy wonder standing at Yang’s side, and he didn’t seem to appreciate the googly eyes his girlfriend was making at Mercury.

“It’s pretty late. Maybe we should head home,” Neptune suggested, his calm and collected tone betraying the heated glare he was directing at Mercury.

Like the guilty culprit he was, Mercury broke eye-contact, dropping his gaze to the floor. Neptune could win this round. It was the least Mercury could afford him since he was bound to lose the girl.

After apologizing to Mr. David for the trouble, everyone piled in Weiss’s limousine and headed back to the restaurant where Neptune’s car was parked. Mercury watched from across the limo as Neptune hugged Yang against his side, kissing the top of her head and whispering in her ear. Yang’s eyes were as vacant as her expression—clearly lost in thought. But what those thoughts consisted of, Mercury could only guess.

Perhaps she was thinking of what a horrible person she was for betraying both Neptune and Neo. Maybe she was still figuring out her feelings for Mercury. Maybe she was having an existential crisis resulting from her brush with death.

Damn it. Why can’t my legs give me telekinetic super powers, too?

Whatever she was thinking, she kept it to herself, saying nothing more than goodbye as she and Neptune switched vehicles.

Mercury instinctively reached for his phone the moment she left, but was again reminded that it was no longer functioning.

“Still trying to text Neo?” Emerald guessed.

Mercury felt a twinge of guilt pinch the core of his soul—if he still had one of those. His feelings for Yang kept overpowering all of his other senses, and it was starting to sicken him.

“Any word from her?” he asked, looking to Weiss.

The heiress shook her head. “Nothing.”

Mercury nodded, a mixture of relief and worry weaving within him. He was relieved Neo hadn’t told anyone about the kiss, but was also worried of where the cute mute might be. The last time he had to deal with so many contrasting emotions, he was watching P.S. I Love You.

“We told Qrow and Ironwood she ran off, so they’ve already notified all officers in the area to keep an eye out for her. If she isn’t home safe already, she will be soon enough. Try not to worry about it,” Weiss said.

He didn’t deserve such comforting words.

Neo… Wherever you are… I’m sorry.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was a rough night for sleep, but Mercury was up and at ‘em surprisingly early for a dropout. It was going to be at least an hour trek to the mall, and he was in dire need of a new phone. With earbuds securely in place and his iPod shuffling his favorite playlist, he swung his front door open ready to be productive. That’s why nothing in life made sense when he saw someone standing on his doormat, arm up and knuckles prepped to knock on a door that was no longer standing between them.

“Blake?” Mercury asked, reaching in his pocket to pause his music. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I didn’t know how else to reach you. Apart from your phone dying, I don’t actually have your number…”

“I thought you gave me your number at that volleyball practice.”

“Right, but you never actually returned the favor,” Blake pointed out.

This was the second time he’d run into that problem. If his contact list survived the water damage, he was going to have to send a mass text out to the ladies of Beacon’s volleyball team so no one could use that excuse ever again.

“Anyway… Can I come in?” she asked. “I wanted to talk to you. About Adam.”

Not Mercury’s favorite subject, but the poor girl had come all that way. It’d be rude to not at least hear her out. Without a word, Mercury moved out of the way and gestured for Blake to step over the threshold. With a soft smile, Blake nodded and obliged.

“You like Pringles?” Mercury asked as Blake settled onto one end of the living room’s couch. “I think I have sour cream and onion. Oh, and they just made a new chicken nugget flavor, too. It’s really starting to grow on me.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Blake said, awkwardly tucking a loose strand of her long black hair behind her ear.

Mercury shrugged and plopped down on the couch cushion opposite her. He wasn’t used to entertaining guests, but at least she couldn’t say he didn’t try. “So what’s up?” he asked.

“I know you probably think I’m insane for spending so much time with someone so… so much like Adam,” Blake said unevenly.

“I wouldn’t say insane so much as blind to what’s right in front of you,” Mercury amended.

“I’m not blind. I actually have remarkable vision. Some even say I’ve got eyes like a cat.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“I know you didn’t mean literally blind. Sorry. Bad joke on my part,” Blake confessed. “You meant I don’t see Adam for what he is because I’m so blinded by love for him. But that’s not it at all. For starters, I’m not in love with him.”

Mercury furrowed his brow in confusion. “Then why—”

“Mercury, let me ask you something,” Blake cut in, leaning forward so that her elbows rested on her thighs. “If two of your best friends were drowning, which one would you save?”

“Since I only have one best friend, I’d save Emerald,” Mercury replied with a sassy smirk.

“Pretend like Yang is drowning, too,” Blake suggested, making the smirk disintegrate instantly.

“Both,” Mercury said.

“Not an option,” Blake told him.

“What’s the point of this question? Who would you save?” Mercury countered, a bit aggravated at his hypothetical incompetence. “I could definitely save both…” he muttered under his breath.

“I’d save the person who couldn’t swim,” Blake revealed, a hint of sadness to her voice. A heavy air fell over the room accompanied by a silence that made the ticking of the mantel’s clock the loudest Mercury had ever heard it. “Adam is drowning, Mercury,” she continued. “He’s drowning in his own darkness, and he can’t get out—not by himself. I know he seems cruel and reckless and doesn’t think his actions through, but if I let him go—if I give up the hold I have on him—he’ll sink further than I ever could reach, and I’m scared he won’t be able to come back up for air on his own.”

Mercury didn’t know what to say. It was always hard to put himself in other peoples’ shoes, especially when those shoes belonged to an asshole of such epic proportions. But assholes weren’t born that way. They always had some story—some turning point—that shaped them into the jerks they were. He never wanted to consider that story because it was easier to hate than to sympathize. It was easier to define someone by one action than all the others leading up to it. Details. Who needed them, right?

But that was exactly why Mercury had dropped out of school. So many people thought he was some sort of criminal now—a jerk who broke the speed limit, ran a red light, and became this awful, ugly version of himself. They let one bad moment in his life define him, though he was just as bad. He let them. He hadn’t done anything to stop the naysayers from naysaying. He dropped out of school, lost touch with friends, and became the self-loathing kid everyone thought he would be.

“Why tell me this?” Mercury asked, hoping the dim lighting of his living room would keep Blake from seeing the tears fighting to break free. “Who gives a shit what I think about Adam?”

“I do,” Blake said. “Peoples’ opinions shouldn’t effect how people are, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Negative opinions are especially potent. They can be quite damaging and have a tendency to spread quicker and thicker than positive ones. So if you’re going to be spending time with my friends—with the people Adam spends the most time with—I’d prefer it if your opinion of him wasn’t as toxic as it might be without trying to understand him. He’s been through some shit…”

“Haven’t we all?” Mercury said with a forced laugh, drumming his fingers atop the metal kneecap his jeans concealed. “I get it. Don’t start fights with him every time I see him, right?” Blake seemed relieved at his comprehension, which prompted Mercury to clarify. “I won’t start anything, but you can be sure as hell I’ll finish whatever shitfest he decides to stir up—especially if it’s anything like the stunt he pulled last night.” He took a deep breath. “Blake, you can’t sit back and let people get away with something as serious as attempted murder.”

“He wasn’t trying to—”

“What else would you call aiming a golfball at someone standing on the edge of a cliff?” Mercury snapped. “I get that you want to lend a helping hand to this guy, I really do, but are you sure you’re pulling him up? Or is he the one dragging you down?”

Blake pressed her lips together as she mulled that prospect over with pain in her eyes.

“People in need of saving have to want to be saved. And as far as I can tell, I don’t think Adam is the least bit appreciative of all the extra effort you’re putting in to rescue him,” Mercury said.

“You don’t know how he used to be!” Blake cried.

“I don’t need to! Dwelling on how people were in the past doesn’t change who they are in the present. I should know…” Mercury cast his gaze down at his legs. “I used to be completely different, too.”

“So I’ve heard,” Blake said. Mercury looked at her questioningly, but it didn’t take her long to add, “Neptune. He told us all about your glory days as team captain. Oh, and the fact that almost every girl at Beacon would make it out to the soccer game when we knew our boys’ team was playing Haven. You were like a local celebrity. Even Yang had eyes for you at one point.”

It took a moment for Blake’s words to sink in. As much as he wanted to delve more into this Yang matter, he managed to keep focus for once. “The point is, you can’t keep babying Adam. He should be the one here explaining himself, not you. I get wanting to protect people you care about, especially when there’s a history there. But there’s a difference between protecting and enabling, and we both know which one your relationship is leaning towards.”

Blake took a deep breath. “I will give it some thought,” she declared like a dignified politician. “In the meantime, I did have another reason for stopping by.” She rose to her feet and retrieved her car keys from her jacket pocket. “I’d like to buy you a new phone.”

Mercury wished he could stop being surprised and confused by half the things Blake said. She was going to give him wrinkles. “How did you know?” he asked.

Blake let a sly smile grace the side of her face. “I know more than you realize.”

The image of Yang passionately kissing him while ensnared in his arms flashed through his mind, and suddenly Mercury felt like he was being blackmailed.

“C’mon, tough guy. Or would you rather walk?” Blake called over her shoulder as she made her way to the door.

As much as he loved pushing his Connect Tech to its limits, driving to the mall in a nice, heated car sounded absolutely delightful.

With a slight pep in his step, Mercury bobbed down the steps of his front porch and climbed in the passenger seat of Blake’s black Eclipse. The interior still smelled brand new and the engine roared to life like a happy jungle cat. Hardly giving him enough time to buckle his seatbelt, Blake floored her accelerator, creating deep tire tracks in the gravel before spinning out of the driveway and down the street.

Having friends with fancy cars was nice, but having friends with legitimate licenses would’ve been nicer.

“If you’re buying me a phone for surviving a fall from a cliff, what are you gonna give me for surviving a drive with you?” Mercury asked, his fingernails gripping the smooth leather of his seat so hard they threatened to tear right into it.

Blake just smiled, thankfully keeping her eyes on the road. “Any last words?” she asked.

Mercury shut his eyes tight. “Snape kills Dumbledore,” he said, contorting his face as a means to brace for an expected impact.

Blake shook her head and laughed lightly. “You might not have changed as much as you think,” she said. “Or maybe… you’re reverting back.”

Mercury opened his eyes and loosened his grip. “Reverting back?”

“You were right in saying that people can’t go back to the way we remember them, but that’s not to say their past personalities can’t still resurface. Why do you think that is?”

Yang once again flashed through his mind like she so often did, smiling as sweetly as ever.

“Beats me,” he said, letting the conversation drop. He was done talking about Adam and he needed to stop talking about Yang. At least until he had some other things sorted out. “Have you heard from Neo?” he asked.

Blake nodded. “I stopped at her house before yours. I heard she was pretty shook up about what happened. I didn’t even think about how that might trigger her memories of Mr. Torchwick. But she didn’t want to see me. Her mother said she’s refusing to come out of her room.”

Mercury gazed out of the window, his moment of silence interrupted by the trashcan fast approaching his side of the vehicle. “Look out!” he shouted, ducking down into his seat.

Blake swerved, but it was after she already hit the big tin pail and sent it flying over her car.

“That came out of no where…” she said. What was more unbelievable was that she sounded like she seriously thought the trashcan hit her.

“This better be a damn good phone,” Mercury said, once again gripping the sides of his seat. “Like, I want to be able to microwave my food with this thing.”

Blake laughed. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Although he didn’t choose it, he did end up really liking his new iPhone. Apart from it being his favorite sleek, jet-black color, it had twice as much memory storage and all of his contacts were salvageable. He waited until he survived his joyride home with Blake before texting, though. He didn't want to offend anyone if he stopped mid-conversation because he died in a car accident.

Mercury <1:12 PM>
I'm sorry

He put his phone on his bedside table and decided to play a video game while he waited for a reply. He didn’t even have enough time to push the power button on his X-Box when his text alert went off.

Neo <1:13 PM>
Prove it.

Mercury chewed his bottom lip. How was he supposed to do that exactly? Maybe he could buy her a new phone. It worked for Blake.

Do doo doo

His phone went off in his hand.

Neo <1:13 PM>
I’ll be home alone tonight. My parents are going out of town.

He wasn’t sure if she understood the implication of her words, but that wasn’t the proof he had in mind.

Mercury <1:14 PM>
Could we meet at a coffee shop? My treat?

Neo <1:14 PM>
My place or no place

Mercury hated ultimatums, and usually just shot them down. But this was a delicate matter and any wrong word might cause her to completely cut off contact with him for who knew how long. Even if her invitation did come with suggestive meaning, he could snuff it out when he got there if need be.

Mercury <1:15 PM>
I’ll see you tonight, then.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The sun was little more than a bright orange line over the horizon by the time he made it to Neo’s. Her place was a bit too far to travel on foot, so he coughed up the money for an Uber. His driver had tried to pry information out of him, but Mercury wasn’t very talkative. He was too caught up in figuring out what he was going to say. How he was going to let Neo down in the easiest way possible. She deserved someone way better than him. He hoped she’d see that, too.

He could hear the engine of the Uber car getting fainter and fainter as he approached the front door. With a deep breath, he pushed the doorbell. The ordinary suburban house looked unoccupied. Even the outside lamps were off despite the darkening sky. Was this Neo’s idea of payback? Asking him to come over when she wasn’t even home.

“That ride cost ten bucks,” Mercury grumbled as he turned to leave.

That’s when he blacked out.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Hey, look! Take Five! One, two, three, four, five!”

“Cap’n, Take Five is the name of the candy bar. It doesn’t actually mean ‘take five of them.’”

“That’s false advertising.”

“Heh, you have a point there. Guess I’ll only take four, then.”

“Why just four?”

“What can I say? I’m a rebel.”

“You just don’t want that extra chocolate bar to mess up your beautifully sculpted abs.”

“I mean, as much as I’d like to argue the protein the peanuts in these things give me… It’s not a very nutritious snack.”

“Who cares? We’ll just run it off anyway.”

“That’s my Cap’n. Justifying all my snackage needs! But… I’m still a rebel, so I’ll take six!”

Mercury winced, the sound of the familiar conversation getting louder and louder with each passing sentence.

Where am I? he wondered, opening his eyes and lifting his head off his shoulder. He was tied to a chair in the middle of a dark room, a gag securely fastened around his mouth and preventing him from speaking. To his left was a desktop computer on a glass table, its screen giving off the room’s only source of light. He lolled his head to better look at the monitor, his eyes still adjusting.

I recognize that video… Mercury thought when his vision began to focus. That’s from Sun’s YouTube channel. His former teammate was big on vlogging his misadventures for the world to see, and Mercury tended to have guest appearances whether he agreed to them or not. But… Why?

Mercury observed the rest of the darkened room. Posters and pictures cloaked in shadows were plastered across every wall. Not a single space was left uncovered. There was a bed on the opposite side of the desk with the computer, and judging from the flowery pink and white pillows, it belonged to a girl.

Suddenly, Mercury remembered where he’d been before going unconscious.

“Neo!” he tried to shout, but the gag did an excellent job of muffling his cry. He would’ve been shocked if anyone standing right outside the door had heard him. Nevertheless, he tried again, using his tongue to pull the gag out of the way, but his efforts were in vain. The gag stayed put, forcing Mercury to stay quiet.

He yelled in frustration, his strangled cry much more audible thanks to the guttural nature of it reverberating through his throat and chest. That was enough to garner some attention. Whether that attention was fortunate or unfortunate was yet to be seen.

The door to the room slowly opened, light from the hallway pouring in and illuminating his captor. Neo looked just as she always did. Her hair was in pigtails, her eyes were round and innocent, and her smile was soft and sweet. But the way she moved was different. The way she slinked into the room and one-handedly shut the door behind her while keeping her eyes locked with Mercury’s was nothing short of unnerving.

For the first time in his life, Mercury was petrified—there was little need for the restraints.

No one knew where he was.

No one was coming to save him.

It was just him and Neo, and Neo looked ready to play.

Chapter Text

It was hard to imagine how someone so small, sweet, and silent could evoke such deafening warning sirens in his head, but Mercury didn’t have to imagine it. It was happening, and perhaps the contrast was what made it all the more unsettling.

Beads of sweat formed across Mercury’s forehead, his wide eyes following her petite form as she approached. Her smile should’ve been reassuring, but it wasn’t. No one would get pleasure out of seeing someone they cared about tied up and fearing for his life. No one except a psychopath.

Exactly how many of Yang’s friends are crazy? Mercury thought as Neo reached her pale, slender hand out to him. He closed his eyes and grit his teeth against his gag in anticipation for some type of pain, but Neo’s fingers were gentle when they met the fabric of his shirt. She ran her fingers from his shoulder to his arm, closing around his tricep, near his elbow.

Neo had made sure to tie his ankles to the legs of the chair, his torso to the back of the chair, and his wrists behind his back. Despite his struggle, the knots didn’t give in the slightest. Either Neo had been a top-notch rope-knotter in her girl scout troop, or she’d done something like this before.

Ever so slowly, Neo brought her hand back to his shoulder and used him to steady herself as she nimbly hopped into his lap. She brought her other hand up to his face and caressed his cheek until he reluctantly opened his eyes.

Now that she had his attention, she reached over to the desk with the computer—Sun’s vlogs still serving as background noise—and latched on to a dry erase board that seemed to have been cracked in half and glued back together.

“Mr. Torchwick took quite a shine to Neo, and vice versa.”

Weiss’s words echoed through Mercury’s memory.

“He even gave her a dry erase board so she could participate in class if she knew an answer.”

But why was it broken in half? Mercury wondered as Neo bit the lid off the marker that paired with the damaged board and spat it out to some random corner of the room.

You shouldn’t lead girls on, you know. It isn’t very nice, she wrote.

Mercury’s reply came out as unintelligible noises. That gag was in place for a reason. She didn’t want his excuses. She wanted his suffering.

Unamused by his failed attempt at talking, Neo flipped the board back and wrote something else.

You’re not the first person to do that though…

Mercury wouldn’t have known how to respond to that even if he was capable, though it didn't really matter. Neo was already jumping out of his lap and crossing over to the door to turn on a light switch by the time he finished deciphering her chicken scratch.

A soft golden light much too warm for the occasion filled the room, making Mercury’s eyes narrow as his fuzzy vision adjusted. The first things he noticed were the posters and pictures no longer hidden by the shadows. They were all photographs of some ginger guy who favored a bowler hat. Some were candid, others were posed. Some pictures were big enough to cover half the door. Others were small polaroids clustered together in massive collages. Some were just the ginger dude. Others, Neo was with him. But almost all of them looked like they were taken in some sort of classroom.

Oh my god… Mercury thought as his eyes roved over every single face the fairly photogenic man could make. This must be Mr. Torchwick—that teacher who committed suicide.

The girl had been obsessed with him. Or maybe she still was.

Roman was a really great guy. He was also a really great liar.

Neo was no longer smiling. Her firm frown and jerky movements expressed clear agitation as she wiped the board clean and hastily scribbled something else across it.

He told me how cute, smart, and funny I was. He told me how much he loved me and that I was his favorite student. But he didn’t want to BE with me. Who does that? Who?!

Mercury could tell she wanted to write more, but she’d run out of room. So she waited for Mercury’s eyes to meet hers again before she turned the board back around and continued her train of thought.

Giving people false hope and misleading their hearts should be a crime, but it’s not… not a legal one, at least.

Mercury could feel the sweat dripping from his temple to his jawline, the rope round his wrists cutting into his skin as he wriggled them with as little shoulder movement as possible. Should he actually free himself, he wanted to be inconspicuous about it.

So I’ve learned how to take justice into my own hands.

Her smile was back—creepier than ever—and it was accompanied by two-toned eyes that expressed a hunger so great Mercury could sense the emptiness she yearned to fill. She dropped her dry erase board to the floor with a loud clatter and crawled back on top of his lap, straddling his torso as she crossed her arms behind his neck. Using her teeth, she bit the gag and dragged it down his chin, freeing his mouth.

Mercury took a quick gulp of air and shouted, “HELP! SOMEONE HELP, PLEASE!” at the top of his lungs.

Neo slapped him and yanked the gag back in place before huffily climbing off of him and snatching her board up off the floor.

No one can hear you. I told you my parents were out of town. Unlike you, I’m not a liar.

“If no one can hear me, then why am I gagged?” Mercury struggled to say, but his words were incoherent. He let out a growl so grating he could feel it tearing at his throat from the inside out. If he kept it up, he was going to go hoarse—oh the irony of it all. If he could just talk to her, maybe he could calm her down. He shouldn’t have blown his chance by shouting for help that wasn’t even around.

Although Mercury managed to briefly vex his captor with his futile cries, the fires of her outrage faded to embers easily enough. With a smile as seductive as it was menacing playing across her lips, Neo swaggered toward him again.

Prove to me you’re sorry. That’s what you came here to do.

She carelessly tossed her board back on the desk and ran her palms up and down his thighs. Mercury wanted to let out a laugh, but not because he was ticklish. The thought of getting it up right now was just plain comical. Pure terror didn’t exactly do it for him. A little danger, sure. That was sexy as hell. But as stressed as he was, the only thing he was going to prove was how flaccid her antics made him.

At least that’s what he thought. His eighteen-year-old libido begged to differ and presumed to encourage Neo further by popping up to say hello. Her sinister smile deepened upon noticing.

Mercury wasn’t sure what was so arousing to the traitorous part of his anatomy, but he’d never not wanted a boner so much in his life. No wonder people who went against the wishes of others were so often called dicks. His dick was a total dick.

Neo tugged the gag away once more, dragging it just beneath Mercury’s bottom lip. She kept her fingers on the strip of cloth, ready to put it back in place if need be, but the need wouldn’t be. Despite his erratic heartbeat and racing thoughts, Mercury was determined to keep his cool and try a different strategy.

“Neo… You don’t want to do this. You don’t want forced love. Because forced love isn’t love at all,” he said, his breath hitching on the last word when he felt Neo’s incisors rake across his neck like some sort of vampire.

Whatever it was—love or not—Neo didn’t seem to care. She proceeded to trail small bites down to the collar of his shirt, using a combination of teeth and claw-like fingers to rip the fabric apart like a wild animal.

“Neo! Stop! You don’t want this!”

Neo raised her face to meet his, glowering at him like he was a peon who should learn his place. She didn’t need her board to communicate her response. The fuck do you know what I want? read loud and clear.

She forced her tongue down his throat, stifling the shout of protest that came with it, and for a third time, she settled down on top of him.

If she thought Mercury was going to take this without a fight, she had another think coming.

Mercury clamped down on her tongue, biting hard enough to draw blood. Neo squeaked out a semblance of a whimper and immediately shoved away. Mercury may not have had a whole lot of control over his body, but he had enough to knock his chair backward and send both of them crashing to the floor. Mercury grunted in pain as his awkwardly positioned arms were crushed by the weight of himself, the chair, and Neo. If his legs had any other safety features, that would’ve been a great opportunity for them to activate. Alas, the only thing his legs did was stay tied to the chair, giving Neo plenty of time to scramble to her feet and kick Mercury in the stomach for misbehaving.

When she stomped back over to the computer desk, he thought she was retrieving her dry erase board so she could tell him off in her own special way. That’s what made it so shocking when she came back into view pointing the barrel of a gun at his chest.

Mercury’s mind went blank. He didn’t realize his situation could get any more dire. He was literally lost for words and absolutely dumbfounded by his shitty luck.

“Neo…” he breathed, his eyes looking from the sheen gray pistol to the crazed eyes of its wielder. Whatever he said next, he needed to say it slowly, calmly, and with carefully selected words. “Actions have consequences. I want you to take a moment and think about what would happen… if you shot me.”

Neo grit her teeth. She was hesitating, but the gun did not lower. Her eyes flickered to the pictures of her dearly departed teacher before returning to Mercury’s frozen gaze, causing something to click.

“Mr. Torchwick… didn’t commit suicide did he…?” Mercury asked. He could feel the pacing of his heart growing quicker. Its rate escalated even more when Neo narrowed her eyes, glaring at him in a way that suggested he was onto something and just daring him to keep talking. So he did.

“You killed him.”

It wasn’t a question. It was a comprehension—one that Neo showed no objection to.

The corner of her lips slid up in a sly smile. Neo was impressed he’d managed to figure it out. Fuck, his sleuthing skills probably just made her fall even harder for him. Whether that would prolong his life or end it faster, he was about to find out.

Much to his surprise, Neo lowered her gun.

She walked forward and pressed the ball of her foot to the leg of his chair, turning him ninety degrees until he was facing the wall of Torchwick. Mercury groaned in agony with the movement, his arms skidding against the floor and his shoulders protesting the strain. He waited for his torturer to do something else, but she simply stood there watching him watch her.

What? Does she want me to admire her former flame?

“Thanks for the better view, but I’m not into dead guys,” Mercury said flatly. Even in his current predicament, he couldn’t put a cap on the sass.

Neo scowled and used her foot to push him once again, this time using a forceful kick instead of a leisurely nudge. The kick was enough to turn him toward the corner of the room—or more importantly, toward the wall that was originally behind him.

If any fraction of Mercury’s twisted heart had been jealous of the plethora of pictures Neo had of her last crush, it was appeased by the sight of the adjacent wall.

There were just as many pictures, posters, and collages of Mercury—and the creepiest part of all were that most of them were soccer shots from when he had his legs. His natural legs. From before he even knew Neo existed.

“Where... did you get those?” Mercury asked, though he wasn’t sure why he asked. He honestly didn’t want to know. It was just the first thing that came to his very blank, very frightened mind.

Neo finally traded the handgun for her dry erase board, though the exchange did little to quell the thunderous beat of Mercury's heart. It was pounding hard enough to be the drum announcing World War III.

This is why you really shouldn’t lead girls on. You never know who’s falling in love with you.

Love and obsession were two very different things, but he wasn’t about to tell the lady with the gun that. Mercury stayed silent until he heard the sound of his own laughter coming from the computer. Sun’s videos were still going. Neo must’ve made some sort of playlist using the videos Mercury made a cameo in. She had a wall of Mercury, she had a playlist of Mercury. He was honestly too terrified to ask if she had a tattoo of him, too.

Neo crouched down so she could put her board right next to his face.

I’ve heard the best way to get over someone is to get under someone…

He could tell she was going for a more sensual angle, but all he saw was crazy. Powerless to stop her, Mercury closed his eyes as Neo leaned forward and brought her lips down to his.

Ding dong.

Mercury’s eyes shot open to find Neo’s face right in front of his looking just as surprised.

“Somebody! Hel-mph!”

Neo drove the heel of her hand into Mercury’s mouth, effectively muffling his cries and banging his teeth in the process. She used her other hand to reach for the top of the computer desk in search of her gun, but her little arm was too short.

Mercury licked her palm, startling her into removing it long enough to get one more shout out.

“HELP!” he screamed so loud it made his voice crack.

Deciding a slap just wasn’t going to cut it anymore, Neo punched her victim square in the jaw before cupping both hands over his mouth. For such a tiny thing, Neo hit really hard. Mercury was seeing stars for a solid thirty seconds.

Ding dong.

Mercury was shocked his would-be savior hadn’t left yet, but if he didn’t think of something fast, it would be his fault if they did.

Using the odd angle his bound wrists put him at, Mercury wiggled and writhed back and forth, the legs of his chair banging against the wood of the floor. Neo tried to splay her body across Mercury as a means to stop him, but in doing so she lost her grip on his mouth. Mercury turned his head out of her slack hold and bellowed with all his might.

“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SOMEONE PLEASE HEAR ME!!”

Neo was off him and up by the desk in an instant. She had the gun pointed at his mouth, a sure indication she’d blow his lips right off his face should he refuse to keep them shut tight.

Mercury’s blood was coursing with so much force it was difficult to hear what was going on outside over the sound of his own pulse. Had his hair not already been a striking silver, half his head would’ve turned gray from all the stress he was enduring, Mercury was sure of it.

As his breath began to steady and his heart began to calm, Mercury realized whatever saving grace had been at the doorstep mere moments before was gone. They either didn’t hear him or didn’t care.

Mercury let the back of his head fall to the floor with a soft thud as the reality of his situation sank in. He was about to be raped, killed, or both. Not exactly how he saw his Thursday evening going.

“If you’re gonna kill me, then just kill me,” he said with more venom than someone knocked to the ground and tied to a chair should have. “I’d rather just get it over with.”

Truth be told, he’d been mentally preparing himself for death since the accident. A huge part of him died that day—a part far bigger than the one left behind—and although he was starting to think he might have something worth living for again, some things just weren’t meant to be.

“I’m sorry, Yang,” he whispered with closed eyes. “I can’t keep moving forward after all.”

He had no idea what part of his body Neo was aiming her gun at, but he hoped it was someplace that killed him instantly. He wanted the last thing he thought about to be Yang’s bright and sunny smile, not how painful his wound was.

A gunshot went off, but there was no pain that followed. There was also no death that followed.

Mercury opened his eyes to find a small wisp of smoke rising up from a bullet-sized hole in his jeans.

The stupid bitch shot his Connect Tech.

“Oooooh. Weiss is gonna kill you,” Mercury said with all the charm of a tattletale. “At least I’ll be avenged.”

He almost wished he had a button to turn off the sass because this sure as hell wasn’t the time for it, but it seriously was like breathing for him.

Maybe Weiss would think to put some type of weapon in her next model for future users should they find themselves in such horrible circumstances… or perhaps she already had.

Mercury thought back to the night before—to when he saved Yang from her spill off the mini golf mountain. All he could remember was how he wanted to protect her with his life—to lessen the fall someway, somehow, even if it meant he’d take the full brunt of it.

I want to live, he thought with such intensity even Neo did a double-take at his shift in demeanor.

Like clockwork, the side panels of his metal calves extended outward on both sides, ripping his jeans in the process while just as easily cutting through the rope. Whatever damage Neo had done to his Connect Tech, it fortunately hadn’t affected these secret compartments. What was unfortunate was how his hands were still snuggly tied behind his back in a most uncomfortable way. However, with free feet, that could very well change.

Catching on to what was happening, Neo raised her gun and aimed for one of the side panels.

"No!" Mercury shouted, unconsciously willing his jet propulsion to activate. The gusts weren’t enough to to blow Neo through the wall, but they did serve to throw off her aim. They also served to slide Mercury across the floor and away from Neo at a sea turtle’s pace. Taking full advantage of the distance, Mercury fanned is legs up and over him, using a mixture of abs and metal muscles to pull himself to his feet. He had to hunch a little due to the chair fastened to his back, but at least he was mobile.

The second his heels met the floor, the jets shut off. The side compartments of his legs remained open, enabling Mercury to catch a glimpse of two shiny handles to what he assumed could only be guns.

“I swear, if she wasn’t gay, I’d marry that woman,” Mercury said when he realized his chance of surviving this whole ordeal just skyrocketed due to his combat-ready appendages. He wasn’t sure how he was going to thank his engineer if he made it out, but it was going to be stu-fucking-pendous however it went down.

Neo unloaded her entire round on his Connect Tech in a furious rage, making his jeans holey enough to wear on Sunday. His prosthetics glitched just a bit after taking so many hits, but they were still standing, which meant he was still standing, which meant Neo was in deep shit.

Transforming into a little rage monster, Neo threw her gun across the room and lunged for Mercury’s thighs. He sidestepped her at the last second, spinning at just the right time to knock her down with the legs of the chair. She was quick to get to her feet, but Mercury was just as quick to square off. He was done being the damsel in distress. It was his turn to make her squirm.

At least that’s what he thought until he saw her smiling like she knew something he didn’t. Instinctively, Mercury snapped his gaze down to the openings in his legs and felt his heart drop. Both of the handles were gone. Turned out they weren't handles to guns. They were handles to some very fancy daggers that appeared to be made of bright blue opal. How did Mercury figure that out? Neo was brandishing both of them with that same crazed look in her eye that he’d come to really despise.

“You gonna carve me up and say I committed suicide, too?” Mercury asked, but Neo’s psycho smile didn’t falter in the slightest. “Fine. But you better put ‘Short chicks suck. Not me. Just in general,' on my grave!”

Neo charged forward, yelling so loud Mercury couldn’t believe so much noise was coming from someone sworn to muteness. It was really unfair how many handicaps he was putting up with. He couldn’t use his arms, he was tied to a chair, and he was experiencing the worst boner of his life, but by god, did he somehow manage to fight back.

Dodging her swipes was tricky with the chair, but he made it work. He used the rickety piece of furniture as both a shield and a makeshift weapon. The same went for his legs. They took multiple strikes that would’ve cut right to the bone had they been made of flesh. Mercury had to hand it to his soccer training. His high-knee drills were the reason his ass wasn’t getting chopped to bits.

Just when he thought they were evenly matched—that he could swap blows with her all day, Neo ducked down and stabbed him in the gut. There was that brief moment when they both stopped fighting, when they realized who won and who lost, and judging from her expression, Neo couldn’t believe the outcome anymore than he could.

She retracted the bright blue blade stained red with blood and watched as Mercury staggered backward. He fell to his knees, the weight of the chair twice as heavy just as his breathing was twice as labored.

“Neo… if this is how it’s gotta be… will you at least do me… one favor?” Mercury asked, looking up at the last person he was ever going to see. She seemed lost in her own thoughts, completely unaware of Mercury, the guy she was literally crazy about up until this point.

“Neo!” he called with a huskiness only a voice on the brink of breaking could produce. “Please! Just… tell Yang this.. this isn’t her fault…. If you make it look like suicide… don’t let Yang blame herself.”

Speak of the angel and she shall appear, for it was at that very moment Yang fucking Xiao Long burst through the door in all of her golden glory. Mercury thought for sure he’d already died—that this was his angel sent to show him the way to heaven—but angels didn’t wear Abercrombie and Fitch. And they sure as hell didn’t tackle humans to the ground like seasoned rugby players. But that’s exactly what this Yang did. Everything happened in a blur of gold, for her movements were fast and her mane was almost big enough to hide Neo’s entire body from view.

Mercury fought to keep consciousness, but the relief he felt mixed with the loss of blood was making him too faint. Plus, the idea of ending this real life nightmare by slipping into actual sleep was far too tempting for Mercury to pass up. Even if that sleep was eternal, at least he got what he wanted:

His last thoughts were of Yang.

Chapter Text

“Yang! Earth to Yang. You in there?”

Yang’s consciousness came hurtling down from orbit, back to her home planet—or more specifically, back to Beacon Academy’s crowded cafeteria. She was seated at a round table with her best friends, Weiss, Blake, and Coco, along with her younger sister Ruby.

“You okay?” Ruby was the one asking, but the other girls seemed just as curious.

“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” Yang replied with a smile as fake as her right arm.

Ruby pointed to her sister’s lunch tray. “You’ve hardly touched your mac n’ cheese,” she said.

“Just because I’m not hungry doesn’t mean there’s something wrong,” Yang countered.

“Uh, it kinda does,” Weiss cut in. “If you’re not eating, you’re not Yang. Food is like your favorite thing next to volleyball.”

“It is rather strange,” Blake agreed, lowering the book she had in front of her face just enough to leer over the top.

“It’s not strange! It’s called hormones! And being a teenager! Besides, my love handles have a little too much love to handle these days. I need to start a diet yesterday…” The more she talked, the more skeptical her friends’ faces became. They all knew her too well—and Coco apparently knew her best of all.

The chic fashionista slid the bridge of her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose so she could look directly in Yang’s eyes when she asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be thinking about tonight’s soccer match, would you? About how a certain boy on a certain rival school’s team will be coming to Beacon in a matter of hours?”

“Oh, yeah! I totally forgot. The boys soccer game is tonight!” Ruby exclaimed with her mouth full of hardly chewed cheeseburger.

“Good deduction there, Coco,” Weiss praised. “I think you hit the nail on the head. Look how red her face is now.”

“It is not!” Yang snapped, though she could feel the heat radiating off her cheeks. She tried to cover the incriminating evidence with her hands, but it only served to make her look more guilty.

“What’s the big deal? You’ve liked him since the first time you saw him play in ninth grade. Shouldn’t you be over this type of embarrassment by now? I mean, it’s been… what? Over two years? Talk about commitment,” Coco teased.

And she was right. Yang was silly for trying to hide something so obvious, especially from the four people who were already fairly aware of her feelings. Although she hoped to convince them she’d moved on and let her unrequited crush go, she wasn’t fooling anyone—not even herself.

“I think you should try and talk to him,” Weiss suggested.

“And say what exactly?” Yang asked. “‘Hi. You don’t know me, but I’ve Googled you more times than I care to admit!’”

Blake raised an eyebrow. “You’ve Googled him?” she asked, her book still masking the bottom half of her face.

Yang moved her lunch tray so she’d have room to slam her forehead down on the table. “It’s hopeless…” she groaned.

“Are you kidding me? How is this a hopeless situation? Have you looked in a mirror lately?” Coco asked incredulously.

Yang turned her head to look at her friend, but kept her cheek pressed to the table. “Yeah… and all I see is my robotic arm.”

Weiss fixed Yang with a death glare. “And just what are you implying about my creation?”

Yang sat up straight and raised her hands defensively, “Nothing! Nothing! I’m just… not the person I used to be. I don’t have the confidence I used to.”

“That accident did nothing to your face or hourglass figure,” Coco assured her. “You could have any guy in this school if you wanted to! You’re smart, funny, and gorgeous to boot! Your pros even manage to outweigh your puns, and believe me when I say that’s a serious con.”

Yang felt like that was supposed to be a compliment, but the last part made it fall flat. She pressed her lips into a hard, thin line. “I could have any guy in this school, but the guy I want doesn’t go to this school.”

“You know what I meant,” Coco deadpanned.

“The fact that he’s from another school is a good thing!” Ruby chimed in, setting her half-eaten cheeseburger down so she could talk just as much with her hands as she did her mouth. “If you confessed to somebody like a classmate and you were rejected, you’d have to spend every day for the rest of the semester exchanging awkward hellos and praying none of your teachers partnered the pair of you. Not to mention those tense hallway interactions you always see in shojo manga! But if you’re confessing to someone you barely see, then you could avoid him altogether by never attending another soccer game! Actually, you should probably avoid attending any Haven and Beacon sporting events. Oh, wait… I think the academic team competes against them, too… Is your crush smart? Maybe you could still go to house parties… but what if you have a mutual friend neither of you know about and wind up bumping into each other anyway? Fate is fickle like that. Eh… Best to play it safe and just forego your social life for the rest of your high school career!”

Ruby’s logic was met with dumbfounded stares all around.

“I think what your dear little sister is trying to say,” Blake thought to add, closing her book and patting her overly imaginative underclassmen on the back, “is that there’s really nothing to lose by telling him how you feel. If he shoots you down, at least you won’t have to spend the next year pining over him. You could move on. And if he doesn’t shoot you down, well… you could finally stop imagining what it’d be like to be with him and actually try it out.”

“And if he turns you down because of my Connect Tech, you come find me and together we’ll show him why metal and gears can be every bit as amazing as flesh and bone,” Weiss told her. “We could also show him just how deep cuts have to be in order to scar…” she mentioned as an afterthought. The dark, deranged face she made as she spoke scared Yang, though. Just a little.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Yang said with a nervous laugh.

That settled it. That night would be the night she finally confessed her feelings to Mercury Black.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Yang was more nervous than she’d ever been in her entire life. The game was over, so she’d only have a short timeframe to catch Mercury making his way from the field to the bus. Haven annihilated Beacon with a score of five to one, Mercury being responsible for three of the five goals for his team. He’d played with all the skill and tenacity of a professional athlete, and just seeing him in action reaffirmed every ounce of admiration Yang held for him. Her torch for Mercury was burning brighter than ever and setting every nerve in compliance with her heart on fire. She had enough adrenaline to hype up an entire soccer team, and she wasn’t even prepping for a match. She was, however, prepping for something far more painstaking.

Weiss, Blake, Coco, and Ruby all offered to tag along, but Yang felt like having the four of them eavesdropping in the background was a bad idea. Who knew what sort of pressure that might put on Mercury, especially if her homegirls started eyeing him down like he was already a bad boyfriend. The task was daunting enough all on its own, so any variable with potential to spell disaster needed to be nixed. This was something Yang had to do alone. She could cry on her friends’ shoulders later should things turn out for the worst.

“You can do this, Xiao Long,” Yang whispered to herself as she walked toward the visiting team’s bleachers. Handfuls of people were scattered about, discussing the game or other school-related topics. A trio of girls noticed her approach and greeted her with severely dirty looks. Yang guessed they were wondering what a Beacon student was doing on the opposition’s side of the field.

Geez. Grow up. You guys just kicked the crap out of us. Have the decency to be good sports about it, Yang thought bitterly as she walked past the glaring girls, being sure to shoot them with a side-glare of her own in the process. Maybe she should’ve borrowed Coco’s jacket to hide her Beacon pride shirt from view and cause less of a scene. Or perhaps their hatred had nothing to do with school pride and everything to do with Yang’s intentions for their academy’s star soccer player. Could they sense why she’d come?

You’re overthinking things again. Stop it, Yang chided herself. She took a deep breath and willed her paranoia to cease before pressing on in her mission.

Yang kept her eyes peeled for Haven’s aqua colored jerseys. They were easy enough to spot, but Mercury was not among the players idling around the stands. A boy with a really cool undercut caught her eye, along with his tall teammate who had hair even bluer than his jersey. She thought about asking them where Mercury might be, but didn’t want to draw more attention than she already had. She was ninety-nine point nine percent positive those narrow-eyed bitches from before were still staring her down like she was a leper with the plague come to spread her disease out of spite for Beacon’s loss, and the last thing her anxious heart needed was more things to stress about.

Just find him, say what you need to say, and leave, Yang thought decisively.

With one last scan of the bleachers, Yang pivoted on her heel and started for the parking lot. She prayed he wasn’t already on the bus. Yang was a brave girl, but she wasn’t bold enough to clamber onto a rival school’s mode of transportation and pronounce her feelings for a guy who didn’t even know she existed. If she couldn’t do it privately, she wouldn’t do it at all.

The evening air was cool yet humid, the smell of freshly cut grass and budding wildflowers mixing together to form an ideal springtime aroma that was almost therapeutic for Yang as she power-walked towards the white school bus in the distance.

You can do this. You can do this, she silently chanted, though it didn’t make swallowing the lump in her throat any easier.

The closer she got to the bus, the more boys in blue she saw. Some were loading mesh bags filled with soccer balls and various equipment they’d utilized for their pregame warmups, others were standing around or getting in line to board the bus. Mercury, however, was nowhere to be found.

The last place Yang could think to look was the bathroom—definitely not the type of place she wanted to profess her feelings in. Her racing heart began to slow with the realization of her missed opportunity. Hanging her head in a defeat much more profound than the one her school had suffered that night, Yang turned to leave.

Just as she lifted her foot to take her first step in the direction of the student parking lot, she heard a girlish giggle sound somewhere behind her.

“Baby! You did so great! I’m so proud of you!” the girl said with the kind of doting affection that was more appropriate for praising a well-behaved pet than a grown human being. “Three goals! I hope the scouts were here for this one.”

“They were,” a smooth, confident voice assured her. “One even came up and shook my hand at the end of the game. Said I had impressive moves and outstanding potential—the kind of qualities the pros have.”

Yang didn’t want to look, as if not seeing it would somehow make it all a bad dream—or at the very least make it hurt less—a type of out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. But the mere sound of his voice was enough to overpower her immediate instincts and make her body involuntarily twist itself until Yang was forced to see who she already knew was there.

Mercury Black was walking straight towards her, his impossibly sleek, silver hair sticking to his sweaty brow, his enchanting smirk slanting up the side of his flawless face, and his lean yet muscular arm draped around another girl’s shoulders. A girl with a shirt too small, shorts too short, and a figure that let her get away with such skimpy clothing. Her sexy, sadistic smile that only the baddest of bitches could pull off was the bright red cherry on top of her stunning package.

Yang’s strength evaded her. It was like the sudden switch from hyped up anticipation to devastating heartbreak had caused her entire body to shut down. She stayed frozen in place as the happy couple maneuvered around her.

“Good game,” Mercury said with a nod to Yang as they passed.

Yang absentmindedly returned the nod as the empty feeling consuming the pit of her stomach stretched up to her eyes and wrenched until a single tear rolled down her cheek. The tear also served as a release, for she finally regained mobility and used it to dash as quickly as she could to the safety of her yellow Jeep.

Of course he has a smoking hot girlfriend already, Yang thought as she tore across the asphalt. You’re an idiot for thinking otherwise…

Some things just weren’t meant to be.

~*~*~*~SIX MONTHS LATER~*~*~*~

Yang had been debating going to visit him ever since she first heard about the accident. She didn’t have any plans of revealing her longtime crush this time around, but she did want to offer her condolences and maybe even share her story with him. Their stories were so similar, after all. If Yang could cope with her limb loss and resume playing her favorite sport, she knew Mercury could do it, too.

After a week and a half of teetering back and forth and overthinking what she would and wouldn’t say, Yang finally gathered the courage she needed to drive across town to the Mistral county hospital and tell a boy undoubtedly drowning in sorrow that everything was going to be all right.

The curly-haired nurse at the hospital’s front desk was friendly enough, though her congeniality did seem to falter when Yang told her the name of the patient she wished to visit.

“Relation to the patient?” the nurse asked, looking up at Yang through lenses so thick they looked more like a pair of chunky ice cubes than slivers of glass.

“Eh… friend,” Yang said, hoping she didn’t sound suspicious for lying. Soon to be friend, she reminded herself. Painting a lie with a little bit of truth always made it easier to tell.

The bespectacled nurse gave her a skeptical look through her oversized eyewear, though not for the reason Yang first imagined. “I was starting to wonder when his girlfriend was going to show,” she said with a shake of her head that made the springs of her curling-iron curls expand and contract. “You really are quite terrible for keeping him waiting so long. The poor boy is going through so much—he needs all the emotional support he can get. His own father hasn’t been here all week, bless his heart.”

“I—uh—no. I’m not—”

“He’s in room 317,” the nurse said bluntly, clearly uninterested in Yang’s denial or anything she had to say, really. “Make sure you sign out when you leave.”

Yang didn’t care to agitate the nurse any further, nor did she care to correct her anymore. She instead offered a polite, “Thank you,” and slipped past the front desk in search of room 317.

Her heart was pounding as hard and fast as it had that night at the soccer field. She was mere footsteps away from the door to room 317, but she wasn’t sure if she was ready to close that short distance. She’d made it this far. What were a few more steps? Yang stared at her warped reflection in the golden doorknob, trying to recall the opening line she spent days deciding on.

“Hi. You don’t know me, but I know you… or at least, I know what you’re going through…. Yeah. That works,” Yang whispered to herself. A few nurses walked by, glancing at her like they thought she needed to be a patient, too. If not at the hospital, then a place with padded walls and complimentary jackets, for sure.

With one last breath for luck, Yang took a step forward and reached her hand out to grab the doorknob, only the shiny, golden orb twisted all by itself before its door abruptly swung open. Yang gasped and hopped out of the way as a visibly angry youth emerged from the room. She’d seen him before. He was one of Mercury’s teammates—the tall one with bright blue hair—though Yang didn’t have a clue as to what his name was.

“Oh, sorry,” he said upon realizing how close he’d been to colliding with her. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Hard to see when there’s a closed door in front of you,” Yang said with a hint of a smile. “Don’t worry about it.”

The boy made a face like he was trying to smile, too, but ultimately failed the attempt.

Yang tilted her head to the side. “What happened to make you so upset?” She asked it before her common sense could tell her not to. Luckily, the boy found her straightforwardness quite comical and was finally able to produce a happier expression with the help of a wry laugh.

“Mercury happened,” he said curtly.

Just the sound of his name sent a jolt through Yang’s entire body and suddenly she was back to wavering in her decision to meet with him.

“I take it you’re here to see him, too?” the boy asked.

It took a moment, but Yang managed a silent nod.

The boy glanced from Yang to the closed door of room 317 behind him. “I don’t know what type of relationship you two have, but I really don’t think he’s in the mood to see anymore visitors today.”

“Oh?”

For such a small syllable, it contained a vast amount of disappointment. The blue-haired boy detected her dismay instantly and regarded Yang with a much sadder expression.

“You know… maybe you can come back in an hour or two? After he has a little time to calm down. Visiting hours aren’t over until nine tonight. That’s still plenty of time.”

“I don’t exactly live in the area,” Yang said, a familiar internal emptiness starting to spread.

“Hey. There’s a decent coffee shop a block away from here. Why don’t I treat you to a cup while we wait? That way you don’t have to worry about driving so far,” the boy suggested. He was smiling much more genuinely now and Yang couldn’t deny how handsome it made him look.

“Make it a hot chocolate and you’ve got yourself a deal,” Yang said. Oddly enough, she was smiling too.

The boy offered her his arm and she shyly laced her mechanical limb through it.

“Woah! Is that what I think it is?” he exclaimed. It wasn’t the type of reaction her prosthetic normally got. Most people either couldn’t stop gawking at it or pretended it didn’t exist at all. Hardly anyone got excited over it. Well, except for Weiss.

“Connect Tech. Yeah,” Yang said, suddenly a little more self-conscious.

“That’s really cool. It moves so naturally, I almost didn’t realize it wasn’t… real!”

“It’s real. Just not biological.”

“You gotta tell me more about it, uh… Um…”

“Yang.”

“Yang. I’m Neptune.”

“Nice to meet you, Neptune.”

“Believe me when I say the pleasure is all mine.”

~*~*~THREE MONTHS LATER~*~*~

Blake <9:02 PM>
I’m initiating an emergency group chat.

Ruby <9:02 PM>
this sounds exciting!!!!

Weiss <9:02 PM>
This better not be about us helping you pick which shoes to wear with your outfit again.

Coco <9:03 PM>
That’s called a fashion emergency, honey. You of all people should understand those. You have your own clothing line.

Weiss <9:03 PM>
Which is why we don’t need group chats for those kinds of problems. Just private message me.

Coco <9:03 PM>
Ahem! (-_-)

Weiss <9:03 PM>
Or Coco

Coco <9:03 PM>
:)

Yang <9:04 PM>
Blake, this better not be about what I think it’s about…

Blake <9:04 PM>
You want to tell them, or should I?

Yang <9:04 PM>
>:-\

Blake <9:05 PM>
I’ll take your emoji as a nomination. So guess who showed up at my mom’s support group tonight?

Coco <9:05 PM>
Donald Duck

Weiss <9:05 PM>
Donald Trump

Ruby <9:05 PM>
Goofy!

Blake <9:05 PM>

You guys really suck at this.
It was Mercury.

Ruby <9:06 PM>
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Weiss <9:06 PM>
No way!

Coco <9:06 PM>
Do you believe in destiny?

Ruby <9:06 PM>
Isn’t Pyrrha always saying that?

Coco <9:06 PM>
I know. I just wanted to try it out. It fits, right?

Weiss <9:06 PM>
Is he still with that girl he was with three months ago?

Blake <9:06 PM>
Doubt it. Any guy that looks THAT pissed off all the time is NOT getting laid.

Weiss <9:06 PM>
So what did you do, Yang?

Yang <9:07 PM>
What do you mean what did I do? I didn’t do anything! I treated him just like I would anyone else who was new to the group.

Blake <9:07 PM>
Is that why you invited him to get pizza with us after the meetup?

Weiss <9:07 PM>
You did WHAT?!

Coco <9:07 PM>
B-]
You go girl.

Yang <9:08 PM>
I was just being nice! Besides, he approached ME first!
Trust me. I’m not scheming to win his affections. I just really relate with what he’s going through and want to help him.

Coco <9:08 PM>
Oh reeeeeeally?

Blake <9:08 PM>
And the fact that he called you hot and couldn’t stop stealing glances at you had no influence over your motives whatsoever?

Yang <9:08 PM>
:-|
I really hate you right now…

Coco <9:09 PM>
So let me get this straight. You finally met Mercury Black, he’s attracted to you, and the two of you already went out on a semi-first date?

Ruby <9:09 PM>
but what about Neptune? :-\

Yang <9:09 PM>
Neptune and I are still together!
Again, I invited him out with a GROUP of us—just as friends! But Mercury… kind of got arrested so he didn’t get to go (“^^)>

Coco <9:09 PM>
!?!?!?!?!?!?

Ruby <9:09 PM>
!?!?!?!?!?!?

Weiss <9:09 PM>
!?!?!?!?!?!?

Yang <9:10 PM>
It’s a long story… one that doesn’t require an emergency group chat.
Neptune and I are still together, Mercury is still practically a stranger—NOT a soulmate—and I doubt any of that is going to change anytime soon.

Ruby <9:10 PM>
sounds more like a delinquent than a stranger or a soulmate!

Yang <9:10 PM>
We can talk about this more tomorrow, Ruby. Or just come down the hall to my room in a little bit.
I wanna take a shower first.
But before I go I have a question for you Weiss

Weiss <9:10 PM>
Hm?

Yang <9:11 PM>
Would you be interested in recruiting Mercury as a tester for your Connect Tech? He seems to be in pretty phenomenal physical shape considering the circumstances. I think he’d make a good candidate.

Coco <9:11 PM>
You took note of his phenomenal physical shape, huh? (^_~)

Yang <9:11 PM>
Coco. I will seriously block you

Coco <9:11 PM>
Me thinks the lady doth protest too much!

Yang <9:11 PM>
ANYWAY. What do you think, Weiss? You wanna help him out?

Weiss <9:12 PM>
His timing couldn’t be better, actually. My sister and I have one of our latest leg models coming into the prototype stages within the next week. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to fit him. If he’s interested, that is.

Yang <9:12 PM>
Thanks, Weiss
Welp! I think I’ve suffered enough humiliation for one night.
Later ladies (º-º)y

Ruby <9:13 PM>
the more i think about it, the more i think it sounds like something straight out of a soap opera. now Yang is gonna find out that Neptune is really Mercury’s long lost twin brother and that the two have hated each other since they were children. they’ll ultimately wind up having a drag race to the death to determine who wins the heart of my fair sister.

Weiss <9:14 PM>
I’ve seen every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and no one ever dies.

Blake <9:15 PM>
She meant drag racing cars, sweetie.

Ilia <9:15 PM>
Hey everyone.
I’m not sure if I was meant to be included in this chat since I have no idea what’s going on… but I can see myself out if I need to.

Blake <9:15 PM>
Oh, hey Ilia! I’m sorry. I know you just transferred to Beacon this year, but I already consider you as part of the main squad, so I completely forgot you didn’t know Yang’s history with Mercury. Well… now you know.

Ruby <9:16 PM>
and knowing is half the battle! go Joe!

~*~*~*~ONE WEEK LATER~*~*~*~

Yang <8:22 AM>
Listen up! I need a favor from all of you!

Coco <8:22 AM>
I thought we weren’t using this group chat anymore because your love life isn’t really in crisis.

Yang <8:22 AM>
I was too lazy to make another group. And the favor pertains to Mercury, so…

Weiss <8:22 AM>
The Connect Tech isn’t ready yet.

Yang <8:22 AM>
Different favor, but thanks for the update!
I invited Mercury to our volleyball practice this afternoon. So I want all of you to pretend like you’ve never heard of him. He’ll think it’s weird if strangers know things like his name or about his legs.

Blake 8:23 AM
He might be confused if I do that.

Yang <8:23 AM>
Unless you’ve ACTUALLY met him, obviously.
C’mon, Blake. Don’t make me sound dumber than I feel for asking you guys to do this.

Blake <8:23 AM>
Apologies. Understood.

Ruby <8:24 AM>
Understood! (b^_^)b

Ilia <8:24 AM>
Got it.

Coco <8:24 AM>
Roger that (‘^’)>

Weiss <8:25 AM>
No worries, Yang.

Yang <8:25 AM>
Thanks, ladies :) I’ll see you all at lunch!

~*~*~*~TWO DAYS LATER~*~*~*~

Neo wasn’t at school that day.

Yang had tried texting her, but wasn’t surprised when she received no reply. Calling her was pointless since the only way the cute mute could communicate over the phone was via Morse code, a method Yang knew little to nothing about. Most people would’ve taken the hint and given Neo space for the time being, but the burden on Yang’s heart proved too heavy and her determination to right her wrong as soon as possible proved too powerful. That’s why she hopped in her Jeep the second volleyball practice let out and headed straight for Neo’s house.

The lights were out, save for one upstairs bedroom.

Must be Neo’s, Yang guessed. I’m glad she made it home last night…

Once she walked up to the welcome mat, Yang sucked in a deep breath and pressed the doorbell.

The seconds that followed were agonizing. Yang strained her ears to listen for signs of Neo coming to answer. Footsteps. A chair scraping against the floor. Anything. But all was eerily silent.

Maybe persistence will pay off, Yang thought as she pushed the button again. She didn't want to be annoying per se, but she also didn't want to have driven all that way for nothing. Yang put her palms to the door and pressed her ear up against it, managing to make out a muffled sound of someone yelling—someone that sounded like a man.

Maybe the TV is on too loud and Neo can't hear the bell.

Yang stepped away from the door. “The poor girl might go full-on deaf one day if she keeps up habits like that,” she said with a sigh before pivoting on the ball of her foot and walking back to her Jeep.

She was reversing out of the driveway when she heard another sound—a sound so loud, shattering, and real that no television show known to man could produce it.

It was the sound of a gunshot. Coming from the room with the light on.

Yang immediately parked her Jeep where it was, her back tires and bumper protruding out into the street. She barely managed to yank her keys out of the ignition before she threw open her car door and dashed back to the front of the house.

She was about to bang on the front door and demand entry, but then she realized no serious criminal would casually let her in to thwart his plans. If there was a perpetrator in the house, she didn’t want him to know she was there. Not yet, at least. She'd probably already given too much away just by ringing the doorbell twice.

With frantic fingers, Yang fished her phone out of her pocket and texted her uncle.

Yang <6:52 PM>
I heard a gunshot at my friend’s house.
1313 Poppins Avenue. Hurry!

Another gunshot went off, and it was definitely coming from Neo’s room.

Yang <6:52 PM>
HURRY!

Yang shoved her phone in her back pocket and sprinted around to the backyard. Neo’s dog was yapping like a maniac. She hoped the barks would cover the loud noise she was about to make, for she picked up a lawn chair and threw it with all her might at a bay window. The metal piece of furniture bounced off the glass like a rubber ball. Those windows were built for impact.

“Dammit!” Yang swore, picking up the chair to try again—until a better idea occurred to her.

She dropped the lawn chair where she stood and held out her metal arm, steadying her aim with her human hand.

“Weiss, if you gave me Iron Man powers, too, now would be a great time for them to activate,” she said. Nothing happened apart from more gunshots going off inside the house. It was a lot this time—like someone was unloading a whole cartridge.

Desperate, Yang cried out, “Come on! My friend needs me!!”

A little willpower went a long way, and a small compartment on Yang’s forearm lifted up to reveal two tiny gun barrels. She wasn’t sure how to make them fire, but apparently just thinking the word did the trick. A round of energy pellets blasted through the window, smashing the glass into millions of tiny pieces.

Neo’s dog scampered away in fear while Yang climbed in through the new opening. She’d never been inside Neo’s house before, but it was easy enough to navigate. The window led into the kitchen, which was connected to the living room, which was where the staircase was. Yang lunged up the stairs, skipping every other step, and burst through the first door she found… which wound up being a bathroom. The door after that led to a game room, and the door after that led to a study. All of which were empty.

With only one upstairs door left unopened, Yang readied her Connect Tech and kicked it in. What she found was not what she was expecting to see.

Neo was there, of course, but so was Mercury. Tied to a chair. On the ground. Bleeding.

Upon recognizing the bloody knife in Neo’s hand, Yang let instinct take over and charged forward. She shoved her shoulder into Neo’s small waist and the two of them went crashing to the floor. Neo struggled at first, but soon realized she was no match for Yang’s superior strength, especially considering the might of her metal muscles.

The hidden firearm retracted itself the instant Yang’s intentions changed from taking down bad guys to subduing her friend, so she didn’t have to worry about accidentally setting it off. She did, however, have to worry about Neo’s knife. It was a weapon she could tell Neo wasn’t used to wielding, but that made it even more dangerous. She was slashing wildly in an unpredictable manner. After using her arm to block one particularly close swipe, Yang smashed her metal knuckles into the back of Neo’s hand, causing her to let out a squeaky cry and reluctantly uncurl her rigid fingers. The blade dropped to the floor with a clatter and Yang kicked it away. She then forced Neo onto her stomach, gaining a better hold on her by pinning her arms behind her back.

Heaving from labored breath, Yang flipped her hair out of her eyes with a jerk of her head and looked over at Mercury. He was unconscious and a small pool of blood around his abdomen was steadily growing larger.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Yang hissed. She wanted to let Neo go and help Mercury, but she knew the second she lost her grip—actually, she knew nothing. Yang had no earthly clue what Neo might do should she lose her grip. She was stuck. Unless…

“I’m sorry, Neo,” Yang said. They were the three words she’d originally come over to tell her, she just didn’t think she’d be saying them before knocking her out with a metal punch to the head.

Neo collapsed to the ground and Yang was finally free to rush to Mercury’s side.

“Oh my god… Oh my god…” Yang muttered as she knelt down and took in all the blood. There was a lot more than she thought. Her trembling fingers reached out to undo the knots on Mercury’s bindings, but they were as small and tough as their maker. Yang searched the room for Neo’s knife, finding it at the foot of the bed. She quickly crawled over to snatch it and got to work cutting the sturdy rope.

Once Mercury was free from his chair, Yang pulled his head onto her lap and held both of her hands on the gash in his stomach as a means to stop the bleeding. Burning tears streamed down her cheeks as she gazed down at the boy’s lifeless face. He was getting paler by the second.

“Somebody!” Yang cried out, her voice as coarse as sandpaper. “Help!!!”

Yang wasn’t sure how much time passed until her uncle arrived—how much time she spent rocking back and forth weeping over Mercury’s comatose form—but it felt like too much. Qrow was smart enough to bring reinforcements besides Ironwood, including paramedics. The seasoned officer didn’t mess around with gun scares and Yang would have to thank him dearly for that.

Everything after that happened in a slow motion blur, at least from Yang’s perspective. She was pulled away from Mercury’s bleeding body by multiple hands and escorted out of the room and down the stairs to the safety of a squad car. She vaguely remembered her uncle’s scruffy face telling her she was safe, flashing lights, walky-talky static, answering a few random questions, and watching Mercury being loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher, but her body and mind were so numb. It was almost like she couldn’t decipher what was real and what wasn’t. Maybe because all of it was real and it felt like none of it should’ve been.

After another time lapse that could’ve been anywhere from five minutes to five hours, Qrow opened the door to his squad car and gestured for her to step out of the vehicle.

“Come on, firecracker. I’ll take you home. We’ll use your Jeep,” he said in a voice so calm and reassuring Yang was more at peace just from listening to it.

“How’s Mercury?” Yang croaked.

“He’s on his way to the ICU. They’re doing the best they can, but no one will know anything until the surgery is complete,” Qrow said. “He’s a tough kid and has survived worse than this. I think he’ll be fine.”

“Can we go to the hospital and see him?”

Qrow scratched the back of his neck. “Visiting hours are over. And just because I enforce the law doesn’t mean I’m above it.”

Yang stared blankly, like she wouldn’t be able to comprehend an answer unless it was a yes.

“Tell you what,” Qrow said. “How ‘bout you and I head to the hospital first thing in the morning. I’ll even let you play hooky from school.”

“My volleyball tournament is tomorrow…” Yang wasn’t sure how she could remember something so trivial in the midst of something so tragic, but perhaps it was because up until then, that tournament was the most important thing happening in her life.

“Ah. And you can’t play unless you attend classes,” Qrow realized.

“I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to play period if Mercury... if he... if he's going to...” Yang trailed off, her voice starting to quiver. She could’ve easily started crying again, but she held it together.

Qrow let out an exhausted sigh. “All right. You win. To the hospital we go.”

Chapter Text

The waiting room in the hospital was completely empty save for Yang, Qrow, and an aquarium full of fish much too colorful for the occasion. Though the monotonous drawl of a news anchor from a nearby television managed to coax Yang’s dazed mind out of the rabbit hole it seemed trapped in, the only current event she truly cared about was the one happening in an operating room just a few doors down.

“In the blink of an eye, everything can be gone. Hug your loved ones close tonight, folks. You never know when disaster can strike,” the manly voice of the anchor said.

Yang clenched her fists on top of her lap and shut her eyes tight, her guilt eating away at her from the inside.

If I’d just been honest with him from the start, he never would’ve asked Neo out. He never would’ve been over at her house…. Why couldn’t I have just told him?

She remembered back to the first time she met Mercury face-to-face at the Beacon soccer field, as fleeting as that moment had been. She wished she wouldn’t have settled for a glance and a “good game.” She should’ve plucked up the courage and introduced herself then. Sure, he had a girlfriend at the time, but what was stopping her from just being his friend? From just having him in her life?

Her pride, that’s what.

You’re so selfish. So stupid.

She remembered back to the first time she actually managed to hold Mercury’s gaze; how time itself seemed to stand still before just as abruptly picking back up in a face-palming kind of way the minute the he called her “hot chick.”

The memory provoked a soft chuckle, but in the laughter’s wake came a wave of regret that seeped in and clogged every happy thought like a thick, black tar. It slowly slid over the mental images of Mercury’s overconfident smirk and stunning gunmetal gray eyes—eyes so focused they could take her breath away just from the mere recollection of them.

But Neptune…

Being in a hospital brought back memories of Yang’s initial meeting with Neptune as well. It was even the same hospital, oddly enough.

Another pang of guilt gutted Yang as she realized not once since the chaos subsided had she thought to send her boyfriend so much as a text. Hell, for all he knew she was fast asleep in her plush queen-sized bed at home.

Should I even bother? I don’t want him to worry…

Yang unpocketed her brand new phone. Blake had slipped into their homeroom class to give it to her earlier that day before just as stealthily slipping back out. She apparently ditched every last one of her classes, but made it back just in time for volleyball practice. Coach Goodwitch wasn’t thrilled with Blake’s decision to skip school, but allowed her to participate anyway since the big tournament was a day away.

Yang stared down at the shiny new phone. Its casing was as yellow as her hair, but its screen remained as blank as her expression. Her human thumb hovered uncertainly over the slender device, the decision to contact Neptune left unmade.

I’m a horrible girlfriend… if I even have the right to call myself that anymore, Yang thought bitterly as her fingers unintentionally squeezed her phone tighter. Her thoughts had been so preoccupied with Mercury that she hadn’t even considered telling the person who should’ve been at the forefront of her mind that she survived a brush with death for the second time in twenty-four hours. Neptune was a distant flicker in a whirlwind of Mercury. The worst part? Yang didn’t know if it was because of Mercury’s critical condition or because Mercury consumed a much bigger piece of her heart than Neptune ever would.

The part even worse than that? Maybe she did know. And maybe the answer made her feel like she wasn’t just a horrible girlfriend. She was a horrible person.

Yang dropped her head to her knees and laced the fingers of her metal hand through her hair, gripping the roots near the crown of her head.

Qrow’s hand was on her back a moment later. “Hey. Don’t beat yourself up over this. You did the best you could. You made all the right decisions. You gave Mercury his best shot at survival. There was nothing more you could’ve done. Honest. So just try and relax until the doctor brings us the good news.”

Yang stayed folded over, but turned her head to peek up at her uncle through the parts in her hair. “What makes you think it’ll be good news?” she asked.

Qrow crossed his arms in front of his chest and lounged back in his chair a little more comfortably. “That kid isn’t the type to die over something like this. He’s too stubborn,” he said with a gruff chuckle. “He’s got the kind of fire in him only true fighters possess. He’s gonna fight this with everything he has, and he’s gonna pull through. Just you watch.”

Yang sat up straight, the barest hint of a smile tugging and the corners of her lips. Part of what originally drew her to Mercury was that same fire her uncle spoke of—that tenacity. He might have lost some of that spark along with his legs, but little by little he was getting it back. She saw glimpses of it every day. Like when he ran for the first time on his prosthetics, or when he saved her from falling off a mini-golf mountain, or when he kissed her…

Yang sank back to her slumped position. The guilt she felt from kissing one guy while dating another was almost as agonizing as the worry she felt for Mercury, and she was exhausted from the tug-of-war her emotions couldn’t seem to win.

Damn you and your impulses, Yang swore at herself. You’re such a headstrong, inconsiderate piece of—

“Yang!”

Her self-loathing would have to take a backseat for the time being. Weiss and Winter Schnee were strutting the length of the near vacant waiting room to greet its only occupants, and they weren’t alone. Neptune wasn’t more than two paces behind the sophisticated sisters and their high-heeled boots.

“What are you all doing here?” Yang asked, rising to her feet.

Weiss ensnared Yang in a surprisingly strong hug. The porcelain-skinned heiress may have seemed frail, but the days she spent working a torque wrench had done wonders for her upper body.

“I came as soon as I heard the news,” Weiss said, arms still firmly wrapped around Yang.

Constricted, Yang struggled for breath. “And just how did you hear the news?” she grunted out.

Winter answered by walking over to the television and switching the station from channel seven news to channel eleven news. Neo’s picture occupied the top righthand corner of the screen while the local news anchor spouted off about the bright and promising future the unassuming girl had before her apparent lapse in sanity.

“I can’t believe they’re already reporting on it,” Yang said, her eyes glued to the screen. “But that still doesn’t explain how you knew where I was,” she added, looking to Weiss after being released from the hug of all hugs.

“When your boyfriend and his niece are involved in something like this, you find out where they are,” Winter said in the dignified manner she was so accustomed to speaking in. Yang’s mind began to wander, thinking what sort of secret agents had followed them and disclosed their location. Or had Weiss and Winter developed robots and drones to seek them out? Or perhaps Yang’s Connect Tech had some sort of tracking mechanism installed so Weiss could pinpoint her anytime she wanted.

“Don’t overthink it, firecracker. I texted Winter,” Qrow revealed.

That made more sense. And was a much more comforting thought.

“And I’m so very glad you did,” Winter said with an adoring look in her eyes as she stepped closer to Qrow. The two shared an embrace, though it was nowhere near as rib-cracking as the one Weiss had given Yang. It was the kind of hug that epitomized being in love—the kind that possessed the potential to fill onlookers with just as much jealousy as it did happiness. And while Yang could honestly say she was more happy than she was jealous of the two lovebirds, the gesture had caused Winter to move out of the way, in turn forcing Yang to acknowledge Neptune—forcing Yang to acknowledge the fact that she didn’t feel the slightest urge to greet him the way Winter had greeted Qrow—the way couples were supposed to greet each other. Her arms stayed firmly at her sides and her feet stayed planted in place. The only part of Neptune she could bring herself to hold was his gaze.

Just when Yang thought Neptune was equally as frozen, his mouth began to move. Whatever he was planning on saying would have to wait though, for it was that moment the double doors separating the waiting room from the operating rooms swung open.

A fair-skinned, blond-haired doctor and his stout assistant nurse approached, donning their scrubs and surgical masks. Yang took note of the small streaks of blood staining the doctor’s uniform. Although the smears were nothing compared to the copious amounts of blood that had coated her own hands earlier that night, Yang’s heart still wrenched at the thought of Mercury losing more of it.

“Good to see you, Qrow,” the doctor said, pulling his mask down past his chin to reveal a rather handsome face and extending his hand towards Yang’s uncle.

“Wish it were under better circumstances, Dr. Arc,” Qrow replied without the slightest amusement to his tone as he accepted the handshake.

“Wait… are you Jaune’s father?” Yang asked, but it was partly rhetorical. The resemblance between the doctor and the schoolmate in question was uncanny. The only difference Yang could think of was how Jaune’s father had matured enough to grow a goatee. Jaune still had some leveling up to do on his puberty stats. One day.

“That’s right,” Dr. Arc confirmed. “I’m also the one who performed surgery on Mercury after his car accident three months ago, and I’m happy to report I’m two for two in my attempts at saving him.”

The next breath Yang took nearly lifted her off her feet. The weight of her worry had practically been crushing her, yet it dissolved like a piece of cotton candy in a pool of water the moment Yang knew Mercury was okay.

“The anesthesia is going to keep him sedated until tomorrow, so there’s no point in letting you in to see him tonight, but I assure you all he’s going to be just fine,” Dr. Arc explained. He’d been addressing everyone, but then the good doctor turned to look at Yang specifically. “Hopefully you all can look to your own health and wellbeing now that you know the state of young Mr. Black’s.”

“Right,” Yang said with a sigh of relief. She felt Qrow’s hand on her shoulder, Weiss’s arm hugging her from the side, and Neptune’s gaze boring into her. It didn’t feel heated by any means, but it didn’t feel sympathetic either. Neptune was searching for something—answers to questions Yang couldn’t blame him for concocting.

Yang stiffened her spine and took an empowering inhale. Now that she knew one of her boys was taken care of, it was time to tend to the other.

“We should probably talk.” Four words boyfriends never liked hearing. And while Neptune seemed confused by Yang’s remark at first, his expression swiftly shifted to one more stern as he nodded in agreement.

Although Dr. Arc had begun filling Qrow, Winter, and Weiss in on the specifics of Mercury’s condition, Yang stayed firm in her resolve to come clean with Neptune. She knew her uncle would relay the details to her later. Neptune was her priority now.

Thus without another word, Yang silently led Neptune away from everyone to a bend in the hallway leading up to the waiting room.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he finally admitted once they had some privacy.

Yang smiled meekly. “Takes more than a shorty with a knife and a firearm to take me out.” She meant the words playfully, but that didn’t stop them from stinging like salt in a fresh wound. Although Mercury's survival lessened the gravity of the situation, Yang was still having a difficult time wrapping her mind around how Neo—the sweet, innocent girl she’d been friends and teammates with since her sophomore year in high school—was some sort of crazed criminal. “How did you know I was here?” she asked both out of curiosity and a means to change the topic.

“I thought Winter explained that,” Neptune said.

“She explained how she and Weiss found out. Unless you were over at the Schnee's for some reason, I can’t imagine how you wound up tagging along with them.”

“Winter isn’t the only person your uncle has in his contact list.”

Yang paused and let this new discovery sink in. “He messaged you, too?”

“Said you needed me…” Neptune darted his eyes to the side as his expression soured. “Although whether or not that’s true is pretty debatable.”

Yang would have to reprimand her uncle later. She knew his habit of sticking his nose where it didn’t belong went hand-in-hand with his occupation, but that didn’t give him the right to meddle in his family’s affairs.

“So what did you want to talk about?” Neptune asked. He had his hands in his pockets and look about him reminiscent of an juvenile mischief-maker trying to avoid punishment. He must’ve had an idea, but Yang supposed he still needed to hear her say it.

“About me. And you,” she answered.

Neptune shrugged. “I figured as much.”

“And Mercury,” she added.

The additional topic finally got the reaction she was expecting to see—like someone had just informed him he failed his final year of high school and wouldn't be graduating. Even Yang felt a little panicked—especially after watching Neptune’s face darken when he started putting two and two together—but her sense of dread ebbed away as her rational side came into play.

This is for the best, Yang decided. No more secrets. Neptune deserves to know the truth.

Neptune looked as somber as the grayest day in winter. His normally lively, electric blue eyes were dull and bleak while his always handsome face was heavy with the weight of a frown. His evenly tanned skin even seemed a little paler. Whatever he was about to say, it clearly pained him to say it.

“How long?”

Yang blinked in confusion. “How long what?” she tried to clarify.

Neptune’s eyes narrowed. “How long have you been in love with Black?”

Yang needed to get the next nurse that passed by to stitch up whatever rip kept tearing at her heart. This wasn’t supposed to hurt so much. She clearly required medical attention.

“That’s not—”

“How long?”

Neptune might not have been the smartest person Yang had ever met, but he damn sure was perceptive. It didn’t really matter how he’d come to that conclusion. The point was he had. And the other point was she needed to give him a straight answer.

I promised I’d be honest, she reminded herself. So with the help of a deep breath, she was.

“Since I was a freshman. It’ll be four years in spring.”

Yang guessed the sole purpose of Neptune’s cold demeanor had been to brace himself for that reply, but apparently four years was too much for his thermostat to handle. Yang could practically see the cracks forming from the top of his spiky hair to the tips of his leather loafers, shattering his frosty front into hundreds of incredulous pieces.

“F-four years? All this time?” he stuttered. “The whole time… you and I were together?”

“No!” Yang shouted, clasping her hands over her mouth when she realized how loud her outburst had been. They were still in a hospital. She needed to keep it down lest they get kicked out. “No,” she repeated, much more quiet, yet with just as much sincerity. “To be honest, I kind of forgot about him when I started dating you. Besides, I don’t know if I’d even call it love to begin with. I mean, it was a crush, sure. But it was harmless. Its not like I had posters of him all over my wall and my whole life revolved around him.”

Yang cursed herself for thinking of Neo for the second time during this conversation, vowing to purposely stub her toe should she do it again. This was about them, not Neo.

“Mercury… never mentioned you,” Neptune said.

“Well, it was a crush. And crushes tend to be one-sided,” Yang admitted, an embarrassed blush warming her cheeks. “Mercury didn’t know I existed until a few weeks ago.”

Neptune’s eyebrow raised. “The meetup was the first time you actually… met up?”

Yang nodded.

“But what about the hospital back in September? Didn’t you visit him because you two knew each other?”

“I was planning on introducing myself that day. I’d been through a similar trauma…” Yang held up her mechanical arm as if Neptune needed evidence. “…and I wanted to let him know that everything was gonna be okay—that it wasn’t the end of the world, no matter how much it may have seemed like it.”

“But you didn’t…” Neptune concluded. “Because I took you out for coffee.”

Yang smiled softly. “Hot chocolate, but close enough.”

Neptune closed his eyes and chuckled, his icy expression beginning to melt. “I’ll be damned. I guess I stole you from him, huh?”

Yang folded her arms defiantly. “It’s not like I belonged to him. I’m not some sort of possession. You didn’t steal me. You couldn’t steal me.”

“But I could. And I did,” Neptune said. “Stealing is when you take something that isn’t yours. You weren’t there for me that day, but I took you anyway.” He met Yang’s eyes unflinchingly. “I’ve seen the way you two look at one another. You probably don’t even realize you’re doing it. There’s something there that not everyone gets to experience—a type of connection that’s almost otherworldly. It’s true you’re not a possession, but it is almost like you belong to each other.”

Yang shook her head. “Neptune. I never belonged to him. I didn’t even know him until after I met you.”

“Yeah, but… If I’d done my job right as your boyfriend—if I was really the person you wanted—Mercury would’ve never even been a contender, regardless of when you actually met him.”

Tears welled in Yang’s eyes. “That’s not true…” she said, her voice cracking with the surge of sadness. How could Neptune feel that way? “You were a great boyfriend. You always got the door for me, and you were always on time, and you called exactly when you said you would… Hell, you were even here for me tonight.”

“And that all sounds fine and dandy on paper, but good manners don’t necessarily make for good chemistry,” Neptune said. “Admit it. You were dating me because I was convenient.”

Yang’s hand moved before she could stop it, but luckily it was her human one. She slapped Neptune across his face as tears streamed down her own. Had it been her metal one, the hospital would’ve had yet another patient.

“I dated you because I liked you!” she yelled.

A nurse poked her head out from a nearby office nook to shush them before disappearing back behind the wall barring them from view.

Yang was too drained to offer an apology, instead making a mental note to refrain from any further outbursts. She sniffed back the next tear threatening to spill over and looked up at Neptune who was massaging his reddened cheek.

“I dated you because I enjoyed spending time with you. You made me laugh. You listened to me babble on about anything… I could be myself around you no matter what,” she said much more quietly.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” Neptune admitted. “I want to believe you really liked me.”

“I did. I still do.”

Neptune dropped his hand and smiled. “As much as you like Mercury?”

Yang pressed her lips together. Honest. Be honest with him. “It’s a different kind of like.”

“My mistake. As much as you love Mercury?” Neptune amended, but that only frustrated her further.

“Don’t be like that. That’s not what I meant.”

“I think it is. You just don’t have the heart to say it.” Neptune shoved his hands back in his pockets. “Okay. Say we don’t break up. Say we date for another month or two. You think your feelings for Mercury will just go away?”

Yang stared down at the ground. “I don’t know…”

“I do,” Neptune said. “Because Mercury is practically a celebrity crush in your eyes. And as much as you like being with me—as hard as you try to make us work—in the back of your mind, you won’t be able to help but wonder, ‘what if?’”

“You can’t know that…”

“I can,” Neptune assured her. “Because you’re my Mercury.”

Yang looked at Neptune with eyes so flooded with tears she almost couldn’t see him clearly. Neptune offered a crooked smile in return, but if Yang truly was his Mercury, she knew how much it was paining him to say this.

“Ever hear that expression, ‘If you love something, set it free?’” Neptune asked. “I’m pretty sure this is the exact sort of circumstance that idiom was derived from.”

Yang closed her eyes, causing another wave of tears to stream down her face. “Neptune… I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

How he could even manage a fake snort of laughter, Yang had no clue. He was taking everything so well. “At least you didn’t use a gun or a knife.”

That was too soon, and they both knew it. But Yang refrained from stubbing her toe since Neptune had been the one to bring up Neo that time. She instead shook her head, fighting the urge to laugh at such an awful joke. She might’ve been mad had anyone other than Neptune said it, but he’d more than earned his free pass that evening. After all, he could’ve said a lot worse. She deserved a lot worse…

“I should probably go,” Neptune said.

Yang sucked up her tears that had yet to fall with a sharp breath. “Yeah, okay.”

She felt inclined to hug him, but also didn’t want to disrespect any new boundaries he might’ve put up. Although Neptune was coming off amicable enough, Yang knew there was probably much more going on beneath the surface level.

Neptune solved her dilemma by being the one to hug her, encircling his arms around her as easily as he always did and providing Yang with a sense of safety and serenity that she desperately needed. His sweet-scented cologne and deodorant mingled in an intoxicating way, inviting her to stay as long as she wanted—but the longer she lingered, the harder she made this for both of them.

Although it was a bit more difficult than she thought it would be, she broke away and met Neptune’s eyes with a brave smile.

“Thank you,” she said.

Neptune smirked. “Believe me when I say the pleasure was all mine.”

Yang stood in the hallway and watched him go. Just when she was ready to return to the ICU waiting room, the same nurse from before popped her head back over her hidden nook of a desk.

“I can’t believe you let a fine piece of ass like that go,” she said.

Yang took a moment to process the remark—mostly because of how dumbfounded she was by it—before replying with, “You’re lucky he’s seventeen, otherwise, that little comment might’ve been completely inappropriate”

With that, she rolled her eyes and left the nosey nurse be.

Qrow was the only one waiting for her in the room so appropriately named for his patience.

“Where are Weiss and Winter? And Dr. Arc?” Yang asked.

“Dr. Arc knows how to repair human bodies, but mechanical ones are a bit trickier. Once Winter found out how many bullets Mercury took to the legs, both she and Weiss insisted on seeing him,” Qrow said.

Yang had almost forgotten about all those initial gunshots she heard, despite them being what prompted her to break in and save Mercury in the first place. She thought they might’ve been warning shots as a means of intimidation. Although Yang was somewhat correct, she could just imagine Weiss tearing into anyone who didn’t think shooting Connect Tech was equally as despicable as shooting biological body parts.

“Can I see him, too?” Yang asked.

Qrow looked at her like he knew she was going to ask that. “Dr. Arc thinks it might be better if you wait until tomorrow. He’ll look… less helpless.”

“The last time I saw him, he was unconscious and my hands and forearms were covered in his blood. It doesn’t get much more helpless than that,” Yang pointed out. “I really don’t want that to be the last image I think of as I go to sleep tonight. This’ll give me peace of mind. So please…”

Qrow sighed like he always did before he was about to give in. “You really should look into studying prelaw. You’d make for one persuasive prosecutor,” he told her.

Without getting any sort of permission, Qrow led the way to Mercury’s recovery unit. It was a room that could be viewed through a large glass window, so Qrow and Yang were completely unnoticed by Dr. Arc and the Schnee sisters as they worked diligently to repair Mercury’s busted prosthetics on the other side of the glass.

Yang’s heart ached from what she saw. True, Mercury didn’t look as bad as the last time she’d seen him, but it wasn't much of an improvement. The poor boy was visibly hooked up to more machines than he had feet… which was only two, but it still felt like two too many. Apart from the monitor tracing the steady rhythm of his heart, there was also a respirator breathing life into him via a plastic mask that fogged and cleared with each breath he took. His chest was exposed and a large square bandage that spanned the width of his torso covered his entire abdomen. Yang noticed a few bandages around his wrists as well, no doubt from rope burns.

Damn it, Neo… Yang swore as a burning sensation swelled within her. Too far… You took it way too far…

Qrow’s pacifying hand once again found its way to her shoulder. “C’mon, firecracker. I think that’s enough peace of mind for one night,” he said.

Yang stole one last glance at Mercury through the window.

“He’s a fighter,” Qrow reminded her. “You of all people know how tough fighters are.”

“I do,” she said, pressing her palm to the glass. “But I also know being tough isn’t the same as being invincible. Fighters bleed just like everyone else. Sometimes darker and deeper… they have breaking points, too.”

Qrow chuckled. “Funny… I seem to remember a broken little girl who made an outstanding comeback a few years ago,” he mentioned, scratching the stubble on his chin. “Yes, Mercury could’ve very well died tonight, but dwelling on what could’ve been isn’t helping anything. Mercury’s alive. Even if this experience breaks him somehow… he’ll have the life in him he needs to pick up the pieces. And,” he turned to look at Yang, “he’ll have his friends, too. Right?”

Yang smiled. “Right,” she agreed, and together she and her uncle made their way back to the front of the hospital. “What do you think he’ll say when he first wakes up?” she asked, attempting a more lighthearted conversation.

Qrow wrinkled his brow, perhaps perplexed by such a random question. “Hmm,” he hummed as he considered what it might be like behind that mop of silver hair. “'At least I still have my legs… oh, wait…'”

Yang playfully shoved her uncle, but Qrow just grabbed her assaulting hand and pulled her towards him so he could wrap his arm around her. Yang willingly leaned into him, suddenly very aware of just how weary she was. Her brain and body were both on the brink of giving out, her eyelids almost as heavy as her footsteps. She wasn’t sure what nightmares would await her once she finally permitted herself to rest, but she prayed they were kind enough to leave Mercury be. She couldn’t handle anymore scares, not even imaginary ones.

He’s a fighter.

Her uncle’s words echoed through her mind.

“This was one hell of a fight to remember,” she murmured as she and Qrow passed through the automatic doors of the hospital’s exit.

Definitely a fight to remember.

Chapter Text

Mercury could tell he was in a hospital before he even opened his eyes. He was all too familiar with the soft, rhythmic beeping of a heart monitor and the strong, sterile scent of cleaning agents. Even the smell of his bedsheets was indicative. Either he was at the same hospital he’d wound up in after his car accident or all hospitals used the same cotton fresh laundry detergent to wash their bedding.

Mercury groaned himself awake, his abdomen protesting even the smallest of movements. It felt like he’d bellyflopped through about ten stories of hard concrete before getting impaled by a pipe sticking out of the ground. If he was being honest, he would’ve preferred bellyflopping through about ten stories of hard concrete before getting impaled by a pipe sticking out of the ground if it meant he’d be in the same condition. It would’ve been better than being abducted, shot at, and stabbed by someone he thought was a friend.

Mercury winced as a vivid image of Neo glaring down at him with sadistic, two-toned eyes materialized in his mind. He felt the soft fabric of his bedsheets clench in his fists and heard the sounds of his heart monitor going haywire, but all he saw was Neo. It wasn’t until he was able to push her out of his mind that he was able to relax.

Suddenly, a nurse in a baby pink uniform with rosy cheeks to match appeared in the doorway. “He’s awake!” she proclaimed before just as suddenly scuttling away. Mercury was too focused on controlling his labored breath without aggravating his abdomen to care much. He was even starting to sweat.

“Man, I’m out of shape,” Mercury joked—his breathing still a little too ragged for his liking—though by the time the nurse returned with reinforcements, he was perfectly normal. Well, as perfectly normal as a teenage amputee with a gaping hole in his midriff could be.

“What’s up, doc?” Mercury greeted upon recognizing his primary practitioner.

“Mercury,” Dr. Arc replied with a half-smile that suggested he was both happy to see him yet disheartened that it had to be because of an attempt on his life. “If you’re worrying about your new legs, don’t. Your engineers decided it would be best to repair them at their own facility,” he explained.

Despite the sensory capabilities of his Connect Tech, Mercury had grown quite accustomed to having no feeling in his legs during his three months without them. While Weiss and Winter’s magical creations had returned his long lost sense of touch to him, Mercury found it more foreign to feel things than to be numb to them. He hadn’t even noticed they were gone.

Mercury vacantly gazed down at the flat space on the bed where the outline of his legs should’ve been—where his real legs should’ve been. Another flashback came at him fast, and though this one was Neo-free, it didn’t make it any easier to endure. It was from his first time waking up without two very important parts of himself, when he panicked and screamed so hard he passed right back out.

Mercury could feel his heartbeat starting to quicken again and pulled himself out of his thoughts before the monitor could alert Dr. Arc or the bubbly nurse at his side. He already knew he’d be hospitalized for a while—he didn’t need to prolong it by hinting at mental traumas.

“I really don’t want to keep you here over the holidays. Although Santa does make a stop at our hospital, it’s not a very fun way to spend Christmas. We’ll see how you’re progressing a week from now. If you’re capable of doing things like bathing and dressing on your own and the pain is minimum, we’ll discuss discharging you,” Dr. Arc said with a smile so handsome Mercury wondered why he chose a medical career path when he could’ve been making millions just by walking a runway and posing in front of a camera. This guy was cover page material. Easily.

After going over the finer details of Mercury’s injury and the dos and do-nots of the recovery process, Dr. Arc excused himself to go attend to other patients. The adorkable pink nurse from before idled behind.

“Your father and girlfriend should be back soon,” she cheerfully informed him. “They’ve been here all morning, so of course you’d wake up the second after they leave to go get lunch. Rotten luck, huh?”

Mercury tried not to look as confused as he felt. He hardly had what qualified as a father and he definitely didn’t have anyone remotely close to a girlfriend—not unless the misguided nurse was referring to Em, which kind of made a whole lot of sense. For whatever reason, adolescents couldn’t be best friends without at least one of them wanting to get in the other’s pants. Those were the rules and that was the way society had viewed the pair of them since junior high, even after Emerald came out of the closet. He normally didn’t care when people made that mistake, and this instance was no exception. He was, however, put off by something else the nurse had so thoughtlessly uttered.

“My luck hasn’t been the greatest these days,” Mercury admitted with a longing look down his disfigured form, effectively tying the nurse’s tongue into enough knots to make her awkwardly sidestep out of the room. Not much she could say to dig herself out of that hole.

Mercury thought about seeing what was on TV, but when he turned his head in search of the remote, he found a bedside table full of get-well-soon cards and gifts glowing in the unbridled midday sunlight pouring in from his private room’s window. Despite the discomfort it caused him, Mercury leaned over and reached for a different remote—the one to his adjustable bed—and bent the mattress until he was in a more upright position. Once he came to a stop, he plucked the card closest to him off the table. It depicted a chocolate chip cookie with a grumpy face and a bandaid above its right eye.

You’re one tough cookie! it read on the front.

Stop almost dying. Kay? Thanks, was written on the inside and signed by Emerald.

Ah. Spoken like a true girlfriend, Mercury mused. Being mindful of his injury, he reached for the next card.

The front of this one read:


Look on the bright side…

Mercury opened it.


…at least you don’t have chlamydia.

“That’s true,” Mercury agreed, though he wasn’t one-hundred percent positive who Ruby was. At least she had a sense of humor.

The next card was in the arms of a fluffy gray teddybear. Mercury placed the plush toy in his lap, its fur velvet soft to the touch, before reading what the cute little critter had to say.

I feel like I’m partially responsible for you ending up in this hospital bed… Get well soon so I can properly start making up for it.

~Yang

Yang…

Just thinking her name summoned the last memory he had of her to the forefront his mind. Mercury could’ve sworn he was hallucinating when she burst in to save him. The timing had been too perfect. Lady Luck didn’t love him that much, as the nurse had so kindly pointed out moments before. And even in her haste to rush the psychopath with the knife, Yang had looked too goddamn beautiful for words. It was too unreal to be real.

But if all that had been a hallucination, how did he wind up reading get-well-soon cards in the comfort of his private hospital room on a sunny December day? Mercury only got a B in statistics, but he knew the probability of Neo admitting him to the hospital and confessing to her crimes was slim to none.

So… that actually happened. Yang was actually there, he realized.

Wait a minute!

Another realization jolted through his brain, sending an unnecessary pang of pain to his stomach thanks to his spastic reaction.

Was the girl the nurse was talking about… Yang?

It wasn’t impossible, but now he’d have to work on not looking disappointed if the mystery girl actually did turn out to be Emerald. The last thing he wanted to do was piss her off enough to make her injure him more. Again, he was looking to shorten his stay at the Mistral Hospital, not extend it.

But if it really is Yang…

Mercury decided it best not to dwell on the matter, biding his time by opening the rest of his cards and presents, all while fighting the urge to fall back asleep. Just because he wasn’t dwelling on it didn’t mean he didn’t care. He still wanted to get to the bottom of this presumed girlfriend debacle—he just wasn’t going to stress about it until he had to.

The drowsy-eyed boy was snapping the last piece of a Lego frog Weiss had gifted him into place when his father returned, and—much to his dismay—Yang was not with him. No one was with him.

“Hey,” Marcus said, his steps a little more lively upon realizing Mercury was conscious, albeit just barely. “How are you feeling?”

Mercury considered. “I’ve yet to experience the anguish of a hangover, but I imagine this is as close as I’m ever gonna get,” he concluded.

Marcus snorted. “Not even remotely close,” he assured his son, folding his arms and taking on a posture that dared anyone to contradict him. “If that were true, I’d be feeding you the greasiest burger in town and giving you a shot of whiskey to wash it down. Cures my hangover every time.”

“I’m not old enough for that cure,” Mercury pointed out.

“No, you’re not,” Marcus agreed, placing his hands on his hips and taking on a mood somber enough to match his son’s. “You’re so young… You’re not old enough to drink or rent a car. For fuck’s sake, you’re not even entitled to full minimum wage until you’re twenty-one! So tell me why…” he trailed off, the hard lines of his face scrunching up in frustration. “Tell me why I keep having to think about your funeral.”

Mercury held his father’s gaze with the gunmetal gray eyes he’d inherited from him and said nothing.

Marcus sighed like he was much too tired to carry the entire conversation, but begrudgingly did so anyway. “I know I’m not the world’s best dad. I’ve made more mistakes than I can keep track of, and since your mother was never around to tally them up, I really have no clue as to what that number might be.” He took on an expression that was just as serious as it was sincere. “But I do care about you. You know that, don’t you, Mercury?”

Mercury’s jaw was as stiff as his shoulders, his eyes averted.

“More than anything, I want what’s best for you,” Marcus continued. “That’s why it drove me so crazy when you lost everything you worked so hard for. In the blink of an eye, your entire future was gone. Because of one red light—”

“My future wasn’t gone! It was just altered,” Mercury fired back, finding the nerve to look him in the eye again.

“You’re the one who kept saying you died inside, not me,” Marcus reminded him.

“But it was your job to tell me that wasn’t true—to tell me I was still worth something and my life still had meaning. And what did you do? You went straight for your old buddies Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, and Jim Beam. You couldn’t even pick yourself up off the couch to come take me home from the hospital the day I got released because you were so trashed. ‘I’m not the world’s best dad,’ is the understatement of the year.”

“There’s that selective memory you got from your mother again,” Marcus scoffed. “You’re the one who talked the doctor into letting you leave three days before you were scheduled to—not my fault it was my only day off from work that week. And you’re forgetting all the times I tried to help you out, but I guess it’s easier to blame anyone but yourself when everything goes to shit.” Marcus threw his hands up in surrender. “So, sure. Blame me if that makes you feel better, but I really don’t think it does.”

Mercury choked back his next retort because—as much as he hated to admit it—his old man was right. It didn’t make him feel better. The second Marcus got fed up with his son’s sass and stormed out of that room, Mercury would sink down to the shadowy place in his heart he always went to after their arguments—the place his six-year-old self had carved out after he realized his mother abandoned him, his father was an alcoholic, and he was all alone in this cruel world, and he’d wallow there for who knew how long. More than he hated his father, he hated feeling vulnerable and insignificant like that.

“I know I don’t always say exactly what I mean, so I’ll try my best to do it while you have no choice but to listen,” Marcus amended, a softer quality coating his gruff voice. “You’re my son. I might not always show it, but I care about you. I wouldn’t have been so terrified when I got another call from the hospital if I didn’t.” He gulped like just remembering that phone call was difficult for him. “Kids make mistakes… it’s just you tend to make such drastic ones… they’re a little harder for me to swallow, even with the help of my old buddies. But I know… you do still have a lot going for you. You do still have a future. I see that now.”

Mercury raised an eyebrow. “Now?” What’s so different? What changed? he wondered.

A small smile tugged at Marcus’s leathery skin. “Now that I’ve seen you through the eyes of someone else—someone who understands you a heck of a lot better than I do.”

Mercury knew his old man was trying to clarify what he meant, but his vague explanation did little to clear the clouds of confusion, at least until tall, blond, and beautiful walked into the room and illuminated the matter like the ray of sunshine she was.

“Yang…” Mercury breathed.

Yang’s eyes met his, their lilac hue a shade bluer than usual. She gave him a sad smile with so many emotions behind it there was no way Mercury could place them all even if he tried.

“This little lady has been at your side through this whole ordeal,” Marcus said, his grin stretching as he looked to the little lady he was referring to. “I don’t know what you did to deserve an angel like her, but you better not fuck it up. Don’t push her away like you do me.”

Mercury was too baffled by Yang’s presence to pay his old man’s jab any mind. In fact, Marcus and the rest of the room might as well have faded from existence. Yang was all the lovesick teen could see.

Having had his fill of the awkward silence and extended eye-contact, Marcus cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I can take a hint,” he said, rocking back on his heels and initiating his retreat. He gave Yang one last appreciative glance as he passed. “Take good care of him.”

Yang’s smile lost some of its sadness as she gave him an affirmative nod.

With one last look at his son, Marcus exited the room, closing the door behind him on his way out.

Mercury thought the words might flow more easily once they were alone, but even without his old man listening in like some kind of chaperone, Mercury had no idea what to say.

“I like your frog,” Yang suddenly blurted out.

Mercury glanced down at the sizable amphibian he’d crafted out of various green, yellow, and black Lego blocks. “Thanks,” he said, although that didn’t feel like the right response. Regardless, he lifted the creature off his lap and held it out to her. “You want it?”

Yang let out an airy giggle and approached the bed. At least it gave her an excuse to get closer and—more importantly—it gave her an excuse to laugh. He’d gladly give her a million Lego frogs if it meant getting just as many laughs in return.

She sat on the edge of the mattress and took the toy from him, turning it over in her hands to better examine it. “You made this so fast…” she noted, studying the frog’s structure before looking up to catch his eyes. “Ever think about being an engineer? Or a builder of some sort?”

Mercury shrugged. “I’m good at lots of things, or haven’t you noticed by now?”

Yang rolled her eyes. “Nice to see your ego didn’t take any damage from the knife.” She blinked after she said it—the way people did when they realized they said something they could’ve worded better, or perhaps shouldn’t have said at all.

Mercury forced a laugh to let her know he hadn’t taken offense, though the strain wound up pulling at his wound the wrong way and his congenial chuckle soon transformed into an alarming cry of pain.

Yang tensed up, ready to bolt off the bed and retrieve a nurse. “You okay?” she asked with such concern in her eyes Mercury almost laughed again from how cute she looked.

“Fine,” Mercury grunted out, trying to smirk with gritted teeth. “Just dandy.”

Yang set the frog on the bed and reached for the mattress’s remote. “Maybe you better lie down and get some more rest…”

“No!” Mercury snapped a little louder than he probably should have, clasping both of his hands over hers and pulling them until they rested in the small space on the bed between their hips. “No,” he repeated much more calmly, his eyes locking with hers. “I… don’t want this to end. Not yet.”

Yang’s shoulders sank a little, her eyes glazing over like they were about to water. “Nothing’s ending,” she told him. “If anything, it’s just the beginning.”

Mercury shook his head. “What’s just the beginning?” If she was implying what he thought she was, he was going to need her to spell it out for him. Even the smartest of men could be the thickest of idiots when it came to knowing what women meant.

“You and me,” Yang said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I mean… if… you’re still willing to give us a try. I completely understand if you—”

“Are you kidding me? I’ve been wanting to give us a try from the minute I first saw you,” Mercury said. Yang looked at him like she thought that was debatable. “What? You don’t believe me?”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you…” Yang cast her gaze at the floor.

Mercury still had her hands in his and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “It doesn’t matter how long I’ve wanted it. The point is I still do.” He brought one of his hands to her face and brushed his fingertips across her cheek, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

Uncertain why, but with no thought of why not, Mercury drew his other hand up behind her neck and pulled her closer. Yang’s eyes fluttered shut while her mouth parted just enough to welcome a kiss. His lips were a breath away from colliding with hers when hesitation struck. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and released his hold on her. There was a thought of why not after all.

Yang let out a subtle whine of protest as he pulled away. It was evident from her worried expression that she thought she was the one at fault, so Mercury was quick to clarify.

“I can’t keep kissing another guy’s girl,” he said. “As much as I want to—and you have no idea how much I want to—it isn’t right. I don’t want our relationship to be tainted anymore than… than it already is.”

Yang smiled, his explanation seemingly piecing together all the sense that had previously eluded her. “I know you and Neptune aren’t on the best terms,” she said, “but the fact that you put his feelings before your own is really admirable, Mercury. It makes me so happy to hear you say that.”

Mercury grimaced. “At least it made one of us happy…” He hated being the nice guy sometimes.

“He knows.”

Mercury cocked an eyebrow. “Who knows?”

“Neptune knows.”

“About what?”

“About us.”

Mercury blinked and let that little tidbit sink in. “Are you two still…?”

She shook her head.

He pointed between the pair of them. “So we…?”

She nodded.

“Wha? When did that happen?”

The wheels of Mercury’s mind excitedly whirred to life. So many new questions formed as a result, but they just as quickly evaporated back to nothingness the moment Yang placed her palms on either side of him and leaned in again.

“While you were sleeping,” she whispered sweetly, her breath soft against his face and scented with berry flavored mints.

Mercury considered himself a strong individual, but to reject the temptation that was Yang Xiao Long’s lips twice in such a short amount of time required more strength than he might ever possess. He surrendered like an unarmed civilian when her mouth came seeking his, catching her in an unhurried kiss that was surprisingly chaste despite taking place in a bed.

Yang gently broke away and pressed their foreheads together. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” she said, her voice as delicate as it was shaky.

For the first time in a long time, Mercury could honestly answer, “Me, too.” He would’ve been perfectly content with that short yet sweet kiss in such a touching moment, but apparently Yang had other ideas.

She traced her fingers up Mercury’s shoulders to his neck before lacing them through his hair, tugging his roots and tilting his head to better access his mouth. His hands wandered her form just as eagerly, exploring every curve he’d long since mapped out with his eyes. The sexual tension that had gradually built between them was boiling over like a volcanic eruption, their undeniable chemistry only adding to the fires of their desires.

Mercury could hear his heart monitor beeping louder and faster with each passing kiss, but he paid it no mind. He just hoped any hovering nurses would do the same.

What he couldn't exactly ignore was his injury. He tried twisting himself to better accommodate Yang's new position on top of him, but the movement instantly sent a spark of pain shooting through his core. The sensation was gone almost instantly, but Yang felt him tense and thankfully recognized the reason. She sighed, drawing back.

"Where do you think you're going?" Mercury asked with an impish smirk.

"You're healing. I don't want to hurt you," Yang said, though she seemed annoyed at her own consideration.

Proving he could handle the pain, Mercury pulled himself to a sitting position without the use of the bed and stole another quick kiss. "I've been through a lot worse," he murmured against her mouth. Making out hadn't been on Dr. Arc's list of do-nots anyway. He'd be fine.

That was all the convincing Yang needed. They were wrapped in one another's arms a heartbeat later. Literally. Mercury heard the beep.

When he felt Yang straddle his hips, he smoothed his hands up and down her thighs, pulling them close around his waist. The fabric of her skinny jeans was too thick—he needed skin—but he fought the urge to rip them off her. If Yang sensed his intentions, she didn’t seem to mind. If anything, she encouraged such thoughts, slipping her human hand into the opening of his hospital gown and feeling how fast his heart was beating firsthand.

As much as Mercury wanted to entertain the idea of progressing even further, he knew going too far too fast was a good way to ruin a good thing, and he sure as hell wanted to keep this going as long as humanly possible. That’s probably why the universe realized it was slacking and decided to intervene.

She broke away for a split second, but that second was all it took for Yang’s flushed cheeks and kiss-swollen lips to warp into much paler and smaller features. Her lively, lilac eyes just as quickly morphed into malicious, two-toned versions of themselves, just as her honey blond hair spiraled out of control until it settled as brown and pink pigtails on either side of her face. In a horrifying flash, Neo was back on top of him, more ravenous than he’d ever seen her.

She leaned down, attempting to kiss him, but Mercury screamed and shoved her away. He kept his eyes shut tight as he turned on his side and curled into a cowering ball.

“Leave me alone!” he bellowed over the sound of his heart monitor going into overdrive.

“What’s wrong?” Neo asked. But since when could Neo talk? She sounded a lot like Yang.

“You don't want this, Neo!” he yelled from his fetal position. “Leave me alone!”

The continuous blaring beeps drowned out most of the noise, but somewhere around him, more people were moving about. He was sure of it.

I’m saved.

He was just about thank whoever had come to his rescue, but his muscles had somehow taken on the consistency of creamed butter and his eyelids were much too heavy to open.

“What’s happening…?” he mumbled as he slipped out of consciousness.

Somewhere in the distance, he heard the soft sounds of a girl sobbing, and somehow he knew it was because of him.

I’m sorry…

Chapter Text

Any girl in her right mind would’ve left his sorry ass. He was a legless high school dropout from a no-name family with some of the worst PTSD the Mistral Hospital had any record of. Just holding her might trigger his flashbacks and send him into a fit of hysterics. Not to mention the nightmares he already suffered thanks to his car accident. Mercury was a hot mess, and not in the sexy way.

That’s why he kept pinching himself every time Yang came to visit him in the hospital. He figured either he was dreaming or she was crazy. He might have been worth all the trouble in his prime, but in his current condition, he couldn’t fathom what was driving such a goddess of a girl to put up with so much stress and drama. She was so smart, funny, and gorgeous, she could’ve had anyone she wanted, but she chose the snarky amputee with intimacy issues.

“You’re crazy,” he straight up told her one day. It was the only logical conclusion after accumulating so many bruises from his dream-shattering pinches. She was clearly real, therefore she was clearly crazy.

Yang was adjusting the window’s blinds to let more of the late afternoon’s warm, orange light into the shadowy room and looked questioningly over her shoulder at him. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’m here because I have to be, but you don’t have to be,” Mercury said from his propped up position on the bed. Although he’d only been conscious for nine of them, it had been eleven days since his admittance to the hospital and Yang had been there for every single one of them. “You could be anywhere in the world right now—practicing volleyball, hanging out with your friends, filling out college applications—but you spend all of your free time here with me. I mean, it’s Christmas Eve. Don’t you have cookies to bake or presents to wrap? And what about your family?”

She continued her busywork smoothing out the drapes. “They know where I am,” she said evenly before turning to walk towards him, her coy smile only outmatched by the sway of her hips. “Besides, you know you’re just as crazy as I am, right?”

Mercury smirked up at her. “Who’s crazier? The guy who has a panic attack anytime he has a chick in his lap, or the girl who wants to date him?”

Yang raised both of her eyebrows. “Do you really have to turn everything into a contest? You know I'll win.” She stopped just short of sitting on the mattress before backtracking to the guest recliner at his bedside. He hated how careful she had to be with him, yet at the same time loved her to the moon and back for putting up with it. Physicality was a big part of a relationship for both of them. Mercury was forced to abstain for the sake of his mental stability, but the only thing Yang was forcing was to stay by his side.

“Why?” Mercury asked, unable to meet her eyes. He studied his clenched fists instead. “You’re sacrificing so much…. Why stay with me?”

Yang rocked back in her cushy armchair and looked at the speckled design of the ceiling panels. “Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time in that support group… but I think everyone is a little bit crazy. It might be something as small as holding their breath when they drive through tunnels or only eating certain colored gummy bears, but people have all sorts of habits that might seem a little weird to most everyone else. They just don’t realize how weird those habits are because they become so second nature to them.”

Mercury could face her now, and goddamn, did she look like a work of art. The setting sun’s rays danced brilliantly behind her head, giving shape to the halo he knew had been there from day one. Her kind eyes took on a more ethereal glow that stood out remarkably well in contrast to the soft shadows obscuring her face—a perfect balance of light and dark, much like the two of them.

Yang may have been crazy for wanting him, but Mercury would’ve been stark raving mad had he not fallen for her.

“Think of it like ice cream,” Yang added with a more upbeat tone. She must’ve mistook his silence for incomprehension or perhaps even dissent. Mercury didn’t mind. He could listen to the song of her voice all day. “Everyone has flavors they like and flavors they don’t,” she explained with hand gestures to match. “You just happen to be my favorite flavor of insanity, Mercury Black, and I’m not going anywhere. So get used to it.”

Like he’d done so often in the past nine days, Mercury held back. More than anything, he wanted to cross over to that chair, sweep her up in his arms, and shower her with all the affection she deserved. However, not only was he lacking the appendages he needed to get him there, but the doctor specifically instructed them to keep all physical contact to an absolute minimum. Should things actually take a turn for the worst and Mercury fell victim to another flashback, he knew Yang’s visits would be prohibited altogether.

Sucks to be me, he thought for the umpteenth time that week.

“I have an idea!” Yang said with a clap of her hands, putting an end to the awkward silence Mercury couldn’t find a way to fill. “Why don’t we open some presents? I usually open one or two on Christmas Eve anyway.”

Mercury shrugged. “If I had some to open, sure.” Although Dr. Arc had assured him Santa visited the Mistral Hospital, he had a sinking suspicion the jolly gift-giver would pass him up regardless. Christmas had never been all that special in the Black household over the years, so Mercury had grown accustomed to giving zero fucks about the largely beloved holiday.

That’s why he was more surprised than he should’ve been when Yang plopped a shoddily wrapped parcel in front of him. Perplexity clear across his face, Mercury looked from the box to the one who produced it. “From you?” he asked.

“Read the tag,” she suggested with a kind smile.

He did as he was told, spinning the box until he located its label. “To Mercury, from Oscar…” It took a moment for that name to register, mostly because it belonged to a person Mercury never would’ve expected to hear from—let alone receive a Christmas present from. He looked up at Yang. “Oscar? Oscar Pine?”

She nodded, her smile still in place.

He’d nearly forgotten how he told Yang all about Oscar and his soccer teammates. Well… former teammates.

“Aren’t you gonna open it?” she asked. She was more excited for his present than he was.

Careful not to upset his ever tender abdomen, Mercury rolled onto his back and moved the top half of his mattress up until he was in a more ideal position for opening surprise presents. He slipped his finger under a fold of the forest green wrapping and tugged until the crinkled paper tore with a satisfying rip. Beneath was a square tin depicting a scene of iceskating penguins dressed in scarves and Santa hats in their very own winter wonderland. Mercury popped the tin’s lid off and discovered a card addressed to him along with an assortment of deliciously scented cookies.

Dear Mercury,

Happy holidays! I hope this letter finds you well. I’ve enclosed some of my mom’s homemade Christmas cookies. She uses all natural ingredients we grow on the farm, so you’ll find they’re a lot healthier than your average sugar cookie, but just as yummy, I promise! Try the jelly-filled ones first—they’re my favorite!

Pleasantries aside, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you…

Thank you.

Not just for the pep talk you gave me that one night, but for being such an amazing inspiration for me. You’re the reason I was able to leave my family’s farm and pursue my dream of becoming a professional soccer player, and I don’t think I ever told you that. I wanted to tell you in person, but you haven’t been back to school since the accident.

I heard you were on your way to stop the other seniors from hazing us when… when it happened… I’m not sure if a ‘thank you’ or an apology is more appropriate, but I suppose I could always give you both. I thank you for your consideration, and I’m sorry for what that act of kindness cost you. I’m so, so sorry…

Rumor has it you’re thinking about getting a pair of Connect Tech. I did some research on prosthetics way back when I first heard of your predicament, and their stuff is top of the line—you’d probably even be able to play soccer if you trained enough! I could help if you needed it. Just let me know!

Whether you take up soccer again or not, I hope you’ll think about coming back to school. A mind like yours isn’t something that should be cast to the wayside. You don’t need to be mobile to get ahead in life…. I realize I’m just fourteen, but even I know that much.

Sorry if I stirred up any sad memories or bad thoughts. This present was meant to make you happy, not sad… So enjoy the cookies and I’ll look forward to seeing you next semester!

~Oscar Pine

P.S. Soccer tryouts are January 3rd! Hope to see you there!

Mercury dropped the letter to his lap. “Wow…”

“What’d it say?” Yang asked, curling her legs up and shifting to the side of the recliner closest to the bed.

“A lot,” Mercury replied. He brought the letter back up and read it a second time through, devouring two jelly-filled cookies in the process. “That punk ass kid… telling me what to do,” he scoffed.

“Punk ass kid? He seemed like a total sweetheart to me,” Yang said offhandedly.

Mercury snapped his eyes to meet hers. “You know him?” he asked. Or was she just referring to what little he’d told her about the cinnamon roll that was Oscar Pine.

“I do now,” she answered with a troublemaker smile.

“How?”

“I have my ways.”

“When?”

“When it was necessary.”

“Why?”

She gave him a knowing look. “I should think the answer to that one is fairly obvious.”

The only answer he could come up with was a blank stare.

“For crying out loud, Mercury! It’s Christmas! I did it because ’tis the season! I wanted you to know I’m not the only person in the world who cares about you. You’re more loved than you realize, and not in the creepy stalker way.”

He took the stalker jab with a tight-lipped smile. “Thanks for clarifying,” he said.

With body language that suggested she felt she may have crossed a line, Yang sank back in her chair. Mercury could tell she was worried about what might come out of her mouth next, so he saved her the trouble and spoke again.

“Really, thank you,” he said with much more sincerity. “You didn’t have to get me presents—especially from other people. Having you here is the best gift I could’ve asked for. So thank you for going out of your way to make me feel special. I might not be very good at showing it, but it’s working.”

Yang’s confidence returned and with it came a blush as charming as the rest of her. “I actually have a present for you, too. But before I can give it to you, you’ll need to open…”

She trailed off as she rose out of the recliner before just as quickly crouching down to search for something under his bed. She emerged with a present as big as Mercury’s incomplete form.

“This!” she proclaimed with a strained grunt, heaving the massive package onto the end of the bed. Judging from how heavy Yang made it seem and the sparkling white snowflakes adorning the wrapping paper, Mercury knew exactly what was in the giant present and precisely who it was from without even opening it.

“Weiss and Winter finished my legs!” Mercury exclaimed, gingerly crawling to the opposite end of the mattress to rip the snowflakes away and tear into the new box. Yang looked on with a sunny smile as he removed one of his new and improved prosthetics.

“They look even better than the originals,” Mercury murmured as he studied the leaner, shinier Connect Tech. He wondered if the sharper design would make him more aerodynamic.

“Wanna test them out?” Yang asked with a raised eyebrow.

Mercury gave her a mischievous smirk since they both knew the answer to that and pulled the bedsheets away from his leg stumps. He was aligning the first of his prosthetics with its proper thigh when a fun-crushing thought occurred to him.

“Weiss and Winter are the only ones who know how to connect the nerves…” he said, his excitement ebbing away. “I can’t attach them without their help.”

“Weiss told me this new model was dummy-proof—that we could attach and detach them ourselves,” Yang said, looking into the box and retrieving a wrench as silver and sheen as the Connect Tech. “I’ve had my mechanical arm for three years now. I’m almost as good as Weiss when it comes to maintenance on these things.”

Mercury would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little anxious about allowing Yang to attach two pieces of complicated machinery to his peripheral nervous system, but the determined glint in her eyes told him she was going to try one way or another so it might as well be with his consent.

“You ready?” Yang asked, both hands on the wrench, waiting to give it a crank.

“Mm-hmm,” Mercury timidly hummed, clutching his bedsheets, turning his head, and shutting his eyes tight. He was even starting to sweat. It may have been out of sight, but there was no way he was getting such crucial moment out of his mind.

He heard Yang take a breath before cranking the bolt with a loud, “Hmph!” Mercury winced at the familiar sensation of real nerves attaching to mechanical ones, but the pain was followed by a wave of relief when he realized it came and went the same way it did when the Schnee sisters attached his prosthetics.

“You did it,” Mercury said, slightly out of breath. He didn’t even notice he’d been holding it.

“I did one,” Yang corrected, moving to the other side of the bed. “Now for the other!”

The nice thing about doing something a second time was the comfort of knowing it’d been done before. Mercury’s other leg was on him even faster than the first.

“How do they feel?” Yang asked as Mercury dangled his Connect Tech off the bed and flexed his mechanical muscles back and forth.

“Light,” Mercury said, mesmerized by the equipment attached to him. “I don’t know how they do it, but they feel just like the real deal.”

“Awesome! Then that means you’re ready for my present!” she declared. She burrowed beneath the bed once more and resurfaced with a brown box topped with a big golden bow that shined as much as her smile.

He accepted the gift a bit sheepishly. “I didn’t get you anything,” he admitted.

Yang shook her head, completely unfazed. “That’s not the point of Christmas, silly. Plus, you’ve kind of been cooped up in a hospital room for the past week and a half. That’s totally excusable in my book.”

A slight slant to his lips formed in a halfhearted smirk as he lifted the box’s lid. Although he was beyond grateful to receive any present from Yang, he was confused as to why she’d given him a solid black hoodie, matching sweatpants, and some sport sunglasses.

“I mean… you guessed my favorite color,” Mercury said as he tried to make sense of the black ensemble.

“I got black for a reason,” Yang said, producing her own black hoodie from the depths of Mercury’s bed.

What else did she manage to hide under there? Mercury wondered as he watched Yang poke her blond head through the hoodie’s collar.

“What are you waiting for? Get dressed,” she told him. “I still haven’t given you my present.”

Mercury gestured to the box of clothes. “You mean this wasn’t the present?”

Yang shook her head. “That’s the disguise. The present is… I’m busting you outta here!”

Mercury felt his eyes go wide. “Seriously? But what if we get caught?”

Mercury felt his eyes go wider as he watched Yang step out of her slip-on shoes and slide her blue jeans off. The hoodie was big enough to hide the essential parts from view, but that didn’t make his heart pound any less. He pointedly looked away, but not before the image of Yang’s long and toned legs was burned into his brain. He wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse…

“We won’t get caught so long as we’re back here before the nurse comes to give you your medication tomorrow morning,” she said as she shimmied into a pair of sweatpants that looked identical to Mercury’s. “I know you well enough to know how much you wanna get out of this hospital room. Now’s your chance.”

She was right. If someone had asked Mercury what he wanted for Christmas right then and there, he would’ve—without hesitation—said a night on the town with Yang. Plain and simple. Here Yang was, granting him that very wish, and he was having second thoughts. What kind of idiot was he?

Staying seated on the bed, he dropped his patient gown down to his hips. He couldn’t help but smirk when he noticed Yang catch a glimpse of his exposed skin before turning her red cheeks away in embarrassment. It was nice to know he wasn’t the only one.

Once they were both fully dressed, Yang brought a wheelchair in and told Mercury to take a seat.

“We look suspicious as fuck,” he whispered as she wheeled him down the hallway. They both had their hoods up and sunglasses on, seemingly ready to mug the place, not escape it.

“We’ll be fine,” Yang told him in a hushed voice as they pushed past their first front desk. Sure enough, the nurse barely lifted her head to acknowledge them as they rolled by.

Mercury let out the breath he’d been holding once they were safe. “God, that was too nerve-wracking.”

“We’ve got an elevator ride and three more desks to sneak past. Don’t wimp out on me now,” Yang hissed.

He shoved his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and put on a braver face. “Alright, Blondie. I’m with you.”

One elevator ride and two desks later, they were almost home free. The final stretch leading up to the hospital’s main entrance was pretty crowded compared to the previous hallways, and one of the nurses who regularly cared for Mercury just happened to be passing by at the most inconvenient moment. With one look, she recognized the duo instantly, and with one hand she halted their wheelchair. Luckily, Mercury didn’t actually need it.

He stood up out of the wheelchair and raised his hands to the heavens. “Oh my god! It’s a miracle!” he exclaimed with all the overflowing charisma of the most enthusiastic television evangelist, drawing the attention of everyone in the lobby. He turned back to the slack-jawed nurse that had stopped them. “I’m cured! Thank you, kind caregiver! Thank you!”

Before anyone could comprehend what was really happening, Yang and Mercury were sprinting out of the entrance’s automatic doors.

“Wait! Stop!” they heard the nurse yell, but the hooded hooligans were around the corner and several blocks down the street before they had any intention of obeying that command. They were still laughing about it over their Chinese food.

“Did you see her face?” Mercury asked through a mouthful of chicken fried rice. “Priceless!”

“Almost as good as the guy by the coffee table who thought it was an actual miracle!” Yang snickered after polishing off her third egg roll. “Though… I am a little bummed. After the stunt we pulled, I probably won’t be able to see you until you’re officially released.”

Mercury swallowed his food and offered Yang a signature smirk. “Worth it,” he said. “I mean, it’ll suck not seeing you for a while, but that’s why the memories we make tonight should be good enough to last us another week or two.”

Yang smiled and nodded. “Right,” she agreed, punctuating her sentiment with a happy slurp of Dr. Pepper.

After eating enough chicken lo mein to feed a small Ethiopian village, Mercury and Yang took a stroll through a nearby park to help alleviate their overfull stomachs. They laughed and talked like any couple might do on a date—the only difference being the painfully obvious lack of skinship. Anytime Mercury thought it might be okay to lace his fingers with hers, Yang would move her hand to grab her opposite arm or tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. It was like she was watching his movements out of the corner of her eye and evading them as nonchalantly as possible. It was working. Mercury couldn’t tell if she was doing it deliberately or not.

They eventually made their way to a movie theater, purchasing two tickets to the latest super hero flick. Neither of them had any preference for what they saw so long as they didn’t have to wait too long. Fortunately for them, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse ended up being as dope as its previews. Unfortunately for them, they were able to verify its awesomeness because they spent the entire movie actually watching the movie. That was a first for Mercury. He typically didn’t remember much of the plot lines during movie dates because he was usually preoccupied with… other things.

Not this time, though. Mercury barely managed to graze Yang’s knuckles when they both reached for the same piece of popcorn. A move like that almost always resulted in a handhold, but the way Yang tensed made Mercury hesitant to even try for that much. He knew she was being distant out of consideration for him, but if he was willing to push his limits, he hoped Yang would be, too.

He decided not to broach the topic until well after the movie. They were meandering through the same park as earlier, the evening’s chilly air making Mercury crave body heat for more practical reasons now. Just when he was about to address the elephant in the park, Yang let out a squeal of delight.

“I can’t believe it’s still here!” she said excitedly, turning Mercury’s attention to an aged playground. The chains on the swings were rusty and the ladder leading up to the tallest slide was missing a few steps, but Yang was correct: it was still there. “Ruby and I used to play here as kids.”

“And Ruby is…?” Mercury asked with raised eyebrows.

“My sister! I thought I told you that…. But, yeah! She’s also on the volleyball team. Remember? The short one with red undertones in her auburn hair?”

Mercury practically felt the lightbulb in his head go off. “Her! Yeah, I remember. She left me… a really sweet get well card. I didn’t realize you two were sisters, though. You don’t really look that much alike.”

“We have different moms,” Yang said as casually as she might discuss her wardrobe for the day. If sharing her father had ever bothered her, she was 110% over it now. “She might be my half sister, but I love Ruby wholeheartedly.”

Mercury smiled. “That might just be the most sickeningly sweet thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he teased.

Yang gave him a playful punch to his arm—her first attempt at physical contact since the start of their date. She became just as aware of her slip-up as he was a second later, withdrawing her arm like Mercury had sent an electric shock through it.

“Have you ever played alligator tag?” she asked, completely ignoring the fact that she’d just spazzed out from touching him.

Mercury considered, putting a pensive hand to his chin. “Can’t say that I have,” he replied.

“It’s really fun. Ruby and I used to play it all the time. It’s a glorified version of tag, where you throw a jungle gym into the equation.”

“I’m listening…” Tag meant touching, and touching meant breaking walls that didn’t need to be there. Mercury was all for breaking those down.

“Whoever is the alligator can touch the ground, but they can only touch things like slides, monkey bars, and railings—they can’t set foot on the jungle gym’s platforms. If they do, they have to go back to the ground before they can climb back up.”

“Okay. What about people who aren’t the alligator?”

“It’s the opposite for them. They can touch anything on the jungle gym, but the second they touch the ground, they become the alligator. Or if the alligator tags them, they also become the alligator. The point is to avoid being the alligator!”

Mercury nodded. “Sounds easy enough.”

Yang looked at him expectantly. “You wanna play?”

“Only if you’re the alligator.”

Yang shrugged. “I was going to volunteer anyway. Give you a chance to get the hang of it.”

Whatever chance Yang had been referring to vanished the instant the game began. Her competitive nature consumed her, fueling her speed and agility in ways Mercury didn’t even know she was capable of. She climbed on top of a tubed slide and lunged her way up. Mercury was quick to run to the opposite end of the jungle gym where he watched and waited as Yang slipped one of her long legs over a railing and maneuvered her way over to his place of retreat. Once she made it to the small tower that was his safe haven, Mercury ducked down and lied on his back, scooting his body along the platform and directly beneath Yang. She swung one hand down in a last minute effort to tag him, but he was too low for her to reach.

He did a backwards summersault to get to his feet and dashed across a wobbly bridge before stopping even further away. “You’re gonna have to do better than that!” Mercury taunted, though the second he said it, he regretted it.

He saw the flash of Yang’s eyes even in the dim lighting of the playground and gulped down the bundle of nerves that suddenly swelled in his throat. Like something out of an exorcism movie, Yang leapt from the jungle gym and landed on her haunches, eyeing her prey like a rabid animal that hadn't eaten in weeks. She then slinked into the shadows underneath the jungle gym and out of Mercury’s line of sight.

Fearful for his ankles, Mercury latched onto a nearby railing and pulled his metal legs out of reach, perching atop the thin rail like a bird. He studied the holes in the platform beneath him, looking for any signs of blond though the small openings, but her hoodie was doing an excellent job of masking her most distinct feature. He wouldn’t be able to see her until she was right on top of him.

Correction. He wouldn't be able to see her until she was right underneath him. He sensed her, though, and moved just in time as Yang clawed her way up his railing from behind. Tripping over his metal feet in the process of dodging, he crashed to the platform on his side. Thankfully, it was the side void of a stab wound and didn’t hurt near as bad as it could have. Although he wasn’t in pain, he was in trouble, for Yang climbed over the rail and leaned down to swipe at her wide open target. Mercury felt her hand brush his elbow and relaxed against the platform in defeat—he was at peace with becoming the alligator.

“I got you!” Yang shouted, as if he might dispute it, before kneeling down on the platform next to him to catch her breath. “You’re it.”

For some reason, they were both laughing uncontrollably. Whether it was from the excitement of the game or the less than graceful way he’d met his end, neither of them could contain themselves. Yang collapsed next to him, rolling side to side while clutching her stomach as more giggles ensued.

At some point, his hand found its way to hers, and Mercury was both surprised and relieved when she didn’t shy away from his touch. Rather, she welcomed it, leaning toward him as she subdued the last peals of laughter.

Mercury should’ve been satisfied with the handhold, but his emotions were on high and his instincts moved his body before his logic could take the reigns. He was on top of her with his forearms pressed to the platform the very next instant, gazing into her lilac eyes with all the wonder he’d ever held for her. He lowered his lips in search of a kiss, but that was more than Yang was willing to give.

She turned her head and gently pushed her palm to his chest. “I can’t,” she said.

“No, I can’t. But I’m willing to try,” Mercury argued, going in once more.

With a little more force, Yang shoved him yet again. “I told you I can’t,” she repeated, her tone much more resolute.

He took the hint this time, rolling off her so they could both rise to sitting positions a fair distance apart.

“I appreciate you being so aware of my personal space—really, I do—but the only way I’m going to get better is if I… practice,” Mercury said, unsure if practice was even the right word for it. “You’re already doing so much for me, so let me do this much for you. Let me try to be a normal boyfriend and—”

“What Neo put you through…” Yang cut in, her voice much quieter than usual. “I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like for you. And reliving it while kissing me…” she winced like she was blinking back tears, “I can’t imagine that either. But have you ever thought of what it might have been like for me? Watching someone I care so much about look at me, absolutely terrified—like I was some kind of monster?”

Mercury said nothing. He hadn’t thought about it and was once again reminded of what a selfish bastard he could be sometimes. He was so focused on his own turmoil he never once stopped to think about Yang's.

“It’s not something I want to experience ever again,” she said.

“I wasn’t seeing you…”

“To me, it looked like you were,” Yang countered. “I don’t know what you saw through your eyes, but I know what I saw through mine. What I saw… it was really scary. So while you might be ready to try again… I’m not. Not yet.”

Mercury could respect that. “Whenever you’re ready, then. We’ll try again,” he said.

His compromise might have cost him a kiss or two, but it also earned him another of Yang’s heartfelt smiles—the kind that made the crappiness of their situation seem a lot less crappy, if only for a moment.

“You know, something bad happens every time we kiss,” Mercury noted with an ironic chuckle. “Maybe we’re jinxed?”

Yang rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

“It’s true though! We can’t win a game of tonsil hockey to save our lives…”

Yang furrowed her eyebrows. “Did you just say tonsil hockey?”

“Kissing. Smooching. Making out. Swapping spit. Canoodling. Sucking face. First base. Whatever you wanna call it! When we do it, bad things happen!” He knew how stupid he sounded, but he also knew he had evidence to back it up.

Yang put a hand to her temple, like her brain was having a hard time processing this revelation. “We’ve only canoodled three times,” she said.

“Yeah, and we’re three for three, Blondie. Think about it. The first time we canoodled, you freaked. The second time we canoodled, Neo freaked. And the third time we canoodled, I freaked. We’re jinxed!”

“Okay, first of all, I never want to hear you say the word canoodle ever again,” Yang said flatly. “Secondly, that has to be one of the silliest, most superstitious things I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s true, though. We’re jinxed!”

“We are not.”

“We are!”

Oh, how the tables had turned, for Yang's hands flew to Mercury's arms and pinned him in place, pressing his back up against the bars of the jungle gym’s railing in a way that was more exciting than uncomfortable for him. “We. Are. Not,” she said, enunciating each word.

Mercury’s eyes darted from her incoming lips to her half-closed eyes. “You don’t have to do this,” he said softly. “I wasn’t trying to use reverse psychology on you or anything. I want you do to this when you’re ready.”

Yang gave him the sassiest of seductive smiles. “I’m ready to prove you wrong,” she said before closing in. Mercury smirked as her lips brushed against his, ever amused at his highly competitive girlfriend. She’d do anything to be right, even if it meant going against her own decisions.

She is crazy, he reminded himself before craning his neck and deepening the kiss. But she’s my favorite flavor of insanity.

Her lips tasted just as sweet as they did that time in the hospital while possessing the same kind of warmth and fireworks as their mini golf make-out session.

This is Yang, this is Yang, Mercury silently chanted, fearful he might slip into a flashback at any moment.

But the way Yang held him was so different from Neo, he couldn’t understand how he ever confused the two. Yang’s hands were gentle and loving where Neo’s had been rough and impatient.

Shit… I should probably stop thinking about Neo, Mercury realized. By trying so hard not to think of her, he ultimately wound up thinking about her anyway. He was too caught up in his own head to focus on what was happening directly outside of it, and Yang could most likely tell.

So in a stellar comeback, Mercury cleared his mind and let his emotions run rampant. He cradled Yang's neck with one hand while wrapping his opposite arm around her waist and dipped her backwards, not once separating his mouth from hers. She squeaked in surprise but melted into him effortlessly.

When they finally broke apart, Yang was still smiling and Mercury was still sane.

“See? Not jinxed,” she said.

Mercury had never been more elated to be more wrong. He was about to express his euphoria with another prolonged kiss, but a buzz in the pocket of Yang’s hoodie intervened. Yang pulled away to check her phone.

“If that’s not Jesus telling you the real reason of the season, you best put that thing away,” Mercury teased as he leaned forward to nip at her neck.

Either from his joke or the feel of his breath on her throat, Yang giggled. “It’s from Blake,” she said, maneuvering her phone behind his head so she could read the screen while Mercury kissed his way across her jaw. “Oh my god!” she shrilled, abruptly jerking away and using the railing to pull herself to her feet. “We have to go!”

Startled, Mercury also rose to his feet, albeit not as haphazardly. “Where are we going? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Blake!” Yang said from over her shoulder before propelling herself down the nearest slide. “She’s in trouble!”

Mercury refrained from asking anymore questions until Yang managed to calm down a little, but that didn’t stop him from thinking the inevitable truth:

We’re totally jinxed.

Chapter Text

It was beginning to snow. A multitude of crystalline flakes were already sticking to the windshield of Yang’s Jeep Renegade when she and Mercury climbed inside. His hoodie did little to warm his body in the cold car, but the adrenaline he felt from running twelve blocks in 2 minutes sure helped.

He figured Blake had given Yang her location via that same text since she had her GPS up and ready before Mercury even managed to close his door. Yang cranked her engine and reversed out of her parking spot just as hurriedly, sending her only passenger lurching forward into the glovebox.

“What? Did you and Blake go to the same driver’s ed class?” Mercury griped as he struggled to steady himself long enough to put his seatbelt on.

“As a matter of fact, we did,” she proudly revealed.

Since he had a feeling Yang wasn’t going to do it herself, Mercury unbuckled his seatbelt to reach over and secure hers. “Then you’re definitely going to need this,” he said.

“Now isn’t the time to knock my driving—especially when you’ve never even seen it before,” she snapped.

Mercury casually settled back into his seat and refastened his belt. “Don’t get mad at the guy who almost died in a car crash for wanting to buckle up.”

Yang tore her eyes away from the road and really looked at him for the first time since she got Blake’s text. “I’m sorry,” she said, easing off the accelerator in the process. She turned her attention back to driving, but Mercury could tell she was focusing less on speed and more on safety now.

He reached out and put a comforting hand on her thigh. “We’ll get there in time,” he said, using extra effort to sound soothing and confident. “Getting in an accident will slow us down way more than going the speed limit will. Now that there’s ice on the road, that’s even more reason to be cautious. Blake wouldn’t want us to risk our lives like that to get to her. Right?”

He noticed Yang’s grip on the steering wheel loosen as the speedometer went down another few notches. “Right,” she agreed. “I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m just… really worried.”

Mercury plucked Yang’s phone off its stand on the dashboard. He intended to send Blake an update regarding their rescue mission and in turn put Yang’s worried mind a little more at ease, but that was before he realized just how far away their destination was. According to the small number in the righthand corner of the screen, their estimated time of arrival was one hundred and thirty-three minutes.

“T-two hours?” Mercury choked out.

Yang’s expression fell a shade darker. “The address she sent me is in Menagerie.”

“That’s an entire state away!” he said, everything from his voice to his face painted all sorts of incredulous. “How’d she wind up there?”

“Give you three guesses.”

Mercury didn’t need them. From the minute Yang said Blake was in trouble, he knew exactly where that trouble derived from.

“Adam…”

Even just saying his name left a bitter taste in his mouth. Poor Blake…

Oh, that’s right! Blake!

Remembering his reason for borrowing Yang’s phone, Mercury scrolled through her contact list in search of her best friend’s name.

Yang raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Texting Blake to let her know we’re on the way.”

“What?! No! You can’t!” she all but yelled at him. “Blake’s text was short, but very specific. You can read it for yourself, just promise me you won’t respond.”

Mercury agreed to nothing. It sounded silly not to reply to an S.O.S. After reading the message, however, he understood.

Blake <10:02 PM>
Yang, I really need you. I’m sending you my location. Please come get me. Don’t reply. Adam doesn’t know I’m sending you this and I’m deleting the message on my end once it’s delivered. Don’t tell your uncle.

Mercury swore as he switched to the GPS app and propped Yang’s phone back on the dashboard before he began fidgeting with his own cellular device.

“What are you doing now?” Yang asked with a wary voice as she side-eyed Mercury’s nimble thumb moving swiftly around his screen.

“Calling the cops.”

Her metal hand shot out like an animatronic frog attacking a fly and latched onto the top half of his phone. “Why would you do that?!” she shrilled. “Did you not read her text? It said ‘Don’t tell your uncle.’”

“Right. Which is why I’m telling cops who aren’t your uncle,” Mercury replied cooly. He tried to pull his phone out of Yang’s hold, but she resisted.

“Read between the lines, Mercury. She meant don’t tell any cops. She doesn’t like getting them involved where Adam is concerned.”

“Have you ever thought maybe that’s why he thinks he can get away with things like kidnapping and attempted murder?” he fired back. “I spoke with Blake about Adam once, and it seems to me like he’s just some punk ass kid with an attitude problem. He needs to be taken down a peg, and not by people like us who don’t hold any real authority. He needs to know the things he does are as lawfully wrong as they are morally wrong. I don’t care what he’s been through. Enduring tough shit doesn’t justify being a shitty person.”

“You’re right, but that’s not what you and I are doing tonight,” she argued. She had one hand on the wheel and one hand on his phone while her eyes took turns looking from him to the road. “This is a rescue mission, nothing more. We get Blake and get out. That’s it. We’re not confronting Adam.”

“You think he’ll just let her walk out? If that were the case, what’s stopping her from doing that right now? Why does she need us?”

Yang said nothing in reply, though her slackened grip told Mercury she saw his point.

“I’m calling the police. I don’t need your permission,” he continued. “If Blake gets mad at you, I’ll take the heat. But if it’s anything like what happened with Neo, she’ll be glad the proper people were there to handle it. I know I was.”

She finally released his phone and returned her prosthetic hand to join her human one on the wheel. “This isn’t like Neo,” she mumbled, though her words remained articulate enough for him to understand.

“It’s not?” he asked a bit absentmindedly. He was too preoccupied with Googling Menagerie police departments to give Yang his full attention.

“Adam is worse,” she said. “Much worse.”

Mercury found out just how much worse by the time they arrived on the scene.

“You sure this is the place?” he asked when Yang’s GPS informed them they had reached their destination. A rundown motel in the middle of nowhere certainly sounded like an ideal hideout for a kidnapper, he just thought there would be more lights—specifically red and blue ones. He’d called the police nearly two hours ago. They should’ve been there by now.

“I don’t like this,” Yang said as they slowly pulled into the dark parking lot. She had both knuckles pressed together at the topmost part of her steering wheel and her neck sticking out over the dashboard to better observe the dingy building and its eerie atmosphere. There wasn’t a street lamp in sight, so she had to really strain to observe anything. “This doesn’t feel right.”

“Relax,” Mercury told her. “I know what you mean, but there are other cars in the parking lot, so the motel has to be operational.”

“But the cops…”

“Maybe they already came and went? Maybe Adam surrendered peacefully and they took Blake down to the station.”

“Yeah,” Yang absentmindedly agreed. She didn’t sound reassured in the slightest and Mercury couldn’t blame her. He wouldn’t dare show it for Yang’s sake, but he was starting to feel fairly anxious himself—especially since that was probably the only time Adam and the phrase surrendered peacefully would ever be spoken in the same breath.

“Has she texted you since the last one?” Mercury asked.

Yang pulled into a parking spot and cut the engine before removing her phone from the dashboard to check her messages. “No,” she said, worry etched in every line of her face.

“Maybe her battery died." It was one of the last straws he could’ve grasped at, but he needed to say something—anything to keep Yang from freaking out. She’d been twice as uptight since he reported the incident, and arriving at a desolate motel sans uniformed officials or any word from her friend was just enough to send her scale past the tipping point. “Shit,” Mercury hissed as he whipped out his own phone. He hastily searched his recent calls and dialed the police station yet again.

“Merry Christmas. Menagerie PD.”

“Yeah, hi. This is Mercury Black. I’m calling about a call I already made nearly two hours ago. About a kidnapping involving a seventeen-year-old girl with long black hair? Name’s Blake Belladonna.”

“Let me see… let me see…”

Mercury tapped his fingers on his metal kneecap as he let the man with the nasally voice see.

“Ah, yes! That case was closed already.”

“They found her?” he exclaimed, exchanging wide-eyed, beyond happy looks with Yang.

“No, that’s not what I said. I said they closed the case.”

Mercury’s smile melted instantly. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s Christmas Eve, not All Hallows' Eve. Don’t you have anything better to do besides prank the police department? These men and women are missing quality time with their families to keep you safe, and you have the gall to send them on a wild goose chase? You’re lucky I don’t trace this call and have you arrested!”

“This isn’t a prank! It’s serious!” Mercury shouted into his phone.

“And we took it as such. That’s why we sent out a team to the location you provided. No one matching the descriptions you gave checked into the motel. They didn’t appear on the security monitors either. If you wish to continue your search for this Blake Belladonna, I suggest filing a missing person report online. We will not be sending more officers to waste their time this evening. Happy holidays.”

The only other reply he got was a click from the ended call.

“Son of a bitch,” Mercury muttered under his breath.

“They were here already?” Yang gathered from the one-sided conversation. “But they thought it was a prank?”

“Maybe they didn’t check in? Maybe Blake texted from inside a car.” He scanned the parking lot. There was a fair number of cars, but not enough to make the search for one specific kind difficult. “What does Adam drive?” he asked

“He typically lets Blake do the driving,” Yang said.

“Then that would mean…” Mercury honed in on the black Eclipse like a heatseeking missile. “There! It’s right there!” he shouted before bounding out of the Jeep.

“Wait! Mercury!” Yang cried as she struggled to undo her seatbelt and follow suit.

He probably should’ve exercised more caution, but he thought he was dealing with a douchebag, not a criminal, so his guard was very much down as he ran across the parking lot to the empty vehicle.

“This is Blake’s car, right? It has to be!” Although he’d repressed most of the more vivid memories he had from riding with Blake, Mercury distinctly recalled the kitten keychain dangling from her rearview mirror. The feline figurine had stared down at him with its big, buggy eyes and smiled at his helpless situation the entire time. Lo and behold here it was again, staring and smiling and judging his every move. If he hadn’t been so relieved to have found their first trace of Blake, he would’ve crushed that creepy thing.

“It is,” Yang confirmed as she jogged up from behind him. “So where’s Blake? If not here, then…”

They gazed around at the fields of grass and lines of trees surrounding them. If Adam and Blake weren’t checked into the motel, there was literally nowhere else for them to go.

“That bad feeling is back,” Yang said, reaching out to hold the cuff of Mercury’s sleeve.

He brought his hand up to catch hers and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Let’s go talk with the receptionist. Just because the police didn’t find anything doesn’t mean we won’t.” He gestured to vehicle in front of them. “We already found more than the police just from finding her car,” he added with a sly smirk.

Yang returned his smirk with a soft smile and together they walked hand-in-hand toward the dimly lit entrance of the shabby motel.

They were about ten paces away from Blake’s car when Yang’s text alert went off. Her free hand immediately dove inside the muff pocket of her hoodie to retrieve her phone, and Mercury waited with baited breath as she checked the screen.

“It’s from Blake!”

He leaned in closer to read the message himself.

Blake <12:31 AM>
merry christmas

Yang and Mercury both looked to one another in confusion before Yang hurriedly typed her reply.

Yang <12:31 AM>
Where are you!? Are you okay? I found your car, but I don’t see you!

The winter wind pierced the silence that followed, howling through the trees like a lone wolf. Blake's response came a moment later.

Blake <12:32 AM
but i see you

A shock of panic zapped through his body and suddenly Mercury knew Yang wasn’t talking to Blake.

“Yang, give me the phone.”

As if the message wasn’t confusing enough, now she had Mercury’s senseless suggestions to deal with. “Why?”

“Just, please. Give me the phone.” For some reason, whoever had the phone seemed like more of a target. Mercury’s every instinct was telling him to protect her, and the best way he could think to do that was be the one who communicated with the crazy person. His track record for stuff like that wasn’t the greatest, but at least this time he wasn’t gagged and bound to a chair.

Yang hesitantly complied and slid her phone into Mercury’s outstretched hand. The second the device hit his palm, it rang. They both jumped at the suddenness of the call, but he recovered quicker and answered before she got the chance to take it back.

“Hello?”

“Well if it isn’t Mercury mother fucking Black. Good to see you’re up and about. I thought for sure you’d be out of commission until the new year. Guess that makes it a very merry Christmas to you, huh?”

“Adam,” Mercury said through clenched teeth. Yang gasped, covering her gaping mouth with her free hand, her eyes just about ready to pop out of their sockets. “Where’s Blake?” he tried to ask without growling.

“With me,” Adam said curtly. “So I suggest you be a little nicer and start playing by the rules.”

“What rules?”

“Rule number one: no cops.”

Mercury felt his heart momentarily stop. “How did you—”

“Yang and Blake both knew this rule, but I’ll let it slide since you’re fairly new to the game. Just don’t let it happen again and we’re good.”

“What game?”

“Rule number two: don’t ask questions. I won’t answer them. I tell you things when I want, if I want. It’s pointless, so save your breath. You’ll need it for other things.”

Mercury hated being told what to do, especially if that involved shutting up. “Look, pal, I don’t know what game you’re referring to, but I’m not playing.”

“Rule number three: you play, or bad things happen.”

Six little words were all it took for every ounce of blood coursing through Mercury’s body to freeze over. He stood motionless, jaw tight, eyes wide, breath short.

Yang’s hand was still in his when he tensed up, and though she couldn’t hear Adam, she could tell something was very, very wrong. “What is it?” she asked, curious doe eyes locked with his dilated pupils.

“You ready to play?” came Adam’s low and raspy, yet highly amused voice.

A single drop of sweat rolled from Mercury’s temple to his chin. “Don’t hurt Blake,” he said. It wasn’t a question, so technically he wasn’t breaking any stupid rules. All it did was make Adam laugh.

“Oh, don’t worry. She’s last on the chopping block,” Adam snickered with glee. “Besides, shouldn’t you be less worried about my girl and more worried about yours?”

Mercury’s eyes shot to Yang and he reflexively pulled her against him wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders.

“You two look cute like that. Kinda glad she ditched Neptune. He isn’t near as entertaining as you are.”

The earlier text suddenly flashed through Mercury’s mind.

but i see you

Mercury pulled the phone’s transmitter away from his mouth and lowered his voice. “He can see us,” he whispered to Yang, feeling her fingers clench the fabric of his hoodie near his collar. He gazed up at the motel’s roof, but it was too dark to tell if someone was lurking there.

“Don’t bother looking for me. I’m in a place you can’t hope to reach,” Adam said. “If you must know, I’m watching you through the security cameras. The only thing easier than hijacking them was deleting the footage of us before the cops showed.”

“You deleted the security footage? But what about the receptionist? Didn’t they question them?”

“What? You think I used some kind of super power to wipe her memory?” Adam scoffed. “The only power in this world I need is money. That girl agreed to shut her mouth for three hundred bucks.”

Mercury was shaking—whether it was more with anger or from the chilling cold, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was the more Adam talked, the more he wanted to beat his face in. “Where are you?”

“Ah, ah, ah. You went and broke a rule right off the bat. Guess you know what that means…”

Mercury immediately dropped the phone in favor of grabbing Yang and pulled her to the pavement. He cradled her fall and rolled her onto her back, sheltering her beneath his body and using his arms to protect her head. He almost felt like he might’ve been overreacting, but then a massive explosion sounded from the other side of the parking lot.

Mercury ducked his head at the booming sound, drawing himself tighter around Yang as she screamed in surprise. He felt the heat from the blast warm his body in an abrupt burst, just as he felt Yang’s rigid fingers digging into his ribs. He heard the sound of a roaring fire in the distance, just as he heard the frightened cries of countless others dashing into the parking lot from their motel rooms.

Once it seemed like the damage was done and it was safe enough to do so, Mercury hauled Yang and himself back to their feet, keeping her pressed against him. The formerly dark and vacant lot was now filled with frenzied pajama-clad people and a blazing fire bright enough to hide the stars from view. Shrieking motel guests sprinted past them in search of safety, but Yang and Mercury just stood and stared at the raging inferno engulfing the corner of the building.

Yang’s ringtone drew them out of their daze. He thought about ignoring it, but then he also thought about how that might trigger another bomb to go off. Thus with a quickened heart rate and shaky fingers, Mercury knelt down to pick up the discarded phone.

“I think you get the idea of how this game works now,” Adam said with that same cruel amusement from before. Maybe he was even more amused now that his destruction had commenced.

“I get it,” Mercury said, surprising himself with how calm he came off. He didn’t feel half as composed as he sounded. “We disobey, we pay.”

“Glad we're on the same page,” Adam happily confirmed.

Yang balled her fists into the front of his hoodie and buried her face against his shoulder to muffle her sob. Mercury ran a soothing hand over her head and held her closer. He needed to be strong—not just for them, but for Blake.

“Now… Let the game begin.”

Chapter Text

“Get out of there before the cops show up. Remember rule number one,” Adam instructed over the phone.

Mercury latched onto Yang’s hand like the winter wind might blow her away and made a beeline for the Jeep Renegade.

“Yang can take her car. You take the Eclipse,” Adam added as Mercury’s fingers closed around the driver side’s door handle.

Panic struck him like lightning.

He wants us to separate…

Mercury definitely didn’t like the sound of that.

He fought the urge to ask, “Why” in hopes of preventing something else from being blown sky-high. Not just why separate them, but why do this in the first place? He was well aware Adam was the douchiest of douchebags, but this was a new level of sadistic. There was something seriously off behind the head behind the mask. Come to think of it, the mask should’ve been the first red flag, yet making heads or tails of Adam’s shitty way of being was pointless at the moment. All Mercury could do now was abide by the asshole’s rules and play his stupid game—even if that meant Yang and him parting ways.

Mercury regained a more resolute grip on the handle and opened the car door, gesturing for his girlfriend to get in. He knew he was exuding nothing but confidence, but that didn’t stop Yang from second-guessing him.

“I thought you wanted to drive.”

“I do,” he confirmed. “Just a different car.”

“But…”

Mercury pointed to the phone he still had held to his ear. “Simon says,” he offered as means of an explanation, hoping his lame attempt at a joke might at least get a small laugh out of her. Alas, the tension remained as strong as Yang’s somber stare.

“I don’t want to drive separately,” she protested. She said I don’t want to, but the way she said it directly translated to I vehemently refuse.

Mercury reached into his back pocket and retrieved his own mobile phone, gently pressing the sleek device into Yang’s palm. “And I don’t want to chance you getting hurt,” he told her. “Take my phone in the meantime. We’ll trade back when we see each other again.” He nearly said if we see each other again, and silently wondered if Yang could sense his hesitation over that very key word.

The flames of the motel fire gleamed twice as bright in her eyes now that they were glossed over with tears. He saw submission sweep across her face just before she threw her metal hand behind his neck and pulled him in for kiss that was as rough as it was desperate.

“Come back to me,” she told him after finding the strength to break away.

Mercury chuckled. “Probably shouldn’t have kissed me, then,” he said, his voice a mixture of husky and playful as his lips teasingly hovered over hers. “I’m officially jinxed now.”

Yang’s prosthetic moved from behind his head to ball her metal fist in the collar of his hoodie. “I will kill you long before Adam gets the chance if you seriously think I just doomed you.”

Mercury unflinchingly met her heated gaze and challenged fate by wrapping his arms around her waist and instigating a kiss of his own—one Yang welcomed with as much fervor as before.

“We’ll get through this,” he promised, touching his forehead to hers. They were survivors after all.

Another explosion sounded, followed by a round of shrieking onlookers in the distance. The second bomb seemed to have gone off in the same vicinity as the first, reinforcing the fire in both power and size.

“What the hell?! We didn’t break any of your rules!” Mercury yelled into the phone he’d nearly forgotten about thanks to the blissfully distracting blonde beside him.

“I was feeling neglected,” Adam replied with a hint of agitation in his tone. “If you two are finished sucking face and saying your goodbyes, I’d like to get this show on the road before the cops show up…… again.”

“Whatever you say, game master,” Mercury muttered. He looked to Yang and saw her expression said everything he was trying to convey with his: be safe and be smart. Or I’ll kick your ass.

At least they were on the same page.

After giving Yang the password to his phone and making sure she had the exact address Adam provided locked into his GPS app, Mercury stole one last kiss for (what he hoped would be) good luck and dashed over to his own mode of transportation.

“It’s unlocked and the key is in the center console.”

“How convenient,” Mercury said as he slid into the driver’s seat. He popped open the console and found the key right where he said it’d be.

“Wait,” Adam said just as Mercury was about to crank the engine. “There’s a large shopping bag in the backseat. Get it.”

Inside was a black hoodie nearly identical to his with the exception of a white saber tooth-tiger emblem on the left shoulder. Or is it a wolf? Or maybe a puma… Yeah, that’s gotta be it, Mercury thought.

“Put it on,” Adam instructed.

“I thought you said you can see me,” Mercury said, taking extra care not to phrase it like a question.

“That’s how I know you’re not wearing it, dipshit.”

“Then you should also know I’m not wearing it because I’m already decked out in a black hoodie. It’s literally the exact same design.”

“I swear… You must secretly want me to blow your girlfriend to smithereens…”

Mercury was stripping a second later. The warmth of his heartfelt Christmas present was sorely missed at the feel of the new hoodie’s ice-cold fabric.

“There should be one more item…”

Sure enough, an all too familiar mask sat waiting to be discovered at the bottom of the shopping bag.

“No wonder you’re being so shy. You don’t have the top half of your face,” Mercury said a little sassier than he knew he should have.

“Because you’re going to wear it.”

Mercury could’ve thought of a million things he’d rather do than drive a car he wasn’t used to with prosthetics he was barely used to wearing a vision-impairing accessory that did nothing for his image other than make him look like a total tool. Yet compromising Yang’s safety wasn’t one of those million things. Thus, on the mask went.

“Man, I feel cool…”

“Keep it up, wiseass. See what happens,” Adam challenged, effectively shutting the sass master up. For the time being, at least.

Now that he wasn’t dressed to impress, Mercury was permitted to start the car—or more importantly the heater—and exit, stage left. He had mixed feelings when he noticed the flashing lights in his rearview mirror upon driving away. He should’ve been anywhere from infuriated to remorseful at the unfortunate timing of the first responders’ arrival, but his most overwhelming emotion—oddly enough—was relief. Among the parade of firetrucks and ambulances rolling into view were of course the squad cars, but avoiding the cops meant avoiding a violation of Adam’s rules, and those rules were taking top priority of his don’t fuck up list. As strange as it felt, he was forced to recognize the people he would normally depend on in a life-threatening situation as one of the main stipulations to effectively make it far worse.

Mercury let out a heavy sigh. This game was officially more frustrating than the water temple in Ocarina of Time.

“Turn left,” Adam instructed as Mercury approached a stoplight. Much to his dismay, Adam refrained from ending the call. Mercury thought about hanging up himself, but he wasn’t about to see what sort of consequence that might result in. Instead, the call switched to the car’s radio, allowing Mercury the use of both hands which was nice since he was already handicapped by the mask—and his legs, but that was nothing new.

“I don’t need you to navigate,” Mercury pointed out. The less he heard Adam’s annoying drawl of a voice, the better. “Just tell me the address.”

“What’s the matter, Black? Don’t like me whispering in your ear?” Adam cooed in a way that made Mercury’s skin crawl. It was the paragon of cringe.

“I’d much rather listen to Yang’s GPS tell me what to do. She programmed it to have a hot Australian accent,” Mercury said flatly.

“Make a right up ahead.”

Huh. Adam was awfully tolerant of his cheekiness so long as he remained obedient. Mercury thought of seeing how far he could push his game master’s buttons, but reminded himself for the umpteenth time in the past ten minutes his life wasn’t the only one at stake.

“I’m guessing you sent Yang to a different address,” Mercury said, ever aware of the inflection needed to keep his sentences from sounding like questions.

“You’re as observant as ever,” Adam noted, though he seemed more piqued than impressed. “She’s where she needs to be as are you. All you need to focus on is driving and doing exactly as I say.”

Mercury’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. He felt like nothing more than an expendable pawn Adam was lining up for some power play. If he could figure out what that play was, he might be able to think up a proper strategy to counter it. Since questions were a no-go, he’d have to get him talking some other way.

“I can’t imagine Blake liking these games very much.” The details Mercury knew about the relationship between the emo and the arsonist were minimal, but he had a hunch bringing it up might spark a worthwhile conversation.

That’s why he was both intrigued and disappointed when Adam fell quiet. If he’d been indifferent about her, he would’ve responded by monotonously relaying directions with all the sentiment of a honey badger. But his silence spoke volumes, and the first thing it said was that Mercury was on the right track to getting Adam to slip.

“I spoke with her once about you,” he continued, fighting hard to sound more conversational than confrontational. “She told me you were drowning in your own darkness and she wanted to help pull you up for air. She drove all the way over to my house just to persuade me to think better of you. Don’t worry, it didn’t work. But that doesn’t change the fact that she tried.”

More silence.

“I don’t know Blake all that well, but I can’t see her getting behind blowing up a building no matter how much she cares about you. I mean, she texted Yang begging her to come get her. She’s gotta be scared out of her mind.”

“Blake didn’t text Yang.”

Mercury felt his heart do a victorious summersault in his chest. Adam’s seemingly impenetrable walls were beginning to crack! “Yes she did,” Mercury protested, knowing full well feigning ignorance was his bet bet at making Adam elaborate. “I saw the text. That’s how we wound up at the motel.”

“You saw a text,” Adam corrected. “Blake’s been out of commission for a little while now… Her claws are a little too sharp for her own good. But she’ll wake up soon enough. Maybe just in time to see me turn her best friend into a firework.”

With gritted teeth, Mercury ignored that last comment. “You messaged Yang to get us there…”

“I messaged Yang to get her there. She’s as gullible as she is loyal, so I knew she’d come. You, on the other hand, were a consolation prize.”

The confused consolation prize furrowed his brow. “But you had the hoodie and mask ready for me.”

“You’re playing the role I initially designed for Yang,” Adam explained in a tone a little too ominous for Mercury’s liking. “And I couldn’t have cast it any better.”

“I better get royalties.”

Adam hummed a low, subdued chuckle. “You won’t need them,” he said.

Mercury knew exactly what Adam was implying, but played dumb once again in hopes of delving deeper. “Sure I will,” he said, trying his best to sound relaxed and oblivious. “My hospital bill has gotta be insane by this point. I need all the extra cash I can scrounge up!”

“Did you ever wonder why you didn’t die in that car crash?”

Oh, so Adam could ask questions? Double standards much? “Yes,” Mercury said curtly, his mood instantly seven notches darker.

“I think it was because you hadn’t served your purpose yet… but don’t stress about it too much. By the end of tonight, you’ll finally fulfill that destiny. As will I.”

Okay, those lines were a little more difficult to read between. “I had no idea you were a psychic. The mask must be to help you zone in on your visions.”

“The mask is going to be what makes tonight work out so brilliantly.”

“I’m not following you.”

And Adam liked it that way. “…Turn left,” was the only response he offered.

It wasn’t much, but it was more than he had at the start of their little joyride, so Mercury decided to spend the reminder of the drive recapping what he learned and thinking up ways to use that to his advantage.

Blake never sent the text. Actually, Blake might not even be with him. I don’t know why we didn’t think to call Blake’s family and make sure she was really in trouble. I guess Yang was pretty determined not to get too many people involved. Woulda, coulda, shoulda…. Anyway. Adam intended for Yang to drive out and convince her to drive Blake’s car while wearing the hoodie and mask…. Wait a minute.

The most adamant Adam had been with Mercury all night was when he ordered him to wear the hoodie and mask. Something told Mercury this outfit was more than an embarrassing fashion statement.

He glanced down at the white animal decorating his left shoulder—the only thing that made Adam’s special hoodie any different from Yang’s. The emblem seemed vaguely familiar, but Mercury figured that must’ve been because it was the logo for some clothing brand.

“This is a pretty cool design,” Mercury mentioned as they turned down a dark dirt road. “It looks like a puma.”

“It’s a wolfdog,” Adam proudly corrected. “Modeled after the main character in Jack London’s novel, The White Fang.”

A puzzle piece suddenly clicked into place and sent a wave of sheer dread rushing through Mercury’s body. “The White Fang… that’s also the name of that group of thugs that terrorized the east coast a few years back.”

“They’re so much more than thugs,” Adam said, a hint of wonder in his voice. “They’re true visionaries. Men and women with a proper grasp on the savage world around us.”

“You talk like they’re still a thing. I thought they got taken down. I saw it in the news.”

“You saw what the media wanted you to see,” Adam deadpanned. “So long as there are people demanding change, the White Fang will live on, and I intend to be the one to take the reigns and bring it back to its progressive path.”

Progressive path Mercury’s left foot. The White Fang solved problems with violence and death threats—which was very fitting for Adam but definitely not what their country needed. If Adam did miraculously come to lead such an extreme group of individuals, their methods would only get worse. But…

“I don’t see a bunch of radical adults following some punk-ass kid,” Mercury said.

“That’s exactly why I’ll become more than a kid in their eyes. I’ll become… a god.”

If there was any doubt that Adam was batshit crazy, it was wholly diminished right then and there. “You’re insane,” Mercury told him.

“Insanely genius, maybe… But enough talk. We’re getting close. Go ahead and put your hood up and make sure your hair is tucked in. And just so you know, taking the mask off means you automatically lose the game. Do we have an understanding?”

Mercury shrugged. “I feel like it’s almost a part of me now,” he lied. That crappy piece of plaster was the most obnoxiously uncomfortable thing he’d ever forced upon his flesh. He caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror after drawing his hood up and stifled a laugh. “Heh… I look just like you.”

Adam chuckled like the diabolical madman Mercury already took him for. “That’s the idea.”

More puzzle pieces fell into place and with them came another numbing wave of fear. “You’re planning to pin something on me,” he guessed, nearly turning it into a question in his panicked mindset. “I’m dressed like you so I can take the heat in your place.”

“In a manner of speaking, you will indeed be taking the heat in my place.”

Mercury defiantly ripped the hood from his head, tousling his mess of silver hair in the process. “Fat chance of that.”

“Look at it this way, Black. You either take the heat for me, or Yang takes the heat for you.”

If his threat wasn’t enough, the picture he texted him most definitely was. Mercury diverted his eyes from the road long enough to glimpse a shot of Yang lying next to Blake. Both girls were unconscious.

“You bastard…”

“Manners, manners,” Adam chided, though he was clearly amused by Mercury’s contempt. “So why don’t you put that hood back on and keep that mouth of yours shut? You’re almost there.”

Mercury yanked his hood over his head with so much strength he nearly ripped it right off. It wasn’t until they were approaching an old stone bridge that Adam spoke again.

“There’s a road just to the right of the bridge. Take that instead.”

Mercury eased off the accelerator and turned onto the suggested path. It wound through the forest before letting out underneath the bridge where a number of people and vehicles were gathered. They even had a campfire going.

“You don’t say a word,” Adam told him pointblank as Mercury coasted forward. “There’s a letter in the glovebox that will answer any questions they might have for you. Give them that and await further instructions. Your face better be as straight as a line. If I see one smile, one wrinkle, one twitch—”

“I got it,” Mercury said, leaning over to retrieve the letter from the glovebox. “I blow my cover, you blow something up.”

“And make sure they see the emblem on your arm. Very important.”

After making sure his mask was firmly in place, Mercury rolled down his window, rested his elbow on the car door to better showcase his White Fang mark, and put the car in park without turning off the engine.

Two men with athletic builds and masks not unlike his own approached first.

“Have you come to watch or challenge?” the shorter man asked. Upon closer inspection, Mercury noticed he had fairly large ears that stuck out well past the mask. Snapping himself out of the mild trance the man’s abnormal anatomy placed him in, Mercury handed him the letter.

“What does it say, Fennec?” The taller man asked, hovering over the shorter, bigger-eared associate.

The man apparently named Fennec looked up from the letter with a sly smile slanting up his face. “Great news, Corsac. Our young Adam wishes to challenge,” he said in a way that was as shady as it was amused. “I was hoping that’d be the case. Line up with the others by the starting point. We’ll begin once Sienna arrives.”

Mercury gave a curt nod he felt might be appropriate or expected of Adam before rolling up his window and maneuvering to the indicated area.

“I take it you’re catching on,” Adam said once he was parked next to a Mazda MX-5.

“Street racing is pretty illegal, but so is everything else you’ve done tonight,” Mercury cooly replied. “I know it’s against the rules, but I’d like to ask one question.”

“One,” Adam agreed.

“Why the hell would you want the guy who nearly died in a car crash to be your proxy in a street race? Not sure if it ever occurred to you, but driving fast isn’t really my forte.”

“You don’t have to win. You just have to make sure you’re keeping up with Sienna.”

Sienna. There was that name again. Too bad he already used up his one question, otherwise he’d ask who she was. He got his answer soon enough, however, when a dark skinned woman was escorted on top of an old Camaro by the same men who greeted Mercury.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters of the White Fang,” the woman greeted. Unlike her escorts and siblings, she didn’t hide her face behind a mask, and Mercury couldn’t really blame her. She was strikingly gorgeous. “It was brought to my attention that there was some unrest among our ranks as of late—some talk of changes and talk of… new leadership.”

“Gee. Wonder where those rumors started…” Mercury muttered under his breath.

“Although I know some of you refuse to acknowledge me as your leader any longer, that does not discredit how just I can be,” Sienna continued. “Which brings us out here on this twenty-fifth of December to the very bridge our founding members marched across in pursuit of the betterment of humanity, yet we come here to better our beliefs. Not just in each other, but in me. As your leader, I will fight to prove why I deserve to head such a remarkable group of forward-thinkers. I will win this contest and put any qualms to rest. Those who lose can either accept me, or deny the White Fang.”

There was no applause. Not from the spectators, not from the challengers—nothing. Mercury didn’t even realize she was finished until Corsac helped her down from the roof of the Camaro.

“Not exactly what I would call inspiring,” Mercury said.

“Because she’s not fit to lead,” Adam frankly pointed out. “A true leader can offer inspiration for his followers no matter the circumstances.”

“A street race is a pretty bizarre way to pick out a new leader…”

“It’s what Sienna chose. Because she’s good at it.”

“You guys should try elections. Or maybe even a coup d’état,” Mercury suggested. “A sword through the gut works just as good as a street race.”

“This is better,” Adam said. “I’ll finally be presented with the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.”

“Then come out of your fucking hiding place and beat your damn leader yourself!” Mercury snarled.

“Watch the emotions,” Adam warned. “Your windows may be tinted, but your windshield is not.” And Corsac and Fennec were walking in front of the line of cars, eyeing down the challengers.

“Racers, on your marks!” Fennec called.

Mercury shifted into neutral and revved his healthy engine. If he was going to compete, he might as well make it believable.

“Get set!” Corsac signaled.

He switched to drive and pressed his metal foot to the brake.

“Go!”

And they were off. Blake’s little Eclipse was remarkably peppy and helped Mercury gain an early lead.

“Pull back!” Adam ordered.

“I’m winning!” Mercury argued.

“I told you before, I don’t want you to win. I want you to stick close to Sienna.”

“I don’t know what she’s driving!”

“Follow that Mustang!”

A moment later, a red and gold Ford Mustang pulled into view before swerving in front of Mercury and winking its taillights at him.

“Get as close as you can to her!” Adam urged.

Mercury floored the accelerator and got close enough to give her bumper a nudge.

“No! No! Get beside her!”

That was going to be a little trickier, since Sienna moved whichever way Mercury tried to go. Passing her wasn’t an option.

“I can’t!”

“Then I can’t guarantee Yang’s survival!”

“Dammit, Adam! Stop playing the Yang card! It’s getting really old!” Mercury roared in frustration. “I’m doing the best I can!”

“And I—argh!”

Mercury thought he might’ve accidentally hung up on Adam, but according to his phone and the screen in the center of Blake’s dashboard, they were still connected.

“Adam? You there?” Mercury swore when he realized he said those three words as questions. “Adam!” He called again, desperate to confirm he hadn’t fucked up too badly yet.

“Mercury!” came a reply, only Adam wasn’t the one saying it. It was a girl. “Mercury! This is Emerald! Are you okay?!”

He’d never been happier to hear his best friend’s sweet, sweet sugarcoated, mint chocolate chip voice. “Em! Hahaha! What the actual fuck?!” Mercury exclaimed with a beam so big it nearly popped his mask right off his cheekbones. “This has gotta be some sort of trick. There’s no way you’re actually there. How?”

“Weiss puts trackers in all of her Connect Tech. I followed Yang’s and Weiss should be on her way to you,” Emerald hastily explained.

“So Yang’s alright?” God it felt good to be able to ask questions.

“She’s still conked out, but Blake is coming to…”

And right on cue, Blake took control of the phone.

“Mercury? This is Blake!”

“Have I told you how shitty your taste in men is? Because I could write a thesis paper on it,” Mercury said.

“We can talk about that later! There’s something more important going on! I can see you through the cameras Adam set up in my car… It looks like the race already started.”

“Yeah. I’m currently riding Sienna’s ass. I guess I don’t have to anymore, though, now that you and Yang are safe…”

“NO!” came Blake’s anxious cry. “You can’t stop! You’ll activate the bomb!”

“For fuck’s sake…” Mercury grumbled. “And which bomb am I dealing with now?”

“The one in my car—your car! Have you ever seen that Keanu Reeves movie? The one with the speeding bus?”

Mercury knew exactly where this was going. “There’s a bomb in my car that will go off the instant my speedometer drops below a certain number…”

“Right! It was Adam’s backup plan to ensure whoever was racing didn’t stop! He activated it as soon as the race started.”

“What’s the magic number?”

“52.”

What a random number. “Well I’m in the 90s right now, so I don’t think that’s gonna be an issue.”

“It will be when you run out of gas! Or when you get to a tight turn!”

“Is there a way to un-trigger it?” he heard Emerald ask in the background.

“No. His whole plan was to blow the car up while you were driving next to Sienna’s, killing both of you in the process. When the White Fang came to morn the ashes, Adam would arise like some sort of phoenix.”

“Or some sort of god,” Mercury said, remembering Adam’s words. I’ll become more than a kid in their eyes. I’ll become… a god.

“The point is you’re going to have to jump out of the car, Mercury! There’s no way to stop it!”

Mercury eased off the accelerator.

“What are you doing?! I just told you not to go slow!” Blake shrieked.

“I don’t want anyone else to get caught in the blast,” Mercury said. He didn’t even have to go that slow. By the time he reached 75, all the other racers had left him in their dust. They may have been White Fang members, but they were still human beings who deserved to live as much as he did.

“Alright, Merc. Get a good speed going and then get ready to tumble,” Blake told him.

Mercury felt at his bandaged abdomen. He knew a stunt like this wasn’t good for his wound, but what choice did he have?

“Wait! She’s there!” he heard Emerald’s excited voice.

“Who?” Mercury asked, instinctively checking his rearview mirrors. A blinding white light was closing in from behind.

“My girlfriend!”

If Mercury hadn’t been in his current predicament, he might’ve been more amazed by the sleek design of Weiss’s skintight bodysuit or chrome plated motorcycle. Her face was hidden by a helmet as shiny and fancy as everything else, but her long white ponytail was allotted a hole in the top of the sheen headgear and whipped wildly behind her as she sped next to him.

“I’m not sure jumping from a car to a motorcycle makes this situation any easier,” Mercury said with a nervous laugh.

“Weiss won’t let you fall. She’s got this!”. Either Emerald was overly smitten or overly confident in her girlfriend’s capabilities. No matter which was the case, neither was very reassuring. “She’s never given you a reason not to trust her, so why stop trusting her now?”

He wished it was as easy as putting his faith in a friend, but Mercury’s PTSD was rearing its ugly head, and this time he was having car crash flashbacks. White-hot pain shot up what was left of his legs as his lungs suddenly stopped functioning. He flung his White Fang mask from his face and clutched at his chest, taking sharp, gasping breaths.

“Mercury? Mercury!” his friends called out, but their voices were like white noise playing in the background of the chaos whirling around him. He heard the screeching of tires, the crushing of metal, and the crackling of flames. He heard his own strangled voice cry into the night, and realized that was no memory. He was making that disturbing sound at that very moment.

The next thing he heard was shattering glass as Weiss busted his window in. Tiny pieces of glass rained down into his lap, giving him a few cuts and scrapes across his face in the process. The new pains snapped him out of the trauma of experiencing his old pains, and he was finally able to focus once more.

He looked out of his busted window at the gloved hand Weiss was reaching out to him.

Before he could reflect on how incredibly stupid it was, Mercury unbuckled his seatbelt, threw open his car door, and jumped. Weiss latched onto his forearm and pulled with all her might, which was surprisingly quite a lot. He kept forgetting how strong those engineer muscles could be.

Mercury hoped someone had been recording, because he would’ve loved to see an instant replay. If the transition from Blake’s car to Weiss’s bike looked as smooth as it felt, then he would need to consider becoming a professional stuntman. He swung his leg around and landed right behind her with a solid thud. Once he secured his arms around her waist, Weiss released her grip. She then spun her bike around and drove in the opposite direction of Blake’s speeding car. Mercury almost forgot why he abandoned it in the first place when a thunderous boom sounded behind them.

“That’s enough explosions for one Christmas,” Mercury said without even turning to look at the fire he could feel on the back of his neck. “Let’s go home.”

Weiss revved her engine in approval and zoomed down the street.

Chapter Text

Mercury valued Weiss for much more than her family’s wealth, but he sure loved how convenient it could make things. Had it not been for her fancy motorcycles, tracking equipment, and expert timing, Mercury wasn’t one hundred percent positive he would’ve survived.

“Don’t mention it,” she told him when they arrived at some random shack near the race course. Apparently her helmet did a lot more than protect her head. A path to Emerald’s location was mapped out for Weiss via her face shield and she’d been following it ever since Mercury’s rescue. Which meant this piece of shit shack was where Adam had chosen to hole up during this whole ordeal. Which meant Adam was inside the piece of shit shack. Which meant Mercury’s knuckles would be imprinted on Adam’s piece of shit face far sooner than he ever could’ve hoped.

“Easy, killer,” Weiss said, holding him back by the shoulder once they’d both dismounted her bike. His face must’ve been giving his intentions away. Or maybe it was the way he rolled up his sleeve and said, “I’m gonna kill that bastard.” “You’re still healing,” Weiss reminded him in a tone that seemed uncharacteristically gentle. “I know you want to give this guy a good kick or two, but Emerald’s already administered a few of those on your behalf. So let’s just settle for rounding everyone up and getting home safe and sound for now. Okay?”

Reluctantly, Mercury forced himself to relax. “Okay,” he said. The word was agreeable, but the low growl that came before it was not.

He’d punch him or something when Weiss wasn’t looking. And it’d be in the dick.

Emerald and Blake greeted them upon crossing the shabby shack’s threshold. While Weiss shared a tender hug with her girlfriend, Blake looked Mercury dead in the eyes and apologized.

Mercury shrugged it off with an alls-well-that-ends-well type of attitude, but he had a feeling his shaking fist might’ve betrayed him. “Where is he?” he asked, willing the fire that must’ve been showing in his eyes to die down.

“Unconscious,” Blake answered. “You might want to take out some very justified frustration on him, but you’ll have to get in line,” she added, gesturing to step behind her. Mercury didn’t think his mouth was capable of forming smiles just yet, but Blake managed to spark the start of one, at least.

Regardless of whose turn it was, he decided to hold back in favor of punching Adam when the asshole was actually awake. He wanted him to remember the pain as vividly as Mercury would remember that night. If his PTSD intensified and prolonged his stay at the hospital as a result of the incident, Mercury was going to punch him twice.

A glimpse of gold caught Mercury’s eye, and he soon found Adam wasn’t the only one down for the count. Yang was still out of it, too. Three swift strides later, Mercury was kneeling by her side.

“Chloroform,” Blake explained as she approached, the wooden floorboards creaking in protest with each step she took. “She’ll be completely fine once she comes to.”

Mercury mindlessly nodded as he scooped his comatose girlfriend up in his arms. She was paler than he’d ever seen her and her arm was bleeding for some reason. But she was alive. And he was alive. And that was really all that mattered.

Weiss arranged for her trusty attendant, Klein, to come pick everyone up in a very familiar pearl white limousine. Mercury was in such a state of exhaustion and disbelief, he hardly remembered anything that took place between reuniting with Yang and buckling his seatbelt. He would’ve probably remained in his dazed trance had Blake not started speaking.

“He was planning on detonating the car bomb next to Sienna’s vehicle, incinerating both drivers in the process,” she suddenly blurted out. “Once the other White Fang members came to investigate, Adam was going to emerge for the wreckage unscathed—not just as a new leader, but as a god. Those were his words, not mine.”

Mercury’s stomach dropped just thinking about the disastrous fate he very narrowly avoided.

“I knew Adam was disturbed, but this…” Weiss said. “This was complete lunacy! If Yang hadn’t thought to text me when you two were on your way, I don’t know what would’ve happened!”

I do, Mercury thought, and he gave Yang’s human hand a tight squeeze in attempt to chase away such morbid notions.

“Blake… you seem like such a down-to-earth person,” Emerald said. “I’m not trying to pry… just trying to understand. What prompted you to be with someone like that?”

Blake looked down at the scuff marks on her boots. “He wasn’t always like that… And part of me was hoping I’d be able to salvage the old Adam from the monster he changed into. But…” Blake closed her eyes tight and shook her head. “It’s time to wake up and stop dreaming about things that aren’t ever going to happen.”

“What did you ever see in that guy to begin with?” Mercury asked, his voice as weak as the rest of him.

Blake held his gaze for a moment, perhaps contemplating where to begin, before she took a deep breath and said, “It started much like how your relationship with Yang started: at my mom’s meetup group. That was about three years ago. I was fifteen, Adam was one year older. He originally joined the group because he had a cancerous tumor on the side of his face. His surgery happened less than a month after he joined, but by then he and I had already hit it off. Even after he was officially declared cancer-free by the doctors, he continued to attend meetups just because he knew I’d be there…

“The Adam I met—the one I think I fell in love with—was much more charismatic than the Adam you know now. He wasn’t into drugs or gangs… He was a fairly average teenager. He even managed to crack a joke or two on occasion. But… one night when he was out with me on a date, a group of thugs from a local gang broke into his house, stole his belongings, and murdered his family. We knew it was a gang because they made sure to burn their insignia on the wall before they left.

“The depression Adam fell into afterward was devastating. I can still remember how lifeless his eyes were… It was the definition of heartbreaking. And the worst part was, I couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to be there for him, but he just pushed me away. At least… until justice was served.

“A few months after that awful, awful night, Adam called me for the first time since the incident and told me to turn on my TV to the local news. There was a story about some sort of gang war. A gang calling themselves The White Fang had pinpointed some other gang’s hideout and taken every single one of them out. The opposing gang’s symbol was the exact same marking burned into Adam’s former home. The White Fang were heroes in Adam’s eyes—vigilantes who took justice into their own hands and avenged his family.

“While I do agree those criminals needed to be punished, a life for a life isn’t the way to go about it. I feel that way now, and I felt that way then. But Adam was so thrilled about the whole thing… It was almost like he was rejuvenated. So I set my own morals aside in favor of supporting his. That was the first time that happened, but it wouldn’t be the last. I eventually did that with his drug abuse, too. He claimed he was self-medicating his depression since the pills prescribed to him made him feel ‘like he wasn’t himself.’ Shortly after the news broadcast, he purchased a White Fang mask and wore it to hide the scar he got after the surgery that removed his tumor. I used to tell him I liked the scar… that he didn’t need to hide it behind a mask, but he’d always brush me off and pretend like I hadn’t even spoken.”

Mercury silently studied Blake. Her shoulders were tense, her fingers were clenched, and her eyes were watery. It pained her to talk about this. He suspected—despite the terrible things Adam had done—she still cared about him. Mercury tried to imagine Yang turning into some sort of lunatic like that. Would he still stand by her and try to justify such condemning actions—shield her from the ramifications she indisputably had coming to her in hopes that she would revert to the Yang he originally fell in love with?

Possibly, he realized. And suddenly he was a little more sympathetic. Maybe not to Adam, but definitely to Blake.

“I used to barter myself for good behavior,” Blake admitted as a plump tear rolled down her cheek. “If Adam behaved himself I would… well…”

“I get it,” Mercury assured her, saving her the humiliation of voicing such painful words.

“You really did everything you could think of to try and tame this guy…” Emerald said. “But you should never barter something like that… That’s not healthy.”

“I never said it was,” Blake countered, sniffing sharply through her nose. “It’s just… how it was…” She looked to Weiss. “I’m sorry I kept stuff like that from you, and Yang, and Ruby…”

Weiss shook her head and offered a soft shrug. “I can’t really imagine a casual conversation we might have that would prompt you to confess something like that,” she said.

Blake closed her eyes and breathed out a faint laugh. “I guess that’s true…”

Weiss reached over and caught Blake’s hand with hers, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “But I’m glad I could be here for you when you were finally ready to get it off your chest.”

“Thank you,” Blake said, smiling through her tears. She looked to Mercury and Emerald. “All of you,” she added. “I’m sorry for what Adam put you through. If I could take it back, I would…”

“No use crying over spilled milk,” Mercury said with a nonchalant wave of his hand even though he knew that this was nothing remotely close to spilled milk. This was more like spilled gasoline next to a raging bonfire. Blake clearly felt terrible, and Yang and Mercury managed to escape with their lives… so what was the point of making her feel worse than she already did? “Forget about it,” he told her.

They both knew no one would be forgetting this night anytime soon, but perhaps she could at least forget about some of the guilt she felt.

“Thank you,” Blake said again, the two small words voiced with even more appreciation than before. She then offered another chuckle despite her sadness. “Maybe I should take dating advice from Yang. She seems to have an eye for the good ones…”

Mercury felt a wry smile tug at his chapped lips from the indirect compliment. His gaze then wandered to the slumbering blond beauty beside him.

“I dunno…” he said, brushing a stray strand of hair from her angelic face. “Pretty sure I’m the one who lucked out.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was minutes before sunrise when the Schnee limousine pulled into the Mistral Hospital parking lot, yet there was a surprising number of people awake to greet them at such an odd hour. Apart from a mixture of annoyed and relieved hospital employees, family members of every passenger in the pearl white limousine were lined along the sidewalk leading to the facility’s main entrance.

Emerald’s mom and dad welcomed her with one of the most heartening group hugs Mercury had ever seen. Weiss, meanwhile, had to endure a brief scolding from Winter before earning her hug, though the contrast in emotions could’ve won them some type of sisterly love award. Easily.

Kali was there along with a big, burly guy Mercury quickly deduced to be her husband. All the impure thoughts he ever had about that woman vanished upon taking in the mountainous man that was Mr. Belladonna. He’d only just met him, but his gut instinct was screaming don’t ever cross him! He’ll destroy you!

Despite Mr. Belladonna’s fearsome exterior, he seemed as soft as a teddybear when Blake reigned both her parents in for yet another touching family moment.

Mercury had Yang’s human arm draped around his shoulders as he maneuvered both of them out of the limo.

“Yang!” he heard a man cry. He saw Qrow approach from the corner of his eye, but he knew that voice didn’t belong to him. It hadn’t been gruff enough. “Yang,” he called again—quieter, closer—and that’s when Mercury noticed a second man jogging up from the opposite side of Qrow. He was tall, muscular, had dad shorts for days, and the same naturally golden hair Mercury could recognize anywhere.

“Yang’s dad, I presume?” Mercury said. He would’ve offered him a handshake if he hadn’t been preoccupied keeping Yang for slumping to the concrete.

“Tai,” he corrected with a stern look before turning less heated eyes toward his daughter. He reached out and relieved Mercury of Yang’s weight, scooping her up in his arms.

“Chloroform,” Mercury told him after assessing his worried expression. He felt like he needed to explain that he wasn’t the one responsible for Yang’s current condition, though he wasn’t sure how comforting it was to hear his daughter’s boyfriend say that she’d been chloroformed on his watch… especially considering this was their first meeting. Not exactly how Mercury wanted that to go down.

Tai fixed him with another heated look not unlike the first. “I’ll take it from here,” he said curtly. Without another word, he turned and walked toward the hospital’s entrance followed by several members from the unwelcome welcoming committee. Mercury felt a strange sensation of anger and powerlessness swirl within him, but it evaporated with the feel of a calming hand on his shoulder.

“He’ll warm up to you eventually, kid,” Qrow told him. “Tai is just… a typical dad of two daughters. He’s a little overprotective at times. Once he gets to know you, he’ll take to you just as much if not more than I have.”

Mercury quirked an eyebrow. “You’ve taken to me, officer?” he teased.

Qrow moved his hand from Mercury’s shoulder to his mess of silver hair and gave it a good ruffle. “Hey, don’t go spreading mushy stuff like that around. Gotta keep my reputation as a tough guy for my line of work.”

“Does Winter know you’ve taken to me?” Mercury continued, unable to help himself. “She’s right there. We could let her know right now.”

“Or,” Qrow said, taking Mercury by both shoulders and spinning him around to face the other way. “You could talk to him instead.”

Mercury was speechless, which didn’t happen all that often. A few short strides away stood Marcus Black. He had his hands stuffed in his leather jacket and his white hair was undergoing a nasty case of bedhead. If his hair wasn’t enough indication, his bedroom slippers and striped pajama bottoms sure were. Marcus must’ve rushed over to the hospital the second he’d gotten word of what happened. He hadn’t even taken the time to properly groom or dress himself.

Is he… worried?

Mercury took the first step. Marcus mirrored accordingly until they were one step away from bumping heads. Mercury was finally tall enough to look his old man directly in the eyes. When had that happened? Oh… maybe when Weiss had upgraded his legs…

Whatever. He felt just as tall inside as he was out—like he’d grown into the type of person who could confidently stand on equal footing with his elders without second guessing himself for his age or lack of experience. He felt more worldly and silently wondered if Marcus could sense his growth, too.

“You sure know how to cause trouble, kid,” Marcus said. His expression was as humdrum as his tone, so Mercury couldn’t tell if there was supposed to be humor to those words or not.

“I get it from my old man,” Mercury retorted.

The chuckle he received for such sass surprised him, but not nearly as much as the strong embrace that followed it. Marcus Black encircled his arms around his son and breathed out a huff of relief as their bodies collided. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he said, his voice the was shakiest Mercury had ever heard it.

Mercury couldn’t remember the last time Marcus had hugged him like that. Was it when his mother left? Or maybe even before then… Regardless, it was a foreign feeling he was unsure how to reciprocate. Slowly, his arms moved of their own volition and clung to the smooth leather of Marcus’ jacket. Even more slowly, a tear he hadn’t realized was forming streamed down his cheek. He breathed in his old man’s scent—leather, whiskey, and pipe tobacco—and suddenly latched onto him like he might not get another chance to. With eyes shut tight and arms holding tighter, Mercury let a few soft sobs escape him as years and years worth of tension and repressed emotion slipped away.

They remained like that until Mercury felt the gentle hand of one of the nurses on the small of his back. “It’s time to go inside, Mercury. You’re still in recovery,” she kindly reminded him.

Marcus released his grip first, but kept an arm around his son’s waist as he ushered him toward the hospital.

“You’re not mad at me? I drove a car tonight,” Mercury said, wiping the embarrassing amount water streaking his face on the back of his hand.

“Mad at you? For saving someone you love?” Marcus pretended to mull the question over. “Nah. Not tonight.” He looked over at his son and smiled so warmly Mercury almost forgot how cold he was. “It’s Christmas, god dammit,” he thought to add.

Mercury smirked. “Merry god damn Christmas… Dad.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

As Mercury suspected might be the case, he was barred from having visitors for the remainder of his stay in the hospital. His father was the only exception to that rule, but his visits were never too long, nor too taxing—nothing like Yang’s visits. Fortunately, he was released three days after that rule went into effect and allowed to finish healing at home. He spent most of those three days sleeping, so by the time he was free to see Yang again, he was well rested and ready.

Marcus trusted him enough to lend him the Chevy, enabling Mercury to drive to her for once. A welcome change of pace. He wanted to start doing more boyfriendy things, and having his own mode of transportation definitely helped in that area. Well… technically it was his father’s mode of transportation, but the way things were going, he’d be inheriting the piece of tin as soon as his father bought a new car.

Yang’s house was a lot like what he pictured it might be. It was in the suburbs, but it had a very cottage feel to it. There were flowers in the windowsills, ivy vines lacing along the bricks, and an adorable little corgi curled up on the welcome mat.

Very homey, he thought.

With a bracing breath, Mercury pushed the doorbell.

The sleeping pooch awoke with a bark at the sound of the chime. Some guard dog, Mercury scoffed as he bent down to let the lazy pup sniff the back of his hand.

He detected the sound of heavy footfalls before the front door creaked open. A tall blonde stood in the doorway looming over him, just not the one he’d been hoping to see.

“Hi, Tai,” Mercury said, rising out of his crouched position. “Cute dog.”

“Zwei. Attack,” Tai darkly ordered, but the dog merely waddled up to Mercury’s leg and rubbed his face against his jeans.

Tai sighed. “We’ll work on that later,” he said, moving aside and gesturing for Mercury to pass him.

“You might want to work on how heavy a sleeper he is, too. If I were a real criminal, your TV and computer would be long gone by now,” Mercury mentioned as he crossed over the threshold into the foyer. He almost said and your daughter, but he didn’t want to be kicked out so soon after being invited in.

“Yang’s upstairs in her room,” Tai said, bending over to pat his knee and encourage Zwei to join them inside.

Mercury pursed his lips in deep thought. “So… where should I wait for her?”

Tai closed the door behind the cute corgi’s stumpy tail. “Upstairs. Where else?”

Mercury blinked to focus his eyes and concentrate on his hearing. “You trust me and Yang to be alone together? Upstairs?”

Tai looked over his shoulder and fixed Mercury with a glare so frightening it sent a freezing chill racing through his blood. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t trust you?” he asked.

Mercury fiercely shook his head. “Nope. No sir. Nuh uh. No way. We’re good. Very trustworthy. Scouts honor. I mean, I was never a scout, but I still have honor and—”

“Just go,” Tai said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Mercury spun on his heel and darted up the stairs before Tai had time to change his mind. However, he was faced with yet another dilemma when he reached the second story: which room belonged to Yang?

The door closest to him swung open, and out popped a familiar young girl with a bob of dark auburn hair.

“Oh, hey!” she exclaimed upon recognizing him, too. “You must be looking for Yang!”

“You guessed it. And it’s Ruby, isn’t it?”

“Yup! Good memory,” Ruby said with a cheerful beam. “She’s in the second room on the left. The one with the stars painted on the door.”

“Thanks. And thanks for my get well card, too. I’ll always be thankful I don’t have chlamydia,” he said with a two-fingered salute.

Ruby erupted into a fit of giggles before stumbling her way over to what was apparently a bathroom.

He stepped up to the star-studded door and rapped his knuckles against the painted wood.

“Yang? It’s me,” he called.

Not even two seconds later, the door swung wide open and his golden goddess of a girlfriend leapt into his arms. Mercury could feel his stitches stretch with the abruptness of catching her, but the discomfort faded fast enough to prevent him from stressing about it.

“I missed you!” she sighed into his ear.

“I know…” he said, using his best Han Solo impersonation.

Yang finally released him and stepped back to look him in the eyes. “Oh yeah? Well what else do you know?” she challenged.

He let one hand slide up her human arm, his fingernails leaving goosebumps in their wake. He brought the same hand to caress her cheek, brushing strands of her wild mane out of her face. “I missed you more,” he said in a hushed, husky voice.

That one earned him a flirty smile as well as a brief but sweet kiss. “Come in,” Yang said taking him by the hand and showing him into her room.

Unlike the cottage-esque house, Yang’s room was nothing like he imagined it might be. Where most girls had posters of boybands and idols, Yang had sports teams and vinyl record covers. Instead of pink frills and stuffed animals, she had comic books and action figures. She even had an Xbox hooked up to her TV.

“Cool! We can play on the same team!” Mercury said excitedly after eyeing the familiar console.

“Or… we could play as enemies,” Yang suggested with a mischievous smile. “Could be fun.”

“Enemies turned lovers? I could be into that…” Mercury said with a smile to match hers.

Like his bedroom, Yang’s didn’t possess the furniture needed to entertain guests, so he plopped down on the edge of her unmade bed. Yang joined him.

“Your dad’s pretty cool for giving us privacy like this,” he said, grabbing for a throw pillow that looked like a sunflower blossom. “All of your past boyfriends must’ve been real upstanding dudes.”

Yang stifled a light laugh. “You’re the first boyfriend to come over to my house.”

Mercury’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Seriously? Not even Neptune?”

Yang shook her head, smiling a bit more seductively than he thought was necessary. “Nope. Just you.” She leaned closer. “Which reminds me… I’ve been meaning to talk to you about my Christmas present…”

Mercury could feel his heartbeat drumming against his ribcage. If she got any closer or implied anything else, he might need to be reinstated to the hospital on account of a heart attack. “I, uh… thought you said that wasn’t the point. You didn’t give gifts to get gifts,” he said, fighting to keep his eyes on hers and not… elsewhere.

“But if you wanted to do something for me, I have an idea,” Yang replied, bringing a hand to his chest and playfully tracing circles along his shirt.

“I don’t know if I’m ready for this idea,” Mercury admitted, exhibit A of his claim rolling down the side his face in the form of a sweat drop.

“I know you’re not, but I think you’ll be glad you did it once you actually do it,” she said, scooting so that their thighs could touch.

“Y-Yang…” Mercury breathed, her mouth getting dangerously close to his. “I can’t…”

“You can,” she assured him. “I’ll be right there with you…”

He sure hoped so. Yet even if that thought had actually comforted him, his mind was still too fragile to progress their relationship to that level of intimacy. He was about to put a stop to her advances when Yang moved past his mouth in favor of placing her lips next to his ear and whispered, “I want you to go back to school.”

Well, that took an unexpected turn.

Mercury turned his head and looked Yang in her lilac eyes. “You want me to go back to school? For your present?” he clarified.

A modest smile accompanied her affirmative nod.

“Why?”

“Because I think it’d be the best thing for you,” she said. “Right now you’re only a semester behind. If you took summer school, you’d still be able to graduate and go right into college in the fall. I know that means you’ll be busy… but being busy is a good thing!”

“What makes you think I want to go to college? What makes you think I care about any of that?” he asked.

“Because you used to care about that!” she fired back.

“Used to being the key words in that sentence. I don’t anymore!”

“Well, why not?”

“Things change!”

“In four months?”

“In four seconds!” Mercury was practically screaming. He’d be shocked if Ruby, Tai, and Zwei couldn’t hear him. Unless Zwei was taking a nap… Regardless, he was talking a little more harshly than he probably should have, but she’d just breached one of the tetchiest of subjects for him. The only other person who dared discuss his education was Emerald, and she usually would’ve surrendered by now. “My entire life changed in the four very short seconds it took for that car accident to happen,” he continued after a strained moment of silence, his volume much lower, but his intensity still going strong.

“I know that,” Yang said, holding his gaze and matching his tone. “But I also know you didn’t want to go back to school because you were afraid of how different everything might be. How differently people would treat you or look at you—right?”

Mercury didn’t answer, but she didn’t need him to.

“Now that you have Connect Tech…” she continued. “…maybe it won’t be as different as you thought. Maybe you can even tryout for the soccer team.”

Mercury breathed out an ironic laugh. “Yeah, right. They don’t hold tryouts for seniors. Especially ones that haven’t been conditioning with the team in the offseason.”

“Why not?” Yang pressed. “What can’t you be the first?”

“Because that’s humiliating,” Mercury countered. “To go from the top to the bottom?”

“I did it,” Yang said. “I went from trying out for the volleyball team to being team captain in one year.”

“Well, that’s great for you, but I’m not you.”

“No, you’re not me,” Yang agreed. “But you’re a lot like me. In more ways than you think. That’s why I know you won’t ever do it for yourself… but you might do it for me. So I’m asking… for my Christmas present… for you to go back to school and try out for the soccer team.”

Mercury averted his gaze and stared at her collection of Transformers and Decepticons. “Would that really make you happy?” he asked.

Yang snuggled closer, leaning her head against his shoulder. “Almost as much as kissing you right now would make me.”

Mercury sighed. He thought he was smooth, but Yang could have her own brand of baby oil. He turned his head to face her once more. “Alright. You win. I’ll do it.”

Yang smiled so big he almost agreed to do it again just to see if he could make her look even more radiant. She crossed her wrists behind his head and leaned in closer. “I love winning,” she hummed before claiming the kiss she’d admittedly been craving.

As blissful as the moment was, there was now a daunting feeling tugging the core of his heart and the pit of his stomach—a feeling that would only grow stronger with each passing day until the start of the new semester.

Mercury Black was going back to school.

Chapter Text

There was something about the air at Haven Academy that made it a little more difficult for Mercury to breathe. He’d walked those halls hundreds of times—could probably find his way blindfolded—but the familiarity was what made coming back all the more stifling. So many memories of times he could never return to flooded his brain all at once. He was drowning in his own nostalgia. Luckily, a loving prosthetic hand was their to pull him out and guide him forward.

“I can’t believe you’re missing your first day back just to make sure I go to mine,” Mercury said as he and Yang made their way to his locker. “Isn’t that counter productive?”

“Not when you don’t have a class until second period!” Yang happily chirped. “The perks of being a senior with enough credits: you don’t need to take unnecessary classes. I get to sleep in and leave early for the whole semester!”

“Must be nice…” Mercury grumbled.

“Hey, don’t be jealous. You slept in just as much last semester!” Yang pointed out.

“Because I wasn’t going to school,” Mercury deadpanned.

“Well, whose fault is that?”

“Are you going to argue with me the entire day?” he asked, sparing her a scowl to go with his sidelong glance.

“Nope. Just until second period,” Yang informed him with the same sunny smile she’d answered just about any question he’d had for her that morning. “I’ll argue with you more after school when it’s time for soccer tryouts!” she added with a wink.

“Yippee…” Mercury sighed. He fumbled with the combination of his locker as he tried to recall the numbers needed to open it. It took him three times to get it right.

Upon opening the narrow slab of metal, Mercury was hit with the biggest wave of nostalgia yet. Pictures of him with his former friends and teammates were cluttered up and down the entire length of his locker door, the slew of images angled in different ways to make his crooked smirk look even more slanted than usual. News clippings of notable soccer games of Haven’s past were mingled in with the collage, his name highlighted with a faded blue marker in every single one. The acceptance letter to the college he’d received his full ride from hung front and center of it all.

“Who’s she?” Yang asked, pointing to the one thing that didn’t have his face or name. It was a picture of his ex-girlfriend, Cinder, in all her sultry, amber-eyed glory.

“A piece of my past I’m ready to move on from,” Mercury said evenly. The way Yang smiled in response told him he couldn’t have chosen a better answer.

“Yo, Cap’n! The rumors are true! You’re back!” came a voice that could only belong to the ever cheerful Sun Wukong. Sure enough, Mercury turned his head to see the blond bundle of fun beaming from ear to ear. “Man, you look like shit!” Sun declared, relentlessly slapping his former captain on the back and letting out an even more relentless guffaw.

If Mercury wasn’t of the mind that only true friends would dare to be so blatantly honest, he might have been pissed. The unashamed smile Sun was wearing made it difficult to be mad at him, too.

“Good to see you, Sun,” Mercury said, his grimace quickly transforming into a grin because it actually was really good to see him. “I take it you enjoyed your holidays? Your abs are looking a little pudgier than I remember,” he added, using two fingers to poke Sun in his gut.

“Agh, c’mon, Cap’n! I could only say no to so many Christmas cookies before my sanity started to suffer!” Sun complained, covering his stomach defensively. “How could you even tell through this sweater, anyway?”

“The loss of my legs resulted in my other body parts getting heightened abilities, so now I have superhuman sight,” Mercury casually explained.

Sun’s eyes grew as big as the plate-sized cookies that would undoubtedly make his resolve crumble. “Really?” he asked.

“No,” Mercury said.

Sun let out another of his belly laughs. “Oh, man, Cap’n! You really had me there for a second!” he said between chuckles. “Glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Some things never change!”

“And some things do…” Mercury trailed off as he caught sight of the next person approaching his locker.

The beautiful brunette was decked out in a scarlet sweater dress that had a black belt cinched around her waist and lacy gold leggings that disappeared into sheen black, knee-high boots. “Mercury,” she greeted, her smile every bit as absent as Sun’s was present.

“Cinder,” Mercury replied, equally expressionless.

She gave Yang a glance that was almost dismissive before folding her arms and fixing her gaze on her ex. “You never called.”

It was Mercury’s turn to laugh, only his was more of a snort compared to the unadulterated peals Sun had sent echoing down the hall. “Sorry. Guess I was a bit preoccupied,” he said, his sarcasm anything but apologetic. God, what arrogance, was what he really wanted to say.

“From my experience, phones work two ways. So the same might be said of you,” Yang cut in, most likely recognizing Cinder from the picture Mercury was three seconds away from ripping out of his locker and tossing in the closest toilet.

Cinder furrowed her brow in misunderstanding as she switched focus to Yang. “I’m sorry, and you are?”

“Yang Xiao Long,” she said congenially, extending her prosthetic hand for a shake. Cinder eyed her metal palm like it was coated with one of the most infectious diseases on the planet.

“Well, Yang Xiao Long. I don’t know where you get off interrupting other people’s conversations, but this has nothing to do with you,” Cinder said with all the venom of a viper and no sign of consenting to a handshake—snakes didn’t have need for them, after all.

“Sun, why don’t you show Yang the cafeteria? Maybe you can see if they have any breakfast biscuits left,” Mercury suggested. As much as he appreciated Yang sticking up for him, this was his mess to clean.

“Sure thing, Cap’n,” Sun agreed.

Yang gave Cinder a look so heated Mercury could’ve sworn he saw her irises flash a brilliant red, but the fire extinguished itself the instant she locked eyes with him. Whatever she saw there, it was enough to convince her to let it go and let him handle it.

“Yeah. Breakfast sounds good. Maybe I’m just hangry,” Yang mumbled as she followed after Sun.

“You mean Yangry don’t you?” Sun said with another of his knee-slapping laughs.

Yang rolled her eyes. “Never heard that one before,” she said before they walked out of earshot.

“New girlfriend?” Cinder guessed.

“If memory serves, you broke up with me at Neptune’s party,” Mercury said. “You also didn’t bother showing up at the hospital. Something even my dad managed to do a few—”

“Because I heard how horrible you were to everyone who did go to see you!” Cinder argued. “I didn’t want to go just to get yelled at.”

“No texts… no phone calls… not even a goddamn birthday card,” Mercury said. “If you thought we were still together all this time, you need to reevaluate how you treat the people you care about. Emerald acted more like a girlfriend to me than you ever did, and she’s gayer than Christmas!”

Cinder narrowed her eyes the way she used to when she wasn’t getting her way. “I’m here now aren’t I?”

“No, I’m here now,” Mercury fired back, grabbing the book he needed and slamming his locker shut, but not before tearing the picture of Cinder from the door. “You wouldn’t even be talking to me if I hadn’t decided to come back to school.”

“I wanted to wait until you were ready,” Cinder explained.

“And I wanted you to help get me to that point,” Mercury said in a slightly softer tone. “You can’t just be someone’s girlfriend when they’re at the top of their game, living their best life. You have to be there during the tough times, too… In fact, you have to be there for the tough times most of all. And you weren’t. I mean, I know I wasn’t the perfect boyfriend all the time, but…” He made sure Cinder was looking him in the eyes before he told her, “I deserve better.”

He was content leaving their discussion at that and made a move to walk away, but just as he passed Cinder by, she said with a mocking snicker, “You really think Yang Xiao Long is better than me?”

Mercury paused so his words could reach Cinder loud and clear. “In every way imaginable.”


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Yang ✿ <8:34 AM>
Your school’s breakfast blows mine out of the water! I didn’t know chicken nugget biscuits were a thing!


Merc <8:34 AM>
Trust you to get excited over something as simple as nuggets…

Yang ✿ <8:35 AM>
Shouldn’t you be paying attention? Class should’ve started ten minutes ago.


Merc <8:35 AM>
Was this a test? Did I fail already?

Yang ✿ <8:35 AM>
Lucky for you I give out extra credit ;) You’ll have to stay late to make it up to me though.

Mercury tugged at the collar of his shirt. How was he supposed to concentrate on class with Yang sending him things like that?


Merc <8:36 AM>
How late we talking here, Blondie?

Yang ✿ <8:35 AM>
However late soccer tryouts last :D

Damn. He should’ve known that’s what she meant.

With a heavy sigh, Mercury slipped his phone back in his pocket and decided to actually restart his senior year off on the right foot, especially considering how much effort Weiss had put into making his feet flawless.

All in all, the day wasn’t half bad. He received a welcome warmer than he would’ve expected considering how long it had been since the accident. He originally thought his drama was old news, but apparently having him back on campus made it new news again.
Although Sun was by far the most enthusiastic about his return, almost everyone he came into contact with was elated to see him—teachers included. Emerald wasn’t as surprised as everyone else, though she did get the most emotional and tear up when Mercury asked if she wanted to come over and do their homework together later that evening.

When the final bell sounded and most students breathed out a sigh of relief, Mercury took a sharp, anxious inhale.

It was time.

He normally changed in the boys locker room, but that’s where everyone else would be. Sun, Sage, Scarlet, and Yuma had been friendly enough about his return to school, but that was because they had no idea of his intention to rejoin the team. Mercury had a sinking suspicion all those smiles and back pats would turn into frowns and cold shoulders should he gear-up alongside them in the locker room. Better to keep his metal appendages out of sight and out of their minds, at least until he proved himself. Thus, he changed in the bathroom.

He hand’t realized how slowly he’d been moving until he emerged from the school to find Yang with her hands on her hips, tapping her foot in impatience.

“Sure took you long enough… Are you thinking of skipping out?” Yang asked.

Mercury gestured to his athletic clothes. “Does it look like I’m going to skip out?”

Yang looked his attire up and down before letting her hands fall to her sides, her attitude dropping right along with them. She then closed the distance between them, balling her fist in his shirt and pulling him towards her until his lips were in range so she could grace them with a kiss.

“What was that for?” Mercury asked, fighting hard to subdue the goofy smile her spontaneity put on his face.

“Inspiration,” Yang said, her cheeks a positively radiant shade of pink. “There’s more where that came from if you do well today,” she promised.

Suddenly, Mercury had ten times the amount of pep in his step as they continued on to the soccer field.

“How was school?” she asked, reaching down to hold his hand with her human one while they walked.

Mercury laced his fingers with hers. “Surprisingly …Good,” he admitted.

Yang smiled. “Knew it would be,” she said.

“Okay, Miss Know-It-All… How are soccer tryouts gonna go?” he challenged. He meant it jokingly, but couldn’t help but smirk when he saw her seriously contemplate her answer.

“Knowing you, you haven’t told anyone you're trying out, so it’s going to come as a shock to everyone at first. But they’re all going to be super supportive and excited to see what you can do—except maybe Neptune. You’ll need to smooth things over with him personally before he’ll be open to having you back on the team. Once you make amends, though, he’ll be just as happy as everyone else,” she concluded.

Mercury pouted thoughtfully and nodded. “That’s one outcome, sure,” he agreed.

“Regardless of how it turns out, you’re going to have your own personal cheering section,” Yang added.

“Heh, you gonna cheer loud enough to make up your own section?” he asked, though he understood her meaning as soon as they passed through the gates that led to the field.

Emerald, Weiss, Blake, Ruby, and a number of Yang’s volleyball teammates were lining the sidelines with pompoms and poster boards that read:


GO GET ‘EM, MERCURY!


LET’S KICK IT INTO HIGH GEAR!


YOU BREAK MY CONNECT TECH, YOU’RE DEAD!

Weiss was holding the last one.

“This is a bit much,” Mercury said, scratching the back of his neck.

“I just wanted you to know—whether you make the team or not—you have people who care about you,” Yang explained. “And that’s what’s really important!”

Mercury smirked. “Thanks, Yang.”

Yang tilted her head in confusion. “Not Blondie?”

“Not this time,” he said, brushing his lips softly against her cheek before crossing the field toward the crowd of guys stretching and warming up.

“Well, as I live and breathe,” Sage said with a smile plastered across his face. “Mercury Black is back on a soccer field.”

“I’ll be damned,” Scarlet said in disbelief.

“Cap’n! Why didn’t you tell me you were back on the team?!” Sun exclaimed, his voice ringing out over the murmuring of the other athletes.

“Because I’m not back on the team,” Mercury told him. “I’m here to tryout.”

Coach Hazel broke through the crowd, his face as unbelieving as Scarlet’s at first, but as thrilled as Sun’s upon registering what was happening. “Are you… capable of playing?” he asked, most likely unaware of the way his eyes wandered down to glimpse Mercury’s legs as he spoke.

“We’ll find out,” Mercury said.

“Let’s focus!” came a commanding tone from the other side of the crowd. A shock of spiky bright blue hair was visible just above the heads of everyone else as the familiar voice of Neptune shouted, “All returning varsity players to my right. Everyone else, to my left.”

The sea of people parted as if Neptune had been Moses himself, all except for Mercury. Neptune locked eyes with the stationary contender, his expression far too fierce to belong to the carefree friend of Mercury’s memories.

“I said, everyone else to my left,” Neptune repeated, his piercing blue eyes two blades away from shooting daggers at him.

“C’mon, Merc!” came the spirited voice of Yang’s younger sister from across the field. “Don’t give up!”

Neptune’s eyes flashed just over Mercury’s shoulder to glance at the cheer squad in the distance, his hard exterior softening ever so slightly as a result. “If you don’t want to disappoint your fans, I suggest you pick the proper side,” Neptune warned.

Mercury hesitated a moment longer. He could technically classify himself as a returning varsity player—the side he truly belonged—however that wasn’t the side Neptune wanted him on and it really ticked him off. Mercury had run his fair share of tryouts and knew there was no need to separate them since everyone would be doing the exact same drills and vying for the exact same spots regardless of their history with Haven. Neptune was doing this to single him out specifically—to point out he needed to work harder than anyone out there to get back to where he once was. As if he didn’t already know that.

“You’ve got this, Mercury!” Yang’s sweet voice cried from the sidelines.

The way her words shattered Neptune’s stone-cold demeanor reminded Mercury of how he felt when their roles were reversed—when Yang was with Neptune—and suddenly he didn’t blame him for being such a jerk.

Whether you make the team or not, you have people who care about you, Yang’s words replayed in his mind. Win or lose, he’d have Yang no matter what. That thought alone was enough to make him give several less fucks about being humiliated.

With one last cheer of encouragement from Ruby, Mercury sauntered over to the rookie side that was Neptune’s left.

“Alright, listen up!” Neptune called once Mercury stepped in place. “Now just because you were on the team last year does not guarantee your spot this year! If there’s a better player, you can bet he’ll be the one to replace you, so I want you to give it your all no matter what!”

Called it, Mercury thought with a near silent harrumph. No need to separate us at all…

“We’re going to pick partners for the first round of tryouts. Varsity members, choose from among your ranks. Same games for the newcomers,” Neptune instructed.

Mercury glanced around to find most everyone around him slapping hands or pounding knuckles with respective partners. No one in his vicinity was making any moves to team up with him.

Fuck… he thought. Neptune’s stupid rules barred him from pairing with the people who might actually want to pair with him. Damn it, Vasilias…

“Need a partner?”

Mercury turned to see the warm, avocado eyes of Oscar Pine staring up at him. He smirked down at the freckled freshman. “Looks like you bulked up a bit,” he said, extending his fist.

Oscar softly popped his knuckles against his new partner’s. “I thought I would have some pretty big shoes to fill when I heard my hero wasn’t going to be able to play this year, so I really strived to get stronger.” He smiled up at him, his eyes shining through his shaggy brown hair. “Glad I heard wrong.”

Mercury’s smirk stretched into a full-on smile. Why had he assumed everyone would think less of him now that he had metal legs? Maybe Neptune wasn’t the only stupid one around here…

After taking five warmup laps around the field, all teams of two grabbed their own soccer ball from a bag provided by coach Hazel and began kicking it back and forth.

“As good as you might think you are, this is a team! You need to know how to pass to your teammates in order to be a star player,” Neptune called out as he walked behind the boys closest to the sideline. “There is no I in TEAM!”

“There is a me,” Mercury said a bit louder than he meant, making Oscar laugh.

“Two letters away from having a Merc,” Oscar pointed out.

“Let’s not go that far,” Mercury said, though he appreciated the flattery.

“I can’t believe how light you are on your feet,” Oscar mentioned after Mercury managed to kick a ball that nearly went out of bounds for him. “You’re just as fast as you ever were. Are you sure those aren’t your original legs?”

“I’m sure,” Mercury said, putting a little more power behind his next kick and rocketing it back. Oscar bumped it with his chest and got the wind knocked out of him as a result.

“Gah!” Oscar gasped, clutching his chest with one hand as he buckled over.

“You okay?” Mercury asked, unable to mask the panic he felt from seeing the cinnamon roll of a boy fall to his knees.

“Fine…” Oscar rasped. He looked up at Mercury, one eye slightly more closed than the other as a lopsided smile formed across his face. “Man… I need to get me some prosthetic legs,” he said.

Mercury walked over to help Oscar to his feet. “Careful what you wish for,” he told him.

“Black! Pine! This exercise is about moving your feet, not your mouths!” coach Hazel called out.

“Right! Sorry, coach!” Mercury apologized with a two-fingered salute.

“Right!” Oscar echoed before taking his place opposite Mercury and resuming their drill.

After passing, juggling, and kicking goals with partners, it was finally time for individual tests. Coach Hazel assembled a line of small cones in the center of the field that they were to zigzag between while dribbling the ball. Mercury used this drill as an opportunity to demonstrate his fancy footwork. He used the feints and trick kicks that had made him a local celebrity as he maneuvered through the cones, trying not to smirk too much when he heard the ooohs and ahhhs sounding from more than just his designated cheering section. If there had been any lingering doubts about Mercury’s skill as an amputee, they were quashed with that lone display.

“I think the prosthetics are an improvement,” coach Hazel said with a grin as Mercury passed him by to go stand with the rookies.

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Mercury said, kicking up his ball, bouncing it on his head, and catching it in his hands.

By the end of the tryouts, it was just as Yang had predicted. Everyone had gone from unsure and shocked to overjoyed and excited to have Haven’s star player not only back, but back in tip-top condition. Even Mercury himself was pleasantly surprised by his performance. The only person who wasn’t saying Mercury Black’s name with a smile was Neptune, and that worried Mercury. At the end of the day, Neptune was the team captain, and if he didn’t think Mercury was fit to be back on the team, then he wouldn’t be.

“I’ll have the results of today’s tryouts posted on the bulletin board first thing in the morning!” Neptune announced. “Whether you make varsity or not, you all did a commendable job! I think this year is going to be our finest yet!”

Despite such uplifting words, it was clear Neptune’s whole heart just wasn’t in it, and Mercury knew why.

He wasn’t going to let him on the team.

Everyone with eyes that day would say something about it, but he’d probably think of some bullshit excuse that involved team morale and bad blood. Or maybe his parents would just buy the school another stadium to keep everyone satisfied. Money had a shocking amount of power in the athletics department, Mercury knew all too well.

You’ll need to smooth things over with him personally before he’ll be open to having you back on the team. Once you make amends, though, he’ll be just as happy as everyone else. Yang’s intuition was right on the money. It was time to settle things.

“Hey, Vasilias!” Mercury called as the field started to clear.

Neptune paused in his tracks without bothering to turn around. “I don’t accept bribes, Black, so just wait till I post the results like everyone else,” he said before he moved to take another step.

“I shouldn’t have to bribe you. You and I both know that,” Mercury said. “I should be at the top of that list tomorrow… but I’m not going to be, am I?”

Neptune stopped again, this time turning to face his former friend. “If you think there’s a reason you won’t be on it, then I guess that’s something else we both know,” he said. “It takes more than talent to make it on my team. It takes cooperation and compassion and—”

“You think you’re being compassionate right now?” Mercury scoffed. “I’ve gone through hell and back these past few months. Coming out here was damn near torture, but I did it. Knowing full well I might embarrass myself in front of you and countless others who once looked up to me—I did it. Not only did I do it, I did it better than anyone else! So if this is a personal grudge you have against me—”

“This was going to be my year! My time to shine!” Neptune shouted, his cheeks red from both the chilled air and bitter frustration fueling his words. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to constantly be second-best? To live in your friend’s shadow? To have your own father wish he had someone else for a son?!”

Mercury blinked in confusion. “Your dad hardly even came out to any of our games…”

“Because of you!” Neptune cried, his shrill voice breaking in the process. “He said he’d only come if I ever managed to score more goals than you! If I could beat you—if I could be the type of son he’d be proud to watch play—then he’d cancel his meetings and come out to see me. But I couldn’t… couldn’t… even hold a candle to you. You were too good…”

“Neptune…”

“Don’t Neptune me!” Neptune spat, rubbing the water from his eye before it could turn into a tear. “If I care about something, chances are you’re going to take it away from me. First my father, then Yang… but you can’t have the soccer team. Not anymore. I win this time!”

Mercury was at a loss for words. He’d been friends with Neptune since junior high—and had played soccer with him for just as long—yet he’d never had a clue about all the resentment the blue-haired boy had been bottling up over the years. Of course being the best meant being envied, but not like this.

“Okay,” Mercury said, bending his arms at the elbows and holding his hands up in surrender. “You win. I won’t be on the team this year.”

Neptune narrowed his eyes skeptically. “Just like that?”

Mercury shrugged. “I mean, if anyone understands having a strained relationship with his old man, it’s this guy,” he said, using his thumbs to gesture to himself. “I’ve been fortunate enough to make some steps in correcting that lately, though. So I think it might be nice if you could do the same. Getting your father to at least attend a game would be the best way to make that happen, I think.”

Although Neptune’s jaw got tighter, the rest of his features began to soften. “You serious? You’d do that for me?”

“Sure,” Mercury said, surprised by how good it felt to say it. “It’s not like I have my scholarship anymore, so there’s no point in playing other than for the fun of it, but who plays soccer because it’s fun, right?" he laughed. "Emerald seems to think I’m smart enough to get an academic scholarship anyway… so maybe I’ll focus on that instead? Sounds pretty time-consuming, if you ask me.”

Neptune snorted in what Mercury could’ve sworn was a chuckle. “You sure have gotten lazy…”

Mercury shoved his hands in the warmth of his cotton pant pockets and offered his best unperturbed smirk. “I’ll see you ‘round, Vasilias,” he said before turning and walking towards his pack of cheerleaders.

“Hey, Black!” Neptune called.

Mercury glanced back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

Two words. Short and simple. But those were all it took to lift the weight off Mercury’s chest that always seemed to suffocate him anytime Neptune was mentioned or present. Free from the crushing pressure for the first time in months, Mercury took a deep gulp of air that seemed ten times fresher than before and smiled.

“A smile like that can only mean you made the team!” Ruby said once Mercury made his way over to their side of the field.

“You think so?” he asked, flashing Yang a glance that made her blush for some reason. “I think I’ve got a lot to smile about these days.”

Completely ignoring the fact that they were among nearly all of her friends and illuminated by the bright towering lights of the soccer stadium, Yang snaked her hand behind his neck and pulled Mercury in for a kiss that warmed him straight to his core.

“Geez, you two! Get a room!” Ruby groaned.

“Heterosexuals…” Weiss said with a shake of her head. “C’mon, Em! Let’s show ‘em how it’s done!”

“Wait, wha?!”

Mercury was too preoccupied to know for certain, but from the way Ruby’s groans of complaint intensified and Emerald’s whimpers of surprise gradually lessened, he imagined he and Yang were indeed being outdone. He didn’t really care, though.

He didn’t always have to be the best.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“What’d you get for number 26?” Emerald asked, looking from her calculus homework to Mercury. She was comfortably lying on her stomach across the Persian rug of Weiss’s study, her elbows propping her up as she absentmindedly twirled the pen in her hand.

“212,” Mercury said. He, too, had gotten quite comfortable, though that was more so because of the blonde on top of him than the couch beneath him. He and Yang had managed to squeeze onto the same sofa with Yang cradled between him and the crevice of cushions. As suggestive as this position might’ve seemed, both had their noses stuck in their respective books and their hands to themselves. Just hearing her heartbeat against his was more than enough intimacy for him.

“Seriously? You sure that’s right?” Emerald frantically flipped through her calculus book to the answer key in the back. “Shit… it is…” She let out an exasperated growl. “Why do we need math anyway? When am I ever going to use this crap?”

“Honey, engineers use math every day,” Weiss said, readjusting herself. She’d been using the small of her girlfriend’s back as a pillow and all of Emerald’s fidgeting had disturbed her.

“Well, no offense, but I don’t think I’ll be joining you in your lab anytime soon,” Emerald told her.

“I wouldn’t want to mix work with pleasure anyway,” Weiss said cooly. “I couldn’t help but notice how you’ve gotten every math question right so far,” Weiss said, glancing up at Mercury. “You ever consider being an engineer?”

“I haven’t considered much outside of soccer, honestly,” Mercury said as he scribbled his work for the next problem in his composition book. “But I’m open to ideas,” he added.

“You should apply for the mathematician scholarship my family’s company offers,” Weiss suggested. “It’ll get you a free ride to any instate college you choose. If you think that’s something you’d want to pursue, of course.”

Mercury smirked as he etched more numbers onto the page. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’m with Emerald. I’m more of a literature nerd,” Blake mentioned from her armchair. The way she was curled up, she looked just like a cat. “Give me words over numbers any day of the week.”

“To each her own,” Weiss said with a shrug.

The sound of Blake’s phone going off interrupted. “Hello?” she answered. “Oh, hey Sun… Yeah, he’s here. But why not just call him on his phone…? Oh… Well, he did get a new one about a month ago… Anyway, here he is.”

Blake tossed her phone to Mercury who caught it before it had a chance to collide with Yang’s head. “For me?” he asked.

Blake nodded. “It’s Sun,” she explained. “Says it’s urgent.”

“Since when do you and Sun talk?” Emerald asked with a suspicious eyebrow raised in Blake’s direction.

Blake’s cheeks grew as cherry red as the upholstery of her armchair. Luckily, Mercury’s conversation was enough to draw everyone’s attention and save her the embarrassment of answering.

“Hello? This is Mercury…”

“Hey! Where were you today?!” Sun snapped.

“I was at school. You saw me. We have biology together,” Mercury reminded him.

“No! I meant after school! We missed you at practice, buddy!”

“Practice for what?”

“Gee, I don’t know… Maybe the only sport you’ve played since you learned how to kick?”

Mercury sat up so that Yang had no choice but to do the same. “You mean I made the team?”

“Why do you sound surprised? Didn’t you check the bulletin board this morning?”

Truth be told, he hadn’t. After his discussion with Neptune the previous evening, he figured there’d be no point.

“You were at the top of the list, man! Cream of the crop!” Sun exclaimed.

“You’re joking,” Mercury said, completely astonished. “I’m on the team?”

“Duh!” Sun confirmed. “Practice is over for tonight, but don’t miss anymore! Neptune and coach are being really strict about absences this year.”

“I don’t believe it…”

“Well, you’re the only one,” Sun said flatly. “Now, uh… will you put Blake back on? I wanna confirm the details for our date this weekend…” he added a bit sheepishly.

Mercury slowly pulled himself off the couch and walked over to hand Blake her phone, his mind lost in a daze. Yang was at his side a moment later.

“You made the team?” she asked, affectionately tugging on his sleeve.

“I guess I did,” Mercury confirmed.

“That’s so exciting!” Yang cried, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing his cheek. “You did it!”

Mercury was still too stunned to fully register the beautiful girl clinging onto him, but brought his hands up reflexively to hold her against him.

“Mercury! That’s so awesome! Congrats!” Emerald exclaimed, climbing to her feet to properly congratulate him with a hug of her own. Even Weiss joined in, though she made sure she was touching more of Emerald than Mercury.

“Yes! Three o’clock Saturday at the teashop we talked about! Now I gotta go!” Blake hissed into her phone before hanging up and joining in on the group hug like she’d been there the whole time and not making plans with Haven’s most ripped athlete.

“How long do we stay like this before it gets awkward?” Mercury asked when he finally regained proper consciousness.

“Too late,” Weiss said.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“I’d like to thank all of you for coming out to the first meetup of the new year!” Kali Belladonna said to the gymnasium full of misfit teens. “Now, I’d like to take this time to open the floor to anyone willing to share.”

Mercury gave Yang’s hand a tight squeeze before rising up out of his foldout chair and walking to the center of the misshapen circle. “Hi,” he began, trying his best to make eye contact with everyone around him. It’d been a minute since he’d given a proper speech, but he’d sort of been preparing for this one. “Some of you know me as Haven Academy’s star soccer player. Some of you know me as that kid who survived one of the most brutal car crashes in our county’s history only to turn around and survive an attempted murder a few months later. And some of you simply know me as Mercury.” His eyes lingered on Yang’s for a moment before he continued. “But what you might not know is how I went from being a legless loser to the man quite literally standing before you today. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t necessarily fun… but it’s my story, and it starts with a meetup not unlike this one and the ‘hot chick’ who just so happened to be sitting across from me that night…”

~Fin