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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 of 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 an 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. His attempt at lightheartedness was not well received.

“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 calm 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,” she added, her sass making an impressive comeback. “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 assured her.

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. You’re 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. Worst part of living in a fairly small city: everyone knew everyone.

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

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.

“Dumb ass,” 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 and 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 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.

“Yang?” 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, Yang. 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, Yang! 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 mechanic 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.”