Here's the next chapter of White Sheep.
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Kegi Springfield
Mercury leaned back against the marble pillar and asked himself, not for the first time, how he'd gotten into this situation. It wasn't just Beacon itself, or his allegiance to Cinder Fall. Those things could be explained away with a sense of rationalism. No. It was the face he was outside in the early morning watching another young man run around a field while a bunny-eared faunus snapped pictures on her camera.
"I'm not sure why you wanted me come with you, Velvet." he said. "I thought the whole point of me asking you was because I might make it suspicious." He waited for a response, but there was none. The older girl didn't even turn in his direction. "Velvet?" he repeated. When there was still no response, he reached out to touch one of her ears. "Velvet!"
"Ha- what!?" Her head flicked back, as did her ear away from his finger. It had been surprisingly soft, yet stiffer than he'd expected. "Were you talking to me?"
"Yes," he sighed, and repeated the question. This time, she listened.
"W-Well, I thought it would be weird if I did this on my own," she explained. "If they saw me and asked what I was doing, I wouldn't have an excuse to give. If they see me now, I can say the two of us were out practising photography or something."
She took a quick snap of him, either as an example of maybe some evidence she could show to support that claim if she were asked.
Hm. Not bad. For a normal person, she was sneaky. He wasn't here to help. He was here to cover her back if something went wrong. Nothing more than an alibi. Mercury chuckled. He could respect that, he supposed, especially if it meant he got to sit back with a cute girl instead of work. He shrugged and tilted his head back once more, leaving Velvet to her task. She seemed determined to fulfil his request, taking way more pictures than they really needed.
"It looks like he's training Jaune," Velvet whispered. "There doesn't seem to be anything else going on. It's mostly just a lot of running."
Mercury hummed. That was what he'd gotten from the situation, not that it had been hard to figure out. Early morning training was early morning training, after all. Maybe they'd all been paranoid for nothing. This was a school. Training was what you did. "Maybe I overreacted," he said. "I guess we don't need to keep doing this if it's nothing suspicious."
"Eh!?" Velvet spun to face him, her ears suddenly drooping down a little. "N-No, I think we should continue. It's better to be safe, right? What if there's something more to this and you miss it and Jaune gets in trouble? I think we should do this every day."
"Every day…?" He winced at the thought. "I'm not sure we need to. "Branwen is just training him. No harm, no foul."
"But… but what if there's more to it than that?"
Mercury raised an eyebrow to his new companion, but she seemed to gain new life and nodded her head frantically. "Don't you think it's strange that a huntsman would pause in his career just to train a single person? Doesn't that seem odd to you?"
"And not even his own nieces. I know he's doing some with Ruby, but Yang is nowhere to be seen, and it's obvious his real plan was just to work with Jaune." Velvet adopted a suspicious expression. "Don't you think that's a little unusual? Why go through all that effort? Why Jaune? Why so suddenly?"
Velvet was spot on, as much as he wished otherwise. It was just a little too convenient, not to mention the fact this guy was one of Ozpin's main spies, and the one who'd interfered in their attack on the fall maiden. Mercury wasn't one who believed in coincidences.
Cinder definitely wasn't.
If he went back now and told her he'd finished here, she'd be less than impressed. He doubted she'd go so far as to punish him, but any goodwill he'd recently gained would be gone. Emerald would laugh in his face for that. Well, she might once she'd finished trying to hide or wash out the dye on her new hair. The memory alone of the first time he'd seen that was enough to make him smile. It fell a moment later.
"You're right," he said, and let out a sigh. "Fine. We need to keep watching and dig deeper. Will you be okay with that, Velvet? I know I'm asking a lot, but this would really help me out." He sighed, knowing he'd have to sweeten the deal. "I'll owe you another one…"
Velvet wasn't listening, nor looking his way. Her eyes were fixed on the scene in the field once more, where Jaune had finally given in to the early morning heat and taken off his top. It was clear he'd been working hard, for sweat ran down his muscles. He noticed Velvet's ears stand a little straighter, and also twitch aggressively. The camera didn't come up to her eyes, but it snapped away regardless, her finger slamming down on the button.
"Velvet," he repeated, louder.
"I asked if that was okay?"
"Y-Yeah, sure." She giggled and looked through the lens. Her breathing became a little heavier. "Anything for a friend."
Jaune was less out of breath and more out of patience when he finally reached the library and found the others. Or most of the others. Ruby, Weiss, Yang and Ren were seated around a table with cards in their hands, while the rest of the two teams were nowhere to be seen. He wandered over to them and dragged a seat over.
"Hey there, champ." Yang laid her cards down on the table and grinned his way. "How did your morning training go?"
"More of the same," Jaune sighed and glowered at Ruby. "Once you headed off, he went back to pulling that same move on me over and over. No matter what I tried, he refused to use anything else. He still hasn't used his weapon on me."
"Which is probably a good thing if you can't beat him without it," Weiss said. She placed a card on the table. "I play Vacuan Sappers on the walls of Vale."
Ren calmly laid a card down. "Diffused."
"Again!? How many of those do you have?"
"I really couldn't say."
Weiss growled but didn't rise to the challenge. She instead placed another card face-down on the table and passed the turn to Ren, who drew some new cards and considered the board. That gave Yang a chance to continue the conversation.
"I wouldn't get worked up over what he does. Let me guess, he tells you it's a spar and that you've got to attack him. Digs his sword into the dirt and basically makes a fool of you, right? Well that's nothing to worry about. It's actually how he trained me in Signal."
"It wasn't how he trained me," Ruby said.
"Different people, different techniques." Yang waved a hand. "You're fast, so you probably didn't need the same training I did, and what Jaune does, too." She turned back to him. "Point is, he's not doing that to you because he hates you or something. He's trying to teach you to be versatile. He's training you like he did me."
"Already training you like you're one of the family, huh?" Ren asked. He let out a choked cry a second later. "S-Sorry," he said, rubbing his leg. "I hit my foot against the table."
"How clumsy of you, partner," Yang said, smiling innocently. "You should be more careful."
Mr Branwen was really going that far? Jaune felt a rush of happiness, followed quickly by guilt. Maybe it was wrong of him to jump to conclusions like that. If he really was using the same techniques he did with Yang, then that meant he was taking the training seriously. "I shouldn't have judged him like that. I thought he disliked me, but maybe that's not the case at all…"
"No," Remy said. "I'm fairly sure he hates you."
"You're just saying that. Hazel was a harsh trainer, too."
"Yes, but your Uncle Hazel didn't constantly ply you with veiled questions about your mother. Nor was he ever someone who would reduce your head to a smear of blood if he ever found out the truth."
"That's not a detail, Jaune!"
Jaune ignored the parasite with a shrug. It was enough for him that both Yang and Ruby now claimed Mr Branwen didn't hate him. Who would know him better than his own nieces? "Thanks, guys," he said. "I feel better now. I'll ace this training."
"Yeah well, you'll need to get past the move he keeps using firs-" Yang cut off as she noticed Ren play a card towards her. "Gah! Ren, you absolute piece of-"
"I play Colour Revolution. Discard and re-draw your hand up to the same number." Yang scowled and threw her cards down, revealing several that had the other three players wincing. She drew the same amount again from her deck, but the look on her face confirmed they were nowhere near as devastating. "You're dead to me, partner."
"Nice job," Weiss said, breathing a sigh of relief as she saw some of Yang's previous cards.
"You're playing Remnant?" Jaune asked, probably somewhat needlessly.
Ren looked up. The spark of competition he'd shown in the arcade came back. "You know the game? I'm surprised. I'd have thought this was something you wouldn't be familiar with."
"No way. My family love this game. My Big Sister says it's an effective, if clumsy, way to learn about politics and grand strategy. My other sisters are less into it, but since there aren't many people back home, sometimes a board game is all we have."
His Uncles would play on occasion as well, and even his Mom would sometimes be in the mood – a rare but pleasant experience. She always played the Grimm, of course. She also won. Always. And not even because people let her.
She was the Queen of the Grimm for a reason.
"You should join in," Yang said.
"We're in the middle of a game." Weiss rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me you want to rage quit just because Ren crushed your hand."
"No such thing," Yang laughed. It was a hollow, brittle thing, and Ren leaned away warily. "Fine. Whatever. Why don't you team up with Ruby? She's not as good at this as the others and could use the help."
"You don't know that!" Ruby whined.
"Rubes, I play with you all the time."
"But the others haven't. I might not be as bad as them."
Weiss sighed. "Ruby, you've been reduced to a single territory. The only reason we continue to allow your existence is because whomever decides to kill you might be distracted for the single turn it would take. You're less threat than a random chance card."
Ruby's forehead struck the table. She banged a fist down beside it. "I hate you all!"
"I'll help you, Ruby," Jaune laughed, pulling his chair over to sit beside her. "I know what it's like to have everyone gang up on you."
"We didn't even do that," Weiss drawled. "She just decided to attack Ren and I on the same turn. We retaliated."
Ouch. Not the best idea, but maybe she'd been forced into it. At the table, he was fairly sure Ren and Yang were the ones to watch out for. Yang's smile was far too confident, while Ren was a dark horse in himself. The fact he'd specifically targeted Yang also suggested he felt she was worth taking down. He nudged his cheek close to Ruby so he could look at her cards. "Who do you have?"
"We're the Grimm," Ruby sighed. "They're always the weakest faction."
"The game is meant for entertainment," Ren said. "Not exactly a good idea to remind people how cruel the world can be. It's harder for them to win, but it's not impossible."
"I think we'll be okay," Jaune said. He leaned in and whispered some instructions into Ruby's ear. She listened intently, then nodded and rearranged the cards in her hand. The turns played for another the minutes or so, a flurry of activity as Ren and Yang continued to sabotage one another, and Weiss stealthily took territory while the dangerous players were distracted. Ruby and he worked on building their own support base, and also slipping some cards down to influence negativity in Yang's land.
"Where are the others?" he asked after a while. "I thought you weren't going to let Blake and Nora out of your sight?"
Yang shrugged. "They're around. Blake's been in a better mood since we all decided to chip in against the White Fang. She's not working herself to death at least. I think she and Nora are trying to find something to help Pyrrha disguise herself with. Besides Weiss-cream, she's the other person people are most likely to recognise. Well, if they like their cereal at least."
"I notice you're not dying her hair," Weiss growled.
"Red isn't an unusual colour. Not like white, anyway. Chillax, we used wash-out dye on you. As soon as we're done infiltrating them, you can get rid of it."
It didn't look like that was doing much for Weiss' temper, so he quickly stepped in to stop the girls drawing arms on one another. "When are we doing the mission thing? Do we even have a plan? I don't like the idea of running in without one." Not after the last time he'd been stuck fighting alongside Torchwick.
"It's in a day or two," Ren said. He filed some cards around and then played White Fang Insurgents at Weiss. The heiress cursed as several of her territories were affected, reducing the reinforcement points they would give her for the next turn – ostensibly while they dealt with the rebellion. "As for the plan, I've talked to Blake about what's expected. She says applicants usually have to do something to prove they can be trusted before they get to actually become members. If we knew what they were up to, we could skip this and sneak into that – but we need to be trusted enough for them to tell us where the real White Fang are."
"These aren't the real ones?"
"Yes and no. From what I understand, the recruitment side of things and actual operations are kept distant. That's because it's the recruitment arms which are normally busted by undercover agents."
"Like us," Yang added.
"Yes…" Ren sighed. "I suppose this proves they're not as foolish as we thought. Certainly, they're aware of the risks. That's probably why Nora and Blake found it so easy to infiltrate them before. This is the less professional arm. They take risks because the White Fang don't care overly much if those members are captured. The better candidates will be processed through to the operations arm, and that's where you run missions like the attack on the docks."
"That feels backwards," Jaune said. "Wouldn't it be better to have both sides be careful and professional?"
It was Weiss who answered, his team leader sighing as she pushed some pale green hair from before her eyes. "It would, but life is rarely that simple. You have to remember that the White Fang is a terrorist organisation. They don't exactly have the luxury of picking their applicants. They need numbers, and they need to make use of everyone who applies." She scowled and played a card toward Ruby, then scowled even harder when Ruby listened to his whispers and countered it. "Ugh… Anyway, most normal faunus probably wouldn't even join them because they're afraid of breaking the law."
"Or, you know, they're just good people," Yang added with a roll of the eyes.
"Or that," Weiss accepted, mirroring the action. "Either way, while they no doubt get some good applicants like Blake, I can guarantee it's one in a hundred, with all the others being fanatics, weaklings, or just young kids playing at being anarchists. Most of them probably don't have aura, let alone any combat experience. You can't expect them to be professional. That's not even covering the psychos, criminals and nut jobs they probably pick up as well."
"But they've still got to use them," Jaune said. "I guess that makes sense. You're saying they keep all the undesirables on the recruitment arm, then?"
"It's what I would do if I were them. Take the good ones or those with promise, then use the worse applicants to try and scout for more good ones. They're running a clandestine organisation. It only takes one idiot with a big mouth to expose them. Operations, safehouses, skilled agents… all lost because someone couldn't keep quiet."
He was sure he'd heard that logic before, probably from his Big Sis. Salem didn't really aspire to the same logic, knowing she was safe in the Grimmlands, but Cinder kept the circle of those she trusted small – and made sure they were as strong as possible. Mercury and Emerald were quite possibly the only ones she trusted with her secrets, and only the harmless ones. "What does this mean for us?"
"Good and bad things," Ren answered. "On the one hand, it means we're unlikely to run into any significant opposition. If things go badly, we can rest assured we'll be fine. Torchwick and Hentacle aren't going to bother with a low-key meeting for potential recruits."
Jaune breathing a sigh of relief. "And the bad?"
"We can't beat the answers out of them if something goes wrong. It's quite possible the person we'll be answering to knows nothing about the White Fang. Only when he's got a group of candidates will he be contacted, and then told where to send them. If we fail here or raise the alarm, we'll have an easy fight on our hands, but no more leads."
"Mission failed," Yang sighed, playing a card and moving some of her Atlesian forces on the board. "I hate forced stealth missions."
Weiss snorted. "This isn't one of your video games."
"No, but this is." Yang grinned and played a card. "Wild Nevermore. I can choose to cut a supply line in your empire – and I choose this one right here, handily cutting Magnis off from your empire." Weiss gasped, but was unable to do anything as Yang moved her forces forward. "Now, I sweep in with my Bullhead battalion and-"
"Not so fast!" Ruby cheered. She giggled and flipped one of her own cards. "I played Grimm Intent earlier. If anyone plays a Wild Grimm card in the next two turns, I get to command it to take an additional action, and then spawn a single Grimm card from my hand in the same area." Ruby laid down a card. "I play Ursa swarm."
"Meh." Yang shrugged. "Not like they can reach a flying unit."
"No, but the Nevermore can. He's going to sever the supply lines of your Bullheads – robbing them of fuel - while the Ursa move on the city you cut off from Weiss' empire." Ruby grinned and flipped the city over. "Destroying it."
"Damn it, Yang!" Weiss howled. "Look at what you've done. Neither of us gets it now!"
Yang watched the scene in dismay. She looked down at her cards and then up again. "But how did you know I'd play a Wild Grimm card? How could you possibly have guessed I'd do that in the next two turns?"
"Jaune said you would." Ruby giggled and held up one hand, cheering when Jaune slapped his palm against hers.
"It was pretty obvious," he said. "You moved a lot of flying forces to the border with Weiss, but those are bad at taking cities because of the anti-air bonus they get. You needed to have something to stop those, which was probably going to be a card that cut off the supply lines and halved the defence of the city. The only thing I could think of was a Wild Grimm attack."
Yang frowned. "Tch. Beginner's luck."
"Is it, Yang?"
"It's not!" Ruby cheered. "I play Treacherous Broadcast on Magnis. It copies the Morale Result of any combat onto another nation as evil spies video and broadcast the fight. Since a city fell to the Grimm Faction, that means Weiss gets plus two to empire-wide Negativity."
Weiss sighed and moved her counter up two places. "A few Grimm will spawn at the start of the next turn. I can handle it."
"Yeah, but Yang can't!" Ruby cackled. "Her Negativity is already at eight, which means she hits ten and sparks a Grimm Incursion. Her Bullheads are also stuck in Weiss' land, with the rest of her forces on the border with Ren. That means she gets two Grimm per city she owns, and they spawn two turns away from each city!"
"That's why you kept pumping my Negativity higher," Yang growled.
"Eh. You didn't do anything to lower it."
"Because I was fine. There was no way you could hit me with more."
"Yeah, but you hit yourself." Ruby grinned. "Stop hitting yourself, Yang!"
"Grr…" The blonde looked to the side, eyes wide. "Ren, old partner, old pal. You'll not attack me if I have to leave my border to deal with this, right?"
Ren's expression was flat. "Of course I wouldn't."
Her eyes widened. "You totally plan to!"
"Mistral has no need for the extra land we'd take."
"No need, but you wouldn't say no to it if it were free."
Ren smiled but didn't answer.
"Ugh, I can't believe this." Yang scowled and moved her forces away, then shot Ren the dirtiest look ever when he promptly played Marching Orders, allowing him to make two movement actions out of turn. His forces stormed Yang's cities the second her back was turned. "You suck, Ren. You really do suck. This is your fault, too!" She pointed at Jaune, eyes narrowed. "No way Ruby would have thought of all of this without your help."
The game played on for another two turns, Yang losing a quarter of her empire to Ren, while her limited Atlas forces mopped up the Grimm from the incursion. Weiss was distracted with her own far smaller one – and with amassing a counter-attack on Yang's Bullheads. Jaune watched it all with a small smile, then leaned in to whisper something in Ruby's ear.
"Really?" she asked, voice low. "But he's dangerous…"
"You're in this to win, right?" he asked. "There's no prizes for second place."
Ruby's eyes sparked. So close to his, it sent a thrill of fear through his body, but she didn't attack him. Instead, she nodded her head and pulled a card from her hand as the turn counter came around to her.
"I play Perilous Journey to move one of my armies across any number of ocean tiles, losing one unit for each tile crossed."
"Going for me as well?" Yang sighed, knowing the distance between Atlas and the Grimmlands was the shortest journey. "Oh, come on. I've got enough problems. Go for Vale instead. Weiss is practically untouched."
"I'm going for neither," Ruby giggled. "I put all my forces into one army and move them to the east coast of Mistral. I lose ten units, but now have an invasion on Ren's lands." She moved the stack, earning a slack jawed expression from the other players.
"Uh, Rubes? Ren is crushing us all. I'm not sure that's wise."
Ruby smiled innocently. "Don't worry. That's just phase one of the plan. There's more~"
The cards spilled from Ren's fingers.
"I did it! I did it! Jaune, I did it!"
"Oh my God," Weiss whispered. "She actually won. I'm impressed."
"I destroyed the world!"
"That's not something to be cheering about, Ruby," Yang groused, putting her cards down as she stared miserably at the board. "Bah. It's just a game. Not like it means anything."
"Yang's a sore loser~" Ruby sang.
"Am not!" Yang lied. She pouted at him. "This is all your fault. Since when were you such a master of this game? This is totally unfair."
Jaune laughed as Ruby continued to sing and dance on the chair next to him. He shrugged his shoulders. "Like I said, I play it a lot at home. My Mom thinks it teaches valuable lessons that I'll need later in life."
"What, how to rule the Grimm and take over the world?"
Jaune choked. "N-No! Why would you even say that? What totally normal person would teach their son how to do something like that? No way." He laughed nervously, eyes wide. Sweat dripped down his brow. "Ha. Take over the world. You're crazy, Yang. Crazy!"
"Uh…" Yang shot him a strange look. "It was just a joke."
Oh right. Whoops. Jaune winced and tried to think of an excuse, but Ruby saved him from having to. Her arms wrapped around his neck, her body crashing into his back as she hugged him from behind.
"We're the King and Queen of the Grimm!"
Jaune spluttered and coughed. "R-Ruby! Don't say that!" If his Mom heard her say things like that… he wasn't sure if she'd be angry to hear her title usurped or thrilled at the possibilities. His cheeks went bright red, and it only got worse when Yang started laughing.
"King and Queen?" a new voice asked. "I didn't know Ruby and Jaune got married. Congratulations."
"Eek." Ruby detached herself from his back so quick she left burns behind her. Her Semblance allowed her to shoot over to the new arrivals. "No, no, no. Nora, it's not like that!"
"I wanted to be a bridesmaid, too…"
Ruby batted her hands against Nora's chest, while the older girl cackled and skipped away.
Blake ignored the dramatics and moved towards her team. "We found a suitable disguise for Pyrrha. If we change her hairstyle a little and cover her eyes, we can take away her most distinctive features. I'm confident it will be enough to allay suspicion."
"What is she going as?" Yang asked.
"A bat faunus." Blake tossed some sunglasses on the table. "She doesn't like bright lights, so always wears these."
"A bat faunus. Seriously?"
"It's easier to go for something like this. You can't just convince them you're a faunus by wearing fake animal ears. We can notice the difference. Choosing something simple like the eyes is a good step. She has some coloured contacts in case they demand to see her eyes, but as long as she squints and pretends it hurts, they'll let it go." She looked to the rest of them. "You'll all need to choose a type of faunus to be. It would be best if you run them by me first, but none of you are distinctive enough to need any serious disguises."
"Wow, to be dismissed so easily." Yang grinned. "How cruel. Oh, that reminds me. I have a little something for you, Blakey~"
Blake caught the small box Yang threw her way. She eyed it warily, as though it might explode, before slowly opening it. It clicked shut a moment later and a snarl split the girl's face. "Is this a joke? I know your sense of humour is bad, but this goes a step beyond!"
"No joke," Yang said. "That's your punishment for running off and leaving me and Ren worried sick."
"I know what I did was wrong. I admit that! This is too much. There's no way you can expect me to… to…" She growled and tore the box open, holding out a thin strip of cloth. There was a light tinkle as a small golden bell chimed. "I'm not wearing this, Yang! It's a collar!"
"Not so much the collar as the bell. It's so we can hear you if you try to slip away."
"This is profiling!"
"Why? Are you a faunus?" Yang raised an eyebrow and indicated the library around them. It was mostly empty, but the point remained. "No one in Beacon knows you're one, so it's not like this is going to do anything like that. You risked your life the last time, and you took Nora with you." Yang's eyes narrowed. "If you hate this so much, maybe it'll make you think twice the next time."
Only Nora and Ruby's voices could be heard in the silence that followed. They were oblivious of the drama unfolding, however. Jaune wondered if he should say something to break the atmosphere, but wasn't sure what. It was obvious Blake didn't want to wear the collar, but that was kind of the point, wasn't it? Mom always said a punishment wouldn't teach you a lesson unless it was something you didn't want to do. That was why she never punished Uncle Tyrian by sending him off on missions or telling Grimm to harass him. She'd instead walk away and ignore him, knowing that troubled him more.
"But…" Blake's bow twitched. "But it's embarrassing!"
"Yeah, that's kind of the point," Yang said. "What do you think, Ren?"
"If you're against it so much, it should teach you a valuable lesson. I think a little embarrassment is more than fair for the panic you put us through. Things could have been far worse. You could have been killed."
"F-Fine!" Blake scowled but pulled the ribbon out and tied it around her neck. It fit snugly, and didn't look as out of place as he'd have thought. "There. Are you happy now?"
"I didn't mean you had to wear it as a collar." Yang said, smothering her laughter. "I thought you'd put it on your wrist or something. You know, strap it to your clothing. It's the bell I was talking about."
Blake's hands couldn't fly to her neck fast enough, but Yang caught them halfway, eyes sparkling.
"No, no, no. I changed my mind. You have to wear it like that!" She laughed happily. "Oh, you look so cute. Meow for me, I beg you!"
"Jump off a bridge," Blake hissed. She turned to Ren. "How long do I have to wear this for?"
"Until the end of Beacon!"
"A week," Ren amended, ignoring Yang's pitiful whine. "I think a week will be enough time for you to learn your lesson. We're a team, Blake. We don't sneak off and rush into danger like that. I'd have hoped we'd already shown you at the docks that we'll support you if you ask for it."
"Yeah, I know…" Blake sighed and looked away, cheeks dusted with flecks of red. "I guess I'm just used to thinking that I have to do everything on my own. I'm not used to this." Her eyes drifted shut. "And I'm sorry for what I did. It won't happen again."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"Can I take the bell off now?"
"That's not how punishments work."
Blake crossed her arms and proceeded to sulk. Jaune had to resist the urge to laugh at that, easily recognising the same posture and expression his sisters used whenever they were caught doing something they shouldn't be.
"And that's why it's not what you think," Ruby explained, walking back with Pyrrha and Nora. "We're not like that. We were just playing a game."
"Oh right, pretending you were married." Nora nodded her head and ignored Ruby's panicked cries. The look in her eye said she understood perfectly well, but intended to tease the younger girl for all she was worth. It died when she noticed Blake's newest accessory. "Why are you wearing a collar, Blakey?"
"I-It wasn't my idea. Ren made me wear it!"
Nora looked to her childhood friend and then back to the collar. She looked back again, and narrowed her eyes in thought. It didn't look like anything more was going to come from her, but Jaune was quickly distracted by Ruby as she staggered over to sit back down next to him. Her cheeks were red, and she felt the need to shuffle her chair over so that there was a larger gap between them.
"So, when can I expect to be an auntie?"
"Yaaang. It's not like that. A-Anyway, it's not like Jaune and I are dating." Ruby looked to him meaningfully, and nodded her head towards her sister.
Jaune blinked back. Was there supposed to be a message there?
Ruby stared at him. She raised her shoulders as though waiting for something. When whatever that was didn't come, she huffed silently and jerked her head in Yang's direction. She did that twice in a row, then growled and did it a third time with all her strength.
"Are you feeling okay?" he asked.
Ruby growled and grabbed her head with both hands.
"You got head lice again, sis? I thought we dealt with that when you were younger."
"Yang, please! Don't mention things like that! Ugh. Just stop talking." Her face flushed in anger and mortification, but she still kept her eyes locked onto his. Subtlety gone, she decided for a more direct approach. "I was trying to remind Jaune that he needed to ask you something."
Ruby's entire body twitched. "About you and Yang?" she hinted. "What we talked about before? Remember this morning in training when I said the thing about taking the next step?" She looked at Yang. "About going out and important dates in the calendar and things like that?"
Jaune still stared at her dumbly, but it seemed Yang had figured out what Ruby meant, for she stammered and waved her hands. "Ha ha – Rubes, don't be silly. It's not like that. He doesn't need to ask me anything. Right, champ?"
Ruby's eyes bore into his. She nodded her head and mouthed `do it` to him.
Now he remembered. He slapped a hand to his forehead, unable to believe he'd actually forgotten. In his defence, there'd been all the frustration from Mr Branwen, and then the board game – followed by Blake's drama with the collar. Was it really so surprising he'd forgotten.
"Ruby's right," he said. "I do have something to ask you, Yang."
"Y-Yeah? You do? I mean, we can put it off if you want. No need to rush into things, hey? Why not ask Ruby instead. I'm sure she'd be willing to go along with it. Who knows, you might even have fun."
Ask Ruby? He glanced back to her but she formed an X with her arms and shook her head wildly. Her face glowed a deep red, but the look in her eyes said she'd never forgive him if he welched out now. "I don't think Ruby's the right person for this," he said. "I'm looking for someone a little more suited to the kind of guy I am."
Yang had no answer. Her mouth fell open.
She swallowed. "Y-Yeah?"
Ruby leaned forward.
Pyrrha's breath caught.
"Could you help me learn how to get past your Uncle's defence?"
It was like a huge exhale of breath happening at the same time. Pyrrha slumped forward and clutched her heart. Weiss muttered something about idiots under her breath. Ren rolled his eyes. Nora giggled to herself, and Blake slapped a hand into her forehead. From Ruby there was no such sound, mainly because she'd fallen off her chair and crashed to the ground.
Yang's face was frozen in shock. "Eh?"
"I was wondering if you'd help train with me," he explained, wincing. "Your Uncle's completely ruining me. I need to be able to get past his defence if I want to prove myself to him, and I figure you've done it before. Plus, you had to fight like I did. You couldn't just shoot past him at super speed like Ruby."
"Training? Y-You meant training…?" Yang asked. It was impossible to figure out whether she sounded relieved or disappointed, but she leaned back and laughed at the top of her lungs. Was that a good or a bad thing? "Oh God, you scared the life out of me," she giggled. "Okay, sure. I'll help you out. How about we have a spar tonight after lessons and dinner?"
"You'd be willing to?" He grinned and nodded his head. "I'll be there, I promise. Thanks Yang. I really appreciate this. You're the best!"
Ruby groaned from under the table.
Cinder crossed her legs and listened to the report Mercury provided. The news about the Branwen's interest in Jaune was troubling, but at least for now, it seemed like the man was far away from the truth. That was a given, of course. If he had known, then there would have already been bloodshed in the halls. While she was confident in their ability to deal with the huntsman, she didn't relish their chances escaping from a school filled with many more.
"Well done, Mercury," she said once he was done. "Yet again, you've pulled through."
"Ma'am, if it's just training, then should I-"
"Continue to watch over them," she instructed. "There's more to this than meets the eye. I'm sure of it. If Ozpin were truly suspicious of Jaune, he wouldn't be helping him become stronger. There is some other motive at play here, and I want to know what it is." She watched as Mercury winced. He didn't argue with her, and instead nodded his head.
Qrow Branwen was the huntsman who saw us attack Amber. I doubt he would recognise our faces thanks to Emerald's Semblance, but he could easily become suspicious if he were to see me use my bow or any of the maiden's fire abilities. Her eyes narrowed dangerously. He's one of Ozpin's trusted spies as well, so I expect he knows about Salem. Were he to find out the truth about Jaune…
She didn't dare consider it. If things became worse, he would need to be removed. Her eyes shifted to Emerald, knelt down beside Mercury. "What of your task?" she asked. "Were you able to find out anything about this… prank?"
The girl's shoulders stiffened at the reminder, and likely at Mercury's weak attempts to stifle his amusement. "I spent much of the day following Winchester around," she growled. "I managed to corner him in a corridor and use an illusion to make him think he was talking to one of his teammates. I had the illusion ask him what the purpose of the prank was."
"I didn't get all the details, ma'am. He must have informed his teammates before, because he said he'd already answered the question. What little I got was about how it would have exposed him for what he truly was."
Expose him…? Cinder hummed as she thought over the words. Emerald's problem getting details was frustrating, but not unexpected. They'd toyed with it in the past, but one of the main problems was that people did not always answer fully. They assumed the listener knew certain things that they had told them before. Not overly useful when it was an illusion and Emerald was not privy to those details.
"Was there anything else he said?"
"Nothing specific," Emerald said. "No, wait. There was one thing, but I wasn't sure what to make of it. Whenever I had the illusion mention Jaune by name, Winchester would flinch and look around in fear. When I asked why, he said that the `monster` might overhear."
Concern flickered over Cinder's face as she processed the information. The habit of referring to him as a monster, the obvious fear, the targeted attack – and now the white dye. Individually, none of those things made sense, but together they painted a picture that had Cinder rising to her feet.
"He knows," she hissed.
"Winchester knows the truth," she spat, moving to the window. She looked outside and then drew the windows shut. She wasn't sure why. No one could see in or hear, and they were on the third floor. Even so, the act of moving about helped calm her rapidly beating heart. This was unwelcome news. No. It was terrible news.
Emerald and Mercury clearly didn't understand, for neither showed the deserved level of caution.
"Cardin Winchester knows about my brother's secret identity," she explained, voice a near-silent hiss. She stormed forward and gripped a lock of Emerald's hair between her fingers. "White dye that would have fallen on him the moment he walked through the door. It would have covered his hair and most of his face, turning both pale. The moisture would have also made it lank and fall in front of his eyes." She turned to Mercury, knowing he'd seen Jaune in both forms. "Does the description sound familiar?"
"His Grimm form…"
Cinder let go of Emerald's hair and bared her teeth. "Exactly. Winchester's childish prank was actually a clever ploy to highlight the similarities between Jaune and his darker side, and in front of the people who have interacted with both. While we can't be sure whether it would have worked or not, there are no other people in Vale more likely to recognise him. With how long the dye has lasted in Emerald's hair, he would have been forced to walk around Beacon like that for days."
"Even if the result wasn't immediate, someone would put the pieces together eventually," Mercury whispered. His eyes widened as realisation dawned. "The eyes wouldn't be the same, or the veins – but it would be close enough for people to catch on. Didn't Goodwitch meet him before Beacon?"
Cinder nodded. Her brother would have been forced to attend classes like that, and potentially expose himself before some of the most dangerous people on Remnant. She bit her bottom lip, anger mixing with fear inside of her. He didn't even realise what almost happened, the naïve fool. He thought this a prank instead of the carefully crafted assassination attempt it was. Her eyes flickered with fire. Cardin Winchester had tried to get Jaune killed. Cardin Winchester had tried to take him away from her.
That… would not be tolerated.
He had to die. He needed to die fast. It would be a simple matter to find his room. She could invite herself inside. He was a young man and prone to hormones. He'd open his door to her – and she could kill him with ease. The mere thought of it was enough to make her heart beat a little faster. With him dead, Jaune would be safe.
But they would expose themselves. Cinder frowned and paced about the room. She couldn't kill the fool. Not within Beacon's walls. No matter how hard she tried, it would cause a scandal and alert Ozpin to a traitor within their midst. Accidents happened, but when you had aura to protect you, the accident needed to be fairly convoluted to lead to anything. The buffoon could likely trip and fall onto a bed of nails, and leave with only a few scratches. Anything she might concoct would almost surely come across as murder. The only realistic option was death by Grimm, but there were no field trips planned, and that would require him and his team to succumb to their own stupidity.
So long as he was within the walls of Beacon, he would be protected. Protected and allowed to continue his campaign against her brother. Cinder's hands tightened into fists, turning white as she ground her teeth together. "I want him watched at all times," she said.
"Who," Mercury asked, "Jaune or Winchester?"
"Both. The matter is too serious to leave to chance. If he knows the truth, then he needs to be dealt with, but we cannot move against him right now. We can't afford to risk our stay here, or Jaune's. If we are expelled or forced to flee, then he won't have anyone to watch over him. Whether he realises it or not, he needs us to keep an eye on him, if only to prevent things like this happening." She gestured to Emerald's hair. "Were it not for Emerald's intervention, he might already have been exposed."
Nothing was simple where Jaune was involved. He owed her for looking out for him. He owed her a month of massages. No, two – three! He owed her slavish treatment and attention, to wait on her hand and foot for years. Decades, even.
"What about the maiden?" Mercury asked.
Cinder's eyes widened, but she hid it behind the act of coughing into her fist. By Salem, she'd almost forgotten about the actual reason they were in Beacon. She was supposed to be locating Amber, but had spent almost all her time on Jaune. Not like I want to or anything. He'd be completely doomed if it wasn't for my help, the idiot. Ugh, I'd leave him to suffer, but Salem would have my head.
"The search goes well," she lied. "I have that in hand. You needn't worry about it. Focus for now on protecting Jaune and finding a way to deal with Cardin Winchester. A non-fatal solution," she added. "If there is a way to have him expelled, that would be ideal. In the meantime, Mercury should continue to keep an eye on Jaune, and Emerald should look for – and sabotage – any more attempts to harm him."
"B-By activating them on myself…?"
"That would be for the best. We wouldn't want Jaune to become suspicious." She smiled at the distraught girl. "Worry not, I have other plans for you in time. Those should make the matter somewhat easier."
"Plans for me?"
"A special task," she hinted. "One I can only entrust to you."
Emerald nodded, apparently enthused with the idea. Good. She ought to be. For now, they were on the defence, but that would change soon enough. All she needed to do was deal with Winchester and protect him from the shadows. Then, she could focus on what really mattered.
Cinder's head snapped to the side as a strange noise played. She relaxed a moment later, frayed nerves giving way as she reached for her scroll. For safety reasons, the name did not show, but she would have recognised the number either way. "Roman. I'm busy. What is it?"
"I thought you said you were going to keep the kid out of my business!"
"What are you talking about?" Cinder looked to her companions, and nodded that they could leave. They did so silently, headed off to complete their assigned missions. "You sound panicked, Roman. What is the matter now?"
"The kid," Roman repeated. "You said you'd stop him from interfering with my plans. What happened to that?"
"Jaune has been in Beacon for the last two or three days. I've seen him myself."
"What? But I just woke up to find that two of my operations using the White Fang have been wiped out."
Cinder's eyes narrowed. "Killed?"
"Well, no. One got arrested by the police though, so as good as dead to us. The other team was left alive, but aren't exactly in a great state. They keep screaming about a red-eyed monster. Sound familiar?"
"It does, but Jaune has been here. He hasn't left Beacon, certainly not in the last twenty-four hours. I said that I would keep him out of your hair, and I shall."
"It's not him? You're sure?"
"I do not make mistakes, Roman."
"Okay, great. That's fine. Sorry I accused you otherwise."
The call clicked off, the screen going dark. Cinder blinked down at it for a few moments, then sighed as it began to ring once more. "Yes, Roman?"
"We have a problem."
"I believe I gathered that much."
The White Fang grunt groaned as his back hit the wall. He slumped to the base, mask falling in pieces from his face. His vision blurred, until all he could see was a dark shape approach. Red eyes burned into his. The rest of his team were down and out – knocked unconscious before any had the time to respond to the sudden assault. The figure moved forward. Heels clicked on the concrete, and he winced as a blade tickled the underside of his chin.
"I am looking for the one you call Hentacle." the figure said. The voice was heady and soft, but with an iron behind it that belied any femininity. It was a woman. But that didn't change the danger he faced. "Where is he?" she asked. "You will tell me."
Yes, he would. He would have told her anything she wanted to know and more, spilled it all out in one deluge, forehead pressed to the ground as he begged for mercy. Unfortunately, there was just one little problem…
"I-I don't know. Please, I'd tell you if I knew but I don't."
"Who would know more?"
"T-Torchwick would know. He works with him. He sleeps with him!"
The figure paused at that, but shook her head and let out a quiet sigh. The sword moved back, but not into the sheath at her waist. It moved up above him, the blade glistening.
"P-Please," he whispered. "I told you the truth. Don't kill me."
"Dead men pass on no messages," the woman whispered. "When you awake, let your superiors know of my coming. Warn them that there will be consequences if they are unable to provide me with the one I seek."
The crimson eyes flashed. The blade came down pommel first, crashing into his skull. The faunus' body slumped to the side as consciousness fled him. The last thing he saw was those crimson eyes watching him, before the woman turned and walked away.
His consciousness fled soon after.
So, readers might have started to notice that some things are different, and I don't just mean the fact Jaune is a Grimm. The sequence of events is changing a little, both with this pre-warehouse campaign by Blake, and their infiltration of prior meetings. This is partly because it feels more reasonable, but mostly because I just don't want to keep going over the same events of canon. I can't remember how Blake found out about it in the show. Whether she just knew from before, or Sun told her, or she just `happened to overhear` about it. Whatever the case, I thought it might be more logical to have them find out in some other way.
After all, if Blake left the White Fang and was known as a traitor – and she did reveal herself to at the docks – then surely they wouldn't have used a warehouse they knew she would have knowledge of. Whatever you think, it just means that while we'll have some of the stuff we did see in the show, we'll also get to tread some new ground. That's a welcome relief for me, since it can get tiresome to write the same events over and over.
Next Chapter: 20th July
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur