Well, well, well, today our Govt started Plan B to begin Monday (which is probably a shallow effort to distract anger from the xmas parties they held) and today as been HELL for me. Hell in the second I walk into work everyone is like "So, can we work from home?" before I've even had chance to sit down, research or talk to our solicitors. Argh. I know you want to work from home but I have to keep this business running through the worst trading conditions in 50 years. Give me a break!

Anyway, after many meetings and calls I've decided to enable wfh for our staff starting Monday next week, which is great for them but that kept me in meetings until 12 noon. Not fun. I always take these things seriously, and the last thing I want is them getting sick. The problem now will be making sure they actually "work" from home and don't just sit around watching youtube or doing their Christmas shopping.


Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 44


Jaune stared up at the ceiling. The fan whirled slowly, the rhythmic clicking sound as it completed every rotation echoing dully in his head. His mouth tasted of ash and death; his eyes ached; his arms felt heavy as well, pinned to the bed. Slowly, his head rolled to the left. Black hair tickled his nose. His head then drifted right to find more of the same. He was in a bed sandwiched between two women.

The memories returned. They'd come back from the docks. There had been shouting, accusing, screaming, thrown bottles, shattered glass and then – after the emotion bled out – a night of drinking so heavy that they'd near enough all collapsed. He could remember breaking down somewhere in the middle of that. Crying like a little child. Dimly, he could also remember his shock as Miltia and Melanie didn't insult or mock him. As they'd instead dragged him up to their room, pushed him into their bed and forced him to sleep.

He was still in his black trousers and white shirt. They had slipped int pyjamas somewhere along the way, but none of them were undressed and he knew they hadn't done anything. In all honesty, the most beautiful person in the world could have offered him a night he'd never forget and he wouldn't have been able to accept.

Jaune slowly extricated his arms from under them with the experience of a brother used to serving as a teddy bear for younger sisters. Miltia and Melanie quickly snuggled back into the warm spot he'd left, mumbling sleepily before going back to soft breathing. He scooted to the edge of the bed and swept his feet off it, wincing at the cool floor on his socks. His black shoes were by the door, between their heels, and there were a few bottles strewn around. They must have all decided the best way to sleep was to pass out.

What time is it? Jaune checked his scroll and sighed. Eleven in the morning. Two messages from Lisa asking where I am. One from Tammy. His thumb hovered over them, ready to respond, but he couldn't find the words. With another sigh, he set the scroll down on the side, pushed himself up and staggered to the twins' en suite bathroom.

Two fluffy dressing gowns flapped around as the door closed behind him. Their sink was stacked, absolutely covered, with skin and haircare products. They worked and lived at a nightclub however, which meant it wasn't hard to find some painkillers – right next to packets of what he was sure were cocaine. It was amazing how little that phased him now, not that he expected either of them to not enjoy the merchandise a little. He pushed that aside, took the painkillers and popped out two of the liquid-gel tablets into his hand. There wasn't a glass nearby, but he took them and then cupped his hand under the running water to splash it into his mouth so he could swallow.

The water felt refreshing bouncing off his palm and into his face, so he cupped some and washed his face, dragging his hands downwards to wash away the sleep and standing up to look back in the mirror.

Meg's dead eyes stared back over his shoulder.

"Argh!" Jaune leapt back, gasped, blinked and looked behind him. Nothing. Of course there was nothing. Dead people didn't come back to life to haunt you in the toilet. That didn't stop Jaune shaking, clapping a hand to his mouth and rushing to the toilet.

A fresh stream of vomit poured out and into the bowl – stained pink like blood, but most likely from alcohol and red wine. Jaune hurled for a good minute, then reached up with a shaking hand to pull the flush and wash it all away. Shakily, anxiously, he pulled himself back up and, after a moment to fortify himself, looked back into the mirror.

Meg Scarlatina wasn't there. Only his own pale face, his own bloodshot eyes and his own limp, weak lips pulled down into a tired frown. He looked like shit. To be fair, he felt like shit. Tired and sick and broken and hungover. Turning away, he flicked the light off and stepped outside to find Miltia sitting up on the edge of the bed. Melanie was nowhere to be seen.

"Sorry if I woke you up," he whispered.

"It's fine. Mel is off puking somewhere else." Miltia gingerly worked her arm, winced in pain and stopped it. "Fuck!"

"Does it still hurt?"

"O-Of course it fucking hurts!" she hissed. "I think it's broken. Fuck, fuck, Fuckity-fuck."

He wasn't surprised at all. Meg had been ruthless and Miltia lasted longer than Melanie or he had. That hadn't bought her respect nor mercy, but instead a more thorough dismantling. "Do you need to go to the hospital?"

"Oh yeah, sure, show up to a hospital with a broken arm the day after a huntress is found dead. Great idea." Miltia noticed how still he'd gone and breathed out quickly. "Fuck. I didn't mean that at you. I'm just…"

"I get it. You're pissed."

"This hurts," she said in excuse. It wasn't a bad one. "I'm snappy. Don't worry, we have some private doctors who know how to keep quiet. I'm not angry at you. You…" Another harsh sigh. Almost a gasp. "You did… You did well…"

"That hard to compliment me?"

"It's not much of a compliment, is it? Besides, you don't want it."

He was surprised by how soft she said that. He'd expected her to get annoyed at his teasing. Had been banking on it. An angry Miltia might have helped distract him and he needed that right now. Instead, she looked angry, but not at him. More herself. Or the world. She brought her good hand up to brush hair away from her face, then looked at him with what could almost be called guilt.

"You weren't meant to do shit like this. We were supposed to look after you."

"What…?"

"Hei didn't want you corrupted," she said. "Told us that. Said you were here to work the bar, find your feet, nothing more. We agreed. You didn't have what it takes. No spine, no guts. You weren't cut out for this."

Even if he wanted to agree, a part of him didn't take the insults in stride. "I think I've done well enough. All things considered."

"You have. That's the problem." Another angry sigh. Miltia stood up and limped past him to the dresser. She was clearly struggling with one hand, so he came over to help her pick out some tracksuit bottoms and a tee. Gym clothes, though probably a good idea if she was going to see some private doctor. "Help me into these," she demanded.

He knew it was as close to a plea as she'd come.

Helping a girl get out her pyjamas and into other clothes wasn't easy – he was grateful she'd worn her underwear under it. Probably only because they'd all been too drunk to care about undressing properly. He tried to keep his eyes off her, but it was hard not to notice her pale skin. When he did, any and all thoughts of indecency fled.

Miltia looked terrible. Her skin was pale, very pale, and that only made it bruise all the worse from the absolute one-sided beatdown she'd experienced. Huge, ugly splotches of yellow and blue covered her ribs and left side, with some carrying on down her thigh. There were bruises and cuts that dotted her, and scars – a grisly scar across her right hip leading up to her ribs that had healed long ago but looked like it was cut by a knife. Jaune held the tee shirt open above her and let her poke her head and good arm into it, then gently helped pull the material over her injured one.

"It's ugly." Miltia grumbled. "I know."

"What? No, you're beautiful-"

"Don't hit me with that shit," she hissed. "I know I'm hot. Ninety per cent of the time anyway. But ain't no one look good when they've been tenderised like this. Trust me, girls like to be complimented but not when even they know it's bullshit."

"A…Ah. Right. I meant the scar."

"Fuck the scar. Some people like 'em. Those that don't won't care once I'm on naked top of them." Yet again, he was both amazed and shocked by how crass she could be. "But only a weirdo would be turned on by bruises like this. You're not much better," she added. "Might want to cover the worst of 'em or come up with an excuse if people are gonna see."

That was a good point. Luckily, his usual clothing covered his body, arms and legs. He did wince on touching his eye. There was probably a blackeye forming. "I'll say I got punched at work. I doubt anyone will connect that to a huntress."

"Yeah, most people don't survive being clocked by one." Miltia stabbed a plastic handle at him. "Brush my hair for me. No way I'm going out like this."

A mob boss probably shouldn't be bossed around quite as much as he was, but he took the brush and sat behind her. Anything more complicated than a braid would have stumped him, but luckily the twins had straight hair, so he just ran the brush through it, carefully holding any locks with knots so he could tease them out without tugging on her scalp. Saphron's hair was naturally curly when she didn't use tongs to iron it flat, but Miltia was one of those fortunate ones. Even after a night's sleep, her hair was soft, straight and obedient. It wasn't hard to work out the few knots.

"I meant what I said." Miltia said.

"Which bit?"

"About you not supposed to do this. We didn't have a choice when Cinder put you in charge. We – that's me, Mel and Tony – wanted to keep you out of things. Do as much as we could so you wouldn't have t get your hands dirty. Fat lot of good that did," she added with a pained hiss. "I guess what I'm saying is… sorry. Sorry we fucked up. Sorry you had to…" Miltia couldn't say it. Neither could he. "I'm sorry last night happened."

"Yeah." Jaune paused in his brushing, then forced himself to continue. "I am too."

"Hei would have done the same if he was pushed to it. He'd have hated it, but he'd have done it. You're getting more like him every day. That's not necessarily a good thing, though. You're becoming the kind of person the Xiong Clan needs, but is it the kind of person you want to be?"

"Not really. Do I have a choice, though? With Cinder out there?"

"No. That's why saying sorry is all I can fucking do." Miltia took her hair from him, stood and ran her good hand through it. "You're good at this," she said softly. "Maybe you should have been a hairdresser or a househusband."

Jaune felt he knew enough to tell she wasn't trying to be insulting. Only wistful. Those jobs would have been insults before; things so unimpressive he'd have felt genuine shame at the very idea of being so useless. Now, they felt like genuine options he could have taken. Options that would have left him in a better place physically and mentally than his current path. It was too late to turn away, however. Much too late.

He'd murdered someone.

/-/

"Are you sure you want to do this now, boss? No one would blame you taking time to recover."

"I want that dust gone." Jaune replied. "I want it out our hands before it can possibly cause any more trouble." It was too late to change his mind now. The traffic whirred by as Tony was taking him down busy roads toward the warehouses they'd stashed it at. "I'd rather keep busy as well. Has there been any news from the EDC?"

"Bon-Hwa contacted me to apologise for the disruption at the docks. He's offered to eradicate the Circus if we wish it. He also commented that their patrons were impressed with us and want to have a meeting on neutral grounds before they return to Mistral."

Sanlan and Kuja. Jaune grimaced. "I don't want to meet them."

"That's your choice…"

"But it'd be a bad one," he finished. "I know. I know. Arrange it. Not tonight. I'd rather not bleed all over Bon-Hwa's furniture."

"What about the Circus?"

What about them? A bunch of assholes from the north side of the city that he'd never even heard of before last night. They'd taken their chance to run after he smacked Ringmaster down. Man, what a stupid name, but the lot had embraced the clown aesthetic. Jaune couldn't say he feared clowns like some people did, but he could well imagine feeling terror if he was cornered by some in a dark alley and they had knives.

"Leave them be. They only came after us because they were desperate and willing to give up everything for our table scraps. They're not an issue."

"Fair enough. They'll probably implode in a week or two anyway," Tony said, pulling into a closed off road and down toward a set of rented warehouses. "That was all or nothing for Ringmaster. I reckon he was hoping if they lost, he'd be dead or in prison. The boss doesn't tend to survive if the gang falls apart. People take their anger out on those at the top."

Subtle warning or threat? Probably neither. Miltia had confirmed Tony was loyal to Hei and had wanted to keep Jaune out of it. The Xiong Clan weren't doing bad either, all things considered. Better than they should have.

The car came to a slow stop. Tony left first, closed his door and then rounded the vehicle to hold Jaune's open and let him out. It was all a show for the three people waiting patiently outside. Cinder and her two minions. They looked irritated and impatient, but Cinder… Cinder was smiling. That didn't bode well.

He'd had time to freshen up but Jaune knew he still looked a state. His new shirt wasn't as rumpled or bloodstained as the last. He'd taken one look at that, balled it up and tossed it in the trash – before panicking and realising that might be evidence. He'd had Tony burn it with a lighter and scattered the ashes. In a new suit with a crisp white shirt and red tie, he still looked beaten and bruised. His left eye had a lovely blue ring around it, his lip was split open and now butterfly-stitched back together by the doctor they'd left Miltia at. He'd been warned it might leave a scar. For now, it was dark red where the blood was just beginning to scab over.

To no one's surprise, his nose had also been fractured. It had a lovely little dent on the bridge now, giving him a flat-nosed look. At least until it healed. The doctor had provided a firm, elastic plaster of sorts that he now wore horizontally across the bridge of his nose, just below his eyes. It pinched his skin together in a way that was more irritating than painful, For the chance to come out without a disfigured nose, he'd take it. There were more bruises, cuts and two fractured ribs beneath his clothing, but those could be hidden. The stiff manner in which he half-walked, half-limped over to Cinder could not.

"Jaune." Her smile faltered slightly as she looked him up and down. "You don't look well. I'm not so cruel as to deny you a day's rest if you need it in the future. You could have informed me the dust was collected but that it would take a few days to transport."

Sympathy from Cinder? The world really was messed up.

"I want it out my hands sooner than later if possible." Jaune nodded his head to the doors Tony had already unlocked. "We can talk inside."

The warehouses weren't anything special on the inside. They were smaller than the giant things supermarkets used – only just fitting six lorries. The Clan had parked the lorries inside, packed tight like sardines in a can, with the containers still on their backs. Tony hurried to set up a fold-out table and some seats. Jaune limped over to it, accepting the seat Tony pulled out for him. Emerald did the same for Cinder. Tony then opened a briefcase, brought out a single bottle of expensive red wine and two glasses, then poured.

"Hospitality even here?" Cinder teased. She waited for him to take a sip before following suit. "I'm impressed. Roman isn't nearly as welcoming."

"The Xiong Clan prides itself on its hospitality." Jaune said. "Among other things. Tony, can you bring out some of the dust for her to check?"

"Yes sir." He clapped a hand to his chest. "If I may, the crates are heavy…"

"Mercury. Go help him." Cinder ordered. The boy hurried after Tony, and soon they were opening the containers. Stacked inside were wooden crates filled with padding, and Tony worked a crowbar to open one. The containers were marked for textiles, and Jaune felt a pit open in his stomach when Mercury pulled out several packets of denim jeans. They were just a cover for any nosey inspectors, however. Beneath were racks of plastic containers filled with dust.

Tony and Mercury carried a box back to Cinder between them and gently placed it on the table. Plastic clicked inside. Cinder hummed, drew out a box and uncorked the container. The dust looked fine, spilling out like sand in the hourglass. She poured a tiny amount into her palm, rubbed it between her finger and thumb and then brought her other hand above it. With a snap of her fingers, a tiny flickering flame came to life.

The dust ignited when it touched it, flaring up a dark blue in colour.

"Very pure." Cinder said. "This is good dust. Likely Schnee refined. How many tonnes?"

"Twelve tonnes. Six containers of two each."

"Very good." Cinder waved her hand and Mercury and Tony took the crate back. "I'm impressed. I don't say that often, but I'll give praise where it's due. Roman had us behind schedule and his efforts to rectify that put the city on high alert. He only got two containers out of that as well. You've tripled his output in less time. I only wish I could say it was without causing a stir."

Jaune's hands clenched into fists. "That wasn't intentional on our part."

"I can imagine. I also expect it's partly Roman's fault for putting the huntsmen on alert in the first place, which is why I'm not criticising you for it. Actually," she said, leaning forward. "I'm rather intrigued. It's not every day a bunch of common criminals execute a fully trained huntress."

Jaune flinched. His eyes closed.

"Tell me," Cinder purred. "Were you the one to do it?"

He hadn't put Meg down but to claim he wasn't responsible for all this would be a brazen lie. It was his going after Meg and exposing her crimes that set her on the warpath. He could have let her get away with Hei's death – though even now he wasn't sure he could have. Unable to say the words, Jaune nodded once.

"You're more interesting than I initially pinned you for. I'm pleased to see I was right in choosing you to lead your little group. Even if it appears to have cost you somewhat…"

"Speaking of cost." Jaune interrupted. He forced himself to meet Cinder's golden eyes. "If we've exceeded what was expected from Roman, how about laying off us for a little while?"

Emerald hissed through her teeth. "You don't-"

Cinder silenced her with a raise of her hand. The message was clear. The adults were speaking and she was not to get involved. Cinder stared back at him, calculating and cruel, and this time Jaune met it the whole way. He felt too tired to shy away.

"Did you take losses?" she asked.

"Our best fighters are down and out. One has a broken arm and the other isn't much better. To say nothing of the men who took a beating trying to stop a professional huntress. It's going to be hard enough for us to hold our own territory. Things get busier during the Vytal Festival and the gangs are getting desperate. We've made ourselves vulnerable doing this for you."

"I see. You've been useful to me and I won't throw that away. Take your time off." Cinder waved her hand. "This is dust aplenty for our needs. Roman can make up the rest – he owes us it anyway. You claim you might be under threat due to lessened manpower?"

Jaune nodded again. There were always other gangs and if this Mistral gang wanted his attention, he was sure it was for nothing peaceful.

"Mercury." Cinder turned to face the silver-haired boy. "You've been complaining of how boring sitting around waiting is. What do you think of a little side work for the local mob here?"

Mercury grinned. "Sounds interesting."

"Good." Cinder faced Jaune again. "I'll lend you Mercury should you need him. Just contact him and he will make himself available. Use him as you would any of your people – he can fight at a level far above what his age suggests. He is, for all intents and purposes, a huntsman."

Jaune couldn't quite hide his surprise. He'd expected Cinder to either ignore his request or, at best, to give them a break for a week or two before the demands continued. He hadn't expected her to both okay the request and now offer her aid. Some of his surprise must have shown because she chuckled.

"I help those who help me. You've proven yourself useful, Jaune. Valuable, even. I'd be a fool to throw away a capable subordinate. I'd much rather you stick around and continue to be useful. Otherwise, I have to deal with dullards like Roman."

"Thank you." Jaune inclined his head. As much as he despised Cinder, he'd taken the assistance. The Xiong Clan needed it and he wasn't in the right state of mind to look deeper. "Tony, take his details down. When can you have the dust removed from here?"

"Roman is sending some of his people to ship it."

"Make sure he doesn't lose it en route."

"Believe me," Cinder said harshly. "It will be his life if he does."

/-/

Lisa took one look at his injuries and asked him if he went out looking for fights. She did, however, accept his excuse of a bar brawl. Things like that happened, and it wasn't like the shy and mild-mannered guy who paid his rent two months in advance was a wanted murderer, was it? It wasn't like he spent his nights out committing the worst crimes imaginable.

It never occurred to her and he wasn't about to change that. Besides, a huntress should have killed him. Would have if not for intervention. At the end of the day, his greatest alibi was that he was still alive. It was probably why Qrow hadn't immediately come to question him since Meg spent most her time stalking his ass.

It probably helps he told Meg off for it. That way, he believes she actually left me be…

If he didn't think Meg broke her word and went right back to stalking him, he shouldn't think they could have met up at the docks. Either way, he hadn't been summoned in to talk at a police station so things looked good. For now. There was no telling if evidence would be found at the scene of the crime. If sleep had been hard to find before, it was impossible now.

He excused himself after a quick dinner of takeout to have a shower and an early night. Lisa wanted to ask more – he could tell – but Jaune wasn't in the mood. The whole day had passed in a blur and he wanted nothing more than to forget it ever existed. Mayne the whole week, too.

The hot shower water pounding down on him helped a little. Jaune stood in the rising steam and closed his eyes against the water, letting it wash down over bruised muscles, cuts and his aching ribs.

It isn't my fault. Meg didn't leave me any choice. She tried to kill me! It was self-defence.

It wasn't murder if he killed someone who was actively trying to kill him. Especially not if said person was a huntress who could have, and should have, taken him down easily and safely. Meg had been actively trying to kill him through his aura and stage it as an accident. His death had been premeditated in her mind. Hers had been… a spur of the moment. A necessary evil.

A dark shadow on the other side of the curtain caught his attention. It loomed with long ears sticking up just outside. Jaune gasped, slid and slammed his back into the wall. His breathing came out harsh and desperate, his heart pounding. Quickly, he wrenched the shower curtain open.

Lisa's brown dressing gown hung on a hook on the back of the door. The hook had one print to support it and two ornamental spokes rising upwards. Through the hazy curtain and steam, they'd appeared to move like ears.

"Fuck…" Jaune rasped, his heart still beating so fast it felt like it might explode in his chest. Clenching his eyes shut, he turned back to the water, but even then he couldn't help but glance over just to make sure it wasn't real. To make sure it wasn't really Meg Scarlatina, back from the dead, to punish him for his crimes.

It won't happen. It can't happen. Meg is dead. I…

I killed her…

Small droplets of blood splashed down into the shower water and pooled at his feet. Jaune cupped a hand to his nose and it came away bloody. Groaning, he tilted his head back and tried to wash it all away, but while the stains on his face left, the blood on his hands did not.

He wasn't sure they ever would.


Bit of an angst chapter I know but hey, Jaune just killed a person. I think that deserves a bit of an emotional breakdown.


Next Chapter: 16th December

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur