This is the last chapter of Self-Made man.
Also, no more notices! At least until Christmas where I'll take one week off to spend time with family, etc.
Cover Art: Curbizzle
"That is why I am here, Lord Xiong." The man, almost seven feet tall, bowed deeply from the waist, his crisp black suit freshly pressed. The top few buttons were open to expose the large tattoo taking up most of his chest, while the grisly scars across his face gave him an intimidating visage. Despite that, he kept his hard eyes down, deferential, and his hands at his side. "The Don offers his heartfelt apologies and is prepared to pay reparations for this unintentional slight against your clan."
He was afraid. He was right to be.
"One of yours attacked one of mine," said Jaune, idly running a rag around the inside of a tall glass. His face still bore the darkened red skin from where Cinder's hand had planted itself when she tried to burn him to ash. The doctors had said it would fade in a few weeks' time. For now it was a grisly reminder of what he had done.
"A terrible error of communication and judgement," said the gangster. "For which the one responsible is very, very sorry. The Don sent me here immediately to make our position clear."
"I'm sure he did. We wouldn't want any misunderstandings now, would we?"
"Lord Xiong, the boy is young and reckless. I assure you-"
"Lacerations, a broken leg and a bullet wound to the thigh." The man cringed as Jaune recited off the injuries. "I always care for my people, and I've already paid for his treatment, but that means I am out of pocket."
"We are prepared to cover every cost and more."
"Generous of you," said Jaune. "Suspiciously generous. This boy responsible. He is family to your Don, isn't he?"
"The Don's youngest – and most foolish – son, my lord."
"I thought as much."
Jaune hummed, drummed his fingers on the counter and watched the man sweat. The Perrignon family were not new, nor young, and they were not hurting for men as far as the Xiong Clan knew. That hardly mattered. There were few criminal gangs left in the city who would dare war with the Xiong Clan. It was seen as a death sentence, especially now with more than half the city owing a huge favour to the Clan and looking for ways to pay that off.
If it came to war, he wouldn't have to lift a finger because every other gang and clan would do it for him just to try and clear their tab. This man knew that, just as he knew – or suspected – that the Perrignon family couldn't stand up to the might of the Xiong Clan regardless of allies.
"Your young fellow wouldn't learn anything if he let his father pay off his debt for him," said Jaune. "Tell him to report here on Monday. He will work for me until my man is back on his feet. Two weeks, I'm told. The money he earns will go to the victim. That ought to teach the boy some humility." He paused, and then said, "Assuming he can swallow his pride and accept to working under me."
"He will, Lord Xiong," promised the man. His hands were balled into fists, but Jaune felt confident saying the anger was not aimed at him. "I will make sure of it personally, and I know the Don will accept your compromise. Thank you for your understanding. The Perrignon family has nothing but respect for you and yours."
"I have no qualms with Don Perrignon, either. Give him my regards."
"I will." The man bowed again, and backed up, never once turning his back on Jaune. "Thank you again for your mercy, Lord Xiong. I will make sure the boy is here bright and early Monday morning. He will understand the learning experience that this is. You have my word."
Once the man had left, Jaune turned to face the other, who was snorting over his drink. Dove Bronzewing sat with a cocktail before him and his eyes downward. His shoulders were shaking with laughter. "He was terrified of you."
"With good reason," said Jaune. He set the glass down and the rag beside it, then turned to face his… what? Boyfriend? Date? They'd never really set the record on what it was, but whatever it was – it was comfortable. "I'm not someone to be crossed."
"Are you trying to scare me off again? I told you I'm fine with this."
You shouldn't be, thought Jaune. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. Coming out to Dove – and wasn't that an ironic phrase to use – hadn't been as easy as Dove was making it seem now. There had been shock, pain, even a little distrust. There had also been questions, many questions, and Jaune did his best to answer each and every one truthfully.
A part of him felt that should have been the end of the friendship they had, and yet Dove thought differently. As Jaune retold the actions he'd taken against Cinder and how he'd saved Beacon, Dove had mellowed out. That hadn't changed even when Jaune went off about all the bad things he'd done – all the crimes, the killings and the deaths. Dove just said that huntsmen sometimes had to kill, and that as long as it was done for a good reason he could accept it.
"You need to stop thinking with your dick," said Jaune.
"It hasn't led me wrong before."
"It is here. I'm a criminal."
"Nah." Dove grinned. "You're, like, criminal-lite."
"Dove, I've murdered people."
"Diet criminal then," said Dove, drawing a groan from Jaune. "Caffeine-free criminal. Your heart is in the right place, and you've tried to do the right thing before. Plus, I trust you. And you're hot."
"You couldn't possibly have stopped while you were ahead?"
"No way. Do you know how sexy it is you being this hardened criminal behind the goofy exterior? Shocking, yeah, but it's an element of danger I never knew I needed in my life." Dove's eyebrows were dancing. "You should kidnap me and tie me up."
Jaune's bright-red face met his palm. "You're the worst."
"I also low-key love that I can make the hardened, terrifying crime boss keel over in embarrassment and despair."
Dove made it sound so easy, but it hadn't been in truth. Part of the reason he was here now was to watch Jaune's normal day and get a feel for how the criminal side went down. He was just making light of it to try and break the awkward atmosphere, which he supposed was fair. The day hadn't been trying by any means, but Dove had been privy to drug deals, territory agreements and more than a few tributes from gangs trying to get into his good graces.
It was a lot less than what he'd faced before. No new Alliance meetings, no Cinder, no news from Atlas and Black Sun. Bon-Hwa had invited him to dinner two nights from now, ostensibly to discuss an alliance. That hopefully meant the Mistral contingent had seen what happened to Black Sun and decided it would be better to expand through non-violent means. He was happy to encourage it.
Vale had essentially gone back to normal. Everyone thought Amity's hiccup was technical issues, and since no one had died there was no desire to look deeper into it. Pyrrha Nikos won the Vytal Festival, to the surprise of no one, and Yang Xiao-Long's name had been cleared. Those looking into Mercury Black and Emerald Sustrai had found oddities in their school records, and apparently the headmaster of Haven was being summoned to explain and testify just what happened.
It was all happening behind doors for the most part, with Qrow serving as his informant when he came around for his biweekly drinking session. Or, as Jaune suspected it to be, the biweekly `keep an eye on Jaune Arc` job. Ozpin hadn't been in contact since he let Jaune go, but he knew he was being watched. The silent agreement was in place to stay out of one another's way, but also to not upset Vale too much. It was an arrangement Jaune was only too happy to accept.
"How are things at Beacon?"
"Confused for the most part," said Dove. "No one really saw you or Cinder sneak in, so they don't know about that." He wouldn't have either if Jaune hadn't outright told him. "As for the shots in the forest, Miss Goodwitch told everyone it was a misfiring from a student."
"They're buying that?"
"Not really." Dove shrugged. "Cardin is calling BS on it, and I know a few others are as well, but no one is sure what exactly happened so it's life as usual. We've been getting a heap of homework now the festival is over, and that's keeping everyone busy. Mid-term exams are coming up as well."
"In your first year?"
"Yeah." whined Dove. "Port told us it's not graded or anything, but more to spot people who are struggling early on. Those that do bad will get smacked with extra lessons and homework to catch up. I should be alright. I feel bad for Ruby, though."
"She's fifteen and skipped two years of lessons. There's important stuff in those two years she literally can't have been taught, and that she's going to get hit with on the exams. Plus, she strikes me as the kind of person who doesn't do revision or study sessions well."
Jaune couldn't help but agree with the image Dove was painting; he was sure Weiss would try and help, but Ruby would get distracted and bored. Well, at least she wouldn't be in trouble if she did bad, and she probably did need to learn the things she was missing. It made him wonder just why Ozpin accepted her early, but knowing what he did about something beyond Beacon, he imagined they were drawn to her combat skill rather than her academics.
Qrow had been cagey about what he'd seen – the machine, the thing Cinder was looking for. He needn't have been, because Jaune really didn't care to find out, but he was. It was a chore dealing with him when he was like that, and he suspected there was more going on than he realised. I wonder if Ozpin has asked him to judge whether I'm useful for whatever they have going on. Ugh. That could be a pain. I just dealt with one conspiracy; I don't need another.
"What's the next order of business?" asked Dove.
"A few more meetings through the day, lunch with a very dangerous old woman I'd rather you not have to deal with." Lady Catelyn Rouge had been all up in his face since their victory. Jaune couldn't tell if he was being groomed to succeed her or not, but it was tiresome.
Dove was smirking. "And then?"
"And then dinner with you tonight at that restaurant of yours. I haven't forgotten."
"Just making sure."
It was two days later when Jaune walked into the dingy bar and was waved over by Qrow, sat in the corner at a round table with three drinks in front of him. The huntsman was already in his cups, which wasn't unusual enough to comment on. He'd bought Jaune a bottle of beer however, which Jaune accepted with a grimace.
"You're too picky," said Qrow. "Booze is booze."
"There is a vast difference between shitty beer and quality spirit, Qrow."
"Maybe to a pretentious asshole like you." Qrow laughed at his own joke and Jaune took the seat and the bottle, clinking it against Qrow's. "Cheers." They drank. "Ah, it's good to have someone to go out drinking with again. Taiyang acts like it's all beneath him now. Like he has to be a good example to the girls." He snorted. "As if they even notice what he does or doesn't do all the way on Patch."
"Are you worried he's lonely?"
Qrow eyed Jaune and scowled. "You always have to drag the mood down? But yeah, I guess I am." He chuckled. "Perceptive little shit, aren't you?"
"Or maybe you're an open book."
"I know for a fact I'm not." Qrow took a swig. "So, how goes business?"
You're not subtle either, thought Jaune. "Slow, steady and uneventful," said Jaune. "Which is how I prefer it. None of the nonsense we've had to deal with recently."
"Mm. I'd prefer it stay this way as long as possible. I'm sure Ozpin would, too."
"Yeah." Qrow hesitated for a moment, and then said, "You already know he's asked me to keep an eye on you, don't you?"
"It's not mistrust. Ozpin has his hand in a lot of pies. He needs to if he wants to keep the city safe and running. He wants your help, but he's not the kind of person who can just come out and say that. This is his way of scouting you."
Jaune grimaced. He'd feared as much. Whatever Ozpin had going on, he needed help, and Jaune had unintentionally put himself forward as a very capable person. Only because he hadn't had a choice, but that was his life in a nutshell. "I'd rather not get involved in things I don't need to if it's all the same to you. I'm happy to be Ozpin's informant on the inside and filter a little information his way, but I'm not a huntsman, nor even a particularly strong person. Cinder almost killed me. If you're facing things worse than ever her then I'm not sure what help I would be."
"You'd be surprised. We need all the help we can get, and now always of the fighting variety. Our enemies like to strike at our peace, disrupt it and try to throw us into chaos. What Ozpin needs is people in positions of power that aren't afraid to get their hands dirty."
"That's at odds with his invitation for me to join Beacon, don't you think?"
"Not necessarily. We assumed that even if you became a huntsman, you'd still keep your position with…" He trailed off. "You know what I mean. One doesn't have to preclude the other."
"It's not that simple. Running a gang takes time, effort and a whole lot of focus. I can't keep the Xiong going and also board at Beacon. It just wouldn't work."
It was a realisation he'd come to early, and one he'd been struggling with ever since. His dream had been to go to Beacon and become a huntsman, with the Xiong Clan only ever being something he'd been roped into. He'd felt like he owed Hei something, but he had more than paid the man back now. The Xiong Clan was in a better position than it ever had been before.
It was hard to know if it would stay that way if he left. So much of the mystery and power surrounding them came from his reputation – a reputation that Jaune had only recently started to realise might actually be warranted. He was dangerous, he was a problem to his enemies, and he was prepared to go to any lengths necessary to win. It wasn't so much that he was unbeatable than that beating him would involve a pyrrhic victory. Like sharks, the gangs did not engage in conflict that might leave them weakened. It was a good way to be taken out.
"I don't know if I can see myself in Beacon, Qrow…" He expected protests, complaints or at least surprise. There was none. Qrow looked utterly relaxed, and even a little smug. "You knew…?" asked Jaune.
"I suspected." said Qrow with a little shrug. "Not for the reason you might be thinking though. You have the right attitude for Beacon. It's just… Beacon is where my nieces go, you know? No matter how much I know they're all grown up, I still see them as kids. Ruby especially. They act like kids. They whine about homework, lessons and not having any free time. Schoolkid stuff. You…?" He shrugged again. "You're an adult. I've said it before and I'll say it again; the way you dress and act, I'd peg you closer to twenty-five than seventeen."
Jaune snorted, amused and a little unsurprised himself. "That's how I feel. Beacon is – was – my dream, but I'm not even sure if it was now. A part of me thinks I just didn't know what I wanted to do with my life and that I was terrified of suddenly being a grown-up and having to get a career. More school was a way out. It was a way to delay the decision for another couple of years." Qrow listened patiently and let Jaune rant.
"Now after working like I have, I don't know if I could handle school again," continued Jaune. "Waking up every day with lessons, dealing with homework, not earning any money for it." He snorted. "I never thought I was a greedy person, but the thought of going from what I earn now to basically nothing is… it's insane…"
"That's not being greedy," said Qrow. "That's being an adult. Your lifestyle adapts to how much you earn, and I agree – the thought of working for nothing now is rough. I couldn't handle it either. Nor answering to teachers or getting put in detention because I choose to live my life a certain way."
That was exactly how Jaune felt. He liked drinking; he liked hanging out; he liked knowing that the things he did mattered, had consequences, and even that they were exciting – terrifying as that sometimes was. The thought of endless lessons for four years, with nothing more than a shared dorm with three other people? It was torture. Dove, Ruby and the others were used to that, but more importantly, they hadn't experienced better. They hadn't been on the other side, working for good money and having things at their disposal, and then being asked to give all that back up to study at a boarding school.
"The whole point of Beacon is to train people to get good jobs as huntsmen," said Qrow. "Older people take higher education all the time, but it's usually when they want or need to move up in the world. A few people take them for fun – just like learning, I guess – but even then it's usually night school and they keep earning a living at the same time."
"Yeah." It was more of a relief than he could convey that Qrow understood him. He said as much.
"I get it," said Qrow. "I always look back on my time in Beacon and wish I could have it back, but the truth is that it's the people I want, not the lessons, the discipline and the having to answer to teachers. I'm nearly forty. I can't deal with that crap again."
"I'm nearly eighteen and it already feels beneath me."
"Lots of people leave school and start working at sixteen or seventeen. You've a good-paying job. Illegal," he added, snorting over his drink. "But well-paying, respected and probably a whole lot more interesting than retail or stacking crates in a warehouse. I don't blame you not wanting to give it up. Must be exciting, eh?"
"Sometimes," admitted Jaune. "It's terrifying and I hate a lot of it but… well… It is exciting. The rush is there."
"Same with being a Huntsman. You don't enjoy risking your life, nor seeing the ruins of people you couldn't save, but I tell you now about half the people in our line of work are there because they couldn't handle the boredom of any other job. Yang is no different. Grew up surrounded by huntsmen and huntresses and can't imagine a life outside of it. That doesn't mean there aren't a hundred other jobs she wouldn't fall in love with if given the chance."
That was how he felt. The money, the freedom, the lifestyle, the excitement, the responsibility and even the people he worked with. They'd all become such an integral part of his life that he couldn't imagine giving them up. Maybe he would find new teammates and just as much fun in Beacon, and maybe he'd get used to being a poor student again, but it wouldn't change the fact he'd forever be looking back and wondering what was going on with the Xiong Clan. He'd also worry himself sick over how they were coping without him.
"You're not upset?" asked Jaune.
"Honestly, I kinda expected this. From the moment Ozpin made the offer I thought to myself that you weren't going to accept it. Ozpin means well and he was trying to help you out, but it's too much of a downgrade. I mean, crime boss to first-year student? Come on," he snorted. "That's a demotion and a half."
"I'm going to keep up my lessons with Ruby and Oobleck. I enjoy them and it's never a bad idea to know how to fight. Keep my options open if I ever get tired of this."
"Fair enough. Not like Beacon is the only way to become a huntsman either. None of the academies are. They teach the best, and it's the surest route, but anyone can apply and take the tests to earn a license. If they couldn't then what would happen to all those people who studied for years in Signal but didn't make it into Beacon? You think they all just give up, waste the last five years of their life and go work in restaurants? Not a chance. Most of them keep training, keep working and earn their licenses other ways."
"Will Ozpin be bothered?"
"He'll be surprised. I'm not." Qrow picked up his bottle and held it out. "Cheers to the future?"
Jaune didn't meet it. "Let me order us some real drinks and then we can get drunk properly."
"I am Lord Xiong, thank you very much, and I have a reputation to uphold. Those that cross me don't live to regret it, and those that drink with me don't regret it either. I will save your tastebuds, Qrow. One way or another."
Dove had taken the news well. The twins hadn't been surprised, saying they pretty much knew he'd be sticking around. In Miltia's words, "You've tasted freedom and power. Who would give that up to go back to school?" He hadn't told everyone else yet, but he knew his parents would be fine with it. What little they knew. He'd come to the big city and found a great job, and that was all they needed to worry about.
Ruby didn't understand. She wasn't angry or upset, just confused, like she couldn't comprehend a world in which someone didn't want to go to Beacon. It was more proof that she was still a teenager – though that wasn't a bad thing at all. They were all happy in Beacon, and he didn't begrudge them it. Yang had been in good cheer from having her name cleared, and Weiss had just been polite. Blake was still giving him the "I know something" looks, but he'd replied in kind, and she hadn't said anything yet.
He had ways of keeping her quiet if he had to.
"You've got a busy day," said Tony. "The Lumens have invited you to the official hand-over of power to Sebastian. You then have lunch with Vincent, who wants to formalise an alliance with the Royalists and the Xiong Clan. I'd expected a lot of pomp and ceremony."
"He's desperate to tie himself to me, isn't he?"
"You're the golden mob boss of the city. He's young and wants to secure his power base."
"Fun." Jaune said it sarcastically, but he was smiling. A busy day was an entertaining day in some ways. "I heard some of the boys talking about a fight this evening. You're not planning some fun without me, are you?"
"Not likely, boss." Tony laughed. "We've got two gangs having a spat over territory adjacent to us. Both have presented themselves and asked for your patience and understanding in the matter."
"I must have missed that."
"You were on a date at the time. Melanie took the meeting. The two gangs have made it clear no violence will spill onto our territory, and that they have no designs on or against us." He chuckled, and said, "And, in not so many words, they begged us not to have any designs on them."
"It's a split from an old leader passing away."
"Hmm. As long as they know not to cause too much trouble."
"Melanie made it clear that even a single civilian death would force our hand in intervening. She said that the Xiong would be… rather distressed to hear of victims in their little spat, and that he might be motivated to chastise those responsible."
Jaune laughed. "Am I the bogeyman now?"
"Considering both messengers swore on their lives that none would come to harm, and begged Melanie not to bother you with their meeting, I'd say so." Tony waited as Jaune buttoned his jacket up. "Oh, and we've had contact from Atlas."
His fingers paused on the buttons. He was worried, yes, but also excited. "Oh?"
"The Gentlemen have contacted us and let us know that Black Sun are gathering ships. They spoke to me in confidence and provided information on the disguises Black Sun are using, and their intended time of departure."
"My, oh my," said Jaune, toying with his lapel. "Are there problems in Atlas?"
"Ever since his return, General Ironwood has led a crusade against Black Sun. I do believe the other families in Atlas are tired of the attention and would rather see the matter dealt with." Tony smiled. "Permanently. Black Sun wants to reclaim their honour by killing you, but the Gentlemen would rather see them removed from the picture. I'm sure they also want to move back to friendly terms with Vale."
"I'm sure they do – and I'm sure they can. I'm a reasonable man." Jaune chuckled and accepted a drink from Tony, clinking his glass against the man's and drinking. "We'll have to prepare a surprise for our Atlesian friends. I warned them before that they were not welcome here and would not be allowed to step foot in Vale. It would be rather embarrassing to go back on that so soon."
"Ozpin won't be bothered that you're causing chaos so soon?"
"Don't be silly, Tony," said Jaune. "I promised Ozpin there would be no more chaos in Vale. I never said anything about a little violence in the ocean. And besides, the Grimm attack ships all the time. No one will notice a few more going missing." Jaune raised his glass and said, "If Black Sun want land to rule, let them have the bottom of the ocean. Vale belongs to Vale, to its people." His smile grew. "And to the Xiong Clan."
"To the Xiong!" echoed Tony.
"To the Xiong!" roared the crowd of men and women arrayed before him.
It wasn't what he'd wanted, nor what he planned, but it was something he couldn't give up now that he'd achieved it.
It was good to be king.
That's the end of Self-Made man. Wow, a lot of my stories are finishing at the same time. Kind of crazy – and unintentional – how that ended up. In the end, Jaune can't give up what he's earned, and a big part of him doesn't want to. He's tasted money, responsibility, camaraderie and the excitement and power, and giving all that up to become a student again is just not attractive.
In a way it's a call back to the start of the story and Hei pointing out how Jaune is without direction. Hei, himself, basically calls out Jaune's wish to become a huntsman, saying that if Jaune really wanted it then he'd have tried harder for it. The reality is (and I felt this at his age too) is that he just didn't want to have to grow up and go out into the wider world. Not out of fear or anything, but just the uncertainty of not knowing how to do it. I remember feeling that doubt and just wanting to go to university so I wouldn't have to commit, and in the hopes uni would somehow help me better choose. It didn't.
Next Story: 6th October (Two weeks)
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