Roman had come to terms with the fact that, in spite of his authority, his experience, his skills, and his reach, that he had almost no control of his life. Back when he was a simple pickpocket, he dreamed of becoming the Boss because he assumed it meant control. But as he climbed the ranks in the underworld, pulling off more daring heists and outwitting his rivals, he had learned that freedom was a delusion—everyone was under someone's control, whether they knew it or not.
Every step Roman moved up the ladder, he found it came with a bigger target on his back, but even worse than the enemies he made were the allies he acquired. Outside of Neo, his underlings, associates, and marks came with endless responsibilities, fires he had to put out. Actually, Neo came with lots of fires to put out. But underlings had to be managed, associates came for favors, and even those he was squeezing money out of didn't just fork it over for free—it was a full time job running extortion rackets.
Worst of all, he'd gotten big enough to get the attention of a terrifying pyromaniac who seemed to have no morality whatsoever and quite possibly was going to murder him no matter what he did. But Roman didn't back down. No, there was no true freedom in this life, but that didn't mean that the acquisition of power was a fool's game. He just had to stay on top of things to survive.
But this meeting was going to test Roman's ability because, for the life of him, he didn't know why the Queen Bitch herself needed an all hands meeting. And Roman really didn't like unknowns. He'd certainly been having some issues with their supply, but not so bad that he was expecting to get raked over the (probably literal) coals. The interception of the Fall Maiden had been a flop, but it had been one that 1) Roman had nothing to do with and 2) he'd already been excoriated for. And the issue with Little Red was… well, Cinder had her fingerprints on that nuisance enough to let Roman breathe.
Taking a seat with Neo, he glanced over to the little monsters Cinder kept in her entourage. They… didn't seem to know what was going on, which spared Roman their irritating smugness, but that also meant this was coming totally out of the blue. It was also odd that Her High and Mightiness hadn't arrived yet—she was punctual to a fault, something Roman respected quite a bit in the underworld. Her being late wasn't a power play, that wasn't her style. It meant something was wrong. Badly wrong.
As she entered the warehouse, Roman knew that it was a damn risky move to tweak the nose of a rabid dog, but he had to get some sense of what was going on.
But he was also a man who didn't get here by being cautious.
"So!" he proclaimed, theatrically, "It feels like we never get together anymore; when was the last time we had a nice family dinner, just the five of us?"
If he was a dead man, he was already a dead man; this might just help speed up the inevitable. Plus, seeing Greenie practically choke to hear his flippant tone would be a fine note to go out on.
"Enough talk," Cinder barked, an angry bark to be sure, but not "I'm killing you now" kind of anger, so Roman felt he could practically let out a sigh of relief. If a sigh of relief wouldn't end with him being set on fire and ruining his new suit. Plus all the burns and the pain and the death.
But the Queen switched to addressing the entire table, all business. "We have a matter of highest importance, sufficient to supersede all other plans, including the Dust plan, the Vytal plan, the Maiden plan, any and all plans are put aside for what is coming now."
A surprise for her little gremlins, who Roman knew were quite excited for all the murder and chaos the main plan had in store for Vale, adorable little sociopaths they were. They knew not to question their boss, of course, but a glance to Neo confirmed that he ought to keep probing because, even if Roman didn't like the whole "mass slaughter of the innocent" aspect of the plan, he knew that operations that abruptly changed course were always a problem.
"Hold up a sec," he raised his hand, "As I understood it, your original plan was the one and only plan, and I've risked a lot to get us this far. Problems happen, but-"
He was cut off with only a look.
"There is only one person in this entire world I fear, Roman, and she has ordered me to consider the task she has given me to be of more importance than my very life. I suggest you take a similar attitude, before you learn firsthand that there are worse fates than death."
Roman tried his best to look, at most, bemused by the shocking revelation that the Queen was taking orders from someone above her—after all, everyone was controlled by someone or something else, but from the way Cinder was talking about it, she was afraid. Not in the way Roman feared Cinder, but in the way Roman feared the sight of a tidal wave about to crash down on him. A fear of something total and absolute, a fear of…
It was the fear he knew from when faced by a horde of Grimm.
And that told Roman that now was not the time to fuck around and find out.
"What's the plan?" he asked, his nerves slightly on edge.
"A VIP is arriving. He will be attending Beacon Academy, and we are to ensure his safety while he is attending the school, as well as to ensure any and all of his needs are met. Anything he says or asks for is to be considered as though they came directly from me, and I cannot stress enough that if anything happens to him, or gods help us all, he voices his displeasure to my employer… death will not be an escape. Not for any of us."
That was not anything Roman was expecting. At all. Well, imminent death and new depths of horrors had been pretty much his day to day ever since he first met up with Wicked Bitch of the West, so he couldn't really be that surprised to hear there was more of it. But to learn that Cinder was afraid of this going wrong… that was very much new.
"And he will be arriving to meet with the five of us tonight."
"How- how soon?" Legs asked, clearly unnerved, to Roman's quiet delight, by the fact that he was now effectively the personal servant of a teenage boy.
"Now," Cinder replied, as Roman heard the doors opened and he saw the latest figure he was now in hock to, looking to all the world like a clueless tourist instead of his looming execution, but from the way his psychopath of a business partner stiffened, Roman knew damn well any fear he didn't have for this gangly blond dweeb was a mistake on his part.
Which, really, was exactly how Roman's life was going, wasn't it?
A few weeks before Roman's meeting with Cinder, there was a very different meeting happening far off in rural Vale.
Jaune Arc had come back home from a long day in the vineyards. Supervisory work, just talking, inspecting things, none of the hard labor he enjoyed, the kind that he could lose himself in, like when he brought in the harvest alongside his family and community. And the kind of work that reminded him that he would be leaving for the big city soon, away from the quiet and tranquil places of his home to a city that never slept.
Or, he supposed, he'd be going to Beacon not Vale, so he'd be removed from the city… but that simply reminded him that he really didn't belong in either. His forged transcripts had gotten him admitted, but… well, Jaune didn't want to think about that. He'd gotten in. He'd make it. He had a strong arm, the family sword, and confidence. He could do this, he was sure!
As he stepped into the door, he went to the bathroom to wash some of the dirt off his hands and the sweat off his face. It might not have been physical labor, but he'd still been outside in the Valean sun and this summer had been quite intense. Fortunately, not enough to damage the grapes—if anything, Jaune was hopeful for the season—but enough to make Jaune struggle in the day to day work.
"Oh Jaune!" he heard his mother call from the sitting room, "Auntie came by to visit! Come in, say hi!"
Jaune quickly dried his hands. He knew to hurry, but he also knew to make sure to do a quick check in the mirror and ensure he looked presentable. A visit from his Aunt was a big deal, a bigger deal than most any family member stopping by, and… almost certainly tied to his rapidly approaching trip to Beacon.
After all, she was something more than a family member.
"Aunt" Salem wasn't his father or mother's sister, or a great aunt, or even a family friend. She was… she was something more mysterious than anything anyone else's family had. For one, she looked like she hadn't aged since Jaune's oldest memories of her, or, according to his parents, in anyone's oldest memories of her. As far as Jaune knew, she had just always been around, the perpetual "Aunt" to the Arc family, always to be treated with great respect and listened to. For another thing, he also knew that Aunt Salem had powers. Some of it, he knew, was just his big sisters teasing him, saying that she could command the Grimm or she could turn into a flock of bats, but Jaune definitely knew that ordinary people couldn't make it stop raining because she had no intention of seeing one of Jaune's Little League games get canceled while she was visiting.
Stepping into the room, he couldn't help but smile to see his Aunt sitting primly next to his mother. Yes, she was a possibly immortal family member with magic powers, but she was also the same Aunt Salem who cheered for him at those Little League games, who'd been a part of his life since he was a baby.
"Hey Auntie Salem," he said, waving to her.
She was a regal looking woman, her posture always as prim and precise as a queen's. Next to her mother, her long, blonde hair and light blue eyes made them seem almost like they were sisters—but all the Arcs kind of looked like that, enough that Saphron and their mother looked kind of like sisters.
"I heard you were going to Beacon," she said, standing up and approaching him.
Something about her tone of voice, slightly sad, almost regretful, made Jaune nervous. Did she know? About the transcripts?
She raised her hand to stroke Jaune's cheek. "They grow up so fast..." she said, wistfully to his mother, "It feels like it was only yesterday that he was crawling up on my lap, eager for stories..."
Jaune blushed. Aunt Salem's stories, full of wicked kings and bold heroines who confronted corrupt and evil gods, had been a highlight of his childhood. When he was little, he would monopolize his Aunt's time, hoping for candy, but even more so, the stories, which, when he got older, morphed into lessons learned from her directly. It was from his Aunt that Jaune resolved to become a Huntsman—to be a better kind of Huntsman, one who actually lived up to their creed and protected the weak and downtrodden, rather than blindly carried out the orders of the powerful.
But his Aunt looked at him, her eyes seeming to scan right through him as she assessed what words of wisdom he needed to hear. Finally, nodding, having looked into his soul, she said, "Not everyone you meet at Beacon will be good to you, and many who might seem good are never to be trusted, but… I suppose you've made up your mind?"
It was a real question. Jaune knew she wanted to hear the truth in his voice, not an answer that would please her, and, well, he had. "I have," he said, feeling as resolute as he had the day he'd summoned all his courage to put his application in the mail. "I want to be a Huntsman. The kind of Huntsman… the kind that you could be proud of."
"Jaune, Jaune, Jaune," she sighed, looking deep into his eyes, "You've always been my favorite nephew," a statement that very much startled Jaune. There had surely been many, many generations of Arc men who had been Aunt Salem's nephew that he had evidently been measured against. "And I always knew you had the family's heroic spirit… the life of a viticulturist was never for you. But… it's hard for me to accept. It's such a dangerous path to be a Huntsman, a place where you'll find the Grimm are hardly the monsters you need to fear most. Jaune..." she paused, for the first time in Jaune's life seeming, almost, hesitant, "I would only ask you to accept a boon from your Auntie, so she doesn't have to worry so much for your safety..."
"I… thank you, Aunt Salem."
She laid a hand on his shoulder and whispered something in a language Jaune didn't recognize until suddenly… Jaune felt a potent flash inside him, a surge of inner light that made him gasp as he felt like he could do anything, like his body weight nothing, lit it was more than just confidence but, rather, like all possibility inside himself was unleashed. It was a truly remarkable feeling, and Jaune looked to his Aunt with wonderment.
"I have unlocked your aura, my nephew, and I have granted you a Semblance that I… believe will aid you in your time at Beacon," she explained, and Jaune realized… Jaune realized there was a redness in her eyes, like she was holding back tears as she gave him a sorrowful look. "Please… for your Aunt, please stay safe out there, my dear Jaune."
Jaune gave his Aunt a tight hug. "I promise," he whispered to her.
"And please," she whispered back, almost too low for Jaune to hear, "please don't wait to give your poor mother some grandchildren, you're legally able to get married now and Saphron's made the both of us so happy with Adrian, but he's all the way in Mantle and she'd love to be more active with a darling little grandbaby."
Of course, of course, his Aunt wouldn't let a moment like this end without one of her perpetual reminders about bringing in the next generation of nieces and nephews for her.
"A granddaughter would mean so much to your poor mother... and myself, as well."
With a stifled laugh, Jaune just hugged his Aunt back and made sure to promise he'd get himself a girlfriend while there.
Well, well, well, hardly even a week's passed and I'm back on my bullshit with another comedy fic. This one is going to be more goofy comedy, more like "A Popular Guy" than the sweeter, more romantic moments in "The Fairest of Them All." But I hope you enjoy this ridiculous tale of our lovable doofus protagonist going through Beacon, secretly escorted by assassins and cultists on the command of an immortal witch. Who really wants him to hurry up and get to making some grandkids!
Next up: Knights in Salem's Service