CW: Most of this story will be T rated, but this story will contain scenes of graphic violence and descriptions of child abuse.
Qrow was midway through his third sweep of the landing pad when his companions arrived. He'd almost missed them, so focused was he on carefully checking for any concealed devices hidden beneath the boarding ramps that he hadn't heard their footsteps in the rain. "Amber. Summer," he said, slowly getting up from his knees with nothing more for them than a quick nod of acknowledgement.
"Geez, Qrow," Amber mused, "what's got you all paranoid?"
He gave her a sarcastic look. "Oh, I don't know," he groused, "maybe the Queen of Evil is sending a delegation to the eyes of the whole world and if anything goes wrong it's the first shot in an apocalyptic war? That tends to put an old guy like me on edge."
Fifteen years ago, Salem, Queen of the Grimm revealed herself to the world of Remnant and offered a deal. A global reduction of the Grimm threat but in exchange… hostages. Children, specifically, one from a selected, prominent family of each nation. Four humans and one Faunus, no more than three years old, were taken to… somewhere. And for fifteen years, scarcely any word came back. Salem was true to her word, the Grimm threat greatly receded, but… the knowledge that she held onto those children, that there was a reason she wanted children, never let people feel like this was truly at peace. They called it the Separation, and most people preferred not to think about it, if it was avoidable.
But tonight, those five children would be coming back.
A flash of lightning and a crack of thunder accompanied that dramatic thought. But it seemed some people were better at handling the anxiety than others. "Come on!" Amber laughed, "You've got the Fall Maiden, a Silver-Eyed Warrior, and you… also contribute, Qrow. We'll be fine, no matter what is coming on that Bullhead."
He shook his head. "That's not what I'm worried about. We're doing this all wrong," he griped, gesturing with his hands, "We're worried about dangers coming from their side, when more than half the threat of something goin' wrong is on ours."
She just gave him a skeptical look. "Who on Remnant would be stupid enough to attack the Queen of the Grimm?"
"Jacques Schnee? Ghira Belladonna? She took children from the most powerful families in the world, they are not the sort to accept-"
"They don't have to be stupid," Summer cut in, "they just have to be parents. Losing a child is… it's enough." There was a haunted note in her voice that cut right through both Qrow's cynicism and Amber's cheer. "I remember when… we had to… pick up that little boy," Qrow stiffened at the memory. He and Summer had been part of the escort. Really, they were there in case the Arc family... refused to hand over their child, but the thought of… taking him by force wasn't something Qrow relished imagining. He still remembered the little boy, just three years old and unable to understand what was happening. The anguished look on his mother's face... "When we did that, all I could think was 'What if it was Yang? What if Yang was chosen?' and I couldn't… I couldn't imagine losing her."
They took a moment of silence. Qrow might not have been a father himself, but it didn't take much to imagine what it would have done to Tai and Summer if one of their little girls was one of the claimed. Hell, the thought of losing one of his dear nieces… he shivered, though it had nothing to do with the weather.
Amber scuffed her shoe against the pavement. "Well," she said, more to break the silence than to speak, "I guess we just have to be ready for anything, then, don't we?"
Qrow grunted, casting his eyes back over the landing pad, wondering what tiny detail he might have missed that would make all the difference in the world in just a short few minutes. He really wished it wasn't raining, for how it cut his visibility, but he had to admit: a dark and rainy night was perfectly dolorous for what they had coming.
He heard a door open, and he turned to see the Deputy Headmistress cross the walk, umbrella in hand, looking as neat and composed as she always did. Except, Qrow knew she that she was never the last to arrive for anything—something wasn't how it ought to be.
"Glynda? Everything seem alright on your end?" he called to her, hoping his tone came off more concerned than worried.
She waved them off. "An event like this inevitably has last minute issues. I hope my absence was not a problem?"
"Everything's fine on our end," Summer replied. "Qrow rechecked the landing site, while Amber and I can confirm that the area is clean."
Glynda nodded. They had done everything, and they'd done it correctly and they'd done it redundantly, and yet… it still felt like it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. "Allow me to cover the itinerary for one final review. The arriving Bullhead contains only six individuals: Cinder Fall, the Queen's majordomo and our lead contact to her side, and the five children. You will escort the children to their room—we've been instructed that they are to share a room, and so they will be staying in Room 531, which has already been prepared for their visit—at which time you will return to the command center to speak with Headmaster Ozpin. I will walk with Ms. Fall to her room and discuss some matters for facilitating their visit. Once the children have been settled in, you will return to their room to escort two of them to speak with the Committee. After they have been returned to their room, we are to have no further role in their immediate security, per Ms. Fall's request."
The three of them nodded their assent, having long since read the description of the plan. "Any last minute changes?" Summer asked.
Glynda shook her head. "No. However... I anticipate we'll find Ms. Fall to be a... difficult guest, so expect that she might propose some changes to the itinerary. In the event she does so, do not refuse her, but be certain to inform me."
Qrow groaned to hear it. He wasn't honor guard material. None of them were—they were Ozpin's toughest fighters, not parade guards who knew how to avoid etiquette disasters. But Oz wanted to make a show of strength rather than etiquette and, when it came to Salem, Oz was their best shot of "knowing what he's doing," so what choice did they have but to go along?
But it seemed they were out of time. Glynda looked off into the distance. "That's them," she announced, and Qrow, following her eyes, spotted the telltale glint of a Bullhead's lights growing larger through the rain. "Get ready. We have no idea what we're about to see."
He braced himself, hearing Summer's breath catch, and even Amber making a murmured reminder to herself to keep focused as she gripped her staff. And soon the sound of the Bullhead got louder and louder as it slowly, portentously, landed.
And then a door opened, and the pilot stepped out. She was surprisingly young, likely even younger than Amber, who was still in her twenties. Dark haired, and looking more femme fatale than secretary, especially with the way her golden eyes glinted in the darkness. But she had that severity, that look as though everything was exquisitely and carefully planned that made her seem very much Glynda's equal opposite. "Deputy Headmistress," she said as she nodded towards her.
"Ms. Fall," Glynda addressed her as she stepped forward. The two women exchanged a curt, professional handshake, but it held no more than the bare minimum of the artificial courtesy that either of the two women was able to muster. "On behalf of Headmaster Ozpin and the Council of Vale, I welcome you to Beacon. I hope your trip was without incident."
Fall gave another curt nod. "It was. And my Queen sends her regrets that she is unable to attend in person," Qrow shuddered at the thought of that creature making a personal appearance. Seeing her on video had been unsettling enough. "But," she said as she walked to the passenger door of the Bullhead, "May I present to you the royal family."
Royal… family? That was new information, and deeply worrying. He glanced at Summer, but he hardly had time to think about it before Fall opened the door and revealed the children to his sight.
Though they weren't… They weren't children. What they were, he... didn't know.
Human in shape and form, but unmistakably altered, having the same Grimm-infused look of the Queen. Whatever Salem had done to them—and he feared to imagine what they'd been put through in the Grimmlands—had left them unmistakably marked.
Two of them were as unnaturally chalk-white as the Queen. One with long white hair kept in a side ponytail, the other with pitch black hair and a pair of cat ears—she was the one from Menagerie, Qrow guessed. The white-haired one had a broad, happy smile across her face that, unsettling in its own way, drew attention away from the lines of black corruption tracing crazy patterns across her skin.
Qrow's attention, though, was fixed on a powerful-looking girl, her fiery red hair signifying that she had to be the daughter of Admetus and Alcestis Nikos. And, like her parents, she looked like a warrior—and unlike her parents, she had bony, white plates of Grimm armor forming a cuirass and greaves. Bracers protected her forearms, and those patterns of black monstrousness across her skin, seemed to pulse with unnatural vitality... her body seemed to radiate power and invincibility. An air of controlled violence hung around her the way the air over the road shimmered on a hot day, while her unnatural glowing green eyes looked to be scanning them for threats. Qrow knew what a warrior looked like, and this girl… Qrow really hoped that there'd never be a reason for the two of them to have to go to blows.
The last two seemed… almost entirely human, but no less disturbing. One had no visible evidence of being… part-Grimm or whatever it was that had warped them. Her dark skin and green hair suggested to Qrow that she was the Vacuan, but though he couldn't spot anything off with her… she just had a resonance of wrongness that unsettled him. And the final one, the one in the front, whom the other four seemed to fan out from behind him… he looked almost entirely human, even likably so. Tall, broad shouldered, and with the sort of messy blond hair that reminded Qrow of Tai more than anything—he was a little paler than Tai, but next to all the unnatural whiteness, his skin stood out with its healthy peach color.
But his eyes… that was where the humanity stopped. They were red, glowing and inhuman. No iris, sclera, anything quite like a human eye. They were the eyes of a Grimm and meeting his gaze triggered a primordial fight-or-flight reflex deep in his gut. And then he spoke.
"I am Prince Jaune, son of Queen Salem, Prince of the Grimm, and Royal Protector of the Grimmlands, formerly of Vale and formerly of the Arc family." His voice was… well, human. Polite, diplomatic, but with his eyes… it was like a Beowulf inviting you for tea. He extended his hand to Glynda, who, fortunately, had the presence of mind to take it in her grip. "It is good to return to my homeland. I hope that this visit brings peace between our nations."
Glynda nodded, slowly, clearly as shocked as Qrow felt, but doing a much better job of hiding it. "Glynda Goodwitch. Deputy Headmistress of Beacon Academy. We welcome you to Vale."
Qrow had to admire what a pro Goodwitch was—if he was in her shoes, he certainly would still be too busy reeling from their appearance to handle a handshake and a greeting. And her example reminded him that he had to keep his wits up—because he had no idea what any of this meant, but his gut told him it was very, very bad.
But this… Prince Jaune seemed to be relieved, even honestly grateful for Glynda's professionalism. Qrow caught a trace of a smile crack the boy's face as he gestured to the rest. "And these are my sisters, the Daughters of Salem." He pointed to them in turn. "Pyrrha, Blake, Emerald, and Weiss. We come in peace to foster better relations and pursue the cause of peace across Remnant."
Each of the girls nodded, Weiss even giving a curtsy as she was introduced, but from the looks of things… Qrow was rather skeptical that they were here to do anything to further the "cause of peace" anywhere.
But… that wasn't his job. It'd be up to Oz and the other leadership types to figure out how to handle this development. As Glynda and Fall headed away from the Bullhead and out of the rain, Summer signaled to Amber and him to lead the children—even if they sure as hell didn't look like it—into Beacon.
He knew from the beginning that they had no idea what to expect with this visit, but as he walked alongside the children (the Vacuan, Emerald, he believed, whose skin seemed to… shift in the light) he realized how ill-equipped his imagination was for thinking of all the ways this could go wrong.
Unpacking was a strange experience for Pyrrha. This was the first time they'd made an official trip out of the Grimmlands, so "packing" was already a strange concept for all of them, but unlike her siblings, Pyrrha had been mostly trained in the field. She was the Eagle, the war-standard, and needed to be a capable general, and that meant leading armies from the front, in the dirt and the mud. There, she had to carry her own kit and, as such, always packed light. Under Mr. Rainart and Professor Callows's guidance, she'd been trained not to rely on anything that couldn't be kept on her person, but this… this wasn't a field operation. It was nothing like it at all, she thought as she glanced at the numerous formal dresses and outfits and all the luggage where she wasn't even sure what was in it…
It was all rather overwhelming, so she decided to focus on the things she did know. Her siblings.
She glanced over to her youngest sister, lying on the bed and playing with her dolls. "Weiss," she sighed, in her big-sisterly way "Mother said you weren't to use any hexes while-"
"I'm not," she insisted, but kept poking the doll with a needle. "I'm just poking it."
"Is it anyone in particular?" Jaune asked, his gentle humor clear in his voice as he moved a suitcase over to her bed, "Not anyone we're about to meet with, I hope."
"No. Just a guy," was all Weiss replied with, her attention still focused on driving a long needle into the doll's spine. She was the Raven, though, perhaps, the Nevermore fit her better. She had drunk deep of the Pool of Darkness and had become mistress of Grimm and dark magic. Though not without cost.
Turning to Jaune, she saw as he picked up another suitcase. She frowned, and then addressed him in a tone she hoped didn't come off as nagging, "My Prince, let us handle the unpacking. It is not a duty that you need to concern yourself with."
"I can't just make my little sisters do all the work!" he laughed.
"No," she conceded, "but you do have to get ready for your meeting with the Academy Headmasters, and you're not even dressed for it yet."
Jaune was about to respond, but then he paused, his eyes going wide. "...wait, what time is it?"
"Oh." Then he evidently did some math in his head, "Oh, I've only got fifteen minutes!"
"Less, because the escort will be here before the meeting begins."
"I know!" he moaned, as he quickly moved to throw on the formal attire that had been laid out for him on the bed. "I don't understand why Mother insisted on this stupid cape..." he griped as he hurried to put on the bulky and, frankly, bizarre outfit Mother had sent him with.
She stifled a giggle at the sight, knowing she still had work to do. And speaking of… she turned to her sister. "Weiss, you need to get ready, too."
"Mmmm," was all she replied, far too focused on sticking pins into the doll's eyes.
She was about to speak, but Jaune beat her to the punch. "Can Nice Weiss come out?" he asked, gently, as he approached their sister's bed.
"Don't wanna," she said, refusing to look up from her doll as she stabbed another long pin into its neck.
But Jaune was used to this. "Well… can she come out for ice cream?"
She stopped jabbing the doll and then, hesitantly, looked up. "...cookie dough ice cream?"
Jaune smiled, ruffling her hair, "Would you think I'm so cruel to offer ice cream and not have your favorite?"
"With chocolate syrup?"
"I specifically instructed Ms. Fall to pack exactly that."
"Okay!" she smiled, then her face seemed to morph, not literally, like Emerald's power, there was no actual shifting of shape, but it was a total change in her bearing and person. She simply took up the persona of Nice Weiss, the elegant and refined diplomat. "Please, lead the way, dear Brother," she said, her voice sounding like a royal princess and not a murderous child. "Allow your sister to assist you in greeting the Headmasters of the Academies."
Jaune took her arm, and, after Pyrrha quickly touched up his outfit, led her out to their meeting, a quick goodbye to his other sisters before they left.
Pyrrha sighed, hoping they'd be alright. Of all of them, Weiss had taken the Separation the hardest. The stress had been too much for her, even before she was taken to the Pool of Darkness, but that made them all fiercely protective of their "little sister." None more so than Jaune. It was Jaune who held her hand, told her to be brave, and promised to stay with her no matter what when she had her night terrors and panic attacks.
But, then again, Jaune had been there for all of them. He was the one who stood up to Mother on their behalf, he was the brave one, their leader. Even though Pyrrha had taken to the power of the Darkness better than anyone, willingly conceding her humanity to become a nigh-invincible warrior and a peerless General to the Grimm horde, Jaune was the heir, the Prince of the Grimm. But Mother had told her that she was the favorite of her daughters, her mightiest creation, and that she would serve her Prince well as his warrior. She had hoped so, when the Darkness poured into her and sought to take her self away, she bargained, trading everything she could to become someone who could repay her brother, to become his protector.
She was her Prince's sword, his weapon to be used against his enemies. She was his bodyguard, his general, his greatest champion, all for a single purpose. A purpose she had been waiting to engage for years. She felt like a coiled spring, like her body was suffused by this great yearning to serve, to prove her devotion to her Prince. These… diplomatic endeavors were so important to Jaune, but if she could only take up the armies of Salem, the command of the Grimm Horde and deliver the nations of Remnant to her Prince, he would see what he meant to her.
"You know he's your brother right?"
She was startled out of her memories and whirled on Blake who was, of course, slightly too close for Pyrrha's personal comfort. Of course she had shadow-stepped to sneak up on her while she was distracted. She scowled at her sister, but knew not to deign to give her a response.
Not that that ever stopped Blake. She was the Hawk, the eyes that missed nothing, and then, never shut up about what she saw. "Because you're really not supposed to look at your brother like that. One of the few things Humans and Faunus cultures both agree on, actually."
"Are you having this conversation with Weiss?" she snapped.
"Nah," Blake shrugged, "If I told Weiss it was taboo, she'd probably just be more into him. Besides, I think Weiss just wants to kill people for him, while you… want to jump his bones."
"I don't! I- Shut up! I don't want that!" she glowered at Blake, "You're just being gross because of your stupid books."
Blake gasped in mock affrontement, "Those 'books,' as you called them, are not stupid, they're literature, and if you, my dear sister, were cultured, you would know that."
She rolled her eyes and went back to unpacking. She and Blake typically got along, being the most level-headed and pragmatic of their siblings, but Blake certainly enjoyed needling her, especially when she got the chance to imply that she was the brains and Pyrrha, just the brawn. It was restlessness, she figured, the same restlessness she was feeling, but while Pyrrha was trained to be her brother's champion, Blake had been trained to advise him on affairs of state and society. And, not being able to do that quite yet, she focused her manipulative nature on those closest to her. Which was, of course, a joy for Pyrrha to experience.
"You do know that he's about to be engaged to Ms. Fall, right?" Pyrrha turned her glare towards Emerald, who, at least, flinched a little to be the target of her ire. She was the Shrike, the only one who knew violence at Pyrrha's level, but the two of them never got along. For obvious reasons. "It's true, you know," she said, a little defensively. "It's the only thing that makes sense."
"Oh, yes, of course," Blake said sarcastically, "because, like everything else in our lives things that make sense are invariably true."
"He's totally into her," Emerald countered, and Pyrrha had to suppress a laugh, "He is, you just don't want to see it. It totally makes sense, too, cause she's beautiful and brilliant and elegant and so mature and obviously has Mother's blessing."
"No, you're totally into her," Pyrrha jabbed, then added, under her breath, "Suck up."
"I am not a suck up!" Emerald protested as she flung a pillow at her, but Pyrrha easily caught it out of the air. With a glance, it was shredded, as though torn apart by a thousand invisible blades.
Emerald reached for another, but Blake, fortunately, interrupted. "What are you guys thinking about Parents Night?" she cut in, averting the fight, "Been fifteen years since we've seen our former parents and all. Probably got a lot to talk about."
Pyrrha and Emerald both stilled at that. They hadn't talked much about Parents Night. They hadn't wanted to. It was frightening to think about, being alone with people they only had the vaguest, furthest memories of, and… what could they expect? They certainly didn't look like they did when they had left.
Pyrrha was of the opinion it would be better to not have the event at all, and to just inform their biological families that it would be best for both sides not to open any old wounds. "I will thank them for their sacrifice and inform my former parents that I am doing well," she mutely replied.
"Oh, come on," Blake teased, "This is an opportunity, those suckers are desperate to hear from their children and, oh yeah, they're really influential and powerful people. All you have to do is shed a few tears and they'll be eating out of your hand. Like this!" and then, with tears suddenly streaming down her face, Blake became the very image of a lost and frightened girl. "Oh, mommy, daddy, I knew I'd see you again! I knew it! I've missed you so, so much!" Then, just as suddenly as she began, she snapped right back to regular, emotionally removed Blake with such speed that even Pyrrha felt a little unsettled, "I'll win them over in an instant, and then Menagerie is ours. And with Faunus in every kingdom, it gives me an excellent network of overt and covert contacts all across Remnant, just for a few tears."
"Oh, Menagerie is surely a valuable alliance," Emerald smugly cut in, "but I don't think that kind of foreign relations will be necessary, because I'm a-"
"A Vacuan Princess," Blake interrupted, "You've only told us this a million times over the past ten years."
Emerald stuck her tongue out. "Well it's true," she huffed, "And Ms. Fall told me that Mother might give me permission to use my old name to press my claim for the throne if it's an opportunity. Can you imagine?" she sighed, "Princess Emerald Vacuo. I'll be sure not to forget you when I'm living in my castle."
But that turned Pyrrha wrathful. "We gave up our former names," she said, eyes narrowing, "when we were claimed by Mother. And I would remind you, Emerald," she gave her voice a crackle of dark magic, enough to even make Blake's eyes dart nervously, "that this family has one Prince, and your duty is to him."
But even if she was afraid, Emerald still didn't hold back. "You're just jealous that Jaune likes Ms. Fall more than he likes a savage like you."
That touched a nerve. Pyrrha felt the powers of darkness pulse in her breast as her sister's fists morphed into massive claws—Ursa's claws, a foolish choice. Pyrrha's armor could- "Do you think," Blake whispered in her ear, "Jaune would be happy to hear you got in a fight with Emerald while he was out?"
She stilled, The darkness withdrew from the room as she regained her composure. Emerald, seemingly realizing how close she came to a beatdown, stood awkwardly as her hands morphed back to human form. Still, she couldn't resist one last parting shot. "Well, I have to go with Ms. Fall to meet with Roman Torchwick, so have fun staying in, losers!"
As soon as she exited the room, Pyrrha made to punch the wall, but stopped herself, realizing she didn't want to explain to Jaune why there was a hole in their room. But with no other option to vent her fury, she picked up another pillow, and shredded it on a molecular level, leaving nothing but a pile of dust. She looked down at the dust, taking satisfaction as she imagined it to be one of her Prince's foes, but then she looked up to Blake's nonplussed face.
"Do you think it's wise to antagonize her?" she asked.
Pyrrha huffed, "Emerald and I have been fighting since we were children, and I'm not going to stop unless she's going to stop, too."
"We need to be a unified front, Pyrrha, now more so than ever."
"Oh? And I'm sure," she glared at her with force enough that Blake was forced to look away, "a 'unified' front doesn't just mean us all doing exactly what you tell us to do. And if Emerald's going to keep implying that Ms. Fall has a dangerous intent on our brother, well," she huffed, "it's your duty to protect him from those interests, isn't it?"
"That's exactly why I'm not. I mean, I think Emerald's way misreading everything," and she gave a little chuckle, which made Pyrrha feel a little better to hear that her most analytical sister felt that there was nothing going on there. "But come on: you know that there's a divide between Jaune and Mother. I know where you and Weiss stand on that divide, but with Emerald, it's asking where Ms. Fall's loyalty lies… and I don't know about you, but I think that's a good reason to encourage the two of them to get along, if you know what I mean."
That… that was… Pyrrha reeled at that. It wasn't just the idea of necessary alliances, but rather, Blake so openly claiming that there was a divide between Jaune and Mother. Yes, it was- she knew- but it was impossible for Pyrrha to even think it! Jaune alone contradicted Mother. The rest had been long trained that resistance was unthinkable. He was the only one who disagreed with her, challenged her, and, in the scariest times in Pyrrha's life, even fought with her. Even imagining opposing Mother was… she simply couldn't. None of them could. Except, apparently, Blake. And if Blake was already preparing… then Pyrrha had to, too. Even if it was impossible, even if it was unimaginable, there was nothing Pyrrha wouldn't do to protect her brother.
Blake took her hands in her hand, and looked her softly in the eyes. "I'm just saying, the only way to protect Jaune is to keep us all united."
Pyrrha nodded, slowly, and took a deep breath before she did something she wasn't good at: conceding. "Al- alright. Just… tell me what to do, Blake, and I'll… I'll try to get along." And Blake smiled, her natural smile, with its thousands of razor-sharp teeth. "You're not supposed to show your teeth this visit," she sniffed, to which Blake simply added more teeth.
"Jaune just said I couldn't show my teeth to any humans, I'm allowed to show them to you. And any Faunus I really want to scare, if it comes down to that. And," she smirked, but, thankfully, with her smile returning to that of a Faunus's mouth, "he didn't say anything about my claws or my tail or my-"
She threw a pillow at her sister. "Come on, you're not going to do anything that might cause you to lose advantage," she teased, knowing her sister couldn't bear the thought of being anything other than a persuasive manipulator.
Her grin softened to something more playful, and Pyrrha felt a little better seeing this side of her sister. "Maybe I'll just find some anti-Faunus bigot or someone Jaune doesn't like, and make their life hell for a few weeks… creeping through the darkness, looming over their bed, they wake up and see this," she opened her mouth wide, revealing her rows and rows of white razors leading into an infinite darkness.
And Pyrrha couldn't resist smiling at that thought. She really, really wanted this trip to go well, because she knew how important it was for Jaune, but at the same time, she also really wanted to cut loose, to be as monstrous as she could be and to finally show her brother that she was his weapon of war, the implement of his will. That they all were, his general, his advisor, his assassin, his mage—the Eagle, the Hawk, the Shrike, and the Raven—as much as they were his sisters. It was her fondest wish that they could be his Birds of Prey, to deliver all of Remnant to him, just as they had spent their whole lives preparing for.
But it wasn't time for that, not yet. Instead, they were... here. She looked to Blake softly. "I just… I don't like this, any of this," she admitted, "things are changing and I don't know what's coming next." And all of it was diplomacy, not even subterfuge where her fearsome strengths could be, at least, a little useful.
Blake gave her a sympathetic nod. "Me too," she replied. "Listen, I know Emerald can be… a bit much, but she's family, and family is all we have. I'm doing what I can to use my skills to keep us safe, just like you are."
Pyrrha gave her sister a hug. "Okay," she agreed, "I'll try to be nice and get along, but… I'm not letting Ms. Fall make a move on our brother. If she does, I'll-"
"You'll pull her arms off, I know," and Blake smiled at her, "and don't worry: I know that she knows it, too."
Jaune sank into the chair as he finally, for the first time since the night before, he allowed himself to relax. He knew he wasn't out of danger yet, they wouldn't be out of danger until they were safely returned to the Grimmlands, but, at least, his two biggest fears had not come to pass.
His sister's hadn't destroyed Beacon for a perceived slight (at least, not yet), and they hadn't been shot out of the sky on approach. And, really, those two fears had taken up so much of his mind for the past few months, everything else now felt quaint!
Well, he'd like to tell himself that. But it was a relief that things had gotten this far without incident.
The meeting was exactly as he'd been told to expect: incredibly formal and boring. An unending litany of polite addresses, promises of future closeness, and reminders of former closeness with their homelands. But Weiss had been a champ, neither acting out nor even seeming the least bit bored as the Headmasters prattled on about expectations for the Vytal. She even gave a speech to the assembled Headmasters, charming them with her refinement and eloquence. And after the meeting, he'd kept an eye on her, but he didn't need to: Nice Weiss remained in control for the entire reception, where Jaune saw her talk freely with General Ironwood of Atlas.
He was so proud of her, he almost thought he was happier to reward her than she was to receive it! But the way her eyes lit up as Jaune presented her the promised carton of ice cream… things like that made all of this worth it.
He heard the click of the door, and looked up to see as Cinder entered the room. She gave a respectful bow, as she always did, and he rolled his eyes at the gesture, as he always did. "Your Highness," she greeted him, "I hear your meeting went well."
"It did!" he answered cheerfully, "And for the last time, I'd prefer it if I was just 'Jaune.' You and Pyrrha keep stressing me out with all the formality."
Cinder gave him a light smile. "I'm afraid your mother insists otherwise, my Prince" she said, but there was a familiar warmth in her voice.
"You'll be pleased to hear that all seems to be progressing as anticipated, and our counterintelligence operations are outpacing Valean and Atlesian National Intelligence. I was able to speak with Roman about-" Jaune stiffened at that name, a gesture Cinder immediately picked up on. "We've spoken about this, Jaune. It is essential that we make use of every resource we have to ensure the success of your mission."
"It feels like a big risk, if we get caught working with a notorious criminal on what's supposed to be a peaceful visit, and..." then he sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound. "And moreso, I feel like we're coming at this all wrong. Like, we're expecting things to go badly, so we're doing things that are going to make it go badly. Why can't we just take a risk and try to work for genuine peace?"
Cinder's face turned stony, and Jaune realized that something was wrong. "I would like to believe that we can meet the Kingdoms under good faith, but… The intelligence we have from Roman suggests that we have reason to be concerned that the Schnee family is working with unknown allies to 'retrieve' their daughter."
Jaune felt his breath catch in his throat as his heart thudded in his chest. His fear, his single greatest fear, for this trip had always been what would happen when Weiss saw her birth parents again for the first time. He couldn't cancel it; it was Mother's insistence that they meet their former families. But Jaune dearly wished there was some other option. There were four knives in his heart, and the largest of them was named Weiss. He had failed his sisters so many times, but he had failed Weiss the most. He couldn't keep her safe; he couldn't protect her when she needed him, and he would never forgive himself for his failure. And now her family would see it and know… they would know how terribly he had failed.
But when they saw what she'd become… when they learned there was no way to "restore" her lost humanity… Would they hurt her? Would they... kill her?
Jaune felt his throat get tight as horror rose in his mind. He couldn't- they wouldn't! The thought of failing Weiss again… he couldn't bear it. He looked up to Cinder, "What precautions do we have in place for this?"
Cinder nodded, pulling up relevant documents on her scroll. "Fortunately, of all your sisters, Weiss is likely the safest from most tactics they might consider. But that underscores that our real vulnerability is with you, my Prince. As such, I'm revising-"
No. No, that wouldn't work. It didn't matter if he was attacked, he'd suffered for his sisters before. But he couldn't- he wouldn't- allow any harm to come to them. It.. they had suffered so much already... He looked up to Cinder, eyes wild with fear as he begged, "Please… Cinder, whatever it takes, protect my sisters."
Cinder gave him a sympathetic look, but her words were strained. "For the last time… you're in far more danger than any of them, and-"
"I don't care!" he shot back, "It's not just physical harm I'm afraid of! They- they have to be protected, please! I know-" he swallowed, hard, "I know what Mother wants from this trip. Don't deny it," he interrupted her objection, "I know. And… I'll go along. I'll go along with whatever she wants as long as my sisters are safe."
"My Prince… Jaune," her voice softened, "I have orders from the Queen to prioritize your safety above all. I cannot refuse her, but… if there's a crisis, and you do what I say, and don't fight me… I will do everything in my power to keep your sisters safe. Physically and emotionally."
"I promise," she said, with as much sincerity as Jaune could believe she was capable of. Then she laughed, "How did Salem ever raise a child like you?"
He gave her a weak smile. Cinder was the one person, outside his sisters, who he truly trusted. Even as she warned him that she wasn't to be trusted, when she reminded him that she was Mother's agent and not his, he knew that Cinder wasn't the master villain she made herself out to be. He knew that she cared for them, perhaps more in secret than openly, but he knew that she wouldn't let them come to harm.
"Well, on a lighter topic, you will be pleased to hear that Emerald made quite an impression on Roman and his assistant."
Jaune groaned, but in good spirits, "Oh, please don't tell me she tried to intimidate him..."
"Not at all," Cinder laughed, "if I had to describe her attitude, I would say 'starstruck.' It was quite… adorable to see how excited she was to meet an actual criminal. She really wanted them to be impressed by her, she actually stole Roman's lighter right out of his pocket!"
"Cinder," he smirked, "really careless of you to tell me that. Now, if I want something from you, I can just threaten to tell Emerald that I heard you call her adorable."
"You wouldn't dare!" she gasped, "If you did, I'll tell her that I want her to accompany you ring shopping."
He chuckled. "If you keep encouraging her, we are going to end up engaged, you know."
"Perhaps that's my master plan, your Highness," she reached over and ruffled his hair, "I've always been an ambitious woman, and 'Princess of the Grimm' is quite a title..."
He pushed her hand away and mock-glared at her. But he couldn't deny it, it did help to have her here, especially as she went on to brief him on other matters to anticipate from their visit. She was an excellent majordomo, and he'd be completely lost without her. Jaune had little understanding of why an immortal being needed an heir, but Mother still raised him to one day succeed her. And in the event that he did, somehow, take Mother's place and become King of the Grimm… he certainly hoped he'd still have Cinder's counsel. But even more so, he hoped she would still be his friend.
Special thanks to Renarde for assistance and feedback with the story.