Oh hell my keyboard is starting to fail on me. It's the spacebar key,which feels like the worst key to fail as I have tokeep going back through my work addingspaces.I'm not doingthathere to give you an idea of just how much it is faffing up. It's superannoying.
Okay, no, halfway through and stopping that nonsense Found an old keyboard to use but now problem 2, it's a small keyboard. Very small. Now I cannot write fast as my fingers keep missing all the damn keys because they're used to them being further apart!
The crash and shatter of glass had Jaune leaping out of an unfamiliar bed. The noise continued, loud and obnoxious, and he stumbled to the closest window and ripped open the curtains to see a trash collector upending a large container of broken glass into its back. Hei had finally cleared it all up off the bar and dancefloor. Letting the curtain close, Jaune stepped back to his borrowed bed and sat on the edge, idly looking around the room while his mind raced.
He wasn't sure what he was doing here. Here being Vale, the Club or this room. Since he'd failed to get into Beacon there was no real reason to stick around; afraid as he was of the reactions of his family, hiding from them wouldn't change anything. He could find work back in Ansel, a few of the local business owners were always hiring.
Yeah, I could spend my life waiting tables or working in a food factory.
The thought alone was depressing but not nearly as depressing as the fact that was all that was left for him. Everyone always said children had the potential to become whatever they wanted, but obviously not everyone did, or no one would take the boring jobs. School never prepared you for when you were one of those failures.
Jaune stared down at his hands, as confused as he was upset. Start a business? Look for work? Try and apply for Beacon again? The latter was a stupid idea after seeing what a real huntress in training could do to a place like this but a large part of him wanted to try anyway, to defer and put the difficult decision back. Bury his head in the sand and pretend he didn't need to make a choice for another year. Even to him, that seemed like the coward's choice. Jaune didn't have much but he had pride, as paradoxical as that must have seemed.
"Beacon isn't possible. I… I need to decide on something that is. Which is nothing…" If only he'd worked harder when he was younger, studied harder, played less games. "No more excuses," he told himself. "I need to do something. Today is the first day of a new Jaune. New me, new life and new opportunities!"
His stomach grumbled, and hunger was an easier challenge to fix than his current one, so he stood up and made his way purposefully to the door, following the path back downstairs that he'd mostly memorised. The narrow staircases were filled with boxes blocking half of them, some marked as fragile – probably new glasses and other furniture for when Hei got the club fully cleaned up and repaired.
It was on its way to that when Jaune opened the double doors marked employees only and walked out. The dancefloor had been fully cleaned up and there were two suited men now running vacuum cleaners over it to find the last tiny shards of glass. The area around the central bar that Hei worked at was also spotless, every broken bottle on the shelf behind removed, while those still in one piece were stacked nearly on a nearby table.
There was more damage off toward the seating area where tables and benches sat, and it looked like some guys were trying to unscrew and remove the tables themselves before they got to work on it. They must have realised it'd be easier just to replace everything than try and clean around it.
"Morning." Hei greeted from behind his bar. "How is your head?"
He'd actually managed to forget about the injury, which was probably a good sign. Jaune touched his eye and while it was still sore, that was all it was. "Better. A night's rest helped."
"Good. The twins are out fetching breakfast. Everyone is working so hard I decided to treat them to baps. Wasn't sure what you wanted so I told them to get bacon and sausage. You can swap for my egg if you want."
The generosity surprised him. "N-No. Bacon and sausage is fine. Thank you. I can pay for it since you saved my money and all."
"No need. I'm literally writing this off as a business expense. A whole lot of stuff is getting written off right now, believe me." The way Hei eyed the ruined club, Jaune didn't doubt him. It honestly felt like more needed to be replaced than didn't. "Much as I hate it, this is a chance to start fresh," he said. "Place needed a refurb, and some of the sound systems were getting outdated. I can only claim like for like on the old insurance, but they don't mind me adding my own money to upgrade." He laughed. "Got to find a silver lining in this mess somewhere."
A silver lining to this? The place had been ransacked, Hei's livelihood all but ruined. Jaune couldn't help but think anyone else would have been livid. Spitting with rage. They might also have given up, left Vale and just let the place fall into ruin. Villages collapsed after a Grimm attack, and this certainly looked like enough damage to constitute that.
Yet Hei wanted to keep going. He persevered. Jaune wasn't sure if it made sense to both admire and hate someone so much.
"What about you, kid? Had some time to think about what you'll do yet?"
Time, yes. Desire, no. Huntsman, huntsman, huntsman. That was all his mind kept saying, and no matter how much he told himself it was impossible, he couldn't drop the childish fantasy. It's not realistic. I couldn't even stand up to those thugs that Hei beat, and he got his ass kicked by a student. I'm so far away from that level it's not even fair.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I put my whole self into applying for Beacon and now I don't know what to do."
"Beacon? You?" Hei didn't say it but Jaune knew he was thinking back to that fight. "I hope you don't take this the wrong way but you're not exactly what I'd call Beacon material."
"I-I know. My dad refused to train me…"
"Did you ask anyone else?"
Jaune flinched, hearing that as the implication he was sure it was meant to be. "My dad is a huntsman. He's one of the best in our village. There's no one who could have taught me better than him."
"Not what I asked. I asked if you went to anyone else after your old man said no."
"I… I didn't. No one would have accepted me and gone behind dad's back!"
"Fair enough." Hei shrugged. "You know your home better than I do. So, after he refused to train you, did you train yourself?"
Jaune's teeth clenched tight. "How could I train myself when I don't know what to do!?"
"Swing a sword. Work out. Buy some books and use those. Look for online lessons. Make a practice dummy and try hitting it with a stick." Hei leaned one elbow on the bar, listing several more examples as Jaune's face turned increasingly red. "It's not ideal but there are plenty of ways to train even if you're on your own. It might not be as good as getting personal tutelage but not everyone is that lucky. At the very least it might have showed your old man you were serious. If you did that, I bet he would have realised you were going to risk your life with or without his training, and then he'd have relented and trained you; if only so you didn't get yourself killed. Truth is, I don't think you wanted to be a huntsman bad enough."
Hei's frank words were a hammer blow to Jaune's fragile ego, shaking him to his core. Jaune's eyes watered despite his best efforts, making him look even more pathetic.
"If you did," Hei continued, "then nothing would have stopped you making your dream a reality. Same as how those people settling into Beacon right now have been working their asses off for nigh on a decade. Ten years of blood, sweat and tears. Much as I hate them right now for what one did to my bar, I can respect that kind of dedication. How much did you give it?"
"I… I practiced a little… with my sword…" The more he said, the worst he felt until he had to break eye contact and stare down at the bar. He'd swung Crocea Mors around and hacked at a few branches, all the while imagining they were Grimm and that he was saving the world. Suddenly, his eyes widened. "My sword!"
Hei sighed heavily. "Yes. That. I'm sorry to say that by the time my boys got to where I left those punks, they'd woken up and left. Your sword went with them."
"B-But it's a family heirloom. I have to find it!"
"There goes the hope I could pay it off," Hei muttered. "Fine. This is my fault and I'll fix it. There's only so many places in Vale that'll fence stolen goods. I'll have the twins shop around and find your heirloom, and I'll cover the cost."
"You'd do all that!?" Jaune couldn't believe it. "Why?"
"Honour. Respect. Call it what you will but the Xiong Clan exists where it is today because we follow a code. Others may call it archaic, but it means we're trusted. I'd be going back on that if I put you in this spot and threw you out."
"All this for running a nightclub…?"
Hei's eyes narrowed on him and Jaune had the suspicion he was being analysed. Hei eventually chuckled, closing his eyes. "Ha. Sure. Nightclubs are serious business. You should see our competitors. Take a seat. The girls will be back soon, and you can head out after you've eaten."
Something stopped him from doing so. Hei was doing all this to help him when anyone else would have told him they'd already saved him from thugs and to hell with his lost sword. A code of honour. That was the kind of thing he'd thought of having as a child, and he'd done his best to stick to a vague notion of being a good guy. It helped that his mom drilled manners into his head on a daily basis; it was those same manners that prevented him sitting down.
"Let me help."
"Help?" Hei frowned. "With what?"
"The club. You're doing all this, saved me, gave me a place to stay and are even buying my breakfast. The least I can do is help you clean this place up."
It wasn't much – it was nothing compared to what Hei was doing for him – but it would at least let him stop feeling like he was taking advantage of another man's hospitality. In the end, Hei shrugged.
"I'm not going to turn help away." He reached under the bar and pulled out a squirty bottle of disinfectant and a rag. "The tables need cleaning. Look for damage and mark any that are chipped or cracked to one of the boys. I need to finish taking stock and ordering drinks to replace what was lost."
Jaune gripped the cloth tight and nodded, smiling. He wasn't sure why but actually being able to do something left a warm feeling in his stomach. It was the first time in his life he'd ever felt good about doing chores.
Melanie's sister was a picture perfect twin apart from slightly shorter hair and the way she dressed. At least on first appearances. The similarities ended when she opened her mouth and proclaimed Jaune to be the "weediest looking dweeb she'd ever set eyes on." Melanie hadn't even defended him! At least they brought breakfast with them, a huge bag of some fifty wrapped buns that were marked with pen as to their contents. All the people in black suits with red ties stopped working and came over to pick their own out, then sat around on stools or leaning against walls to eat and chat.
Once the pile was small enough, he and Hei took theirs, while the girls claimed they'd already eaten theirs at the stall. Jaune stayed quiet while Hei set out their task to help him. He expected both of them to complain and refuse, but they listened, sighed and nodded without much of either.
"Come on then goldilocks," Miltia said. Even though she only came up to his neck, he felt like the smaller one. "Let's get this over with."
"You can afford to be nice for once, Miltia."
"I am nice. You're the cruel one."
"How mean of you to say." Melanie rolled her eyes and touched Jaune's wrist gently. "She's right that we should get started. We'll see you later boss."
Hei nodded. "Hm."
Vale was a happier sight in the morning light and with the rain gone. People were still about with umbrellas just in case, but life was back to normal, so much so that most would never have known he'd been attacked just two blocks over. They probably wouldn't have cared if they had. Melanie hooked her arm through his and dragged his blushing self along. She smelled of roses and red wine, a heady combination. Not to mention how attractive she was – there were already guys looking at him jealously.
"Enjoying Hei's hospitality?" she teased.
"Compared to what I had before, definitely. He's a really kind man."
Miltia laughed from ahead, speaking back over her shoulder. "He didn't get where he is by being kind. Though maybe I shouldn't be surprised if you're like this with my sister."
The girl in red snorted and refused to answer. Did she think he was falling for Melanie? Beautiful as she was, he wasn't dumb enough to think her holding him like this meant anything. It was teasing or just a way to keep hold of him. Besides, they were out of his league.
"What my sister means is that Hei isn't so one dimensional," Melanie said. "He can be kind, but he can also be ruthless. Whatever he needs to be for us to come out on top."
"That doesn't sound like a bad thing. It doesn't change me saying he's been kind to me. I'd have been left in that alley if it wasn't for him."
"It would have never happened if it wasn't for that blonde slut," Miltia growled. "Imagine it! Punks already out on our turf causing trouble. I took a few hits and a sprained wrist, but you'd think we were dead for how these lot are acting."
"Wild dogs will always jump for scraps."
Miltia cracked her shoulders and said, "I'll remind them who they should be afraid of."
The conversation went over his head a little. They ran a nightclub, so he could see the problem with people targeting drunk customers. As much as his country upbringing rebelled at the thought of these two girls having a job like that, he had to get with the times. They were small and pretty, but that didn't mean fragile. There weren't many huntresses in Ansel to compare them to.
"Does stuff like this often happen?" he asked.
"No." Melanie hugged his arm tighter. "The Xiong Clan normally runs a tight ship and everyone respects that. Respect only goes so far, however, especially when you get beaten up by a little girl. Most people won't care she's a huntress – it looks bad either way."
Business sounded rougher than he expected. Before he could think more on it, Miltia turned and stopped before an antique's store, stepping through the door and ringing the bell above it. Melanie followed with Jaune in tow, tugging him through and into the warmly lit room full of little displays of trinkets, furniture and memorabilia.
"Hello! Hello!" An eccentric voice called from the back, full of whimsical mystery. The old man who walked out had bright white hair and a wild look to him, like he was an age old adventurer. "Why I say, welcome to-"
He saw them.
"Bob," Miltia said.
"Malachites. Bloody hell." The accent dropped. The man went from ancient explorer to city boy in a fraction of a second. "Is it that time of the month already? I'm sure it ain't. I'm fairly sure I haven't stepped on any toes lately."
"I'm sure you haven't," Melanie said. "And no, it's not."
"We're here to see if someone sold a sword to you," Miltia cut in. "This twat was robbed near the Club and they took his sticker. You haven't seen two guys come in and try to fence it?" Miltia looked back at Jaune. "Describe it."
"Uh. It would be a longsword with a blue hilt. The sheathe expands out into-"
"I saw it." Bob interrupted. Jaune's face lit up. "But I'm sorry to say I didn't accept it. Or not sorry as it turns out. They came in yesterday trying to pawn it off, but I don't deal with mecha-shift. Too unique." He shrugged. "Too easy to trace back to an original owner. Idiots didn't even realise it was mecha-shift. I had to show 'em the mechanism."
Jaune's shoulders sagged. Melanie noticed and rubbed his arm, while Miltia sighed. "Great. Don't suppose you pointed them in the direction of someone who would fence it?"
"Quite the opposite I'm afraid. Told 'em no one would want to touch anything that hot. They weren't happy to hear that. Threatened to knock me around and take whatever was in my till." Bob reached under his counter and brought out a giant hunting rifle that looked more suited to bringing down Bullheads than birds. "I showed 'em old Agatha and they soon changed their tune."
That was it, then? Crocea Mors was gone?
"You could check the scrapyard," he suggested. "Desperate fools usually take anything metal there. They'll get bugger all for it but it's safer to destroy the evidence than keep it."
"We have to stop them!" Jaune blurted out.
"Chill." Miltia snapped. "Scrap yard isn't open until tomorrow. It closes for the weekend. They can't have taken it there yet. We can get in touch and tell them what we're looking for. They won't dare scrap it. That's the best we can do, unless you have any leads for us, Bob? Junior would be grateful."
"Big guy was called Pierce," the man said. "Not sure about the little one. They were rough and bruised, stank of alcohol too. Real heavy drinkers, probably straight from the tap."
Jaune's eyes widened. "The tap!"
"What now?" Miltia asked, groaning.
"I heard one of them say they'd meet at the tap after they attacked me."
"The tap. That's it? You realise that could just mean any bar, right?"
"Or it could mean the shithole down on eighth," Bob said. "The Broken Tap. It's an absolute dive. Models itself as a bar but more of a place to go if you want to shoot yourself up and not have anyone ask questions. You haven't been?"
Melanie smiled sweetly. "We prefer to drink at classier locales. Besides, you don't normally go looking for other watering holes when you work at a nightclub. Where was this place again?"
"I'll draw you a map. Hang on a sec."
Jaune couldn't contain his impatience as the old man fumbled out some paper and started drawing on it. They finally had a lead, even if it was just a bar. It might be enough for the police to go on. Wait, why hadn't they told the police about this? He hadn't even thought of that with Hei offering to help, but why was he doing what the authorities should? He asked Melanie quietly.
"They'd never get this done," she replied with a bright smile that set his heart racing. "Trust me, Jaune, they'd open a case and close it once they realise they don't have the manpower to assign to it. A stolen sword is a low priority. Best you let us handle it."
That made sense. Sadly. While Crocea Mors was a priceless family heirloom to him, it wasn't as important as a murder case or someone's life. They'd have to treat it like the theft it was. That makes it even more incredible Hei is willing to do all this. I'd be screwed without him. Or badly injured and waking up in an alleyway without any money.
"I don't think I've said to you how much I appreciate this. This means so much to me."
"Awww. You're adorable." Melanie touched his cheek with two fingers and winked. He flushed past the digits. "You needn't worry, we have our reasons for helping out. Besides, this is business for us."
"Helping beaten up teenagers?"
Melanie smiled cheekily. "Something like that."
"I guess you must get a lot of people passed out drunk…"
"Plenty. It's not usually my job to throw them out though, let alone help them. My work is a little more hands on."
"You'll see!" she giggled.
"Mel." Miltia sauntered up with an annoyed scowl. "You're better with directions than me. Take the map and figure out where it is."
The sister in white shrugged and released Jaune's arm, moving away to the counter as Bob finished his masterpiece. Her hips swayed hypnotically as she walked, making Jaune's eyes lock onto them.
"Stop it." Miltia growled.
"Don't get any ideas."
Embarrassment ripped through him. "I'm not!" he whispered. "I know she's not- I know she's just being helpful because Hei asked her to be. I didn't think she liked me or anything."
"That's not what I… You know what, screw it. You're naïve." Miltia didn't give him a chance to argue. "You're naive and that's fine but let me make one thing abundantly clear. Okay?"
"Don't." Her eyes narrowed. "Don't even think of asking to work for Hei."
Of all the things she might say, that hadn't been at the top of the list. It was so random it caught him off guard, and so on the money that he didn't know what to say.
"I can see it in your face," she said. "You're a lost little lamb and the boss helped shepherd you back to safety. I can tell you have no idea what to do with life and are ready to jump on the first opportunity that comes knocking. Well guess what? This isn't it." Miltia snagged his hoodie by the collar and dragged his face down to hers. "You don't belong in our kind of work. Sheep should stay as sheep, not try and pretend they're wolves."
"I… I didn't…"
"Don't waste my time. It's all over your face." Miltia pushed him away and stepped back. Her lips were downturned, her eyes sharp. "You're free to try and fix your life or whatever it is you want to do but do it somewhere else. Last thing the Xiong Clan needs is a weakling like you."
Jaune rubbed his hoodie and tried hard not to shake as he met her eyes. "I don't know what I did to make you dislike me-"
"You're not getting it. Ugh, you don't even realise what is happening, do you? You just think we're the sweetest fucking people you've ever met. This is a warning, you idiot. I'm trying to be nice."
"Well you're not very good at it," Jaune said, probably unwisely. He expected her to snap and was surprised when she grinned. "Compared to your sister, you're kind of…" a bitch. "Harsh."
"Compared to Melanie, huh?" She looked over at her sister in white, more feminine in every way. "Sure. If that's what you think. The way I see it I'm the nicer one by far. I tell the truth."
Melanie was left holding the crudely drawn map, letting Jaune walk on his own and ponder what Miltia had meant about the truth. He knew Melanie was only playing when she held onto him and it wasn't like she'd said one thing and meant another. All she'd really done was be there when he woke up, chatted with him and then followed Hei's instructions. There wasn't a lot to go on.
The Broken Tap was pretty dingy, Jaune had to admit. He wouldn't call it the same way Bob had, but it had the look of a local – the kind of place that didn't often attract new customers but catered to the same few day after day. It was shadowed between two buildings and dark on the inside, lit by several half-hearted ceiling lamps, a jukebox and a small TV set above the bar. There were three round tables, a pool table and a darts board. The two men on the pool table leaned back and looked the Malachite sisters up and down as they walked by, whispering to one another and grinning.
Melanie and Miltia ignored it, approaching the bar and hailing the bartender.
"We're looking for two guys," Miltia said. "And no," she raised her voice, "That isn't an invitation, so back the fuck off."
The two at the pool table went silent.
"Pardon my sister," Melanie crooned. "She's quite stressed. We are looking for a gentleman by the name of Pierce. He'd be a large man who recently came into possession of a sword that does not belong to him."
The bartender kept his eyes down. "Never heard of him."
Jaune groaned. Another dead end. Damn it. He turned to leave but Melanie's words stopped him.
"I think you're lying to me."
The sports game on the TV continued to quietly buzz but all other noise halted, even the thunk of the darts striking the board and the clink of bottles on tables. Jaune looked around and noted the eyes staring the three of them down. Unconsciously, he slid closer to the twins, hoping he could at least shield them if things went bad.
"Miltia," he whispered. "I think we should leave."
Her eyes rolled. "Lamb."
"Is now the time?" he hissed.
"Now is always the time," she said loudly, loud enough for everyone to hear. "This is why you're not fit for this line of work even if you think you are."
"What line of work!?"
Glass shattered. Jaune jumped. While Miltia had finished talking, Melanie moved, sweeping one bare leg up and over the bar, angling her body back at an incredible angle to bring her foot over it completely. Her heel – razor sharp – was pressed to the throat of the bartender, making him freeze and drop the glass he'd been filling.
Chairs scraped back. People stood. Miltia flicked one hand to the side, revealing long, sharp claws attached to a bracelet reaching over the top of her right hand. Idly, she licked the blades, making everyone freeze. Jaune was included in that list, suddenly rooted to the floor as he realised he was accessory to a stickup.
"Your eyes flicked to that back door." Melanie said sweetly. Too sweetly. "Is that where our special man is?"
"I… I… I can't…"
"You can't what? Say? Breathe? Perhaps that will be easier if I open up your windpipe." With incredible muscle control, Melanie managed to tease the blade's edge over the man's throat with her foot, never once losing balance. "Don't worry, baby, you don't need words. A simple nod of the head will suffice."
Terrified, the bartender nodded.
Melanie swept her foot back, arching it over the counter and down behind her, standing almost cross-legged, pretty and demure and dangerous. "There. Isn't that better? Miltia?"
The red twin stormed toward the door and twisted on one foot, slamming her other out to smash it open with a mighty crash. From his position, Jaune saw the men sat at a round table. Four in total. His eyes found Crocea Mors resting up against the side, but also the handguns on top, next to several white packages shaped like bricks and sealed with black masking tape. There were stacks of lien as well, but he couldn't make out much more as the four men scrambled to their feet, one of them swiping the packages off the table.
"Oh hi!" Miltia said cheerily, spreading her feet apart and flexing her claws. "Hope you don't mind us crashing the party!"
"You're on Xiong Territory," Melanie said. "You do realise there are rules to follow, especially if you want to deal on our turf. And I don't believe you've been given permission."
Those were drugs, weren't they? Jaune had seen enough action movies to have an idea what people with guns and money in a backroom with suspiciously shaped parcels might be doing. The thick smoke pouring out and smelling skunky. It made his nose scrunch up and his throat gag.
"You said this was safe, Pierce!" one of the men rasped, pointing the gun at Miltia. "You said this was fucking safe!"
"It is!" the man who had his sword argued. Jaune would have remembered the voice even if he didn't recognise the face. The man picked up Crocea Mors and ripped the sheathe off, tossing it into the room and brandishing the Arc family weapon at Miltia and Melanie. "These whores just think they're hot shit because they work for Junior. His time is up. The bastard can't even keep his own shit in line, let alone stop us. You three can piss off back to the old man and tell him that's my answer."
Melanie giggled. "Is that so…? Because if it is…"
Miltia finished her words. "Then it's not a very smart one."
"Wait, wait, wait!" Jaune waved his arms before him. "This doesn't need to happen! We only came for my sword back. I-If you give it to me then no one has to know-"
"Oh give it a rest, lamb," Miltia snapped. "You still not realised it? Let me spell it out for you. Hei didn't leave your sword there by accident. He didn't send us out to help you find it out the goodness of his heart either."
"Miltia," Melanie warned. "Is this the time?"
Miltia ignored her sister. "You were bait. An excuse. A direct route to finding this idiot dealing on our turf so we could fuck him up and send a message out to everyone. A message that despite the shit we've been through, the Xiong Clan still owns this side of Vale!" She was almost raging as she said, "Open your eyes, you stupid sheep. No one gives a shit about you or your stupid heirloom. That's the way this world is."
A gunshot cracked in the pained silence left behind. Jaune's anger at the betrayal and the subsequent hurt evaporated in an instant as Miltia's head snapped to the side, driven back by the shot.
"MILTIA!" he screamed.
Miltia Malachite didn't fall. Her foot slid back to brace herself against the impact and her body swayed. Once the momentum was gone, she righted herself, brought up a clawed hand and touched the big red welt on her cheek left behind after she'd tanked a gunshot. Her eyes left Jaune and focused on the criminal holding a now shaking gun.
"Wrong move, asshole!"
By the end of the writing I think I've gotten used to a smaller keyboard; the number of mistakes I am making has definitely reduced. Early on, there was a part of me asking if I'd not be better off with a spacebar that only works 20% of the time. I'm used to one of those big, fat mechanical keyboards, not this plastic click-click-click abomination.
Next Chapter: 21st January
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur