I'm looking after my sister's dog today as she's had to go into the hospital and has been told she will have to stay the night. She won't tell me why or what, but hard not to feel worried when she rings up crying begging me to drive to her house, pick up her dog and look after him. Of course I went immediately.

Now I'm stuck here uncertain and in a bad mood because I'm worried and she won't talk to me (or anyone) about what's wrong. Argh. Not sure why I'm even mentioning it here other than to rant. I guess slapping it on like this is a form of therapy. Get it out there and let the frustration go.


Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 53


Forks and knives clinked, and a low hum of muted conversation wafted over the tinkling sound of a water fountain mixed with soft strings of a three-man band. Calming, vaguely romantic music set to fit the atmosphere as waiters and waitresses flitted between tables, bringing trays stacked high with fine food and drink. One waiter brought Jaune to a table by the back, tucked away by the balcony – it was too cold to want to eat out, but the view over the city more than made up for it.

"Would the sir like a drink while he waits for his guest?"

"A bottle of champagne and two glasses," he requested. "Do you have Don Merre?"

"We do. You have a refined taste, sir."

No question was made of whether he could afford it. Gaining a reservation at a place like this was indication enough you had money no matter your age or appearance. The restaurant sat firmly within Xiong territory, he'd been careful about that, and the twins assured him it was about as up-market as you could get. Enough to require him to be in black suit trousers and a white button-down shirt. Jaune slung the jacket over the back of the seat and sat, taking a deep breath and letting some of the day's fatigue slip away.

No work, he told himself. It was instinct by now to think back on the deals of the day, on the concern the twins and Tony expressed not only about Cinder, but about Laurie and Dominic making their own alliance within the cartel. It didn't much matter if they chose to remain neutral in this war if those two decided his chummy relations with Bon-Hwa made him a threat. They'd make a move on the Xiong Clan regardless. It was probably only the threat of huntsman intervention that was stopping them.

"No work." Jaune cupped his face. "Damn it, I can't even sit down for two minutes without defaulting back."

The waiter returned not only with the wine, but also with a very out of place Tammy. It was amusing to see a woman several years older than him looking like she wasn't sure if she belonged here, especially when she looked so good. She'd dressed up in a white dress with a pale grey handbag she clutched to her stomach. Her hair had been curled into ringlets that fell either side of a face only lightly touched by makeup.

"You made it." Jaune stood and drew out a chair for her. The smile she sent him was half amused, like she thought he was tyring too hard. Maybe he was. The gesture might have been a little too old-fashioned. Another wasn't, and he mentally slapped himself for not saying it sooner, "You look amazing."

Her eyes lit up. She'd made the effort and appreciated the words. It made his embarrassment more than worth it. "Thank you. You look good yourself." She smiled as the waiter set the wine down, then leaned over. "Jaune, are you sure we can afford this? This place is… it's not cheap."

"It's fine. I'll pay."

"I can go half."

Not with that panicked expression she couldn't. "Don't worry, our club and this place have an arrangement." Not entirely untrue. "This is on the club's pay."

"Is that okay?"

"It's a perk of the job. You have a few of those too, right?"

"I guess." Tammy relaxed a little and set her handbag down by her feet. "The directors at our place own a little holiday home out in Mistral and they let staff rent to stay there at cost. I guess this is the same?"

"Something like that, yeah." Jaune uncorked the wine and poured her a glass, then himself. He picked it up and held it out so they could tap them together. "Cheers. And let's not talk about work. I think I've been focusing too much on that as it is."

"Mm?" Tammy's eyes widened over the glass. She groaned unhappily and set it down. "I told Lisa not to say anything."

"It's fine."

"It's not!" she said. "I didn't mean for her to… I'm going to wring her neck when I next see her." She quickly reached over to grab his hand, biting her lower lip. "It's not what it sounded like. I know you're busy – I am too. I was only complaining we didn't get to spend much time together. Lisa must have taken it out of hand."

His first instinct was to doubt, and he found himself a little annoyed by that. Cynicism was almost to be expected after all the gang work and things he'd discovered about Vale, but he wasn't about to let it infect him here as well. "I'm sure she was just worried."

"Meddling more like. Lisa ought to get her own boyfriend before she starts offering advice here. Did you know her last two dumped her?"

"Um. No?"

"Work related, because she couldn't find time for them."

"Oh." His eyes widened. "Then you think-?"

"She's projecting." Tammy said. "Probably with the best of intentions, but please – please – believe me when I say I'm fine. You run a nightclub in a city where the Vytal Festival is being held. Things are busy, right?"

"More than you can possibly imagine." It was a weight off his shoulders to squeeze her hand and grin back. "You're not angry then?"

"I'm fine. A little annoyed, but more at circumstances than you. I work weekdays, you work weekends, I work days and you work nights. It's not like either of us is choosing to avoid the other."

"No one would choose to avoid you."

"Oh geez-" Tammy snorted and feigned a slap his way. "Do you get your lines from period novels?"

"That bad?"

"I didn't say it was bad." Her glossed lips quirked into a smile, and she tilted her head to gaze at him sideways. "Just cringey. Cringey can be good if you mean it, though."

"I do."

"You are such a ham!" Tammy giggled and drank a little more wine. "So, when will you have a little more time? This is nice – great even – but I'd love to have a lazy day with the two of us." Her eyes slid from his face to his chest and up again. "Maybe relax a little at home."

A hot tingle ran through his body as if he'd been plugged into the mains. It wasn't anything overly suggestive, but he was fairly sure it was a suggestion that they might do that if the mood felt right. "A-Ah, I'd be down- I mean, I'd enjoy that. I'll have to ask at work. Need someone to cover my shift, you know?"

"Oh, I know. People on our teams can't take holidays at the same dates. We have to talk with each other and decide who most deserves it if two people want to take the same week off." Tammy trailed off. "How did we end up talking about work again?"

That was a good question. A worrying one too. Was work all they had to talk about because they didn't have anything else in common? They'd met at Lisa's party and had only really gotten on in a physical sense. He was sure his parents would have had something to say about there needing to be more of a connection than just that.

"Well, let's talk about something else." Jaune suggested. "What do you do for fun?"

"I like reading…"

"Really? One of my sisters is an aspiring author. What are you reading right now?"

It was strange how easily small talk came when he was normally so bad at it. Catastrophically bad. His sisters had always groaned about how he was going to embarrass himself the first time he talked to a girl, and he couldn't say they'd been wrong to worry. He'd always been the kind of person to not know what to say. To be honest, he didn't know what to say now either. Maybe it was luck, fate or just that all you had to do was ask questions and listen. Maybe he'd just overestimated how hard it all was.

The longer the conversation went on, the easier it became. More topics to talk about, more anecdotes to bring up. They chatted about books, then movies, then laughed over cliché storylines and even pencilled in to go see one together that they were both a little interested in. When the waiter came for their orders, they were finally relaxed and chatting.

Food put a stop to that – almost. Between bites, they would comment on the meals. Tammy was apparently a poor cook herself, which matched well with him since he was probably just as bad.

"Bacon and eggs for me. It's about the best I can make."

"How are you so fit with just that?" she asked.

"Training mostly. You know I'm planning to attend Beacon."

"Yeah."

"Does that bother you?"

She shook her head. "No. It's alright. I mean, you'd still be in Vale, and you'd even have weekends free. And it's not like I'd be dating someone in high school or something. Beacon is more like a university."

"Is the age thing an issue?"

"I'll admit I thought you were closer to twenty or twenty-one when I came onto you. Not… uh… seventeen."

"It's legal."

"Yeah, just. Just legal. You look and act older so it's fine." Tammy waved it off before it could become an issue. "I just told my parents I'm dating a club manager and neglected to mention your age when I sent them photos."

She was already talking about him to her parents. He wasn't sure what to make of that – or if he should be making anything of it at all. There was nothing wrong with it, right? In fact, why hadn't he mentioned he had a girlfriend to his?

Too busy panicking over gang matters. There's nothing weird about her mentioning me. Even if it felt that way. It's not like she's introducing me to them or anything.

"That's nice. Are they okay with it?"

"Oh, they're fine," she said. "They'd like you. Just might give me a few weird looks if they found out you were seventeen, but they'd be lovely to you. It's Lisa's parents you want to watch out for. Super old-fashioned. Weirdly old-fashioned. Did you know they once told me it was okay if I was in a lesbian relationship with Lisa as long as I let her get pregnant by another man first so she could have a baby?"

"Eh? What?"

"I know, right!?" Tammy shook her head. "Talk about progressive and not at the same time. They're the kind of parents to say you're middle-aged at twenty-five. Every time I met them, they were asking Lisa if she was going to settle down and start a family yet."

"Yikes. No wonder she wants to buy her own place and rent out."

"Yeah. Lisa was lucky to find you," she said. "Otherwise, she might have had to move back in with her parents. Living in Vale isn't cheap. You probably know that by now."

"Sure do. Do you have your own place?"

"I rent an apartment. It's small but it serves. I figured I'd wait until I found someone and then think about buying a house later. Split finances and all that."

Was that a hint? It felt like it might be. Jaune swallowed. How far did Tammy want to go with this? How far did he? This was the first girl he'd ever dated. Wasn't that too soon? It wasn't like she was asking him to marry her. I'm overthinking it. There's nothing weird about what she said. There's no point having a big house alone. It makes sense to wait until you find someone to share costs with. He just wasn't sure if she was casually mentioning that or gauging his interest.

The waiter returned with their desserts and spared Jaune having to find out – or worse, ask. Maybe he should be calling his parents and letting them know and ask for a little advice too. No, Tammy was just making conversation. She had to be. This was, what, their first real date? There was no way she was talking about moving in together already.

The bill had been covered in advance, helping to sell the idea that Tammy didn't need to feel guilty for not splitting it. In all fairness, she shouldn't anyway since most of the money he used was illegally sourced as it was. Hard earned, sure, he and others had bled for it, but not legal. The restaurant knew that, or he assumed the owner did, and as such the cost would be paid back in service by the Xiong Clan. Protection, support or something else slipped their way that might even be worth more than the price of a meal.

"That was amazing," Tammy said as they strolled out side by side, his arm around her wait and hers around his with her hand shoved in his pocket for warmth. It felt a little clumsy. Not bad by any means, but they didn't quite slot together yet. Maybe that kind of easy side-by-side chemistry he'd seen in his parents came with time and practice. "I don't think I've ever eaten food that good."

"Me neither. They know their food. Do you want to…" He trailed off helplessly and then said, "Maybe go for a walk? Visit the park?"

Weak options. Weak suggestions.

"I'm feeling too full for that." She laughed and leaned into him. "You could escort me back to my place, though. It's late and dangerous out."

The way she said it made it clear she was teasing. That was a little ironic given that he'd been mugged in one of these alleys. Later at night, to be fair, and not quite on the bright streets they were on now. Vale had its darker places like everywhere else, but the Xiong Territory wasn't doing so bad anymore. The arrangements with the Lumens and the removal of the Ravagers meant their people could focus on cleaning house, so there hadn't been much more than the odd pickpocket or drunks fighting lately. Disorganised crime. No less a problem, but not quite so much of one either.

"Sure." He squeezed her against him. "Just tell me which way-"

"Oh my," a feminine voice simpered, "If it isn't Jaune. What a small world."

Not Cinder. That was the first thing to come to mind, and there was no hiding his relief. Until he turned to see Laurie Laurette stood in a black dress beside Dominic Hands and felt his panic come back a hundred times over.

What did it mean for them to be here? This was Xiong territory, and while that didn't mean they couldn't approach it – they were allied by their work in the cartel nominally – that still didn't explain why they would. They'd be safer in their own circles, more able to speak in private and not have to worry about any other gangs. Had they come specifically for him? All of Bon-Hwa's warnings came back, and at the worst possible time.

"Miss Laurette," he said politely. "And Mr Hands. I'm surprised to see you out here."

"Dominic and I are discussing business over dinner," Laurie said. "And maybe pleasure as well," she added, stroking the man's arm. "The two do so often mix. And who is this?" she asked. "Your own date for the evening?"

Tammy. Shit. Jaune glanced her way but didn't know what to do. Move to shield her and he'd only raise questions from her, but the last thing he wanted was the criminal elements catching wind of her. It wasn't like he could just claim she was a friend either. Tammy took all options away by smiling and saying, "I'm Jaune's girlfriend."

"Oh, you're dating Jaune here? That is interesting." The way Laurie said it dripped threat, and Jaune bit back a snarl. "Your boyfriend hadn't mentioned you to us before."

"I like to keep work and personal life firmly separated," Jaune said. "I'd appreciate it being kept that way."

"Of course. Of course." Dominic laughed and coughed at the same time. He, at least, appeared prepared to accept that, but Laurie was still watching Tammy like a fox. "Speaking of work, we've been asked to pass on an invitation to you, my boy. An invite to a little meet n' greet between like-minded fellows." His hand ducked into his jacket pocket and came out with a sealed white envelope. Jaune took it woodenly. "It's a couple of days from now. You'll find the details inside. I hope you'll be able to attend."

"Yeah, well, I'll try my best."

"Try harder." Laurie said. "Otherwise, we might take our business elsewhere. None of us want to leave things up in the air like that, especially with those Mistralian scavengers poking around the side-lines. Unless you prefer to dine with them instead. Is that what you're saying?"

"I'm not saying anything other than good evening and goodnight." Jaune steered Tammy away forcefully, shielding her body from their view with his. It was a lost effort at this point, especially if they wanted to dig deeper. He could only trust they knew the Xiong Clan wouldn't take that sitting down. "A good night to you both."

They didn't follow. Dominic and Laurie turned and entered the restaurant they had just left, and the glass doors shut quietly behind them. Tammy stayed quiet as he drew them away, around a corner and down the street for a good two minutes.

Eventually, she spoke. "That was a little tense."

"Sorry." The automatic apology was for more than she knew. "I wanted tonight to be just about us, not… work."

"You couldn't have known they'd be going there as well. Are they competitors? I'd have said customers, except my boss would have my head if I was that antagonistic to people paying us money."

"It's closer to say they're business partners, but that we don't always see eye to eye. There have been a few disagreements on how things should be done around the festival."

"And you're the new guy. Do they keep pushing and testing you?"

"Yeah. I'd not…" He sighed and drew her in. "Can we not talk work? I know it sounds stupid, but I get enough of those two in the day and I really want to just forget about them tonight."

Tammy leaned up to kiss his cheek and said, "I think I can manage that."

/-/

"You didn't bang her," was the first thing Miltia said on seeing him. Jaune stood in the doorway, mouth open and not at all sure which of numerous questions he wanted to ask.

In the end he settled on, "How could you possibly tell?"

"You look annoyed. Got that stressed look about you. Trust me, no man on their first time is going to feel stressed after. Not unless she's the worst lay ever. So? Spill."

"We didn't sleep together." He pulled out a seat at the table and sat down. Melanie offered him a grin and Tony slid a bottle of water over. "I'm okay with that, though. We cuddled, made out and… well…" His cheeks blushed. "We pretty much did as much as you could while still staying clothed."

"Oh fucking hell." Miltia rolled her eyes. "I can't believe you're looking that happy about a bit of fondling. First tit you ever held?"

Yes, but she didn't need to know that. "I'm trying to do things right by her. I'd rather not rush into something we'll both regret. Thanks for the restaurant by the way, Melanie. It was great."

"Hmm. I know. We also know a certain duo crashed the night."

He should have guessed. "Were you spying on us?"

"Pft. On a virgin? To see what? Fumbling?" Miltia snorted. "Nah, the owner saw Hands and Laurette and informed us. Trying to win favour with us, see if we won't cut them some slack in the future."

"Which, to be fair, we do." Tony said. "Hei was always clear that we should reward any and all cooperation from businesses on our turf. It keeps them happy and ensures they keep coming to us with useful information. What did they have to say to you?"

"Here. An invite." He tossed the letter on the table.

"You didn't open it?"

"I think Jaune had his hands full at the time," Miltia teased. She snatched it and broke the seal. "It's an invitation to… holy shit." She leaned back. "They're calling a summit!"

"Who is?" Jaune asked. "And what's a summit?"

"A summit," Melanie explained, "Is when the gangs and families of Vale meet under a banner of neutrality to discuss and address issues."

"Like what we and the cartel did?"

"Nothing like that. This is every gang in the city, Jaune. Everyone who is anyone will be there, and you cause trouble here you're a dead man. I'm talking about the major families, the most dangerous organisations and the most violent gangs. The last time a summit was called was ten years ago."

"What happened then?"

"Serial killer on the loose targeting gang members." Tony said. "Real vigilante comic-book type. Not as much of a joke as you'd think with huntsmen. This guy was tearing through the gangs killing anyone he could. A summit was called, and the gangs worked together to isolate and capture him."

"And then?"

Tony ran a hand across his throat. Lovely. So, all the biggest names and players would be there. It sounded like the kind of thing Cinder would kill him for not bringing her to, and the last place he wanted to bring her to. "Why would Laurie and Dominic be the ones giving us invitations?"

"That's the big question, ain't it?" Miltia asked. "Neither of them is what you'd call top dogs, but it's considered poor manners to have an invite sent to us through rivals."

"Unless they're hosting." Melanie said.

"What could small-time idiots like them host? We'd be laughed out of Vale if we tried to call a summit, and they're not that much bigger than us. It's the top dogs who call and everyone else follows. That's how it's always been."

"Something has changed." Jaune said.

"No shit, sherlock." She sighed. "We have to go. Insult not to, and to people we can't afford to insult. It might be about the huntsmen activity; that's got to be bad business for everyone."

"You don't think they're going to try and attack the huntsmen, do you?" Jaune asked, concern for Qrow winning out over himself. "I won't agree to that. Not in a million years."

"No one wants a war with Beacon. It'd be unwinnable. This might be making an official arrangement about staying out of each other's way. A truce or something." Tony shrugged. "I've seen stranger. We won't know until we go. Or, more specifically, until you go."

No surprises there. Jaune nodded despite his misgivings. At least he'd managed to spare some time for Tammy, even if it felt like he was pushing back other commitments. Ruby, Dove, his training with Doctor Oobleck. There was so much to do and so little time.

"There's a number to call to acknowledge our attendance." Tony said.

"Call it and say I'll be there. No other choice. How possible do you think it is that someone tries something? Could it be a trap?"

"No. Not a chance. Anyone starts anything here, every single gang, syndicate or organisation in the city will be out gunning for them. Meetings like this only happen because of trust, and the trust is maintained by unspoken threat to all. Even we would be expected to join in hunting down and killing anyone who broke that arrangement."

"And if Cinder breaks it?"

"Don't let her."

"But if she does," Jaune pressed.

"Don't. Let. Her." Tony enunciated each word slowly. "I'm not joking when I say that anything she does will reflect on us. Unless you want us all hunted down and killed, you'll make sure she plays nice."

Yeah. No problem…


Still no news. Still no mention. I get to just sit here stroking her dog and hoping she hasn't been in an accident or something. Like, seriously, give me something. Anything. It's not like we're on bad terms – we go out on nights out together (pre-lockdown ofc) and are always hanging out. It must be something she's upset and/or stressed out about, but now it's making me the same.


Next Chapter: 20th Jan

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur