Here's another chapter for another Monday.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Kegi Springfield

Chapter 23


Everything was cold. That was the first realisation upon waking up, that the world I lay within was freezing cold and, as I opened my eyes, curiously blue. The walls were various shades of it, along with the ceiling and the floor I lay on, but for a furred cloak draped out beneath me, and a second over the top. It did precious little to offer warmth, but I had a feeling I'd be dead without it. Come to think of it, how was I still alive in the first place? The last thing I could remember was the Duneyrr, the big battle and then… an earthquake. Shaking ground, ice walls – Blake! I sat up quickly, eyes panicked as I looked around for any sign of the Assassin. There was none.

"Blake!" I called, pushing up into a sitting position and then cursing as pain lanced through my arm. I gripped it with my other, drawing it back to reveal no blood. There was a black bandage wrapped around his arm, however. Was that Blake's hood?

"You're awake."

"Blake!" My head snapped around so quickly it hurt, in time to see the girl detach herself from the nearby shadows. Her eyes glowed faintly through them. "Thank god you're here, I thought you'd…"

"Abandoned you?"

"Died," I corrected with a wary expression. "You wouldn't abandon me, Blake. Why would I even think that?"

"You… never mind," Blake shook her head. "We need to move away from here as soon as we can. I've tried to keep you as warm as possible, but there have been a few more tremors while you were unconscious." She glanced nervously about the cavern, which was crafted entirely from ice. It looked like we'd fallen from a chute a little further up. "I'm not sure this would hold if another earthquake like the last struck."

"I guess so… have you tried calling the others?"

"My voice echoed and was lost among the ice," she said. "I've been unable to hear anything from them, either, and my hearing is better than most. I think we fell a long way, Jaune. I'm not sure we're even close to them anymore."

Damn it - that was the last thing I wanted to hear. My head swam for a moment, but I pushed on through and forced myself to stand up and off the raised slab of ice she'd laid me on. The others would be fine, I was sure. At the very least, they couldn't be in as bad a situation as we were.

Blake sneezed. It was sudden enough that even she looked surprised, but as she turned her head away, the paleness of her face became obvious.

"Where's your cloak?" I asked.

She pointed at me, indicating the furred cloak that lay atop me, my own beneath me. "You needed the warmth," she said. "It's fine… the ice acted as a natural wind barrier."

"But it didn't do anything for the cold, Blake." I pulled the cloak off me and tossed it at her, watching her pull it over her body and shiver slightly. Her head was unprotected, likely because she'd used her hood to bandage my arm. "You need to take more care of yourself."

"This comes from the unconscious Knight?"

Heat rushed to my cheeks, more so when she smirked in clear amusement. Her words cut as deep as any Assassin's blade, I had to remind myself. The mood was soon lost, however, as she sneezed again, and I held back my own shiver at the frigid chill that pervaded the air.

"We need to get out of here," I said. "We need to find shelter, a fire – the others."

"We know where they're headed. If we make out way up the mountain, we increase the chances of finding one another." Blake tugged the cloak tighter around her. "It's our best bet, I imagine. Anywhere would be safer than here."

A low rumble proved her words prudent, especially when the walls cracked and groaned ominously.

"Let's go," I said, stepping forward. I nodded towards the tunnel before us, realistically the only way we could go. "I hope this leads out…"

"I saw sunlight ahead, and felt the breeze. There is an exit."

Good. Even if we were trapped on the mountain, the sunlight ought to offer more warmth than this dark, cold, cave did.

/-/

The tremors increased in frequency once we got outside. They weren't overly noticeable at first, almost like tiny vibrations in the snow, but after a good thirty minutes of trekking through the snow, they started to become bigger and bigger. I couldn't help but be thankful I'd woken up when I did, otherwise we would have been buried beneath the ice by now.

"Is this the work of the magical currents, again?" I asked, pulling my cloak against my chest. The back of it flapped out violently in the wind, exposing my lower body to the chill air.

"If so, then it's getting worse." Blake struggled as I did, her black hair flapping wildly, head lowered so that her face was concealed against the snow the wind kicked up. Each step was becoming difficult, our progress grinding to a near halt. "Jaune… we need to find shelter. This wind… it's getting worse."

"I know," I had to shout now to make myself heard. "We'll find a cave, shelter, something. Just… keep pushing on."

If Blake said anything, I didn't hear it – the noise swallowed by the howling gale. It didn't seem possible; the weather had been calm with but the smallest breeze earlier, and now the wind was powerful enough to drag up huge tracts of white and dash it in our faces. It changed direction on a whim too, tugging my cloak to the left one moment, then dragging me back the next.

It wasn't natural, that much was clear.

It only got worse as time went on, too. The wind continued to howl, dragging snow with it from further up the mountain, until – without warning – the very sky itself seemed to be blotted out. All that could be heard was the whirring noise of it, the constant hum of the storm. It bit into my skin. The breath that escaped me froze on my lips, even as the very blood than ran through my body felt like it did the same. Every step was dogged, each one a challenge to remain standing.

Words had long since failed us, and the effort felt too much now. Snow crunched underfoot, but the footprints we made were washed away almost immediately. It was hard to see for the blurred wall of white before me.

We need shelter, I thought, body shaking. If we don't find a way out of this wind, we'll die here. I felt I should be more afraid of that, but it was like the cold sapped away at my thoughts, taking the fear aside too. Lay down, it seemed to suggest, lay down and rest. I wasn't so far gone that I didn't know how that would end.

A new blast of wind struck, knocking me back a step. I growled at it and forced my eyes open, one arm held before my face to try and shield them. There was something ahead, in the snow… a dark shape.

Please don't be a Grimm. We can't handle that right now.

The shape didn't move, however, and as the wind blasted back up, it was almost concealed from view. It couldn't be a tree… there hadn't been a forest for a while, and it was far too small. If it were a Grimm, it would have surely attacked us too.

"There's something ahead…" I yelled. "It might be shelter!"

The Assassin mumbled something. It was too low to hear, if I'd even been meant to. She trudged a few steps behind, hands clenched against her chest. Our fur cloaks, a gift for the cold weather, did so little now.

It took another minute or two for the object to be revealed once more and closer now – the overall shape of it became clearer. It was squat and dark, with a sloped surface. A building… had we found a sign of human life up on the mountain?

It didn't matter. We'd found shelter – and that was all that mattered.

"Blake! We did it." I whooped as new energy flooded my limbs. I expected similar from her, or at least some words of approval. I received nothing. It was enough to make me worry and turn around. "Blake…?" I asked.

There was no one standing behind me – but a little further back, a dark shape lay in the snow.

My heart stopped. It started again an instant later, but that wasn't enough to stop the visceral fear rush through me. I stumbled back, half a run, half a case of falling across the snow as I crashed down beside her. The blizzard had already begun to cover her, removing all evidence my friend had ever existed, but my hands crunched down into it and turned her over. Blake's face was so pale, her lips parted and eyes closed.

"No," I whispered. "No, no, not now – not like this." She felt so cold in my hands, and although I could still see her breath in the air, it was faltering and weak. "Wake up," I hissed, shaking her. She didn't open her eyes.

The blizzard tugged at me, still, dragging me down, but I forced myself to stand, Blake cradled before me. She wasn't heavy, not in the conventional sense, but with my energy as it was, she might as well have weighed a thousand pounds or more. Every step was a torturous affair, and it felt like the wind might send me rolling back down the mountain at the slightest provocation. It wasn't even that steep; it was just that the storm was so strong.

"I won't give up," I promised, pushing ever-forward, one step after the next – one crunch of snow before another. Her raven tresses flapped up into my face, but those too went ignored. I just had to reach that building. I just had to… get her inside, get help. The building revealed itself as a wooden thing, with a sloped roof already covered in a later of white. A chimney peeked over the top, with a slanted cover above it, but no smoke came from within. The windows were iced over completely. I sagged against the door, slamming on it with one hand. "Help," I cried. "Let us in – we need shelter."

There was no response.

Frustration pooled within me, but a quick look down at Blake's pale face more than made up my mind. Taking a step back, Blake still in my arms, I delivered a fierce kick at the door latch. It cracked and splintered, the door remaining in one piece, but the lock – no doubt rusted and old – snapping in two. We stumbled inside a moment later, the chill wind cutting off entirely, even if the door did flap open and closed with loud thwacks. Fortunately, there was another on the inside – and that one was unlocked.

Snow fell from my boots as I trudged deeper into the small cabin, eyes tracing left and right. No sign of the inhabitants, and the interior was only marginally warmer than outside. The wind was gone, however, and the chill it delivered eased from our bodies. It wouldn't be enough for Blake, though. She needed a fire – and fast.

"Just hold on a little longer," I whispered and placed her down by the clay-formed fire place. I patted her cloak out beneath her, and then echoed her sacrifice from earlier, placing my own over her body like a blanket. Her head peeked free and I wondered if I should cover that too. In the end, I was too worried about obstructing her breathing, and no amount of blankets would matter if I didn't get a fire going.

There were no logs in the pit itself, and none in the wicker basket beside it. I scowled and sprinted through the dwelling, checking the only two rooms there were. One seemed to be a pantry of sorts, but any food it contained was long since gone. The other had a bed, but the blanket was threadbare and rotted. The window was smashed too, letting the cold air in.

Damn it, damn it, damn it… wasn't there anything I could turn into firewood? My eyes fell on two chairs, literally the only furnishing in the cabin. I placed one foot against the leg of one, and pulled on another, tearing it into smaller pieces. These, I smashed into the fire pit as best I could. It would have to do, and Blake didn't have the time for me to be picky.

"Come on," I begged and rubbed my hands together. "Not too hot or they'll be incinerated. I just need to start a fire." I blew on my palms and held them out towards one of the chair legs, concentrating on generating heat, but not enough to turn it to ash.

It was something I'd practiced at home, as sort of a gimmick after seeing my father do it. The trick was to rub the wood and slowly heat it up, so that it caught fire instead of your hand branding fingerprints into it. I bit my lip as I tried to focus past the hypothermia I felt creeping through me. Come on, I begged. Please work… A light flickered. There was a tiny sizzle. My eyes widened and I had to resist the urge to grip the wood tighter. Slowly, frustratingly so, an ember sparked to life and began to glow. I leaned in to blow gently on it, coaxing it to life. Our own very much relied on it, after all.

Relief poured through me as it took hold and began to burn, creeping down the chair leg as a stead flame appeared. My shoulders sagged, body falling back to sit beside Blake as the fire began to crackle and burn. "We did it," I whispered. "Blake, I managed it. You'll be okay."

The Assassin didn't respond. Gently, I laid a hand against her cheek. She was so cold, but I could also feel the heat from the fire on the back of my hand. Her breathing was weak and light, but steady. She was shaking, however. Why was she still cold? My hand drifted a little lower, checking her pulse against her neck.

My fingers came away wet.

"Shit." I tore the cloak off her body, pressing a hand to her stomach and the dark clothes she wore. They were sodden and clung to her skin. The snow and ice had begun to melt, but all across her body, leaving the girl covered in icy water. Her face was less pale, but her shoulders were nearly white. "Damn it," I swore, fumbling with some of the belts she gad about her and taking those off. Her outfit hung a little looser, but the wet material still sagged and stuck to her body.

It had to go.

I reached for her... and hesitated.

Something squirmed within me at the idea. It would be awkward and unfair, a complete betrayal of her trust, but she'd die if I didn't do something. My hands moved closer, but I swallowed and yanked them back when the touched her stomach. It felt like they'd been burned despite the ice that ran through her skin.

She didn't move. It didn't even look like she felt it.

I was an idiot… I was being an idiot. This wasn't anything sexual and it didn't have to be. I took a deep breath to fortify myself. It didn't help much, but I moved down to her feet regardless. The extremities were important, or so I'd always been told. Blood would circulate to them, and she had been walking through the snow. Her boots were knee-high, which already meant I was going further up her legs than I felt comfortable doing.

I clenched my eyes shut when my fingers pushed against her bare skin. It was so smooth and soft that I couldn't help the way my heart raced, the intrinsic desire to splay my hands out and feel more of me. I could bite down on that desire, however, and forced myself to do so as I dragged her boots down, swallowing as I felt my fingers brush and trail down her leg. The right boot came off with a little difficulty, revealing her slender, toned shins and foot. It was cold and pale, but I laid it down atop the furred cloak and moved onto the next, struggling with it more than I had the first.

Okay, boots off and tossed near the fire to warm up. I wished I could stop there, for already her pale and bare legs taunted my eyes. Did she honestly have to wear a skirt without leggings? Actually, that was probably easier for me, since it meant less things to remove, but it also caused problems a little lower down. I really was scum.

"I can't help it," I whispered, as though to explain myself to her. "I won't do anything to you, Blake. I promise, but I can't stop my body reacting."

Blake didn't answer, nor did she judge, but I hadn't expected her to. There was no time to waste and here I was, feeling squeamish over touching her because of how beautiful she was. Would she die because I was over-excited to see some skin? No, I wouldn't let her. I swallowed and knelt above her form, took a deep breath, and reached for her belt. The buckle was wet and slippery, but came free easily enough. I pulled it out and threw it aside, tugging up her tunic and revealing her toned stomach. My eyes clenched shut as I pulled it higher, especially when it… caught on something – some things. Focus, damn it.

I forced my eyes open, to look down at her breasts, hidden behind a linen brassiere. They were of average size, but there was nothing else average about them. They captivated my senses and sent heat pooling through me, not to mention sending my pulse racing. Focus on the task at hand, I rebuked myself. It was the work of but a moment to lift her arms up above her head and tug her tunic off entirely. Gods, she was beautiful – all toned muscle and smooth skin, a mixture of soft and hard that promised intense power and lithe movement. I wondered if it was her diet and exercise, or just something more befitting her Assassin Class. Either way, she was... beautiful - ethereally so. Here I was, a mere Blacksmith, touching this example of perfection. My hands should never be allowed to, for they should have been dirty with soot and ash from the forge.

I laid her top aside and went to work on her skirt, drawing it off her hips and down her long legs. Her underwear remained, pale cloth with thin strips tied in small knots on either side of her waist. I placed a hand against the sides, more than aware of how close I was to her core, and breathed a sigh of relief when her underwear was dry. There shouldn't have been anything erotic about a freezing girl, but for all my demands, my body didn't agree. I was glad I wouldn't need to take off the last vestiges that protected her, even if a more carnal part of me wasn't.

The heat from the fire should help her more now. The clothing and water was probably keeping the cold air against her skin.

I placed a hand against her cheek, and then against her bare stomach. Her face felt far warmer, likely a sign that I'd left her in wet clothing for a little too long. I didn't want to move her too close to the fire in case something went wrong, however. Her legs had it far worse, with her feet being ice cold. Without really thinking about it, I crossed my legs by her lower body and lifted her feet into my lap, to try and share some of my own warmth.

"You can't be a Hero if you can't walk, Blake," I said, lifting one pale foot up and gently massaging the skin between my fingers. "How are you supposed to help me out the next time I'm in over my head if you lose your legs?"

If Blake had some sarcastic reply – and I knew she would – then she was too exhausted to use it. Her lips parted a little, but it looked like it was an unconscious action, likely a sign of her body relaxing in the heat. As her muscles loosened and the warmth bore into her, she'd have a better chance of waking up. Considering the lack of firewood in the cabin, that was important.

I glanced down to my hands, her cold foot clasped between them. I could speed up the process a little… much like I had with her before. My eyes closed as I took a deep breath and concentrated, drawing heat to my palms like I had to start the fire, but far less. I didn't want to hurt her, or to overpower her senses, but instead to work the heat into her body. My hands tingled as I felt my Passive come to life. I gripped her foot and massaged it, breathing a sigh of relief when I saw her skin colour darken. It was working! I placed it down on my lap when it was done, picking up her other – which felt icy by comparison – and working on it too.

This was perhaps the first time I'd ever really found a real use for my Passive. The irony that it was for something unrelated to blacksmithing wasn't lost on me. Anyone could avoid being burned by their own forging… all they had to do was follow the basic safety precautions, but now I had irrefutable evidence that my Passive was useful. It started the fire, and now – as I cupped my hands and ran them up and down her left leg – it was massaging heat back into her body. It was saving the life of one of my friends. If I were a real Knight, I'd not be able to do this. A Knight is a melee Class… it would be impossible for one to have a Passive that controls fire or heat.

If I was what I'd always wanted to be, Blake might have died in my arms.

I wasn't though, and that thought comforted me as I ran my hands up and down both her legs, and then placed them on her stomach and stroke outwards towards her sides. Her skin was soft beneath my palms, her muscles hard and unyielding beneath her skin. My throat felt incredibly dry, but I forced myself to concentrate on what was important. In a way, it became easier as I went on, as though I was somehow growing used to the feel of her, comfortable with it. Don't get too comfortable, I warned myself.

Eventually, I moved to her shoulders and arms, massaging each before taking her hands in mine and pushing them together before my face. I blew warm air onto them too, as little as that helped.

"You're going to be okay," I promised. "You're going to be fine."

The fire crackled in the hearth as I laid her warm hands down atop her stomach. Part of me wanted to continue, but she didn't need any more and it might cause her harm. The heat had begun to spread about the room, which still rocked and whirred as the blizzard raged outside. The front door slammed open and shut, but even that noise seemed muffled. Now all there was to do was wait… wait for her to wake, and for the storm to pass.

And perhaps I was a little tired too, I conceded, as a yawn escaped me. The fire would hold for a few hours, and it wasn't like there was much else to burn. Taking my armour off and laying it to the side, I wrapped Blake in her fur cloak, and then wrapped the other around myself, laying behind her and drawing her back into my chest. She was stuck facing the fire, laid on her side with her head resting on my arm.

We'd both make it out of this, I thought, eyes drifting shut. We'd make it out… and the others would be fine.

/-/

I felt cold again.

The sensation was slow to filter into my brain, and when it did, it still took another few seconds for me to realise why I should pay attention. The blizzard, the cabin – the fire that had to be kept going at all costs… My eyes snapped open and I lurched up, only to pause at the crackling wood that still burned in the hearth. It was still alive and going, but in that case... I glanced down. My arms were empty. In fact, I'd woken up alone. Where was Blake? I looked around in a panic.

It didn't take long to see the amber eyes watching me from the wall beside the hearth.

"Blake," I gasped, "You're okay?"

Those wary eyes stared into mine. "Why was I… why am I naked?" she asked.

Erk… of all the questions she asked, why did it have to be that one? I watched as she pulled the cloak tighter around her body, and my eyes were naturally drawn to one creamy leg which poked out from it. The limb was retracted quickly, and when I looked back up to her eyes, it was to see them narrowed.

"Don't you remember the blizzard? We trekked all the way here but you fell unconscious in the storm. You had hypothermia… or at least were close to it."

Blake tugged the fur tighter around her body. She was sat by the wall, legs drawn up to her chest and the cloak wrapped around her legs. The most I could see now was a flash of shoulder, which somehow, despite that I'd seen more before, still managed to catch my eye. God damn it all.

"I remember the cave," she whispered. "I remember walking in the snow and feeling cold. I… can't remember anymore. What happened?"

Okay, good, she was talking and not leaping to conclusions. I wanted to move over, if only so the whole situation felt a little less tense, but there was no telling if she was armed under there.

"We made our way here but you passed out," I explained. "I was able to pick you out of the snow and carry you the rest of the way, but your clothes were soaked and keeping you wet. I made a fire, but your outfit needed to dry separately." I pointed to the side. Her eyes followed to see her clothing, strewn out across the wooden floor. To my relief, there were puddles still visible.

"You didn't… do anything?"

My mouth went dry. "I… massaged some heat into your limbs. You were freezing and unconscious, Blake. You needed the heat."

"You didn't do anything else?" Blake shuffled. "You didn't…" she trailed off.

"Did I take advantage of you?" I asked, more than a little offended. "No, I didn't. I'm not that kind of person, Blake. I'm not going to force myself on a friend, least of all when she's hurt."

Her eyes remained locked onto mine, but perhaps she saw the sincerity behind them, for she held the cloak a little less tightly about her. "Of course not," she whispered, "I almost forgot what you are."

"What I am?"

"A strange Knight," she said. "You wouldn't do something like that."

No Knight would, surely? Was a Knight not someone who was meant to uphold honour and the law? That I didn't know the answer troubled me, but not as much as the thought of someone doing such an evil thing to her did. "I didn't take everything off," I said. "You still have…"

"I saw." Blake looked aside, her cheeks a little darker than usual. "Thank you… both for saving my life, and for not going any further." The Assassin pushed herself up from the corner, her legs peeking out from beneath the cloak as she padded across the floor in almost perfect silence. She sat next to me, a silent sign of trust, even if the proximity was enough to make my cheeks heat up a little. "I'm sorry for doubting you... and for the trouble."

"It's fine," I whispered. "You just woke up. You must have been surprised."

She hummed but didn't say anything else. I watched from the corner of my eye as she picked at the fur around her, amber eyes locked onto the flickering fire. It felt like she was out of words, or that maybe she was still coming down from her panic.

"The cabin is pretty much empty," I said, more to give her time than because she needed to know. "I broke up the furniture I could to start the fire, but we don't have much else."

"Hopefully it will be enough," she whispered. "We still have our supplies, right?"

"The contents are wet, clothes especially. Even if the packs are made of leather, the snow got everywhere. The food should be good though. Are you hungry?"

Blake nodded her head, but seemed willing to let me gather our bags, likely because she was worried she might lose her last barrier if she tried to pick them up. They were behind her and a little to the side, and I was relieving to find that she didn't flinch when I reached over her shoulder to collect them.

"We've got slightly frozen fruit or slightly frozen meat," I sighed. "At least the meat is cured. Any preferences?"

"When you make it all sound so appealing?" Blake laughed. "I'll take the fruit."

A wise choice, especially since the meat was a little damp. I pulled out what supplies we had, wrapped in paper and linen from the village. It was a collection of fruit, arrayed before us on a tiny wooden plate. There were dates, prunes, and even some slices of apple – though goodness knows where the village managed to find those. I held it before us, to bask in the warmth of the fire, but also to let Blake take what she wanted.

The Assassin smiled and nibbled on some slices of apple, a contented sigh escaping her. I took some as well, enjoying the bitter taste, before laying the plate on the floor in front of us.

"You know," I grinned. "This would almost be a nice place to rest if it weren't for the circumstances."

"You mean the blizzard that threatens to batter down the walls at any moment?" Blake perked a single ear up, as though to draw my attention to the howling wind and shaking walls. Yeah, as though I'd been able to forget that.

"Ruin the mood, why don't you… I hope the others are okay."

"They can't be any worse than us, Jaune. They have two Mages with them… at the very least, they'll be able to carve a cave into rock and start a fire. They'll be fine."

That was a relief, even if it did relatively little for the two of us. I could only hope the rest would come, that they'd not leave us behind. No, that was silly. I knew without a shadow of doubt that they would come. It just didn't seem possible that Ruby, Ren or Pyrrha would make the choice to leave us behind. It was more a question of whether they could find us in time… and the harsh storm said otherwise. They couldn't travel in this any better than we could.

"We'll have to wait it out," I said. "Once the storm eases, we'll be able to move on."

If the storm eases, Blake's eyes seemed to say. Her mouth, for both our sakes, didn't speak those damning words. "It's as good a plan as any," she said instead. "I'm not sure I'll be able to sleep again, though. I feel too awake."

"Well, you have been asleep for the last few hours."

She glowered at me, as though to say being unconscious and possibly injured didn't count. With her hair wet, cheeks a little red and hidden within her cloak, however, her glare was anything but intimidating. She looked like a drowned cat – and that analogy made me smile.

"I don't like that smile," she said, eyes narrowed into slits.

"I was just thinking about Beacon," I lied.

Blake was curious. "What about, exactly?"

"I was thinking on how we first met, back when you saved my life."

"I suppose the debt is evened out now," Blake sighed, leaning into my side a little. My eyes darted down to her, but she didn't seem to notice. Perhaps it was exhaustion, or maybe just an instinctive desire to conserve heat.

"You helped me with more than that," I pointed out. "Besides, you saved me from freezing back in the ice cave, so I'm fairly sure I only evened that one."

"Strange Knight," she sighed. "You were supposed to take that chance to not owe a debt to an Assassin."

"I don't owe a debt to an Assassin," I said, waiting for her confused eyes to glance up into mine. "I owe a debt to a friend, to Blake Belladonna." She blinked and looked down, but I caught the faint smile that slipped across her delicate lips. A question crossed my mind, and with the situation… how candid we were being, I finally dared ask it. "Why were you so angry with me before, Blake? Back on the ship, and then in Atlas… what did I do wrong?"

"I hoped you'd forgotten about that," she sighed.

"You don't have to tell me if it's that bad…"

"I should. When you asked me to come on this Quest, I told you not to do it. I said I wouldn't come and that you should give up on it because it would be too dangerous." Blake paused, and though she didn't actually say it, our current situation seemed to blatantly confirm her fears. "When it was clear you were going to be stubborn about it, though… I got worried." She glanced away. "I decided to come with you anyway, even if I didn't want to. Even if I thought it would be dangerous. At least I could be there to help, I thought."

"You have helped," I said, "more than you know. Was that why you were angry, because you were stuck on this even though you didn't want to be?"

"A little," she admitted, "but that's not all. I… more than that… no, it's silly."

"It's not silly if it bothered you, Blake."

"You didn't say anything. I decided to come and I did, I risked my life for this, but you never said anything. You never said thanked me."

Surprise gripped me. "I… what?"

"I told you it was stupid," she growled and ducked her head to rest atop the fur cloak. "I've gotten so used to not being thanked, that no one will care if I help because of what I am, that I started to crave the fact you were different. You thanked me for helping you with the Beowolf, you even shared the loot with me and returned my throwing knife. No one else would have done that and… I guess I started to want it. It made me angry that I came on this Quest for you, and you never acknowledged that fact."

I didn't know what to say, other than the obvious. "I'm sorry, Blake. I… I never realised. Thank you for coming; thank you for helping us."

"It's stupid, I know." Blake buried her face into the material. "I suppose it was childish too, but it felt different and… I guess I was being dramatic. I'm sorry too, for getting angry at you. I just kept scaring you off, and that made me feel worse because it felt like you didn't even care I'd come to help."

True, but I was supposed to be the Knight. Blake was a friend, one that went out of her way to help me, not just here, but multiple times before. She deserved my thanks, and so much more. I shouldn't have been such a coward... Ren was right, I should have pushed earlier, asked her what was wrong and not hidden away from her frustrated glares. Tentatively, in case she'd run away, I wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

She didn't run. In fact, she leant a little further into me.

"I should have pushed through and spoken my mind too," I sighed. "Please forgive me?" I felt her nod against my chest, and let out a sigh of relief. "Thanks for being here, Blake. I really do appreciate it. I… I'd never have even made it into Beacon if it weren't for you."

Her amber eyes glanced up into mine. "I don't think you're as weak as you think you are. Everyone else looks up to you, even if Pyrrha or Nora are stronger on the front lines. There's a reason they chose to make you the Guild Leader."

"Yeah, because Ruby slapped me down on the paper work."

"I think there's more to it than that," she chuckled. "Even in the Dungeon, when everyone was about to give up, it was your words that rallied them. They wouldn't have listened to someone like me, even if I'd raised the best points. They trust you."

"I don't think I deserve it."

Blake leaned forward a little, to better give me a little glare. "Why not?"

Ah, that wasn't a question I could really answer, was it? They shouldn't trust me because I wasn't a Hero, because I was lying about my Class and thus placing them in danger. "I'm not a high level," I said instead, still true enough a problem. "Everyone else is stronger than me, even Ruby – despite being two years younger. I'm not fit to lead if I don't have the Stats to actually pull my weight. I'm the weakest person here."

"Does your level bother you so much? What is it?"

I glanced at her, warily almost. "Isn't that a bit of a taboo? I asked Pyrrha once, and she explained how it's private and shouldn't be shared."

"Undressing a girl while she's unconscious might also be considered a taboo," Blake said, with a little smile to show she didn't mean anything by it. Even so, blood ran to my cheeks and I had to look away, mortified. That was not a... well, it was a memory I wanted to keep, no matter how selfish, but it wasn't supposed to be. I could still feel her skin under my fingertips and longed to feel it again.

"I'm ninete – twenty," I amended, realising that I'd somehow levelled up between yesterday and today. "I guess that Duneyrr was enough to gain another level."

"Congratulations," Blake smiled, expression almost bitter. "That's not a bad level, Jaune. The average for Beacon initiates is sixteen."

"Yeah, but…" I sighed and shook my head. "Blake, I was level twelve when I started Beacon. Pyrrha was twenty-one, and she's probably much higher now, and just about everyone else would have been sixteen or more." Shame pooled in my stomach, made all the worse by her calm, neutral expression. "I'm serious, Blake, if you'd not helped me in the first quest, I would have been killed."

"But you weren't," she pointed out reasonably. "And now you're no longer Level twelve."

"It's still nothing compared to everyone else. I'm not fit to lead when I'm the weakest link by far."

"Who, then, if not you?" Blake asked.

The answer was obvious. "Pyrrha. She's the strongest and has the best ideas. She led the battle formation during the Dungeon, and people seem to look up to her. Even the other Hero Classes treat her with respect."

"You don't think I should lead?"

"Ah… well, I didn't think you would want to," I hedged.

"Don't lie, Jaune. You know full well I would be terrible at the position. I'm not going to snap at you for being honest."

I chuckled nervously, wondering if she had some ability to read my thoughts. Fortunately, she didn't seem offended. It wasn't that she wasn't intelligent, for she clearly was. It was just… as much as it didn't bother me, the others did still seem hung up over her Class. I didn't want to say that, however. It felt pointless to point it out – pointless and cruel.

"I'll have to correct you on one thing, however," she said, sighing gently.

"Which bit?"

"Pyrrha," Blake whispered. "She is respected because of her Class, but as for her level…" The Assassin leaned back into me and sighed. "Level twenty-one," she whispered, almost longingly. "I was that level when I was thirteen-years old."

W-What? I looked down at the girl before me, at the top of her head and her feline ears, for her eyes were locked onto the fire. Level twenty-one at thirteen? That… didn't seem possible. I couldn't remember that far back, but I'd definitely been below Level ten. Dad didn't want me working in the forge as a child, in the same way no sane man would have. Holy hell, Blake was almost as strong as my dad as a child.

"How… how strong are you now?" I asked.

"Please don't ask me that," Blake sighed.

"Then, how did you get that strong?" Blake leaned back a little harder, lips set into a thin line. Her eyes were troubled and I instantly shook my head. "Never mind," I said, "forget I asked."

"Thank you…" she whispered. "The point I wanted to raise is that your level doesn't mean all that much. Mine doesn't make me fit to lead in the same way yours doesn't make you unfit." Blake took a deep breath and released it all in one go. "It's all about who a person trusts, and whether they trust you enough to follow your instructions."

Silence stretched out between us, even if that was a misnomer, with the fire crackling and the wind slamming against the walls. Still, it wasn't an uncomfortable one, and I didn't feel distressed by it. If anything, it gave me a chance to think – not only about her words, but also Blake herself. It didn't seem possible that the figure huddled under a cloak before me could be so strong, and yet at the same time, she had defeated Cardin in a single blow.

She'd also saved my life with ease, gathered enough lien to have a private room within weeks, and also helped us through the Dungeon with relative ease. More than anything, it made me realise how doomed we would have been without her. We'd only just defeated the boss, and yet if she was so much higher level than us, then the damage she dealt would have made for a large portion of that.

"I guess you're right," I breathed out. "Maybe I am being silly…"

"You are," she agreed easily. "You're not what most would expect of your Class, but I suppose that's what happens when you grow up among N- the labour caste.

"The Assassin cheering up the Knight," I chuckled. "Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?"

"Perhaps if a certain Knight wasn't quite so defeatist, I wouldn't have to." she teased.

"Well, you always do call me a strange Knight."

"Don't turn my compliment into an insult." She prodded a finger into my side and smiled. "Have a little hope… they're strong, as are we. We might yet make it."

I appreciated her high spirits, I really did, but with the storm howling outside, causing the cabin to shake and creak, it was hard to find any. There was a very good chance we'd perish here, from either the house collapsing, or inevitable exposure when the firewood dwindled.

"You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me." I sighed. "If you hadn't felt the need to come and look after me, you'd be back at Beacon, safe and warm."

"I would be alone," she countered. "I would have no one to see me as more than what I am."

"That's not worth giving your life for, Blake."

"Isn't it? Is it not my life, and my right to choose where and how I want to give it?" She shook her head and leaned back against my chest. "If this is how it ends… well, I can think of worse ways."

I glanced away, hoping she'd hide her legs behind the fur cloak once more. Even so, I couldn't help but appreciate her back against my chest, the warmth I felt from her. "Are we okay, now?" I asked nervously. "You're not still mad at me?"

"We are okay," she said, with a little smile. "I was never mad at you, Jaune. I…I'm sorry for doubting you. I panicked when I woke up like that." She glanced away. "Waking up in the arms of a man... It's not a situation I've ever been in before, let alone undressed and not knowing where I was."

That was a relief, and fairly understandable given the situation. With the fire warming us, and Blake's body leant against my own, I placed a tentative hand on her shoulder and smiled when she didn't complain. "Me neither," I said, after a brief pause. "I've never slept with a girl like that, even without anything more going on. Hell, I've never even kissed a girl. Doubt I'll be able to, given our current situation."

"Don't speak like that," Blake whispered. Her ears tickled my chin as she tilted her head to the side. "There's still a chance."

"A chance for what," I laughed, "the others to rescue us, or me to magically receive my first kiss?"

Blake's head tilted back, resting against my shoulder as she looked up at me with lidded, golden eyes. One hand, followed by a slim, bare arm, peeked out from beneath her cloak and reached up above me. It fisted into my hair.

"Blake?" I questioned, confused.

She smiled, but didn't answer. Instead, she tugged my head lower. Her own tilted to the side, lips parted.

My eyes widened, only to close again in rapture as something impossibly soft pressed against my mouth. Warm and hot, her lips moved against my own, head tilted back as she drew my mouth down into hers, her hand gripped onto my hair. Her lips tasted like honey, sweet and delicious, and I found myself wanting more, to kiss, to lick and to devour. It was a heady mixture of emotions and feelings that could only be satisfied by pressing down into her and wrapping my arms beneath the cloak, around her bare stomach; to hold her close, to prevent her from escaping… I wasn't sure which, but the beautiful reality of it was that she didn't try to escape.

She pulled me deeper into it.

It might have been an eternity when we parted, but to me it didn't feel long enough. Her cheeks were crimson, her breath coming out in short gasps – as was mine. I longed to return to it. Her bruised lips were full and inviting, more so to realise that it was I who had done it to her.

"Both," the Assassin whispered, "There's a chance for both. So don't give up yet."


Gosh, the questions I oh, so often get about the pairing of this fic. Even now, I'd like to point out that little has changed per se, from the original plan. I don't want to confirm or to deny, nor do I wish to ruin the emotional tint to this chapter by decrying any one pairing. I suppose that if you've enjoyed this fic so far, it should feel like the pairing doesn't matter, but I realise that isn't always the case.

For those for which it does, however, you can always go back to an earlier chapter as I think the pairing – or a pairing – has been mentioned before in author's notes. Anyway, congratulations to Jaune on his first achievement.

No, those are not a thing, I'm afraid - and no exp for it. xD

Hm, so here I ran into one of the issues with first person - which I will say again, was a choice by me because I wanted to experiment. I can't now, however, show other PoV's, which is a shame. I'd have liked to start this one with someone else's, if only to create tension as to whether Jaune was alive or not, but to switch - even for a moment - is something of a writing sin. I'd only condone it on a last chapter or a first, to start or end a story from a different PoV and tone. Ah well, you live and you learn!


/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

Jaune Arc

Level 20 (+1)

Blacksmith

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Str: 46 (+3) (A)

Con: 40 (+2) (B)

Dex: 13 (+0) (D)

Agi: 18 (+0) (C)

Int: 24 (+1) (C)

Wis: 31 (+2) (B)

Cha: 11 (+1) (D)

Res: 44 (+3) (A)

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Passive Skill

-Fire from the Forge-

Immunity to heat, flames and associated damage caused from his forging process.

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Known Active Skills

-Stoke the Forge-

Generate intense heat in the hand for a short period of time, capable of super-heating metal to forging temperatures without the use of a forge.

-Quench-

Rapidly cool metal-based material to achieve a hardening effect during the forging process. Quench can only be used in metallurgy, as opposed to Stoke the Forge, which can generate heat in the hand irrespective of what it is then used on.

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/


Sweet Jaune – a whole 10% increase in your Charisma. I suppose that's an achievement for first kiss – get.


Next Chapter: 3rd April

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur