Here we are
Cover Art: Jack Wayne
Jaune's came back to life for the third time.
It was the `Grand Re-Opening`, though that term lost a little of its lustre considering it had been re-opened twice already, once after the robbery and now after the Grimm. Still, people turned up if only to wish him well. Jaune sat in his wheelchair still but had been able to stand earlier and shake a few hands, at least for an hour or two.
There were a lot of well-wishers to get through. Cinder was among them. She'd come with a sly smile and a few words, then retreated to the corner with a coffee and a book she'd picked up from a local store. She seemed happy enough, so he let her be, focusing on more and more people coming to see with their own eyes whether he was really open or not.
Velvet and Russel were handling the hard work, of course. And for once, it wasn't Miltia keeping an eye on him, but Blake of all people. He couldn't say he was sure why. Miltia and Melanie were exhausted since a fight had broken out in the club – something stupid about two guys who both decided a girl dancing with them once was a contract, then got into a scrap with the other when they dared dance with her – and the twins were sleeping off the one-sided brawl that had ensued.
He still wasn't sure why it was Blake, though. Maybe Ruby was still annoyed at him for all the lectures she'd had to sit through. He watched Blake sit on the counter and start to read a book, ignoring the world around her as she turned one page after the next.
Black hair, yellow eyes, sarcastic smirks and now, apparently, a shared interest in reading material. If Cinder had cat ears, he'd have called them twins.
His attention was stolen away before he could think on it.
"I see you're back on your feet, Mr Arc. Glad to see it."
"Ah. General Ironwood."
There was something bizarre about such a large man flanked by two guards and a woman who had to be Weiss' sister – he refused to believe such hair colours could exist anywhere else – walking into his diner. Predictably, they drew a lot of attention, both from the average joes, the huntsman and also Cinder. It ought to have been intimidating, especially with him in a wheelchair.
"How was your date with Glynda?"
"Wonderful. We dined at a lovely restaurant, caught up with one another and then had a walk around Vale." There was more than a hint of colour to his face that suggested the night might not have ended there, or that if it had, there had been an intimate moment. "We've agreed to go out again this Friday."
The woman behind him coughed meaningfully and Ironwood straightened.
"Ah, yes. Is there a table free for my associates and me? You've met Winter before, of course, but I don't believe I formally introduced you."
He hadn't. Their last meeting had been little more than Ironwood breaking a table and Winter compensating him.
"Charmed." Winter extended a hand which he shook. "I understand that Weiss continues to frequent your establishment. I hope you are not taking advantage of her name."
"I… don't think I have."
"Winter, I'm sure your sister would let you know if that were the case." Ironwood scouted a table and nudged one of his guards, who moved to claim it. "I'll have an Atlesian Black, no sugar. Same for my guards." Jaune saw the remaining guard grimace. "Winter. How about you?"
"Standard coffee will suffice."
Standard? What the heck was standard? "I'll bring something over."
"It doesn't need to be you," Ironwood said. "You're recovering."
"I need something to do or I'll go insane."
"Not a man who likes to be idle, I take it. I can respect that. Don't make your condition worse, however." Ironwood laughed and led Winter and his remaining guard aside. On seeing him sit down and the four of them chat normally, the other patrons decided that there wasn't any drama or entertainment about to go down and went back to their own matters.
Jaune wheeled himself behind the counter, Blake following and only paying half as much attention as she ought to. She was also supposed to be pushing him, but he didn't mind. It was a pain to be babied so much.
"You're remarkably relaxed around such a powerful person," she said.
"He's just any other customer when he's here." Jaune took some beans off the shelf and began to mix then. "I think I'd be nervous if it was official business, but until he shows that he's the same as a hundred other customers I've served in any given day."
"In this battlefield, you're the one in command?"
Jaune laughed. "That's a dramatic way of saying I'm just doing my job."
"I'm reading a dramatic story," Blake admitted, closing the book. "The prose seeps in. I thought you didn't serve Atlesian Black? In fact, I think your words were `people deserve to be paid for having to drink that tripe, not to pay me to serve it`."
"And I stick to my ideals there."
"What do you serve him?"
"Something strong. A mix of blends. I use darker beans to make the coffee look black and then give it to him."
"And he never notices?"
"He says it's `the best Atlesian Black he's ever tasted` and I don't correct him. At this point I'm not sure if it isn't masochistic patriotism."
"It might be," Blake said, chuckling softly. "Or maybe he has to be seen to favour Atlas. He is one of the most prominent figures of the Kingdom. Trade deals and public perception are important. Every Kingdom wants to be seen as best in their chosen field. Atlas produces the greatest technology and dust. Vacuo is famous for spices, silks and holidays. Vale trains the best huntsmen and huntresses."
Jaune stopped to stare.
"They have some interesting foods as well," Blake admitted, "But mostly it's the porn."
"Riiight…" He wasn't sure if he was supposed to believe her or not. She sounded dead serious. "I've been to Mistral once or twice when I was younger, but never Atlas or Vacuo. You're quite well-travelled."
"Thanks to my prior employment."
"Yeah. I can imagine. You didn't settle down much?"
"Adam and I were young when we first joined and despite what you may have heard, we weren't an entirely remorseless group. No one wanted to send children into battle, so we worked in logistics and trained. We also got chances to travel around Remnant, though. Usually to show a kinder face to the organisation and to appeal to faunus in other Kingdoms."
Blake was watching her words in case anyone listened in. "You've visited all the Kingdoms, then?"
"I have." She sounded proud of the fact. "Atlas is cold, Vacuo is hot, Mistral is wet and Vale alternates between all three."
"Is that why you chose to come here?"
"Not really. My train just stopped in Vale. Call it fate. What do you think of Weiss' sister?"
It was an obvious change in conversation, but it was probably meant as one. Blake didn't waste time with the subtle hints.
"Polite, disciplined, a little judgemental." He shrugged. "I've met her before actually, but she only spared enough words to interrogate me on why Jacques Schnee lent me his personal lawyer. She's pushy, but I've served worse. The `standard coffee` line loses her about a thousand points with me, but I've seen the type before. Most people who come here don't actually realise how many different blends there are."
"Hm. We didn't." Blake watched him curiously. "Do you know she slapped Weiss?"
"Winter," she explained. "Ruby was the first to meet her, Weiss taking her to greet her when she landed. Ruby came back later and told us that one of the first things Winter did upon landing was to slap Weiss across the face."
"What?" He turned, face serious. "You're sure?"
"I don't think Ruby would lie. She did say that Weiss didn't make a big deal of it and didn't seem too hurt."
That didn't make it any better, did it? He couldn't think of any situation in which one of his sisters would slap him and he'd act like it was normal. Sure, if he did something stupid and they got angry then they might, but then it was understandable, wasn't it? They were angry and lashing out. That didn't make it okay, but it made sense. They'd both know why it happened, both feel horrible and he couldn't think of a single one of his sisters who wouldn't apologise for it after.
Had Winter apologised? Probably not by the sound of it – and Weiss considered it normal. It didn't sound like something Weiss thought deserved an apology, but something like that to him would have been reserved for the worst of sins. Maybe if he'd gone and done something truly horrid, he'd think himself worth a crack across the cheek.
He couldn't imagine Weiss having done something that bad to her sister. Not something that couldn't be fixed with words. This was Weiss for crying out loud. She was the posterchild for intelligent and reasoned discourse.
Was it an Atlas thing? A family thing? What kind of family slapped one another?
"That's messed up…"
"It is." Blake might have been a little biased, being a faunus, but he also detected some genuine concern for a teammate she considered a friend. "Yang tried to talk to her about it, but Weiss laughed it off and said she shouldn't have acted so disrespectfully in front of her sister."
It sounded like a Schnee thing, then. He'd thought Weiss was the heiress, though. Something about Winter Schnee having given up the role when she joined the military. Weiss had mentioned it once over coffee. But then, if that were the case then what was the point? If Winter wasn't a part of the SDC anymore then what right did she have to criticise how Weiss acted?
"I really don't understand them…"
"Me neither, and I'm her teammate. I wouldn't make a big deal of it. Weiss says it's okay so I suppose it is, but I think if she tried it again, we'd step in. I don't think Ruby or Yang will care if it's a blow given with Weiss' best interests in mind or not." And though she didn't say it, he had a feeling she would step in as well.
"Thanks for telling me, then. This'll make serving her that much more complicated."
Blake smirked. "Maybe I'm hoping you'll poison her drink."
"Don't tempt me. She already ordered `standard` coffee. Standard. That's like a chef asking how you like your steak and you answer `basic`. What does that even mean?" He grumbled and mixed the mildest cup of coffee he could. No sweetness, no bitterness, no sugar, no kick. "My masterpiece," he said, holding it up. "And I shall call it `Boring Blend Number One`."
Blake golf-clapped politely.
Balancing a tray in his lap, he wheeled himself back to their table alone, Blake predictably wanting little to do with Atlas or the Schnee family outside of Weiss. As he closed in, one of the guards saw him and stood quickly, taking the tray to make life easier. If nothing else, Atlas soldiers were polite to a fault.
"Thanks." He wheeled up. "The three white mugs are Atlesian Black and the green one is Miss Schnee's `standard` coffee."
Ironwood took his and sniffed of the aroma, then took a sip. "Ah. Wonderful. There's nothing quite like Atlesian Black to usher in the day. Come. Drink. Jaune makes the best Atlesian Black this side of Atlas."
The soldiers obviously didn't agree, looking down on their drinks with the kind of defeatism reserved for civilians standing before a Grimm horde. Under the watchful eyes of their General, however, there was little they could do but gingerly pick up the mugs and bring them to their lips.
To a one, they stiffened. Eyes flashed to Jaune from under their visors.
He nodded back.
"It's good Atlesian Black," the one who'd taken the tray said. "Very good."
"Agreed," his fellow replied. "Maybe we could bring him back to Atlas with us." It was a plea as much as a joke. Jaune could read the desperation in that gaze and knew these poor souls would be doomed to Atlesian Black once the Festival was over.
"I think Ozpin would declare war if I tried that," Ironwood said. "How is yours, Winter?"
The woman lowered her mug to its saucer. "Adequate."
Jaune's eye twitched. Strike one, slap Weiss. Strike two, standard coffee. Strike three, adequate. Not everyone could be saved. In a world with so much hate and death, some people had to be left behind. Next time she came in, he was letting Blake make her coffee.
"How go the preparations for the festival?" he asked Ironwood, ignoring Winter entirely.
"Good. Very good. Amity is all but ready. There are a few minor things to iron out – the opening ceremony and festival for example – but that's mostly waiting for the various academies to decide on what they want to do and let us know. We can't prepare otherwise."
"Is Ozpin dragging his feet?"
"No. We have Beacon's plans courtesy of Glynda. Honestly, it's Haven being slow."
Cinder and her team were pretending to be from Haven. He wondered if that was related.
"Going to give them a kick up the rear?"
"I'm going to let the time limit run down," Ironwood countered. "I've already told them if I don't have the plans in three days' time, the ceremony will be going ahead without them. I intend to show Lionheart I'm a man of my word."
Lionheart presumably being the one in charge of Haven. Jaune hummed, not understanding the little details but getting the big picture. That was what service was like sometimes; you had to talk with loads of different people about a range of topics, many of which you didn't understand. The trick wasn't to pretend you did. That was a mistake he'd made early, trying to keep up with conversations he had no experience in.
People quickly noticed that. If they were talking about law, politics or even the sciences, then they were the experts. The thing was, they weren't often expecting you to be an expert. They were willing to explain if you asked. By pretending you understood when you didn't, you were just making a fool of yourself and suggesting they were idiots. With that in mind, Jaune didn't feel stupid for asking a question.
"Wouldn't that be a diplomatic incident?"
"It's not as bad as it sounds," Ironwood happily explained. "Vytal Festival is actually a competition between academies. Yes, people extrapolate it to the Kingdoms but that's only because everyone loves a chance to win bragging rights."
"Put like that, it sounds kind of childish. I thought this was to honour or avoid wars."
"It is in theory. The original idea was to gather to commemorate and celebrate the peace agreement – but also to bring people to other Kingdoms. It's easy to see people from Mistral or Vacuo as strange and alien people when you've never met them, but by creating the tournament, you encourage people to travel and sample one another's cultures. It helps them see that we're not all so different."
"But it doesn't always work?" he asked, reading between the lines.
"Not always. I think the creators of it underestimated the human desire for conflict, or maybe they were tired after the war and thought that everyone would remain that way. That's the nature of people, sadly. A great conflict happens, people say they will never forget and never make the same mistakes again, then a decade or three passes and people have forgotten and lo and behold, history repeats itself."
"But the fact we do the festival is proof they remember."
"You'd think. People remember days and celebrate them because they're expected to. They rarely look at the deeper reasons behind them, or the lessons the founders were so desperately trying to teach us. Nowadays, the Vytal Festival is less a reminder of the atrocities of war and the importance of avoiding it than it is a chance for one Kingdom to one-up another. Crowds bay for blood and bet on their favourite fighters, then immediately begin to make excuses for why their Kingdom lost afterwards." Ironwood rolled his eyes. "Those can range from accusations of cheating to favourable terrain layout, jetlag or political interference."
Ugh. That sounded stupid. Jaune wasn't one for sports most of the time, but he knew enough about how some people would support their teams way too hard. A little competition was fine, but he'd seen friends almost come to blows over which team was better.
Add in national pride, fierce combat and gambling, and it was bound to be ten times worse.
"Wow." he said. "You've actually killed my excitement for the festival. Thanks."
"Then my work is done," Ironwood said, chuckling. Jaune doubted many people got to see him like this. It was a treat. "Seriously though, the Vytal Festival is still a good thing. I'm pointing out flaws with a view to fixing them, not as a way of saying how pointless it is."
"I get it. You can't improve if you don't acknowledge your weaknesses, right?"
"Correct. Too many people refuse to admit they have a problem. Stubborn pride helps no one."
It certainly hadn't helped him. Really, his parents had told him he wouldn't get into Beacon, yet he'd gone for it anyway, not even having aura. What an idiot he'd been. Looking back, he could have avoided a lot of pain if he'd been willing to listen.
"Does that count for you as well?" Jaune had to ask.
"That is hardly appropriate," Winter Schnee snapped.
"Winter." Ironwood silenced her with a hand on her wrist. "It does count for me, yes." Slowly, he peeled back the glove of one hand, revealing the metal beneath. Jaune's eyes widened, suddenly realising just why Ironwood had broken a table without meaning to. "Everyone makes a mistake at some point in their life. Everyone fails and is beaten down. The true measure of a person is whether they can get up again afterward, and whether they learn from it."
Ironwood's lips tugged up.
"That's why I was so pleased to see you back and running your diner despite what happened. Though I have to say, refusing to retreat to the shelter was a foolish move."
Concern? Was this why Ironwood had come?
"I know. But there was an elderly couple…"
"I've heard." Ironwood leaned his arms on the table. "It was actually Glynda who told me."
"Erk. I didn't ruin your date, did I?"
"No. This was at the after-crisis meeting."
After-crisis? Oh, for the breach. Come to think of it, the Council, Atlas and Ozpin had probably had a load of meetings and discussions since, either planning how to prevent another disaster like it, pushing for the White Fang to be hunted down or just trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong.
"It was while we were listing through casualties," Ironwood explained. "Glynda found your name and was quite alarmed, not only for your sake, I believe, but out of concern for what it would do the students' morale."
"Wait. Am I a banner or something?"
"Something like that." Ironwood laughed again. "But no, it's more that you're one of the few civilians that the students of Beacon interact with. Huntsmen protect civilians, but given that they go to huntsman schools, huntsman academies and naturally hang around with huntsman friends, it's often the case that they don't interact with many non-huntsman individuals. It's no exaggeration to say that some students might even forget the average person doesn't have aura."
Yang. And, to a lesser extent, Ruby.
"I'm worried about you. You're my friend. My really squishy civilian friend."
He hadn't thought of how big a difference that was before. Back when huntsmen started to make his diner their haunt, he'd seen the evidence of civilians moving away and heard some raise concerns of accidental damage and harm. He'd thought the sentiment was one-way; that civilians would be uneasy around huntsman but that there was no way it might work in reverse.
But it did. Huntsmen could rest easy knowing their friends were safe from Grimm, because they were all huntsmen themselves. He wasn't, and Ruby had only just begun to realise how fragile he really was.
A single Grimm, a single bullet, and he would die.
It was hard for him to think that strange – people died when they were shot, after all – but to Ruby, it was strange. How many bullets had she taken on her aura? Hell, they sparred in Beacon on a daily basis and she had a scythe that was a sniper rifle. Every member of Team RWBY, bar Weiss, had guns in one form or another. Weiss didn't. Which was odd given that her sword literally had a revolver on the hilt.
To them, guns were toys and Grimm were pests.
Their worlds really were different.
"Is that what you wanted to tell me?" he asked Ironwood. "That I need to take more care of my life because there are people who would be hurt if I died? Is that why you came?"
"I'd like to say it was, but I really just came for the best Atlesian Black I've ever tasted."
That's because it's not Atlesian Black, Jaune, Winter and the two soldiers longed to yell.
"I suppose the lesson just sort of slipped out. It's something the military faces as well. We accept and get used to the idea that death can claim us, to the point that it can be difficult to explain to our loved ones just why we do what we do. I try to teach my people to think of it from the point of view of the civilians. This is the first time I've ever had to tell a civilian to think about a huntsman's point of view, but the lesson works."
It was heavy thinking. Ironwood let him go to consider it on his own and Jaune wheeled his way back to the counter, sitting behind it while Blake read her book. He knew people would be hurt if he died; that was obvious.
"Is it true?" he asked Blake.
"Is Ruby scared of losing me?"
"It's not just Ruby either. Yang is worried, as is Weiss. As am I." At his shocked reaction, Blake sighed. "I consider you a friend, Jaune. You looked after me when I needed it and helped me locate the White Fang. You brought my team back together."
"I really didn't. Ruby, Yang and Weiss were looking for you. They'd have accepted you if you just went back on your own."
"I know, but that doesn't mean you didn't help. I'll admit that my reaction wasn't as extreme when I head about your injury, but I've seen friends die before."
"I guess she wouldn't have said…"
"What?" he asked. "Who?"
Blake hesitated. That more than anything had him on edge; it wasn't like her to mix words or be anything other than blunt. She ran a hand through her hair and put her book away, letting him know without words just how serious this was.
"We arrived too late to stop the attack. By the time we got to Vale, the Grimm were just about cleared up but there were still some around. We moved to intercept, doing whatever we could. There were a lot of bodies."
"I was used to it," she interrupted. "I've seen scenes like that before. Not just from what I used to be, but because we spent a lot of time outside the major cities. You get to see life in the countryside, as short and brutal as that can be. Sometimes we'd arrive at a village to try and protect the faunus there, only to arrive too late. Entire villages reduced to graveyards. This wasn't that bad. Not even close. But I guess to Weiss, Yang and Ruby, it was. They'd never seen anything like it."
"Ruby took it the worst. You know how she is, always wanting to look after everyone. She heard some Grimm and chased after them. We followed. She's quick, though, so we had to follow her trail instead of her. Eventually, we found her." Blake nodded her head toward the entrance. "Outside there and on her knees."
Jaune swallowed nervously. "Was she okay?"
"Not really." Blake pulled no punches. "You left your sword behind when Miltia took you away. Or she did. Not that I can blame her. Ruby found your diner, windows smashed in, your sword on the floor and blood everywhere. She'd already charged in when we caught up. She was screaming and crying and digging through broken glass with her bare hands."
His head fell into one hand. He could imagine it all too easily, and the image left him sick.
"We tried to drag her out but couldn't. She just kept digging, determined to find you. I don't know if you realised, but you were wearing your apron when the attack happened. The Grimm must have torn it off, because she found that. Dragged it out from glass and broken furniture stained red with blood." Blake sighed. "She just… sort of broke. Collapsed on her side holding onto it and crying her heart out."
"Fuck." There were tears in his eyes now. "I'm so sorry…"
"Don't be." Blake laid a hand on his shoulder. "Seriously, Jaune, what were you supposed to do? Leave a note saying the Grimm attacked you, you're badly hurt but just popping out to the hospital? BRB soon? Just tape that to the door while you're bleeding out on the pavement? You couldn't have expected Ruby to come along any more than you could the Grimm in the first place."
Blake snorted, amused despite the sombre topic. "You were attacked. Surviving it was the best gift you could have given her, and when she found out you were okay it was like a light was switched." Blake flipped her hand. "Total mental breakdown to biggest high I've ever seen. She was bouncing off the walls. Still crying, but this time crying from happiness.
He still felt bad. He wasn't sure if that was Blake's intent or not, but even though he'd known everyone had been worried about him, he hadn't considered to what degree that might be. He just assumed everyone knew he was okay because Miltia told them.
"I didn't know…"
"Ruby never told you. Never saw the point, I guess. It only happened because she thought you were dead, and then you weren't. I'm only telling you because… well, I don't want to see that again." Her eyes were haunted. "It was bad, Jaune. Really bad."
"I can guess…"
"No, you can't. I've never seen Ruby like that. I never imagined she could be like that. I know a little about them from Yang. I know their mom died. I thought it was something they were over, but I guess they took it in different ways. Ruby already lost one person. Makes sense she'd not want to lose another."
"But she's acting so normal."
"Is she?" Blake laughed. "Come on, Jaune. Open your eyes a little. Why do you think I'm here on my own?"
Judging by the question, it wasn't for his stellar conversational skills. Come to think of it, he really didn't need someone to push his wheelchair when Russel and Velvet were working today. In fact, there was no reason for Blake to be there at all, not to mention she clearly wanted to be somewhere quiet where she could read.
"Ruby ordered you to watch me."
"Ordered is a strong term. It was really more her trying to do everything on her own, and us deciding she couldn't completely sacrifice her education to watch over you twenty-four seven."
He winced. "It's that bad?"
"It's that bad now. It's only been a week since it happened. Give her time – and avoid nearly dying again," Blake added sternly. "And I'm sure she'll get over it. But right now, yes, you should probably expect to have a bodyguard where possible, or for Ruby to call you multiple times a day to reassure herself you're okay."
"Isn't there any way I can help her?"
"Stay out of trouble." Blake said it immediately. When he opened his mouth to argue, she cut him off with a shake of her head. "I'm serious, Jaune. Ruby needs time to see you'll be okay. That's all she needs. Short of you pulling out hitherto undiscovered swordplay, a Semblance and advanced huntsman training, nothing you can say is going to convince her you'll be safe."
"You. Nearly. Died." Blake stressed each word. "Ruby thought you were dead, and probably blamed herself for not stopping the train that caused it. Even if she was wrong, she tasted what losing you felt like – and trust me, she didn't like it."
And then I went and told her about Cinder. No wonder she sounded so stressed.
"What should I do? Should I apologise?"
"No. Absolutely not. Do that and you'll hurt her. You did nothing wrong," she stressed. "Getting to hospital was the right decision. It was all just a horrible mistake that Ruby arrived in time to jump to the worst conclusion. No one is to blame for that."
"I still want to help her, though. Isn't there anything I can do?"
"Not getting in trouble is a good first step. And maybe spending a little more time with her. Show her that things are okay, and nothing is wrong. Right now, she's just in full panic mode. Give her time to calm down and please don't snap at her if she's clingy or protective."
"I know. I'm just driving the point home."
"You're really worried about her as well," he said. "Aren't you?"
Blake nodded. "I've seen a lot of things. But that, the way Ruby was… I don't want to see that again."
He didn't either.
"Do you think it's a good idea for huntsmen and civilians to mix? I always thought it was but… I don't know now. It seems so hard, like we live in completely different worlds." To them, anything outside the walls was death. To the huntsmen, it was an average day.
How were they supposed to mix? Could they? It was like comic book superheroes walking around in costume and everyone having to take the bus, work and eat in the same restaurants as them. Try as they might to act normal and try as you might to see them that way, they were different.
"I think it's hard," Blake said carefully. "But I think it's no different from asking faunus and humans to mix peacefully."
"We've seen how poorly that has worked."
"Yes, but we shouldn't stop trying. Nothing good in life is easy."
Jaune was laid on his side in bed, head on a cushion and his scroll propped up in front of him. It was off for now. He'd been staring at it for a few minutes, trying to decide if this was a good idea. It was late but not too late – around nine-thirty. Russel and Velvet would have closed shop by now and he was back at the Club, along in his room since Miltia was working. His legs were getting better but no one wanted to test that up and down a flight of stairs.
For the third time, his fingers reached for the scroll and then retreated.
Why am I so nervous? It's not like this is new. He knew why, of course. Hard not to. Guilt and anxiety gnawed away at him, made worse because if there was one thing he was bad at, it was handling delicate issues like this.
Ignoring the issue wouldn't make it go away. Biting the bullet, he pressed call.
"Jaune!?" Ruby answered after the second ring, face appearing on the scroll. She looked worried, though that quickly faded when she saw him. "Oh no. This isn't another `friend-scenario`. It can't be. I can't handle another."
"What? No, no, I'm fine."
"Yeah." He laughed, relaxing a little. "I'm actually in bed. Today was kinda exhausting."
"Why I told – I mean, Blake offered to come help out."
"Blake did fine," he said, not wanting to get her in trouble. "It's just me not being used to working so long. Have to get back into the groove. I missed you today. Were you busy?"
"Ugh. Yeah. I wanted to come but I might have not done some homework I was supposed to." Ruby pulled a face. He could see her bare shoulders and a black strap, which meant she was in her sleepwear. He thought he could make out her bed too. "I only got it done a few hours ago."
"Everything is okay, then?"
"Sure." Ruby's face suddenly jolted. "No, wait – you told Pyrrha to come talk to me about a problem she had."
"I did?" He was sure he hadn't. "When?"
"You didn't? But she said… ugh. Unless she meant. N-Never mind. It's still your fault, though. You put the idea in her head and now everyone is coming to me because their `friends` have issues. Since when am I a student counsellor? I'm not even being paid for this."
"It wasn't anything too hard, was it? Maybe I can help."
"Nah, I think it's okay." Ruby's tension looked to have faded now that she knew he wasn't in trouble. "I don't think Pyrrha would like if I told you, but I basically said she should ask for more information and then talk to her team about it. I think she was happy with that."
"Sounds like you give good advice."
"Do I? Talking with your team sounds so obvious, though."
It kind of was, but that was the thing about having problems; sometimes you couldn't see the easy way out. "You still helped. Maybe you should start charging."
"Hm. I don't want to charge to help people."
"Then you've no one to blame but yourself."
"Meanie. You still owe me a favour. You should be trying to get on my good side so I don't make it something embarrassing."
"Don't make me slip coffee in your coffee."
Ruby gasped at the threat. "You wouldn't!"
"I wouldn't." He laughed it off with Ruby joining in a second later. "You're okay, though? I was kind of worried when you didn't come down. Thought something had happened to you."
"Mm. I'm okay. I'm a huntress."
Blake's point was implicit in the way Ruby said that, as if by being a huntress she was letting him know he didn't need to worry about her. It implied that the same wasn't true in reverse, and that only a huntress or huntsman could be trusted to look after themselves. He'd have been offended if he wasn't aware it was her fear of losing him talking.
"Glad to hear it, huntress, but I'm pretty sure there's an `in-training` added on there."
"Meh. Still a huntress." Ruby stuck her tongue out. "I beat you there."
Once upon a time that might have hurt. It didn't now. It didn't sting at all, and Ruby knew it. "You did," he said, smiling easily at the scroll. "Hey, Ruby…"
"You're my best friend. You know that, right?"
Ruby's face turned a pretty shade of pink, and though she was embarrassed she smiled through it. "You're mine as well."
"I beat Weiss?"
"Met you first." Ruby said it quietly. Either embarrassed to admit it or unwilling to say something that might upset her partner. "And you're nicer," she whispered, even quieter still. "Don't tell Weiss I said that."
Jaune mimed a zipping motion over his lips.
"We'll still be friends once you graduate as well. You'll be a kick-ass huntress and I'll have my café. You need to keep visiting, though. I don't want you to go off on all those adventures without letting me know you're safe. I'd worry."
"Don't be silly. I'm a huntress."
"Huntresses can die, Ruby." His words made her freeze. "It's not just us civilians who do that."
"Y-Yeah…" Ruby knew it. Knew it from Summer. "I'll visit all the time, I promise. And I'll call you every time a mission is over, so you know I'm okay. I'll tell you stories of how cool I was over cake and drinks. You'll be amazed."
"I'm sure I will be."
The words were on the tip of his tongue. He blurted them out.
Ruby's face was red. Her smile was beautiful.
"I love you too."
There was no misunderstanding there. No confused feelings between them. Ruby smiled at him and he smiled back, both knowing exactly what the other meant. It was a weight lifted and, he hoped, one for her as well. If nothing else, it was reassurance he was still there.
"I should go. Busy day tomorrow."
"Yeah. I was going to come down."
To check up on him. To watch him like a hawk. He knew it, but he wouldn't make any move to stop her, or call her on it.
"I'll save you a seat." He grinned. "And I hope you enjoyed the cakes."
"The cakes I sent back with Blake. I gave her four slices."
"She didn't come back with any cake…"
It took her three or four seconds to realise what that meant. Ruby's smile fell. Her face vanished from the scroll. She's forgotten to end the call, however, and as the scroll fell on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, Jaune heard shouting from below.
Poor Ruby. No cakes for you.
Next Chapter: 23rd July
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