And the next chapter is here. Just a small warning that due to me taking yesterday off to rest my wrist and visit a doctor, I actually wrote this all today. CF was involved in the planning, but didn't get to see the chapter, so if there are any silly mistakes, they are mine. All mine! Mwahahaha


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Kegi Springfield

Chapter 42


There were few things in life Cinder feared – truly feared, that was. While thoughts of Watts or Tyrian claiming victory over her in one of their spats was frightening enough, as was the idea of Jaune actually finding out what tentacle hentai was and using it on her, the only thing she had ever really feared in life was death. Death and Salem, of course, since the two weren't mutually exclusive.

Being stood before three of the most powerful men on Remnant, however? Men who had not only the means, but very much the reason to kill her?

Cinder felt she could be forgiven for the sweat that ran down her brow.

"And that is how I found her," General James Ironwood, one of the most influential – and aggressive – enemies Salem held. "Pinned to a wall and about to be killed. It was fortunate I was there on time to save her." His eyes fell to hers, and if he thought she looked away out of shame, then good for her. "You are lucky to be alive, Miss Fall."

"Y-Yes," she returned. "I'm glad you came in time."

After all, it would have been simply dreadful to have the day go to plan. There was nothing like the Atlas military smashing down your door to make you appreciate the easier things in life. Even through the fear she felt for herself, however, there was a far more gnawing one.

"Do you know what happened to Hentacle, General?"

"You needn't concern yourself with that."

"And you should not concern yourself with it, either," Ozpin added, smiling in that grandfatherly way of his. It made her teeth ache. "If your last encounter with him did not make things clear, allow us to do so. You are lucky to be alive, Miss Fall. Do not seek out such foes again in future."

"I understand." She bowed her head, though only so they couldn't see her panicked expression. Was Jaune alive? Had he escaped? She'd sent Roman and Lavender a furtive message, but she had no idea how that had gone. She'd been spirited away by Ironwood's men, and she didn't dare kill them for fear he would become suspicious.

She had no idea if Jaune lived, and that terrified her.

"Why exactly were you there, anyway?" Qrow Branwen asked. The old huntsman's face might have seemed calm, or even inebriated, but she knew better. He was dangerous. So very, very dangerous. "Curious place for a student to be, don't you think?"

Yes, it was, but apart from panic, the long journey back to Beacon had given her time to think up an excuse. Logic had been cast aside, mostly because there was no logical explanation for her presence. Instead, she'd gone for something closer to home – and something she knew two out of three of the men before her approved of.

"I wanted to help people," Cinder Fall said, with not a shred of irony in her voice. "I saw Hentacle and the White Fang meeting and I thought it would be good if I could find out why, or maybe even stop it. I called my team to help, but they found me before anyone could come."

"You thought to do this alone?" Ozpin asked.

Cinder looked down to the floor, channelling her best Ruby Rose impression as she kicked one foot against the back of her heel. "I… I wanted to be a hero, sir. It's why I became a huntress in the first place. I want to protect people."

Gods, if Tyrian could hear her…

"That is an admirable goal, Miss Fall. Very admirable."

"But still reckless," Ironwood rebuked. Despite his tone, there was a small smile on his face, and she let out a breath of relief. "While none here can doubt your intent, I'll need you to take more care in future. We do not want something like this to happen again."

"Believe me, sir, on this we are in complete agreement."

"I am glad to hear it." The General's stern look faded for a second. "No one is questioning your drive or ambition here, Miss Fall. The foe you faced is one who is far above your level. Until you have graduated and become a huntress in your own right, such enemies should be left to those better equipped."

But did you or did you not hurt him? Cinder wanted to scream. It was all she could do to nod. If she could get away, she could try to make contact with him and ensure his safety. "I understand. May I be dismissed?"

"Not yet." It was Ozpin who spoke, and the man regarded her with a curious expression. "You are a relatively new student to Beacon, are you not? You chose to transfer here from Mistral this very semester."

Cinder swallowed her nerves and nodded. There was little she could do but tell the truth here, even if her heart beat rapidly in her chest. Why was he suddenly so interested in her? Had he discovered something?

"From what I understand, you are also familiar with another student here. You know Mr Arc, correct?"

Her shoulders stiffened. That was not the connection she wanted them to make. "I do, sir."

"How exactly are you familiar with him?"

What should she say? The truth was out of the question for obvious reasons, but she could not tell a blatant lie for fear Jaune might have said something different. If he was even alive, that was. Perhaps they were asking because Hentacle had been killed and Jaune had gone missing. The thought had her stomach falling out.

As it was, it was all she could do to stammer a weak reply.

"We've known one another for years…"

"How many?"

"Since he was born. I… I helped look after him."

"You did?" General Ironwood asked, his eyes narrowed in some hidden concern. "You'll forgive me saying, Miss Fall, but I am not sure you are old enough to look after a child."

"It was just babysitting," she said. "I would keep an eye on him, help him study. We spent a lot of time together."

Ozpin and Ironwood exchanged glances, but Cinder was suddenly under intense scrutiny by the third man in the room. Flask half-way to his lips, he'd frozen in spot, and now watched her with wide eyes. The way they roved up and down her body, before zeroing in on her hair, had her on edge.

"So, you had to keep an eye on him while his Mom was out?" Qrow asked.

Cinder nodded.

"She was a busy woman, I guess?"

"Yes."

"So, despite you barely being any older, she dumped him on you to look after. I bet she made you educate him, too. Let me guess, she focused on making him strong, but pretty much left everything else to you?"

Well, that wasn't entirely wrong, she supposed. "Not just me. Jaune had a lot of Uncles, too."

"Oh, I bet he did," Qrow growled. "Damn her... Wait, are you blood-related?"

"To Jaune?" Cinder asked, blinking nervously. "N-No. I'm more… more adopted, I guess. Or I was just convenient at the time."

"Perfect!"

It was?

"Please ignore Qrow," Ozpin said, smiling. "So, Miss Fall. You are close with the young Mr Arc, then?"

"I suppose."

"And was it because of him you chose to leave Haven and attend Beacon?"

That was uncomfortably close to the truth, but she nodded anyway.

"I see…" Ozpin smiled and linked his hands over his desk. "That is some admirable loyalty you have to the young man. I'm relieved to see such bonds remain in place, even during what must have been difficult times for you."

Difficult times? Bonds? She tried to make heads or tails of what they were saying, but came up blank. In the end, she decided to bite the bullet instead. "Is Jaune okay, Headmaster? Has something happened?"

"What?" The man blinked, before his eyes widened. "Oh no, Miss Fall. I do apologise if I made you believe it so. Mr Arc is fine, or was when I last saw him. I did not mean to bring him up at so stressful a time, nor to make you believe his life was in danger in any way."

Then why did you bring him up, exactly? They had an interest in him, and her connection with him. That much was clear. What have you been doing, Jaune?

"May I be dismissed, sirs?" she asked again, more eager than ever. To her relief, this time Ozpin nodded – and she wasted no time walking to the elevator (and rushing she could run). Once the golden doors closed, and only then, she allowed herself to relax.

But not too much.

Those questions had been too pointed, and they'd all been aimed at the worst possible thing; Jaune's family. Could they know about Salem? Well, Ozpin obviously did from what Salem had told her before, but on the issue of Salem having a family, she had been assured no one knew.

Something might have changed. It certainly looked like they were interested in knowing more about his and her background.

"I'll need to speak with her," Cinder whispered. "She needs to know."

As soon as she made sure her idiot brother was alive, of course.

He had some explaining to do.

/-/

Left behind, the three men in Ozpin's office watched the elevator doors close and the cabin descend. Only once it had did someone speak, and even then it was after a desperate drink. Qrow Branwen polished off the remainder of his precious alcohol with a gasp, then wiped his mouth clean with the back of one hand.

"Bloody Raven," he hissed. "Why am I not surprised?"

"It does paint quite the interesting picture," Ozpin remarked.

"Does it? All I see is about what I expected. Raven has another child, except this time she doesn't have Taiyang to dump the tyke on. Instead, she grabs some young girl from her tribe and tells her to raise it, only chipping in to claim him when he's older." He made to spit to the side, but held back when Ozpin shot him a pointed look. He swallowed it instead. "I guess that explains why the two are strong, though not why he's so shoddy at sword work."

"It might," Ironwood said. "That girl seems more of a martial artist, and if what you say about your sister is true, she likely wouldn't waste any of her time training him."

Qrow grumbled, but had nothing to counter.

"We should be thankful the two of them have come out as they have at all," Ozpin said. "Your sister does not offer the best place to raise a child, but they seem to have come out rather well."

"If a little paranoid," Ironwood said. "Did you see the look on her face? She looked afraid of us. So did Arc if I remember correctly."

"Afraid of authority, perhaps. Given where they were raised, can you blame them?"

"Raven doesn't tolerate failure," Qrow said, arms crossed. "Still, you're not wrong. They came out surprisingly okay, though I guess I should have known they had their heads screwed on straight when they ran away." A smirk overcame his scowl and he laughed out loud. "Good on them for that. Get away while you can and don't go back to that den of thieves. And yeah, I can imagine just what kind of `Uncles` they had to help raise them. Little wonder they're wary around adults."

"So, will you keep training Mr Arc?" Ozpin asked.

Qrow shrugged. "I guess I will. Someone has to, and it looks like my bitch of a sister isn't interested. I'd normally be against training someone from the tribe, but I can't imagine him raiding villages or slaughtering innocents. Don't think the kid has an evil bone in his body."

"And the girl seems awfully loyal to him," Ironwood remarked.

"That's one way of putting it," Ozpin chuckled.

"She's not blood-related," Qrow mused, stroking his chin. "Better than Yang. Maybe I should invite her to training, too."

"That might not be a bad idea," Ironwood said. "Hentacle has shown an interest now both in Jaune Arc and this girl, and given what we've discovered of their pasts, I don't think it's a coincidence. They could have been seeking to capture her in order to lure him out, or this may have been a play against Raven herself."

"You think Salem sought to use them as hostages to obtain the Spring Maiden?" Ozpin asked. His eyes narrowed. "That is not an impossible plan."

"Bah, Raven wouldn't trade Vernal for her own flesh and blood," Qrow spat. "She'd say they got captured because they were weak, and then leave them to die."

"Perhaps, but would Salem know that?"

The answer was clear. Raven was an outlier when it came to normal behaviour, thank goodness. With what limited understanding she had, Salem would simply assume a mother would trade away the spring maiden to reclaim her son and what might have been seen as an adopted daughter. Even if the plan would not work, that would place both of those students in extreme danger.

"You're keeping an eye on Arc already," Ironwood said. "I'll look after the girl." The General crossed his arms, but there was a spark of something in his eyes. Perhaps he felt responsible for her after saving her life, or maybe he saw some other angle. With him, it was as impossible to tell as ever. "It wouldn't do to split Qrow's attention, after all."

Ozpin nodded. "I shall leave her to you, old friend. Perhaps under your gaze, she will be able to sleep a little safer."

Somewhere between the office and her room, Cinder felt the unusual urge to shudder.

/-/

On the other side of Vale, a Bullhead landed in an abandoned and secluded street, and what might have been classed as the most unusual party in existence stepped off from it. One was a recognisable and handsome rogue with white clothing and orange hair, while the next was a pale-faced monster with eldritch tentacles and blood-red eyes. He was followed by a figure where the colours seemed inversed, hair of red and a face of white bone, which would reveal itself as a mask on closer inspection. They were then followed by a pretty sixteen year old girl with blonde hair and green eyes.

Ironically, she was the only one who seemed to feel comfortable in the presence of everyone else.

"Well," she said, dusting her blouse of some dust. "That was fun."

"I think you and I need to have a discussion on what counts as fun, Lavender."

"Oh, Mister Roman, don't be like that! Your handsome face will develop wrinkles…" She danced in front of him and fixed the lapel of his jacket with both hands. "Besides, you were very brave there. I'm ever so thankful for you for helping my brother and Mister Taurus."

Despite the frown, and the danger, Roman preened a little. Praise was praise, and Lavender offered it where Cinder never had. He rubbed his head and looked away. "Ah, it was nothing."

Jaune scowled at the man.

I'm watching you, Roman, he thought, eyes narrowing. The man had been Cinder's, but had then gone on to join Lavender. While Cinder had made him think his sister had stolen him away, the way he acted here – lavishing in her innocent praise – made his hackles rise.

Was that bastard trying to double-time Cinder and Lavender?

He better not be. He wouldn't survive the experience.

"Well, we've made it," Adam said, stepping forth from the White Fang who had gathered off to one side, all clearly nervous about Hentacle. They may have been, but Adam was all smiles, albeit his smiles felt vicious and self-serving. "I hadn't planned for us to face off against Atlas, but the fact we bloodied their nose and escaped unharmed will invigorate many of the faunus in Vale." He held out a hand. "We did well, Grimm."

The last time he'd offered a hand, Jaune had refused to shake it, but now he felt too tired to care and gripped it loosely. "I suppose we did…"

Behind Adam, several of the faunus smiled at one another, though Jaune noticed the female members staring a little more, and how their necks and cheeks turned red beneath the masks. They also appeared to be breathing heavily.

"Tell Cinder I'll be in contact soon," Adam said. "It was good to cross blades with you."

"Yourself as well," Jaune lied, watching the man leave with his brethren. Once they were alone, he turned back to Lavender and Roman, slowly transforming back into his human form. The tentacles disappeared, and so too did the strange hunger he'd experienced when fighting Ironwood's people. "Thanks for the save," he said, making sure he only met Lavender's eyes.

"You're welcome, dear brother. Cinder managed to pass a message onto us, though it was Mister Roman's quick thinking which us able to save you."

That wasn't exactly what he wanted to hear, but manners dictated he give the man at least a reluctant nod of thanks. Still not going to get you out of trouble, though. Why did you just so happen to be with my little sister at the time, huh? Try and explain that one!

"I'd love to stay, sis, but I need to get back to Beacon before I'm missed."

"I know." Lavender smiled. "It might be suspicious otherwise."

He was relieved she understood, and nodded as he took a step away. "I owe you one, though. If you need anything, let me know."

Lavender's hand caught his shoulder before he could run. Her smile, far more eager than he'd ever seen it before, put him on edge instantly.

"Well," she purred. "There was one thing…"

/-/

"You walked right into that one," Remy said as Jaune snuck back into Beacon. Well, it was a bit much to call it sneaking since he walked in the front gates, but the important part was that he didn't draw any attention when doing so.

"I know, but Lavender did save me. I'd have been in trouble without her."

"You're in trouble anyway. Don't tell me you think this little run-in with Atlas isn't going to have consequences."

Jaune sighed. Remy was right, of course. Not that he'd doubted it for a second. When he'd promised to help Cinder, it was for information and the assurance that his friends would be kept safe, and while that was still a good deal, it was starting to look more difficult than it had before. Though, to be fair, that probably hadn't been her intent. I hope Cinder's okay. If Ironwood found out the truth about her, I'd have to invade Atlas myself.

And he would if he had to.

He might even be able to pull it off, but only if he travelled around for a bit to convince all the Grimm in Atlas to follow him. They would, but it would kind of defeat the purpose for him having run away from home in the first place. On the bright side, Mom would be thrilled. Uncle Tyrian would, too.

Such thoughts were cut off entirely as four figures almost ran him down. Would have, really, were it not for his nerves being so highly strung that he dodged back so hard he tripped over and splashed into the fountain.

Ren dragged him out with a smile.

"Taking a dip, Jaune?"

"Hilarious," he spluttered, pushing some wet hair from his forehead. "What are you guys running around in such a panic for?" The other three were, anyway. Blake looked agitated, though that might have been putting it lightly since it was clear she wanted to keep moving, and likely would have, if not for Nora keeping a strong grip.

By comparison, Ren and Yang just looked irritated.

"The White Fang have been seen in the city," Yang said, and then jerked a thumb towards Blake. "The rest should be self-explanatory."

And sadly, it kind of was…

"We have to stop them!" Blake hissed.

"I know, Blake. I know." Nora crooned, patting her hair. "We will, Blake. We will."

"Don't – wait, are you patronising me!?"

"No, Blake. Nooo…"

"You are!" The reformed terrorist stomped one foot. "This is serious, Nora. The White Fang just fought against Atlas in the streets of Vale. How is this not a big deal to you?"

"Uh, because it's over? Because they escaped?" Nora shrugged. "Not much we can do about it."

"We have to try!"

Yang and Ren sighed and looked back to him, their expressions showing it all. Jaune chuckled in return and mentally wished them well, even if he definitely would be taking a rain check on this one. He'd had enough of the White Fang for one day.

"It's better we go with her than she does this on her own," Ren said.

"The team that struggles together, something or other," Yang added. "No idea what the full saying is, but I figure it means we have to put up with this. Beats homework, I guess."

"Do you want to come with us?" Ren asked.

Yang shot him a furious, wide-eyed, look.

"Sorry, but I have some things I need to do." Jaune smiled when Ren sighed and Yang did the same – though hers seemed more relieved than anything. "Good luck, though. I hope you find something."

"I don't," Ren said.

"Okay, then I hope you waste your time for nothing?"

Ren's sigh was even louder, and somehow even more despondent.

"Thanks for the effort," Yang laughed, clapping his shoulder. "But I think we've got that one down. One big afternoon of wasted time, here we come." She dragged Ren away, waving back to Jaune as she followed after Blake and Nora on their way towards the Bullhead docks.

He'd have been worried for them, but there was no way Adam was going to make any moves right after they'd just escaped Ironwood. He'd be lying low for the next few days at least, which meant the biggest risks his friends were running was running themselves ragged for nothing.

He forgot about them entirely when he saw her waiting at the front entrance to the main Academy building.

Her amber eyes pierced his soul immediately.

"You're safe," he breathed, jogging up to her.

"As are you," Cinder replied, looking him up and down. It didn't take her long to see an issue. "You're soaked. Again." She sighed and took hold of him by the collar, dragging him into the building. "Come and dry off in my room. We have things to discuss."

They attracted a few stares as they made their way through the corridor, though funnily enough Cinder seemed too distracted to notice. Others did not, however, and he had a feeling there would be rumours about the beautiful woman dragging him through the halls to her room.

Once they were inside and a towel had been thrown into his face, however, such thoughts became less important. She recounted her meeting with Ozpin and Ironwood, and most noticeably the veiled words from Qrow Branwen.

"He knows about Mom?" Jaune asked, horrified.

"Considering he hasn't tried to harm you, I doubt it," Cinder said, letting out a sigh as she fell back on her bed and crossed her legs. "Still, he's becoming suspicious and that is a problem. I could try to have him killed, but I fear-"

"You can't," he said. "He's Ruby and Yang's uncle!"

"That is exactly what I fear." She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Jaune, you cannot simply extend your protection to every little person. If Qrow finds out the truth, your life will be in danger. Mine, too, not to mention Lavender's – and the lives of all your family."

"I know." He sighed and finished towelling his hair, tossing the damp thing onto Emerald's bed. She, Mercury and Neo were nowhere to be seen. "But don't you think it would be even more suspicious if he were to vanish like that? Besides, you always say a spy you know is worth more than a spy who is dead. We can feed him misinformation."

Not that they had anything they needed to feed him, or any need for him at all, as Cinder's arched eyebrow made clear. He had to stick to his guns, though. Ruby would be devastated if anything happened to her uncle. She really loved him.

Cinder sighed. "You are making my life so much harder than it needs to be…"

His eyes lit up. "You'll spare him?"

"I'll stick to my promise as best I can," she said, putting extra emphasis on the last part. "If he gets any closer, however, then I cannot promise anything. My loyalty is to your mother first. Remember that."

"Thank you, Cinder!" He surged forwards and threw his arms around her, knocking her back onto the bed and laughing.

"Get off of me!" she hissed, struggling, though not very hard, to throw him off. "You will get me soaked, you great big idiot. Get off!" She managed to hook an arm under his, and then leverage that to pry him off. With a hand on his chest, she pushed him back so that she could sit up once more. Her hair was far more dishevelled as a result, and to his amusement she didn't notice. "You're a pain to deal with as always," she growled. "I don't know why I put up with you."

"Because you love me?"

"Fool," she scoffed. "I'll let this go for now, but we will come back to your nosey mentor if he starts to dig any deeper. We have a far bigger issue to concern ourselves with."

Jaune blinked in confusion, wondering what could be more important than Ozpin potentially finding out about Salem and his connection to her. "We do?" he asked. "What?"

Cinder's eyes sparked. "YOU!"

"Eh?"

"Your behaviour back there," she snapped, storming to her feet and pushing a finger into his chest so suddenly that it was he who backed away, and then tripped over Mercury's bed, falling onto it with a wide-eyed expression.

She did not let up her assault, planting both hands on her hips and staring down at him.

"What could you have possibly been thinking back there? Are you an idiot? No, don't answer that. I know you are! You willingly put yourself in Ironwood's sights, risking your life against overwhelming forces when you could have better tries to escape." She grit her teeth, and he had a feeling had he been standing, she'd have fixed her hands around his neck. "What in Salem's name were you thinking?"

"Do you mean when I strangled you? I'm sorry, but I had to make it look convincing…"

"Not that," she snapped. "Your plan in the first place. You put yourself in grave danger!"

"What was I supposed to do? You brought me there in the first place."

It was the wrong thing to say. Cinder's eyes narrowed and she took a deep breath and let it go, visibly calming herself. He cringed at the sight.

"Yes," she said, voice clipped and even. "I did bring you there, so some of the fault is mine. However, I am not the one who attempted to sacrifice my life for another. You attacked me from behind, removing any chance I had of assisting you."

"Your cover would have been broken."

"You are more important than my cover!" Cinder almost roared. Would have, if not for the thin walls and the fact it wasn't her style. Instead, while her voice was raised, her words came out as a hiss – like a King Taijitu that had cornered its prey. Her entire body vibrated with fury as she glared at him. "You absolute moron. If my cover had been lost, I could have adapted. It would have been difficult, yes, but no more difficult than fighting off the Atlas military! What would you have done if Winter Schnee was there, or other Specialists? Or even that woman who attacked you before?"

"I… well, I…"

"You would have died is what you would have done! You would have died while I struggled to breathe and recover my senses in General Ironwood's grasp. I'd have been utterly unable to help you."

This wasn't the way he'd imagined this conversation going. All the way home, he'd been worried about her and whether she was safe, and the first thing she does is criticise him? Anger bubbled beneath the surface as he pushed himself to his feet. Cinder refused to take a step back as he approached, and soon the two of them were practically nose to nose.

"Where do you get away with blaming me?" he demanded. "It's your fault I was there, and if people interrupted the meeting, then that's probably your fault, too. I did the best I could at the time."

"You did the best you could for you," Cinder snapped. "You made my decision for me, and robbed me of any chance of sharing my opinion."

"I saved your life!"

"By risking yours! And my life?" She laughed. "Don't be so dramatic. You may have brute strength on your side, but I am still able to beat you. My cover aside, I would have had no problems breaking through their lines and escaping."

"Well excuse me for not knowing that in the first place," he half-shouted back. "I was too busy picking up after your mistakes! Besides, what are you even complaining about? It worked."

"It might not next time. And this is it working, is it? You're probably the most wanted man in Atlas now, and you've gone and made a personal enemy of Ironwood. That's your idea of success?" Cinder threw her hands in the air, her blazing eyes not leaving his for an instance. "Most people would consider that failure! And did you ever consider what it might mean if it didn't work? What would have happened if you weren't strong enough to defeat them, hm?" She cocked her head to one side. "What would have happened if you'd just needed one more person to help you, yet you'd left her all but unconscious on the side?"

"Then I'd have lost, I guess. But at least one of us would have gotten out alive."

Cinder clenched her teeth and grabbed his collar and shook him. "And you think that's okay, do you? You think that's just absolutely fine?"

"I think it's better than the alternative. Besides, if you're worried Mom will be angry at you, you can just say it's my fault. At least then I'd be out of your hair and not causing you any more proble-"

The sound of Cinder's palm striking his face echoed in the small room. Her eyes were burning with angry rage, her teeth bared, even as she drew back and cradled her hand, which had struck his ridiculously-sized aura and obviously come out the worse for it. He barely felt the pain.

Outside, anyway.

He felt something inside. Shock, surprise, fear…

"How dare you say that," she seethed.

"Cinder…?"

"Get out."

"Big Sis…?"

"Out!" she repeated, louder. "Get out. I don't want to see you. I don't want to so much as perceive you." She grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to the door, pushing him against it and pushing again until he opened it and was thrown out. The final shove was the hardest, but when he turned, it was the look in her eyes that truly frightened him.

He'd never seen her look like that before – and before he could think more on it, the door was slammed shut in his face.

"Cinder!" he called, knocking his fist against it. "Cinder, come on. Open up. What's wrong?"

There was no response.

He tried again, pressing against the door as he banged the flat of his fist against it, all too aware of the looks he was getting from those nearby. Some had even stopped to watch, no doubt enjoying their slice of Beacon corridor drama.

"Open the door! Cinder, please…"

When there was no answer, his annoyance returned. How was he at fault for this? He'd saved her life, not to mention he'd saved her plan. She should have been thanking him for his quick thinking, not locking him out of her room like some kind of idiot.

"Fine," he shouted, and kicked the door for good measure. "Be like that. If you want to talk, you know where to find me." He turned away and pushed through the gaggle of people, ignoring their whispers.

Stupid Big Sisters. Stupid White Fang. Stupid Adam.

Stupid bloody me…

/-/

Ruby glanced up from the homework Weiss was tutoring her on when the door opened and Jaune returned. The fact she did didn't have to mean anything, no matter what Yang might have said. Pyrrha and Weiss looked, too. It was normal when someone entered a room.

What wasn't normal was their teammate's expression, however. He stormed into the room, throwing his scroll down on his bed with more force than was strictly necessary, and then collapsing down himself, not even pausing to take off his shoes. As if that wasn't enough, he let out a long, frustrated, sigh.

Weiss, Pyrrha and Ruby exchanged glances, each wondering who would be the one who had to ask the obvious question. When Weiss crossed her arms and Pyrrha pretended she'd seen something interesting on the ceiling, Ruby echoed his sigh.

Seriously, her team…

"What's wrong, Jaune?"

He sighed again. "Nothing."

Ruby rolled her eyes. Okay, people called her socially awkward, but even she could see that was the biggest piece of dog-poop she'd ever heard. That was like the time Dad asked them who had fed the dog aura-infused kibble, and Yang had still been holding it.

They'd still tried to blame Uncle Qrow, of course. Considering the man had been stood next to their father, it didn't go very well. It went about as well for Jaune now, but Ruby wasn't quite sure how to broach the issue without coming across as insensitive. It was a delicate thing…

"That's a blatant lie," Weiss scoffed.

Or, you know, you could do that, Ruby thought, mentally throwing her arms in the air. And people called her socially impaired.

"It's nothing important," Jaune amended.

"While I would normally agree, I feel it may be if this is how you're going to act." Weiss marked their page in the book they'd been working from and stood up with a sigh. She stretched, popping her back and making Pyrrha shudder at the sound. "Look, I'm not one for touchy-feely sentiment."

"I think we all know that," Ruby whispered.

"But that doesn't mean I'm without sympathy, or the ability to help. What's the matter?"

Personally, Ruby thought Weiss' approach could use some work, since it was about as blunt as a battering ram, and it didn't sound very sympathetic. She held back, however. Not because she trusted Weiss to know best, but rather because it was Jaune.

Blunt was best, she'd come to realise.

"I've made someone angry, apparently," he said.

"Yang!?" Ruby asked, unsure whether she felt upset or pleased at the possibility, and feeling all the more conflicted for it.

"What? No. Someone else."

"Oh…"

"Who?" Pyrrha asked.

"Cinder."

Aaand suddenly, everything was looking okay again. Ruby let out a big breath of relief, even if she did feel kind of bad about it. "Oh well," she said. "You win some, you lose some. At least you still have us, right?"

"Ruby!" Weiss admonished.

"What?"

"Ignore her," Weiss said, turning to her partner. "You've upset your old friend. How?"

"I think it was something I said."

"That goes without saying, idiot. You're you. Of course it was something you said. I was hoping for something a little more specific, however. I can't very well help you if I don't know what it is you need help with."

Jaune seemed surprise she would at all. "You want to help me?"

"W-Why would I not? We are teammates. We're even partners!"

"And boyfriend and girlfriend," Pyrrha pointed put.

"And not that," Weiss countered. "Not in a million years. Anyway, I wouldn't be much of a leader if I didn't try to address a teammate's wellbeing. While you do not necessarily need to tell me, I… I will be here if you need my support."

"Weiss…"

"You're becoming a fine leader, Weiss," Pyrrha said, smiling.

"Yeah," Ruby agreed, cheek in one hand. "Funny how it's always aimed at Jaune, though."

"Says the girl I just spent the last hour helping with homework!" Weiss howled, hands suddenly on hips. "For the last four weeks!"

Ruby giggled nervously. "O-Oh, yeah. Sorry…"

"Geez, you three will be the end of me."

"Hey…"

"Sorry, Pyrrha." Weiss nodded in her direction. "You've been effortless. Allow me to rephrase, you two will be the end of me."

"Still hey…" Ruby complained. "Apart from the studying thing, I haven't caused any problems."

"Apart from waking me up at five for weapon maintenance."

"Weapon maintenance is important."

"And then dragging me out for cookies!"

"Cookies are also important."

"And then there's your sister…"

"Hey, you can't hold Yang over me!" Ruby waved a fist. "I can't control what she does, how she puns and how she keeps trying. It's not my fault!"

Their argument was cut off by laughter, and Ruby looked over to see Jaune smiling once more, struggling to hide his mirth in his fist, and failing badly. When he saw her looking, he shook even more, but managed to control himself enough to speak. "T-Thanks, guys. I guess I just needed cheering up a little. Thanks for that."

Thanks for what? She'd been deadly serious.

"No problem," she said, unsure what she was accepting praise for but willing to anyway. "So, do you want us to help, though? I will if you want me to." Even if she didn't like that Cinder woman. She was too perfect. She had perfect hair, legs, and a perfect body. Anyone that perfect was probably evil. "We can all help. It'll be a team thing."

"I appreciate it, but I'll be fine." Jaune smiled at her. "I think this is something I need to do on my own, or at least something I need to figure out on my own."

"Then… is there something else we can do?"

Something that wasn't studying, that was. She loved Weiss for all the help she was giving, she really did, but there was a limit to how much she could do in one day, and she was very firmly at that limit. She tried to convey that in a watery look, but as ever, Jaune Arc proved oblivious.

Luckily, oblivious but also on the same page.

"There is one thing…"

"Oh dear," Weiss growled. "This sounds bad already."

"One of my sisters is in Vale. She came to see me and make sure I was okay and she's bought a small house in the city. She's wanted to meet you guys for ages, and I kinda, maybe, sort of promised that I'd bring you all to see her tonight."

"Tonight?"

"Well, this afternoon. Now… ish."

Weiss sighed.

"She caught me off-guard and I owed her a favour," Jaune said desperately. "She really wants to meet you all and I kept putting it off. I thought she might give up but she didn't, and now I'm kind of stuck."

"I'll go," Ruby offered. Meeting family sounded fun – and no homework also sounded fun. Even without that, she'd have gone along, though. She was curious as to what Jaune's sisters would be like. Would they be nice like Yang, or cool and mysterious like Weiss' sister?

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt," Pyrrha said, smiling from her own bed. "In fact, it might be interesting to meet one of your sisters. Have you told her much about us?"

"A little bit," Jaune admitted, and Ruby was instantly curious as to what. "It's more that she's been hounding me. I never really had any friends before now, so she wants to see what my friends would be like."

"Is she okay with you running away from home?"

"I… never really asked." Jaune scratched his head. "She seems okay with it…"

"Idiot," Weiss sighed, pinching her nose and shaking her head. "You never thought to ask? What kind of idiot are you? No, never mind. Fine, I shall come as well, if only to silence the complaints I'd get if I didn't."

Jaune's relief was palpable, and soon after the four of them were on a Bullhead headed to Vale and walking down the street to the address Jaune had been given. Ruby had suggested they ask the others to come as well, ostensibly to include them, but mostly because she wanted to make sure Yang made a good impression on her future in-law. Sadly, it looked like they were already in Vale hanging out with Blake. Or so Jaune had told them.

In the end, it was just the four of them, and they made their way down the busy high street and towards an up-market area with clean streets and fancy cars.

"Your sister lives here?" Weiss asked. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since your mother is a businesswoman."

"Jaune never really shows off his wealth," Pyrrha said. "Is that because you ran away and don't have much?"

"Nah, I still have access to my accounts. Mom wouldn't cut those off." He patted his pocket. "Besides, I only really spend money on important things."

Important things like that old comic he'd bought her? The super-expensive one she wouldn't have been able to afford with even a year's pocket money? Ruby's cheeks darkened at the memory, and she felt her smile grow just a little wider as she skipped down the streets with her team.

She was important.

She liked that.

Not as important as Yang, of course. He liked her, even if he'd sort of liked her too at first, and she'd ruined it. Not that she was jealous or anything. Yang was awesome, and Jaune should totally go out with her if he wanted to. And he is, she reminded herself. Yang and him are together.

And that was a good thing. It definitely was.

"Is there anything we should know about your sister?" Pyrrha asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well… it's just…"

"I think what she means is that we've already found out your family is bizarre. Is there some terrifying social quirk you would like to warn us about in advance?"

"Weiss!" Pyrrha gasped.

Weiss stared straight back, one eyebrow arched, and Pyrrha eventually caved.

"W-Well, I didn't mean it quite as bluntly as that…"

"Basically," Weiss said. "Is she going to try and drag any of us into her dungeon and seduce us until we marry and birth her eight children?"

"WEISS!"

Anyone else might have been offended, but Jaune was Jaune and just laughed it off. "Nah, Lavender isn't like Mom. At least not in that way. Honestly, she's probably the nicest of all my sisters. I'm kinda relieved it's her and not one of the others, since they're all a little more… uh… dedicated to business, you might say."

"Is that a bad thing?" Weiss asked.

"That depends who you ask. I think a lot of people would consider it bad, yes." He winced, but quickly smiled again. "Lavender's not like that, though, so no worries. She's just awesome. You'll love her." Ruby was fairly sure she heard him mutter "I hope" under his breath.

She could tell he was worried, and for once, she could understand why. She'd had to introduce people in Signal to Yang before, and that had been a scary thing, too. That was mostly because Yang had been in a different year-group at the time, and that meant a lot when you were an eleven-year-old introducing your friend to a teenager. She'd been nervous as well, though Yang always did her best to be cool.

Ruby had lost more than a few friends to Yang that way, them just coming to like Yang more than they did her, and soon forgetting she existed at all.

That had sucked.

Still, Yang had dropped them in time too, and she never meant to, so things hadn't gotten awkward between them. I'll make a good impression for Jaune here, she promised. I'll be the coolest teammate ever, and make sure his sister knows she can trust me to watch his back!

Ruby Rose – best teammate ever. That was what Lavender Arc would call her.

She took a deep breath as Jaune rapped on the white door. The breath proved a mistake, since all her social anxieties came flooding back right then and there, but she took another, if only to try and force them down. She could do this!

The door opened.

"Hello," a pretty girl said, smiling happily. She was short of stature, though that left her taller than either Weiss or Ruby. She had blonde hair that fell in curls down to her shoulders, and bright green eyes that closed when she smiled. There was a dimple on her left cheek, and Ruby found herself liking the honest expression immediately. "My name is Lavender," the girl went on. "Lavender Arc. I'm Jaune's little sister, and it's so nice to meet you all at last!"

"The pleasure is ours," Weiss said, smiling pleasantly. "Weiss Schnee at your service. I am Jaune's partner at Beacon."

"My name is Pyrrha Nikos." She paused for a second, and then seemed inordinately pleased when Lavender didn't recognise her name. "I'm Jaune's teammate, and it's wonderful to meet you. He's told us a lot about his family."

"He has?" Lavender laughed, sounding a little nervous for the first time. "I'll have to find out what exactly later, ha ha."

Okay, this was it. This was her chance. Ruby nodded to herself and clenched her muscles. When the girl's eyes turned towards her, she put on her best smile – the one that really got her out of trouble when Yang was angry – and stepped forward. She had to do this. It would be easy. All she had to do was smile, introduce herself, not randomly talk about her weapon, and then everything would be perfect.

"Hi," Ruby said, linking her hands behind her back. "I'm Ruby Rose. Nice to meet you."

The girl before her smiled and looked into her eyes – before she gasped and froze. Wide green eyes stared back at her, and some barely audible word crossed her lips. Ruby thought it sounded like… `eyes`.

And then, with a sudden sigh, Lavender Arc collapsed.

Ruby stared at the body.

"I didn't do anything!" she howled.


Poor Rubaby. Good first impressions made, and I'm sure this won't come back to bite anyone. I'd just like to head off some small complaints about the Cinder slap, since the last time I included a slap in a fic, I got yelled at by people shouting about how "it wouldn't be funny if it was reversed" or some such.

In this case, I'm not trying to be funny. I'm trying to show how angry Cinder is. That is all. Feel free to direct any complaints to her, not to me.


Next Chapter: 16th November

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur