Jaune knew he shouldn't be disappointed. This had been the expected outcome. His chances had been nearly nil, but it still hurt. The rejection letter hung loosely in his hand, swaying with the cool night air. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if he had been more honest about it. He could have just said he tried and it didn't work out, but he had gotten his hopes up. He thought smudging the truth would be enough to close the gap between him and his dream, but not even fake Jaune, who had actually gone to combat school and made decent grades, had been good enough for Beacon. So, if fake Jaune couldn't overcome the hurdle then what chance did real Jaune have?
The path to becoming a huntsman was over. He had tried so hard, too. Saving money, forging transcripts, running off to Vale even taking his family sword. He had betrayed his family and shattered his moral compass. "The end justifies the means," he had told himself, but now the end was here and he had nothing to show for it.
What should he do? What could he do? He was in Vale basically broke and definitely alone. Should he just go home, or should he get a job and try to make a life in Vale? Neither option was very appealing. One required him to admit to his family that they were right, and he was a failure. The other was akin to ignoring his mistakes and hoping that it would somehow just all work out, and that was pretty much just a slightly altered version of the original plan which had gotten him in this situation in the first place.
Nice going, Jaune. You tried to become a hero by playing the villain, and now your life's a mess because you couldn't commit to one side. Not good enough to be a huntsman the normal way, but not bad to fully commit to his cheating. If he was going to forge his transcripts, he should have made them the best they could be, not the half-assed lie he had submitted to try and get in somewhat honorably. Jaune shoved the rejection letter into his jean pocket and cupped his head in his hands. He wouldn't cry—that was one thing he wouldn't allow, but damn he wanted to.
Jaune pushed himself up, Crocea Mors hitting the metal bench as he did. The city was dark and the park was quiet. In the daylight, it was probably a beautiful place where couples could flirt and families could have picnics, but at night it was left for homeless drifters and sulking teenagers.
The sound of his shoes hitting concrete reverberated through his body as he walked out onto the street. It was only just past 10:00, but it felt so much later. A few cars still lingered on the road, their headlight piercing the asphalt as they sulked by. Somebody tossed a hamburger wrapper out their window while driving by, and Jaune felt obligated to pick it up and take it to a nearby trashcan. A bad person wouldn't have taken the time to do that. Then again, a huntsman wouldn't have bothered, so where did that put Jaune? The nice boy, who lived down the street, that would take you to the school dance if you didn't have anyone else to go with?
Jaune walked in the vague direction of his low-rent apartment, counting the shattered moon fragments. Had it always been that way, or had something happened to it, and if so what must it have been like to watch a constant part of your life break before your very eyes? Had it been an explosive impact, sending debris every which way, or had it been a slow separation where every night the cracks got bigger and bigger until the stress became too much?
Jaune ran into a lamppost. That's what he got for looking at the sky and metaphorically comparing the state of the moon to the state his soul. He rubbed his forehead and looked around to see if anyone had noticed his little accident. There was a group of guys on the other side of the street, but their attention was on something else. They looked to be surrounding it. Jaune caught a brief flash of brown hair before it was lost to the surrounding crowd. Realizing what was going on, Jaune crossed the street as the crowd laughed and jeered. He might not have been a huntsman, but he could still help.
"Gang" was too powerful a word to describe them, they mostly looked like clueless drunks only a couple years older than Jaune. Still, they had numbers on their side and things could get bad if they decided to take their harassment up a notch. Keeping one hand on the hilt of his sword, he approached the men catching a little bit of what they were saying.
"Why don't you come back to my place?"
"Yeah, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I bet you've never seen a man like me."
"Excuses me," Jaune cut in, causing the crowd's attention to shift towards him. Jaune could see who their target had been, and all he could say was that she was way too young. Admittedly, she was very beautiful—but Monty Oum these guys were sick. Her head barely reached above their belts…although that could have been the appeal. "I don't know if you can tell, but she doesn't look interested." The disgusted in his voice was apparent.
"And who are you to be telling us how to spend our night?" one of the larger men in the group spat.
"A decent person," Jaune said, moving his hand to bring attention to the sword at his side. Hopefully the sight of a weapon would be enough for them to back off.
"So, you some kinda knight?" the same man said, taking in Jaune's appearance.
"If I have t—" Jaune never got to finish that sentence as he felt glass shatter on the back of his head. One of the guys had circled behind him. He stumbled forward trying to pull Crocea Mors out of its sheath, but a fist to his face stopped that from happing. His vision cut out for a second and something wet drip onto his upper lip before another punch to the gut brought him to his knees. From there, it was a full-on assault as the crowd gathered around to kick him. Jaune had no hope of defending against the blows, only able to curl himself into a smaller target. The last thing he saw before blacking out was the girl he "helped" pulling something from the hilt of her brightly colored parasol.
Jaune woke up…somewhere. It was too clean to be his apartment, but too dirty to be a hospital. There also weren't any windows, just four grey, concrete walls and a single metal door. There was some light shining through, and he thought he could hear people talking on the other side. If his head wasn't pounding, he probably could've made out what they were saying.
His whole body ached as he sat up from the plain bed, and he had to remove some blood covered tissues that had been stuffed into his nose. Whoever had brought him here had obviously only done the bare minimum in medical care. He pulled down the covers to discover he didn't have Crocea Mors…or his wallet, or his scroll. "Great, rejected from Beacon then beat up and robbed of everything I have. Could this day get any worse?"
"Well, that depends on how you look at it," A flamboyant voice said walking through the door.
"Who are you?" Jaune asked his eyes trying to adjust to the sudden change in light level.
"The name's Roman Torchwick, kid, and you're a very lucky guy. Neo doesn't just bring anyone back to our hideout. Tell me, are you a succubus?"
"I'm just messing with ya, kid. It's going to take a lot more than—let's be generous and call it—assisting Neo to work your way into her pants, but if you ask real nice, she might give you a pity kiss, only on the cheek though."
"I-I wa-wasn't…" Jaune stuttered, his face going bright red.
"Really," Roman said, leaning on his cane, "you rushed in to save the damsel, and you never thought about how your heroic action might land you a little reward?"
"I didn't!" Jaune denied. "I would never think about a kid like that."
Roman laughed. "You better not let Neo hear you say that. Your luck with the ladies might come to an abrupt end, along with your life. She might look young but she's got a couple years on you, and doesn't much like it when you treat her like a child even if she does act like one." Roman smirked, got off his cane and walked right up to Jaune's bed. "So, now that you know she's not a kid, what are your thoughts?"
Jaune fixed the most deadpan expression he could and looked Roman in the eyes. "You're having a little too much fun with this."
Roman laughed again. "Hey, I'm just being a good host. My little teasing got your mind off the fact that you've been robbed of all your stuff, taken to an unknown place and talking to an unknown man." Jaune was about to point out that his mind was now very much concerned about those things, but Roman cut him off with ease. "Now, get out of bed. We need to talk about some things."
Jaune didn't have any time to argue, no doubt getting left behind if he didn't follow immediately. They walked through narrow hallways occasionally passing by people wearing dark black suits. Jaune also noticed that every single one of them was armed with at least a pistol. It probably should have occurred before now, but Jaune was getting very worried about what Roman could want with him. He didn't have any special skill, and certainly Roman had better ways of getting help than picking unconscious teenagers off the side of the road.
Meanwhile the man himself, completely oblivious to Jaune's growing anxiety, was twirling his cane and humming an upbeat tune. At this point, Jaune wouldn't be surprised if he broke out in song and dance. Maybe Roman was actually crazy, and if he was, Jaune was in a whole new world of trouble.
Roman continued to lead them down serval twist and turn before they ended up at a door that looked far nicer than any of the others. "Here we are," Roman said. "My own personal suite." When Roman opened the door, Jaune could have been convinced that they had teleported to another building. The room was completely different from the rest of the dull complex. Nice red carpet, glass chandelier, plump couches, a glass table fixed with flowers and wine. It was like a luxury hotel room.
Roman walked in, took a seat and immediately started filling a wine glass. "Would you like some?" he asked when he noticed Jaune still looking from the doorway.
"No thanks. I don't drink," Jaune said sinking into the couch across from Roman.
"You should. It might take the edge off, and if you're this nervous now you might not make it to the end of this conversation."
It hadn't been delivered as a threat, but Jaune went ice cold. This was make or break it time. Jaune scanned the room looking for possible escapes routes, but there were only two doors, one in the back that probably lead to a bedroom, and the entrance they had come from. Even if he could get out of this room, without Roman killing him, he would be completely lost in the maze of hallways. Like it or not, and Jaune certainly did not, he was trapped in here. "What do you want from me?"
"Have a drink," Roman said filling up another wine glass. "At this rate, you'll dehydrated from all the sweat you're leaking."
"I would rather have this conversation with a rational mind," Jaune responded hesitantly.
Roman set the newly filled glass down, and looked Jaune up and down with predatory eyes. Then he smiled. "You know kid despite all the evidence I've seen to the contrary, you actually have a decent head on your shoulder, so I'll stop keeping you in suspense. I what to make you an offer, and this isn't one of those criminal offers you can't refuse. If you say no, then you can leave here safe and sound. What do you say, Jaune?"
"How do you know my name?"
"I took a look at your ID when I riffled through your pockets. I also saw the letter. Rejected from Beacon, huh. Is that why you were so eager to pick a fight?"
Jaune looked down, ashamed. Roman wasn't pulling any punches. Beacon, his dream, was dead. There was nothing left for him but an empty life in Vale or plain life back home. His parents would forgive him without a second thought, he knew that, but that wasn't the life he wanted. He wanted to be somebody, a person his parents and sisters could look up to. Becoming a huntsman had seemed like the only way to accomplish that, but maybe there was another way. It couldn't hurt to listen. "Alright, I'll bite. What's this offer."
Roman's smile grew even wider, almost splitting his face in two. Jaune imagined the room turning into a burning landscape with Roman morphing into the Devil, holding a contact for Jaune's soul. It was a terrifying picture, and definitely signaled for things to come. Jaune wanted to run and not listen to a word Roman had to say. They were poisonous. Listening may as well be agreeing, but Jaune stayed where he was, unable to say no.
"Neo, would you come greet our guest." Suddenly the image shattered like a broken mirror, and Jaune was back in the well decorated suite with Roman and a new tri-colored girl sitting right beside him. "This is Neo, my lovely assistant, and the person who brought you here." She smiled brightly and waved at Jaune.
Jaune waved back, awkwardly. "Thank you for helping me, and sorry for getting in your way. I'm sure you had it covered without me," Jaune added.
Neo flapped her hand in the motion for "it's fine," but she didn't actually say anything. Roman looked amused. "Don't worry about it, kid. Neo might be a great fighter with a slightly sadistic streak, but even she appreciates a little chivalry." Neo nodded in agreement. "By the way, before we get down to business, why don't we chat. Rummaging through people's belongings is a good way to get to know a person, but it doesn't do much for fostering connections."
"I guess, that's fine," Jaune said, relaxing a bit, grateful he had gained more time to work up the courage to walk away. Too bad, in the back of his mind he knew that no amount of time would be enough. Just a chance to reclaim some of his dream was enough. The temptation had already cut too deep.
"Great," Roman clapped, "why'd you what to go to beacon in the first place?"
"I wanted to be a hero. Someone strong enough to protect others."
"Aww, tragic backstory?"
"Nothing like that. I don't really know how to describe it. It was just something I was drawn towards. Like it was my destiny."
"Destiny's crap. Just a word people throw around when they're too scared to make a choice, or to use as a justification for their actions. Even the most solid of paths can be altered if someone so much as flicks a pebble onto it." Roman stopped to take a drink. "Why did you go for Beacon, anyways. They only take the best of the best, and, judging from your fight with those drunks, you're not exactly what I would call I prodigy. Why'd even bother applying."
"I forged my transcripts," Jaune admitting, feeling like Roman wasn't the type of person who cared about bending the law. "It didn't matter, though. I still got rejected."
"Probably played it safe and made them pretty modest. Average doesn't cut it in Beacon. If you wanted in, you should have had a recommendation from general Ironwood himself. You're just lucky they didn't catch on. The council gives Beacon a lot of money and they don't appreciate their funds being wasted on liars and cheats."
"Yeah, it was pretty stupid of me. I probably would have died on the first day."
"I wouldn't say it's stupid. I'd say it's flexible. You want to be a hero, but that doesn't mean you're not willing to break a few rules to get there. Whatever it takes, the consequences be dammed, it's all or nothing. Reminds me of myself when I was younger. Better than I expected for someone Neo randomly got off the street. Tell me, kid, what do you think I do?"
"Going from context clues, I'm going to have to guess you're a criminal," Jaune said flatly.
"Ha, I'm not just a criminal. I'm the criminal, Roman Torchwick, thief and mastermind extraordinaire!" Neo clapped as Roman struck a pose. "But that's not really right either." Roman sat back down taking another sip of wine. "Being a criminal is more of a hobby, a very profitable hobby, but my main job is being a caretaker."
"A caretaker? Like someone who cleans houses?"
"In a sense, but I take care of much more than mere houses. Neo get the stuff." Neo nodded, disappeared and then reappeared with a huge book with Jaune's things on top, sword included. "You said you wanted to be a hero, but there are other ways to get there besides being a huntsman. There's much more to this world than auras and semblances, and there's a lot more to be afraid of than just grimm and people. Magic, oddities, living nightmares, they're all around us."
"What are you talking about?" Jaune said. "If things like that existed, people would have seen them."
"The human brain is much more selective than you might think. You assume that you miss nothing within your sight, but that's hardly the case. People ignore, or don't recognize things all the time, and even when they do, people have a tendency to rationalize even the most irrational, but once you start looking, you notice it everywhere. Have you ever read or learned something new only for that same exact thing to pop up sometime later? For example, when you get a new car, you suddenly notice anyone else driving the same model. At first it seems like a huge coincidence, but as it keeps happening you realize that they've been there all along."
"Fine, even if the public don't know, shouldn't the huntsmen and huntress know," Jaune argued. "They are the defenders of the world, and they should notice things like that."
"They're just as blind as anyone else; though, I suppose the old wizard must have known at some point, but he became so obsessed with Salam that he grew tunnel vision. It's actually quiet an impressive feat to forget something like that, or I guess, he could have convinced himself he's the only one who possess such knowledge. Ha, the only people who believe they're unique are children and fools."
"Who are you talking about?"
"Sorry, ignore that. Wouldn't want to tell you too many Remnant shattering secrets at once."
"Fine," Jaune relented, "but why tell me anything at all. Why choice me?"
"Don't misunderstand, kid. There's no particular I'm telling you this. You're not special, or the star of some ancient prophecy. I could be telling this to any number of other people…well not really, the readership wouldn't be very happy if you weren't a named RWBY character, but that doesn't have any bearing in this context so forget about it. The only reason you're sitting here is because you just so happened to witness Neo being harassed, and just so happed to get yourself involved which just so happened to lead to Neo bringing you here which just so happened to be around exact same time I was thinking about passing this information along…"
"Fine, I get it. I'm a nobody who just got lucky, but that doesn't explain why you're willing to pass this information on at all. I doubt you just give world altering secret to strangers on a whim."
"You're right about that. The truth is, I've taken on a contract that will leave me incapable of participating as a caretaker for a while, and when that happens it's traditional to pass the torch along."
"So, you're asking me to be your apprentice," Jaune said, not really sure how much he wanted to be associated with Vale's most wanted criminal.
Roman shook his head. "Not a chance. This right here," Roman patted the massive textbook sized tome on the table, "is your teacher. You see although I'm telling you all this, I don't have any stake in your success or failure. You could die the second you walk out of here and I wouldn't lift a finger. I'm not giving you my help, just some information." Roman slid the book and Jaune's things across the table.
Jaune picked up his sword and attached it to is hip more out of habit than anything else. The book was his focus. It was grey all around with no title or markings. A lot of the pages were crinkly and had a slightly yellow tent. "What's in here?" he asked, afraid it might collapse into dust if he tried to so much as touched it.
"Think of it like a Pokédek for the unknown world."
"A Pokédek, you know an index for Pokémon."
Jaune felt like telling Roman that he still had no idea what that was would be a waste of time. "Won't you still need this, though?"
"Don't worry about that. I haven't opened that book in years. I've got the digital version on my scroll. It's much more convenient, and you can search for keywords instead of looking through that mess of pages."
"What the hell! Why can't I have that version?" Jaune said, feeling the wonderment of getting to examine mythical text disintegrate.
"No can do. You have to suffer through that horribly structured mess the same way I had to." Jaune wanted to throw the book at Roman's smirking face, but he didn't want to end up dead, so he settled for a scathing stare which Neo looked to find more assuming than threating.
"So, what does a caretaker actually do?"
"That's the best part! You can do whatever you want. No rules to follow. No boss to report to. It's just you and your imagination. You can stick with your heroic agenda and go around helping people. You can use your newfound knowledge to create some chaos and try to take over the world. You can take this book, bury it in a closet, and never think about it again. You can even take everything you know and go public with it although word of advice, that would be a really bad idea. People are scared enough with the threats they know. Telling them about the stuff they don't know might just be the end of them either by all the grimm that would come swarming or through their own terrified actions." Roman said that last part like he was sharing an inside joke. Jaune was a little creeped out.
"I won't be doing anything like that. I came to Vale to help people, and that hasn't changed." He ran his finger along the cover thinking of all he could accomplish. He was in possession of something special. He had come to Vale with no skills and no unique traits, but now he could accomplish things not even fully trained huntsmen could handle, or at least theoretically he could. It only now occurred to him that despite all of Roman's talk Jaune didn't know a thing about this unknown world, and then another thought came to mind. One he probably should have asked a lot sooner. "Are you just messing with me?"
Roman and Neo turned to look at each other for a second before they both burst into laughter although Neo's was oddly silent. "I was wonder when you were going to ask that, kid." Roman wiped a few tears from his eyes. Jaune felt the urge to hit him again. "The truth is, there's nothing I can say to absolutely squash your doubts. The only way to do that is for you to go and see for yourself."
"I guess that's all I can ask for," Jaune sighed.
"Don't look so gloomy. I know I said I don't care about the outcome, but I'm not leaving you complete stranded. I put my number in your scroll, and you're allowed to call me three times to ask any question you want. I'll answer as best I can, no false clues, no half-truths and no hidden meanings or cryptic wordplay, thief's honor. Think of me like a hint guide. I also gave you some tips on the inside cover of the book, just to get your started."
"Really?" Jaune moved to lift the cover, but Roman suddenly rapped his knuckles with his cane, slamming the book shut.
"Not so fast, you'll still haven't given me and answer. Do you want to become a caretaker?"The image of a hellfire landscape and a soul binding contract came back. The devil was looking down at him with a smirk that made Jaune's entire body scream in warning. "Don't! This will destroy us!" it shouted.
Jaune didn't care.
He grabbed the pen and sighed his name in blood.
Whatever cometh forth is now a beast of thy own making.
The scene dissipated again.
"Alright Jaune, you have officially stepped beyond the boundary into a world you know not. I wish you the best of luck. I really do if nothing else, it should be fun to watch, but before you go can do one thing for me?" Neo leaded forward and spread a stack of cards along the glass table. "Pick one and flip it over."
Each of the cards had an eyeball on the back which all seemed to be watching Jaune. Even when he adjusted his body they seemed to follow. Not wanting to experience the strange sensation for any longer than he had to, Jaune just choose the card closest to him.
"Ah, the ace of swords," Roman said.
"What does that mea—"
Jaune was suddenly back in his apartment, laying in his bed. It wasn't like he had blacked out or anything. It was if he had blinked, and in the moment his vision had been cut off by his eyelids, he had been teleported back to his apartment. Jaune got up, the bed groaning unearth his weight, and made his way to the bathroom wondering if he had gone crazy.
Normally June tried to avoid his bathroom as much as he could. It was by far the worst feature of his already crappy apartment. The whole thing had a greenish tint to it, there was some sort of fungus growing in the corner of the shower, most of the floor titles were missing or cracked and everything smelled like rotting garbage.
Jaune stood in front of the, somehow still intact, mirror and splashed some cold water on his face. He didn't look too good. His face and arms were covered in bruises and his clothes were dirty and slightly bloody. Those guys had really given it to him, so at least they had been real. Now he just had to figure out if any of the stuff after that was.
Jaune walked out into the main part of his apartment. There was a bed, a dresser, a mini-fridge (broken), a ceiling fan, and that was it. It wasn't very homely, but the runaway Arc didn't have much money, and it was better than the streets. The plan had been to only suffer through his living arrangements until Beacon started in two months, but now he might have to look into extending his stay.
It would suck, but all heroes started out barely getting by. Being poor and unrecognized was like a prerequisite, and he had already begun The Hero's Journey. He just needed to find that book. He looked around the small apartment and quickly spotted it on his bed. It definitely hadn't been there when he had gotten up, but screw it, Jaune didn't care anymore.
He opened the book and looked at the back of the cover. Written in a style that may have been the perfect representation of Roman's personality was the tips he was promises.
Things to remember:
1. You'll never find anything if you're not looking.
2. Every detail matters.
3. It can always get worse.
Jaune wasn't going to lie, he had been expecting something a little more concert or even remotely helpful, but this was still fine. That was just a joke. He had an entire book to help him. A massive one with pages on pages of information on subjects Jaune didn't know a think about, and probably a lot of complicated concepts…maybe some math too. Oh Oum, he was getting tired just thinking about it.
He slogged to the only window in his apartment. The sun was starting to rise, glistening off the alleyway that was Jaune's view. It looked nice if you ignored the drug deal, and the stains that Jaune didn't want to recognize as, but probably was, human blood.
So, maybe things hadn't quite gone as planned. Jaune wouldn't be going to Beacon and he wouldn't be the beloved hero of remnant, but a new path had opened up. With this book, his dream was still within his grasp. He just hoped that his attempt to become caretaker would go better than his attempt to become a huntsman.
An: Not a very exciting chapter I know. I tried to make the conversation with Roman as interesting as possible, but all the explanations were necessary to set up the world especially when this story is going to play by a much different ruleset than cannon. I promise future chapters will have more to them, but for now I can only hope you're all find this concept as interesting as I do. It should be a very unique journey.