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Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 41


Hiding the documents he'd written the night before with the tome from the ruin, Jaune met Winter at the bottom of the stairs, some bacon and eggs already sizzling away in the frying pan. Winter appeared surprised by the gesture, freezing on the bottom step for a moment before recalling where she was and why and stepping towards the kitchen.

"You don't have to do this for me."

"I woke up early," he lied. In truth, he'd worked through the night. "And don't worry, I'm used to it with Emerald." He flipped a rasher of bacon over. "Did you sleep well?"

"As well as could be expected. It's hard not to think of what must be going on in Menagerie."

Nothing good, that was for sure. Having decided to take more notice of the changes he was making, he'd thought long and hard on what the fallout for Menagerie would be, eventually coming to the conclusion that he just didn't know. Blake should keep Kali safe, but what happened next really depended on what move the White Fang made. They had a whole lot of dead bodies they could blame on them if they wanted. The fact they'd fled would only make things look worse.

"Will you be calling Ironwood and Jacques today?" he asked.

"Yes." Winter sat down at the table and accepted the plate he offered, now with two slices of toast, egg and bacon atop it. "Thank you." She waited for him to sit down opposite with his own before continuing. "I'm not sure what they'll say, though. Ironwood will want to avoid any potential war, but father. His opinions on the faunus have not always been kind."

"You're his heir. He'll listen to your opinion."

"I hope so. I'll have to head to Beacon straight after this and use the CCT. I'll be there for a few hours, so don't wait up on me."

"We'll go together. Summer and Taiyang are going to meet me there with Emerald. If you need somewhere to stay after, you can come back here. Just let me know."

"Thank you."

He picked at his food for a moment, Winter doing the same. He'd always prided himself on being the one in the know, but right now he felt as useless as he had when he'd first joined Beacon. It was uncomfortable to realise just how many of his advantages came from knowing the future. A future that had now changed so much that he was all but lost.

"Do you think this will lead to war?" he asked, surrendering to Winter's better knowledge.

"I don't know. It really depends on what the White Fang want, but they might not want war."

"Not how it looked to me."

"They're not stupid, Jaune. Any group who can outwit both the SDC and Atlas while lacking support from any of the four major Kingdoms is one to be respected. We can't tell anyone what they did without sparking tensions that will help the White Fang's recruitment, and they know that. They likely knew when they planned the ambush that there would be nothing we could do in reprisal. From their point of view, it was a win-win situation."

"Except for all the dead faunus."

"Which they can blame on us," Winter pointed out. "Sure, most people won't believe it, but if even a few do it's going to be a problem. There are always fringe groups, faunus on the edge of joining who might be swayed. If you'd killed the Belladonna girl…"

"Then Kali would have instantly joined with the White Fang for revenge," he realised. Gods, he hadn't expected they'd go so far. Or maybe they hadn't, and they were just assuming too much. Even so, Blake wasn't nearly as safe or important to the White Fang as she seemed to believe.

"I'm not sure they will push for a war, however. As Taurus said, a war is not something the White Fang can win. Less so if they join with Menagerie officially. Right now, the anonymity lets them hide behind civilians. If Menagerie goes to war with Atlas, there will be little to stop Atlas invading or bombing the entire island into the sea."

"Apart from ethics, I hope…"

"Ironwood might not, but others…" Winter shrugged helplessly. "Either way, the White Fang's biggest advantage right now is that they're not seen as having a base of operations we can attack, and that there aren't any ways for us to push them back. We're stuck on the defensive. If they were to join with Menagerie and declare war, they'd be forced to fight. If they abandoned Menagerie, no one would take them seriously."

"You think they'll keep things as they are, then?"

"I think they'll try. As long as they're on the cusp of war, resentment against faunus will grow, feeding their ranks. They can also stay as terrorists and keep from any pitched battles."

It was a good theory and likely what Sienna wanted, but there was one little problem.

"I'm not sure Hazel would let them."

"Hazel and Tyrian… There's more to them that you're telling me. Ozpin and Branwen know, too. You act like you know what their goals are, or at least understand them more than you do the White Fang's." Winter leaned forward. "Jaune, please, my family and my life are on the line here. If there's anything you can tell me, I need to hear it."

"I-It's not my secret to tell, Winter. Ironwood knows-"

"I'm not Ironwood. I'm not a part of Ironwood's command anymore." Winter's eyes met his, firm but desperate. "I'm one woman trying to protect her family from harm, trying to understand what's going on while others play games around me. Please. I need to know what is going on."

Jaune leaned back, stalling for time. He'd never thought to tell Winter and Ozpin never would, Winter only finding out years later by the time the war was in full swing and the secret could no longer be kept. By then, it didn't really matter. Winter had fought on their side and been loyal, though she'd died long before the final battle. Then again, he already knew his future knowledge was flawed. Winter was far from the woman she'd been, and back with the SDC might never become as she had.

But he trusted her. Not because of his knowledge of the future, but because of the time they'd spent together in this life. He knew her more here than he ever had before, and the Winter before him was someone he trusted. More than that, she trusted him.

He'd made so many changes without really considering them. Perhaps it was time to own some of those changes.

"Hazel and Tyrian work for a dangerous woman named Salem," he began slowly, laying his hands on the table. "Except that Salem is not really a woman at all. Or at least not human. Not anymore…"

/-/

Winter excused herself the moment they reached Beacon and rushed towards the CCT, paying Ozpin only the favour of a polite nod. Her worldview had been shattered in the past hour, but she held herself firm despite it. She had promised never to speak of what he had without his permission, and not to tell Ozpin, Qrow or Ironwood what she knew. Her knowledge didn't extend to time travel or his past life, only what he knew of Salem.

It was enough to give her answers, and to make her understand the games being played around her.

Was it reckless to tell her about Salem? Possibly, but he had to start making allies, allies he could trust and not those born of convenience based on his memories of the future. Winter was one of the few people he'd met in this time that he had only limited experience with, yet she'd quickly progressed from the young girl he'd trained to a woman he could respect as his equal in many regards, his superior in others.

"Good morning, Jaune," Ozpin greeted. The headmaster approached with a warm smile and a mug of coffee. He'd once called it hot chocolate, but he doubted any man could drink chocolate quite so much and not be thoroughly sick of it.

"Morning," he returned. "Any news from Menagerie?"

"Rumours that the ambassadors have fled after causing a scene. No real details yet but there is talk of an `investigation` taking place." Ozpin's face was calm and non-judging. He would have heard everything there was to hear from Qrow, and so knew exactly how little it was their fault.

"I wonder what they'll find."

"As do I."

"Have you informed Ironwood?" he asked.

"I have. James will be meeting with the Council of Atlas today to pass information along, though I'm sure he will wait for Miss Schnee's report for appearance's sake." Seeing the question in Jaune's eyes, Ozpin elaborated, "James was angry but not unsurprised. No one really expected a warm welcome in Menagerie, let alone fair play from a terrorist group."

"We still had to make the attempt."

"Yes. Sometimes, it is all we can do to try. At the very least, no one can accuse us of not having given our all to prevent any escalation. That will hopefully keep too many faunus from joining ranks with the White Fang."

"Have there been any attacks in Vale?"

"Not yet."

The yet hung in the air, since they both knew Vale wouldn't remain safe. The Kingdom could be just as bad as Atlas when it came to mistreatment of faunus, so there were plenty of faunus would be disillusioned and desperate enough to try and force a change. Not all had to become violent extremists, and those that remained hidden and fed information to the White Fang could be the most dangerous. That wasn't a change he'd made fortunately, seeing as how the White Fang always expanded to Vale in time, but it was one he might be able to limit nonetheless. When Cinder attacked Beacon, it was made possible thanks to Adam and the White Fang. Considering how Adam was now, that might not happen - but it could just as easily be Blake in charge.

Then again, it might just as easily not be Cinder.

He didn't think he'd done anything to affect her, but considering the name was almost certainly fake, he just had no idea.

The sound of a Bullhead's approach cut such thoughts off. Though Summer and Taiyang could easily make it through the Emerald Forest, Yang, Ruby and Emerald could not. Or rather, they could but shouldn't have to at their age. Jaune watched the Bullhead's arrival, as did several students who obviously had better things to do, but whom let curiosity win out over such things. Had he ever been so childish? Yes. Absolutely. He recalled trying to serenade Weiss outside her room and felt a little heat creep up his neck.

The Bullhead's ramp was only half down when a figure blurred out, landing, stumbling and then rushing towards him. Jaune was already down on one knee when Emerald hit him. He made a loud `oomph` and wrapped his arms around her.

"Hey there," he teased.

"You're injured!" she hissed. "He said so!"

"Qrow…" Jaune growled. Had the man never heard of subtlety?

"Emerald, Yang and Ruby overheard Qrow talking to us," Summer explained as she caught up, her husband and children with her. "They were supposed to be asleep, but we heard someone gasp and found the three in their pyjamas huddled outside the door eavesdropping." Summer fixed the three with a firm eye, though only Ruby and Yang had the grace to wilt. Emerald was too busy running her hands over his chest and shoulders, trying to find the injury.

"The wound has already healed," he said, both for Emerald's benefit and Summer's. "I had it healed soon after the fight, but things moved quickly. It was really only five minutes from the fight's end to us arriving back in Vale."

"So I heard," Taiyang grunted. He had a distant look on his face, and it took Jaune a second to realise he must have been thinking on Raven's help and what it meant. To a man who had finally managed to move on from such an incident, Raven's return likely brought a host of complicated feelings. Knowing she'd returned to aid another man hardly helped. As over her as he was, Jaune wouldn't have been surprised if Taiyang hated him a little for bringing back such feelings.

Summer shot her husband a worried look, but knowing there was nothing she could do, turned back to Jaune. "Why didn't you heal it in the fight?"

"I did, but the whole fight only lasted two minutes at most. I managed to turn it from an open and bleeding wound to closed and healing, but then it was re-opened when Hazel Rainart got a hit directly on it. It's not easy to maintain my Semblance in the middle of a fight for my life, not when I'm distracted by being stabbed in the back and there's more than ten people to keep track of."

"Who stabbed you?" Emerald asked.

"Never you mind," he said, ruffling her hair. He didn't want Emerald developing a hate for Blake, less his adopted daughter going off on a crusade to fight her. "I'm back, alive, and so is everyone else. That's a good solution as far as I'm concerned."

"Guess it is," Tai said, shaking off his memories. "Welcome back. Emerald was on best behaviour."

"I'd believe that if I didn't see your eye twitching."

Summer giggled. "Emerald was on good behaviour; Yang was not and may have dragged her into some things she shouldn't have been. Nothing bad," she assured him, "Just some late-night bedroom sparring. They were made to clean it up."

"Really, Emerald…? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Emerald considered the question and came to the appropriate answer. "I won."

"Oh, you son of a-"

"Do not finish that statement, Yang Xiao-Long," Tai said.

"Draw at best," Yang muttered, looking away.

Jaune laughed and rubbed Emerald's hair, content to let her dart behind him and start to poke at his lower back. If she wanted to make sure for herself that he was healed, so be it. There wasn't even a scar anymore. He'd come without his coat, so she had easy access. Instead, he found his attention sliding to Ruby, who he had all but ignored since coming to Vale. Or not ignored per se but trusted to look after herself. A little scare wouldn't keep Ruby down, or so he'd thought. He'd failed to realise that this was not a Ruby who had grown stronger through the loss of her mother. She hadn't overcome her grief and grown for it, and even now kept one hand on her mother's cloak.

She looked nervous, but also, he felt, a little intimidated. Nerves were fine, nerves were Ruby Rose. Fear was not.

"Is there a problem?" Summer asked.

"Hm? No. Sorry." He looked away as an idea came to him. "Just thinking that I owe the two of you for looking after Emerald and the Gym so much."

"You don't owe us anything," Taiyang said, placing a hand on his wife's shoulder. The message was clear; that Taiyang felt he owed Jaune for saving Summer's life. Taiyang grinned. "Besides, it's nice for Yang and Ruby to have someone their own age to talk to. They left a lot of friends behind in Patch and it's not easy getting used to living in the city. Less room, less nature, more crowds. Yang can't just go outside and fight with her uncle anymore."

"Same for Emerald, but the offer still stands. If you ever want a night to yourselves or have an anniversary or something, I'd be happy to look after them. I've got more than enough room and Emerald could use the company."

Summer seemed to perk up. Meanwhile, Taiyang displayed the sudden excitement of a man who'd been denied loud sex due to having children and just realised it might be back on the menu. He glanced at Summer to see what she thought, only to find her grinning back impishly. Taiyang flushed and laughed nervously. "Well, if you're offering…"

Yang, sadly, was not an idiot. "Ewww," she hissed, edging away from her parents. "Gross."

"We'll work something out," Jaune said. It wouldn't be immediate, but the best way to figure out what was going on with Ruby was to talk to her. This would be a chance to do that. He wasn't even sure if he should influence her to be a huntress if she didn't want to be. He'd cross that bridge when it came. There was still a chance she wanted to be, but felt she couldn't, that she was being held back by fear, doubt or something else.

"We'll let you know," Summer said.

"If I may," Ozpin interrupted, "I'd like to have a word with Summer, Qrow and Jaune in my office. Alone. There are certain… questions I have." The latter felt aimed towards him. Raven's assistance? The reason why he'd been dumb enough to trust a random White Fang girl? Exactly why Hazel wanted him so badly he was willing to risk war? It could have been anything.

"Can it wait?" he asked instead. "I've just got back and wanted to take Emerald out for a meal."

"It's rather important…"

"Is it related to the White Fang?"

"Not entirely."

"Then it's not an immediate issue," he said, looking to Summer for aid. "I'm not going anywhere, and I've got to get the ASH Gym back up and running, so I'm sure it can wait. How about in a couple of days, on the weekend?"

"That's fine with me," Summer said.

Ozpin looked frustrated, but concealed it quickly, bowing out with a nod of his head. "Very well. How does noon on Saturday sound?"

Early, to be honest. That would give him three days to figure out answers to all the questions Ozpin might have, all without giving up Raven as the Spring Maiden or Blake's connection to him. "Saturday sounds fine. Thanks, Ozpin. I appreciate it."

"Not a problem, Mr Ashari. Not a problem."

/-/

Winter stood in front of the CCT screen, her head bowed. Her stomach had fallen when her father answered the call immediately. She'd expected, and even hoped, that he would be too busy to take it. She'd called Ironwood first for that very reason, taking the easier option. Sadly, Jacques' secretary allowed her call straight through.

"I apologise, father," Winter said, bowing. "The talks did not go as hoped."

"So I hear." Jacques' face was carefully neutral. "Menagerie is yet to press charges, but the White Fang have claimed through their less than reputable outlets that you and yours killed several of their own. I assume that this is a story misconstrued."

"Misrepresented, yes. They tried to kill Jaune. He defended himself."

"I see. There is little we can do about that. The attacks will continue, then?"

"Yes, father. I'm sorry."

"Was there anything of value learned?"

"Kali Belladonna, chieftain of Menagerie, is not a staunch supporter of the White Fang as first thought, and Adam Taurus is more moderate than expected."

"Is he not the one attacking our convoys?"

"It seems we were wrong there. The ones he attacked are the ones where our people were found captured but alive. It's other White Fang that are killing prisoners."

"Interesting. I am not sure how we can use this to our advantage, but it is something worth knowing. I trust you will be able to make use of it, Winter?"

Winter flinched, surprised that her father wasn't angrier. "I'm not being punished?" she had to ask.

"I am not in the habit of punishing employees for impossible tasks. Had I thought peace even remotely possible, I would have invested more into this. It is only because you and Ironwood were so obstinate this happen that I played along."

"I-I see." While it was nice to know she wasn't in trouble, the lack of faith bothered her. "You assumed it was fruitless from the start, then?"

"Some people cannot be reasoned with, Winter. Terrorists are just that. They may hide behind claims of justice and equality, but all they are is violent dogs proclaiming their own brand of superiority." Jacques made a loud sound of disgust. "And they wonder why we never took their proposals seriously."

Winter remained silent, despite that she wanted to point out that if they had taken the faunus seriously, this would have never happened.

"I will be shoring up the manor's personal defences and security teams," Jacques said. "Your budget will be increased to match, both of your security forces and your own personal budget. Keep yourself safe, Winter. The White Fang would love to make an example of a member of our family."

"On that note, father, I'm worried about Weiss and Whitley. War or no, the attacks on Atlas aren't about to slow down and our family will be firmly in the crosshairs."

"I do not disagree. You would not bring this up without a suggestion, Winter. Go on. I shall hear it."

"I… I would like to suggest the two of them leave Atlas for the time being."

To her relief, Jacques did not explode. His eyes did narrow, however. "Explain…"

"Vale is much safer than Atlas at the moment and the White Fang aren't likely to try anything here for fear of dragging Vale into their conflict. Signal is also a premier school, and both Weiss and Whitley have expressed an interest in joining Beacon when they are older."

"A fact I am still not sold on. Atlas Academy is more than good enough for their needs. Our family name is respected there."

Which was exactly the problem from their point of view. Weiss did not like the burden that came with it, while Whitley wanted to make a name for himself. Neither would find it possible in a school which owed too much to the Schnee family to treat them normally. Her own meteoric rise through the years proved that.

"A chance to visit Vale early might get that out of their system," she lied. "Let them see the world outside of Atlas, escape the danger and also get the little bit of rebellion out of their systems. As a bonus, they could attend the ASH Gym here. It would doubly prepare them for their life as huntsmen."

Winter held her breath as her father considered the point, visibly leaning back in his seat.

"They're not safe in Atlas, father," she pressed, "If they were kidnapped, it would compromise the SDC. We'll not have a chance to sneak them out if a war does occur. Right now, the White Fang are distracted. This is our only opportunity."

"I will accept on one condition," Jacques said with a heavy sigh.

Winter's eyes widened. "Yes. Thank you!"

"You have not yet heard the condition."

"Anything," she promised.

"I will not trust just anyone to protect them and you must come back to Atlas to take over the security here, as is your position. As such, you will need to leave them under the care of someone."

"I have two trusted Agents who would do it well." Delta and Echo were jokers, but they could do the job.

"No. My condition is that it be your fiancé who takes them."

"W-What?"

"That is my condition. I will await your answer, daughter, and it is good to see you safe." With that final parental parting, the screen flashed black, leaving Winter standing with her mouth open and her eyes wide.

Jaune was going to kill her.

No.

Emerald was going to kill her.

/-/

"Sounds like you had an interesting time," Roman said, sat on the edge of Junior's desk with a cigar in his mouth. In his absence from Vale, the thief appeared to have discovered his fashion, now wearing the white coat and black bowler hat he'd become famous for in the future. Neo had yet to fully adopt her own and stood off to the side, handily beating Emerald in a staring contest via the use of her Semblance. Then again, judging by the fact Neo hadn't claimed her win yet, there was a good chance Emerald was using her own Semblance on the girl in turn. To each of them, it must have appeared as if the other had not blinked for a good five minutes straight.

Jaune left them to it. He'd already taken Emerald for a homecoming meal and promised to read a story with her later that night. Also a spar, and a full retelling of his time in Menagerie, and breakfast tomorrow at her favourite place. He had a sinking feeling she'd been testing her boundaries on that one and he'd somehow failed. The look on her face as she rubbed her hands together certainly suggested further demands.

Well, it wasn't like he couldn't afford to spoil her.

Junior's office had gone through something of a transformation in his absence and now included a minibar stacked with various drinks over by the corner, in addition to his usual wooden desk and seats. Junior was mixing a cocktail behind it, moving with enthusiasm, if not the easy grace he'd later been known for. It seemed more a hobby than anything, but likely a precursor to his decision to buy the Club. The bar was neon lit and marble-topped, the front the same dark-wood panelling that the rest of the office sported.

"Interesting is one way to put it," Jaune said, accepting the cocktail Junior provided. It was a little too sweet, but not bad for a self-proclaimed amateur. "The White Fang are making their move and there's a good chance they'll turn their attention on Vale soon."

"You sure?" Junior asked. "What do they have to gain here?"

"Recruits, respect, wealth and a wider base of operations, but that's not the real reason. The true power behind the White Fang has their eyes on Beacon."

"This is that Hazel and Tyrian guy, right?" Roman asked. "The ones who showed up in Atlas. I did a little digging and I don't mind telling you that what information there is on them is scant. Worryingly so. What do they want with a huntsman academy? Plenty of those around the world, most less guarded than Beacon or Atlas."

Roman was someone who had been against them in the future, at least until he'd died. Ruby had been the one to witness that and Jaune couldn't say he'd had all that much interaction with the thief. That was probably for the best, since it stopped his perception being coloured like it had with Blake. Even so, he couldn't say he trusted Roman fully. He'd shown once before that he would switch sides if he thought it in his best interests.

Still, he couldn't give them nothing.

And thankfully, he didn't have to. He'd thought long and hard on what story he could weave on the way to meet Junior, and in the end it was memories of Pyrrha which gave him the answer.

"Ozpin and Ironwood have been working on some unusual technology that has leaked to the people behind the White Fang. It's a device with the ability to transfer the aura of one person to another, granting them greater aura reserves and potentially the ability to use another Semblance." The lie came easily, as all good lies based on the truth did. He had no idea if the transfer machine was finished yet, but if Roman and Junior were to find a way to dig deeper, they might actually find evidence of it, only proving his point.

"Seriously?" Roman asked, leaning in. "Wouldn't that be fatal for one side, though? It sounds pretty shady."

"That's why it hasn't been used or announced yet. It's not perfect. Of course, the consequences are only a problem for people who care to keep both sides alive. If it were safe, Ironwood and Ozpin could use it to disarm dangerous criminals and make them safer to the public."

"And if the White Fang got it, they could subjugate an entire species, make it so humans could never hope to match their faunus oppressors," Junior said, "Or create super soldiers." He downed his glass and slammed it down. "Wonderful. Have I told you that I hate you recently? Because life was a whole lot simper before you waltzed into it."

"Heh. Sorry."

"Sheesh, this is big," Roman said, equally shocked. "I figured it was something big, but maybe money or a weapon. I mean, this is a weapon of sorts, but shit. I'm not liking the idea of terrorists with ten huntsmen worth of aura each and ten Semblances to boot. Explains why you think they'd want to come here first. Get something like that and you're pretty much set for the rest of Remnant."

"And let me guess," Junior said, "It's at Beacon, meaning that if the White Fang do get it, they'll have conquered Beacon and have a handy source of kids to drain aura from."

Even Roman appeared sickened at the thought of so many students being killed. Perhaps it was too early in his career to do that himself, or maybe he felt he had no choice in the future. Whatever the case, the gentleman thief didn't like the suggestion now.

"You see my problem," Jaune said. "The White Fang probably aren't going to invade here for fear of making more enemies than they need, but they'll make inroads and do some work behind the scenes. There are plenty of criminal families who would work with the White Fang for access to something like that, and the best way to destabilise Beacon is through the underground. That's why we need to take control. And fast."

"Not going to be easy," Junior warned. "Ever since Roman's been increasing his robberies, they've beefed up security."

"Hey, that was on his instructions," Roman said, pointing at Jaune.

"It was," he agreed, earning a sigh of relief from Roman and a confused look from Junior. "I want them on edge. I want them to gather all their forces and consolidate their operations. It'll make it all the easier for us to take them down."

"Not for nothing, Jaune, but even if you're powerful, you're only one man. They'll have huntsman-level people working for them. At least the big families will. You might be able to beat one or two, but can you handle twenty or thirty?"

"Not in a fair fight. I don't intend to give them that."

Junior and Roman exchanged nervous glances, but knowing they were in the deep end already, nodded. "Right. Well, as long as we're clear on you not wanting a pitched battle, I guess we're in. One thing I want to make clear, though. This gang is something I built up from scratch. I'm not going to throw lives away without knowing the full plan."

"Same," Roman said. "Except that there's only two lives on the line here. They're infinitely more important, though." He grinned.

"The plan is simple, but I want Roman and Neo working on something else."

Roman cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Junior, I want you to expand our territory aggressively. Only take on the small and weaker gangs but use whatever funds you need."

"It should be possible, but the bigger gangs will take notice…"

"That's what I'm hoping for. Sooner or later, they'll decide to meet up to decide what they want to do about us. That's when we're going to strike."

"Those kinds of meetings come with strong peace agreements. We mess with those, no one will respect us. We'll have everyone united against us."

True, and that was dangerous - but the slow approach wouldn't work. Jaune had never been a great strategist, mostly taking what inspiration he could from lessons from Pyrrha and watching Weiss and Ruby in action. One thing he'd come to realise, however, was that sometimes you just had to go big. Cinder brought Beacon to its knees because no one expected it to be possible. Her and the White Fang had been outgunned, outnumbered and frankly out powered, what with the Atlas military there and Ozpin and the other huntsmen, yet she'd still managed it and gotten away with everything she wanted.

Much of that had been cleverly taking over the Paladins and Knight units, but even that had been crazy - sneaking Roman on board those battleships and trusting him and Neo alone to overwhelm an entire ship's worth of crew. All in all, Cinder won because she'd attacked in a way that was so unexpected, so impossible, that her opponents hadn't even thought to plan for it. She'd also struck during the Vytal Festival, at a time when Vale's security was so great that the entire Kingdom ironically let its guard down.

He could emulate that.

"If we do it well enough, there'll be no one left to unite against us. We'll attack when they least expect it, when they gather in one place, and we'll cut the head off the Taijitu in one blow. Put ourselves at the top, absorb what remains and dare anyone left to challenge us."

Junior swallowed. "Yeah. I mean, that works in theory. Assuming everything goes perfectly. We fuck up even one thing, though, and we're toast."

"Then I guess we'll just have to not fuck it up," Jaune said.

"Crazy bastard." Roman laughed. "What about me? No more raids? I was enjoying the challenge."

"I think you'll enjoy this one just as much. I know you're good at finding rare valuables and lifting them. How good are you at finding people?"

"Kidnapping? Not really my style…"

"It's really more of a lost and found. I want some people tracked down. You don't need to do anything with them or contact them in any way. I just need to know how I can get in touch with them. Addresses, details, what they're doing at the moment."

"Sounds easy enough. I can break into the registry over the weekend and run the names through Vale's database. Shouldn't be too hard to find a hacker capable of that."

"They're in Mistral."

"Mistral?" Roman sighed and took the cigar from his mouth. He ground the remains into an ashtray on Junior's desk. "Well, I always did want to travel. Take a little longer to get there, but same story. Might be a little more expensive if I can't use my usual sources. You paying?"

"How does a quarter of a million sound? I'll also cover costs."

Roman grinned. "Sounds like I need names."

"I've got three. Lie Ren, Nora Valkyrie and Cinder Fall."

/-/

Adam placed the bouquet of flowers down into the narrow glass vase, taking care to make sure there was enough clean water to keep the stems wet. White lilies, Blake's favourite. Odd given her propensity for wearing black, and her name, but she'd always loved them more than anything else. He noticed that there were already some flowers there, with a little tag proclaiming them from Kali.

He made sure not to disturb those, and to stand his own `get well` card beside Kali's own. In a way, he was relieved Blake was not awake yet. It would only lead to a conversation he wasn't sure he was ready for. Blake had gone behind his back to try and attack the ambassador, while he in turn had gone behind hers to warn them.

They would need to have words after this, but for now, with Blake injured, that could wait. He ran his hand over her forehead, brushing some hair from her skin, careful to avoid the nose that must still have been sore. It was badly bruised.

"Get well soon, my sweet. I'll handle things here."

The man behind him coughed.

Adam's eyes closed and a hiss escaped him. "Can I help you, Rainart? Or did you also come to check on Blake?"

"She will live," Hazel replied, voice gruff. "Broken nose, bruising and two cracked ribs, along with other minor damage. I did not come for her. I came for you."

"Minor? She should not have been harmed at all." Adam's fingers clutched the edge of her bed. "Her team was massacred. Massacred because of an operation you convinced her to take part in. One that should have never happened."

Blake would blame herself for that, no doubt. Adam had hated the team, Thatcher especially, but she'd found some solace in them and now they were dead to a man. No survivors but for Blake herself, and only because Ashari seemed to have some misplaced affection for her. Adam's hands clenched into fists. He could hardly believe he only had her still because of that affection. Things could have been so much different, and it was all Hazel, Tyrian and Sienna's fault.

"Do you really want to do this here?" Hazel asked. "Or would you prefer it be outside?"

Adam stood. He would not disturb Blake or her flowers. "Outside."

Hazel nodded and turned away, marching through the halls of the small hospital – more of a ward attached on to a local doctor's surgery, Kali's own. It was up in a sparser part of Menagerie, away from the hustle and bustle of the main city, the better for the patients to heal and not catch any untoward germs. The ward sat beside a grassy field that bordered a small patch of woodland. It was that Adam followed Hazel to, gripping his sword the entire time.

"We are alone here," Hazel said, removing his hands from his pockets. "Speak your mind."

"You're a blight on the White Fang," Adam said, drawing wilt with a hiss. The crimson blade shone in the morning sun. "You and Tyrian care nothing for the cause, or the casualties. You're risking war with Atlas, a war we can't win, and now you've crossed another line, placing the woman I love in danger for your own purposes."

Hazel remained facing the opposite direction, his large shoulders rising and falling with each breath he took. "Yes," he eventually said. "I placed Blake Belladonna in danger, and worse, I left her to die when the tide turned against us."

It was too much. Adam's lips peeled back, and he surged forward, wilt rushing in towards the man's unprotected neck.

At the last second, Hazel turned. The man's speed belied his size as he batted the sword away with the back of an aura-enhanced fist. His left foot stamped forward, carrying his weight as he slammed his fist into Adam's stomach, down and under his ribcage.

Air, spittle and a little blood splashed from Adam's lips as he was lifted off the ground and sent flying back into a tree. Hazel followed, pinning him to the tree with one hand while his other gripped Adam's wrist, wrenching the sword from his hand. It fell to the grass with a soft `thwap`. Glaring into the man's eyes, Adam kicked wildly.

Hazel ignored it. He dragged Adam up the tree bark so that the two men were face to face, despite how Adam choked and coughed, feet suspended several inches off the floor.

"I can understand your hatred for me," he said, voice still as harsh as gravel. "I can respect your desire to protect the one you love." His hand gripped a little tighter, cutting off Adam's air flow. "Unfortunately, my respect does little to determine what happens here. There is not a faunus in the White Fang who is not aware of your stance. Tyrian wanted to handle you himself. I convinced him to let me."

"Erk- ack!"

"If it were Tyrian here, you would not yet be dead. He would draw out your suffering for his own amusement. You would die in agony. I consider that a waste…" Hazel released him suddenly and Adam fell, clutching his throat with both hands as he gasped for air. "You are fortunate I do not Tyrian's opinion. Go back to the woman you love and stand by her. But beware, Adam Taurus, that though I may respect your choices, there are many who do not."

Hazel turned away, all the while Adam glared at his back.

"I make no excuses for what I did, or for the hurt she went through. But if you step out of line again, it will be Tyrian who deals with you, not I." Hazel paused and spoke back over his shoulder. "For Blake's sake, and your own, I hope you make the right choice."

As Hazel walked away, Adam struggled onto his hands and knees, gripping a throat he could hardly breathe through. He pressed his forehead against the cool grass and tried to collect himself. Wilt lay nearby, discarded.

He felt just as helpless as he had back then, before the White Fang ever started.

/-/

"He deflected the meeting."

"Maybe he's just tired," Qrow said.

"No. It was a deflection. He did not wish to talk."

"You're reading into things, Oz. We just went through some stupid crap out there. If I were him, I'd want to have a little time to centre myself as well. Besides, it's not like he's going anywhere. He offered to hold a sleepover for Ruby and Yang. Does that sound like a guy about to run away?"

Ozpin steepled his fingers and hummed, understanding, if not accepting, Qrow's point. He was not used to being denied so easily, but at the end of the day it mattered little. Three days was little time to wait and there were other things to be done.

"I suppose you are right. Do you have any inkling as to why he would be hesitant, however?"

"Well, yeah." Qrow rolled his eyes. "Raven."

"She was one topic I wished to bring up with him, yes. You believe he does not wish to answer questions about her?"

"Hard to say." Qrow crossed his arms and leaned back against the frame between two windows. He had one leg kicked up against a pane, no doubt smudging it terribly. "Her saving him was a surprise on my end, let me tell you. I didn't think she had it in herself to make a bond with anyone. Not anymore."

"Your sister is still human, Qrow. Despite the decisions she may have made."

"Could have fooled me…"

Ozpin sighed. Qrow was far too involved emotionally with this case. Understandable, given it was his sister and that Raven had left her husband, Qrow's best friend, and abandoned Qrow's niece. It still caused problems because Ozpin just knew Qrow was not being as diplomatic as he could whenever he was sent to speak with his sister. It was such a shame Qrow was the only one he could send to try and win Raven back to their cause. Or rather, it had been. If Jaune could be sent in Qrow's place, he might be able to convince Raven to come back to them, or at least to operate under his instructions.

The only problem was that Jaune himself was being just as cagey, and Ozpin's long-ingrained paranoia was beginning to play up.

"Look, I don't think there's any need to panic yet," Qrow said, interrupting his thoughts. "Scene was pretty damn awkward back there, what with Summer, Tai and Yang right in front of him. Wouldn't surprise me if he didn't want to talk in front of them."

"I offered to let Taiyang look after the children…"

"Yeah, but Summer would have told Tai whatever was said straight after."

"You were not always so firmly on his side."

"No, and I'm not blindly believing everything here either," Qrow said. "He made some weird ass calls on Menagerie. Wandering off on the words of some White Fang chick. Who does that? He knew where we were and what the risks were."

"Yes. It was quite the uncharacteristic move."

"Beyond that, he knew Taurus and Kali Belladonna, not to mention he said the White Fang girl was her daughter. That's a lot of inside information for someone who claimed to have never been to Menagerie before."

"Do you believe that?" Ozpin asked.

"I think so. He was looking around the place like he didn't know it. Had that look, you know. The one where you're cautious and don't know a place, so you're always looking around, mapping it out in your head."

Ozpin nodded. "I know the feeling."

"Yeah. He had that, and he had to rely on the faunus guards for directions. Meanwhile, Kali acted like she'd never met him. So, no, I think it was his first time."

"Which raises the question of how he knows."

"And how he knows Raven, and what he's doing forming a bond with her – and how he knew I could turn into a bird, too."

Ozpin frowned. Yes, those were all very poignant, very dangerous questions. The knowledge was so much that Ozpin might have suspected him to have the Relic, but then, what question could he have asked to have gained so much? The rumours had it that the Spring Maiden was within Raven's tribe, however. It was a thought he could not dismiss.

Had Raven entered the game and taken the Relic for herself? She should have known how dangerous that might be. He would need to speak with Leo, make sure no one had stepped foot in the chamber beneath Haven.

"Anything else to report?"

"Not much. He asked about Winter and her family and asked me about how everyone on our side was doing. Normal conversation. Mostly, he was focused on the job."

"Hm." Ozpin let it go. There was little that could be done until the weekend. "How are the children doing?"

"You asking me when I've been away for a couple of days?"

"I'm asking about Miss Rose."

"That's Mrs Rose."

"You know what I mean, Qrow."

"Ruby," he made sure to stress the name, "is fine. Precocious little bundle of love, joy and sugar. Like Yang before she became all teenager-y and a smartass. If I had my way, she'd never age another year and stay like this forever."

"And her trauma?"

"What trauma? She saw some things she didn't like and that spooked her. You'd be scared, too, if you saw someone cut in half in front of you at her age. Summer's taken her to doctors. They say there's nothing wrong with her."

"She used to want to be a huntress."

"And she changed her mind. Kids do that all the time."

"Ruby needs to become a huntress, Qrow."

"No. You need her to become a huntress." Qrow's eyes narrowed and his posture became just a little more defensive, a little more antagonistic. "I know Tai already said it, Oz, but this isn't any of your business. Ruby's her own person. Whatever she wants to be, she'll be. I'm loyal to you and the cause, but don't ask me to pick sides between my nieces and you. You won't like what side I pick."

"Of course, of course." Ozpin sighed but waved one hand in surrender. "I was merely concerned."

Qrow hummed, not believing it for a second.

"Let's consider how we'll deal with Raven, hm? Our information suggests the Spring Maiden is in her tribe. I'd like for you to try and confirm this…"


Despite that I find Hazel's backstory (the little we know so far) to be impenetrable, I like his character, more because it stands out as being quite quirky compared to Cinder's diabolical laughter and "I am evil, rawr" characterisation. I like the aspect of moderation he brings, even if it didn't really get to shine when Adam killed Sienna in the show. It hints at things, and thankfully, it does so without screaming the answer in our faces, which is nice. Let's us imagine and try and figure out what's going on.

Also, poor Jaune is quickly being set up to host a boarding house for problematic teenagers at this rate.


Next Chapter: 19th January

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur