Here's the chapter. I have a busy week this week, and probably busy for the next two coming as well. I have to do my big speech at an event to a few thousand people. Ugh, how very annoying.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Kegi Springfield

Chapter 35


Qrow parried the cut towards his head and reversed his blade, locking it against the other and twisting to the side. The opponent's sword flew through the air and hit the grass a good fifteen feet away. His own tickled the underside of his student's chin.

The kid knocked it away with the back of his hand and threw a punch towards his face. It missed, but he followed up with another, this time aiming for Qrow's ribs.

It wasn't too hard to catch it, even if he did wince at the unexpected force hidden there. The kid was strong. Twisting and kicking out with one foot, Qrow swept Jaune's legs out from under him and then placed a foot on his chest when he tried to rise. This time, Qrow made sure to push down a little more firmly with his sword.

"I yield," Jaune Arc gasped.

"Heh, yeah you do." Qrow grinned and sheathed his weapon, holding out a hand. He took it, and Qrow pulled him to his feet and pushed him in the direction of his lost weapon. The kid staggered over without complaint and picked it up.

When Jaune turned once more and fell into a ready stance, it was all Qrow could do not to groan.

"Again?"

"I want to be stronger," Jaune said, one hand clutching his shoulder as he worked his muscles loose. "I know it's a pain for you, Mr Branwen, but I think I'm improving and I don't want to stop now."

The kid was improving; Qrow didn't feel bad about admitting that. What he did feel bad about admitting was that it wasn't annoyance that made him want to cut the training short. It was exhaustion. He'd been knocking the guy around for over an hour now, and as much as that didn't seem to affect Jaune limitless stamina Arc, it was having an effect on him.

But admitting that would make him sound – and feel – old. He bit down on a sigh instead and held his weapon before him. The bloody thing had never felt so heavy before, but he was not bowing out of this. The students at Signal feared his training methods, feared him because he would work them until they collapsed. He had a reputation to uphold.

He just wished the bastard could at least look a little winded.

Not sure if that's Raven's stamina or Nicholas'. Raven always could go on for a long time, especially when she was after a good fight. Still, why would he be so useless with a sword? She'd never accept that, and the last I checked, Nicholas was fairly handy with a blade.

His thoughts were interrupted for a second as Jaune charged in, his blade coming down in an overhead swing. Qrow blocked it easily, then flicked his sword to the side to knock him off-balance. Adrenaline rushed through him, and he quickly caught his second – or was it third – wind.

"Spread your legs a little further apart," he barked, pushing forward with both hands and pushing Jaune back to prove his point. He was rewarded with the kid quickly taking the lesson to hear and attacking again. "Follow through with your swings. I know you expect me to block them, but stop pulling them at the last second. If you do hit, you'll do no damage if you get that habit."

Jaune nodded, and Qrow winced as the force behind the blows quickly increased. He wasn't imagining that, and there was no way he'd accept youth or old age as having anything to do with it. He'd thought before that the kid was strong, but this was ridiculous.

Is it a part of his Semblance or something? It honestly feels like I'm being hit by someone twice his size. Qrow's arm twinged and he fell back, ducking under the next swing. Hell, he's going to wear me down through sheer power at this rate. You wouldn't think he had the muscle mass for all this looking at him.

Feeling was believing, however. Sure, he could have killed the kid ten times over already, but if he did learn to have a better defence, then he could use his ridiculous stamina and strength to devastating effect.

That was if he could get his skill under control. Qrow swung his blade to the side, caught Jaune's around the mid-point, then slid it down to the hilt and flicked. It pushed the hilt out of the blonde's hand, yet again disarming him. Once more, Jaune went into melee straight after, but it wasn't too hard to knock him down. The second he hit the floor, Qrow slammed his sword down into the dirt.

"We're done," he gasped. "I'm calling it over for the day."

"Already? But I can still fight."

You might be able to, but I can't, you bastard. Not that he could admit that. He straightened instead and crossed his arms. "If we keep fighting, you'll have too much to try and improve on. It's better if you take time to think on the mistakes you made and fix those."

Yeah, that sounded like a good excuse.

"But isn't this about creating muscle memory?"

Erk.

"Yes and no. It's a bit of both. Either way, we're done for now." Qrow slumped as gracefully as he could and pulled out his hip flask. He didn't normally guzzle at it so desperately, but the kid had pushed him harder than he'd pushed himself in years. "You've shown improvement," he said once his thirst was sated. "There's still work to be done, especially footwork, but the will is there. I like how you keep going when you lose your sword, too."

"Would be better if I didn't lose it…"

"Yeah, but I've seen people become useless when disarmed." Ruby was a good example, not that his niece would ever listen to him on that front. "Better to have a fall back if something goes wrong. You never know, you might one day be stuck in a situation where you don't have your weapon. What are you going to do then?"

"I'd probably just use my bare hands."

From anyone else, that might have seemed a sarcastic answer, but given the idiot's strength, Qrow had the sinking suspicion Jaune Arc could badly hurt someone if he wanted to. You always said you liked strong men, Raven, but sheesh – what the hell did you create?

Whatever the case, Jaune was getting better, even if only by a little. What he lacked in skill, he made up for in willingness to learn, and that would serve him well. He hadn't complained about the training and seemed keen to have as much as he could get.

That was fortunate, really, since Ozpin wanted the kid to be as strong as possible, as fast as possible.

Qrow just hoped the old man didn't put too much on the kid's shoulders. He had potential, sure, and the fact that Salem wanted him was a big tell that there was something special there, but putting the weight of the world on him wasn't a good idea. They'd done that once before with the silver-eyed warriors, and he'd seen first-hand how that went. His hand gripped the flask a little tighter as he thought of Summer. There was so much to regret there.

"You've got some serious stamina, kid," Qrow began, partly to fill the silence, but also partly to dig a little deeper. "How much did you have to train to build that up?"

"A little, but most of it came naturally."

"Your Dad was always a pretty active guy." Qrow shot his student a furtive look. "What about your Mom? Does she fight?"

"Yeah…"

"She strong?"

"You could definitely say that."

"What's she like?"

"Oh, you know. Like any other Mom. Where's Ruby? I thought she normally joined in with the training?"

It wasn't hard to spot the attempt at changing the conversation. Honestly, it would have been more impressive if someone could miss it. He's defensive when it comes to talking about her. I guess that's understandable.

There was no point in pushing further, so Qrow bowed out with a shrug. "I figured it would be best to focus on you after the talk with Ozpin. I promised Ruby some one-to-one training this afternoon. I'll be helping her with her scythe work, though she could use some pointers on hand to hand, too."

Jaune nodded but didn't reply, fishing in his bags for a drink of water. The attempt to dodge talking about his mother aside, he wasn't so bad. That didn't stop Qrow feeling awkward around him, though.

He doesn't seem to know I'm his Uncle, but if it's true, then I've been absent his whole life. Well, not like that was my fault since my dear sister didn't tell me, but still… should I feel guilty? Should I say something?

What was he supposed to even say? "Oh hey, I'm your Uncle. Want to go to the beach?"

No, that sounded stupid and it was too late to start acting like nothing was wrong. He wasn't sure if he should apologise at all, or if that might just make things even weirder. Jaune clearly didn't want to talk about his family at all, so he could just not bring it up and it would never need to be dealt with. Was that the right thing to do, though?

Talk about awkward. Why am I the one getting stuck in this situation?

Better to think about work, probably, even if that wasn't exactly pleasant either. "Ozpin wants you trained up quickly," he said. "We're not sure if Hentacle will make another move on you, but it would be best if you were able to hold him off if he did. I know you agreed to it from Oz, but I'm just going to warn you in advance about Goodwitch. She won't go easy on you."

"I've never seen her fight before," Jaune admitted. "I know she's strong since she's a teacher, but she doesn't look like it. Would she even fight me normally?"

"Maybe. That's up to her." Glynda definitely wasn't what you'd call a melee fighter, but it wouldn't be much in the way of training if she just pounded him with her spells. Then again, maybe she was looking to teach him how to dodge. It was a valuable skill, after all. "You sure you're okay with all of this, though? I know Oz didn't give you much of a chance to say no, but all of this… it's a bit much for a guy your age. You should be enjoying your first year of school, making friends, getting into silly fights and getting caught by Glynda smuggling alcohol into school."

He still shivered when he recalled that. The worst part was that she hadn't even been a teacher at the time, just an upper year prefect whose job it was to monitor the halls. Gods, she'd been terrifying.

Hot, but terrifying.

"I wouldn't have agreed to this if I didn't like it." Jaune's voice was cagey at best, but Qrow didn't call him out on it.

It's not like he has as much choice as we'd like to pretend. Even if Oz wouldn't ever force him against his will, the fact he's got Hentacle and Salem after him will pretty much do the same. If he wants to survive, he needs all the help he can get.

It sucked… especially since the kid was family, as weird as it was to admit that about Raven's spawn. He was though, wasn't he? He'd always dreaded the idea of Raven ever having a kid, and even worried when Yang was born. His sister abandoning Yang was a sore spot, and he still hated her for it, but a selfish part of him had also been relieved.

Raven was not mother material.

Still, Jaune had come out okay, though Qrow had a sinking suspicion that wasn't because of anything his sister had contributed. The fact he'd apparently run away from home without his mother's permission solidified that, and frankly, if his nephew wanted to run away from that den of evil, then more power to him. He'd offer whatever help he could.

"Well, we'll call training there for the day," Qrow said, lying back on the grass. "Good work. We'll focus more on your sword in the future. At least you got past that trick I was using. That's worth celebrating on its own."

Jaune seemed to cheer up at that, a small smile gracing his face. "Yeah… I had some help with that. I guess I should thank her."

"Oh?" Qrow asked curiously. "Asking someone for tips to get past me?"

"Yeah, Yang and I spent the other night out here together."

Qrow choked.

"We didn't feel like sleeping after, so we trained until morning." Jaune grinned in his direction, apparently unable – or perhaps unwilling – to understand the expression of horror on Qrow's face. This couldn't be happening. "She taught me how to get past your trick."

Yang and Jaune.

Jaune and Yang.

Branwen and Branwen.

"I-I thought you were dating the Schnee girl?" he managed to croak out. Winter was pissed about it, but what wasn't she pissed about nowadays? Still, that had been the only thing letting him sleep easy at night!

"I-I am," Jaune replied – far too quickly, and far too defensively. "Weiss is my girlfriend."

"And Yang…?" he dared to ask.

"Well, if training is over, then I guess I should head off." Jaune stood and dusted himself down. "Thanks for all the help, Mr Branwen. I'll see you around."

As clumsily dodged as he had the question about Raven, but this one was far more horrifying. Did he know and not care…? Or… no, was it possible? Raven was just bitch enough not to tell anyone, and it wasn't like she considered Taiyang her husband if she'd gone and shacked up with Nicholas. Could it also be that she'd never told Jaune about Yang?

She was called Yang Xiao-Long, after all. It was possible Jaune didn't realise at all… and since he had his father's surname, Yang wouldn't know either. They both thought things were normal, while both were headed down a path that filled him with dread. Dread and ick.

Qrow groaned and gripped his head with both hands. An Uncle's job was to be cool, offer advice and occasionally babysit when needed. It was not to explain to your niece and nephew why they couldn't get it on with one another.

That was Taiyang and Nicholas' job.

Bloody blonde bastards…

/-/

"Is it just me or does he keep prodding about my mother?"

"It's not just you. I've noticed it as well." Remy shifted about under his skin, and Jaune felt him settle between his neck and shoulder, as though to better whisper into his ear. "He could just be curious about your past, but I'd be careful. He is aligned with Ozpin."

And Ozpin was aligned against his family. Jaune nodded, even if he wasn't sure where exactly he fit into that scale. He was firmly on his Mom's side, of course. But he was also kind of on Ozpin's side, since he stood in defence of Beacon, and that was where all his friends were. So long as his Mom didn't actually attack Beacon - and he couldn't see a reason why she'd want to - there wouldn't be a problem.

It wouldn't even be tricking Ozpin, technically. It seemed pretty obvious he was being trained up as some kind of anti-Grimm weapon, and that was fine. No one said he had to use it against the Grimm, and it wasn't like anyone could control him if he didn't want to be controlled. I only said I'd help against the Grimm threat. So long as there's no threat, I don't have to do anything.

And if being in Ozpin's little group helped him to find out any plans that might hurt his family and stop them…? Well, that would just be a bonus.

Better in than out, especially when it came to this.

"You do realise you'll need to play ball with them, right? If you act too suspicious, they'll cut off their support."

Or maybe even dig deeper into his past. Jaune nodded. He understood. It was dangerous, but something he had to do. If he wanted to make peace between Grimm and humans, then it had become increasingly obvious he'd need to force the issue. To do that, he'd need to prove the Grimm could be harmless, which meant gaining control of the Grimm so that he could order them to stop hunting humans at every opportunity.

That would mean taking his Mom's position, which would mean being stronger than all of his sisters since they were technically all heirs. His Mom hadn't exactly planned on having loads of children, so issues of succession had never been considered.

If he wanted control, he'd need to best his sisters – and that meant being strong enough to stand up to them. He gulped and tugged at his collar. Well, that was easier said than done. Lavender was younger than him, and already stronger in some ways.

Come to think of it, he still needed to find out whether she was okay. It had been a day or two since the incident with Torchwick, so she should have gotten in contact already. Jaune fished out his scroll and looked around. It was still early and most people weren't up, so there wasn't much chance of being overheard.

It took three or four rings before it was answered.

"Hello…?"

He couldn't believe the rush of relief that washed over him. He'd known she was fine, of course, but there was a difference in knowing and hearing first-hand. "Lavender, it's me."

"Jaune!" There was some hustle on the other end, the sound of things being moved around. "How are you? Are you okay?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that? You're the one who got injured."

He supposed that showed what his sisters thought of him. Even when it was one of them who'd been viciously attacked by that crazy woman, they thought of him first. If he was stronger, they wouldn't worry so much.

"I'm fine, big brother, but thank you for asking. Elena healed my tentacles, and I didn't take too much damage. Mister Torchwick has agreed to put me up in his place, too. Isn't that sweet of him?"

"He's in the room, isn't he?" There was no other reason why she'd be so polite-sounding, especially about Cinder's half-underling, half-boyfriend. Jaune sighed and palmed his face. "You're wrapping him around your finger, aren't you?"

"Yep," she giggled. "To both."

"Just be careful, sis. He can't be trusted, no matter how nice he's acting." Jaune continued his route across the gardens. "Speaking of, do you have any idea what Cinder and him are working together on?"

"No."

"You didn't even ask?"

"Would she have told me if I did? No, I didn't ask. Why?"

"Because you agreed to help her, and by extension, you agreed to help Roman too. Don't you want to know what it is they planned to use you for?"

"Not really. My objective was to find you, and Cinder offered that in exchange for my help. The specific reason as to why was never any interest of mine."

That was so like her, and so like the rest of his family now that he thought about it. They only ever cared about the results and never the means, and now that he thought about it, his dad was the same. Lavender was focused only on what she wanted, her family, and to hell with whatever plan Cinder intended to use her for.

So long as it didn't interfere, there would be no problem. That was the usual approach to their family. Anyone could do whatever they wanted, without reproach, so long as it didn't interfere with anyone else's plans.

But things were different now. He had other people to worry about, and he couldn't afford to just ignore what was going on.

"Never mind, then. I'll see you around, Lav."

"Wait, wait, wait-" Lavender pressed her face close to the scroll, and although he couldn't see her face – not having made a video call – he could imagine her expression.

"What? What's wrong?"

"When are you going to introduce me to your friends?"

He held the scroll away from his face and cringed at it. He had promised, and she would keep badgering him if he didn't agree. To be fair, she was probably a more convincing human than he was anyway. "You're still going on about that?"

"I want to meet him," Lavender said. There was a short pause, before she quickly added, "Them. I want to meet them."

"Soon," Jaune promised. "I'll bring them into Vale, or maybe introduce you to them one at a time. We need to come up with our stories, though. It wouldn't make much sense if we both agreed on different things."

"I'll hold you to it, big brother." She giggled airily. "And I'll go with whatever story you came up with. I won't bother you anymore. It sounds like you're busy."

"Ah, just a little. But you're never a bother."

"I love you, big brother."

"I love you too," he replied, ending the call. He pocketed his scroll with a smile and a newfound hop to his step. Lavender really was the sweetest of his sisters and the only one who ever looked and spoke to him with such obvious respect and admiration. To be fair, that was probably more because of how she was than him – since it would be hard for the rest of them to admire the guy who was categorically the weakest.

Still, not even Amber called him big brother. She was too busy training on being strong.

"Ugh, you are disgustingly easy…"

"What?"

Remy didn't answer and Jaune dismissed him a second later. He was already nearly at his destination, and with it being a little later in the morning, some of the early risers were starting to leave their rooms. There were two such outside the room he was headed to, though come to think of it, they did seem to always be up early.

He was fairly sure he'd seen them a few times when he was training, and that was long before most people even thought about getting up. They were outside of his Big Sis' room, and were both looking over some pictures held between them. One had a camera on a ribbon about her neck, while the other was leaned over, one hand on the wall beside the girl's rabbit-like ears.

It didn't look like they'd seen or heard him coming, so he raised his voice in greeting.

"Hey Mercury, hello Velvet."

The two reacted instantly. Velvet yelped and leapt back from her companion, fumbling and dropping the pictures she'd been holding. She gasped and knelt down to start picking them up, and Mercury rushed to help before Jaune could even make a move to do so.

"Don't worry," Mercury said. "I've got it."

"N-No, it's fine," Velvet whispered.

Jaune blinked and cocked his head, not quite sure why Mercury angled his body in such a way as to block him off. He realised a second later why, namely because Velvet looked his way, and quickly went red in the face and ducked behind the taller boy. Mercury was hiding Velvet from him… probably because she was still scared of him.

"Sorry," Jaune said, stepping back. "I must have startled you both. I didn't mean to. Is Cinder in?"

"Yeah, she's in there with Emerald." Mercury picked up the last of the pictures and pushed them into Velvet's hands. When they both stood back up, the faunus was still half-behind him, and Mercury looked down to her in question. "Huh, what's wro-ow!"

"Nothing," Velvet said, smiling brightly.

"You hit m-ow, stop it!"

"What are you two up to?" Jaune asked.

"Er…" Mercury scratched the back of his head. "You know, just out for a walk. Right, Velvet?"

Velvet nodded her head furiously. "Y-Yes."

"We hang out," Mercury said, shrugging. "Anyway, Cinder is in there, but she's kind of busy and- whoa!" His voice cut off as Velvet tugged him to the side, and apparently quite roughly if the way he stumbled was any indication. The red-faced girl shook her head and dragged him away, never quite looking in Jaune's direction.

I guess she's still afraid of me, he thought sadly, watching them go. There wasn't much he could do about that, not if she couldn't even stand to be in front of him without running away. He was glad she'd made a friend in Mercury, though. He was cool.

His eyes turned back to the door and he sighed. Contrary to how people often saw him, he wasn't a complete idiot. Cinder was definitely busy with something, and didn't want to be interrupted. He needed to speak with her, though.

Ugh, the things he did…

/-/

Cinder sat on the edge of her bed, swirling some white wine about the inside of her glass. Her eyes were fixed ahead, one leg crossed over the other and her foot swaying dangerously in the air. It would have been impossible to mistake her mood, even before one took her expression into account.

Behind her, Emerald Sustrai knelt with her head bowed.

"You have failed me."

"M-Ma'am…"

The girl's voice was choked with fear, regret, and something deeper. She could have said more, but chose not to, accurately guessing it would be unwise to dig the hole deeper.

"I specifically asked you to keep my idiot brother away from Roman's operations. Not only did you fail to do this, but your actions directly led to the Schnee finding him. As such, we've now lost the Paladins Roman struggled so hard to obtain."

And he'd made sure she knew all about that. There could be no blaming Roman for this one. He'd done his part, secured the goods, and then paraded them before the White Fang as she'd instructed. Despite his typical penchant for failure, Roman had gone above and beyond – even fighting against Winter Schnee in an effort to keep hold of their latest toys.

He had failed, of course… but not through any action or inaction on his part. He'd failed because Winter Schnee was the better pilot, and because his soiree had been crashed by her brother and his meddling friends. And none of that would have happened had Emerald simply done as she'd been ordered.

The wine swished about her glass, and some droplets spilled from the rim. It remained untouched, for she was not in the mood for drink. It was only there to keep her hands busy, lest they reach for weapons or fire.

"What do you have to say for yourself, Emerald?"

"I… ma'am, I…" There was a long pause, and Emerald seemed to shrink in on herself. "I have nothing to say, ma'am. I failed you. I-I'm sorry."

"You did fail me," Cinder agreed. "I made an agreement with Roman, and when I instructed you to keep Jaune away, it was with the belief that you would act on my behalf. I trusted you, Emerald." Or she hadn't, not in any significant way. Meeting with Lavender Salem Arc was more important, and Emerald had been the only one available for this task. "We still need Roman, which is why his near-capture could have been disastrous. Would have been disastrous, were it not for Neo rescuing him at the last moment. It was she who helped Jaune as well, I'm led to understand. Where were you in all of this?"

"I was-"

"Ah yes, liaising with the Schnee girl and her friends. Perhaps a valuable position had I any use for the brat." The wine glass shattered as she clenched her fist, and crystalline shards of glass rained down onto the floor. "I gave you your task, Emerald. I gave you strict instructions. Jaune was to be kept away from-"

There was a click from the main door, and Cinder tossed her head angrily. "Did I not make it abundantly clear you were to wait outside?"

"Did you…? You didn't tell me."

It wasn't Mercury who entered, and Cinder quickly schooled her face into a calmer, kinder, expression as she regarded her little brother – adopted, of course. She felt a stab of irritation. "It's good to see you, Jaune, but I'm a little busy disciplining one of my people. Perhaps we should meet again after lunch if you wanted to talk with me."

"I'd rather talk now."

Cinder's words failed her for a moment as Jaune did the exact opposite of what she'd expected and pushed further into the room, closing the door behind him. He would normally have noticed her mood and made a quick retreat; she wasn't angry at him, after all. The defiance, small as it may have been, was unexpected. Not to mention unwelcome.

"Now is not the best of times…"

"It's important."

He intended to push this, then. Cinder sighed but nodded her head nonetheless. It wasn't like him to be so insistent, and even if he was also a part of the reason Roman had lost the Paladins, it wasn't like she could punish him like she could Emerald. "Fine," she said, waving one hand. "Let me deal with this first, then I'll speak with you."

Jaune nodded, and Cinder returned her attention to her underling.

"Your failure has complicated my plans, and has also left me in a position owning a favour to Roman – or at the very least an apology." Neither of those things she cared for, but she needed him still, and that meant she'd have to do what she had to do. "More than that, my mistress' daughter was harmed, and her son almost abducted. If she were to learn about that, your death would not be a swift one." She strode past Jaune to stand in front of Emerald, and sneered down on her as the girl shook. "I wonder what punishment I should even give you…"

"None."

Cinder froze. Her eyes shifted to the right, narrowed and angry. "Excuse me…?"

"You shouldn't punish her," Jaune said. "She doesn't deserve it."

Anger flashed through her, but she tempered it with ironclad discipline. Even so, it was all she could do not to snarl as she crossed her arms and turned to face her `darling` brother. "Emerald failed the task I set her," she said curtly. "I specifically asked her to keep you away from that warehouse. Not only did she fail, but she led Winter Schnee directly there, endangering you, your friends, and Roman. Tell me, Jaune. How is it that she does not deserve punishment?"

"Because it's not her fault any of that happened." Jaune stepped past her, and she didn't fail to note how his path brought him so that he stood between her and Emerald. That fool was protecting her. "I tricked her into believing I'd be in Beacon. If anything, it's my fault."

"Fault does not forgive failure, nor beget it. Regardless of who tricked her or how, her task was to prevent one thing happening. She failed."

And frankly, if she could be tricked by him so easily, then she deserved everything that happened to her. Jaune was hardly the subtlest of people!

"Even so, it was my fault. If you want to punish someone, punish me."

I fully intend to, you stupid idiot! Oh, she hadn't missed the fact he'd interfered in her plans, and he was as guilty as Emerald of making their lives harder. That said, Jaune wasn't her underling, even if she did have a lot of influence with him. She hadn't instructed him to do something, and he hadn't failed her.

Emerald had, and that was why she needed to suffer the consequences. It was important for maintaining her control over the girl. Not that he'd understand. She doubted he would accept it, either. All for his bleeding heart.

She could bull past him and his wishes and punish Emerald anyway. It wasn't like he could stop her, or watch out for the girl twenty-four, seven. Then again, he'd learn about it sooner or later, even if she gave Emerald a relatively light punishment.

He'd then be upset with her, and she'd lose what influence and control she had.

"Fine," she snapped, furious beyond belief. She glared at Emerald just to make sure the girl knew how much a reprieve this was. "You will be forgiven for failing me this once. I suggest you show your gratitude."

"T-Thank you, ma'am-"

"Not to me. Were it my choice, I'd have you dating that Winchester idiot as punishment for this." Cinder watched as the girl's face twisted in disgust and horror. Good. "Regardless, it seems like Jaune sees some value in you… enough so to force my hand. Do not forget it."

"I won't," Emerald said, rising unsteadily. She turned to Jaune, eyes wide. "Thank you, I won't forget this."

"It's fine," he said, waving it off.

Cinder's glare warned Emerald she should do no such thing, and the girl gulped. He might not see any value in such a thing, but Cinder would not allow it to be thrown away. Know that the only reason you are not suffering now is because of him, she thought, frowning.

Judging by the look on Emerald's face, she knew.

"Leave us," Cinder snapped. "Jaune and I need to talk."

"W-What should I do, ma'am?"

"Go for a walk, entertain yourself." Cinder rolled her eyes. "I'd give you a task, but I'm afraid you'd fail me yet again."

Emerald flinched and her head fell. The despair would serve her well, and perhaps even do as an incentive not to repeat her mistake. She looked once more to Cinder for instruction, but moved to the door when it was clear nothing was forthcoming.

It looked like she wanted to apologise again before she left, but a sharp glare from Cinder had her scurrying away.

"Don't you think that was a little mean?" Jaune asked as the door slammed shut. "She did her best."

Cinder shot him a similar glare, but he remained as impervious as ever. He'd gotten too used to them, or maybe he was simply made of sterner stuff. "Her best was not good enough, then. Personally, I believe she could have done better."

"It was me who tricked her."

"Then she should learn not to underestimate her foes."

"Technically, she saved my life by sending Neo after me…"

"And that would have not been an issue at all had she kept you at Beacon as I instructed."

Jaune opened his mouth to argue, but gave up with a sigh. He wouldn't win and seemed to realise that. Her plans were not always absolute, but in this case they were. Had Emerald taken her task seriously, then none of this would have happened!

Still, that was not what she was here for now. Cinder pushed her way over to the table, where the bottle of wine stood. She considered offering Jaune a glass, but she was still angry at him and poured herself one instead. He looked at it, but didn't dare comment when she raised an eyebrow.

If he wanted a drink, he could damn well serve himself.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" she snapped. "I hope it's worth my time."

"You're upset…"

"And you're observant," she countered. What did he expect? She'd woken up to find her Paladins gone, the White Fang faith in her at its lowest in months, Roman upset, Lavender injured – and all her plans scattered about the floor like someone had taken a bulldozer to them.

Oh, and it was all his fault.

"I am a little irritated, yes. Would you care to guess why, Jaune?"

He winced. "I don't think I need to."

No, she supposed he didn't. He was well aware he'd stepped on her toes, and that was probably why he'd come around – to beg for her forgiveness. She hummed and considered that. Her anger was still there, and he'd cost her dearly. If he wanted to make it up, he'd better be prepared to put the effort in. Back in the Grimmlands, she might have let him off with attentive service and maybe a massage. Here, she was feeling a little more demanding.

Her feet had been aching after so much strutting on heels. Perhaps he could start with that.

"So," she said, sitting down and crossing her legs. She smirked up at him, amused at the thoughts of the things she would make him do. "What did you wish to see me so soon? Do you perhaps have something you wish to say to me? Something you wish to ask for…?"

"Yeah…" He took a breath and sat down opposite her. "I want to ask what your plans are."

The glass in her hand paused half-way to her lips. "Are you sure that was what you wanted to ask? Don't you owe me something, first?"

"No. I don't think so, anyway."

Calm, she told herself. Stay calm. You can't afford to break another glass, or you'll be drinking from the bottle and that is unsightly. Delicately, gently, she placed the champagne glass down and placed both hands on her knee.

"Not even an apology?" she half-asked, half-seethed. "After all, you caused me quite the trouble the other night, Jaune. Enough so that my plans have been set back… significantly."

"Yeah, but that's kind of your fault as well."

Cinder's brow twitched. "Oh…?"

"Yeah." Jaune nodded, apparently oblivious to his impending doom. "After all, if you'd just told me what was happening, then I could have avoided it. I only got in your way because I didn't realise I was there in the first place. If you'd just told me…"

"My plans are my plans, Jaune. You don't really need to know about them."

"Then you should probably be prepared for me accidentally ruining more of them," he said flippantly. "Not like I know what's going on, but if I stumbled on them, then it's hardly my fault since I didn't even know they were yours in the first place."

That… that… Cinder bit down on her immediate response and schooled her features. If he wanted to make her angry, then he was well on the track to success. He would never normally do something like this. He wouldn't even normally care about what I was doing. What's changed to suddenly? What's happened to make him act so different?

Could it be Lavender? Her appearance had been an unwelcome surprise, but one she'd been forced to adapt to. Had the arrival of his younger sister sparked something in him?

"If you're not here to apologise, then what are you here for?"

"I want to make a deal…"

Her lips thinned. This definitely felt like Lavender's influence. Lavender was younger than her siblings, and as such had less time to train and prepare herself. What was more; she was born physically weaker – at least by the standards of the Arc's Grimm-enhanced family. Given her unique disadvantages, it would have been understandable if she'd faded out of attention and accepted her lot in life.

She had not.

The girl's focus on the sword was impressive, and with many of her sisters eschewing mundane tools in favour of their Grimm abilities, it gave her an edge the others lacked. It didn't stop there, however. Weaker, slower, less hardy – Lavender used what she did have to great effect. A cunning intellect, and a willingness to entwine herself with anyone and everyone who might prove useful.

Cinder could respect such ambition and cunning. She did respect it, but she was also cautious. Lavender Arc cared for and loved her family, but she was very specific with who she considered such. Jaune was family. Cinder Fall, most pointedly, was not.

It would be just like her to try and turn Jaune against me, and instructing him to question my motives is something she would encourage. It's too early to know for sure, but Jaune has always been trusting and easily manipulated in the past. Something has definitely changed now if he's questioning me like this.

"What kind of deal?" she asked warily.

"I was thinking a deal for information. I can share things with you in return for you answering a few questions."

"And what would you know that I would need?" Cinder resisted the urge to scoff and phrased it as an honest question instead. "You're not as familiar with the outside world as I am, and I very much doubt you know anything I couldn't find out myself."

"I know exactly who is in Ozpin's circle."

Cinder's mouth fell open. Her mind whirled, even as her thoughts tried to catch up and warn her that she was staring at him like some kind of slack-jawed idiot. She slammed her teeth together with a click and looked at him, properly this time.

Jaune stood no different to how he usually did, but there was something about his eyes. He seemed more focused, more attentive – and dare she say, more cunning? He was wary too, and she could sense that he was watching her just as closely as she watched him.

It was a new development and she wasn't sure what to think about it. She'd lost count of the number of times she'd tried to mould him into someone like her, someone ambitious and cunning, who could manipulate and scheme. Her efforts had been rewarded with failure each time, and she'd come to accept that it wasn't the kind of person he was. She'd just have to guide him from the shadows, or maybe make his decisions for him. Now, however… now, he looked to have embraced some of her wisdom.

It was equal parts enticing and frustrating. On the one hand, she was pleased to see him using his mind and not being afraid to barter like this. On the other, why had he felt the need to start with her of all people!?

"Who is it, then? I already know of a few."

"Ah, ah, ah…" Jaune shook his head and smiled. "I'm not telling you until I you agree to answer a question in return. It was you who taught me that, Big Sis."

"So I did…" Cinder turned her head to the side, looking at him in a new light. Instead of a naïve and bumbling idiot, she saw what he could be in time. It was clumsy now, but if it could be refined? She'd given up on the idea a long time ago, but maybe it could work after all. Maybe she could sculpt him into something more dangerous.

Into someone powerful, dangerous and with a razor-sharp intellect. Yes, just the thought of it was enough to make her lips draw into a slow smile. He had the potential to be more than his sisters, and she, of course, would stand at his side as his most trusted advisor.

"Remember dear, there's more than one way to power than conquest. Jaune and you are around the same age."

Salem's words came to her in a flash, and the smile was wiped from her face, replaced with red that suffused her cheeks instead. She scowled at it and squashed the stupid thoughts away. Madness, stupidity… as though she would ever consider such a thing. She didn't care for him in the slightest. She was only doing this because Salem wanted to, or because it was a route to power. Definitely one of those two things - she couldn't remember which.

Regardless, if he did have information, then she would need to play along.

"Very well, Jaune. Let us make a deal." She would not go easy on him. If he wished to play games with her, he'd best be prepared for her full effort. "What are your terms?"

"I want to know things about what's going on," he said. "I want to know what your plans are, and I also want to know the next time one of my sisters is coming by. I don't want to only find out when she's already pretending to be me."

"On the latter, I can agree, but the former is more complicated." She tilted her head to the side and sipped some wine. "My plans are ever changing, and they need to be after you so thoroughly compromised them."

She paused for his apology, and rolled her eyes when none came.

"It's also a poor trade. All my plans for a little information I could find out anywhere else? Don't make me laugh. If you want something from me, you had best be prepared to offer something of equal value."

"Then how about if I offer myself?"

The glass froze halfway to her lips and she stuttered and spat her wine out. "W-What is that supposed to mean? Why would you even think I would desire such a thing?" She choked a little and thumped her chest, and when she'd finally swallowed her drink, her cheeks were dark red. "You presume too much! What your mother says is said in jest and-"

"I was only saying I could help you out."

"And… and…" Cinder paused. "What was that?"

"I could help you out," Jaune repeated. "I won't break the law or do anything I don't agree with, but you already tried to cast Lavender as Hentacle. Wouldn't that have worked better if it actually was me?"

Oh…

Oh…

He'd meant…? He hadn't meant…?

Cinder coughed into her fist and forced her face into a neutral mask. Her eyes bore into his, demanding to know whether he'd seen her unsightly outburst. Luckily, it seemed he was as oblivious as ever. Thank the Grimm for that. As for his offer? Well, it had legs.

"Yes, well… that might work. How far would you be willing to go?"

"That'll depend on what you want. I won't kill any of my friends if that's what you're about to ask."

She knew that, and wouldn't have wasted her time asking. He was still painfully predictable. "Would you fight in self-defence if they attacked you?"

Jaune hesitated, but eventually nodded. "Only enough to escape…"

"That would be enough."

"Only if you agree to my deal," Jaune reminded. "Like for like, Cinder. If I have to do things like this, then you have to answer a question from me. And if you want me to help you out with something, then you need to repay me in kind."

"I believe I can work with that."

There would need to be further haggling, of course, and there were some things she knew he would not do. Still, as the deal went, it was not a bad one. That was her first warning something was up, of course. She was no fool. I'll need to watch him carefully. As appealing as this sudden deviousness is, it could still be a problem in the future.

"Tell me who Ozpin works with, then," Cinder said.

"Not yet. I need to know you'll answer my question."

Cinder nodded and waved a hand. "Ask, then. I'll tell you if I can answer it or not – but you will share your information first."

"What? Oh, never mind. I agree." Jaune sighed and leaned forward. "My first question would be what you're doing here in Beacon – and I mean other than looking after me. I know Mom will have told you to do that, but there's something else you're here for, otherwise you wouldn't be doing all this stuff with Roman and the White Fang."

"You're correct," she admitted, again impressed with his reasoning. What a day of surprises this was turning out to be. "Very well, then. I agree. Should you tell me who is in Ozpin's circle, I will answer that question."

"Ozpin, Glynda Goodwitch, Qrow Branwen – and also Raven Branwen."

Four names for four people. Cinder hummed and leaned back on her sofa. She'd known about most of them, but the latter was a new name and she made a mental note to investigate. The relation to Qrow was obvious, but the fact it had not come up before was not. If someone evaded her attentions, it was usually a sign that they were doing so on purpose.

There are more people than that, however. I know for a fact Ironwood is involved, but I suppose Jaune does not. Still, this does help. It tells me I need not worry about Oobleck and Port. They are likely as ignorant as any other as to what Ozpin hides.

"How did you find out?" she asked.

"You'll have to offer me something else for that, Cinder."

She smiled and waved a hand, conceding the point. His honesty wasn't in question, not after he'd accurately identified those as involved. The fact he knew about Ozpin's little group at all said he was telling the truth. She had never mentioned it to him.

"I suppose it is my turn," she said, uncrossing and crossing her legs the other way around. She could have refused to tell him, but that would harm the trust he had in her, and it wasn't worth the effort. He was still her mistress' son, after all. "I am here because I won something of great power and value, but Ozpin and his people took it from me. My goal is to reclaim that at any cost." She smiled at him over the rim of her glass. "You might call it my lost treasure."

"That's the only reason…?"

"Well, I'm still here for you," she answered honestly. "It's a bit of both, but my personal desires lay with that treasure. Your mother would rather I focus on you but… well, you know how she is."

"Tell me about it," he groaned. "What kind of treasure is it?"

Cinder rolled her eyes and stared at him.

He laughed. "Oh right, one question. Can you just answer one more for free, though?"

"For free? I'm not normally in the mood for charity, Jaune."

"It's just a small one, and it'll determine whether we can work together without getting into any problems."

Cinder raised an eyebrow.

"I just want to know whether you intend to harm any of my friends. That includes my team and also Team RYBN."

Well, all things came to an end in time, or so they said. It was a shame to see his darker side give way to concern about his stupid friends, but she supposed that was to be expected. As to the question, she saw no harm in giving it an honest answer. "I don't care about any of those people, and have no real plans for them. So long as they don't interfere with me, I don't see any reason to do the same in kind."

"You promise?"

"If they do not interfere with my plans," she stressed, leaning forward. "They've already done that more than enough already, and I believe I've been quite patient with them. It wouldn't be hard to bomb their entire rooms. But I won't," she added when she saw his panicked expression. "That would draw attention. Frankly, I'd prefer to not have to deal with them ever again. Keep them away from me and we won't have any problems."

"I can try, but I'll need to know what your plans are in advance. I might have been able to steer them away from that warehouse if I'd known about it."

"I'll consider informing you next time," Cinder said. Her head fell back against the cushions and she glared at him. "Now, I think it's high past time we spoke of the other thing you owe me."

Jaune stared at her. "Huh?"

Her left foot landed on his lap.

"Ten Paladins, Jaune," she seethed. "Ten state of the art military robots. Those were neither easy nor cheap to acquire." She wriggled her foot suggestively and raised an eyebrow. "You can start earning my forgiveness right now."

"With a foot massage?" he asked curiously, but took her foot in his hands and removed her shoe nonetheless. Both his thumbs pressed down on the sole of her foot, and she let out a sigh of pure relief. "That sounds fair."

"Fair? Don't – oh - make me – ah – laugh." She glared at him and brought her other foot to rest beside his legs. "You and your friends ruined far too many things! You're going to be making it up to me for hours, and I will feel like jelly by the end of it, or I'll remind you just why Salem entrusted me with your upbringing."

"Eep! Yes, Cinder." He went back to work on her skin, kneading and squeezing her flesh with one hand, while his other rubbed warm heat into her ankle. Her head lolled back against the cushion, eyes drifting shut.

Ah…

It was hard being such a forgiving woman.

I could get used to this... maybe every day...


And there we go. No scenes for the teams, I'm afraid, but Jaune progressing his thing, and forging some alliances of his own. It's a dangerous spot playing both sides against one another, but that's kind of his long-term goal anyway.


Next Chapter: 21st September

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur