Here we are with the next chapter. I know that by now everyone has noticed the sheep-related chapter titles ended a long time ago. They started to defeat me and were getting more and more difficult to look up. When your Google history prominently features the search "sheep puns" and "sheep terminology", you soon realise you're headed in a dangerous direction.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Kegi Springfield

Chapter 45


The day, Jaune decided, was an odd one.

He wasn't sure what made it so or when he'd first realised, but it seemed to be a day in which every single person in Beacon had collectively lost their minds. It started innocently enough during breakfast, somewhere between his fried eggs and bacon, when a quick announcement over the intercom system had reminded students that the dance was coming up in a little over a week. That's a lot sooner than I realised, he thought nervously. The date had crept up on them.

He didn't have a date – and neither did anyone from their two teams.

Still, it wasn't a big deal as far as he was concerned and he'd quickly shrugged his shoulders and gone back to portioning his egg on his toast for consumption. The trick was to get it roughly even without allowing the yoke to spill through.

On hindsight, he should have paid less attention to eggly matters and more to his teammates, but he'd been distracted and they were all unusually silent. That should have been the first sign.

"It's so soon," Pyrrha said, looking down at her plate with an unreadable expression.

"Has anyone asked you yet?" Ruby asked.

"A few people, but I politely turned them down. I didn't know any of them so it would have felt a little too awkward."

"Isn't there someone you need to ask?" Yang said, staring directly at Ruby.

"Y-Yang!" said girl complained, shooting glances at Jaune. He barely noticed, of course, too busy playing with his food. "Not here," she said. "Not now. Soon."

Yang hummed in a way that suggested her belief of Ruby's mysterious statement was somewhere between suspicious and not-in-the-slightest. She turned to her teammate, Blake. "What about you? Anyone asked you to the dance?"

"Sun did," she said.

Jaune glanced up, curious. "Who?"

"The stalker."

"Ah, that guy." Jaune nodded his head towards Blake. "Congratulations."

"I turned him down."

"Oh…" Well, that was awkward. "Not congratulations?"

There was a hint of a smile on Blake's face as she rolled her eyes and turned back to Yang. "I told him I already had a date for the dance. Now I have to find one…"

"Why would you tell him that?"

"He asked me to the dance and I said no," she explained with a heavy sigh. "He then asked me `why`, and I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to insult him, so I told him it was because I had already agreed to go with someone else."

"Ah, the curse of popularity."

"My Blakey is already breaking hearts," Nora crowed. "I'm so proud!" She quickly tackled Blake from the side, the two falling into one of their typical arguments as Yang watched on and Ren ate his breakfast with the focus of someone determined not to acknowledge what was happening beside him.

Jaune wasn't quite sure what to think about Blake's decision. On the one side, she'd blatantly lied to Sun and that was a little unfair, but it had been done in an attempt not to hurt his feelings. Did that make it good or bad?

"Are you sure you're one to complain about deceit, Mr `totally-not-Hentacle`?"

"Okay," he admitted. "Good point."

"I could go with you if you want," Jaune offered, looking to Blake.

The fight broke apart in an instant, the two partners posed with Blake's hands on Nora's shoulders, and Nora's trying to pry Blake's mouth into a wide parody of a smile. The dark-haired girl pulled back and looked about the table, which had suddenly had a large portion of its female population become very stiff and very interested in Blake's response.

Blake wore the expression of someone who knew a poor response might lead to death. "I've a feeling it's in my best interests to say no to that one," she said, "though I appreciate the offer nonetheless."

Suddenly, an ominous pressure from half the table behind him relaxed, as did Blake.

Ouch. His first rejection. Well, he'd only offered it as a friend and to help her out, so he shrugged and let the matter go. He wasn't the only one being rejected it seemed, since all around them he could see visibly nervous men – often sweating profusely – approaching girls, teammates or (in unlucky circumstances) entire teams of girls. Some walked away with heads held low, while others walked back with shell-shocked expressions on their faces, presumably having had their offers accepted.

It was weird, but he shrugged it all off. Again, it should have been another sign of how bizarre the day was. Even those who were accepted seemed to twitch and move with pent-up energy, and he heard more than one suddenly start whispering about suits and shoes.

Breakfast went by without too many other problems, and the conversation became less stilted as it moved away from the dance, dates and questions of who would go with whom. Even then, as they went to the first lesson of the day, it felt like there was a strange sense of caution in the school. Like everyone was on edge. It was as if event student was waiting for an ambush that was sure to come at any given moment. Sometimes a boy and a girl would find themselves facing one another across a hallway, or just round a corner and come face-to-face, and suddenly it would be a dance the likes of which he'd not seen even Grimm do.

One would move to the left, the other would echo, and both would desperately try not to make eye contact – let alone open their mouths to speak. Communication was reduced to gestures where possible and awkward grunts where not.

It was like every man had lost the ability to talk to a woman, and every woman expected any man they saw to be a Grimm in disguise.

Oh, and someone asked Weiss out on the way to Miss Goodwitch's combat class.

That was weird.

"I'm sorry but I'm currently taken," she said, latching onto Jaune's arm like a Nevermore onto its prey. Her claws – no, fingers – curled around his elbow, nails digging in as a silent warning of what would happen if he dared disagree.

"Oh, I had heard," Neptune – one of Sun's teammates – said. "I just thought he was going with Yang."

"When he and I are currently dating? Do you believe me that easy?"

"I didn't mean to suggest anything!"

Mean or not, he totally had, and even Jaune wasn't sure what he felt about that. Weiss was his partner and was an awesome person in her own right. While he knew their relationship wasn't real, that didn't mean he liked the idea of someone – anyone – cheating on her.

Some of that must have shown on his face, because Neptune backed away from him, backing down visibly as he held his hands before himself. "Whoa, whoa. I'm sorry. I didn't mean… maybe I should go before this gets any worse."

"Maybe you should," Yang agreed, grinning wildly.

Neptune made to leave but hesitated at the last, looking at Yang. "Say, if he's not going with you-"

"No," Yang said, shaking her head, "and definitely not after you just asked one of my friends out." She rolled her eyes when he scurried away and muttered something about too much balls and not enough sense.

"Definitely no sense," Weiss growled. "I knew that the second he called me `Forest Sprite`. He's lucky I didn't take his head off."

Ah yes, the hair incident. Jaune nodded and looked down to his partner, who was still attached to his side. "Does this mean we have to go to the dance together?" he asked.

Yet again, there was that weird stiffness in the air – and Weiss slowly detached herself from him, stepping back and shaking her head. "No, it doesn't. Our agreement is only to fool Winter and I've actually been asked to help with some of the organisation for the dance, along with Yang."

"Apparently the team who were running it would have had a mission on the day," Yang explained, "but they managed to convince Port to do it a little earlier so they could still attend. That means they won't be around to arrange it though, so they asked us two if we'd be willing to chip in and man the entrance." Yang looked pointedly to Ruby, who shuffled about awkwardly. She sighed and continued. "That means I'll be busy on the day, as well, so yeah, I can't go with anyone either."

She couldn't…? His stomach fell a little further. He'd kind of been hoping Weiss would just say yes and demand he attend on her. It would have made everything a lot easier, but had that failed, he was sure he could rely on Yang to be his date.

It didn't look like it.

"I'm fairly sure Winter won't even be there." Weiss said. "Even if it's important my sister doesn't figure out the truth, that's no excuse for you to miss out on the chance to take someone you really like to the dance." She smirked and released his arm. "Just be sure to save me a dance for appearance's sake."

Ruby made a loud `aww` sound, and even Pyrrha joined in on teasing Weiss about how sweet she was being – much to Weiss' indignation.

When they reached the entrance to Miss Goodwitch's class, someone caught his sleeve from behind, preventing him from entering. He glanced back to see Ruby with her face down and one hand on his sleeve.

"Well, let's go inside," Yang said loudly, strangely loud, in fact, as she herded the others into the room with her arms held out wide – preventing any from staying behind. Soon it was just he and Ruby in the corridor.

Well, apart from the thirty or so other students meticulously trying not to look each other in the eye. Honestly, the whole school had gone insane.

"What's wrong, Ruby?" he asked.

She didn't look up. "N-Nothing."

"Then… why are we stopping?"

"No reason."

"Should we go inside?"

"Not yet…"

He had no idea what to say. "Remy?"

"No idea…"

The two of them stayed like that for a minute, a length of time that didn't normally feel very long, but certainly did when you were stood in a corridor with someone holding onto your sleeve and refusing to speak a word. Ruby took a deep breath, then let it go and took another. She seemed to be building herself up to something, but he hoped she managed it soon since if there were anyone's classes he didn't want to be late to; it was Glynda Goodwitch's.

Eventually, Ruby's head rose. Not enough to meet his eyes – she in fact stared over his shoulder the entire time, but enough for him to see her panicked expression. "There's something I have to ask you," she said, whispered, or was it more of a tiny breath of air he'd mistaken as words? Whatever the case, she was impossibly quiet.

It worried him. "What's wrong? Are you sick?"

"W-We're friends, right?" she asked.

"Yes, of course." He stepped forward to place both hands on her shoulders. He lowered his head, making her freeze in panic. He inspected her eyes, then her neck. He was no doctor, but he felt he'd be able to spot if something was out of place. Had she eaten enough for breakfast? Had she gotten enough sleep?

He pressed a hand to her forehead. She felt very hot.

"I'm not sick!" Ruby said, growling adorably and finally sounding a little more like her regular self. "I'm being serious here!"

"So was I. You're my friend. If you have something to ask me, I'll listen."

"Okay. Good." Ruby chewed on her lip. "Have you ever… thought of being more than friends?"

"Like best friends?"

She let out a pained whine and clenched her eyes shut. "Why is it always so hard with you?"

"Not like best friends?"

"Not quite. Jaune, it's… well, you know…" He didn't, but he stayed silent. "I wanted to ask you if you'd come with me," she said.

"Come with you where?" he asked, genuinely confused.

"To… to…" She trailed off and placed both hands on her cheeks, letting out a suffering sigh. "Isn't it obvious?"

"No," someone that was neither he nor Ruby replied. There was a third face pushed between theirs and it smiled happily. "Hello friend Ruby. Hello friend Jaune!"

"Argh, Penny!" Ruby recoiled.

"Penny!" Remy gushed. "Quick, she's probably single!"

Jaune pointedly ignored him.

The orange-haired girl smiled and waved.

"W-When did you get here?" Ruby asked hysterically. "No, wait. How much did you hear!?"

"Something about you asking friend Jaune to the-" Her words were cut off as Ruby's hand latched onto her mouth. Her arm wrapped about the girl's neck, her face appearing over her shoulder. It was frozen into a rictus of a smile, her eyes wide.

"S-Silly Penny," she laughed. "W-Why don't we go talk inside? We don't want to be late for Miss Goodwitch's class."

"Mrfl- brbpp." Penny said.

"That's right. I'll tell you all about it inside." She dragged Penny inside, abandoning him entirely. He stared after them, unsure if he should follow, wait for her, or try to figure out what she meant himself. While he waited, a pointed cough came from behind.

It was Qrow, and he looked drunk.

Well, drunker than usual.

"I hear the dance is coming up," he slurred. "You given any thought to who you're taking?"

Oh, hell. Jaune turned, bowed and took a step back. He wasn't dealing with this. Not now, not this early, and hopefully never again. "I'm sorry," he said. "While I appreciate your training, I can't accept your request. Please excuse me."

"What!? You brat, I didn't mean-"

Whatever he meant, Jaune didn't hear, rushing into the classroom and slamming the door shut behind him. If Yang's uncle wanted to follow, he could brave Miss Goodwitch's ire. Luckily, he didn't, and Jaune crept over to his team without the teacher spotting him.

"What was that all about?" Weiss asked quietly, nodding back to the door.

"I have no idea," he lied, not quite willing to talk about Qrow. "I think Ruby is coming down with whatever disease most of the people in Beacon have, though."

Weiss looked worried. "Disease?"

"The thing that's making them all act so weird," he said, indicating some. Weiss took a long look and let out a sharp laugh before she could stop herself. She glared at him like it was his fault, one hand over her lips.

"You're an idiot," she said.

"Everyone else is acting like the world is ending and I'm the idiot?"

"Yes. Yes, you are." Weiss rolled her eyes and Pyrrha laughed at his misfortune. "Now stay quiet. Class is about to start and the last thing we need is you getting in trouble for causing problems."

/-/

"Well?" Yang asked expectantly.

"Well, what?" Ruby returned, still holding onto the orange-haired girl who didn't seem nearly as bothered as she should at being dragged around in such a manner. She even gave Yang a friendly wave.

"Did you ask him?"

"I… tried…"

Despite her best efforts to remain indifferent, her heart skipped a beat. "What did he say?"

"He didn't say anything. I didn't get the chance to properly ask him because Penny interrupted." Ruby released said girl, who didn't even look breathless at her rough treatment.

"I only enquired as to why you were waiting outside of class," she said.

"I-It ruined the mood."

"I would have left if you'd asked."

Ruby fidgeted and Yang let out a long sigh, easily figuring out what had happened. Penny probably had spooked Ruby, but her little sister had taken the intrusion as a chance to panic and back out. That meant Jaune probably had no idea what he'd been asked, and Ruby still didn't have her answer.

And neither do I, she thought, placing both hands on her hips.

"Ruby, you need to ask him. What if someone else does first?"

"Who else is going to ask him?" Ruby asked petulantly.

"Some random girl, Cardin – that Cinder woman…" She shuddered at the last, as did Ruby. Neither of them wanted to imagine her getting with him. "My point is that you can't hide away from this. You need to ask him and get a proper answer."

"I could ask him for you," Penny suggested.

It only took Ruby a second to imagine how that would go, and judging from the horrified look on her face it wasn't a pleasant thought. Yang saved her from it.

"No, it has to be Ruby who asks. She can't have someone else do this for her."

"I see." Penny cupped her chin in thought. "Courtship rituals are complicated."

More complicated in this case than you can imagine, Yang thought, hiding her tired sigh. There was a dull hole in her stomach at the thought of Ruby asking Jaune, and she wasn't 100% sure whether it was fear for her little sister being rejected or fear of her request being accepted and what that would mean for her feelings. The best she could do was hide them away and try to help Ruby as best she could.

"You could ask him yourself," Ruby whispered, apparently catching her thoughts and deciphering them with ease.

"No, no, no." Yang shook her head and faked a confident smile. "I already said you should ask him, and besides, I'm working the front entrance with Weiss. I'll be too busy to go with anyone." Or at least that was going to be her excuse if any guys picked up the courage to ask. As much as she'd slammed Blake earlier for her little lie, she couldn't blame her teammate. It wasn't easy crushing someone's self-esteem when they'd just worked up the courage to ask you out.

It was even worse if it was done in front of your friends since then you got to look like a bitch to them, as well. Come to think of it, that was probably why the `it's not you, it's me` line had first been invented.

In all honesty, she'd have been able to multi-task it, and the temptation to ask him was there, but she had to put it aside for her sister's sake.

"I wouldn't be upset if you asked him," Ruby said. "Not if it was you."

Yeah, and that was the problem. Ruby would sit back and give up her happiness if she felt it would make her sister feel happy. Never mind that she was doing the same in reverse; that was different. "Ask him tonight," she said. "Tell him you want to play games with him in our room and I'll set you up with another chance."

Ruby bit her lip, but didn't say no. That was sign enough she was interested, since she'd have otherwise come up with some excuse why she couldn't.

"Okay," she finally said.

"Friend Ruby doesn't seem as happy as I'd have expected," Penny whispered as Ruby meandered back to her team. "I thought she would be pleased at the thought of going on a date with someone she likes."

"She is," Yang said. "It's just… it's just a little complicated. There are a lot of things at stake."

It would all be for the best, though.

/-/

"Mercury?" Velvet asked, a little surprised.

"Yeah, you know – tall, silver and handsome," Coco said. She was sat on a chair opposite Velvet in the library with Yatsuhashi strategically placed to Velvet's left, pinning her into the corner so that she couldn't escape. She hadn't realised yet, the poor girl. That was for the best.

In fact, she simply blinked owlishly. "What about him? He's in class at the moment, if that's what you're asking. He told me earlier."

"Oh? So you've already hung out with him today?"

"We chatted a bit before breakfast."

"And a little last night, as well," Coco said, nodding down to Velvet's scroll. "I saw you sending some messages off. You were smiling, too."

And Velvet did smile, though it was a bemused one. "We were just talking. I'm not sure what you mean."

Ugh, Velvet had to be the densest person in Beacon. Coco wanted to slam her head on the table but settled for rolling her eyes instead. Luckily, Velvet couldn't tell for her shades. Seriously, the girl stayed up for hours talking with him and she doesn't see something meaningful in that. It means HE stayed up to talk to her, as well.

"I'm just saying the two of you are very close."

"We are," Velvet said with a smile. "He's a real friend."

Coco stared, waved one hand, and then looked pointedly towards Yatsu. Her expression made it obvious she was out of ideas – the hardly-subtle approach having failed before it even got started. The giant of a man caught her gaze and sighed, his chair creaking in protest as he shifted to face Velvet.

"I had not heard if Mercury had a date to the dance yet," he said. "I wonder if anyone has asked him."

Seriously, Coco wanted to ask. That was his angle? That was so blatant they'd be lucky if Vel didn't suffer a mental breakdown and go into full denial-mode.

"Hm, I hadn't thought to ask," Velvet said.

"He spends a lot of time with you," Yatsu added.

"I know." Velvet bit her lip, and Coco leaned forward. Was it working? Had Yatsu worked his magic!? Velvet looked down at the table for a long second before she finally glanced up, eyes wide. "Do you think because he's spending so much time with me, he isn't going to be asked to the dance?"

Yatsuhashi paused.

Coco slapped a hand to her face.

She'd missed the point entirely.

"Oh no," Velvet gasped, hands over her mouth. "I didn't think what it must have looked like. I'll bet that girls who want to ask him to the dance think he's already taken. He's been so busy trying to help me, and I've been so happy to accept it, that I didn't even think about him in turn."

"You're an idiot," Coco groaned.

"I know! What am I going to do?" She gripped her ears and tugged them to the side. "I'm the worst friend ever!"

"You could always make him go with Coco," Fox offered.

He earned a vicious heel-stomp under the table for that. She liked the kid, she really did, but she was trying to match him up with Velvet, not herself. She sighed and turned back to Velvet. "Don't listen to him. I-"

"You can't!" Velvet cried.

A good portion of the library turned to regard them, including the librarian who scowled in their direction. Velvet's cheeks went bright red and she ducked her head (and her ears) so that no one could see her. Coco would have teased her for that, but something far more interesting had caught her attention.

"I can't…? Why's that?"

"I-I just don't think you'd be good for one another," Velvet said.

"Is that so? I'm a classy girl, aren't I? And he's a cool guy. We get on. What's the problem?"

Velvet struggled for the right words, biting her lip and looking this way and that. "Well, it's just that you're not always serious," she finally whispered. "Mercury deserves someone who is. It wouldn't be fair to get his hopes up for nothing."

"And what if I am serious, bun-bun? What then?"

"You're not." Velvet's face twisted in rare annoyance. "Don't start, Coco. I'm not going to let anyone take advantage of him, even if it's you."

Yikes, it looked like she'd hit a nerve there, though not necessarily a bad one. "There are more girls in Beacon than me. What if one of them gets interested? What if he's interested in return – whether they're serious about it or not?"

Velvet looked agonised, nauseous, even like she was about to be sick. Coco watched it all with a barely-concealed smile. Well, well, well, it looked like Fox had brought some results after all. Was this jealousy she detected? Was little Velvet defensive of her new friend? She'd believe that if Velvet wasn't always happy to have Mercury talk with them. It was only when someone dating him came up that her rabbit-eared teammate had dug her feet in the ground. How very interesting. Maybe there's more here after all.

"Well, someone might snap him up eventually," Coco said, poking at her book and pretending she wasn't interested. "He's good looking, funny and loyal. What's not to like?"

"Y-Yeah," Velvet whispered. "But that's a good thing."

"Sure is. Of course, he might have less time for you if some other girl is running him ragged."

The book in Velvet's hands creaked ominously.

"That's fine. Mercury deserves someone he can be happy with. That doesn't bother me."

Coco glanced over at Yatsuhashi and raised an eyebrow. He nodded back. Yep, she was jealous, alright. Now, how exactly were they to turn that into Velvet realising how much better she'd be with tall, silver and teasing than the blonde noodle? That was the question.

But by all that was sacred in fashion, she would find an answer.

/-/

Funnily enough, trashing Jaune in Goodwitch's class hadn't been nearly as satisfying as Cinder had thought it would. Maybe it was because it was a foregone conclusion, or maybe it was just that he'd looked so half-hearted when she'd asked for him to be her opponent. Maybe it was the way he'd kept trying to apologise to her – which only made her want to hit him harder.

The most annoying part was that he'd gotten a little better, too. Not enough to beat her – not even close – but enough to make his well-deserved beat-down require a little effort. Rather than the catharsis she'd expected, she'd been left with hair lank from sweat and cheeks red from the workout.

And even when she'd been declared the winner he'd not even had the good grace to look like he was in any significant pain. Damn him and his ridiculous fortitude. They couldn't all be half-Grimm super-humans.

Mercury and Emerald seemed to have sensed her poor mood, not that it was difficult, and had both chosen to wisely flee at the first opportunity. Neo had done the same, vanishing off to wherever it was she went. That left her alone and without anything to snap at. Not a good combination. Fortunately for her, a hand settled on her shoulder from behind, providing a very convenient target for her frustrations. If it was another dullard asking her to the dance, she'd make this one run back to his room in tears!

"What is it now?" she snapped, spinning on her heel and glaring directly into a chest.

Someone's chest, that was. The person was a little taller than she'd expected and she had to look up to meet his eyes. When she did, her stomach fell out.

"Am I disturbing you, Miss Fall?" General James Ironwood asked.

"No, not at all…" She recovered quickly, even if there was a brief flash of panic at realising the last person (except, perhaps, for Ozpin) that she wanted paying attention to her was in fact paying attention to her. "How can I help you, General?"

"Please, I am not your teacher. You can refer to me as James, or Mr Ironwood, if you prefer."

James was out of the question. Even if she'd been a normal student she doubted she could have called the man in front of her that. She was no amateur and no frightened lamb, but there was no denying the danger the man before her posed – both to her and to her plans. It would be best not to draw his attention and otherwise end the conversation as innocently as possible.

"How can I help you, Mr Ironwood?" she asked again. "Did you have something you wanted to ask me?"

A hysterical thought of him asking her to the dance flashed through her head, but she dismissed it a second later. What nonsense. He thought her a student. He wouldn't do that.

"I wished to check up on your wellbeing," he said, trying for what he no doubt thought was a gentle smile. He wasn't built for it, however, and the crevasses and creases stretched out like canyons across his grizzled face. "I take it you haven't endangered yourself further by investigating the White Fang any more than you have to?"

"No, Mr Ironwood. I've been focused on my studies."

"That is very good. I saw you in the ring earlier," he added. "You were very skilled."

He'd been watching? Had she known that she wouldn't have dared invite Jaune up onto the stage against her. He must have been spectating from some concealed part of the arena, or maybe through cameras. She would have noticed him otherwise.

"My opponent was skilled as well," she demurred. "I simply tried my best."

To push his face in, she thought. That stupid asshole deserves it. Okay, perhaps she was a little bitter at him, but only a little.

"Miss Fall?"

"I'm sorry?" she asked, suddenly realising she'd tuned out and missed his question.

"I asked where you learned to fight like that," he said. "It is a style I am not familiar with."

"I was taught by a master," she said.

"Mr Arc's mother?"

Cinder tensed. "Yes."

"I see…"

What did he see? What was he thinking about? Her body felt like a coiled spring about to pounce and a thousand different contingencies flashed through her mind. She could kill him to buy time. He was strong, but a surprise attack when he least expected it might give her the edge. They'd have to flee Beacon, of course. Jaune would need to be taken with them. Her plans could continue through Roman. It would be awkward and annoying, but it was an option.

She made no move to attack, however. It was better to wait and see for now. He clearly didn't intend to attack her if he'd challenged her alone in a corridor. Just in case, she scanned the area for armed guards and saw none.

But did that mean there were none – or only that some lay in hiding?

"I'm surprised Mr Arc didn't show some of that same skill against you. Was he not trained in the same style?"

"He didn't have the aptitude for it."

"And his mother did not see fit to train him in something else…?"

"She did not." It wasn't her place to question her mistress, and besides, it had mostly been Jaune's reluctance to train and love for books that kept him weak; not any inaction on his mother's part. She'd simply indulged his preferences.

"I see," Ironwood repeated, and yet again Cinder wished she could see into that head of his and see exactly what he thought he saw. "You are quite a powerful young woman, Miss Fall. I'm sure the one who trained you must be proud."

Was that a question or a statement? Her eyes narrowed but she couldn't decipher the hidden message. "I hope so," she said, going for a neutral response. "I try my hardest."

"I'm sure you do. I and the Atlas military do much the same. It is all we can do at times."

Was this going somewhere? The small-talk seemed odd for a man well-known to be reticent and authoritarian. Even as a Headmaster, she'd heard rumours he ran Atlas Academy with military precision.

"Have you encountered any Grimm recently?" he suddenly asked, shocking her.

"No. Why?"

"You have not fought any?"

"I have been within Beacon since the incident," she admitted honestly. "I've not had a chance to enter the Emerald Forest of late, so I haven't faced any Grimm."

"I see…"

Again with that – her teeth ached for an answer. What was his angle?

"That is well, then," he finally said, nodding. "Should you face any Grimm, please seek me out afterwards. I would like to enquire as to how they acted around you."

"How they… act…?"

"Their level of aggression and whether they attack to kill. It would just be a few questions, I promise. I will leave you to it for now, Miss Fall. Thank you for talking with me."

"And yourself, Mr Ironwood," she returned.

Cinder watched the General as he walked away, his long, powerful strides taking him out of sight in a matter of seconds. She… wasn't quite sure what to make of the encounter. No threats had been made, and apart from his repeated `I see` moments, no knowledge of her true origins had been intimated. His question about how Grimm acted, however… that was curiously specific. Grimm attacked to kill all humans, so for him to ask if it were somehow different with her made little sense.

Should she feel nervous about his interest in her? Was it even interest at all, or was she reading into simple courtesy? It could have been that he wished to check on her mental health after her alleged near-death experience. It would be easy to write it off as that.

But she did not like to take such chances.

I'll keep an eye on him, she decided as she headed back to her rooms. There's no evidence he suspects anything of yet, but his attention is on me thanks to the White Fang debacle. That might make things difficult moving forwards.

All she needed to do was keep her eyes open, her wits about her, and watch out for any potential spies the General tried to send her way. They would not catch her unawares, and she would need to make sure Mercury and Emerald received the news, as well.

Nothing could get in the way of the plan.

/-/

Emerald stared at the person in front of her with a raised eyebrow and a vaguely bemused expression. "Excuse me…?"

"I said `Hello friend`," the orange-haired girl with the green eyes said, now sitting next to Emerald on the too-small bench. "Isn't it a wonderful day to sit outside and bask in our friendship?"

"Yes…?"

"Sensational!" The girl pumped both hands in the air. "We should go and spend time together and talk about boys, make-up, and strange eldritch creatures with tentacles for limbs."

"What was the last part?"

"Boys and make-up," the girl answered. "That is what I said."

"No, I'm fairly sure you-"

"That is what I said," the girl repeated.

Emerald's words trailed off. "Do I… know you…?"

"I am your friend, Penny Polendina."

It didn't take long for Emerald to wrack her memory. "I'm fairly sure I've never met you before…"

"You haven't, but I just introduced myself. One of my friends said that a stranger is just a friend you have not met yet. I have now introduced myself. We are no longer strangers and must therefore be friends."

Emerald stared at the girl.

The girl stared back.

"Have you fought any Grimm recently?" she asked. "Isn't it strange how they always try to kill people? I take it they try to kill you, as well, including your team leader?"

Emerald continued to stare.

"I am told intercourse is more enjoyable between two people. It is not easy when you will not speak, friend Emerald."

What the hell is going on?

And why did this crap keep happening to her?

/-/

"WATTS!"

The scream echoed about the tower and Arthur Watts rushed to answer it. He hadn't heard his name shouted with such desperation before and it reminded him of the first time he'd nearly died in his mistresses' servitude. Coincidentally, that had been when Sapphire was born and Salem had gone into labour.

He'd thought normal women were bad, but normal women at least understood what was happening and didn't think it an attack on their person, and normal women couldn't summon and control Grimm at will.

It had been an… interesting experience.

Luckily for him, Salem was neither in labour nor expecting, and that was a relief since eight children really was too many as it was, and Lord Nicholas wasn't around to have his hand broken when she held onto him. And also his wrist, arm, shoulder and three ribs, but that was by-the-by.

"ARTHUR WATTS!"

And speaking of, he'd best get his move on. No one liked it when the first name was combined with the last. She'd mastered that trick from learning to discipline her children, and he did not want it used on him.

He reached the throne room at a sprint, placed both hands on the stone doors, and pushing in with all his might. "I am here," he gasped, stumbling in – and coincidentally stumbling over Jaune's Beowolf at the same time. It barely moved a muscle but to growl at him, and he righted himself with an indignant glare in return. It was forgotten a second later as he turned back to Salem. "What is it, my mistress? How can I be of service?"

Salem – his mistress and Queen of the Grimm – turned to him with a frantic expression on her face. It was frantic by her standards, of course, which meant the veins about her eyes were more pronounced and her nails had dug into the stone armrests of her throne.

"I have received news from Beacon," she hissed, holding forth a sheaf of papers – a report from Cinder.

He took them cautiously and skimmed through. For the most part it was information on her mission, General Ironwood's arrival and the oncoming Vytal Festival – nothing they hadn't known about in advance. There was, of course, a brief mention that Jaune was safe and well, if not entirely doing a good job at keeping himself out of trouble.

"Forgive me, but I fail to see the issue," he admitted.

"This," she said, snatching the papers back and pointing to a particular segment. "She has included a detail of upcoming events." Her eyes flashed crimson. "There is a school dance!" She threw the pages into the air and they fluttered down about the two of them. "My son requires a date!"

Watts stood in the rain of paper, idly pushing a piece off his face.

"Is that a problem, my mistress?" he asked. "Your son has captured the hearts of a woman already, has he not? I'm sure the issue of a partner will be no problem for him."

"Yes, but a dance is important," Salem said, leaning back in her throne and tapping one hand on the armrest. "It is a large moment in a human's life, or so I am led to believe. While I am sure my son will have no problem securing a date, how he will act is another matter." Her head shot up. "My boy needs a suit."

"He already has one, doesn't he?" Watts asked. "I'm sure he wore it to that date."

"You fool! He cannot wear the same suit, nor can that girl wear the same dress." She waved a hand. "Procure for her a dress."

"B-But we don't even know if she will be the one he takes."

"I care not. Procure her one anyway. It is to be the most stunning dress in existence. You may raid my wardrobe if required."

Watts nodded glumly, even if there was no way he was doing that. Salem's outfits were… a little on the unusual side, to say the least. "And what of the Schnee girl?" he asked. "My reports suggested he was dating her."

"Send her a dress, as well."

I really shouldn't have asked…

"There are other things that must be considered as well," she said. "Watts, take a seat. We have much planning to do and I want you to personally see to this."

"But what about Lionheart?" he asked. "I needed to meet with him."

"I'm sure my son is more important than some arrogant fool. Send Coral. She will handle him."

He winced. "He is still useful alive, my Queen. Alive and… unbroken…"

"Fine. Send Sable, then."

He nodded and took the indicated seat beside her, bringing out his scroll to take notes. He had a feeling it was going to be a long day, and an even longer evening. Hopefully come the end, there wouldn't be too much to handle. He already needed to find a way to secure a seventeen-year-old girl's measurements – and didn't that sound wrong?

"In fact, we must go a step further, Watts. Nothing can be allowed to interfere with my son's first school dance."

"I… um… I think Cinder intends to sneak away and sabotage the CCT during the dance," he said.

Salem's eyes lit up. "Oh, does she? And miss her chance to ensnare my son? I think not. If it were my choice, I would go there myself and sort her out."

His mouth went dry. Please, no…

"But that is not possible," she continued, paying no attention to his relieved sigh. "As such, I shall have to send someone in my place. Make arrangements."

"Who shall you be sending?" he asked nervously. "Not Tyrian, surely."

Salem's answering smile did nothing for his confidence.


Well, there we go. We're moving towards the dance at high speed and things are as confusing as ever for everyone involved. Well, except for Penny of course. She knows what she's doing – she's intercourse ready!

I just wanted to make a quick note here, by the way, that I'll be taking a week off from writing over the Christmas period. This is just for Christmas, obviously, and I'll probably be using it to plan ahead on some of my stories, but is mostly for the sake of a rest on my part. I'll have more details soon, but it'll likely be from the 25th to the 1st, with just 7 days off.


Next Chapter: 7th December

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur