Back from my break – here we go.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Kegi Springfield

Chapter 38


"That's it for now," Qrow called, waving for them to stop.

Another hour or three of training passed, and a little more confidence in his step, Jaune complied, lowering Crocea Mors and dusting some grass stains from his trousers. He'd eaten dirt more than Qrow had, in fact the man had yet to fall at all, but he could feel the improvement and that was all that mattered.

"You're getting better but you're still a far way off," the older huntsman said. "Your foes aren't normal, at least not compared to the average Grimm. You can't afford to be good; you need to excel."

"We could keep training. I could go for another few hours."

Qrow grumbled something under his breath and shook his head. He sat with crossed legs, breathing heavily and motioning for Jaune to do the same. He did so, and for a while, the two of them sat in silence, nothing but the early morning wind and the faint bustle of distant students their company.

Jaune liked those moments, even if they weren't exactly productive. The sounds and smells were different from back home, where no life reigned and the land was bathed in perpetual hues of purple and black. It was beautiful too in its own way, but not quite as vibrant as it was in Beacon. There was just so much going on.

"What are you thinking about?" Qrow asked.

The truth wouldn't suffice, so he went with a different excuse. "The school dance. It's coming up soon and I don't know what to do about it."

"Aren't you going with the Schnee girl?"

"You know that's fake. I'm sure I told you."

"Could be real, though," Qrow muttered. "Why not go for it? She's nice… for a Schnee."

"Weiss is great," Jaune said, feeling the strange need to defend his partner. "She's loyal, kind and helpful – even if she does expect a bit much from people. She's helping Ruby catch up with all the schoolwork she missed by moving ahead, you know."

"I'll be sure to send her a gift basket as thanks," Qrow said sarcastically. "Anyway, sounds perfect. Why not go with her?"

"Because I'm already in a relationship?"

Qrow went silent, as he often did when Yang was brought up. Jaune had never been able to figure out why, but he had an idea. Qrow was Yang's uncle, after all. He probably felt it was weird talking about his niece's love life.

Jaune could respect that. He'd have felt weird if one of his sisters picked up a boyfriend, and he normally wouldn't have pressed Qrow on the issue if it wasn't for one important factor. "Actually, I need some advice."

"Advice?" Qrow's head perked up. "What kind?"

"Girl advice."

"And you want to ask a forty-something bachelor?"

No, but it wasn't like he had a wide range of male figures to pick from, was it? There was Ren, who was a total bro but his age and single. Cardin was the same, with the added complication of maybe hurting the guy's feelings if he brought up his relationship with Yang. The only other alternatives were Ozpin, Ironwood and Roman – all of which were single, and all of which were also either strange, frightening or downright odd.

"Sure," he said, lying through his teeth. "I bet you're great with girls."

Qrow predictably sat a little taller at the praise. "Well, I've been known to leave a few satisfied barmaids behind. Shoot."

"What kind of things does Yang like?"

The wind whistled between them, blowing across his skin as he waited for an answer.

"Qrow?"

"A bit of a ballsy thing to ask, don't you think? Straight to her Uncle's face?"

"I figured you'd know best," he said carefully. "You don't have to tell me, but I thought it would be worth the risk to ask. I wouldn't want to do something wrong and upset her."

"Upset her, huh?" Qrow's face took on a complicated expression and the man looked away, lost in thought. Whatever he was thinking about must have been a sensitive topic, since his shoulders started to hunch together. "Could I? No. That would make me the biggest asshole. Still, if it's for the best? Damn it, Tai. This is your fault somehow."

"Qrow?"

"Okay, okay, I get it." He pushed himself around so that he faced Jaune once more. "Fine, you know what, I will offer you some tips. Take 'em as you will."

"You will!?" Jaune smiled happily. "Thank you, Qrow. This means so much to me!"

Rather than be pleased at the praise, Qrow managed to somehow look more aggrieved. "Don't make this any harder than it already is, brat," he whispered. "Damn my bleeding heart. Okay, fine. Listen up – and stop taking notes!"

Jaune stashed the notepad away.

"Women like different things dependent on who they are," Qrow began. "Everyone is different and they'll all have their personal tastes and preferences, but there are a few things that can be considered universal across the board. Your safest bet is to stick with those things until you can figure out for yourself what they like."

"Universal things? Do girls really have some things they all like? That seems a little simplistic."

"Not really. We all have things we don't like, male or female, so why would it be weird to have it the other way around? No one likes being stabbed in the back. Don't do that."

Jaune sweat dropped. "Isn't that a bit extreme?"

"Don't be an idiot. That was just an example. Point is, apart from some outliers, most girls are going to prefer someone who shows them attention, listens to them and treats them like an equal. Since the whole point of getting to know someone is to find out more, that's a good starting point. If you have any crazy thoughts of sweeping someone off their feet, cheesy poems or love striking like divine lightning, then get them out of your head. Life isn't that simple."

His cheeks heated up as Qrow said that. He didn't think he'd done anything that bad, but he could admit to imagining that romance would be like that – at least the strike of lightning bit. Then again, it always was in the books he read. The hero would go and slay the dragon, rescue the kingdom or fulfil the prophecy, and then the princess, peasant girl or loyal companion would fall in love with him.

But life isn't a novel, he reminded himself. If it was, it wouldn't be quite so complicated.

"Of course, you have me to drop you some advice on what Yang does and doesn't like," Qrow said, "so you have an edge. Listen closely, because I'll only say this once."

He leaned forward.

"Yang loves formality."

"Huh?"

"Formality," Qrow said, not quite meeting Jaune's eyes. "Yeah, she loves it. The more sentimental, overly romantic and girlish the better. She's the kind of girl who wants to be spoilt in a fancy restaurant and treat like a princess."

"Yang?" Jaune asked, just to make sure they were talking about the same person. "Wow, I wouldn't have imagined that. She always seems more of a free-spirited type."

"That's a mask she puts on. You know how it is."

"I see…" Jaune stroked his chin. It didn't really sound like what he'd have expected, but Qrow knew her better than he did. "Okay, so I need to be the perfect gentleman?"

"Yes, absolutely. Things you definitely shouldn't do include taking her to a club, dancing or out drinking."

"She always told me she liked those things."

"A-Ah, w-well, that's for casual times, right?" Qrow waved a hand before his face and laughed a little too loudly. "Think about it, Jaune. If she likes those things and does them already, then that isn't dating, is it? That's just her hanging out with friends."

Realisation struck with enough force to make him gasp. Qrow was right. That was the dreaded friend zone right there, and he'd almost blundered straight into it. He'd heard about it, but never really understood what it meant. He nodded his head quickly, whispering quick thanks for Qrow saving him from a terrible mistake.

"That's the most advice I can give you, kid. Play it cool, but remember to be a gentleman. That means holding doors open for her, wooing her with fancy speech and every other little thing. Yang loves that old fashioned shi- I-I mean she loves the traditional stuff."

"Thanks, Qrow," Jaune said, pushing up onto his feet. There were already ideas flying around his head. "You've been amazing to me, both in training and this. I really appreciate everything you've done." He bowed his head. "Thank you."

Qrow looked like he'd just murdered a puppy. "Y-Yeah," he rasped, eyes closed. "No problem."

It was only when Jaune left did the man relax, his body slumping to the grass as he pulled out a flash of his strongest booze and took a desperate swig. It tasted bitter and unsatisfying. It tasted like ash and regret. He clasped a hand to his face.

"Gods, I'm a monster."

/-/

Bedrooms didn't make the best place for military briefings, but at his old friend's request he'd docked his airship in Vale so as not to alarm the students and populace. That left him with a room in Beacon, generously furnished and provided by Oz without a second thought. He would have done the same in return, of course, but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

Still, it wasn't the best place for a military briefing, and Winter looked absolutely ridiculous stood nervously at attention between a bed and a dressing table. It looked like the kind of scene one would expect to be drawn up in military court, namely of a superior officer taking advantage of a cadet. Ironwood didn't quite like the thought of that and waved her down.

"You can stand at ease, Winter. There's no need for ceremony." He liked even less how greasy that sounded, and quickly busied himself in the kitchenette. "Would you like some tea or coffee?"

"Water will be fine, sir," Winter said.

Ironwood rolled his eyes and prepared their drinks, mixing the tea and handing it over to her in a steaming mug. She took it with a faint start.

"O-oh, but I said water."

"You hate water," he pointed out, earning an embarrassed flush from the specialist. "Winter, you are one of my most trusted officers, and this is just a meeting as to our mission here in Vale. No one is watching, so you can relax."

To his relief, she did so, sitting down on the edge of the bed with a tired sigh. "I understand, sir. Thank you." She sipped from her tea and breathed in the fumes. That was about as good as he'd get, since convincing her to refer to him as anything other than `sir` or `General` usually met with stubborn refusal. Unless she was angry that was, in which case she'd shout his name, and then refuse to admit she'd ever done it later.

"We're just waiting for-" His words were interrupted by a knock on the door. He made to open it, but the door opened of its own accord, the protocols overwritten despite his scroll being at his side. Then again, there was only one person capable of that and he had summoned her. "Thank you for coming, Penny." He smiled kindly at her. "I hope I didn't interrupt your long-awaited meeting with your friends."

"I got to speak with friend Ruby and her team," Penny reported happily. There was an uncharacteristic skip to her step. One that made him shake his head in amusement. It wasn't a necessarily bad thing, however.

"How was it?"

"Sensational! Ruby was as happy to see me as I was her, though it seems my greeting to her might have led to a misunderstanding. I simply tackled her to the ground and informed her we would commence with the intercourse. Was that wrong?"

"Not wrong, per se," Ironwood said, trying to ignore how Winter choked on her drink in the background. "I'm sure your father can upload some more information about casual relationships. Didn't I ask him to do that the last time?"

"You did," Penny said warily. "I'm not sure those videos were helpful, however. I lack the instruments necessary to make friend Ruby scream like that, and I'm not sure she would like it if I did."

Ironwood blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I do not have a phallus, General Ironwood."

Ah, of course. James pinched the bridge between his eyes and let out a long-suffering sigh. He'd have to go and see the good Doctor Polendina and explain the definition of `relationships` and `casual` again. "Penny, please purge those videos from your data banks."

"I already did, sir," Penny said nervously. "They were… strange."

"S-Sir!" Winter intervened, finally having gotten her hacking under control. "Doctor Polendina shouldn't be-"

"Doctor Polendina is a genius of engineering," he interjected before the regular argument could come back to the fore. "As such, we can put up with the fact he is less than perfect in other regards. If anything, he deserves pity. Penny is better at socialising than he is, and that's saying something." A man such as he would have been ridiculed and mocked in any other field, but where others saw eccentricity, he saw potential. Well, potential and eccentricity, of course. You really couldn't ignore it. "We're not here to discuss the Doctor anyway. Now that we've established a forward operating base in Beacon, we can finally commence our true mission."

"Operation Censorship?" Penny asked.

James sighed. "Penny, it is called Operation Nightingale. Where did you get that idea from?"

"Father-"

"Purge that as well," he instructed. He's a genius, he reminded himself. I can forgive his eccentricities. I really can. Oh, he knew the idiot would be laughing himself hoarse over that one. Censorship, indeed. "Operation Nightingale's stated objective is simple," Ironwood continued, feebly trying to bring back some professionalism. "We are to defeat, secure and capture Target H-1, at which point he will be readied for transport back to a secure research facility in Atlas."

"I am combat ready," Penny agreed.

"Does the headmaster of Beacon know about this?" Winter asked, a little less certain.

"He does not. Ozpin wishes to play things a little slower. He believes in the potential of his pawns, of Branwen and Jaune Arc." And there was potential there, he supposed. He'd been able to sense it when he shook the boy's hand. Even so, potential or not, there were other things to consider. "Ozpin is a stickler for looking at the bigger picture, but only so long as it is his. He won't even consider the option of hunting down Hentacle, mostly because he doesn't have the people he feels he can trust for such a task. Branwen is busy training his new protégé, while Glynda is needed at Beacon. Given his lack of options, a defensive position is likely the best choice. But not for us!"

He swept one arm wide. "We have resources Ozpin does not, and we shall use them as we need. H-1 needs to be stopped, make no mistake of that."

"I won't sir," Winter said. "I saw the Grimm he summoned after our reclamation of the Paladins."

Ironwood nodded grimly, clenching a hand in front of his face. Grimm. Summoned in the middle of Vale. It wasn't his city, nor his Kingdom, but that didn't make the problem any less his – nor did it make the people here any less under his protection. It was their duty to protect all of humanity, not just those who wore Atlas' colours. If only more within the Council and Military would understand that.

If only Jacques could understand…

"The Operation is to be kept secret from Ozpin and any affiliated to him," he decided. "I know Oz. He will try to head it off, likely citing risk or panic as a reason. While I understand his concerns, I think a little fear among the populace preferable to a Grimm incursion in a residential quarter. H-1 is here for something. We know what that something is."

"Jaune Arc," Winter said.

Penny's hands clenched into fists so tight the sound of grating metal could be heard. "Friend Jaune," she whispered.

"Target A-1 is to be watched wherever possible," he said. "Penny, you will be the best for this given your position, though I'm sure Winter will aid wherever possible."

"Of course, sir."

"I will protect my friends," Penny declared with a rare hint of anger.

Ironwood smiled indulgently at her. Again, some might have preferred her as naught but a weapon, a tool to be used. He saw potential in such feelings, however. They made her human, or as human as she could be. It would ensure she had reasons to always fight for the right side. "I'm glad to hear it, Penny. Your friend is H-1's stated target. There is no telling what that monster will do if his prize is kept from him. Therefore, we must act now. This is why we can't play the waiting game Ozpin wants."

There were too many lives resting on it. If Ozpin couldn't see the dust keg the city was fast becoming, that was on his back. Dust robberies, increased White Fang presence, stolen military weapons and now a monster capable of spawning Grimm at whim.

Those were hardly ideal circumstances, and he could barely understand how Ozpin remained so calm. Was he blind, or had he simply become complacent with his own machinations? No matter. They would do what they had to.

"It certainly does present an interesting opportunity," Winter said. "H-1 has exhibited far too many human-like responses to be a simple Grimm. The very fact he knows to remain hidden and not cause an outbreak of panic is just another example. Any other Grimm would have made itself known by now."

"He is definitely special," Ironwood agreed. How special would have to be determined later. Winter did not know of Salem, and that would remain so. She didn't know of Amber, either, or what lay beneath the school. "We'll find out just how special later. Tell me, are you certain of what your sister said?"

"I am, sir. Target H-1 is capable of human speech."

"Perfect. That means he's capable of answering questions." Ironwood turned to the side. "Apart from questionable material, had your father upgraded you like I asked, Penny?"

"He has, General." Penny answered. There was a certain glint to her eye. "Should Target H-1 show himself, I shall have little trouble defeating him." Her hands tightened into fists. "He will not be allowed to harm my friends."

"I have a shuttle prepared to take the target away at any time," Winter added.

"You've done well, both of you." Ironwood took a moment to savour his tea. Now all that was needed was for something to break. H-1 couldn't remain inactive forever, not if it had its own objective to accomplish.

Time was on their side.

All they had to do was wait.

/-/

Yang fought back a yawn as she waited for the other members of Team RYBN to get ready. Normally, they were left to wait on her, but she'd woken up a little earlier and claimed the first shower, and was now left to watch as Nora tried to convince Blake to let her braid her hair or something. Blake was fighting her partner off with a scowl, and it looked like it might turn violent if Ren didn't finish his shower and intervene.

A typical morning, basically…

A knock on the door introduced something a little different, and since those two were still busy, Yang decided she'd best be the one to answer. She drew it open and peeked outside. A familiar figure stood there, looking as fresh as a daisy despite the fact he'd probably come back from training with Uncle Qrow.

"Hey Yang," Jaune said, waving. "Do you have a second to talk?"

"Do I?" She glanced back inside. "I think I do. Let's do it outside." She nodded for him to step back and slid out without opening the door any further than she had to. Jaune looked confused, so she quickly explained. "Blake and Nora aren't ready yet. Not sure they'd appreciate me giving you a free show. So, what's up?"

He looked left and right, checking the corridor to see if they were alone, and only when he was convinced they were did he speak. "I was wondering if we could talk about the dance."

Yang froze. Crap. Crap, crap, and double crap. Her eyes traced back to the door behind her but it was closed now, and she'd have to step away from it to open it – pushing herself against him. Oh, and it would also be pretty obvious she was making a run for it. She swallowed and forced her eyes to meet his instead. A nervous laugh escaped her. "W-What about it?" she asked.

"Can we talk somewhere else? I was thinking this might be better in private."

"I think here is good."

She could stay leaning on the door for support, after all. The last thing she wanted was for him to see how weak her legs were. Okay, you can do this. This is nothing big. You've had guys ask you out before and you never had any problem turning them down. Except that they'd been arrogant kids or nervous wrecks. Funny how she now was the one liable to break out in a cold sweat.

"Okay…" He gave the corridor another look. "So, are you going with anyone?"

Did she say yes? No, he'd see that as a lie the moment she went, or she'd have to force someone else to go with her to save face. Ren wasn't an option due to obvious – and very ginger – reasons. She didn't know any other guys she could trust not to read into it and think she was into them. If she said no, he'd ask her, though.

"I haven't decided," she said instead, hedging her bets somewhere in the middle.

"I guess that makes sense. You probably have a lot of guys wanting to ask you."

Damn him for that! Blood rushed to her cheeks at what was honestly not even a very clever compliment. It was used and cliché, if he even meant it that way. She wasn't sure why it affected her so, other than the fact he was so bloody sincere. It didn't feel cliché when he said it. Damn it. This is bad.

"Well, you know, less than you'd expect but more than you'd hope for." She laughed it off, unsure of what she'd even just said or what it was supposed to mean in the first place. Her eyes flickered to the side and she bit her lip for a second. "You know, Ruby hasn't had anyone ask her to the dance yet. It would be great if someone did."

"She hasn't?" Jaune seemed surprised. "Huh, maybe someone's waiting to ask her. I'm sure she'll have an offer from someone. Ruby's a wonderful person."

"She really is," she agreed, throwing herself into the familiar, comfortable topic. "She's nervous obviously, I mean, who isn't on their first real dance? But I bet she'd be over the moon if someone asked her. Especially if it was someone close to her. A good friend. Maybe a friend who wants to be something more…" She trailed off, wondering if her hint was just a little too obvious.

"I don't think Nora will appreciate Ren asking Ruby."

Never mind. What had she even been thinking? Obvious? To Jaune? There was no such thing. She was so busy trying to resist the urge to slam her face against the wall, she didn't even notice Jaune reaching behind his back and bringing something in front of her. Not until she had a small box of chocolates in her hand, that was.

"Here," he said, with a disgustingly charming, sweet and handsome smile. "For you."

Yang looked at the chocolates like they were poison.

Her heart skipped a beat.

No one had ever bought her chocolates before… and oh gods, they were even in a case shaped like a love heart. Was it getting hot? Why was her vision fading? Oh yeah, she needed to breathe. When had that stopped being an automatic thing? Pesky body, it was betraying her – just like her face. Oh crap, it was bright red. She could feel the heat.

She had to say something. Had to push him towards Ruby – he'd be so perfect for her. Her mouth opened, and her cleverly prepared words spilled forth. "Blwuh…"

Jaune blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I-I mean thanks. Thank you!" A door opened further down the corridor and someone poked their head out. She didn't even recognise them, but they took one look at her, then to the chocolates, before the girl giggled and pull her head back inside. Yang scowled and hid them behind her back, but that only made it look worse, with her now pushing her chest out towards him.

Damn it. What was she going to do with these now? She couldn't eat them all herself. Greed aside, she'd look like a glutton. If she brought them back into the dorm, Nora would notice, however. Whatever Nora noticed, just about everyone else would soon learn. If Ruby found out, she'd be crushed. Oh, she'd hide it. She'd pretend everything was okay and cheer her sister on, but there was no telling what she'd be thinking inside.

Would she smile sadly and remember how Yang always stole away the people she liked?

"I was going to ask if you'd go to the dance with me," Jaune said, interrupting her thoughts. He continued before she could speak. "But you said you've not made your mind up yet, right? I guess it would be rude to ask."

"I'm not sure I'd be the best person for you. Maybe you should ask someone else." Someone like Ruby, obviously. "A dance is a big thing, you know? If you go with someone, it's like telling everyone in Beacon you're together. You shouldn't rush into something like this. None of us should."

To her surprise, he nodded.

"I agree. We've only been on the one date. It's probably a bit early to do something like that. Everyone would just get the wrong idea."

Yang's mouth fell open. He'd agreed? That was… that was great. It was perfect. She bit down on a strange emotion that rushed through her, one that had her eyes dipping a little lower. This was good. It was what she wanted.

It definitely was…

"That's why I wanted to talk to you in private," he said.

"So you could tell me you weren't asking me?" she asked. She had no idea why her voice took on such a sharp edge. Why am I getting angry? This is what I want! "Sorry," she said. "Just a little tired this morning." She faked a yawn for effect.

"It's fine, but no, that wasn't what I came for." Jaune smiled and nodded to the chocolates she'd brought back in front of her. He coughed and adopted something of a formal pose. "Yang, would you do me the honour of joining me for dinner tomorrow?"

She stared at him. "Don't we always eat together?"

"In Vale, I mean. At a restaurant."

It took a few seconds for the words to filter into her head. When they did, her reaction was anything but expected. Her mouth felt dry and she had to swallow twice to clear it, but there was something else – a sudden jitter to her movements. "Like, a date?" she asked nervously. "Do you mean a date?"

He couldn't mean a date – not after what he'd just said.

"Yeah."

Okay, he did. Typical Jaune, she supposed. Okay, this was fine. It was okay. Deep breaths. He was just asking her out. That was a bad thing. Good? No, it was a bad thing. Stop feeling happy, she howled inside her mind. "Why?" she just about managed.

"Well, you already said we've not really seen if it'll work out. I figured you were right. We went on the one date, but that was with everyone together. I thought we should at least go on a proper one with just the two of us." He tilted his head and smiled at her, and she was shocked at how coy it made him seem. "That's the whole pointing of dating, right? It's to make sure people are compatible."

It was… she'd been on dates before, of course, and hated how some guys seemed to take it as an invitation to do whatever they wanted. A date wasn't a contract, and it sure as hell wasn't her saying she was down for the dirty. Honestly, it had been a while since she'd been on any; a year or two, at least.

Her first instinct was to say no – no matter how much her stomach fluttered and her feet shuffled and played with one another. Luckily, her brain was a little too addled for any words to come out, and that gave her a second to think.

This could work. It could really work.

A date was to see if things could be something more, and since Jaune understood that, this could be an easy and safe way to bring things between them to its natural end. She hadn't ever meant to ask him out, after all. She'd just dropped the D-word by accident and he'd taken it seriously. She'd gone along because she didn't want to hurt his feelings, but that's all it was on both their sides. Maybe biting back on her anxiety and just going along with this would be the best bet.

They'd go out, hang out, and it either wouldn't work – or they'd see they were better off as friends. Then, when they were comfortable and alone, she could direct him towards Ruby instead, who would be so much the better girlfriend for him. The two were practically made for one another.

It could be the perfect way to get over my own feelings too, Yang thought. There's not much point hiding it. I'm getting worked up because of the attention, since I've not had a guy do anything like this for me before. It's just nerves. If I go along with it, we'll both see it's just our bodies playing tricks on us.

The more she thought about it, the better it seemed. A casual night out with a friend, something they'd both look back on and laugh – and hey, if everything went really well, he might be a brother in law in ten or so years. Even if he and Ruby didn't get together, Jaune was a cool guy. She'd been down with having a lifelong friend like that.

"Okay," she said, feeling a little better and smiling back at him. "I'm game. This is just to see if things could work out. And you have to keep it a secret," she added, thinking of Ruby. "Otherwise it's just the same as us going to the dance. Don't tell anyone on your team about it."

"I won't, I promise." He laughed and moved forward, engulfing her in a hug before she yelp, let along mount an effective defence. "Thanks, Yang. You can't believe how much this means!"

"Eheh, it's nothing." With her hands pinned against his chest, and keeping hold of his gift, there wasn't much she could do other than put up with the hug and rest her chin on his shoulder. She had to grumble at how comfortable it felt. Why couldn't he be all bony or flabby? It would make things easier.

Accursed hormones. You're not even that sexy, Jaune. He was just nice, dependable and kind of cuddly.

In a friendly way.

Damn it.

When he rushed off to do whatever else he had planned for the day, she was left alone in the corridor, red in the face and clutching a heart-shaped box of chocolates like it was a live grenade. Well, served her right for waking up for the early shower. Lesson learned; she wasn't getting up before the crack of dawn ever again. With a sigh, she turned back and opened the door – only to run face-first into three people waiting eagerly on the other side.

Too eagerly.

Her eyes narrowed.

"Sounds like someone had a productive morning," Nora said, voice dripping with suggestion. "What do you think, Blakey?"

"I think you might be onto something," Blake said, all drama forgotten as she raised a taunting eyebrow in Yang's direction. She nodded to the item hidden behind Yang's back. "Are you going to share those with us?"

"I have no idea what you mean."

"Oh, I bet you don't…"

It was official. She hated her team.

/-/

She'd said yes. He wasn't sure why he was so surprised but he was, and that sent a strange feeling through his body and into his stomach. It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, however. Qrow had said to really pull all the stops out, so a restaurant dinner was the obvious choice. The only problem was that he didn't know anywhere to take her, and couldn't ask Weiss – the obvious choice – either. He'd promised he wouldn't tell anyone, after all.

Would Ozpin or Miss Goodwitch know?

Did he want to imagine the kind of place Ozpin would send him?

Hell, could he afford a reservation? Yes. He'd be fine on that front. It wasn't like he was up to date with how much those things cost, but his bank balance had a lot of zeroes on it, thanks to Uncle Watts' measures.

The answer was obvious, and he dug out his scroll. When it was answered, a cultured voice came through.

"Young master, is that you?"

"Hello Uncle."

"It is!" There was a pause, during which he could well imagine Watts scrambling for his mother. "Please wait, I'll put you through-"

"Watts, please, don't tell Mom I called."

"Don't? Young mas- Jaune… you know I am allied to your mother, our master. I cannot keep anything secret from her, and I have a feeling she would be rather cross were I to keep you to myself. Where are you? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, Uncle. I'm in Beacon and I'm safe. I… I actually need a little help."

"While I'd normally be only too happy to offer it, you do realise your current actions are against your mother's wishes. Unless it were something I knew she would be happy with, I can't-"

"I need a restaurant reservation for two at the fanciest place in Vale," he interrupted. "I'm taking a girl on a date."

There was a long pause.

"Name a time and day…"

/-/

Roman schemed like his life was depending on it. It was, which was an unwelcome development, and the reason for the twenty or so cigars he'd been chain smoking since he woke up that morning. The ash tray wasn't so much that as a pile of ash with a tray buried somewhere underneath, and he couldn't bring himself to clean it up – a rather marked sign of his moon, since he was normally a fastidiously clean individual.

He brought another cigar to his lips and lit it, inhaling and praying for the satisfying kick to wash his fear away. It only managed to mute it. Let's face it, Cinder is going to kill me once this is all over and done with. I know that. I've always known that. He puffed out some smoke, eyes fixed on the middle-distance in his plush downtown apartment.

She was the kind of woman to tidy up her loose ends, and he'd have been able to respect that were he not one of them. Either way, his use would only last until she no longer needed the dust, at which point he felt confident he'd wake up with a dagger in his back. That was fine. He was used to such dealings. He just wasn't used to being so utterly outclassed in them.

That was why he'd tried to latch onto the kid. Someone young, idealistic, easily manipulated, but better yet someone who Cinder seemed to harbour a strange affection for. If he could have worked his way into Jaune's good will, he could have counted on him to cover his and Neo's ass. That was the plan, anyway.

Problem was; it wasn't working.

Oh, Neo was doing her best, and he had to admit her latest gambit was nothing short of a miracle. It was the only good thing to take away from the mess that was the White Fang rally. The Paladins were gone – technically not his fault – and the White Fang were nervous as all hell – also not his fault – but at least Neo had managed to make it seem like she and he had helped the kid. That was a damn sight better than the truth, that being of how it was Neo who kicked him down into it in the first place.

It wasn't enough, though, and it wasn't fast enough. Jaune might have good will towards Neo, but apparently being cute and sexy in his presence wasn't winning him over. Worse, he downright hates me. Not sure if it's the job or just our run-ins, but the chances of us being buddy-buddy seem to be less than none.

Roman had played an ace and a king, but the flop had dealt nothing but twos and sevens. There was no telling what the river would give, but he already wanted to fold. Except that he couldn't. Folding meant death.

I need a new angle, he decided, rubbing his temples. Cinder is a bust. She'll kill me when she's done with me. Kids not working out since every time we're together it's a flipping disaster. What else can I do?

"This is quite the home you have, Mr Torchwick!"

Oh right, and there was the other problem, too. He pushed himself up and followed the voice into another room, where for all intents and purposes a small and innocent teenage girl was inspecting a rack of expensive drinks. Of course, look was all it was. She was more than capable of tearing his head from his shoulders with her bare hands.

"My work pays well," he said. "Or, well, there's not much in the way of tax, anyway. Living in a place like this is just a trade for all the risk."

"And the people know better than to give you up to the authorities?"

"They don't often see me." He brushed past her and poured himself a small glass of an aged whiskey. "I don't know if you're old enough to drink, but you want one?"

"I would not say no." She accepted his offering with a cute smile. "Thank you, Mr Torchwick. You really do look after me. I know you must not have expected a house guest." She held her hands before her and bowed her head. "I'm dreadfully sorry for any inconvenience. I know I can be a little annoying at times…"

"It's fine. Hell, compared to the usual people I deal with, you're a saint."

Her smile said she found the comparison amusing, which he could well believe. She was anything but saintly – at least on a physical level. Still, she didn't seem to throw around her power like her brother did, nor lead him on like Cinder.

Wait a minute…

Was this his out?

The girl was powerful – not to mention related to the kid, and apparently obsessed with him in that way little sisters sometimes could be. Better still, she was on much better terms with him, downright dependent on him, in fact. He provided her safety, food, even the bed she slept on. Obviously, he couldn't go and blackmail her over that, but he might be able to play on it and earn her favour.

If I do this, it's one way, he thought. This will be an absolute betrayal of Cinder, which means if it fails, I'm dead. No second chances. Was that worth the risk? Oh, who was he kidding? Cinder was going to do him in anyway. Might as well take the chance while it was available.

"I like fine drinks and finer cigars," he said, just to keep the conversation going. "When I was younger, I used to look at them and thinks how I could never hope to afford them. I guess now that I can, I like to re-live the feeling."

"That makes sense." She giggled. "In truth, I was much the same, although it was often with me wanting to train and spar alongside my sisters. They were always so strong and powerful, while I was just little old me…"

Roman laughed along, all the while fighting down his mounting panic. More of them? More of them who were stronger than she was!? The idea alone was staggering, and the implications terrifying. Nope, it was decided. His survival was completely reliant on this now. Nowhere would be safe if there were more people like those two, people who could summon and control the Grimm. What use were the walls now?

"Sounds tough," he said. "I never had any siblings – didn't even know my mother – but I know what it feels like to be the small fry. I had to start from the bottom, and there were no end of people who wanted to take advantage of me."

"But being weak also makes people underestimate you, right?"

He grinned. "True. I don't get much of that now, though."

"I can imagine!" Lavender stepped back and spread her arms wide, tilting her head to one side. "Cinder told me you're the best criminal in the field, famous across all of Vale. I can't believe I'm standing here in your apartment."

"Ha ha, well, it's not that special…"

"Oh, but it is. And you helped me meet up with my brother." Her eyes sharpened. "And before Cinder intended to, as well. I'm very grateful for that."

Another sign the two weren't fully on good ground. That was good – very good. It hopefully meant she wouldn't rat him out to her. They seemed to be on the same side, but there was definitely a little animosity there. He made a note of it and soldiered on. "Your brother's pretty important to you, huh?"

"He is. All my older sisters were busy, but Jaune always had time for me. I promised I would always be his little sister – and that we'd always be close." She paused and bit her lip. "His coming to Vale was unexpected, but it changes little. I'll just have to meet these people he calls friends and make sure they don't intent to get in my way. So long as they keep to their side, I see no reason I cannot tolerate their presence."

He saw the opening for what it was. "Then why don't you invite them over?" he asked.

"Here!? Wouldn't that be dangerous?"

"I have other safehouses," he said. "Actually, I can go one better and buy you a house of your own if you like. I can do it legal – there's plenty of money I need to launder, and real estate is as good a way as any. It would let you blend in a little more, plus you could tell your brother to bring his friends to see you."

And, of course, it would be just another reason to love good ol' Uncle Roman. Look at all these convenient reasons to keep him around and alive. Oh yeah, everyone loves having a Roman Torchwick on their side, right? Right!?

Lavender clearly did. She let out a high-pitched peal of laughter and threw herself at him. His instincts screamed a warning, but she was faster, though to his relief the arms that wrapped around his neck didn't strangle him.

"Oh, thank you~" she gushed. "Thank you, thank you. You really are the best, Mr Torchwick. I would love that so much! I would never forget such a gesture." She pulled back and pouted, and for the first time, he realised just how adorable she was. Sure, she was a monster – but she was a cute monster. "It's not too much trouble, is it? I don't want to be a burden."

Against his better judgment, he rubbed her head and laughed. It was impossible not to. "Nah, it's fine. Besides, what are friends for?" He stepped out of her arms and away. "Let me just boot up my terminal and I'll do a little house hunting. We'll have you and your brother back in touch before you know it."

Lavender nodded, and then – almost impulsively – reached up to kiss his cheek. She backed away, red-cheeked herself and staring at the carpet. "T-Thank you, Mr Torchwick."

"Heh, no problem."

/-/

Lavender watched Roman leave with a pleased smile. Only when he was gone did the blush on her face vanish, as did any other emotion. She looked down to the drink he'd offered and ran a finger about the rim. She downed it in one go. It was fiery and strong. Just how she liked it.

"Two-faced human," Elena sneered.

"Now, now, Mr Torchwick is only looking out for himself. That's an admirable trait."

"You're aware of his machinations? Hmph, I should not be so surprised. My mistress is the wisest of all."

"Nonsense, Elena. I would be lost without your aid."

"Y-You flatter me…"

Perhaps, but it was always amusing how far that could get you. And well, well, well, if this wasn't the interesting development too. Cinder's little pawn wanted to fly the nest, did he? She would kill him if she found out, and it could be her who brought the news.

But why do that? Why throw away such a delightful opportunity? A chance to gain not only a loyal minion, but also to rub her darling Big Sister's nose in it? Well, people had died for less. "I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of Mr Torchwick in the future, Elena. He could be… useful."

"Then why not tell him that now? Why act oblivious?"

"Because I wouldn't want him to relax and take it easy, of course. As long as he believes his life depends on winning my favour, he'll be that much more eager to please." She chuckled and turned back to the display, helping herself to another glass of her generous host's liquor. It wasn't like he could say no, after all.

"Do you intend to move against Cinder?"

"Not for the moment. It seems my adopted sister has opened quite the can of worms here in Vale. Let's see how she handles that. For now, we'll play along." But that wouldn't remain an alliance forever, of course. Their objectives were far too different. "In the meantime, I need to help Mr Torchwick with this new house. I must meet Big Brother's friends. I have to make a good impression."

"Hey," Roman called from the next room over. "Do you have any preferences? I can hook you up with a fake backstory as well if you like."

Lavender's impenetrable gaze vanished, replaced with bright eyes and a brighter smile almost immediately. She clapped her hands together and rushed over. "Oh, Mr Roman, that would be such a good idea. You're so smart! Please, let me come and help. I don't want to be a bother."

Roman smirked and focused once more on the computer terminal.

Lavender smirked, too.

Two could play that game.


And I'm back. It's funny how you make all those plans on what you'll do when you have a week of no work, and somehow it gets gobbled up by something else – in my case my sister deciding she was going to have an argument with her boyfriend and come mope at mine for three days straight. And then, after I have her food, lodge and such, complaining that I'm being anti-social by not talking with her when I get home from work.

Um… kind of trying to work on my writing, sheesh. Oh well, that's sorted itself out (as such things inevitably do), and I managed to do my planning over several late-nights instead.


Next Chapter: 19th October

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur