AN: There is a chapter, don't worry, I just want to explain some things.

If you read the last author's note, you know that due to Covid, may life kinda went to shit in every way possible. To give a TL;DR of that note:

After years of working hard in college, pushing through blood, sweat and tears, of asshole classmates telling me I wasn't a writer, I was finally about to get a degree I worked years to get, only to be screwed over by the coronavirus pandemic along with hundreds of other students at my college, and barely graduating as a result; now only able to find part time/one-off jobs that pay barely anything, college debt and bills piling up in addition to medical bills due to my father's health, as not only have his kidneys failed, he also had a seizure last Christmas, I have made what may very well be my last gambit: using my writing to support myself and my family by opening a pa tr eon account and writing whenever I get the chance as I continue to work as much I can to try and pay the bills.

Now, most of you probably aware that has been a long gap between the last update and now, as well as updates for other stories, and to give give another TL; DR:

I fell down some stairs while working, severely sprained my hand, bruised my body all over, got a concussion, had to leave a decently paying delivery job as I recover, scramble to find another job to pay for even more bills for, feeling like I'm useless all the while and failing everyone, and even when I do find a new job, that feeling wouldn't leave me, and on the rare moment I found the time to write, I found myself unable to type a single word.

So, it's been kind of shitty for me since the last update to my stories. But, I'm still kicking. To everyone that's still been reading, still been showing support for this story, thank you. When I was having a really bad day, you guys helped make it seem like it wasn't that bad.

As for the pa tr eon, let me say right now, it's not a paywall. Instead, depending on how much you pledge, you can get access to a private Discord server, or get a Q&A session where I answer questions and give general writing advice.

I will still be writing as much as I can and updating whenever I have the free time in-between jobs. I know some people have mixed feelings at best when it comes to this sort of thing, right now, with the virus making getting a steady job all but impossible for me, I need as much cash as possible to deal with the mountain of medical and college debt. So please, if you could, make a pledge to my pa tr eon, and help me and my family out.

All that said, I hope you all enjoy this latest chapter, and have a happy thanksgiving.

Chapter 9: The New Game

Devastated was probably the most apt description.

Sitting next to her partner on one of the many cafeteria tables, Weiss Schnee stared. The noise of so many different teams chattering at once in the cafeteria barely even registered to her; not when she could only focus on Ruby, and the regret that was plain as day on her face.

It had been a few weeks since that disaster on the expressway. Their team had been reprimanded and punished, as Weiss expected, though not as harshly as she had feared. Not that it mattered in Ruby's case. She was already punishing herself far worse than any of their teachers were capable of.

Weiss glanced at Yang, who was staring at Ruby with a worried frown on her face, and Blake, her eye finally healed, was glancing at Ruby from her seat next to Yang as she quietly ate. Investigating the White Fang had unquestionably led to the worse night they had ever experienced as a team. They had not only failed to stop a criminal from making off with Atlas military-grade weapons, but worse, had failed to stop him and Torchwick from killing so many people. It hurt Weiss, knowing just how many lives were lost that night. Just the thought of what happened that night made her heart twist painfully, and she knew both Blake and Yang shared similar feelings.

But Ruby had taken it the worst.

From an outsider's point of view, someone that wasn't a part of their team or their friends, Ruby might not have seemed that upset about what happened. In class, she was quieter, but she actually seemed to be focusing more on the lessons. During their spars, she threw herself into combat with an intensity she never had before. Ever since they were able to return to classes, after having a mandatory session with one of Beacon's therapists, Ruby hadn't so much as shed a tear; she only seemed to focus on her studies and improver her combat skills.

And that was the problem.

What would have been moderately fine behavior for any leader, if a tad too obsessive, was something that made everyone on the team anxious. Because it was obvious Ruby was doing everything in her power to focus on anything other than her own feelings. She had barely spoken a word to them about how she was handling things. When they pressed her, she only ever responded with, "I'm fine, guys. You don't have to worry," a smile on her face that looked more like it was made of plastic than any genuine feelings. Fake, in every sense of the word.

No matter what Ruby said, Weiss, and everyone else on their team, knew she wasn't fine.

The problem was trying to get her to admit it.

Yang was making not-so-subtle gestures at Ruby with her head. Weiss knew what she wanted, so she turned to face her partner. But just as she was about to speak, Ruby's Scroll suddenly rang; it was enough to slightly startle Weiss. Ruby pulled out her Scroll from her pocket, read something on the screen, and then put it back into her pocket.

"Ruby? What was that?" Yang asked. Ruby visibly flinched in surprise, seeming to forget she was with her team.

"Oh, uh, that was just a reminder I had on my Scroll," Ruby said, looking back at the table. "I scheduled a one-on-one combat session with Ms. Goodwitch, and I don't wanna be late."

Yang blinked. "Wait, right now?"

"Well, more like in five minutes..."

"Didn't you already have one with her yesterday?"

"Huh? Oh, no, that was Professor Oobleck tutoring me and a few other people on tactics." Ruby paused, frowning slightly. "Or it might've been Professor Peach on battlefield medicine. I...can't really remember which one."

And that was just another worry to add to the many Weiss had about her partner. Ruby seemed to be taking few, if any, breaks between her combat lessons and self-study sessions. And it was starting to show; from the way she sometimes forgot what was she was just doing, to how she almost always collapsed into her bed at the end of the day and went right to sleep.

And Weiss was not blind to the bags developing under Ruby's eyes. Or the fact that Ruby seemed to wake up before any of them in the early hours of the morning. Or how she was starting to move with less precision and speed when they trained together, making mistakes every now and then that, while small, seemed to be increasing as the days went by.

"You've been pretty busy," Blake noted, speaking up for the first time. "I don't think I've ever seen you go to so many teachers for private lessons."

Ruby glanced away from her. "Does it matter? Not like there's anything bad about getting a few extra lessons."

"No, but it feels like you've been devoting every moment of your free time to training or studying," Weiss said, lips set in a stern line. "I can't recall the last time all of us just...hung out." Ruby opened her mouth, but Weiss quickly added, "Group training doesn't count."

Ruby closed her mouth.

"It ain't exactly a crime to take a breather, sis," Yang said, and then she grinned. "Heck, if you want, we can go to that weapon's shop near the Docks? You know, the one that has those Ice Dust bullets you wanted?"

"No thanks," Ruby said, a touch harshly. "I already stocked up on enough rounds for Crescent Rose, and I can't waste any more money."

"I'd spot you."

"I said I'm good, Yang."

Yang sighed. "Ruby—"

"I'm fine, guys." Ruby narrowed her eyes at all of them. "I'm not stupid; I know what you're doing, but you don't have to worry. There's nothing wrong with training so that—" Ruby's voice broke, suddenly thick with emotion, and Weiss did not miss the look she gave Blake's eye before she glanced away. "So that we never have a repeat of what happened with Goldie."

Yang's expression softened. "Ruby," she began, but didn't get a chance to continue.

"I gotta go, guys," Ruby said, turning around and not even sparing them a second glance as she walked away. "I'll see you later."

When she left through the large doors of the cafeteria's exit, Weiss frowned. "Well, that could have gone better."

"Oh, you don't say, Weiss-Cream?" Yang asked, sarcasm dripping from every word. Weiss turned and glared at her teammate, but she didn't look the slightest bit sorry. Yang stared at the doors Ruby left through, and groaned. "Damn it; this is like Blake 2.0, but worse."

"It really is," Weiss agreed.

"Excuse you?" Blake said, eyes narrowed and the ears under her bow twitching in offense. "I wasn't that—"

Both Yang and Weiss turned to stare at Blake with their blankest expressions and, in unison, said, "Yes, you were."

Blake quickly stopped talking.

"Honestly, I'm surprised you didn't try and sneak out of the hospital to go after the White Fang and Goldie," Weiss said. Blake looked away, and she frowned. "Blake? You didn't try that, did you?"

"Oh, she did," Yang said, shooting her partner a not-so-subtle glare. Blake pretended not to notice. "I caught her trying to escape her room. Except she was so wound-up on painkillers, she opened a supply closet door thinking it was a window. She made a heck of a mess, I'll tell you that much."

Blake's pale cheeks suddenly became very red, and she continued to look away from both of them.

Weiss chuckled. "Was that her only attempt at escape?"

"Actually, it was. See, me and Blakie had a nice, long chat about how she needed to get her priorities straightened out." Yang suddenly slung an arm around Blake's shoulder, her eyes widening as Yang pulled her into a one-armed hug. "Thankfully, she decided that terrorists and criminals shouldn't come before her best buds. And they can also wait until after she gets out of a hospital bed. Right, Blakie?"

"I hate that nickname," Blake muttered.

"Don't bother arguing, Blakie," Weiss said, ignoring the glare Blake gave her. She rolled her eyes. "Just keep ignoring her awful nicknames, and eventually, she'll pick one you hate the least."

"Oh, you know you love my sense of humor, Snow Angel."

Weiss leveled the coldest glare she could at Yang. After several seconds of unblinking eye contact, Yang nervously chuckled and looked away.

"I don't suppose whatever chat you gave Blake can get Ruby to stop being so obsessive with her training?" Weiss asked.

Yang frowned. "That's...not likely."

"Well, there goes that idea." Weiss sighed, pinching her nose. "This can't keep going on. She's clearly going to drive herself to exhaustion at this rate." Her lips tugged into a worried frown. "Or worse."

"Hey, you're preaching to the choir on that one. But it's kind of hard to get Ruby to sit down and talk when she knows all my tricks on getting her to sit down and talk." Yang glanced at the table, a small frown on her face. "It's just like with our mom..."

"Your mother?" Weiss asked, brows knitting together in confusion. "What does she have to do with this?"

Yang stiffened. "I, uh, something similar happened when our mom...disappeared," she said.

Disappeared? What did—oh.

Oh.

"I'm sorry," Weiss said, suddenly regretting asking. She gave Yang an apologetic frown. "I didn't know."

"I—" Yang cut herself off, letting out a long breath. "It's fine. It happened a while ago, when we were kids. But anyway," Yang said quickly, "this thing with Ruby reminds me of what happened after, after Mom died." Yang frowned heavily, and she looked like she was lost in her own thoughts. "Ruby was pretty young when it happened, so she didn't really understand what was going on. But...when she got older, she did, and..."

"What?" Blake asked, a pensive expression on her face. "What happened?"

"That's just it: nothing happened."

Weiss blinked. "Isn't that...a good thing?" she hesitantly asked. "To not have an emotional breakdown after realizing she wouldn't see her mother again?"

"No, I mean—" A frustrated noise left Yang, struggling to come up with the words. "It's like, when she realized Mom was gone—really gone, and never coming back—she didn't act upset or angry or sad or, or anything. And I know her death hurt her. It hurt all of us, but Ruby just pretended like it didn't hurt her just as bad, if not worse. It took years before Ruby actually told me how awful she felt after Mom died, and—"

Yang abruptly stopped talking, glaring at the table. "Ever since then, Ruby's had a habit of just, bubbling away her emotions and not actually dealing with them. She...she tries to be like our mom, in every way, no matter how badly she's hurt." Yang lifted her head, staring at both of her friends. There was no mistaking the worry in her eyes. Or the fear. "I don't want to see my sister follow my mom into an empty grave. What she's been doing has somehow worked out before, but I don't want to see what happens when it doesn't."

Weiss stared, eyes slightly wide. Yang's concerns made her think about...her mother. All the times when she took "just a little sip" after her father had a "rough day" at work. How those little sips became entire bottles, how she never left her room and never some much as acknowledged her or Whitely existence except to shout about how awful their father was and how it was somehow their fault. Her mother had essentially used booze to help bottle up her feelings, until eventually, there was nothing left to contain. And a bitter, broken woman whose breath always wreaked of high-class wine had taken the place of the mother she had loved.

The image of that happening to Ruby, of her having a breakdown that made her lose her bottomless optimism, of her partner never smiling again...it terrified Weiss right down to her soul.

"That won't happen," Weiss said without any hesitation. She would never let what happened to her mother happen to her own damn partner. "I'll make sure of that, Yang."

"I will too," Blake said, her amber eyes steely. She reached out and placed a comforting hand on Yang's shoulder. "We'll help Ruby in every way we can, Yang."

Yang stared at Blake, some of the fear leaving her eyes; then, she smiled slightly. "Thanks," she said, chuckling softly. She looked from Blake to Weiss. "It's nice to know I got such awesome teammates like you guys."

"You're only now realizing that?" Weiss asked, raising a brow. Yang chuckled again, worry still lining parts of her face, but she had relaxed a bit. Weiss would take that as a win, no matter how small. "But more seriously, how can we convince Ruby to talk to us?"

Frowning, Yang rubbed her chin in thought. "Ain't that the question of the year?"

"Do you think we should tell one of the professors about Ruby? Try and get their help?" Blake asked.

"I don't think so," Yang said. "They'll probably just give Ruby more therapy sessions with Dr. Crane, and considering just how stubborn she is with us, I really don't think a shrink is gonna make any progress with her any time this year."

Weiss had to agree with that. Personally, she didn't like talking to Dr. Crane whenever she had to attend a session. Not because she was malicious or incompetent at her job, at least as far as she could tell, but more that Weiss generally didn't like therapists. She hadn't even since her father had bribed a family therapist into always taking his side whenever he brought Weiss to a session to "solve our little arguments" when she was a child. Needless to say, having her own opinion be condescendingly shot down as an "overreaction," and then learning that a supposed "professional" never once had any intention of helping her with her problems, had made her rather distrustful of therapists.

And Ruby had even worse feelings about therapy, going by all the times Weiss had seen an almost defiant expression on her face as she went to see Dr. Crane. As much as Weiss might've disliked therapy, she at the very least tried to talk with her therapist, to open up ever-so-slightly. She didn't go to a session like her therapist was her enemy. She very much doubted Dr. Crane would get through to Ruby any time soon.

"Then what can we do?" Blake said, eyes narrowing in contemplation.

"Get Goldie in punching distance?"

Blake's eye visibly twitched, and Yang winced when she realized how crass that had been, especially to Blake. After she had recovered, Blake had gone into as much detail as she could about Goldie's semblance, and quite frankly, it was one of the most terrifying Weiss had ever heard. From Blake's experience, it was some kind of time-dilation type Semblance that activated on physical contact. Whatever the man seemed to touch, it apparently slowed down one's sense of time to the point that a punch that lasted no more than a second suddenly felt like an eternity. It also let him bypass their Auras. Which was just wonderful.

At the very least, Blake's experience helped their team come up with a few tactics to deal with Goldie should they ever meet him again. And if they did, Weiss hoped that whoever snuck up and attacked her was also there. She owed that person a good stab with Myrtenaster.

But she didn't see that happening any time soon.

"I don't think fighting Goldie is what we need right now," Weiss said. "Never mind the fact that I doubt Headmaster Ozpin or General Ironwood will let any of us out of their sights"—Ironwood seemed to be particularly watchful of their team, going by just how many times Weiss had seen his soldiers observing them from afar—"but I don't think fighting him when Ruby is far from her best is a wise idea."

Yang frowned, then sighed. "Yeah, you're probably right," she said. A scowl crossed her face. "I still wanna kick his ass though."

"Sun feels the same," Blake said.

Yang blinked. "Oh, right, how is he? You and him saw some..." Yang seemed to struggle to find a tactful way to put what she wanted to say. "Stuff in that warehouse, right?"

"He's better. Way better than Ruby."

"I'm sensing a 'but' here."

Blake glanced at the table, considering something, before she looked back at both her and Yang. "Have any of you heard what happened at Haven Academy?"

"No," Yang answered, raising a brow at Weiss. She shook her head, not knowing anything either, and Yang looked back at Blake. "Why, what happened?"

"...Several teams were murdered."

Weiss' eyes went wide.

"What!?" Yang shouted, drawing the eyes of a few nearby students. But she didn't pay them any attention, and quickly leaned forward; although, she did lower her voice so no one but them could hear. "I—murdered? And this happened inside Haven?"

"Yes," Blake said with a nod. "Sun didn't know all the details, but apparently, a few weeks ago, a group of students had been wandering around campus past curfew, and met an intruder." She frowned. "Or, groups of intruders; Haven still doesn't know how many exactly. Either way, it ended with the students getting killed. Brutally."

"How brutal?"

"One student found another's entrails splattered on the wall." Despite her usual impassive expression, Blake seemed a bit disturbed at what she was describing. Weiss felt her stomach roll slightly as she imagined the scene.

Yang looked a tad green. "Gods. That's just...fucking awful."

Weiss wouldn't put it so crassly, but she definitely agreed. It sounded like those students met a truly horrible end. Just thinking about what they must have gone through almost made her shiver. And she could only imagine the pain their families and friends were going—

Weiss' eyes widened. "Was Sun friends with them?"

"'Friends' isn't exactly the right word," Blake answered. "He and team SSSN apparently spared a few times with some of the victims, even hung out with them a few times, but they didn't do that frequently." Blake looked down. "But Haven Academy is a school that focuses on training teams of Huntsmen and Huntresses to work well with almost every student there. With all the corruption in Mistral, it's important to know, for certain, that the people you're fighting with, beyond those on your own team, are ones you can trust without question. There's apparently a real sense of camaraderie between almost every student. So, when something bad happens to one of their own..."

"It affects everyone," Yang finished. She shook her head, eyes closed. "Shit. This is hurting him, isn't it? And the rest of his team too."

"It is. And it's also affecting the other teams from Haven." Blake looked around the cafeteria, and Weiss followed her gaze. It was only now she realized no one from Haven was currently eating in the cafeteria, or on the grounds outside. "There's a memorial service being held today. The teams here can't be there in person, but all of them are attending virtually to pay their respects." Blake frowned. "He really was doing better, but then he found out about what happened, stopped talking to me as much and now I'm...I'm worried how he's taking everything the last few weeks."

Weiss stared at Blake with a sympathetic expression. Somehow, despite all the odds, Sun became a person Blake cared about. The regular visits to her while she was in the hospital, when not even her own team could visit her for whatever reason, probably helped. Blake may not have cared about Sun in the same way he did for her—he didn't exactly try and hide his feelings for Blake—but still, she knew Blake at the very least considered him a friend.

"How the hell have didn't we hear about this?" Yang asked, frowning heavily. "The deaths of a bunch of Huntsmen and Huntresses, in their own academy, shouldn't be something we're only hearing about from a friend who goes to the same school."

"I asked the same thing, and apparently"—Blake scowled slightly—"Professor Leonardo Lionheart, the headmaster of Haven, all but put a gag order on any media reports of what happened for an indefinite amount of time."

"What?! Seriously?"

Blake nodded. "He's also 'asked' the students not to tell anyone outside of the academy what happened; there are even rumors of some of the staff giving the families of the victims hush money to not talk to the media."

Yang was visibly gritting her teeth, and even Weiss was having trouble keeping her temper in check. That...that sounded like something her father would do, or have his men do, to cover up some potential scandal that he didn't want getting out. Even if he knew doing so would prevent criminals, criminals who he was still keeping employed, from being punished for their crimes.

A slight growl left Yang's throat. "Why the hell would he do that?"

"Sun says it was because Lionheart thought hiding as many details about the investigation as possible would give them an 'advantage' over the murderers."

Yang didn't seem to understand. "An advantage?"

"Whoever did this were skilled enough to kill a large group of Huntsmen and Huntresses in training without anyone realizing what happened." Blake's lips thinned. "As horrible as this is, there's no denying whoever did this was incredibly skilled and strong. Lionheart argued that letting the media report on their investigation would just make it harder to find the criminals, and give them more time to commit even worse crimes."

"You don't sound like you believe that," Yang said, eyes narrowing, and Weiss thought the same.

"I don't. At least, not entirely, and neither does Sun." Blake sighed. "Another reason, the one that's probably a bigger factor than Lionheart will admit, is just that he doesn't want anyone reporting on how over a dozen students died under his care. Lesser scandals have ruined the careers of headmasters and politicians. If word gets out about what happened, there's a good chance Lionheart will lose his position as headmaster."

"So, that's why he's doing this? He's just worried about his job?" Yang asked, anger lacing her tone.

"I do think he's also doing this for the other reasons he stated, but from how Sun described him, I think keeping his job plays a significant role in his decision. More than he's letting on."

"Does Sun know the headmaster that well?" Weiss spoke up, raising a brow. "Because it sounds like he's familiar with him, at least on some level."

"Maybe more than the average student, but no, he doesn't really know him that well." Blake looked pensive. "But, Sun's interacted with him enough that he apparently has a 'gut feeling' that his headmaster isn't as noble as he tries to present himself as. Considering Lionheart's actions so far, I trust Sun on this."

Blake sounded so certain, and the evidence did support her and Sun's claims. It was difficult to imagine a headmaster that cared more about his job when some of his own students were murdered in their own home, but it wouldn't be the first time she heard of someone prioritizing their own reputation over the lives of the people they were supposed to look out for.

At least Lionheart seemed to care enough to actually investigate the deaths, and bring those responsible to justice. Or appeared to, anyway.

"And here I thought we were having a crappy month," Yang muttered, cheek resting in her palm as she leaned closer to the table. Silence hung between the three of them for a short time. Yang glanced at Weiss and Blake, smiling sardonically. "Do you two have any more depressing news to share?"

Weiss stared at Yang. "Well," she said, matching Yang's smile. "I still don't have a date to the dance."

"Wow," Yang said, chuckling a bit. "That might be the worse news of the bunch."

"A real tragedy," Blake said, voice monotone, but with a slight smirk on her face. "Is there any greater horror than Weiss Schnee having to go alone to the school dance?"

Weiss snorted slightly. They all knew they were just trying to inject some levity into the atmosphere, but at this point, any attempt to do so would be welcomed. That being said, there will still important things to discuss.

"Going back to Ruby," Weiss said, mouth moving into a stern line. "We have to figure out something that can actually help her."

Yang frowned. "Yeah," she agreed, letting out a tiny, frustrated hiss. "But I don't know what. She doesn't want to hang out with us unless it's to train, and I know for a fact trying to force her when she's like this is just going to make her resent us and clam up even more."

"And I don't think she'll appreciate us hovering over her any more than we already are," Blake added.

"That too." Yang sighed. "If Ruby could just stop training or shopping for new Dust rounds to experiment with her combat style, then maybe—"

Yang suddenly stopped talking, eyes wide. Then, she slowly turned to fully face Weiss.

"Yang?" Weiss raised both of her brows. Even Blake seemed taken aback at her partner's silence.

A grin slowly worked its way onto Yang's face. "Hey Weiss," she began. "Remember how way back when we first became a team, I'd joked about you being our personal supplier of exotic Dust?"

Weiss blinked. "I...vaguely?" She hadn't exactly been..the best teammate back then, so she never really gave much thought to, what she thought, were the ramblings of an uncouth brute. Now, she knew it was the ramblings of an uncouth, 'punny' blonde. "Why?"

"Do you remember what you said to me? About how, even if you gave us the best Dust on the planet..."

Weiss narrowed her eyes, searching her memories. "...It wouldn't do you any good if you didn't know how to properly use it."

It took skill to use Dust concurrently with Aura. Yes, the effects of Dust could be activated by mundane means, but to truly use the full power of it, without the risk of it blowing up in your face, sometimes literally, you needed to combine it with your Semblance. And you had to know exactly how to let your Aura merge with whatever Dust you were using. It took so much practice to learn how to channel your Aura into one type of Dust, so to do so with some of the more exotic and rare kinds required immense knowledge and even more practice—

Weiss eyes went wide. "You want me to convince Ruby to start practicing with other types of Dust?"

"Bingo." Yang snapped her fingers. "Ruby's not going to stop training any time soon. But, maybe her tiny little ice witch of a partner can get her to slow down by offering her lessons on Dust?"

"I'm not that short," she objected with a scowl.

"Weiss. You're barely an inch taller than Ruby. And that's when you're in heels."

Weiss glared with the fury of a thousand glaciers. She heard a snort, whirled around with a gaze that could give a person frostbite, and saw Blake innocently checking her Scroll, as if she hadn't done anything.

It wasn't her fault genetics screwed her over.

She turned back to Yang. "You realize that, unless Ruby's willing to put in years of effort, she won't be able to use Dust like I do, right?" Weiss asked, eyes narrowed. "Which isn't even getting into the fact that our weapons, Semblances, and fighting styles are vastly different. Trying to teach Ruby how to fight with Dust like I do would mean essentially reworking her entire approach to combat from the ground up. All of which, I'm sure she'd realize, and would say 'no' to faster than I can blink."

"Okay, maybe don't teach her to use Dust exactly like you," Yang said. "But you could teach her some tricks she can do with Dust she's not used to, and work that into her style." She grinned. "And with Ruby learning how to use new Dust, she can't take as many extra combat lessons, and she'll have to slow down when she's training. Then, when she stops giving everything a hundred and twenty percent, she'll loosen up, actually get some decent rest, and then we can actually talk with her about her problems."

That was optimistic.

"There's no guarantee Ruby will even want to learn new ways to manipulate Dust from me," Weiss pointed out.

"Or that she won't realize this is a trick to get her to slow down, "Blake added.

"You've seen how obsessed Ruby's been about getting stronger. Do you really think she'll pass up an opportunity to learn how to kick ass with Dust?" Yang pointed between herself and Blake. "And me and Blake will just pretend we had no idea you even suggested tutoring Ruby and that this was your own plan. Just say that you want to be a good partner and help Ruby be the best Huntress she can be, and I guarantee you she'll agree."

"Still..." Weiss didn't like how they were hinging so much on what they expected Ruby to do. It just seemed like they would be courting disaster. "I have a few concerns."

Yang sighed. "I know this isn't perfect, but I don't think we have time to try and come up with something else. Ruby's not okay, and she needs help." A frown crossed her face, her eyes narrowing. "And I'm not gonna sit around and do nothing while my sister's hurting."

Weiss could see just how serious Yang was. And she knew that Yang was right, that they really didn't have the time to come up with anything better. Weiss looked to Blake, saw that she had realized the same thing, and after a moment of staring at Weiss, she nodded.

Well then. Looked like it was settled, then.

"Alright," Weiss said, "I'll do it."

Yang smiled. "I knew you would," she said, trying to sound nonchalant. But Weiss heard the relief in her voice.

"Just give me a bit of time to come up with a lesson plan." It wouldn't do to give subpar lessons to her partner; she had a reputation to keep after all, and if she was doing this, she'd be the best tutor on Dust Ruby would ever have. "And with any luck, this plan of ours will go off without a hitch."

"Yeah. With any luck."

Weiss saw the concern in Yang's expression, but didn't comment. Yang was truly worried about her sister. Weiss thought back to how she mentioned her fear of Ruby ending up liker mother. Of her losing someone so important to her. Weiss had similar fears for her partner, but her fears always seemed to loop back to one moment. One face.

When they had first learned about what had happened on the expressway, Weiss had turned to look at her partner. Even weeks later, in her mind she could perfectly recall how badly Ruby had trembled after learning about all the lives lost. How vacant her expression had become, lost in a way that deeply unsettled Weiss. It was so...unnatural to see her normally sweet, impossibly optimistic partner look so crushed. Hurt, like her heart had just been torn in half.

Weiss swore she do everything in her power to make sure Ruby never had such a look on her face again.

-o-

If anyone were to ask him, having meetings with the ever-so-delightfully seedy criminals of the underworld all but required alcohol to be nearby. The biggest reason was that it was nice knowing he could grab a shot of hard liquor at any time to dull the headaches caused by dealing with the more—oh, how should he put this? Aggravating? Unreasonable? Stupid? Yes, the more stupid criminals.

But he didn't have a headache from dealing with morons. Instead, he felt a constant, burning sting that came from his right foot, and while he would have loved to take the edge off with some high-class booze, he unfortunately couldn't. Right now, he needed to be as sober as possible.

Even getting a little tipsy would be risky with people who wouldn't hesitate to shoot him dead on the spot.

Roman Torchwick grimaced. He wasn't in some random dive bar that he owned for a front, but instead, an upscale restaurant on one of the busiest streets in Vale. The owner, a wonderfully shrewd criminal Roman had known for years, had let him rent the entire place out for the day at a dirt cheap price, with no chance of anyone disturbing his little "meeting," in one of the restaurant's second story private rooms. The large window on the right side of the entrance, stretching from one corner of the room to the next, were was made of thick glass that, in addition to being bulletproof, let anyone see the hundreds of people going about their day below. It also let the afternoon light perfectly illuminate the room and everything in it. To the left was where the previously mentioned alcohol was, hanging from shelves that were stacked to the brim with some of the most expensive wines around, and below them were kegs of high-class beer.

And at the center, standing near an ornate, dark black dining table in the center, Roman eyed the entrance door. Waiting for just one more person to arrive.

"So, we startin' anytime this year, Torchy?"

Roman scowled slightly, turning to his right. Sitting on the chair right at the head of the table—where he had planned on sitting before it was taken—was a woman with black hair done in a blunt cut and blueish-grey highlights. One side of her hair was parted behind her right ear, exposing several metal piercings of different sizes. She wore a long sleeve, almost pitch black shirt that exposed a hint of her stomach, a charcoal grey jacket hanging loosely around her shoulders.

And on her face were a pair of wire-framed, heavily tinted dark blue sunglasses. The woman looked up at him, and he could almost see his reflection in her glasses.

"I mean," Ash Yasuda, a huntress with a body count easily in the high triple digits, continued. "I appreciate the fact you paid upfront just to get me here, but I'm fairly certain I could be doing better things then sitting on my butt doin' nothing." The cheerful, borderline mocking grin on her face never wavered as she spoke. She chuckled, making an obvious show of looking him over. "And from what I've heard and seen, you definitely don't have time to waste either."

Roman's fist clenched a bit tighter on his cane. He had gotten rid of most of his bandages today, along with putting on makeup to hide the worst of his bruises, but it didn't surprise him that Ash noticed how injured he really was. He just hoped the other guests didn't.

Roman took in a short breath, clenching his eyes shut. "I don't really feel like repeating myself, so I'm waiting until the final member of this little shindig arrives, Ash," he said, purposefully not responding to the jab; even though he really wanted to. "Not my fault our last 'guest' apparently can't tell time."

"Oh, last one, huh?" She made an obvious show of looking around the room, head twilling in every direction. "Gotta say, was expecting more guys and gals to show up to the 'famous' Roman Torchwick's little party."

"You know how it is: some people are just ever-so-shy when it comes to meeting celebrities." With the pain in his foot and his slowly rising temper, it took far more effort than normal to sound casual.

Ash grinned. "Yeah, I'm sure people down there"—she jerked her thumb to the window—"would just fawn over the guy who got his butt torched on live TV." She blinked. Chuckled. "Heh, torch. I slay me."

"Idiots can do whatever they please," Roman said, a growl escaping his throat. "But if anyone was stupid enough to think something like my bullhead exploding was anywhere close to taking me out of the game, then they're sorely mistaken."

He was openly glaring at her now, and she still had on that insufferable grin as she held her hands up. "Hey, hey, no need for hostilities; we're all friends here, ain't we?" She lifted her legs, placing her black combat boots onto the table, crossing her ankles. She then leaned back into her chair, hands behind her head. "So just relax, Torchy."

Roman kept glaring at her before he sighed, turning away. "I'm starting to think I should just kick you out now, and save myself the headache."

"Oh come on, Torchwick, don't be like that! I went to all the trouble to come to Vale to, maybe, help out my good buddy when everything is going to shit around him. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"Nope," he replied without hesitation. "And everything is not, 'going to shit,' Ash."

"Really?"

"Really."

Ash stared at him. Then, she shrugged, going back to leaning in her chair. "If you say so."

"I do," Roman said, turning back to the door. Damn it, what the hell could possibly be keeping this guy for so long? He had gotten a text from his men that the huntsman was on his way not even thirty minutes ago, so what the hell happened—

"How's Neo by the way?"

He froze.

"It's been a while since I saw your psycho ice-cream girl." She tilted her head, chuckling. "She was there on that highway, right? It was kinda hard to tell, but I'm pretty sure I saw her on TV."

Roman remembered the night he made it back to one of his emergency hideouts after just barely escaping from him. His men saw him stumbling in on one foot, and he shouted at them not to focus on him, but on his partner, who he was carrying on his shoulders as she bleed rivers worth of blood. They had gotten to work on her, and even as they tried to get him to calm down, to attend to his own wounds, he just kept screaming to focus on his partner, his Neo, until his throat went raw and he collapsed form exhaustion.

"Did she make it out okay? You two are normally inseparable, but I'm almost a hundred percent certain she's not anywhere in the room, or nearby."

When he woken up, the first thing he had demanded was to see Neo. His doctor then pulled on a curtain hiding several obscure shapes from view, and then he saw her. Saw Neo with more bruises than he could ever remember, bandages all over her face, an oxygen mask right on her mouth, and hooked up to so many machines it was like she was more tubes and IV fluids than the little girl he had known for years. And not even a few seconds later, he was told by his doctor that Cinder had been informed about everything, and that he had to call her immediately.

"Oh, wait, don't tell me she's dead? That'd be just awful."

He had just barely saved him and Neo from getting "fired" and getting put on that psycho bitch's soon-to-be-dead list, but there hadn't been any comfort in that fact. How could there be, when he was told Neo had overused her Semblance to a dangerous degree, had a poison the likes of which none of them had ever seen before flowing in her bloodstream, and needed a series of intense surgeries to have any chance of surviving?

All of that, because he couldn't protect her. Because of one blonde bastard.

And this woman...this bitch...was mocking him. Mocking Neo.

"Hey now, what's with that look, Roman? Did I say something I shouldn't have—"

Roman snarled as he picked Melodic Cudgel off the ground, pulled it back as far as he could, and swung it with all the force he could muster right at her damn face. There was a loud thunk, the chair Ash sat on tipping backward. But it didn't fall over. And his weapon never hit Ash.

Because a black tonfa was held right in front of her, blocking his cane from smashing her face in. Roman could see the tonfa had some kind of intertwining, dark green spirals on it that stretched from top to bottom, contrasting against the black of her sleeve as it laid on the side of forearm. And he could also see Ash's stupid, wide smile was still on her face.

"Now," she began, her chair still precariously balanced, but she made no move to correct it. "I'll give you that one for free; I know I was being kind of a bitch." She leaned her chair back even further, now standing on one leg. Her grip on the tonfa grew tighter, gloves visibly straining, and she lifted her other hand. "But if you wanna try swinging that cane again..."

Darkness suddenly swirled around her hand. As she slowly raised it higher, thick, inky black stains were left behind on the very air itself; the darkness on her hand moved and bubbled like smoke, little specks of pitch-black fell like snowflakes to the ground, and disappeared with the moment they touched it. Half of her face was now covered in shadows, but somehow, her sunglasses gleamed with a blue, disturbing light.

"Then you'll probably lose more than just your foot," Ash said, her smile no longer cheerful, but predatory.

Roman glared at her with all his fury. Even in such an awkward position, even with his weapon inches from her face, she didn't look the slightest bit worried. He wanted to wipe that look off her face so badly.

But he couldn't. Not when he wasn't sure he could win any fight when he was still getting used to his new foot. And not when he...he needed help.

So, taking the deepest breath he could, Roman pulled back Melodic Cudgel, and put it back on the ground. "Go to hell, Ash," he bit out through gritted teeth.

The darkness around Ash's hand disappeared like it was never there. "Can't," she said, leaning forward, her chair slamming back onto the ground. She folded her tonfa in half with one hand and placed it back in the holster on her boots where a second, matching tonfa was waiting. "I got shit to do."

"You mean being a damn bitch?" he asked.

"Nah. That's only to the guy that screwed me out of a million Lien. Remember?"

"You were the one that decided to take an entire team of Huntsmen by yourself and put my entire heist at risk."

"Well, to be fair, you did provoke me."

"Saying that I thought you would die against some of Beacon's best was just pointing out the obvious."

"And yet"—she turned, her smile now showing off her teeth—"I'm still here."

Unfortunately.

He went back to watching the door, all but praying his last "guest" would show up soon so he could stop having to deal with this woman. He pinched by the bridge of his nose, taking a few deep breaths, tension somewhat leaving him. It shouldn't be any longer than a few minutes.

Or, so he thought.

After almost twenty minutes later of pure silence—Ash apparently no longer interested in pissing him off and keeping quiet—Roman was tapping his non-metallic foot harshly against the ground, gritting his teeth as he checked his Scroll for the umpteenth time.

"Okay, seriously," Ash said, her smile gone for the first time as she frowned deeply. "Where is this guy?"

"I have no idea," Roman all but growled. "He was supposed to be here an hour ago! My men literally saw him heading towards here!"

"Did he get lost?"

"He wasn't even two blocks away! How do you get lost that badly?"

"And we can't start without him because..."

"I did not spend all that Lien getting Scarlet Dorn's seven foot ass to Vale undetected, only to have him be a no-show!"

"Apologies, could you repeat that?"

Roman jumped, startled. Ash was too, almost falling off her chair before she righted herself. Holy shit. He honestly forgot there was someone else here. He turned around.

Leaning against the windows in a tiny corner of the room, there was a man. His outfit was almost completely white, from his military-like jacket, pants, and heavy boots. There were breaks in the white, though. He saw little, light-blue accents circling around the collar of the man's jacket, blue snowflake emblems on top of white pouches connected to his equally white belt with a silver buckle, and a blue beret on his head, tilted at an angle. His hair, parted in such a way that his bangs completely covered his right eye as they curled upwards, was such a light shade of blue it was almost white.

But the one visible eye he could see was staring at him with such intensity it almost made him flinch. And he suddenly found every hair on his body standing tall.

"What?" Roman asked, hoping he kept his nerves from showing. But as he felt a bead of sweat drip down his forehead as the man's eye narrowed, he was pretty sure he had failed at that.

"The man you hired. What did you say his name was?"

The Huntsman stepped away from the windows and headed towards Roman. Shit, what was this guy's name? He was the one Huntsmen he didn't actually know; the man had just responded to the little "ads" his boys had put out through various brokers that owed him a few favors, and then headed right for Vale.

Well, right now his name didn't matter. All that did was that a Huntsman was currently eyeing him in such a way that, as pathetic as it might sound, made him feel like a mouse under the gaze of a predatory hawk. With a glance, he saw Ash was frowning deeply, picking up on the same thing he was.

Whoever this guy was, there was no arguing that he wasn't dangerous.

"I—" He coughed, throat a bit dry. "I said his name was Scarlet Dorn. Why, are you buddies or some—"

The man was inches away from his face.

One moment, he was about twenty feet away, and then, he wasn't. Roman didn't so much as see the man twitch before he basically teleported right in front of him. All without making a single sound; he only just now realized that the man's footsteps hadn't made a single sound when he had seen him walk. And the man was still silent as he glared at him with that single eye of his, his body unnaturally still, not even breathing.

Roman's heart had stopped beating, his grip on Melodic Cudgel shaking slightly, just like the rest of his body.

The man tilted his head. He opened his mouth, leaning closer, and Roman was prepared to bring his cane up and fire until every single bullet was used up and then—

"Apologies, but I killed him on the way here," the man said, sounding genuinely apologetic. He bowed his head slightly.

There was silence.

It was broken by the sound of air leaving Ash's lips in a snort. And then she started laughing hysterically, completely shattering the tense atmosphere.

"What?" Roman asked.

The man lifted his head back up to face him. "I killed Mr. Dorn on the way here," he repeated with a voice that was completely emotionless; clinical, even, like he'd done this a thousand times before. "He bumped into me, causing me to drop my strawberry ice-cream right on his shoe. He took then took offense at my—in his words—'fucking disrespect,' tried to attack me, and then I quickly killed him while acting on instinct."

Ash was still laughing. Roman stared.

"If you'd like, I can compensate you. I have no doubt it was expensive getting him here, and while not entirely my fault, I did play a role in a death of one of your possible allies." Again, he could tell the man was genuinely apologetic for having murdered the other Huntsmen. Not for moral reasons, but just because he made Roman lose about five thousand Lien in getting the bastard into Vale.

Ash was holding her gut, a single tear trailing down her face as she kept laughing.

"I..." Roman had no idea how to respond to this. "How did—how did you even know who he was?" was what he eventually decided to say.

"When I disposed of his body, I saw his ID."

Disposed how, was what he wanted to ask. But something told him he didn't want to know.

"I didn't hear any fighting," he said. "And none of my men did either."

"That's because there wasn't a fight." The cold finality in his voice almost made Roman shiver. "I simply disabled him with my hands before he could get his Aura up."

It was only because he was so close that, when Roman looked over the man's body, he spotted thin splotches of blood coloring the fingerless white gloves he wore. He also noticed the pair of long, mechincal-like daggers attached to his thighs on a holster, which in contrast to the gloves, were spotless. Which meant the man hadn't even used his weapon to kill an experienced Huntsman.

Well, silver-lining: he didn't have to deal with Scarlet now, and, if he actually succeeded here, he might get someone who was even better than him. Even if said person might have been a little murder-happy, he could use the raw-skill. Now more than ever.

"O-oh, holy shit," Ash said, wiping away the tears on her face. "I haven't laughed like that in a while. Holy shit, I didn't know I needed that." She looked at the man, her smile back. "So, what's your name, handsome?"

"Jack," the man replied.

"Jack..."

He turned. "Just Jack," he said curtly, his visible eye narrowing.

Ash raised her hands, placating. "Okay, 'Just Jack'."

The man—Jack— didn't respond. He turned to Roman, raising an eyebrow. "Since Mr. Dorn is dead, is there anyone else we're waiting for?" he asked.

Roman blinked. Then, he straightened, realizing there was no more reason to delay. "No, there isn't," he said. Then, he put on his best grin. "So, let's finally get started."

"About time," Ash muttered. Roman ignored her, strolling to a seemingly random spot in the room before he spun, slamming Melodic Cudgel to the ground and drawing everyone's attention to him.

This wasn't his usual audience. They were Grade-A Huntsmen, one of whom he actively disliked and who did her damn best to antagonize him, and the other he had no idea about, save that he was obviously strong and skilled enough to kill another Huntsmen without so much as a fight, or anyone noticing. He needed their help, was desperate, and they knew it. His usual showmanship was out the go; there was no time for long-winded speeches or trying to get them to see things his way through subtlety and choice words.

In other words...

"I'll keep this short and simple," he said, making his voice sound as solemn as possible. The contrast from his previous attitude should be enough to make sure they listen. Especially Ash. "I need Hunstmen, and you two are Hunstmen, no matter what the law may say. You know the situation, and you know who I'm working with. Probably not what you're used too, but if you agree to help, you'll each get paid upwards to fifteen million Lien once everything is settled."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "I thought it was ten?"

"Well, since we're now down a man—rest in peace, Scar—I decided to increase your pay."

"How generous."

"Yes, I am."

"What exactly would we need to do if we accept?" Jack asked. "The details I received only proposed a possibility of an alliance if I attended this meeting, with the rest being explained in person." He turned to Ash. "Was it the same for you?"

"Yep," Ash said. Her grinned widened. "But something tells me we both got an idea as to what. I mean, beyond him needing us to kick the ass of anyone he wants."

Jack nodded, turning back to Roman, his eye narrowing as he waited.

Roman let out an uneasy cough. "Right. In addition to dealing with the gangs and Beacon, I'll also need your help with moving and protecting several large shipments of Dust, and escorting them to secure locations." Roman frowned. "Don't expect me to go into too much detail right now; at least, not until I get an answer about whether or not you'll work with me."

"Still undecided," Ash said cheerfully.

Jack was silent.

"I can say it will be dangerous. And will most definitely involve Grimm." That drew their attention; Ash stood up a bit straighter in her chair, and Jack's lips moved into a small frown. "Yes, I know, Grimm aren't exactly anyone's idea of a fun time. But, just a reminder, you'll be sufficiently reimbursed for all the near-death experiences you may or may not go through while working with me."

Ash let out a hum. "You know, the more I hear about this, the more I'm starting to think fifteen million isn't that good a paycheck."

"Well," Roman began. "If you agree, you'll get more than just money."

"Oh?" Ash tilted her head.

"I've been dealing with some rather troublesome pests lately. One of whom"—he suddenly saw golden hair flowing in the wind, eyes colder than death, and that fucking pose, flash into his mind, and just barely kept his anger from entering his voice—"is someone I'm rather eager for you to meet. I know how much you like fighting 'interesting' guys." He smiled coyly. "But, he's not the only one. There's a certain group of brats that I'm sure you'd love to meet."

"You mean those teenage girls that stopped you from robbing the Docks?" Ash asked. He frowned, and her smile widened.

"Yes," he bit out. He reined in his temper. "But..." His lips curled into a smirk. "They're also Beacon students. Students who you will have first pickings of whenever they show up."

Ash stared at him, her smile never wavering, and he knew his offer had her attention. If there was one thing he knew, it was that Ash wouldn't pass up a chance to beat-up any student of Beacon's. She always said that it was because Beacon made Huntsmen that were "adorable punching bags," but all someone had to do was take one look at her beating the shit out of some sap from Beacon, and anyone could tell.

She hated Beacon, and all who came from there, with a passion.

But as much as she might have a personal vendetta against Ozpin's little school, he knew she was smart enough not to go hunting everyone from Beacon without thinking. And just the promise alone of fighting people from Beacon wouldn't be enough to get her to agree to join him. Which was why he had been so ready to up her payment, hoping that would be enough to tip things in his favor—

"Twenty five million."

Roman blinked. Ash's smile grew. "Twenty five million, and I work with you," she said. "I'll even be on my best behavior; I won't pick on you while on the job, unless you do something real stupid, and I'll follow your orders to a T. Just so long as you give me a shot at some of Beacon's 'next generation'."

"Really?" he asked, the skepticism clear in his voice.

Ash nodded. "Really." She extended her hand. "So, what do you say, Torchie?"

Roman stared at her hand. He glanced at Jack, who was still silent and staring at them. Honestly, he had expected her to negotiate for a higher price. He had sold a lot of his liquid assets to ensure he could pay whoever came to this meeting, so long as they didn't ask for some ridiculously high number. He could pay her that much, but agreeing to it would all but guarantee Jack wanted an equal amount, if not higher, which he was sure would lead to a lovely discussion between everyone here.

Oh well. Worse case, he at least had Ash and only Ash on his payroll.

He shook her hand. "You better keep your word, Ash."

"Oh, believe me, Roman." The smile on her face grew. "I intend to."

Roman stared at her for a moment, replaying their agreement and trying to find some hidden meaning in her words that he might've missed. When he didn't find anything, figuring it was just Ash trying to be coy, he turned back to face Jack. "Now, as for you Jack, I'm sure if you join you'll want to be paid as much as her—"

"I am fine with the current offer for my salary," he interrupted.

"Wait, seriously?" Roman asked before he could help himself. Realizing what he said, he awkwardly coughed into his fist. "I mean, alright then. Does that mean you agree to work with me?"

"There is only one question I have before I give you my answer," Jack stated, staring at him with his intense, narrowed eye. But by now, Roman was getting used to the man's intensity.

"And that is?" He asked, raising a brow.

"I heard during a robbery here in Vale, you were defeated by a little girl."

Roman's eyes went wide, and he sputtered. "Wha-I, how did you—" He done his absolute best not to let anyone know Red had actually stopped him by her lonesome. But apparently, that effort was for nothing. "Who told you—"

Ash suddenly laughed. Roman whirled and glared at her, but she just kept laughing. "No way," she said through her laughs, gasping slightly. "You got into a fight with a little brat, and actually got your ass beat? Roman, when did you become some Saturday morning cartoon villain, and why didn't you tell me?"

"I did not lose!" he shouted. He then glared at Jack. "I don't who told you that, but that wasn't what happened!"

"But you did fight a little girl?"

"She was not litt—she was a Huntress-in-training! And she only stopped because I didn't expect a god damn teenager to bust out a scythe—"

A hand clamped down on his shoulder, fingers clenching hard enough to hurt.

"Did you say scythe?" The voice was colder than anything he had heard in his entire life. In an instant, before he had even blinked, Jack was in front of him, this time starting at him with such an intense look, every one of his muscles locked into place. He didn't even dare to breathe. "Did it transform into a sniper rifle?" Jack's eyes narrowed when he didn't respond. "Well?"

Something told him he had to answer now, or else he'd never walk out of this meeting. "Ye-yes," Roman said, unable stop the stutter in his voice. "She did."

Jack's grips tightened. "Did she have a red cape?"

"Yep," Roman replied instantly. He swallowed through a strangled throat, doing his best to keep eye contact while all he felt was the desire to get the hell away from this man. "Red cape, red dress, even dark red hair. It's why I like to call her Red. Get it?"

Jack didn't laugh. All he did was lean closer to Roman. There was absolute silence for a moment.

"What color," Jack began, breaking the silence with a voice of pure ice. "Were her eyes?"

Roman immediately called up every image of Red's, tried to focus on her face and remember that small detail he never really paid attention to but was sincerely regretting right now. Thankfully, he found his answer quickly.

"Silver," Roman said. "She had silver eyes."

Jack said nothing.

Then, his lips twitched, slowly curling upward, and he smiled. It was a small, serene smile that looked so out of place on a face with an eye so lifeless, so empty, yet all but screamed with malicious joy. In that moment, Roman felt like he was staring at the face of a monster who's soul was made of pure cold.

"So, there is a piece of her left," Jack said, voice a whisper. His smile grew, and he chuckled; it was like icicles crashing into the ground. "I didn't want to hope but..."

Roman wanted to know what the hell Jack was talking about, but he still found himself unable to so much as twitch, legs frozen to the spot. Jack seemed to be lost in some old memory, a content sigh leaving him, his hand going to the eye covered by his hair and seemingly caressing it. Then, without any warning, the almost nostalgic look faded, and a stern frown crossed his face.

"I'll join you, Roman Torchwick," Jack said. Before Roman could even begin to process that sudden turn, he continued. "But only if you provide me ample opportunity to fight..."He trailed off, looking at Roman expectantly. It didn't take long for Roman to realize what he wanted.

"Re-Ruby," he said, trying to smother the lingering fear inside him. "Her name is Ruby."

"Ruby." Jack seemed to be tasting the name, his lips tugging into another disturbing smile. "Ruby Rose. A fine name. I hope she lives up to it."

Roman could admit he was disturbed by how much interest Jack was showing in Red. But if all it took to get a high-quality huntsmen to join him was a few million Lien and a chance to fight against Red, then, well, he'd take it. Of course, there might be a problem if he agreed to that.

Roman turned towards Ash. Even with her sunglasses, he knew she was staring intently at Jack, her mouth in a small frown. She seemed just as put off by Jack as he was. "I don't have any problems with that, Jack. Hell, chances are if you just hang around me, you'll meet Red sooner rather than later. But, you see, she's a Beacon student, and I just promised Ash over here that she's got dibs. So, Ash, tell us: you okay with sharing your toys?"

Ash turned to face him, staring at him for a moment, and then looked back to Jack. He stared at he with an empty eye. "Eh, I don't mind," she said, waving her hand dismissively. Roman resisted sighing in relief. "Well, so long as you don't mind asking the girl a question for me. It's something I always do whenever I meet someone from Beacon."

"I have no problems with that." Jack raised a brow. "What's the question?"

"I'll tell you later." Ash smiled. "But, since you okay with it, you got my blessin'. Go nuts on little Red, my man."

Jack nodded. "Thank you."

Alright, good. Despite the earlier hiccups, everything had gone fine. He had his Huntsmen.

Roman grinned. "Glad to have you both on board. I'll be sure to wire your money as soon as possible."

"You better; or I'll have to slit your throat." Despite her joking tone and grin, Roman knew she was dead serious.

"What exactly are our first orders, Torchwick?" Jack asked.

"Well," Roman began, leaning on his cane slightly as his grin grew. "First, I'm gonna need you two to help out my boys deal with a few of the local gangs. They've been getting a bit uppity, trying to move in on my territory like they can do whatever they please. You two are going to rectify that."

Jack nodded. "And?"

Roman frowned. "I'll also need you to help move some Dust. From Mountain Glenn."

"Wait." Ash held up a hand. "Mountain Glenn? As in, 'full-of-Grimm-and-is-just-an-all-around-hellhole' Mountain Glenn?"

"Do you know any others?"

"No, but why the hell would you keep Dust in a place swarming with Grimm?" She looked at Jack. "That sound as dumb to you as it does to me?"

"It is rather asinine to keep such a volatile substance in a place full of thousands of Grimm." He raised a brow. "Unless, there was a reason to keep it in there in the first place? One important to take such a risk?"

"You'll be both be filled in on the exact details of my...employer's plans later. For now, just know that we've been gathering a lot of Dust for, as you can imagine, a rather big bang." He leaned a bit more on his cane. "But, recent events have made my wonderful boss consider a slight change in plans."

"You have a boss? You're working under someone?" Ash raised her brows. "Wow. Things really are bad for you, huh?"

Roman so badly wanted to shout in her face right now, but he held the urge back. "Yes, I do. Of course, you both don't really have to worry about her; just follow what I say, you'll get what you want, and things will be hunky-dory." They both seemed fine with the idea of not actually knowing who his boss was. Or they didn't really care that much.

"So!" Roman leaned even further on his cane, putting as much weight on it as he could, smile growing as he pulled out his Scroll before typing on it. "If you don't mind, I'm gonna need you to start dealin' with the gangs now rather than later. I'm unfortunately running a bit late on things and can't really stay much longer." There was a little 'ding' as he pushed one final button his Scroll. "I just sent you the folks I needed taken care of yesterday. I'll contact you some time tonight with more info."

Jack nodded. Without another word, he turned, and calmly walked out the room; like he was just going on a nice stroll.

"I bet you anything he collects 'trophies' of whatever bastard he kills," Ash said a few moments after Jack had left. "The guy just ooze's serial killer vibes."

Roman glared. "You have somewhere to be."

"Oh what? Are you that eager to get rid of me?" she asked with a wide grin.

"Yes."

"You wound me, Torchy." Ash placed a hand on her heart. "Right here."

"Then I suggest you get the hell out. Otherwise, I might 'wound you' in a more literal sense."

Ash stared at his face, then glanced at his foot. She snorted. "Uh-huh. Sure." She stood up from her chair, stretching her back, and when she was done, she walked towards the door. "Don't forget about my paycheck, Roman." Just as she opened the door, she turned. Her smile was now showing off her teeth, and he could feel the sinister gleam behind those sunglasses. "'Cause if you don't"—she mimed slicing her throat—"well, you know."

With a laugh, Ash left. Roman stared at the door, waiting. A few moments passed, and his Scroll rang. His men had just confirmed they saw Jack and Ash leave the area.

And once he got the message, he all but collapsed into the chair Ash had sat in, his cane tumbling on the ground, and started swearing a storm. The throbbing, burning pain that consumed his prosthetic foot had become too much. The entire time he was talking, the pain in is foot would suddenly rise to unbearable levels, leave without warning, and then just as quickly come back.

He glared at his foot, able to feel the cold metal underneath his shoe where there was once flesh. He knew it was a rush-job; he had been warned that, because of how quick attaching his prosthetic was, it would constantly have to "sync" with the rest of the nerves in his body. Which meant dealing with white-hot agony at any moment of the day before the pain faded. However long that might take.

But it was worth it. Trying to slowly adjust to a new foot, spending time on physical therapy, was just time he couldn't afford. Not now. Not when it was made abundantly clear just how willing Cinder was to get rid of him. From killing him like a damn fly.

Roman let out a long, deep sigh. He glanced at Melodic Cudgel, so far away on the floor, and cursed again. He shakily rose from his chair, but quickly fell back when his right foot suddenly erupted with pain, making him hiss.

"Oh, for fuck sake!" He shouted. He seethed in his chair, fingers clenching into tights fists. He wasn't sure how long he stayed like that, but as he silently cursed his damn body for failing him, he suddenly felt something tapping him from the side. He whirled around.

Neo was holding out his cane, grinning slightly, Hush opened and resting on her shoulders.

Roman stared. He took in her appearance, her flawless hair, her unblemished clothes, and her face free of any injures.

He frowned. "We've been over this: don't waste your semblance on crap like"—he gestured at her body—"this."

Neo scowled, pulling back his cane and crossing her arms . He knew that stance: it was one she wore when she was willing to fight him on any arguments he was about to give her. Sometimes literally.

He looked into her mismatched eyes, and sighed. "No one's here, Neo." His frown turned sympathetic. "It's just me."

Neo kept glaring at him, and he met her glare with nothing but a calm, even stare. She glanced at the floor, scowl deepening. And then, she undid her Semblance.

The Neo he was looking at suddenly shattered into hundreds of little, pink mirrors, and in her place stood a very different version of his partner. One with deep, purple bruises on her face. Her nose was covered in bandages, her hair a mess; her neck was also visibly stiff, like she was afraid of moving in too much in any direction. The same went for her left arm, with her holding it close to the side while her right hand held his cane and her parasol, even though her dominant hand was her left. He knew for certain that there were more bandages and bruises hidden underneath her clothes. And that there should be more bandages on her, but she had refused to wear all but the ones she had to keep on.

If there was one thing Neopolitan loathed, it was letting the world see she was hurting.

She was still staring at the floor, refusing to meet his eye. With a slight grunt, he stood from his chair, walked up to Neo, and hugged her. She didn't hug him back, but she didn't fight him either.

"We're gonna get the bastard that did this to you, Neo. To us." His grip on her grew tighter, his hand softly rubbing circles on the back of her head, and he put all the conviction burning inside him into his next words. "I promise."

She was silent; not her normal silence—yes, there was a difference—but one that was hesitant. Like she wasn't sure what to do, or who to believe. But then, a slight sniff echoed, and he felt a pair of arms wrap around his waist. And without any words, he felt how grateful Neo was for him. Not his words or promises, but just being there for her.

They stood like that for a long time. Of course, he could only afford to be sappy for so long.

"Now, could you hurry up and give me my cane, please?" Roman asked, breaking the tender moment without an ounce of shame.

Neo looked at him with a flat, unimpressed glare. He pretended not to notice how red her eyes were as she rolled them, breaking away from the hug as she handed him Melodic Cudgel. He quickly placed it back on the ground, leaning into it as his foot started to act up again.

"How long have you been here?" he asked. He honestly hadn't known Neo was here; he knew that she wasn't going to just stay in bed to recover, so he had given her stuff to do. Rather important stuff, if he did say himself.

Neo gave him a side-long glance, and waved her hand dismissively.

"A while? Well, nice to know you had my back in case things went to hell." Now that he thought about it, he had heard something when Jack got a bit too close for comfort, like something metallic swiftly moving through the air, but he thought he imagined it. He should've known it was just Neo pulling out her weapon. "But, does that mean you finished up your chores?"

Neo looked at him like he was an idiot. From her pocket, she pulled out a Scroll. But it didn't belong to either him, or Neo.

No, this one, he knew, belonged to Emerald.

He grinned. "Sorry for doubting you, Neo."

Neo nodded with a smug grin, essentially saying, 'you're forgiven.' She immediately cringed in pain, though, and Roman frowned.

"How about we go back home and I'll order us some food?" He rubbed his chin. "I'm thinking noodles from that place you like"—he did not miss how she visibly perked up at that"—and for desert..frozen yogurt."

Neo looked at him with such disgust he couldn't help but chuckle. "Okay, how about that leftover strawberry short-cake instead?" he asked.

Neo smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. She quickly walked over to him, and handed him the Scroll. Then, she gave him a deadpan stare, frowning slightly.

"No, Neo, I won't lose it." She kept staring. "That one time in Atlas does not count, and you know it doesn't! I had a concussion from that angry barista." Still staring. "Screw you too, Neo." With a roll of his eyes, he placed the Scroll into his breast-pocket, staring at it for a moment.

He thought about the changes to "their" plans. Cinder at first had seemed to listen to his advice and had the White Fang attack more people, but not nearly as much as he would have preferred. Apparently, that was because of something that animal Taurus had said to her when she did. And she hadn't told him about the new changes. Why would she, when she didn't even see him as anything more than a tool that, she believed, wasn't as useful as her others?

That was really the core of all his problems: Cinder didn't value him in the slightest. Logically, he had always known that, but it was another thing entirely to experience first hand how willing she was to abandon him. To add him as a casualty to her plans. He joined up with her because he thought that if he didn't, if he tried working against her, he had everything to lose.

But then why the hell was he working with her if she was acting like she could throw him away like garbage at any moment? When she was hell-bent on continuing her plans despite the blaring unknown factors at play, not even heeding his own sensible advice, placing him and Neo at greater and greater risk without a care? When everyday it became clearer and clearer that she was willing to do anything to advance her goals, including sacrifice anyone that she thought she could get no more use out of?

Ever since that conversation, he thought long and hard about his situation. He thought about how likely it was Cinder was actually going to keep him around once she got whatever she wanted from Vale. The chances that she wouldn't try and tie up loose ends by getting rid of him and Neo. The numbers he came up with were small; very, small.

The game they were playing was rigged. No matter what they did, work with her or against her, they would lose. And in that case, he just followed the sacred logic every swindler knew at heart.

If the game you were playing was rigged, flip the damn table, sucker-punch the other bastard in the face, and then steal everything he had before he got up and realized you weren't playing his game any more.

If working with her or against her just meant he lose, then he would work with her and against her. He do everything she wanted, while he ran his own plots with his own goal of making the bitch who forced him and his partner to do her bidding pay dearly. He would make sure that not only did her little schemes failed, but that she knew he and Neo were responsible, and let that realization sink in, that the "worms" that worked for tricked her and ruined her. And at that moment, when everything she worked towards faded to ash, they would they kill her.

It was just like he told her: he would steal a win when no one expected it.

And when he beat her, then he would work on Goldie.

He patted his breast pocket, smiling as he thought about all the ways he could use it. After he killed her boss, he really had to thank Emerald for her wondrous donation. Before he killed her, anyway.

"Let's go," Roman said.

Neo grinned, opening Hush as she hugged his arm. But then she paused, looking at him with a raised eyebrow and small frown.

"Yes, you can use your Semblance. But just until we get back," he told her, lips twisting into a stern frown.

Neo pouted, but he knew she would listen. In an instant, the sound of mirrors breaking reached his ears, and the appearance of a flawless Neo took the place of the disheveled one he was just talking too, suddenly looking far more comfortable than she had been a moment ago as she smirked.

Then, the air cracked as it shattered into dozens of pink mirrors, and he and Neo were gone.

-0-

Sitting in her—well, her boss' car, Charlotte Sapphire quietly munched on a peanut butter cup. The sun had set just a short while ago, and she was parked just outside a cute little cafe where her boss was chatting with some ginger girl. She was curious if that that girl was his girlfriend, but she knew better than to ask by this point.

When the conversation seemed to reach its end, her boss stood up from the table, waved goodbye to the ginger with a smile, who eagerly waved back and mouthed something like "let's meet again!", and then he crossed the street and entered the car.

"My apartment, if you please," Gior—Mr. Shiobana, said. He kept hammering into her how she was to refer to him as that in public; even if it looked like he didn't like the name. When he was in his usual blue suit, he was fine with people calling him his real name. But when he was out in public, when he was wearing his hair down, letting it flow to his shoulders, and had on a white dress shirt, a purple jacket, a red tie, and a purple pants with with suspenders, he was Haruno Shiobana. And she did not want to find out what would happen if she didn't call him that.

She quickly swallowed the rest of her snack, took the car out of 'park,' and started to drive. She didn't play the radio, as he apparently didn't really like the music any of the stations had to offer. Which was fair, because they were all kinda crap. But it did mean she usually drove in silence, and it made her feel awkward as hell. But, she could deal with it. And she did.

For three minutes.

"So, uh," Charlotte began, the words slipping through her mouth before she could help it. Her boss looked up from his Scroll, and now that she had his attention, it'd be more awkward to stop. "What did you and that girl talk about, Boss?"

"Oh, that?" Gi—Mr. Shiobana put down his Scroll. "I was simply catching up with...Penny." He seemed to think about something for a moment, but then he continued. "We had a lovely conversation about the upcoming Vytl Festival, how General Ironwood and his colleagues are aware of my existence, and then ended by talking about possible new outfits she had seen in an online magazine that she wanted to try on."

"Ah, that's kinda—wa-wait, was that middle thing?" Her boss gave her a flat glare, and she instantly remembered his thing about repeating himself. "I, I mean, the general of Atlas knows who you are?"

"No, he doesn't. No one does." He said it with such certainty Charlotte was inclined to believe him without any doubt. "He and the Headmaster of Beacon are simply keeping an eye out for a criminal with blonde hair and who has a 'bizarre' air around him." He looked out the tinted windows at the passing city. "They seem rather eager to arrest me"

Charlotte was still processing the fact that Ironwood and Ozpin, two of the most powerful people in the world, had it out for him. So, her mouth was kinda running on autopilot when she asked, "Does that mean Penny's an informant for you."

He snorted; loudly. "Oh, absolutely not. She's just someone that desperately needs to work on not talking about the very first thing that pops into her head." Then with a muttered, he added, "Despite my attempts to help with that problem."

Charlotte stared. "So, if she's not you're informant, does that mean she's your...frien—"

"An acquaintance. Someone who doesn't know how to leave someone else alone." He looked away form the window and glared at her with cold, unfeeling blue eyes. "Nothing more."

Charlotte gulped, turning around to face the road. "R-right." He didn't have friends. He made that abundantly clear to her, time and time again. Even if there were times that seemed to say otherwise, he assured her she was wrong. That he was just working towards his dream.

Whatever that was.

They hit a red light, and Charlotte stopped her car. She picked up another peanut butter cup from her cupholder, and started to munch away. Then, her boss' Scroll rang. She glanced at the rearview mirror, and saw her boss browse through whatever message he just got. As the seconds passed, his lips twisted into a deep frown. That...couldn't be good.

"Er, boss," she said, her mouth once again betraying her by not shutting up, even with a mouth full of peanut butter and chocolate. "Is somethin' wrong?"

Mr. Shiobana stared at her. "Charlotte...do you have anyone you care about that lives in, say, a fifty mile radius of here?"

Charlotte blinked. "No? Why?"

He told her.

And when he did, she immediately started choking on her peanut butter cup, face rapidly turning bluer than her last name. Luckily her boss knew the heimlich.

As she gasped for air, someone rubbing circles on her back, a kind, gentle voice asking if she was okay, chocolate and peanut butter staining her windows as the cars behind her started to honk at her to move, she looked to Giorno with wide eyes and a pale face.

"That bitch is going to what!?"

To Be Continued