Cinder's arrival was fun to write, albeit I saw I definitely made some mistakes and referred to the mysterious figure as "she" when I was making a conscious effort to not do so and use male pronouns instead. Whoops. Oh, well. It's not like there aren't a billion strong women in RWBY it could be. It's more suspicious to be a strong male, it almost feels like.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Dishwasher1910

Book 4: Chapter 8


The general mood among the ruined buildings remained tense until Qrow took the scroll and read through it. In turn, he gave his to the confident woman in turn so that she could verify our identities. Even then, it felt like her two companions were prepared to attack at any moment, and Blake kept a hand on her own daggers, the other on my arm, likely to throw me back should something happen. I'd have appreciated the obvious concern if it wasn't still difficult for me to breathe.

"Everything checks out," Qrow eventually said, and it was with that signal that we relaxed. "So, you're the team sent from Haven. I expected more of you."

"Quality over quantity," Cinder said, rolling up the scroll Qrow had given her and handing it back. "The situation here is tense, and lady Julianna is unsure who she can trust. The Greycloaks could be anywhere."

"And she chose you?"

"We are enough for the task," Cinder said. "I suppose introductions are in order." She kept her eyes on us, but waved her companions forward. As one, they pulled down the brown cloaks around them, revealing a young girl with tan skin and green hair, and a taller boy with pale skin and silver hair. Both showed clear deference to her, and both nodded in greeting. "This is Mercury Black and Emerald Sustrai. Both are loyal companions of mine, and have been for several years."

"Nice to meet ya," Mercury said, grinning.

Emerald simply bowed her head. "A pleasure."

"Emerald is a Mesmer," Cinder went on, "and has proven useful with the Greycloaks we've come across so far. Mercury, on the other hand, is an Adept, and works as the muscle of our group, with myself providing control and damage where necessary."

I left the introductions to Qrow, who went through us one by one. The fight - if one could even call it that - had been something of a wake-up call. With our recent successes in Atlas and against Watts, I'd imagined we would be stronger than whatever group Haven sent out, or that at least as a group we would be. Cinder and her two friends had roundly trounced us, however, and Mercury had even managed to hold his own against Blake, or at least distract her. Whether she'd have been able to beat him in time or not was kind of pointless, since the disparity between Cinder and myself was far higher. She could have killed me at any moment, I was sure.

"It's a pleasure to meet you all," Cinder said, nodding to the group. "I just wish it could be under better circumstances."

"Can't argue with that," Qrow said, looking at the surroundings. "Do you know what happened here?"

"The Greycloaks descended on the village in the early hours of the morning. They were let inside, having disguised themselves as a travelling band of Heroes. Those self-same Heroes slew the guards in the night and opened the gates, allowing more to enter. The people were rounded up and taken away, while fires were set to destroy the evidence." Cinder shook her head before Qrow could ask. "I do not know where they were taken."

"I'm surprised you know that much at all…"

"We captured a Greycloak yesterday. While he initially refused to answer us, Emerald was able to use some of her skills on him to make him believe he was in similar company. What I've told you is what we were able to glean from him."

"A prisoner?" Qrow asked, eyes lighting up. "Where is he?"

"Rotting for the carrion," Mercury answered, spitting on the ground. "Good riddance."

Ruby gasped. "You killed him…?"

"A murderer and scum. He deserved nothing better."

"Mercury," Cinder chastised with firm eyes. She glanced back to Ruby, but despite her tone there was little in the way of apology in her expression. "We did kill him. He was a criminal of Mistral, and with the news we'd received, we had to make our way here with all haste to see if there was anyone we could rescue. I'm afraid there was no time to take him to a prison."

"We could have used him," Qrow pointed out.

"Had I known you would be here, I might have kept him alive," Cinder returned. "I did not, however. For all I knew, it could be weeks yet until we met up, and I couldn't spend that time guarding and escorting a dangerous prisoner."

Qrow grumbled but conceded the point, and I could see the logic in it, even if it did feel a little heartless. I wasn't nearly as against the idea of the person being killed as Ruby was, even if I doubted I could kill a defenceless person in the first place. He was still a criminal, though, and after what I'd seen the Greycloaks do to those people in the ocean, I didn't feel much in the way of mercy. Either way, if they'd kept the prisoner alive, then there was a good chance they wouldn't have made it here today, and we would never have met up.

"I guess we should set up camp," Qrow said. "We need to pool resources anyway and discuss what our next steps will be. I hazard the kids could use some rest, too." I wasn't unaware of the look he sent me at that, since I was still bent double and recovering from Cinder's assault.

The woman in question nodded. "We have a camp nearby you're welcome to use. The area is relatively safe and we already have supplies there."

Qrow nodded. "Lead on."

/-/

It was with relief that I realised the camp Cinder was leading us to was firmly outside of the ruined village, and also out of sight of it, too. It was within a small copse of trees nestled against the base of a mountain, and deeper within that lay a cave. It would have been easily missed by anyone else, but these students knew the lay of the land far better than we did.

To my surprise, the inside of the cave was actually quite large, and also had several hollowed out sections that served as beds and platforms to rest on. None of it quite looked natural, and the whole cave looked like it had been lived in for some time.

"It's a traveller's rest stop," Cinder explained, reading my expression. "A camping location that has been used so many times that it's practically a stopping point for anyone travelling in the area. There are many of these across Mistral if you know how to read the signs."

"You get them in Vale, too," Qrow said, looking around the interior and nodding. "Usually, they're little shacks and houses made of wood. The typical rule is that if you use one, you should cut some wood and leave it for the next person. Just in case they're freezing and need a fire," he added for our benefit. "It's good manners and can save lives."

"There was some here when we arrived," Cinder said. "Mercury, start a fire for us. Emerald, could you go draw water from the nearby stream?"

"Yes, ma'am," the two echoed, and quickly went to their tasks. Qrow noticed and barked out his own orders.

"Yang, Nora and Ruby, find us some extra firewood – and a little to leave behind, as well. Pyrrha, you go with Emerald and help with the water. Ren, you're on cooking duty."

"What about me?" Weiss asked.

"Get some rest. You're still exhausted from running." It looked like the Mage might argue, but Qrow cut her off. "You can take first watch if it makes you feel better, in which case you may as well catch some sleep now while you can."

"You intend to spend the night here?" Cinder asked.

"You don't?"

"That depends on you, I suppose. Our instructions were to follow your orders. We are under your command."

"But you'd rather not," Qrow accused.

If Cinder felt any embarrassment at being caught out, it didn't show. One shoulder gracefully rose and fell, and she met the much older man's eye calmly. "We are well-rested and ready. If you wish it, we'll camp, but we had wanted to push on and investigate the nearby villages to make sure the Greycloaks haven't struck at them, as well."

"How many villages are there?" he asked.

"Four." She listed them.

"You can cut Celes off the list," Qrow said. "We came from there and it's fine."

"Then there are three. This is the only one we heard about being attacked, but we can't afford to take the risk that others might fall – if not from Greycloaks, then from the Grimm. The misery and pain generated here has spawned many, and will likely continue to do so for some time."

"I did think it odd there were none in there. Was that your doing?"

Cinder nodded. "The village teemed with Grimm when we arrived. We dealt with them."

The three of them had dealt with all the Grimm spawned after an entire village was kidnapped? I wasn't sure if that meant they were super-strong or not, but it definitely sounded impressive. We might have been able to do the same, but there hadn't been a single Grimm there. They hadn't just fought them; they'd exterminated each and every one.

Cinder and Qrow soon stepped aside and began to talk between themselves, no doubt him asking her for whatever details she'd found so far. I hadn't been given a chore myself, likely to let me rest, and so I sat and watched as Ren chopped supplies of meat and veg and began to sort them for cooking. Mercury offered some of theirs as a gesture of peace, along with some spices Ren promised to add to the meal.

It didn't take long for the others to return, and after a hearty meal between the two groups, everyone sat about the cave to talk or rest. Blake sat beside me on a rock platform and looked to my neck meaningfully.

"It doesn't hurt as much," I said, touching the red-raw skin there. Had it been an attempt to strangle me alone it would have been gone entirely, but Cinder had used whatever abilities she had to burn my flesh, leaving her fingerprints emblazoned in red on either side of my windpipe. "I think it'll be gone by morning. It's just sore at the moment."

"I'm sorry I couldn't get her off you."

I was surprised by her words, and also by her tone, which was filled with guilt and anger, most of it aimed at her own failure. "Don't be," I said, nudging my elbow against her side. "It was a fight and you did your best. Besides, we were ambushed, and I charged her blindly."

"If I'd been able to deal with my opponent sooner…"

"Or if I'd been able to deal with mine at all," I countered, my voice firm. "Blake, it's not your fault. It's mine."

"Actually," a feminine voice intoned. "I believe it to be mine."

Blake and I froze, neither of us having heard someone approach. Cinder stood before us with a small, amused smile on her face, but it drifted away when she saw the red marks on my neck. I moved to cover them instinctively, but her hand snapped out to catch mine. I flinched, but there was no burning this time.

"I should apologise for that," Cinder said, sighing softly. "Although a part of me wonders if I should, as you only lived because I wanted to drag out the pain. I could have killed you sooner."

Blake stiffened, and her hand inched down to her dagger. Mine caught it, fingers wrapping about hers even as I dragged the other from Cinder's grip. "I thought you could," I said. "You had me beaten for the whole fight, and strangling me to death was hardly the easiest way to kill me."

"I wanted to make you suffer," she admitted.

"Because you thought I was a Greycloak?"

"Yes. I apologise for that. It was a… lapse in self-control."

A lapse that had saved my life, it seemed. Had she been more focused, she could have brought her sword back around and buried it in my gut before I could recover, but she'd chosen to choke the life from me as vengeance for the all the innocent people taken. It was horrible, but it was also the reason I was still here holding Blake's hand. I squeezed it for comfort.

"All is forgiven," I said, trying to smile for the woman. I winced when it made the skin on my neck pull.

"Does it hurt, still? Wait here. I may have something…" She stepped back and moved over to a small pile of packs in one corner of the cave. They must have been her group's, for she opened one and started to rummage inside. When she came back, it was with a small, wooden container in hand. She uncorked the top and reached two fingers in, the digits coming out coated in a thick, white cream.

"What is that?" I asked.

"Burn salve. It will help alleviate the pain and also aid its healing."

"Do you always carry it around?" I had to ask.

The woman smiled. "When you have abilities like mine, you do. As do Mercury and Emerald. Accidents happen, especially when sparring, and small concessions like this make life easier." She reached her fingers towards my neck, but a hand caught her wrist before she could.

Blake's eyes were narrowed, and she reached out to take the container with her other hand, having pulled it from mine. "I'll apply it," she said firmly. "You don't have to."

I glanced between the two in worry, suddenly aware that I was trapped in some kind of power-play, with Cinder's fingers less than a few inches from my skin, and Blake glaring at her for it. I was worried Cinder might be offended at that, but if anything she seemed to find it rather funny. The corners of her lips quirked up, and she took her hand back, wiping her fingers on her cloak. "Very well, Blake," she whispered, still smirking. "I didn't mean to suggest anything."

Blake scoffed and may have mumbled something under her breath, but I didn't catch it. She placed the container in her lap and reached two fingers in, taking my shoulder with her other hand. The cream was ice-cold against my skin and I shivered, but the pain from the burn eased away, and under Blake's gentle touch, I soon found myself sighing in relief.

"That's quite the scene," Cinder said. "It's rare to see a Knight and an Assassin so comfortable around one another, particularly enough for one to let the other at their throat."

There didn't seem to be any of the ingrained prejudice I'd gotten used to in her voice, and it felt like nothing more than a simple statement. My eyes flickered back to her as I spoke. "Blake and I are…"

"Together?" Cinder finished, chuckling. "Yes, I'd noticed. I'll apologise to her for attacking you as well, then. I certainly feel like I've earned her ire considering the myriad glares I've received." She swept an arm before her and bowed. "I apologise, Blake."

Blake mumbled something that might have contained the word `okay`, but might not have. Cinder took it gracefully, however, much to my relief.

In an attempt to avoid it getting any worse, I decided to change the conversation. "Speaking of Classes, what about yours? I've never heard of an Elementalist before. Is that some kind of Mage-class?"

"I wouldn't be surprised if you'd never heard of us. An Elementalist is a Prestige Class, and there have only been two others in recorded history." Cinder smiled proudly at the fact. "In terms of ability, I suppose you could say I have mage-like attributes, but I focus mostly on melee and short-range. My element, if you haven't realised it, is fire."

I had, of course, and had experienced it intimately as well. I should have been able to guess it wasn't a pure Mage-type since she'd engaged me in melee. Still, a Prestige Class? That was the same as what Pyrrha was, and was supposed to be incredibly rare. It made sense I'd never heard of one, since I hadn't heard of a Champion either. Pyrrha did say Mistral loves its Prestige Classes. I wonder if that's why Cinder is so strong, and why Julianna trusts her.

"What about Emerald and Mercury?" I asked. "Are they Prestige Classes too?"

"Not quite." Cinder smiled. "It would be quite rare to see three gathered together at any one time. Mercury is an Adept, which is something of a mix between an Assassin and a Monk, to use your own company as reference points. It would be easier to call him a martial artist, but with a few tricks up his sleeve. As for Emerald, a Mesmer is a Mage-Rogue cross, though more on the Mage side of things. Their specialism is in mind-magic, suggestion and such. It was her skills which let us interrogate the Greycloak, since he believed at the time that he was reporting to his superiors. Or at least he did until I had Emerald ask what their plan for the taken villagers was. He soon realised his masters would not ask that and refused to tell us more." Cinder sighed. "A shame, but we had to try."

"What was the Greycloak like?" I asked.

"Fanatical," she said, tasting the word and then nodding a moment later. "It was strange, really. I've never seen someone so certain of what they are doing, least of all with something so obviously wrong. He didn't seem to believe his actions were immoral at all and actually laughed at me when I suggested it. If he'd sounded even a little remorseful, I might have been less angry, but…" She trailed off, and I could easily imagine that as the moment his life had ended. Her eyes flickered back to mine. "Have you dealt with Greycloaks before?"

I nodded, or tried to but for Blake catching my chin and giving me a stern look. "Sorry," I whispered, letting her continue rubbing the ointment in. In truth, I thought it was probably done already, but I wasn't going to ask her to stop, not when it felt so nice.

"We've dealt with a few," I said, looking back to Cinder. "Some were strong, others not so much. We never really had a chance to stop and talk afterwards, though."

"I see. We likely wouldn't have either, if not for Emerald's abilities."

True, and her skills certainly sounded useful, if a little specific. "Both your friends seem rather specialised."

"They are," Cinder agreed. "Most Tier-1 Classes are specialised in one way or another."

"Tier-1?"

"Forgive me, I did not mean to offend."

"You didn't," I said, confused. "I've just never heard of the term."

"You haven't?" Cinder regarded me curiously, but shrugged one shoulder after a few seconds and explained. "The tiers are another classification system for Classes, and usually refer to the potential of any given Class."

"What do they mean?"

"Hm…" Cinder touched two fingers to her chin. "I take it you've heard of the Atlas Ranking System; the system that portrays Stats in terms of a ranking between A and D? That is a generalised and accepted system, but there are some discrepancies. For instance, a Knight is considered a Tier-2 Class." She smiled apologetically towards me, not that I felt offended since it wasn't even my Class in the first place. "As such, you will have two Stats of each grade, A, B, C and D. If you think of another melee-type Class, however, then you might think of a Bard. A Bard is considered a Tier-3 Class, and might actually have a different array of grades, usually worse. They might only have one A, or they might have three less B's and more C's. The tiers are essentially a way of identifying which individuals have the highest potential for growth."

With the higher tiers having better Stat growth, I supposed. It made sense and I understood the concept, just not why it was the first time I was hearing about it. Then again, was that on purpose? Identifying people by Tiers sounded uncomfortably close to saying certain people were better than others. That happened often enough in Beacon between the Hero and Labour Caste, so maybe the faculty didn't want yet more schisms driven between other students, especially in their first year. It was possible we might have learned it later, since Cinder did look a year or three older than us.

In our second or third years, where friendships were already formed, the news that certain people would be forever stronger than others probably wouldn't drive apart quite so many friendships. Still, I couldn't say I liked the system, even if it was accurate. It felt too close to what I already had to deal with, with my Class as a Blacksmith being a lesser citizen.

That wasn't Cinder's fault, however.

"So, you three are all Tier-1 Hero Classes?"

"Emerald and Mercury are. Prestige Classes are usually considered on a tier of their own, though it's not listed as anything other than `Prestige Class`." Her eyes glanced to the side, toward the main party. "I'm sure the Champion could explain more to you if you asked."

Pyrrha probably could, but I would bet she'd kept that information from me on purpose, if only to avoid me thinking she was too strong or too important to become friends with. I wouldn't begrudge her that, nor dig deeper into it.

"What determines a person's tier, then?" I asked.

"Destiny, I would suppose." Cinder chuckled. "No one knows what gives us our Class, but if you are asking how to find out what tier someone is, then you might consult a tome on the matter. It's easier to discover it for the more common Classes, since there are more people willing to record their Stats for research purposes. I can give you a rundown of your party if you would like?"

I was curious, but I didn't want to offend or hurt anyone. As such, I looked down to Blake for permission. If she didn't want me to, I wouldn't.

The Assassin met my eyes. "I don't mind," she said. "A word and a name hardly changes anything, so long as you don't let it change how you treat others."

"I never would."

She smiled and nodded. "I know."

"Your lover speaks true," Cinder said, earning a flush from the both of us since we hadn't technically taken that heady step yet. "The tier system is only for classification and personal knowledge. It can help you recognise whether you are in over your head, or what you should do in a given situation, but it is not the be all and end all. A high-level Tier-3 Class will still defeat even a medium-levelled Tier-1 or even Prestige Class."

"I understand. What are we, then? You said a Knight is a Tier-2?"

"Yes. Among your group, the Tier-2's include the Brawler, Barbarian and the Mage. Mages are considered Tier-2 because they are generalised, whereas specific Mage classes like Mesmer's are considered Tier-1. Assassins and Monks are Tier-1 themselves, while Pyrrha, as you know, is Prestige."

That covered all of us, and while I wasn't surprised to find out Blake was that strong, the inclusion of Ren did surprise me a little. He hadn't shown off quite so much, however, so it was possible I just didn't know his true strength. Still, there was one person missing – and it was Blake who brought it up first.

"What about Ruby?" she asked.

"I have no idea. I have never heard of a Reaper before." Cinder frowned, looking towards the hooded girl, who luckily didn't notice and was busy listening to a story from Emerald. "For all I know, she could be a Prestige Class, but she could just as easily be a Tier-3. You would know more, I suppose, since it would depend upon how well she does in fights."

In fights, huh? Well, that was a mixed bag when it came to Ruby. The damage she could cause was phenomenal at times, and downright paltry at others – and her crippling reliance on scythes was sort of a big deal. She'd also nearly died from a single attack back in the Dungeon, and it didn't look like her Constitution had gotten any better since.

"What's the deal with Tier-3's?" I asked. "We don't have any in our group. Are they rare?"

"Unfortunately, yes. Tier-3's are Classes with the highest chance of having D rankings for stats, and some may not even have a single A stat. That is quite the disadvantage to have in life, and many reside within the Soldier Caste as a result. Even among the Labour Caste, many Tier-3's are simply not as good at their job as others. The world is a cruel place, and after thousands of years, many have simply failed to pass on their lines."

And so, they'd been bred out of existence. That could have been by virtue of evolution or intent, really, since I could imagine many people picking and choosing their partners to ensure the stronger Classes passed on. It sounded cruel, but when survival depended on the next generation, it made sense why you wouldn't want to have a child you might have to bury. As Cinder said, the world could be a cruel and unforgiving place.

Was it possible that Ruby was one of those Tier-3 Classes?

I didn't know, and in the end, it didn't matter. She was my friend, my Guild mate, and one of my closest allies. That was what really counted.

"Thanks for the lesson," I said, and shifted myself once Blake had finished applying the cream. She placed the cork back into it and tossed it towards Cinder, who caught it easily.

"It's not a problem. I'm sure you would have been taught this in time. To be sure, you are first years, aren't you?"

"We are."

"You must be quite strong to have been selected for this Quest, then. Strong, or particularly trusted."

"A little bit of both," I hazarded. "We had a run in with the Greycloaks in Beacon, and we're one of the only teams Ozpin could absolutely trust were innocent. We are strong, though. We've been on more Quests than any other first-year Guild."

Cinder nodded, apparently pleased with my reasoning. I could understand her hesitance, since her life would be resting on ours as much as ours were on her. It was like Viktor and Kaedin all over again, except that these people weren't too far off our age, and felt justifiably concerned to see rookies like us. We were definitely over-levelled for first years, but I wasn't sure by how much. It might still have meant little compared to them.

"I'm glad to hear it," Cinder said. "I'll leave the two of you alone for now. I'd best stop Mercury before he earns himself a black eye." She nodded over to the silver-haired teen who was leaning in close to Yang, much to the Brawler's obvious displeasure. I laughed and nodded, watching her stalk off to rescue him.

"They seem nice," I said.

"Appearances can be deceiving."

Blake's tone surprised me, filled as it was with more than a little anger. "You don't like her?"

She shook her head.

"Why?"

"I just don't. Is it important?"

"Maybe," I admitted, lowering my voice. "Do you think she's untrustworthy?"

Blake sighed and looked away, refusing to meet my eyes. "It's not that. Forget it. Why are you so interested, anyway? Do you like her?"

"I – what?" I stared at her, a slow suspicion dawning in my mind. It was ridiculous, even to me, and I refused to believe it for a few seconds. Blake's darkening cheeks suggested it might not be as out there as I'd first thought. "Are you jealous?" I asked.

Blake huffed. "No."

"You are!"

"I'm not." She elbowed my side, but I caught her hand before it could retract and took it in mine. "Let go," she hissed, though without much energy. She also didn't actually try to pull her hand away.

"With her hair and eyes, she almost looks a little like you," I said.

"Then go and spend time with her instead," Blake said, scowling at her feet.

I didn't. I hugged her closer and threw an arm around her shoulder instead. "I'd rather spend it with you."

"Idiot Knight…"

"Idiot Knight, Strange Knight. You really need to make up your mind."

"My Knight," Blake decided, leaning into me. Her eyes drifted shut, although they popped open a second later. "I'm not jealous, though…"

"Of course."

"I'm not!"

"I believe you."

Blake glowered, but gave up the fight. Maybe she thought I'd forget if she didn't bring it up. I'd pretend to, if only for her. I didn't understand her sometimes. How could she think I'd even do something like that? I wasn't exactly the most desirable man in Beacon. My arm around her shoulder drew her a little closer.

Besides, I was already the luckiest guy around.

/-/

The day dawned bright and early, as did we, Qrow in the centre of the group as he pored over a map laid against the floor, its corners weighed down by rocks. The sun had only just risen, but we were all alert and ready to move. Outside the cave, the smoke from the ruined village had finally begun to recede.

"According to our new friends, there are three villagers here, here and here," the Druid said, marking each with a lien coin. "Without any other clues to go on, our best bet is to visit each of these both to make sure they're safe, but also to see if anyone has noticed anything unusual. "

"As Heroes of Mistral, it is our honour-bound duty to ensure the villages are in good health," Cinder explained, butting in to the discussion. "Sadly, that would mean we have to divert even if we did have better ideas. I apologise for that, but it is an oath we swore when we entered Haven."

Another part of Mistral's strict system of honour and demands. Either way, it worked in our advantage this time, and it wasn't like I was entirely against the idea of Heroes being expected to defend each and every citizen.

"Since we're new to the area, Cinder and her crew have offered to split themselves up into three parties to act as guides. The maps are fairly clear, but they should be able to save us time or avoid any awkward situations with locals." Qrow looked up to us. "That means we're splitting into three teams and taking each village as it goes. Let me make one thing clear," he paused to stare at Ruby. "If you see the Greycloaks in numbers you cannot take, you are banned from attacking them. Am I understood?"

Ruby, clearly realising the message was aimed at her, frowned but did nod.

"This isn't negotiable. While I know it may be your first instinct to jump in and ask questions later, you need to remember that if you get hurt or killed, then they get away with whatever it is they're doing. On the other hand, if you play it safe and relay the information to me, I can try and find us a way of shutting these people down once and for all."

"I get it," Ruby said. "I won't rush in…"

Qrow held her gaze for another few seconds before nodding. "Right, well, there are twelve of us now, which means we'll be splitting into smaller teams. That said, keeping safety in mind, the team I'm on will have less members to account for my strength. I've thought long and hard about these, so no arguments, okay?"

I had to raise an eyebrow at that. Were they really going to be that contentious?

"Team One will be going here," Qrow said, touching one of the markers with a finger. "It's going to be Mercury, Weiss, Ruby, Yang and Pyrrha."

Those named stepped off next to one another. It was a big group for sure, but fairly well-balanced since it had Weiss for long range, Pyrrha and Yang to tank and the others to add damage. There didn't seem to be any complaints either, and I hazarded a guess Yang had been grouped with Ruby to keep an eye on her. The Reaper seemed to realise it too, and sighed dramatically.

"Team Two will be headed here, and is going to be Emerald, Nora, Ren and Blake."

And all of a sudden, I could see where the contention was. I'd expected it to be about Weiss, Yang or Ruby, when in reality it was me. Me and Blake, more specifically. True to form, Blake's eyes were anything but friendly as she looked to Qrow.

He was immune to her glares, however, and simply nodded for her to join her group. "And that leaves me, Jaune and Cinder for Team Three," he said, standing and dusting down his trousers. "A smaller team for sure, but more heavily stacked. Trust me, I count for two or three at least." The latter was aimed directly at Blake.

I wasn't sure what to think about it myself. On the one hand, Qrow was right – he was stronger than us, and for good reason given his age and experience. Cinder was also strong, and I had the unfortunate feeling I'd been picked as the last member because I was the weakest by far. He had to balance it someway, after all. Blake would be fine on her team, given that she had Nora to tank, and she was used to fighting alongside Ren. Emerald, I didn't know, but she was a Mage of sorts, so she could perhaps fill Weiss' role.

All in all, the teams were well-thought out, and Qrow couldn't have possibly known about mine and Blake's little discussion the night before. If he had, he'd have probably still split us up. The last thing he needed was two love-struck teens acting out.

"Once you've confirmed the state of the villages, your job is to find out whatever you can about unusual movements in the area," Qrow continued. "With the amount of people these guys were moving, they can't have gone far. Someone must have seen something, and they're almost certainly still in the area. You don't march this amount of prisoners for days and days – no one has the supplies for that."

So, our job was to try and triangulate them by visiting the three surrounding villages and looking for rumours. It made sense. "How will we meet back up?" I asked.

"I'll act as a messenger if needed, but otherwise we'll meet at this location in three days." He pointed to the map once more. "If there are any emergencies, or your village is ransacked, then make your way to the other closest one, but don't approach. Use those whisper-stones of yours to meet-up if you have to. Once you're close enough for them to work, that is. Does everyone understand?"

"Yes, sir," everyone echoed.

I moved to pack up my supplies and prepare, but found myself stopped by a hand on my shoulder. I wasn't surprised to see it was Blake, and opened my mouth to quickly explain. "Blake, you don't have to worry, I-"

She silenced me with a finger on my lips.

"I know," she said. "I trust you."

And then she leaned in… and all of a sudden, I didn't have a reply I could give. Not that it was needed. Somewhere off to the side, someone – Yang, for sure – whistled. I ignored it, closing my eyes as Blake's hands met behind my neck. All too soon it was over, and she pushed back with pink cheeks and a pleased smile.

"Good luck, Jaune."

"You too," I whispered, breathless. "Be careful out there. I don't want anything to happen to you."

"Yes, I'm sure I'll be doomed without my highly competent and powerful boyfriend to protect me. Whatever shall a fragile and defenceless maiden like myself do?" She laughed when I faked a swing towards her head. Ducking under it, she touched my chest and pushed me away. "Have fun with the drunken Druid."

I could only shake my head in wonderment, watching Blake's hips as she walked away – and knowing full well the extra swing was for my benefit. What had I done to deserve someone like her, I wondered. It was just another one of life's little mysteries.

What wasn't was the elbow that leaned down on my shoulder, and the grizzled cheek that pressed against my own.

"You should be careful not to break any innocent hearts, kid."

"I hardly intend to," I said, glaring at him from the corner of one eye. "I love Blake."

Qrow grinned. "I was talking about Ren. Where's his goodbye kiss?"

The fist I threw at his face wasn't quite so faked, not that it made any difference as he ducked under and away, leaving me to over-balance myself and almost fall over. With a loud laugh, he made his way over to Ruby and Yang, likely to say his own parting messages.

"He's an interesting one," the final member of my new team said. Cinder's voice was even and she stood a respectful but not impolite distance away, a coy smile on her face. "Not exactly what one would expect from a Druid, no?"

"He's different, but definitely the real deal," I said.

"Oh, I don't doubt it. Your Headmaster must have trusted him for a reason. It looks like we shall be allies for a little longer." Cinder held out a hand. "Let us work together to deal with this Greycloak menace."

"Yeah," I agreed, taking her hand and shaking it. Her skin was warm, but not to the point of fire like it had once before. "Maybe this time we can fight and not have you try to set me alight."

Cinder's smirk could only be described as amused.

"We shall see, Jaune. We shall see…"


And there we go. I'm always amused whenever I write some Blake x Jaune goodness, because a lot of people instantly cry about "death flags" and how "doomed" it is. I suppose now that people will wave their "NTR flags" instead.

I'm aware there is some important Class lore in here, which I thought important to include since I know some people have actually been trying to arrange their own little RP sessions of this. I tried not to let it overtake the chapter or whatnot, and to keep it to just three or four paragraphs. The basic idea is that despite what I may have suggested before when I gave examples, Remnant is not perfectly "fair". That is to say, not everyone is an exact breakdown of two A stats, two B, two C and two D. Some may be fair or worse in other ways. For instance, (and this is an extreme example), you could theoretically have someone who was 4A and 4D, or even someone who is 3B, 3C and 2D, with no A stats altogether (though that would be a Tier-3 Class, for sure).

The point is that what I gave before were examples, and the world is more varied than that. Everyone is a special snowflake, it's just that some people are more special than others. This isn't the be all and end all, of course. There will actually be some more lore coming up in this book which will explain something else deeply important – both to Jaune specifically, and the world in general.


Next Chapter: 20th November

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