Hey there, here's the chapter.


Chapter 9


Luck came in strange forms, and for Jaune it came with orange hair and an over-sized mallet. He'd wondered what excuse he'd have to try and fix whatever mess he'd made with Ruby, and the first problem always looked to be finding a reason to talk to her at all. Nora had fixed that by deciding her team would spend breakfast and lunchtimes with theirs, apparently so they could talk to more people. Jaune wasn't fooled, nor, he imagined, was anyone else.

Nora and Ren were together but not together-together… whatever that was supposed to mean.

Either way, it got him closer to Ruby and her team – and without him having to look like a stalker in managing it. His first instinct was to talk to her again, but he recalled Oobleck's warning and held back. Talking without thinking was what had gotten him into trouble in the first place. In the end, he'd gone with a smile and a nod in greeting, which had still somehow been enough to have her wave shyly back and duck behind her sister. Pyrrha had giggled, while even Blake shot him an amused smirk over the top of her latest novel.

His team sucked. They really did.

"So, he came back covered in alcohol and sick?" Weiss asked, a vaguely unsettled and disgusted expression on her face. That it was aimed at him didn't exactly slip past him, but there wasn't much he could do about it, and he glared at Ren for bringing it up in the first place.

"No hangover, though," the unusually verbose man said. The reasons as to why he was talking probably had something to do with Nora and the fact she was hanging off his arm. "I suppose it's a blessing we didn't have to deal with that."

"He didn't take me as a party animal," Yang said, shooting him a grin that was equal parts teasing and suspicious. Hell, he really had to do something about that, didn't he?

"Well, maybe you shouldn't judge on first appearances," he said.

"And what are you, then?" she asked. "If I look deeper, what will I see?"

It only occurred to him then that having her look deeper at all would be a bad thing. He needed to fit in, and if that was as some kind of crazy boozer, so be it. There were worse things to be seen as; a stalker with a penchant for underage girls for one.

"N-Nothing much," he said, retreating behind the act of munching on his bacon sandwich. "Just saying you should keep an open mind. That's all."

"Lame. Maybe I'll have to drag you out on a night out and we can get to know one another."

Jaune paused, caught off-guard for a moment. I thought she hated me and now she wants to spend a night out with me? What's changed? He looked to Ruby for answers and saw her watching with wide eyes and shaking her head.

It didn't take him a moment later to notice the evil gleam in Yang's eye.

Oh right, nothing's changed. She just wants to interrogate me. Great…

"Maybe another time."

She flashed an evil smile. "I'll hold you to that."

"Disgusting…" Weiss growled.

"Oh, cheer up a little Weiss-cream. Some people like to relax by letting loose, and others do whatever you do. Tax returns or something."

"I didn't mean that," the heiress snapped. "And I do have hobbies of my own, thank you very much. I meant this!" Weiss pushed her scroll into Yang's face, but continued on when it was clear no one was able to read it. "There was a dust explosion at the docks last night. Hundreds of thousands of lien up in flames, not to mention the costs associated with repairs and downtime."

"And the deaths," Jaune added, a little annoyed she hadn't mentioned them.

"You heard about it?"

"Ah- I heard someone talking about it earlier." He laughed nervously, and let out a quick breath of relief when no one called him out on it. "Anyway, what were you talking about? What's disgusting?"

"It's the people responsible. They found White Fang masks in the remains, not to mention evidence of their handiwork. It's disgusting to imagine they could get so far into Vale without being noticed. The police clearly aren't working very hard."

"They do have the dust robberies to work on," Pyrrha pointed out. "Maybe that's distracting them."

"That shouldn't make a difference. I'd rather they let dust stores be robbed than allow murderous terrorists to roam the streets." Weiss sniffed angrily. "It's a matter of priority, and the White Fang should be at the top. They're monsters."

Blake lowered her book and stared at Weiss. "That's a little much, don't you think?"

"No, actually. I don't think it is. Criminals and thieves are bad enough, but the White Fang are murderers. They're no better than the Grimm – except that maybe the Grimm are better because they at least don't go out of their way to target people who can't possibly fight back!"

"It's a little rich for a Schnee to say that."

Weiss' eyes narrowed. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Only that you should stop to think before casting accusations," Blake said. Her voice was neutral, but there was no missing the fact she'd spoken at all. The entire table was silent. "Last I checked, the SDC were still using exploitative contracts on faunus who can't possibly fight back. What was it you said, no better than the Grimm?"

"Those people have no other choices," Weiss snapped. "Dust mines are out in contested territory. We didn't create those conditions."

"No, but you profit from them. You could pay them fair wages. It wouldn't even raise the prices of dust, but I suppose the bottom line is too important. The Schnee family needs another mansion more than a hungry miner does food or medical treatment."

Weiss looked like she might throw a fit, but Ruby touched her arm and shook her head. As the heiress visibly calmed down, he wondered if he should do the same for Blake, and whether she'd listen to him at all.

"How did the conversation even get to this?" Weiss asked. "All I did was point out how a terrorist group were doing doubtless horrible things in Vale."

"No, you started saying how the White Fang are pure evil."

"They are!"

"Then so is the SDC. One wouldn't exist without the other. They're two sides of the same coin."

"We are not responsible for-"

"Okay, okay, it's time to stop!" Ruby said loudly. "We're all friends here, right? There's no need for arguments. Weiss, I'm sure Blake didn't mean it like that. And Blake, I'm sure Weiss was just referring to the news story."

Unlikely on both accounts. Jaune had never been one for analysing conversations, but after the little lessons Oobleck had drilled into his head, he could see this one wasn't over. Not by a long shot. Blake and Weiss pointedly refused to look at one another.

"So," Pyrrha said loudly. "How have your extra sessions with Doctor Oobleck being going, Jaune?"

It was a random question and caught him off-guard, but it didn't take a genius to see she was trying to change the subject. He went with it, just as eager to break the uncomfortable silence that had fallen over the two teams.

"Pretty good, pretty good. We've been studying the-" The faunus wars, which would be a bad Segway straight back into Weiss and Blake's issue. He wracked his mind for a different answer. "Well, he's been giving me a rundown of the diplomatic status between the Kingdoms," he said. "Along with history about the civil war in Atlas. Interesting stuff."

It really wasn't, but everyone happily went along with it, and the conversation soon turned to how everyone was finding lessons. It was a nice, safe topic, and one he could forget himself and answer without fear of giving something away.

Weiss didn't offer much, nor did his partner, but they didn't argue at least, and Blake seemed to be back into her book and ignorant of the world around her. At least she was until a pained cry echoed across the cafeteria.

"Heh, look at these," Cardin said, gripping a faunus girl's ears. "They're actually real. What a freak."

Blake's chair scraped back. "Excuse me," she said. "I'm going to return a book to the library before our next lesson."

Return a book, huh? The one she'd been reading was less than halfway through, and she didn't have any other on her. Jaune cursed his newfound tendency to notice little things like that. He'd rather have believed her crappy excuse and not dealt with the return of the awkward silence. Not even muttered insults about Cardin helped.

Blake was upset about something, and he had a sinking feeling it was his responsibility to deal with it. A quick look to Pyrrha returned a shrug, and Ren echoed it. He didn't bother looking in Team RYWN. Weiss' opinion would be pretty obvious, and the others probably just looked awkward. Yet again, another great first impression the team was making.

He stood with a sigh.

"I'm going to go talk with her."

He half-hoped they'd protest or suggest he give her space.

"Good luck," Pyrrha said.

"We'll see you in class," Ren added.

Great. Just perfect… with friends like these, who needed enemies?

/-/

Finding Blake was easier said than done, and that really did mean something when he was a Secret Agent meant to be good at locating people. Eventually, it wasn't so much that he found her as he stumbled on a windowsill she was sat in, her book held loosely in one hand. It dropped as she saw him, and there was little mistaking her frustrated sigh.

"Hey Blake…"

"If you're here to talk about what happened, don't bother."

"I'm not here for that," he lied. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

"You're a bad liar."

Ouch. He wasn't sure when a compliment like that had become an insult, but it had. Besides, he was good enough to keep his new job a secret from them. That had to count for something. With a nervous laugh, he leaned against the wall next to the window.

"I wasn't-"

She raised an eyebrow.

"Okay, yeah, it was a lie." He scratched his head and looked away. "Sorry."

"It's fine." Blake turned another page in her book and continued to read. "You shouldn't bother worrying about it. I was in a bad mood and I snapped. I won't cause a scene like that again. I'm sorry if I ruined your chance to talk with Ruby."

The off-hand words were enough to make him cringe, and to turn his cheeks pink. He pushed past them. "T-That's nothing to worry about. I was more concerned about you. You're my partner, after all."

Blake sighed, but did grace him with her attention, letting her book come to rest against her stomach as she turned on her side to look at him.

"Was there something you wanted to ask?"

Yes and no, and in equal measure. A part of him – a big part of him – wanted to ask just why she'd been so upset at Weiss, and just why she'd said the things she had. Even before he'd joined the VSS, his curiosity had gotten him into trouble more than once. Now, with his attention focused on Ozpin, Ruby, and solving mysteries – he wanted to know what was up with Blake even more. Was this the paranoia Oobleck spoke of?

Possibly… and that was there the `no` came in. Whatever Blake said, he wasn't sure he'd be able to believe it or not. His mind was at full attention, and was jumping from one crazy idea to the next. Oobleck had already warned him of the danger of letting it take hold. If he couldn't trust and be casual with his team, he'd have no one to relax and let his guard down around.

His work was focused on Ruby, Ozpin, and probably Torchwick. No one else.

He didn't want his team – his friends – to become work.

"No," he said, eyes closing. "I don't want to ask anything."

Blake was surprised. "Not even why I had that outburst?"

"Your reasons are your own, Blake. They're none of my business and I probably wouldn't fully understand them anyway."

"You're not even curious?"

Jaune shrugged. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. That's still not a very good reason for you to tell me, though."

Maybe she had bad experiences with the SDC, maybe she came from one of those mining towns, maybe she lost a friend to them, or maybe she even had someone she knew who was a member of the White Fang. Hell, it was even possible that he might have caused the death of someone she knew last night.

And if that were the case, he just didn't want to know.

"You're really being serious, aren't you?" Blake watched him for a few seconds, but chuckled once she realised he was being completely honest. "You're an odd one for sure."

"In a good way or a bad way?"

"Well, I can't say I disapprove. If not for that, then why did you come out looking for me?"

"It was mostly just to see whether you were okay or not. Things got pretty awkward back there and you stormed off."

"I didn't storm off…"

He rolled his eyes. "Walked calmly away, then. Will you be okay? I'm not sure why you and Weiss were going at it, but with Ren and Nora being… whatever they are, we're going to be spending more time around them."

"And with Ruby being on their team," Blake teased.

Jaune just about managed to keep his expression serious.

She sighed. "I'll be fine. It was a moment of weakness. What Weiss said wasn't wrong… at least in terms of the White Fang being criminals. It was more the fact it was her saying it. The arrogance got to me… along with how hypocritical it is."

So, she wasn't a White Fang sympathiser. That was good. No, I'm not supposed to be thinking things like this. Blake is my partner, not my mission. It doesn't matter who she is, what, or how she looks at things. She is nothing to do with the VSS.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"Huh? About what?"

"The White Fang." Blake swung her legs forward so that they hung off the edge of the sill. She put her book away and looked him in the eye. "Say whatever you want. I won't be angry. I just want to know what your opinion on the whole thing is."

That was a tough question – and a loaded one, too. Go back a week or two and he wouldn't have even known what the White Fang were, let alone what his opinion on it was. Now, with added training from Oobleck, he knew more.

That didn't mean he was any closer, however.

They did try to kill me, so that's a definite negative, but I've not actually seen them do anything wrong, and it's not like they were born `wanting` to commit terrorism. For the most part, his instinctual answer was to condemn them. They were terrorists and criminals. I guess I can see things a little clearer after the VSS opened my eyes, though. People don't do things for no reason. The White Fang exist because of the inequality, and even if they were destroyed, another group would rise up to do the same if the root issue isn't fixed.

"I guess I don't have a strong opinion either way," he finally admitted. "I think they're criminals, and Weiss is probably right in saying the police should be looking for them instead of dust robberies. At the same time, though, it's not like faunus terrorism will go away if we keep introducing discriminatory laws and letting people get away with mistreating them." He shrugged and looked past Blake, out the window. "Even if they were eradicated, we'd just get the Black Paw, or the Purple Snarl, or whatever else they come up with."

"You're suggesting they're the result of a bigger problem?"

"Maybe." He shrugged. "Maybe the White Fang are like the symptoms of a disease. They still need dealing with, and you don't ignore what's happening, but you have to treat the underlying cause at the same time. Do you get what I mean?"

"I think I do…" Blake didn't show any obvious emotion, but her eyes did soften a little. She looked far less stiff, and a little more relaxed around him. "I don't really agree with the disease analogy, but I think I do with the rest."

And that was what had angered her in Weiss' comments, he supposed. Weiss spoke as though the White Fang were the problem, and one she wanted dealt with. Removed while her family no doubt continued as it always had in using faunus for cheap, expendable labour. They wanted the best of both worlds, with no compromise on their end.

Then again, most people refuse to negotiate with terrorists. Is that really the best way, though? Aren't we always told that if we can solve our issues without violence, that's a good thing? It was double standards, and it looked like Weiss wasn't the only one making that mistake.

"I want to do something to fix that."

"Huh?" He looked towards Blake, unsure what she'd just said or what she meant. "What do you mean?"

"I want to try and address that imbalance," she said. "The White Fang are a problem, but so is the way the SDC treat their employees, and as long as one exists, the other will as well. I want to try and fix things, and to do it within the bounds of the law." Blake shrugged and looked away. "That's why I decided to become a huntress."

That wasn't a bad reason, and he had to admit he was a little impressed. It made his reason, his original reason, feel far more selfish. Still, as far as dreams to have, he was honestly relieved at Blake's. Nothing bad, nothing dramatic, and nothing that he as a member of the VSS should care about.

"I think it's a good goal," he said, and was rewarded with a tiny smile from her. "That said, don't you think you're maybe going about it the wrong way?"

Blake hesitated. "How so…?"

"Well, I'm just thinking that if you want to make things better for the faunus, then the best way to do it would be to change the SDC. Normally that would mean getting a job with them and rising up the company, but you've got a pretty unique opportunity here in Beacon, too." He paused for breath, and was a little surprised by how Blake leaned forward, clearly interested.

"What opportunity? Tell me."

"Weiss."

"Weiss…?" Blake blinked, her expression quickly turning sour. "What about her?"

"She's the heiress of the Schnee Dust Corporation, right? Isn't that the best chance you'll ever have to influence what their policy is in the future? If you could get her on your side, you could maybe get a place in the company, or even convince her to help you with your objective." Jaune tapped his fingers on his arm, now in full planning mode as he thought over the lessons his mentor had given. "She's her own person, of course, and she's been raised by her parents and the Schnee family all her life, but right now she's apart from all of that. This is the best time to change the way she thinks, and her family won't be able to do anything to change her mind."

"Are you suggesting I befriend her to try and use her to my advantage?"

"Sure, that or just to find out more about the SDC. I mean, your goal is all tied in to them eventually, right? You might as well not have Weiss Schnee as some kind of personal enemy."

"That's a good point…" Blake watched him warily, but flashed a small, amused smirk. "Was this your plan from the start? You're pushing me towards making up with her, but it's in a very unusual way."

Actually, he hadn't even thought of that, but hey, it would be a nice bonus. "Is it working?"

"Maybe…" She laughed softly to herself and kicked off the windowsill. "Thank you, Jaune. You've given me a lot to think about. I'm glad you came after me." She paused to sigh. "And again, I'm sorry for causing a scene back there."

"Don't worry about it."

"I'll help you with Ruby to make it up."

"Blake!"

His partner sniggered as she brushed past him, her eyes dancing with laughter. God damn it. Was he ever going to escape from that? He hadn't even done anything but smile at Ruby, and everyone was already pairing them together.

I'm glad Vanguard and Magician can't see this. They'd never let me live it down.

With a put-upon sigh, Jaune followed his partner towards the next class.

/-/

Blake made sure to nod to her partner when he was called up towards the stage. "Good luck," she whispered, apparently surprising the other members of her team. Jaune paused as well, but flashed a quick – if unconfident – smile in her direction. He trekked on up towards the stage and his waiting opponent, one Russel Thrush.

"Have the two of you made up?" Pyrrha asked.

"I don't recall us ever being at odds," Blake replied. Her snappy nature faltered and she shook her head. "Sorry. I'm trying my best."

"It's fine. We'll cheer Jaune on together."

"In a moment," she said, pushing away. "There's something I need to do first."

Pyrrha looked confused but didn't argue as Blake made her way away from her team and towards Team RYWN. Jaune's words from before echoed in her mind, as they had been since he uttered them. As frustrating and uncomfortable as they made her feel, there was no denying their effectiveness. He was right. He was absolutely right. If she really did want to make a difference, then it had to start now, and animosity between her and the Schnee family was a White Fang thing. She wasn't a part of them, so that shouldn't apply anymore.

Yang saw her coming, and the blonde's face dipped a little. She no doubt expected a continuation to the argument, and nudged her elbow against Ruby's arm. The diminutive leader looked away from the fight that had just begun and at her. Blake saw her eyes widen.

Weiss saw her, too.

"What do you want, Belladonna?"

Blake paused two feet away. "I was wondering if I could talk to you."

"Come to say some more things about my family?" the Schnee scoffed. Her arrogance continued to shine through, and Blake had to snap down on her instinctive response.

"No. I came to apologise."

Weiss' mouth opened, but the retort she'd no doubt had faded away. She closed it a second later, then looked to her team. With a quick shuffle, Weiss nodded and stepped a small distance away so that they could talk a little more privately.

"You… you want to apologise? Why?"

Apologies had never been Blake's thing, and she shifted uncomfortably. Back in the White Fang, there was no apologising for what you did, because that meant you doubted the cause, and that was dangerous for someone in such a job to do. Even before that, she'd always been so sure of herself and her path. She was always the good guy, and everyone else was bad.

Now, things weren't quite so black and white.

"Because I shouldn't have snapped at you like I did," she said. "I do have my reasons, and it… it has to do with people I knew who were negatively affected by the SDC."

Weiss' shoulders fell. "I'm sorr-"

"But that wasn't your fault," Blake said, cutting Weiss off. "It was ten or more years ago, and I doubt you were making decisions when you were seven. I doubt you make any now." Weiss' lack of answer was all the confirmation she needed, and Blake instantly felt even worse. "I lumped it on you as if you were directly responsible, but you weren't. I'm sorry for that."

"I… I appreciate that, Blake." Weiss' voice was barely a whisper, and her eyes didn't meet her own. "I could have been less defensive as well, I acknowledge. It takes two to argue, and I was an eager participant. I suppose I should apologise for that as well."

There was no hiding her surprise. She hadn't expected Weiss Schnee of all people to show that much regret, or any at all. She looked genuinely apologetic, too. "It's fine, Weiss," she said, this time automatically. "I started it."

"And I continued it. I should have been mature enough to let it go. It was only your opinion, after all." Weiss sighed. "For what it's worth, I'm aware of the… less than fair conditions my father forces on his employees. I don't agree with it all, that much I swear."

This wasn't exactly going as she'd expected it to. In her head, she'd had plans of a quick apology, a hand extended, and then backing away as she thought more on her partner's curiously mercenary plan of bringing the heiress to her way of thinking.

Now, faced with Weiss' honest apology, she wasn't sure what to think.

"Then… then we both made a mistake," Blake said. "It happens. How about we agree just to pretend it never happened."

Weiss smiled. "That seems like a fair compromise. I'll just blame it on my partner annoying me all morning talking about how much she requires Ren's presence."

"And I'll blame it on putting up with mine's protests about how he doesn't have any interest in Ruby," Blake teased.

The two of them shared an amused smile.

"Peace?" Blake offered, hand extended.

Weiss took it. "Peace." She glanced back to her team and rolled her eyes, and Blake was forced to do the same as she noticed not only Ruby, Yang and Nora looking ridiculously happy, but Ren and Pyrrha, too. "We'd better get back to our teams before they start making up their own stories about us," Weiss snarked. "We've touched hands now. I dare say we're already married in their eyes."

"Or together-together," Blake agreed.

"Whatever that is supposed to mean…"

The two of them shared a last snort of mutual agreement before they parted and returned to their teammates. Blake vaguely heard Ruby enthusing about something, but her attention was soon caught by Pyrrha and Ren, both of whom looked inordinately impressed with her.

That annoyed her for some reason and she turned her attention to Jaune's fight instead of dealing with it. Why were they acting like they didn't believe she could ever apologise? She wasn't that anti-social.

Jaune was right, though. I feel a lot better now that this is over, and maybe I judged Weiss too quickly. His suggestion of manipulating her was still a good one, but it didn't feel quite so malevolent anymore. She's actually quite reasonable. Maybe I can just talk to her and convince her to see things my way on her own.

Maybe that was what Jaune had meant from the start. It was hard to tell.

And come to think of it, wasn't it weird for him to come up with something like that in the first place? She couldn't say she knew him very well, but from what she'd seen of him interacting – and failing to interact – with Ruby, `manipulative` wouldn't have been the word she'd use.

More like bumbling, to be honest. Well, I suppose that could just be a difference between theory and practise. Maybe he thinks that way but isn't confident enough to do it.

It still felt off… and that was enough to make her bit her lip. Her instincts told her there was something more, but there was a part of her trying to hold back.

"Your reasons are your own, Blake. They're none of my business."

Jaune let me get away without having to tell him about the White Fang. I shouldn't be digging so much into why he does things a certain way, either. Live and let live, or at least as close as she could to it.

She shook her head and focused on the match instead. It had been going for a few minutes now, and the two fighters were mostly even, if showing a bit of a lack-lustre performance all around. There were no flashy Semblances being used, and no gunfire, which made it seem dull compared to the other fights she'd seen. That wasn't to say it was no less serious. Not all people had to make spectacles like Weiss or Nora when they fought, and not some people preferred melee to range. Jaune had a sword and shield combination, while his opponent, Russel Thrust, used twin daggers. It was always going to be a face-to-face sort of affair.

Jaune was losing, though, and that made Blake's eyes narrow.

I haven't really seen him fight very much, so he could be weak. In the Emerald Forest, he followed Team CRDL from a distance. Maybe that was for his own safety. Or maybe that was something to do with how he thought. If he was someone who preferred to strike from the shadows like her, then an `honourable duel` like this would put him at a disadvantage.

But if he was a sneaky sort, then why have a sword, shield and armour?

It just didn't make sense.

Jaune stepped into Russel's guard and cut upwards, catching nothing but air. Russel dashed to the side and brought both daggers in and around, aimed at Jaune's kidneys. He blocked them with his shield and pushed in – closing the distance. That proved ill-advised, however, as it gave Russel the advantage with his much shorter weapons.

Jaune's footwork is good, and he's an aggressive fighter. It still feels wrong, though. He should be using the length of his sword to his advantage, but he closes in instead. Why? Against a gun-user, sure, but against twin daggers? Jaune should have used his sword like a spear to poke and keep Russel away.

"He's going to lose," Pyrrha said.

"I know."

"He's not very good with his sword."

Blake bit her lip. "I know. It's fine. He'll have time to get better."

True to Pyrrha's words, Jaune lost control of the fight a few seconds later. He lunged for Russel's throat with his sword, but was unprepared for the faster teen to deflect it up and above with one dagger. The other lashed out and slashed across Jaune's knuckles, startling him into dropping his weapon.

Russel reacted quickly and threw it off the arena. He backed away a second later and looked to Miss Goodwitch to end the match.

She nodded and raised one hand, then brought it down again a second later.

"What gives?" Russel asked. "I disarmed him. The match is over."

"The match continues until unconsciousness, aura reaching the red, or when one party yields." The teacher nodded to the side. "Mr Arc has yet to do so."

What…? Blake followed the teacher's gaze to where her partner stood. His sword was gone, and he only had his shield. Anyone else in that situation would have given up, but he seemed content to fight on. It's just a spar, so there's no real risk. Still, anyone else would have surrendered by now. He's been disarmed. What does he expect to do?

Russel Thrush looked like he couldn't quite understand it either, but another look to Miss Goodwitch said she wasn't going to change her mind. "Okay, if you say so…"

He dashed forwards, twin blades held before him.

"I hope Jaune has some plan in mind," Ren whispered. "Bravado isn't going to lead him anywhere."

"He's unarmed," Pyrrha said. "This isn't going to be pretty."

Blake didn't say anything at all. Not because it wasn't necessary, but because for some reason… she wasn't quite so sure. He wasn't an idiot.

Did he have some kind of plan?

Russel covered the distance quickly, and Jaune looked like he'd meet him head on. At the last possible second, however, he threw his shield like a frisbee. It caught his opponent off-guard, but Russel hadn't gotten into Beacon for nothing. He managed to bring both hands up in time to block it, and though he was knocked back a step – and his aura was chunked a few per cent – he managed to remain standing. Jaune's shield, meanwhile, deflected off the stage and would have crashed down into the crowd were it not for someone catching it.

"End of the line!" Russel crowed, driving both daggers home.

Blake winced as they struck. One caught him in the stomach and carved a chunk from his aura, while the other went for his face. Jaune blocked that one, both hands knocking the thrust aside so that it skimmed past his nose. It was still a nasty hit, though, and brought him down to the yellow.

Unless he had some plan up his sleeve, this wasn't going to work out.

"H-Hey, let go!"

Huh? Blake looked back to the fight, and as she watched Russel try to tug away, her eyes widened. Jaune hadn't deflected his opponent's wrist – he'd caught it. Using the back of one hand to drive it aside and the other to wrap around, he dragged Russel off balance, and twisted his body to the side. His opponent sailed through the air and crashed to the mat, and Jaune held Russel's arm between his legs and shifted them to the side.

Had he been without aura, Russel's arm would have snapped, but even so, the agonised scream he let out was evidence enough of the damage. He dropped the dagger in that hand even as he lashed out with the other. It caught Jaune below the knee and pushed him back, but he snatched up the fallen dagger and faced Russel with it held before him.

The crowd murmured, impressed, or maybe just uncertain what to think. No one had bothered to disarm and then steal an opponent's weapon so far. Honour aside, it wasn't like it would be any easier than using their own. People trained with what they had, after all.

His stance looks more natural with that, though, Blake thought. She looked him up and down, her eyes narrowing as she took in his posture. He looks more confident with it than he does a sword and shield, anyway.

Still… what could he do using someone else's weapon?

A lot, apparently.

"Victor, Jaune Arc." The crowd didn't know what to say or do when Miss Goodwitch called that, but Blake forced her hands together, and her team followed with the applause, as did Weiss and her team a few seconds later.

Up on the stage, Jaune barely seemed to hear it. He was too busy panting, the dagger held loose in one hand as he looked down on his opponent. Russel had been disarmed and then dispatched, his aura firmly within the red zone.

"Incredible," Ren whispered.

"Impressive," Pyrrha agreed.

Implausible, Blake's mind whispered. If he could fight like that with a dagger, then what was the sword for? Or had this been desperation and mad luck? It was hard to tell. The whole thing had been a mad flurry of knife on knife action.

"Mr Arc, while your willingness to fight on without your weapon was admirable, and your victory even more so, my greatest advice would be to practise more with your chosen weapon." Miss Goodwitch gently tapped her crop against her arm, but she didn't seem nearly as displeased as she had before. "The whole situation might have been avoided had you kept hold of your weapon."

"Y-Yes ma'am."

"And Mr Thrush, I believe this is a valuable lesson why you should not underestimate an opponent, even if they do appear defeated. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Miss Goodwitch," the defeated teen growled. He looked angry and ashamed.

"Now, then, if the two of you would depart we can- Mr Arc!"

Jaune paused at the edge of the arena, where he'd been about to jump down to re-join the rest of them. "Huh?"

"Mr Thrush's weapon, please. Return it."

"Oh, right." Jaune hadn't even realised he was still holding it, that much was obvious. He flipped it in his hand so that he held it by the blade, then extended the hilt back out to Russel. It was a practised and near automatic motion.

Blake noted it curiously. Yet more mysteries, she thought to herself, equal parts amused and annoyed. Her partner really was proving to be a strange one. Still, she couldn't say she was overly disappointed. He had helped her with Weiss, after all.

"Good job," she said when he came back down. "I didn't know you were able to fight with a dagger."

"I can't."

A lie. He winced as soon as he said it, no doubt realising how obvious it was. Even so, he didn't elaborate, and after he'd given her a pass on secrets earlier, she didn't feel like she could call him out on it.

What might have been an awkward silence was quickly broken by Miss Goodwitch.

"Next battle will be Blake Belladonna versus Cardin Winchester."

"Good luck to you as well," Jaune said, grinning lightly. "He looks tough."

Blake barely heard him. She was too busy holding back the urge to smile as she saw the large, armoured man stalk up onto the stage with his huge mace. He was a distinctive figure, and more so because she recalled seeing him in the cafeteria earlier.

It was the bully that had pulled that faunus' ears.

Well… how convenient.

By the time the lesson was over, Team ABRN had defeated all of their opponents – though few would argue there was ever a more one-sided match than her own against Cardin Winchester. She might even have deigned to imitate her partner and knock the idiot out with his own weapon, were it not for the fact she could barely move it.

She made the arrogant buffoon call out his surrender, instead.

/-/

Oobleck leaned away from the computer screen with a low frown. There were several windows open, along with a map of dust raids across the city, but it was the message from an old friend that proved most frustrating.

O,

Because the fault is ours, I believe it would be best if we rendered assistance in righting it. We would not want such dangerous equipment to remain in the hands of someone like Roman Torchwick. I will send one of my best agents. They will, of course, work under your command.

This is an international effort, after all. We would not want to place the onus on you.

A.

As blunt as ever, but what could be expected from the ASF. Atlas was in itself a forward nation, lacking in both tact and diplomacy on a global scale. It wasn't their fault, or rather the mistake could be forgiven. They were a new Kingdom by all respects, with their founding realistically being after the colour revolution.

Still, it did take a certain flair to annoy Vacuo, Mistral and Menagerie. The SDC might have helped with the latter, but Atlas' dogged defence of their greatest asset hardly helped. They were juvenile… believing the need to show off their might like an insecure bully on a school playground. Everything was overt with them, dramatic, in your face.

It worked to a degree, but only because they had the power to back it up… for the most part, anyway.

Even so, this could be a problem. They could hardly refuse the ASF's assistance – and it was clearly meant as a means to keep an eye on them. Allies though they may be, it seemed that even they realised the VSS would happily steal everything they could from the Paladins, and this Agent was meant to provide a deterrence to that. No doubt he or she would personally see to the Paladin's protection, or destroy the programs keeping it running via some failsafe.

Problematic for sure.

"I suppose this steps up our deadline a little. We'll have to secure the package before our guest arrives."

Rat, Magician and Vanguard would need to be sent into action again, which was unfortunate given Rat's rookie status. Were there anyone else he could send, the matter would be an easy one, but everyone in Vale was busy. The surveillance over Ozpin could wait a little while… or at the very least, he could handle that on his own. With a reluctant sigh, Oobleck typed a reply to the ASF, accepting their aid.

Jaune would be upset at being sent out again so soon. He would understand, though. Hopefully.

It would be good for his development, anyway. The boy was obviously ready and rearing for action if he'd felt it a good idea to break out his VSS-style training in Glynda's class. He was fortunate no one realised what it was, but he'd have to learn not to do that. Better to be defeated than risk yourself… especially when they might also risk the safety of countless innocents.

The VSS was bigger than personal pride, and often bigger than an agent's life, too.

A new window popped up before he was about to shut down and head to his afternoon lessons, and Oobleck inspected it carefully. The sender was labelled only as Vermillion, and his smile widened as he read the contents. Ah, some good news at last.

Director,

Changing of the guard to take place two days from now – venue unchanged.

Expectations are low, demands lower.

One who stands out might attract the attention of a peacock.

Will maintain surveillance. Instruct as necessary.

Vermillion.

"Well, well, an opportunity for sure…" Oobleck hummed, one finger tapping on the desk as he considered his options. Magician and Vanguard would be too obvious, each standing out in their own way. There would be background checks, of course – but that could work to their advantage.

After all, they already had an Agent with no discernible background. Rat always did complain the work was nothing like the movies. Maybe he'd change his tune if he got to wear a fancy suit and attend a party.

Probably not, but it was worth a shot.


Gods, it's storming badly here. Got to get this uploaded before I get power cut for the rest of the day. Looks inevitable at this point.


Next Chapter: 24th September

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur