Chapter 52: The New Vale Bratva.

"A prudent man... must behave like those archers who, if they are skillful, when the target seems too distant, know the capabilities of their bow and aim a good deal higher than their objective, not in order to shoot so high but so that by aiming high they can reach the target." ~ Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.

The next couple of days were quiet. Busy, hectic and full of work but relatively quiet. Mostly it was helping Sophia to secure whatever belonged to Nicky, making sure that the transfer of the real power went as smoothly as possible and putting claim to whatever rackets Nicky and his loyalists had which I was starting to learn were quite substantial.

Aside from his drug rackets, which were easy enough to seize, we found that he had multiple counterfeiting operations, arms dealings and all kinds of other businesses we were now taking hold of. This was usually done by either convincing whoever ran the front to join with us or face consequences. Not that it was difficult, news was getting around fast that Nicky was on the run and his officers were gone so many didn't have a choice but to bend the knee to Sophia and start kicking up their profits directly to her. Others weren't so easily swayed and usually we got rid of them. O-Ushi wasn't joking about shipping off bodies to a pig farm. But thankfully most of those people knew better than to let that happen.

The real trouble was the street gangs. The Bratva had almost twice as many street gangs under its wings than both the Kuroi Kuma Clan and the Torchwick Family put together. It was almost feudal how they managed these gangs, giving them territory and tasking them with putting the drugs out on the streets. Any gang that didn't kick up enough profit was fair game for others to take down or allow them to fight and expand their own territory in the city.

Needless to say, a major power shift became problematic. Half the gangs in the south side territories weren't willing to bend the knee to Sophia and seemed to think that they either needed to wait for Nicky to come back or that they had the opportunity to free themselves from the Bratva entirely. This wasn't good and we soon found ourselves arranging to have certain gang leaders either bribed or threatened depending on their attitude and value to us.

Those gangs that did bend the knee to the Old Guard weren't of much help either. They saw opportunity to expand their spheres of influence by attacking those who opposed the Old Guard in the hope of gaining their favor and expanding operations, especially after Roman handed over that warehouse along the river, everyone was eager to let the drugs flow into the city but Sophia was keeping them regulated as she promised dealing them out to the loyal gangs as she did before and sat on the rest of the supply. It actually put me at ease.

Before any of the gang wars could escalate to anything that would warrant police interference Sophia, with Roman and Junior's blessing called in the cavalry. She called on the Desperados to come into town and provide extra muscle on the streets to help stop any violence. This had only taken three days and already the gangs were quieting down. Many realized their supply of drugs wouldn't last without Sophia's help so they made agreements while the loyalists learned that starting shit wouldn't do them any favors and calmed down.

Those few inbetween that didn't get taken care of were quietly eliminated over time.

It wasn't always this easy. By this time there were no less than five captains loyal to Nicky who didn't capitulate and hadn't yet been eliminated. Some people found Nicky's apartment and we managed to bring back some personal items just for Deery to use to find him but it didn't work to our advantage. All Deery was able to tell was that Nicky hadn't left the kingdom, but aside from that things were shaky at best. He had clearly left the city and from what she could tell he was on the move. Since he hadn't gone back to Atlas we could only assume that he was staying to try to fight it out but no one had much hope for him. And most of this was happening under the nose of the cops and everyone else, most of it didn't even make the news, the violence was usually kept more or less behind closed doors. To them it all appeared pretty standard.

So far this time was spent mostly meeting with Sophia and O-Ushi to share information about all of this going on so things were kept clear. One night after a meeting in a club O-Ushi went back to my apartment and I finally told her the truth over some drinks. I told her that it wasn't an accident or an act of fate that had brought me to her little cab company, I told her everything, even about Blake and how being a former spy was what allowed us to get the drop on Nicky.

"Shit kid, you really make it difficult to be pissed." She told me over a glass of soju, we were sharing a bottle together.

"What?" I asked her. "I thought you would be furious at me?"

"A part of me is." O-Ushi said, her face was red but that could easily have been the alcohol. "A part of me really wants to beat another lesson into you but dammit, it's hard to feel that way after everything you've done. You got rid of Nicky."

"I didn't get rid of him." I told her, looking into my cup of soju. "He's still out there with Grigori."

"He's become a wounded animal on the run." O-Ushi told me. "Fuck kid, just this afternoon I had lunch with three Mafiya captains in the Atlesian Tea Room. They want to invest in Rickshaw Cab Co. That's fucking huge, I never thought that would have happened in my time, we're talking peace, real peace not that fucking sham we had with Nicky. We haven't had real peace since the Triumvirate broke apart. And you did that, you fucking did that."

"I couldn't just sit back and let Ozpin hand the city over to Nicky." I told her guiltily. "I knew what that would mean… too much was at stake."

"I agree, if Junior and the rest had been taken out we'd be invaded with street gangs right about now." O-Ushi told me, taking a sip of her drink. "But instead we're watching the Atlesians eat themselves, we're watching the best of them win. Nicky might be alive but he can't recover from this."

"Sophia doesn't share your confidence. She's afraid that some of her own will use this for their own benefit." I explained to her.

"I know, and she has a point." O-Ushi admitted to me. "But her fears are for the Bratva, for the Clan and the Family we are the victors of this fight."

"If the Bratva falls apart we could find ourselves with another Nicky." I said, voicing my fears.

"Another Nicky can't hold the same power." O-Ushi explained. "If the Old Guard falls we're going to take what we can before whatever Atlas stooge can establish himself."

"But isn't that just putting us back where we were before Nicky?" I asked her. "Sure he might be weaker but that's just more reason for him to lash out or for the Cartels to involve themselves in this affair. If Sophia and the Old Guard fail we won't have a lasting peace, and that's not good enough."

"So what would you have Sophia do?" O-Ushi asked me.

"I understand and respect why Sophia wants the Vale Bratva to be run democratically. And for now it might be the right move to prevent them from fighting over who holds power. But I don't think it can last." I explained to her.

"You think Sophia should declare herself boss?" O-Ushi asked me.

I nodded to her. "Maybe I'm wrong, maybe if they can endure this they can be run in such a manner. But I think this new Bratva needs someone to keep the authority in line and think about what's best for everyone and this city. And I do think that's Sophia."

"Then you should tell her that." O-Ushi told me.

"I don't want to presume to tell her how to manage her business or the Bratva." I told O-Ushi. "I haven't been in the game long enough to presume as much."

"You've barely been in this game and you already have played it masterfully." O-Ushi told me. "That's why I can't fucking stay mad at you kid, even though I want to. Things have changed and for the better, you're not as green as you think. I'm even starting to wonder if the rumors are true."

"They can't be." I told O-Ushi. "I was a fucking traitor."

"Only a handful of people know that." O-Ushi told me. "And the fact is that Roman and Junior still keep you around, hell, Sophia even respects you."

It was true that the rumor mill was talking about me more and more. Everyone knew that I had a hand in planning out the hit at the meeting, the fact that Nicky was clearly planning an assassionation himself prevented the Family or the Clan from earning a bad reputation of killing people during a peace talk. Everyone knew that Nicky broke the rules first and no one was supprised.

Talk of me helping to eliminate Nicky's officers and send him on the run was starting to exaggerate things. Just a day ago I had heard a 24k Dragon member ask me if I had really fired the rocket that killed the hit team. I was trying my best to ignore the rumors, I felt that addressing them would only fuel the fire but even without doing anything they continued on. Even Fat Mike's man Joey asked me if I was Roman's underboss. That didn't make sense to me, I wasn't even a caporegime. And I had no idea how to quell these rumors, I didn't even know if I could.

"I'm happy to have respect." I told O-Ushi. "I imagine it's going to take me places, but I'm not worried about baseless rumors. I work for Roman and that's it. I'm not his advisor or his right hand or anything like that. I'm just me."

"You're probably right." O-Ushi said, refilling her cup of soju.

"Are you sure you don't want to hit me?" I asked her, feeling like she was letting me off the hook a little too easy. "I'd let you, no one has to know."

"It wouldn't make me feel any better about this." She told me with a shrug. "Besides I'm drunk, if I hit you once I'll want to hit you again and next thing you know I'll have a hammer in my hands. I'd rather just look past all of this, if Junior can then I should."

"So you forgive me?" I asked her.

"If you had told me before we put the boot to Nicky I probably would be a lot angrier." She admitted to me. "Good news before bad news tends to have that effect on people. Fact is kid… I've never felt so proud until this year, watching you become a big shot, maybe it wasn't chance or fate that brought you to my cab company, maybe you always planned on moving up through me. Everything I felt watching you grow, watching you become made… it's still there and I can't kill it."

"I couldn't have done it without you." I told her. "If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't have learned that there is honor among thieves."

O-Ushi chuckled and refilled my soju glass. "To Headmaster Ozpin!" She said, declaring a toast. "I will be forever grateful that he sent you through my door, and may he burn in hell."

I smiled wryly. "To Oz, may the son of a bitch get what's coming to him."

We clinked glasses and drank.

"I wish everyone felt about this the way you did." I told her, downing the soju and pouring myself some more.

"You mean Neo?" O-Ushi asked me.

I nodded to her.

"You really like her don't you?" She asked me with a bit of a smile.

"I do." I admitted to her drunkenly releasing a groan of frustrations. "How did my fucking love life get so damned complicated? I should have known to keep my distance but gods, I was weak willed."

O-Ushi shrugged. "But you didn't keep your distance, none of us did, you got close to us and that's why you couldn't do what that old man wanted you to do."

"Yeah, but most of you have forgiven me." I said to her, still astonished that instead of hatred for my betrayal I was greeted with far more understanding than I deserved. "I suppose I deserved one person to hate me."

"She doesn't hate you." O-Ushi told me. "That's why she's so fucking pissed at you."

I raised my eyebrow at her. "I don't understand?" I asked her, my booze blurred mind wasn't making any sense of that.

"I do." O-Ushi told me. "I was a young girl once, the more you care the more it fucking hurts."

That didn't make me feel any better, it just made me feel even more like a piece of shit. "I wish I had just come clean sooner, if I had, maybe it wouldn't be so bad."

"Nah." O-Ushi told me. "If you came clean sooner you'd be dead, that's the truth."

I nodded seeing that she was right. Taking another drink.

"But what about that faunus gal?" O-Ushi asked me.

"What about her?" I asked, feeling myself tiring because of the alcohol.

"You really liked her too, didn't you?" She asked me.

"I did." I admitted to her. "But she was from a part of my life that's finished. It doesn't matter anymore."

"But it hurts, doesn't it?" O-Ushi asked me.

I nodded. It was something I didn't want to think about very much, but I did think about Blake now and then. Thinking about how my heart had ended up being split certainly didn't help my opinion of myself, I felt greedy, I had turned my back on any hope of there being a future between Blake but I still thought about it, I still thought about that night we made love. But I knew that whatever we had could never be, that was that and whatever I had formed with Neo seemed to be dead as well.

"You're not the first wiseguy to find their heart split in two, Jaune, and you won't be the last. This life is full of hurt kid." O-Ushi told me. "I don't know what this has in store for you, but it always leaves scars in your heart."

"You're talking about Paulie, aren't you?" I asked her. "I know you two are in love."

"That's one part of this life." O-Ushi told me. "We're friends and allies and lovers, but we can't ever be together, not truly."

"Why? The Clan and the Family are as thick as thieves." I said to her.

"Yes, but they are separate." O-Ushi explained. "It's a rule, not one that is mentioned very often but a rule nonetheless, we can't get married. It would be considered a conflict of interest if we did and we couldn't continue on with our positions."

"That sucks." I said to her.

"It does." She admitted to me. "We've talked about retiring together but… we both love our work."

"I see." I told her.

"But we still talk about it." O-Ushi said to me. "I don't know if we'll ever retire but if we do… we want it to be together."

Not long after that O-Ushi fell asleep, drunk on my couch and I myself tried my best to fall asleep in my bed. Alcohol did prove to be an effective means of helping to keep the nightmares at bay, but when it didn't work I found myself waking up in the dark still drunk and often feeling sick so I hardly was able to consider it a solution. Besides, the last thing I wanted to do was look at alcohol as a solution to my emotional problems, that was the last thing I needed.

It was early the next morning when I was awoken by a scroll call from Sophia. I shielded my eyes from the morning sun and fumbled on the nightstand before finding the device and bringing it to my ear all the while Sophia's ringtone played.

"Hello Sophia." I said, trying not to sound like I had just woken up with a hangover.

"Mr. Arc, I am afraid we have a visitor in our city." Sophia told me.

"A visitor?" I asked her. "What kind of visitor?"

"Last night a representative from Atlas arrived at the airport and requested a personal meeting with me." Sophia explained.

I forced myself to sit up in my bed. "What kind of meeting?"

"I don't know." Sophia admitted to me. "So far our former superiors back in Atlas haven't had much to say about our declaration of independence. Apparently they have decided to take the matter up in the next committee meeting."

"So you think it's a trap?" I asked her.

"I don't know." Sophia admitted. "This request for a meeting is rather unusual, if Atlas decided to simply send a hitman to Vale I doubt they would do something as obvious as request a meeting in a private setting. And he requested that it happen immediately and at the venue of my choice so long as it isn't public."

"Are you going to accept?" I asked her.

"Yes, I was hoping you could accommodate me and allow me to use the Moonstone for this meeting since it is still early in the morning and it shouldn't yet be open." She explained to me.

"Fine… I'll tell Roman an Atlas representative is here for a meeting." I told her.

"Go ahead, but if it is all the same to Mr. Torchwick and Mr. Xiong I think it would be best that you and O-Ushi attend in their stead. If it is an assassination attempt I think it best that they are not there. If they get me, the Bratva can survive." Sophia told me. Personally I figured the Vale Bratva was fucked without her but I wasn't going to argue that with her.

"I'll relay your requests." I told her. It makes sense and even if Roman did want to be there himself I was sure that if he was currently in Longshore he probably didn't have time to arrive anyways. "But if we're doing it at my club I want my crew there for security."

"I expected as much, there were no conditions on the security of the meetings so feel free to bring as many of your personal men as you like." Sophia told me.

I smiled. "Yes ma'am."

I called Cardin and told him to pick up some breakfast and to head over to the Moonstone for an early meeting before calling Roman and explaining the situation to him.

"So, those bigwigs in Atlas sent a representative, did they?" He asked me, a little surprised with this development.

"I think it's a little soon to think of it like that." I told Roman. "They want a private meeting, it could be just one of those bigwigs asking for a sit down."

"But it means someone in Atlas wants to talk." Roman told me. "And the simple fact that they're apparently discussing their actions in a committee tells me that they're divided on Sophia and her little revolution. So try to learn what you can with this meeting."

"I will." I told him.

"And if you think they're there to get rid of Sophia, get out of there. But no heroics, she might be our ally but there are worse things for us than the Atlesians killing each other." Roman told me.

"I understand." I said, not seeing eye to eye with the cold assessment but understanding it.

"Good. You should also expect to be hearing from Cinder soon." Roman told me. "She wants to schedule some more Fang rallys in your warehouses. Now that the Atlesians have been taken care of, she believes it is time to start them back up."

"I see." I said to him, not a fan of the idea but I understood the reasoning. "Does she…?"

"I told her everything." Roman told me, confirming my fears. "Not that it was a surprise considering she was the first to suspect you, I only confirmed her fears and set the record straight. She'll likely want to talk to you about that."

I was a little unsettled thinking about that little meeting. Cinder did seem like the type of person to burn something and apologize never but it was another case where I had to trust Roman that he was doing the right thing for me. Personally I would have been happy if Cinder remained ignorant to my relationship with Ozpin.

"Very well, if the Moonstone ends up burning to the ground you should know why." I told him.

"I think you'll be surprised." Roman told me before hanging up on the call. I finished getting dressed and walked out into my living room to find that O-Ushi had helped herself to a cup of coffee and had poured one for me.

"Did Sophia call you?" I asked her, picking up a mug and taking a sip not caring that it was black and bitter.

"She did." O-Ushi told me. "Junior wants me to attend and meet with that Atlas bigwig and help with any negotiations if I can while standing firm on the position that the Clan supports the independence of the Vale Bratva."

"I was told the same thing, except that I should worry about myself if they're trying to assassinate her." I told her.

"Not a bad idea." O-Ushi told me with a shrug.

We went out and picked up some quick breakfast from a drive thru before heading over to the Moonstone with just a little bit of time left. Cardin was there with my crew along with Boris and Sophia idly talking to one another. Boris had his sleeve pulled up showing a prosthetic arm showing how he could project a hardlight shield.

"I have not needed to use it much of late." Boris explained to them. "Your little dust heists were making it difficult to get a hold of the necessary dust for its use."

"How did you lose the arm?" Deery asked him. "If you don't mind me asking."

"I volunteered to get the prosthetic." Boris answered, clearly unbothered by the question.

"Boris here volunteered to test out some of the latest Atlas technology back when we were in the army." Sophia explained to them.

"So he… he offered to lose his arm?" Cardin asked him.

"I did." Boris answered with a shrug. "I believed it would aid in my combat capabilities."

"Though it was difficult having it taken away when he went to prison. Only having one arm in the gulag made things rather difficult." Sophia said with a sigh. "But that's Atlas for you."

"How'd you get it back?" Dove asked.

"We tracked down the right people and persuaded them to build a replacement." Boris answered him.

"I'm glad to see everyone getting along so well." I commented, approaching the booth and taking a seat with O-Ushi.

Sophia gave me a bit of a smile. "Your crew is certainly interesting. Did you all truly know each other at Beacon?"

"That was a different time." Cardin told her with a bit of a chuckle.

"Yeah, a very different time." I agreed. "When is this representative supposed to arrive?"

"He should be here soon." Sophia told him. "I just texted him the location of the Moonstone, if he isn't here in twenty minutes we leave."

"That's not very accommodating for early morning traffic." I told her.

"I don't want to give him the chance to try anything." Sophia told me. "Anyone from Atlas should consider themselves lucky that I'm willing to have this meeting."

"Shouldn't you have someone else from the Old Guard here?" I asked her.

"A couple trusted members know about this." Sophia told me. "They agree that I should act as representative, meaning they want me to keep a target on my back."

I chuckled at that as Boris went with Cardin outside to wait for our guest to arrive. It didn't take very long for the front door to open and for them to come in escorting a balding middle aged man.

We stood up to approach.

"Hello Sophia." The man greeted with a nod of his head. "I am Aleski, I am pleased you agreed to meet with me today."

"The Accountant." Sophia said. "I have heard of you. This is O-Ushi of the Kuroi Kuma Clan and Jaune Arc of the Torchwick Crime Family. They are here today as representatives of their own organizations."

"The Hammer and The Gentleman." Aleski said. "It seems all our reputations have preceded ourselves here today, and may I offer my thanks to Mr. Arc and the Torchwick Family for letting us meet here in this club of yours. If you are willing, I would very much like to attend it while it is open."

"That could be arranged." I said to him. "But before anything like that happens I believe we have business to discuss."

"Of course, let us not delay, things are already in motion and my superiors back in Atlas are expecting answers." Aleski told us. I motioned to a table and we all sat down in the middle of my empty club.

"What kind of answers?" O-Ushi asked him.

"Answers that will determine if my superiors will back your separation. The Authority in Atlas is rather divided on this subject and I speak for those that are considering supporting the Vale Bratva separating from our influence." Aleski explained.

"Why would you or your superiors support such a thing?" I asked him, wondering what those old men in Atlas could possibly gain by Sophia and her followers throwing them off.

Aleski smiled. "There are those of us that do not see our arrangements here in Vale as profitable."

"Nicky's father Alexander has maintained a tight leash on Bratva business here in Vale." Sophia told me.

"Indeed." Aleski agreed. "And what is bad for Alexander is not necessarily bad for the Bratva. He has enough businesses for the rest of us trying to make a profit in Vale is rather difficult, and with these recent rumors many of us have begun to view Alexander and his son quite distastefully."

"Which rumors?" O-Ushi asked him.

"These rumors of… government assistance." Aleski told us, saying the words with a bit of disgust.

"They're not rumors." I told him. "It's all true, Nicky has been working with General Ironwood through Grigori."

"Do you have evidence?" He asked me, sounding not mocking but interested.

"None that would convince the Atlas Authority." Sophia told him.

"Then the truth is irrelevant. Alexander is doing whatever he can to quell these rumors and it is doing little more than stoking the flames. My superiors would rather the rumors spread like fire so I suggest you do not attempt to give Nicky or his father any way of dousing the flames."

"Very well." O-Ushi told him. "So, by allowing Sophia and the Vale Bratva to become independent, you rid yourselves of Alexander's influence, meaning the Authority in Atlas benefit?"

"That depends." Aleski told her.

"Depends on what?" Sophia asked him.

"What kind of business can I and my superiors expect to have in Vale in the coming future?" He asked her. "You say you desire to be free of those of us in Atlas but there is too much revenue to be lost on our illicit exports. You can squeeze Alexander out of the picture but what about the rest of us?"

"We are willing to continue importing your illicit goods." Sophia told him.

"But at what cost?" Aleski told her. "Alexander demanded a hefty tribute for us to send our goods here and reap profits, if we are to vote on your behalf we need to know that we will come to terms."

"My accomplices have yet to discuss how we intend to charge imports from Atlas." Sophia told him.

"Well that is unfortunate." Aleski told her. "Because I cannot persuade my superiors to back you otherwise."

"Well I am sorry you wasted your time." Sophia told him codly.

"What arrangements do you want?" I asked, interjecting myself into the negotiation. Perhaps it was out of bounds for me but I certainly didn't want this to come to nothing. Sophia flashed me a somewhat annoyed look.

"We would require no more than a five percent tribute." Aleski answered.

"Are you fucking insane!?" Sophia asked him with a dangerous growl. "That's robbery!"

"An interesting complaint considering we are thieves." Aleski said, not phased by her anger.

"The Bratva is not to steal from each other." Sophia said. "That is one of our oldest and most sacred laws."

"But can you still call yourself Bratva?" Aleski asked her. "Throwing off the yoke of Atlas has made many see you and your conspirators as little more than renegades to our organization. No one has claimed to be Bratva without answering to the Atlas Authority."

"Nothing in our codes requires it either." Sophia countered.

"I am not here to debate with you Sophia. I am merely here to relay the interests of my superiors. Alexander has kept a tight grip on Vale through his son and we are interested to see him lose that grip. But only if we are sure that it will be profitable." Aleski explained to her.

"No." Sophia told him. "You're trying to take advantage of our situation and line your pockets. But even if your superiors vote to intervene there is no guarantee, we already put Nicky on the run and we could do the same with whoever you send. What do you think that will do for business, huh?"

"I agree." Aleski told her.

"You do?" I asked him, raising my eyebrow.

"Certainly." Aleski told me. "We are aware of your newfound allies in the Koroi Kuma Clan and the Torchwick Family and personally I believe it would be foolish to attempt further intervention. It is how I convinced my superiors to let me come to Atlas with this offer. But many in Atlas can only think about the potential gains and I believe they can only be swayed if they are assured they can profit. Whatever happens we are sure that Alexander's influence in Vale will be forever weakened."

"How much did Alexander charge for importing illicit goods from Atlas?" O-Ushi asked him.

"I do not believe that is appropriate to talk about in front of a Clan representative." Aleski told her. "I already find having you two at this meeting most unusual I am sure you understand."

"We do understand." I assured him. "It is natural that you would wish to keep Bratva business within the Bratva, but we sit here today because Sophia and her comrades have decided to tie their interests with our organizations. We are here because it is our wish to stand together now and in the future."

Aleski considered O-Ushi and I for a long moment. "Alexander charged my superiors thirty percent of all imports coming to Vale. It was rather steep, I am sure you can understand that tribute like that made doing business difficult."

"What if I offer them fifteen?" Sophia suggested. "I am sure I can get the rest of my comrades to agree to fifteen."

"I admit that is fair." Aleski went on. "The problem is my superiors are sure they can already get a fair price if they decide to intervene. We could vote on a new Vale head and have him stay in line with our interests. I am afraid that fair won't cut it."

Sophia shook her head. "If I tell my comrades the price is five they're not going to listen."

"I understand your plight." Aleski told her. "But I cannot guarantee any swayed minds unless you offer something more than simply fair."

"Are they so sure an intervention will go their way?" Sophiai asked him.

"They haven't ruled it out." Aleski told her. "Nicky and Grigori are still alive and I can guarantee you they will stay and fight."

"That's futile." Sophia told him.

"It is." Aleski agreed. "But if Nicky comes back to Atlas with his tail tucked between his legs then Alexander will completely lose his influence over Vale and with that the Atlas Bratva. Nicky and Grigori are as good as dead if they ever come back to Atlas. But we know he is here, he is going to fight and few as they are he has loyalists who could take up the task of running Vale. It means they have a chance to regain control."

"And if they were eliminated in a timely manner?" O-Ushi asked him.

Aleski smiled wickedly. "I believe that would shift opinions in your favor."

"When will they vote on this?" Sophia asked him.

"Two days." He answered. "I cannot make any guarantees until then."

"How long are you going to stay in Vale?" Sophia asked him.

"A week, unless the council votes to intervene in which case I will take my leave and return home." Aleski told him.

"Then tell your superiors that I will discuss our terms with my comrades." Sophia told him. "I will consider five percent."

"But if the tides shift further into your favor you will reconsider… I can agree to this. My superiors might even agree to abstain from any vote and delay things." Aleski told her with a smile.

"I did not expect you to be so accommodating." O-Ushi told him.

"I have my own reasons for seeing that this ends with Alexander's influence in Vale being put to an end." He explained. "His son's actions here in Vale have stirred up too much attention for my liking. I believe it is best that this comes to an end."

"I am happy to say that we are in agreement then." Sophia told him.

"I am happy as well." Alesky told her, standing up and offering his hand. Sophia shook it and we watched him leave out the door.

I leaned back in my chair waiting for a few moments after he had left. So far it had been a far more promising meeting than I had any right to expect. But looking over at Sophia and the furrows in her brow I could tell that she was concerned.

"What do you make of this meeting?" I asked her.

"It tells me that the big wigs in Atlas are scrambling to profit from this as much as possible." She explained to me. "But more than that, certain parties are more interested in seeing Nicky's father lose influence."

"Having such a firm grip on Vale likely put that son of a bitch in high standing." O-Ushi said, moving over to my bar and grabbing a can of club soda. "And there's nothing more hated than a prick with power."

"Alexander has certainly abused his control here in Vale." Sophia agreed. "I imagine that is why the Accountant is willing to help me circumvent the demands of these so-called sympathizers."

"You can't agree on five percent." O-Ushi told her. "There's no way you could get the rest of your captains to agree."

"They are not my captains." Sophia corrected. "I simply represent them, but you are right, they won't agree and I imagine that whichever superiors in Atlas Aleski is representing don't think they expect us to say yes to such pitiful terms. They're either trying to low ball us or they're trying to threaten us. In all honesty it is likely both."

"So you're going to play their games?" I asked her.

"I don't have much choice at the moment." Sophia told me. "With our alliances we might be able to deal with Atlas deciding to interfere but we're still in a precarious position. At best it would be a major setback and I can't have that if we're to survive. But hopefully we can stall them if we secure a victory."

"I'll put work out to our street gangs to double their efforts." O-Ushi told me. "These people have gone to ground so they're the most likely to find something."

"Tell them I'll pay a hundred thousand for any information that helps us find them. A million if it's Nicky." Sophia told her.

"If you do that you're going to get every two bit hood calling in with bullshit." O-Ushi told her. "Trust me, I know how to motivate my gangs, but a bounty like that is just going to stir up a hornet's nest and make your enemies hide deeper."

Sophia raised an eyebrow. "So what do you propose?"

"Give them a reason to crawl out of whatever cave they're hiding in." O-Ushi told her. "If they're staying here because their only hope is to fight, they need something to motivate them."

"What about some of those gangs holding out?" I suggested. "If they're going to be working against you it seems they're Nicky's best bet for some muscle. Perhaps you can use them as bait for Nicky's captains."

Sophia's brow furrowed in contemplation. "There are a few I suspect Nicky will attempt to use against me, I could let some intel slip… something that might draw their attention. Something Nicky will need if he wants to continue to fight."

"Like an arms shipment or stash of lien." O-Ushit suggested to her. "But how are you planning on letting that information slip?"

"Leave that to me." Sophia told her. "I believe I have an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone in this. But I might need to use some of your resources to provide bait."

I knew she was talking about the potential leak that had revealed Anna's existence to Nicky and I gave her a nod. The less people knew about how she was planning to smoke out potential traitors the better.

"I can provide your bait." I said to her, with all the weapons Roman and I were shipping in, setting up a little bait for some desperate gangsters wouldn't be too difficult or costly. "I just need to get Roman's blessing and I can give you something to lay out."

Sophia nodded to me and we adjourned our meeting. O-Ushi left to report to Junior but Sophia stuck around in the Moonstone for a more casual conversation. Mostly about her daughter.

"Why did you stop staying in the Torchwick estate?" Sophia asked me over a cup of tea.

"I wore out my stay." I told her plainly over a simple pot of tea I heated for her.

"According to Anna it's more than that, you and Neo seem to have had some kind of falling out it seems." Sophia mused to me.

I didn't say anything, I only looked away from her.

"Don't worry I have no intention of prying into your private affairs." Sophia told me as she picked up the cup of Atlesian tea I poured for her. "I just hope this has nothing to do with me or the alliance between the Bratva and the Family."

I shook my head at her. "You don't need to worry about that, it's just between us. Neo just has some trust issues with the Bratva she needs to work out."

"Well that's to be expected." Sophia said to me.

"What about you?" I asked her, trying to move the subject away from my predicament with Neo. I was already brooding enough about it without Sophia commentary. "Do you see this alliance working in the long run?"

"If I didn't I wouldn't have agreed to it." Sophia told me. "But I understand that we have a long road to build trust ahead of us. The Bratva has a rather bloody reputation in this city and I cannot see us moving together unless we put that behind us."

"From what O-Ushi explained to me, the Bratva destroyed the faunus gangs when you first came here to Vale." I told her, not wanting to sound accusatory but understanding that it was still somewhat of a sore spot for some in the Family and the Clan. Especially to some of the few faunus members like Bruce.

"That is certainly true." Sophia explained to me. "But that was before my time, but from what I was told the conflict began over those gangs trying to go back on a business arrangement."

"What kind of arrangement?" I asked her.

"You see, your Family likes to get in bed with labor unions." She explained to me. "But back in the day the Bratva did the exact opposite. We busted them, any time workers when on strike the Schnees or other powerful people would pay us under the table to break it up, protect scabs, threaten picketers, that sort of thing. And back when we first came here to Vale that's exactly what we were doing. But our predecessors realized rather quickly that there was more money to be made working for the unions and we tried to arrange something with their leader Sarah "Sharp" Rothstein. We'd act as an inbetween for the unions and the company and for a while it was working and the Bratva started using the company to get their drugs around, kicking some profits to the gang leaders."

"So why did it go wrong?" I asked her.

"I don't know the exact details but things got out of hand. Some faunus gang members were caught trying to smuggle drugs in SDC trucks and it was made public, union contracts were cut, strikes started and turned to riots. And as far as the faunus gangs were concerned the Bratva was on the side of the SDC which wasn't exactly wrong. Sarah Rosthstein was assassinated and the next thing you know the Bratva was at war trying to protect its investment and wrestle control of the drugs away from the gangs."

"And it could have all been stopped if only Tony Torchwick stepped in." I said, knowing the rest of the story and how the Triumvirate crumbled after that.

"Should he have?" Sophia asked me.

"What are you talking about?" I asked her. "Everything that was formed crumbled because he wouldn't come to the defense of the faunus gangs."

"Perhaps." Sophia agreed. "But considering how the drug trade was doubtlessly booming back then I'm sure Tony Torchwick saw the gangs as a growing rival and threat to his power and I'm sure "Papa" Hei Xiong saw it the same way or he would have stepped in as well. Intervening on behalf of the faunus gangs wouldn't have been wise if you ask me. He was probably hoping that both sides destroyed each other instead of leaving us victorious."

"That's a rather interesting perspective to come from a Bratva member of all people." I commented to her. "Usually my circles blame Roman's older brother for ruining what they had and letting the Bratva take power."

"I am sure it seems that simple with hindsight." Sophia explained to me. "But from what I've heard from the veterans of that little war tell me it seemed clear that the faunus were in a position to overshadow everyone in Vale, it's why the Bratva eventually decided to try and ally with them. Helping them would have only allowed them to continue to grow in power and likely without the constraints both parties have put on the Bratva. I am sure that Roman's predecessor saw it as a way of maintaining a semblance of balance here in the city."

"Not that anyone views it that way." I said to her, but it was an interesting thing to think about, I never really spoke to Roman about his brother or what he thought about his decisions. "Tony was still forced to relinquish his title to Roman and was assassinated anyways."

"It's the nature of this business." Sophia said to me with a shrug. "Personally I think it was already too late for the Triumvirate, Sarah Rothstien was already dead and the faunus didn't have a chosen representative to take her place. They weren't a unified body like our organizations, they were a confederation of street gangs that fought each other plenty of times."

"You've certainly given me something to think about." I told her.

"I believe understanding the past is going to be necessary for a prosperous future." Sophia told me. "And my understanding of the past tells me we will need to maintain a delicate balance of power if we are to avoid conflict."

"I will certainly tell Roman of your thoughts." I told her. "But in the meantime I think our concerns are more focused in the short term. Maintaining a balance of power is hardly a concern when we still have plenty of enemies hidden in the shadows."

We finished our tea and Sophia left to attend to other business and I prepared myself for my meeting with Cinder. I made sure my crew was all there with me just in case things got ugly. Considering Cinder knew about me already I figured she wouldn't try to kill me unless she wanted trouble from Roman but knowing how she could be I at least wanted some fighters there with me just in case. I waited in my office with Cardin when Sky peeked his head in.

"She's here." Sky told me. "And she brought her cronies."

That was to be expected. "Allow them in."

Sky let the door swing open and Cinder stepped in past him followed by Mercury and Emerald. Emerald looked over to Cardin and I looked serious but not at all hostile unlike Mercury who gave me and Cardin a glare. Cinder sat down as did Emerald, Mercury remained standing with his arms crossed.

"Hello Cinder." I greeted her. "You're looking well."

"I'm in a rather pleasant mood." Cinder said to me, her velvety voice giving me little comfort. "Recent events, including your Family's recent victories against the Atlesians have put my plans back on track."

"I'm happy to hear that your plans are going well." I said to her. "Drink?"

Cinder dismissed my offer of a drink with a wave of her hand. "You should be happy to hear that they're going according to plan, otherwise I'd be calling for your head right about now."

Mercury scoffed with annoyance. "He's the reason that fucking snitch Tukson escaped!"

I chuckled, there was no point denying that I had intentionally botched that up. "You didn't exactly make it very hard for me." I said with a little smirk.

"You motherfucker!" Mercury growled, Cardin stepped forward glaring at him.

"Enough!" Cinder said to him, keeping her eyes on me. "It is hardly of any consequence, the fallout of that has been dealt with in a matter that has actually favored us. Adam's ducks are in a row."

"He's a fucking spy!" Mercury told her.

"Not anymore." Emerald said calmly, giving me a friendly but small smile. "We know that now."

"It could be a trick!" Mercury said, continuing to give me a hateful glare.

"If it was a trick we would have been stopped already." Cinder said, giving me a quizzical look and pulling out her scroll. "Besides, we have it directly from Ozpin." Cinder put the scroll on my desk and I picked it up looking at it.

It was a report from Ozpin dated the night when I betrayed him explaining that the Atlesians power structure was crumbling and that I, or J, as Ozpin labeled me, was now to be considered a rogue asset. It seemed that Cinder had done far more than just get a peek at Ozpin's classified files, she was able to access his information regularly. I had no idea how she was doing it but it made me all the more confident in my decision to turn my back on Ozpin, there was no way he could win, not with her able to look at his cards like this.

"Interesting." I commented. "How did you get a hold of this?"

"That's a trade secret I'm afraid." Cinder told me. "And I'm here because I have questions for you."

"I'll answer what I can." I told her, opening my hands to her.

"Why didn't you tell Ozpin about me?" She asked.

"When I learned about you and your hand in this I was out of contact with him." I answered her simply. "By the time we re-established contact I was already more than a little distrustful of him and his promise to let me attend Beacon."

Mercury grunted. "You're not missing anything, believe me."

"Mercury, sit down and be quiet or I'm going to let Cardin here beat you all over again." Cinder said casually, her threat was delivered so cooly that it took me a second to even register as a threat. Cardin smirked and popped his knuckles for emphasis watching Mercury obediently take a seat. I had heard about the beating Neo and Cardin had given him while I was imprisoned and personally I wasn't happy about it. As much as I disliked Mercury I didn't want to antagonize him more than I had to.

With Mercury subdued and quietly seated Cinder resumed her conversation with me as if nothing had happened. "I can't say I'm surprised, many people within my organization have had rather personal histories with the old headmaster."

"Really?" I asked her, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh yes." Cinder said. "I haven't personally suffered by his hand but yours is not the first defection I have seen from his side."

I did find that an interesting and peculiar revelation. I still had no idea who exactly Cinder was or what her goals were but if she really was allied with others who had defected from Ozpin it sounded almost up my alley. If I had any respect for her or whatever she was planning to do with a bunch of heavily armed terrorists I might have given the prospect some serious thought. I almost wish Roman would give the word to just off her but for now I needed to pretend that I was a loyal ally.

"It sounds like an interesting club." I said to her with a smirk.

"It certainly is." Cinder said. "But does Ozpin know? What are his plans?"

"You think he shared that with me?" I asked her. "All I can tell you is what I know from what little he's been asking me to find out. Which was mostly about the dust and the weapons which I told him were being moved out of the city. As far as I can tell, old Oz thinks Roman is the star of this show."

"That is good to know." Cinder told me. "And you truly have no idea what his or Ironwood's plans are?"

"As far as I know, assassinating Roman and Junior for Nicky was the plan." I told her. "After that I have no idea what he thinks he can get away with, but he lost his chance to stop the dust and weapons a long time ago. Even if everything was raided right now it wouldn't stop what the Fang already has, which is enough to invade Patch if they wanted. If he's going to make a move it will probably be towards whatever operation you have going in the southeast."

Cinder gave me a nod of agreement. "Speaking of the Fang I suggest we keep this news away from Adam, I doubt he would be so forgiving or sensible if he knew the truth."

"I agree." I said to her with a nod.

"Like I said, my organization has a number of defectors. When my business here in Vale is finished I might just introduce you." She said with a pleasant smile. "If you play your cards right."

"I look forward to it." I said to her, smiling back and lying through my teeth. I had no idea how Roman was going to deal with her, but I would feel much better knowing she was gone.

Cinder stood up and offered me her hand. I stood up and accepted it.

I yelped in pain as I found her hand to be red hot to the touch, burning me through my gloves. I tried to pull my hand away from her but she tightened my grip and held on, my right hand was nothing but burning searing pain.

I heard Cardin step forward ready to defend me and I raised my left palm to him, making him stop before he did anything we'd all regret. If he moved to attack Cinder then things would certainly get out of hand, Emerald and Mercury would move to defend her and things would get worse from there.

I pressed my lips together trying to avoid screaming as I looked into Cinder's eyes, the molten gold look that bore into me. A groan escaped from my lips but eventually I managed to work through the pain and meet her gaze.

"I want to make one thing very clear to you, Jaune." Cinder said to me, her velvety voice remaining cool and controlled as I started to smell the expensive leather of my gloves burning, followed by my flesh. "You are alive because I have deemed it, if I didn't have the proof I do about your defection I would let Mercury take out his frustration before turning you to a pile of ashes!"

I looked over Cinder's shoulder to see Mercury smirking with satisfaction watching Cinder turn her wrath my way. I eventually stopped trying to wrestle my hand away, eventually the pain just dulled and I just stared into her eyes. It was just pain, she was simply trying to make a point, a crude show of dominance through violence. I could deal with that, pain was something I had become acquainted with, such a graceless gesture wasn't going to control me.

"You have been an asset to Roman and I and you might have a place in the future. But don't think for a second that I will forget the fact that you came here to fuck us! And if I ever get the feeling that you're going to fuck me over I won't hesitate to destroy you. Do you understand? Is that clear, Jaune?"

"Crystal!" I strained to speak without screaming.

"What was that?" Cinder asked me. I couldn't hear you."

"I understand!" I said, louder this time.

Cinder smiled at me. "Good." She purred before releasing my hand. I pulled it back and cradled it. It was red and black and the skin was charred. I activated my aura to begin healing it, tears were running down my face.

"Great things await you and Roman, Jaune." Cinder told me as she turned away to saunter out of my office. "Stay your course and you might get to be a part of the new world, remember that."

"I will." I said to her, already feeling the pain rapidly fade as my aura healed the wound on my hand removing the burns as if they never existed. It was such a petty display of power, it was nothing to endure.

Mercury enjoyed a smug little chuckle seeing me cradling my hand before turning to follow Cinder out. Emerald lingered a moment longer with a sad and regretful look on her face.

"Can I talk to Cardin and Jaune for a moment, ma'am?" Emerald asked Cinder.

"Make it quick." Cinder ordered her as she left out the door.

I fell down in my chair watching as the skin on my hand slowly began to reform. I forced my finger to flex just to prove to myself that they could, if it wasn't for my aura being unlocked I'd be left with a cripled hand.

Cardin fixed Emerald with a stare and she sighed. "I'm sorry about that… Cinder just wanted to make sure you understand that she's serious."

I nodded to Emerald as I massaged my hand.

"I just want to say… I'm glad you're on our side now." Emerald told us, looking from me to Cardin. "Both of you."

"I'm on Jaune's side." Cardin clarified for her.

Emerald gave a nod of understanding to him. "I understand that… and I'm glad that we're going to be working together in the future. It's not all like this… Cinder is a good person."

"Is she?" Cardin asked her.

"Cardin!" I chided. I didn't need him opening voicing complaints against the woman.

"She's been good to me." Emerald told him. Holding Cardin's gaze. "Remember what I said… she's my family."

"And what kind of future do you expect from her?" I asked, deciding that we might as well have this conversation.

Emerald shrugged. "I don't know… but I'll be happy to have a place in it. Goodbye Jaune… Cardin." She turned and left out the door leaving Cardin and I staring at it.

"That bitch!" Cardin cursed, slamming his fist on my desk. "You should've let me smash that face of hers. We're made! She can't do that!"

"Those rules don't apply to everyone." I told Cardin, watching as the blisters on my hand faded away. "And besides… this is nothing, I shortened my pinky for Junior, let her think this actually scares me."

"You should at least tell Roman." Cardin said to me, staring at my hand.

"I will." I assured him. "But it won't matter, Roman is in bed with her and her machinations for the time being so the best thing I can do is wait for this to be over."

Cardin shook his head. "What the fuck does Emerald see in that bitch or her so called plans?" He asked me. "She doesn't even seem to know what the end game is. She's a fucking pawn!"

"I don't know." I said, finding it to be a peculiar question and not really having an answer for him. Mercury was just as much of an enigma to me, he was certainly willful and a skilled fighter but I couldn't understand why he was willing to follow Cinder, willful as he was. But then again I was still in the dark as to the exact nature of her plans and where Emerald and Mercury fit in. "But the message is clear, we're to be careful now in our dealings with her, and unfortunately we need to be careful with Emerald and especially Mercury, don't have the guys do anything that could be misinterpreted around her."

Cardin nodded to me. "Anything else, boss?"

"Can you get me some ice for my hand?" I asked him. "Aura or not it still hurts."

Cardin nodded and moved over to my bar to grab some ice cubes.

I did tell Roman about the meeting with Cinder but honestly the whole part about her burning my hand was a footnote as I knew it would be, though he was pleased to learn that I had accepted the abuse with grace instead of taking it personally. But what really interested him was the meeting with Aleski and Sophia's proposition to use some of our weapon shipments as bait for Nicky and Girgori.

"That would involve tipping our hand to Sophia." Roman told me over a glass of brandy, considering the proposition. "And it would risk putting some serious firepower into Nicky's hands."

"If you're worried about Sophia learning about our weapon imports we can keep it to some of our lighter suppliers. Hell, we can use some of my smaller warehouses." I told him. "And I'm sure between Nicky and Grigori they have ways of obtaining weapons on their own, I wouldn't be surprised if daddy Alexander is already sending a dozen crates of guns here just so his bastard son isn't making a last stand with a cap gun."

"It's not Sophia I don't trust." Roman told me with a shake of his head. "It's her followers, I can't trust them to sit still once things have calmed down. And I would prefer they don't know how we're getting our fire power."

"So maybe we could set up a decoy." I suggested to him. "Make a dummy shipment, the guns are real but the means of supply are all phony. Maybe we could get someone who's been staying away from all that to handle it."

Roman nodded to me. "How about Bruce? I've been giving him some distance from the White Fang for his benefit but he is the perfect person for something like this. There's a lot of dock space for him to use for sending out phony shipments."

I nodded seeing his point. "I'll get the import company to arrange the drop off with his stretch of docks, we have some shipments coming in. There's nothing that Cinder won't miss terribly if it gets lost, just a few crates of rifles and ammo along with a few heavy machine guns."

"That's certainly something we can afford to lose, especially if it leads us back to Nickyi or his followers." Roman said with a nod of agreement. "Proceed with my blessing, I'll call Bruce and tell him to expect you and that I want his cooperation."

"Thank you Don Torchwick, I will endeavor to see that this trap goes perfectly to plan." I told him with a respectful bow of my head.

"See that you do." Roman told me. "If we can eliminate Nicky before his old man can sway those greedy bastards in Atlas to support him then we'll be home free."

"Hopefully Sophia and her allies will come to agreeable terms soon and delay a vote." I said to him. "If that happens then it hardly matters what Nicky and Grigori do, they might as well start heading for Vacuo. Assuming the Cartels won't hunt them."

"That would be good." Roman agreed. "But I'm not going to hold my breath on any kind of mutual arrangement being reached so soon. Alexander's rivals in Atlas aren't going to agree to anything easily, they think the Vale Bratva are in a desperate situation."

"Are they?" I asked him, curious about his thoughts.

"Not as much as those big wigs in Atlas seem to think." Roman told me. "I think Alexander and his rivals are doubtful of this alliance and don't think that we would go through the effort to defend the Vale Bratva should they declare war and send Nicky more support. They're wrong and I have no doubt that our combined efforts could drive them away, but it would be costly and this conflict has been costly enough. What's more I doubt other members of our Family or of the Kouri Kuma Clan would be so inclined to commit resources to defend them."

"Understood." I said to him, even though we could consider this conflict all but won, Roman was determined to see that it wasn't extended. Meaning that the threat Nicky and Grigori posed wasn't about him taking back Vale with support from his father in Atlas but ending the bloodshed soon. Roman called Bruce and told him about our intended meeting before leaving to go back home and I was soon called by Bruce offering for me to meet him for dinner at Georgetti's.

I arrived there around eight with Dove in tow and the waiter led me to a private booth where indeed Bruce was waiting with his back to a wall and an enforcer close by.

"I see that we're both being cautious." I said to Bruce, taking a seat and grabbing the wine list and idly looking through it.

"Just because we routed just about everyone on Nicky's side doesn't mean we should be getting sloppy. We're still technically at war after all." Bruce told me.

"Agreed." I told him, not that my fears were only limited to Nicky and Grigori trying to take a pot shot at me. Ozpin and Ironwood couldn't be completely ruled out.

"If you're wanting a glass I recommend the Edelvale Merlot 17." Bruce said kindly.

"Thank you." I said, closing the wine list. Dove and Bruce's enforcer took a table close by ordering food but still keeping an eye on us and the rest of the joint. We both engaged in idle chatter while we waited. Bruce and I hardly spoke to one another very often, usually engaged in different sets of business so it was mostly catching up. It was strange that we hardly spoke considering I was still technically a member of his union collecting a paycheck for work I never did.

Once our food came out was when we started getting into business. Bruce ordered two cuts of Valean strip with all the fixings. He cut them into large bites letting his long rows of shark teeth tear them up as he chewed.

"So what can I do for you and Roman?" Bruce asked me, certain that we weren't going to be overheard.

"We're trying to bait Nicky and Grigori." I explained to him. "If we can get them to peek their heads out we can hopefully take them down before they get a chance to cause us any more trouble."

Bruce raised an eyebrow at me as he cut his second steak into quarters. "Well if it's about taking that Atlesian piece of shit down I'm all ears." He said to me. "How can I help?"

"I want you and your dockworkers to take one of our shipments for the White Fang." I explained to him. "We're hoping a chance to get their hands on some iron for a fight will be enough to draw Nicky and his allies out."

Bruce frowned at me. "Jaune… you know how I feel about the White Fang. And that fucking heist on the docks put all kinds of heat down on me and my operations. Do you know how many companies canceled their union contracts on me after that?"

"That job on the docks was a fuck up I admit." I said to him, not that we could have anticipated Blake or that weird ginger haired girl showing up. But indeed it had to lead to all kinds of people poking around the docks and considering Bruce's union was mostly made up of faunus that couldn't have gone well. "But we're moving forward and if we can get things off the ground with the Atlesians we might have opportunities for you to make up for that."

"And what happens if the badges get wind of those guns moving through my docks?" Bruce asked me. "What if instead of trying to steal them himself Nicky decides to give his police contacts a tip?"

He had a point. Guns weren't the only way to fight a war like this, they got Sal into court before he was killed and doing that to Bruce was certainly a possibility. "I understand your concern, I hope we can find a compromise."

"How about you simply spread the rumor?" Bruce suggested. "If there's no actual guns it won't make a difference."

"We want this bait to be convincing." I told him. "If they show up on your docks and find a bunch of empty crates before anyone interesting shows up or they don't take them back it won't be of much help."

Bruce nodded in understanding before taking another large bite of his steak. "That's going to be a problem then. Anything funny happening on my docks is going to get back to the badges."

"Anything?" I asked him, surely he had some illicit trade happening on his docks at the moment.

"Some of the badges are looking the other way for me when I pay enough. But I'm sure you can understand why I'm hesitant to risk that." He explained to me, picking up his wine glass.

"Then let me handle the cost of giving them a night off." I told him. "I can even dummy up some paperwork so it can all look legal. Sal had some people licensed to import firearms, it'll look legit on the outside and if those pigs stick their noses in too far you can claim you thought it was a legit deal."

Bruce's brow furrowed. "That's still another mark on me and my operation."

"I know, but we need someone fresh to do this for us." I explained to him. "Believe me Bruce I'd lay out the bait in my own warehouses if I could but I know that Nicky isn't going to take that, he knows I'm gunning for him and would probably set a trap. I need to keep my name out of this if we're to do this."

"If you can dummy up some paperwork I'll do it." Bruce relented. "But if those Atlesian bastards don't get the guns then they're mine. I'm getting nervous with the White Fang gathering all this firepower and so I'm going to want a little insurance if things go south."

"That's easy enough." I assured him. "We're only using these guns because we're sure that Adam won't miss them terribly if they disappear."

"When is Roman planning on getting rid of that fucking barbarian?" Bruce asked me.

"I have no idea." I said to him. "But believe me, I'll be popping a bottle of bubbly when he's taking a dirt nap."

Bruce nodded agreeing with my sentiment. Getting rid of Adam would certainly be a cause for celebration. I might no longer be in touch with Blake but my promise to kill him for her was something I was taking very seriously.

We ironed out some more details on how we were going to work the weapons shipments and by the next day it was all arranged and I met Sophia and gave her the details. She was going to get word around about the various shipments and we were going to keep watch. The next several nights were essentially on standby waiting for someone to make a move on those guys. Just about every night was spent in the Moonstone with my crew staying loose and ready to move out. It was rather awkward because Roman insisted that Neo come along which meant I was spending my nights having to deal with her awkward silences and sidelong glances. So far the silent treatment hadn't let up and I wasn't pushing for her to break it.

Not that I was trying to avoid her or return her silence with silence. I felt that it would hardly help things, I mostly just tried to be respectful to her while she was like this. She was starting to shoot me less death glares and the few times I did say a few words to her she at least answered me politely if curtly with no insults or indignation.

Night after night passed without anything happening and I was starting to have my doubts that Nicky or Grigori would make a move for the weapons. As such I mixed in a little business with my business and the night finally came where I got to show Flynt off to Mr. Fontane. We sat together in Luca's old booth listening to him blow that trumpet up on stage. Fontane was bobbing his head along with the music.

"The kid has style and talent. I'll give him that." Fontane admitted to me. "But it takes more than just that to make it in showbusiness."

"I'll leave that assessment up to you." I told Fontane. "I'm just saying that I think you could give the kid a record deal, people have been coming in to listen to him play so he's at least good at attracting a crowd."

"Oh certainly." Fontane agreed with me."But you can never tell with these kinds of things. Making an album can be expensive, and if you want to do one with Franky that's going to cost a little more than usual. Franky doesn't come cheap, especially now that he's retired."

"If you're worried about money I'm willing to foot part of the bill." I told him. "I'm going to be expecting a percentage after all."

Fontaine nodded to me. "And he's a huntsman?"

"In training with Atlas Academy." I told him. "But I'm sure a certain influential record label could get him to relocate here in Vale and possibly put that nonsense behind him."

"Is he going to fight in the tournament?" He asked me.

"He is." I told him. "He apparently fights with the trumpet."

"Well shit that's free publicity right there for me." Fontane said looking over to Neo who was nursing a shirley temple with extra cherries. She had hardly touched the virgin drink. "What do you think, Neo?"

She quietly gave a noncommittal shrug to him and continued to watch Flynt play his trumpet on stage.

"Is something wrong?" Fontane asked her, raising an eyebrow.

"Just business." I answered for her, trying to avoid an unpleasant conversation for both of us. "We're sort of… on call tonight."

"On call?" Fontane asked me.

"It might not come to anything." I told him with a dismissive wave of my hand. "But there's a reason we're not drinking anything stronger right about now."

"I see." Fontane told me as Flynt finished his set and quietly stepped off the stage.

I made sure to have Hana send him over to my booth when he was finished and I stood to greet him when he approached. "Flynt!" I greeted with a smile. "You were excellent tonight! I would like you to meet Mr. Fontane."

Fontane stood and offered Flynt his hand. "Pleasure to meet you Mr. Coal, you sounded great on stage."

Flynt grinned at him. "Well that means a lot coming from you Mr. Fontane. I have nothing but respect for Glenn Records."

Fontane grinned. "I don't hear that much from people your age."

"Well unlike most I have respect for real music." Flynt said to him confidently.

Fontane laughed. "Jaune you were right."

"I was?" I asked him with a satisfied smirk.

"Yeah, I like this guy already. Have a seat Flynt. Can I get you a drink?" Fontane said, motioning to the booth.

"I'll just have a soda." Flynt said to him.

"Oh come on, I mean a drink, I can't be the only one here having a real drink." Fontane said to him.

"Well uh, I'm a bit too young for that kind of thing." Flynt said to him. "I'll just have an iced tea."

"Fine, fine, iced tea it is." Fontane said, relenting. We sat down and started giving Flynt our business proposition to have him record an album before the tournament started with the hope of using his brief publicity in the tournament to hopefully boost sales. Neo sat quietly just waiting, I honestly have no idea why she had decided to sit in Luca's booth with me instead of somewhere else.

Halfway into the conversation my scroll buzzed in my pocket. Checking the screen I could see it was Sophia. I held my finger up signaling that I was stepping away and put the scroll to my ear. "Has it happened?" I asked Sophia.

"One of those shipments we're tracking has moved." Sophia told me. "Wt traced its location to a strip club on the edge of town called The Lollipop. It belongs to a couple of Grigori's old associates. Boris and a team of my best shooters are on the way right now, I suggest you rally up if you want to be a part of this fight."

"We'll be there." I told her, hanging up and pocketing my scroll. I turned around and found Neo standing expectantly behind me.

"Did - they - find - Nicky?" She asked me.

"They took the weapons." I told her. "We don't know if Nicky is there or not but they took the bait."

"I'll - be - in - the - car." Neo told me, stepping swiftly past me and towards the exit without another word.

I let her go before approaching the booth. "I'm afraid I've been called on urgent business and have to leave you." I told them.

"Nothing serious I hope." Flynt said to me.

"I'm afraid it is." I told him. "But please, finish this conversation without me, I think I've said everything I need to say. I'll talk to you later."

Fontane gave me a nod. "Have a good night Mr. Arc."

I turned and gathered up the rest of my crew and we headed out in less than five minutes. I rode in the backseat checking over my weapon as we drove to the southern edge of town. "I don't know if Nicky is going to be there, but the weapons were taken to a strip club so try to watch your targets."

"Understood boss." Dove said, checking his pistol and sword as we moved. "Hopefully Boris and the rest haven't gotten started without us."

"I just got a text from him." Cardin explained. "They're watching the place at the moment and seeing if anyone of interest goes in or comes out."

"Remember we're here for Nicky and his followers." I said to them. "Anyone else is secondary."

They all nodded in agreement.

We drove for a little while longer with the address in our scrolls before finally reaching The Lollipop strip club and parking a ways down the street. We stopped and waited for a long moment before one of Boris's guys came over and waved to us. I lowered the window to talk to him.

"Hey Pavel." I greeted, recognizing him.

"Hello Mr. Arc." He said with a nod, taking a smoke from his pack and lighting it. "Boris wants me to tell you to wait for his signal, they're going to enter in through the rear and we go in through the front."

"The front?" Cardin asked him.

"Don't worry, Boris has a plan to clear the place of civilians. You move in after they get out." Pavel explained. "During then whoever the fuck is in there is probably going to exchanging fire with Boris and his team, I'll be going with you."

"So what's the signal?" Dove asked him, only to be interrupted with the sight of the front door opening and the sound of a fire alarm going off inside the club.

"There it is." Pavel said, watching as a bunch of customers along with scantily clad strippers and staff rushed out of the front door to escape. I learned later that Boris had someone sneak in and start a small fire in the bathroom and pull the alarm.

"Let's do this shit." Pavel said, throwing his cigarette down and stomping it out before covering his face with a balaclava, he reached into his coat and pulled out a compact submachine gun, he unfolded the stock and approached the door as people rushed out. The doors opened in our cars and we all stepped out weapons at the ready falling into step beside him as we moved past the panicking people.

Thick acrid smoke wafted in the club that was bathed in a rather undignified pink light with the rhythmic strip music still blaring. We heard the sounds of gunfire as we finished shuffling through the people, most of them didn't even seem to notice that we were armed.

The minute we stepped foot in the main lounge of the club we spotted our enemies, guns drawn. Neo leapt forward, drawing Hush using the parasol to shield herself as she closed the distance to the closest opponent and opened his throat with a single slash.

It descended into a shootout, the flashing lights and loud music almost disorienting as I drew Astuzia and cut down one while blasting another with buckshot. We all moved through the gunfire engaging them in melee when we could and shooting them down when we couldn't. Rounds struck my aura and I used the hardlight shield watch to protect me from some of the gunfire. Cardin was making use of both the newly reforged Executioner and his .45, smashing skulls and putting bullets in the gang members who stood in our way.

While we were in the middle of the main floor was when I saw him from the VIP lounge. Grigori stood up from the elevated section and raised a machine gun holding the trailing ammo belt in one hand. He, along with a few gang members armed with the very weapons we had let them steal, unleashed a hail of gunfire on the main floor of the club.

"Get down!" Pavel shouted, scrambling for cover behind a booth taking several shots that shattered through his aura wounding him. I heard him curse through the ear splitting rattle of machine guns. I ducked behind a table using my hardlight shield to protect me from any of the rounds that pierced right through the flimsy wooden table sending splinters flying.

Cardin and the rest tried to shoot back but Grigori raised one of his glyph shields up to give the gang members cover and absorb the energy from the shots. We were pinned down and I had no idea what to do.

"Don't shoot the glyph!" I shouted at everyone who could possibly hear me. "We're just giving him energy!"

"So what do we do?" Cardin asked, kneeling down by one of the stripper platforms and shooting over his head, blindly unable to break from cover long enough to get a simple shot off.

I peeked over my shield for a moment to get a look at the VIP area before getting a face full of splinters after someone tried shooting me and the table again. Looking over at Neo she was getting the worst of it, crouched behind her parasol getting hammered by gunfire that I was sure would break through eventually. I had to help her. I awkwardly reached for my shell caddy on my belt and grabbed a couple of my specialty dust shells feeding them into Vendetta and racking the charging handle. With a deep breath I broke from my cover and sprinted towards Neo with my shield up and Vendetta raised.

I fired wildly, pulling the trigger again and again. I wasn't aiming for Grigori or the gang members with him. I aimed instead at everything around them as the fire dust infused shells sprayed the entire VIP section with burning projectiles making the cheap carpet and furniture go up like a box of matches.

I wasn't sure if Grigori could take energy from fire but it certainly had the intended effect on the gang members. I watched them go up in flames and scramble around in panic getting gunned down by my crew who took advantage of the chaos to regain control and put them down. Others just scrambled for more cover as the flames kept growing.

I reached Neo and knelt down on the floor beside her as I emptied off the last couple shells in Vendetta.

"Are you alright?" I asked Neo, settling close to reload, interlocking my hardlight shield with her parasol for larger cover.

She looked over at me and gave me a nod instead of snubbing me like I expected her to.

"Let's - get - him!" Neo signed to me before bursting from her cover and charging the burning VIP section. I joined her, closing the distance to two of the gang members and cutting them down together. A blast of kinetic energy stuck me and knocked me off my feet.

I looked and saw Grigori stepping out of the flames. His aura was shimmering as it protected him from the heat. He had abandoned the machine gun and instead held a rifle in one hand with the sling over his shoulder and formed his glyph in his other free hand. He aimed the rifle at me one handed and pulled the trigger to spray me with gunfire. Neo rushed in front of the gunfire shielding me with her parasol before lunging for him. Grigory tried to blast her with the kinetic energy stored in his glyph but she spun around avoiding the directed blast and delivering a thrust to his side. The blow bounced off his aura. Grigori stepped away and leveled the gun at Neo to spray her with gunfire. But I had already recovered from the blow and moved in to fight him, bringing Astuzia down on his arm ruining his aim.

"You fucking traitor!" Grigory cursed me, leveling the glyph again for another blast that I avoided with a side step. I felt the wall behind me shatter.

Grigori fought us both, moving to use his gun and glyphs as a shield, parrying with the glyph and attacking Neo and I with them both. For a moment Neo and I were fighting as one, working together to get through his defenses and take down his aura that was certainly considerable with all the strikes we were managing to land on him. I was starting to think he could channel the energy he absorbed into his shield and feed it directly into his aura.

A burst of gunfire struck Neo as one of the gang members intervened distracting us from this dance. I leveled Vendetta and dropped the gang member with a blast of buckshot. Grigori on the other hand took full advantage of the opening. He blasted Neo with the kinetic energy stored in the glyph. She flew back and struck the wall, her pink aura shimmered and shattered into light before Grigori leveled his weapon at her and fired.

Blood sprayed the back wall as multiple rounds pierced her body. I went cold as I watched her body go limp and fall to the ground. I rushed to her as Grigori turned the gun on me. As I ran for her I felt a power welling up inside of me.

Author's Note:

I hope you all enjoyed this week's chapter and are excited for next week. I'm sure plenty of you have already guessed how things are going to go down next week. I also enjoyed laying the groundwork for the Vale Bratva as they move on from Nicky and work to free themselves from the influence of their former superiors in Atlas. Act II is going to be ending in the next couple chapters so I hope you're all ready for act III.

This story has reached a thousand reviews and two thousand followers. Thank you all for reading and showing your support. I've had a lot of fun writing this and I'm glad that so many of you are enjoying it and have shared your opinions.

And of course I need to thank my committee for all their help and support in beta reading and editing this story so it's posted with a coat of polish. I owe them a lot and I hope they enjoyed their holidays as well. So thank you MidKnightMoonglow99, MajorBrony95, CrypidCobra, Cyperink, Firefly25, BigBrain411, TheSlySage, and DrknssRules1 for all their help and support making this story what it is. And thank you Rak-Vojak for translating this story into Russian so others can read and enjoy it.

See you next Sunday.