The two stray cats I've been feeding got into a massive fight outside my bedroom window last night – first at midnight, then at one in the morning. I'm figuring that's mostly my fault as they're looking for the food I leave them, but hell, I've tried to catch them to take to the vet for microchips, etc, but they are not at all tame and scram when I go near. Had to wade out both times at night in my dressing gown to break the fights up. Fun times.

Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 55

What the hell am I doing?

The thought crossed his mind, as it must have everyone else's there. If the twins and Tony were here they'd have been aghast. Don't draw attention, don't speak up, don't be noticed – so much for all that advice. He was fairly sure that included not standing up and challenging all three crime lords that headed the summit, but what choice did he have? They wanted to hand him over to the huntsmen, and the words they used hadn't necessarily convinced him they meant to do so alive.

Helplessness was an experience he was growing used to – and he hated it. He'd been helpless that night the muggers cornered him, helpless when Cinder killed Hei, helpless when Meg forced his hand in killing her. Too many times where others had made the decisions for him. Now, the decision on when and how his life would end was going to be in the hands of a fat man-child, a crone on the verge of death and some arrogant businessman? No. He absolutely refused. If he was going to die here, he'd die spitting in their faces. He'd make them kill him. If only so it could be on his terms.

That small freedom, that small choice, was still his.

For however long he lived now.

I'm dead. This is it. I'm going to die…

It was remarkable how calm he felt about that. It was probably the shock. Jaune stood with his hands at his sides, his head high and his suit crisp and freshly pressed. He didn't feel any of the usual shakes or shivers that plagued him under so much attention. They'd been driven away by the crushing reality of all this.

"I would suggest the head of the Xiong Clan mind his words," Rust said. "Lest they be taken as insult. I only have so much patience."

"You have all the patience in the world," Jaune shot back. "Because you've been patiently sitting around while Mistral and Atlas prepare to take over, doing nothing. Then again, you haven't done anything when the huntsmen started to impact operations. For being a so-called grand syndicate you sure haven't done much - much other than hide. The Dubont Syndicate, the Reclamationists and the Rouge family, was it?" Jaune laughed hoarsely. "Forgive me if I got any of that wrong, it's just that I've barely heard of any of you."

"Young and new," the woman, Catelyn, said waspishly. "A whelp playing at being a gang lord."

"Maybe," he admitted with a shrug. "Or maybe the reason I haven't heard anything is because you've all not done anything. While the Xiong Clan has been working against the White Fang and trying to hunt down Roman to bring an end to this huntsman intervention, you three have sat around feeling sorry for yourselves. You haven't done anything. Now, you're trying to feign like you have – trying to impress everyone here with made-up action – and your idea of that is to instantly surrender and try to beg forgiveness from the huntsmen. What the hell is that about?" he asked loudly. "I thought this was to be a summit of powerful crime lords, syndicates and gangs. Instead, I get a bunch of pompous blowhards clinging doggedly to apparent past glories."

"Enough of this nonsense." Rust said. "Our course is set and you're just spitting words. Andra, deal with him!"

The white-haired huntsman surged out his seat and vaulted the table, landing on both feet and drawing a black-coated metal rod from his waist. He was fast – too fast. He covered the distance, twisted and brought the rod swinging in from Jaune's left.

Training kicked in. Team CRDL had put him through his paces plenty of times on how to block and even without a shield he knew enough to have his aura roiling to life. Fed by anger and fear, he shoved it all – every last drop – to his arms and brought them into the path of the weapon, crossed over to form an X and catch the weapon in the centre. He only just managed to catch it, the weapon striking his expensive sleeves and then, with a loud crackle and a bright flash of white light, bouncing violently off and out the huntsman's loose grip.

Doctor Oobleck had commented once in his aura, that he had an unusually large amount that would serve him well when he eventually joined Beacon. Large reserves, enough to take more than a few hits, but also enough, he'd said, to manifest visibly if he overdid things. Such manifestations were a waste of aura – flashy, impressive, but no better than burning energy for a light show.

For the huntsman who had expected a normal foe, some young and ambitious crook with little to no training at all, it was still surprise enough that he didn't prepare for it. Like most people, he'd kept a loose grip so that his bones weren't shaken too much from the impact of metal on flesh. He hadn't expected to be hitting the metal sheet that was Jaune's aura, however.

He would have recovered quickly, and he was still a huntsman, which put him far and above Jaune's level. Anger gave Jaune the fuel necessary to strike first however, grabbing the extended arm, now minus its weapon, and yanking the huntsman back and around him, tripping him with one leg as he did. It was a clumsy move at best, but it did send the huntsman sailing back onto the booth's table.

Into Cinder.

The fancy black dress and heels slowed her down nothing – she struck like a snake, peacefully sitting with a glass of wine one moment and latching her hand onto the huntsman's face, her gloved fingers digging into his skin as she drove him down and onto the wooden table. Jaune turned to see if there were any other attackers, and he was glad he did. More than he'd ever admit.

Because the man beneath Cinder's hand began to scream.

"Eyarghhhhh! Ahhhhh! Arghhhhhhh!"

His screams became increasingly high-pitched, but it was the hissing, bubbling and popping sounds riding over them that well and truly had people recoiling in their seats – that and the unmistakable smell of burning flesh that wafted past Jaune's nostrils. He'd never known he would be able to recognise it, and he wished he didn't have to.

He didn't speak during it. There was no way his words would be heard. Luckily – though it didn't feel so for anyone involved – the huntsman's screams soon quietened, then ceased. The sounds of his struggle, of his feet kicking wildly against the table, stopped as well, and the soft click of Cinder's heels sounded as she walked out to stand beside him, reaching up with one gloved hand to brush some hair away from her face. She wasn't sweating, not even the slightest bit exerted. The message was clear – this had been no effort on her part. Or, as their audience no doubt saw it, no effort on his part.

Flesh continued to sizzle and hiss behind them, but it was quieter now, the last steaming remnants of a body Jaune refused to turn and see for fear he might throw up straight after. If he didn't look, he could pretend it wasn't there. Barely. The smell… oh good lord, the smell. Jaune clenched his eyes shut to ward off tears and snapped them open again, embracing his anger. Anger felt good – safe. Anger would keep him from weeping.

"Are you done, Rust?" he demanded of the man who was now pale as a sheet of paper and as wide-eyed as a child. To be fair, not everyone had seen a man burned to death in such a way. "I was told that the summits are to be held as meetings with no violence – that such would be punishable by death. I guess you don't think those rules apply to you."

"You… You…" Ruse struggled for words.

"Me!" Jaune snapped. "I. Jaune Xiong. The man you wanted to kill and hand over to Beacon to spare your skin, you damn coward!"

"Lord Xiong," the elderly Catelyn said, suddenly much politer. "Please sit down. I am sure this little misunderstanding can be explained away."

"Misunderstanding? The only misunderstanding here is that you all misunderstood my ability to defend myself! I'm sure if I died there, you'd have all brushed it under the carpet and pretended it never happened." His chest rose and fell in a great heave of air. His heart pounded like a drum. Shouting felt good – liberating – and he vented it all in one loud cry. "I didn't fucking kill a huntress to be finished off by a piece of shit like him!"

"The Dubont Syndicate has stepped over the line," she said, "They will be held accountable."

Rust turned to glare at her in shock and clear betrayal, enough for Jaune to know he hadn't expected it. Enough to imply they'd agreed before over what would happen. This was no accident. They'd planned for him to be killed here, both to ward off the huntsmen and as a show of power against the lesser gangs. No wonder Laurie and Dominic had been smirking so, they'd known. They'd fucking known. They sure as hell weren't smiling now. Laurie was holding her hand to her mouth to stem a tide of vomit.

"I'm not sure I trust you on that, Lady Catelyn," Jaune said. He tried to sound polite – he did – but the underlying rage simmered through his words, turning them threatening. "I came here expecting more than I've seen. Perhaps you were more in your younger years, perhaps you were powerful and inspiring once, but if you'll forgive me saying, you're past your prime. Mr Mediocre over here and that… thing that calls itself a duke aren't much better."

Rust stood. "You dare insult the Dubont Syndicate!"

"Oh, sit down Rust." Catelyn snapped. The crone released a throaty and hoarse cackle. "There's not a soul here who doesn't know you inherited everything. Now, your father – oh, he was a wild one. Took Vale by the reins, he did. Forged an empire from nothing." She waved a hand. "The boy is right. I'm old – too old. Rust is untested and impetuous, desperate to prove himself."

Rust trembled with rage, and, perhaps, with insecurity. He could see it now it had been pointed out. He was young – not as young as Jaune was, but young enough to look out of place. The old leader had died and left him in charge of the largest syndicate in Vale, and he had no idea what he was doing. Was his arrogance a desperate attempt to project confidence? His pressures would have been greater than Jaune's, though Rust had the advantage of growing up and training for this. He hadn't.

"Duke Gormond used to be a strapping young man as well," the crone went on. The Duke, taking offense, warbled out some high-pitched noises. The woman's eyes twitched. "Oh, shut up you big man-baby. It's a rare occasion you even move from your bed nowadays."

Well, Catelyn was making her position clear. The question was whether she meant it, or if she was just currying favour with the currently most dangerous person in the room. Cinder, that was, as much as they may have believed it was him.

"Vale is not what it was," she continued sadly. "Would that I were younger. Ah, would that we all were. Bendrick, Rust's father, would have never stood for Mistral or Atlas having designs on our city. He'd have rallied us. Alas, poor Rust lacks the experience and drive. He cannot fill his father's shadow. Old Hei, now." She cackled. "He was a man with ambition. Good to see his successor shares that trait. Take a seat. Let us talk properly."

Jaune did not turn around to look at the body. "Our seat is currently occupied."

Catelyn brought up her stick and rapped it twice at her own table. There were plenty of seats spare. The invitation served as a signal as well, and slowly, cautiously, others at the summit took their seats again. There had been many shying toward the doors, ready to retreat, but when Jaune drew the seat out, it served as a signal to deescalate tensions. He offered his first seat to Cinder, who smiled cattishly, then took the next beside her. As much as he hated her, he was going to be sticking close tonight. His life depended on it.

"Now, back to business," she said. It wasn't lost on him how she was making herself seem the greater for having calmed him down. His presence at her table would make her seem stronger. "Whether it is cowardly or not, the fact of Beacon's interference remains, and as much as our foreign friends would like it, we won't be waging war on the huntsmen."

Because they couldn't. If Rust's lone huntsman was a sign of how few they had, they were in trouble indeed. To be fair to the dead man, he hadn't had much time to show off, and Cinder was powerful.

"Used to be we could flex our muscles more," she said. "All of us. There's too much competition however, too many gangs and crime lords nowadays. Profits are split any one of a hundred ways, and when a life of crime pays less than legitimate huntsman work, well, what self-respecting huntsman would be tempted? Used to be we could offer then five times as much as they'd earn normally. No longer. Fighting them is off the table."

"If we cannot appease them then fighting is all we'll be left with." Rust said sullenly. "Xiong here has taken the former out our hands."

"Oh hush. That a fresh whelp could do that at all is a sign of how far we've fallen. What say you, Lord Xiong? Do you intend to kill every huntsman who crosses your path? Or just these two."

Jaune took the barb to the chest. It stung. "I didn't intend to kill anyone, but neither will I sit back when I'm threatened. As for dealing with Beacon, why try and appease them by turning on one another? It's not us they want. They want the White Fang. They want Roman."

"They want you after that huntress' death," Rust said.

"People die all the time." Catelyn threw in, chuckling lightly. "Today's tragic murder is tomorrow's candlelit vigil is the day after's history. Give it a week and they'll stop laying flowers at the site and move on. Xiong isn't wrong. They may want us, and they'll happily take a crack at us, but between criminals who have been here for decades or a terrorist group with a history of violence, we all know who they'll have to focus on. Their hands will be tied."

To the best of Jaune's knowledge, both Roman and the White Fang were serving Cinder's interests. He spared her a glance to see what she thought of him throwing her allies under the bus. Her expression gave away nothing. Cinder sat with her gloved hands upon her legs, her cherry-painted lips quirked but a little and her eyes sharp. Was she completely unafraid of what they might do? Honestly, he wouldn't have been surprised if she was.

"Perhaps if Xiong is so confident and so well equipped, he should be the one to lead the charge against the White Fang." Rust's comment drew several agreeing murmurs, though not from Jaune. "The Dubont Syndicate will agree to a truce until the White Fang are dealt with. Do any disagree?"

"The Rouge Family are fine with that," Catelyn said.

"Uwahhhh!" the morbidly obese man whined.

"Duke Gormond signals his approval." the retainer translated. Around the bar's upper floor, others nodded or made their own vaguely approving sounds. It was more a case of no one disagreeing than everyone agreeing, but apparently that was enough.

They're hanging me out to dry again, he thought. They were framing it nice and putting him in charge of stopping the White Fang, but all that really meant was him and the Xiong Clan being in the most danger again. They might receive resources or help, but they'd be the ones on the front lines. These absolute bastards. Even after I called them out, all they really want to do is save their own skins.

"It is decided then!" Catelyn said. "The summit has elected Jaune Xiong of the Xiong Clan to lead our combined efforts against Torchwick and the White Fang. To impede him is to earn the ire of all, to aid him is to earn the respect of all. He will speak with the authority of the summit in matters related to the White Fang's removal from our fair city."


Walking out from the bar, Jaune desperately wished he had a vice he could rely on to destress. Several local lords popped cigars and cigarettes as they climbed into their cars, others took hard drugs. Jaune did neither, stood beside Cinder with the chill evening air buffeting him. Cinder probably felt it worse, and he wondered if her control over fire gave her some resistance to the cold, because she acted like she didn't feel it.

Sebastian finished talking to his driver and them walked over. He'd bid Jaune wait as they bustled out. "Thank you for waiting," he said. He nodded politely to Cinder and then continued. "You've made quite the impression tonight, friend. I'm glad father didn't come; he might have had a heart attack to hear his ally declare war on the grand families."

"They declared war on me first."

"I heard. These ears aren't for show." He made his wolfish ears flick forward. "The Lumens will stand with you of course, as was agreed with Hei, but I'll beg you all the same to pick your battles wisely. And to keep your eyes open. Catelyn may have taken your side publicly, but she didn't get to her age by not knowing where and when to cast her vote. Or revoke it."

"I think I saw that myself. She was the one who mentioned giving my head to the huntsmen first. For all that she decided to pretend it was Rust." Jaune sighed. "After meeting them, I'm not even surprised Mistral and Atlas are so confident they can take over."

"Vale is a mess." Sebastian confirmed. "Catelyn was right, though. It wasn't always so. Rust's father was a good leader. Not a good man, few are in our line of work, but powerful. Ruthless where he needed to be, conciliatory where not, diplomatic when it was required and cunning to a fault. As was she. Go back forty years and it might well have been Vale with designs on Atlas' underground. Before the troubles."

"The troubles?"

"Relations broke down. Inter fighting between once allied gangs. No clue if it happened naturally or if it wasn't sparked by Atlas or Mistral first. Either way, Vale became like a kingdom full of warring fiefs. It didn't last too long and there wasn't that much bloodshed on the streets. Most kept their feuds private for business' sake."

"But they still fought." Jaune said. "Any hope of cooperation died."

"In a nutshell." Sebastian sighed and adjusted his coat. "I see the Mistral contingent coming to have a few words. I'd rather stay off their radar. Inform my father or I on any actions you plan against the White Fang. We would prefer to be involved and are happy to assist. Others may say the same and offer some token support, but don't rely on them. I will accompany you and I will bring men."

Jaune smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Sebastian. Wish your father well for me and tell him I'm sorry about all this. I really intended to keep my head down and not draw trouble."

"Ha. No one expects you to lay it on the chopping block. He'll understand." Seeing the Shoryu-Nayuta on their way, he quickly bowed his head and moved to his car, climbed into the back seat and closed the door. His driver nodded politely to them and moved into the driver's seat.

"Hello! Hello!" Sanlan tossed a manly arm around Jaune's shoulder, then offered the same to Cinder. Offered, he noticed. There was a certain wary respect that stopped her forcing it on the woman. Cinder accepted it with a smirk, allowing herself to be pulled in against the broad woman's side with Jaune. "If it isn't my two favourite Valeans. You give this sorry piss-soaked city a good name."

"I'm from Mistral actually," Cinder said.

"Hah!" Sanlan roared with laughter. "I ought to have known! A true born-and-bred sister. You know what that means-" The arm around Jaune's neck tightened. "You've been promoted to my favourite!"

"Lucky me," Jaune mumbled into her elbow. "What about Bon-Hwa."

"Pah. He's Mistral, true as Kuja or I." Across from them, Bon-Hwa nodded his head, pleased with the words. "I'm beginning to wonder if you have a little of our blood in you as well after that display. I near enough came right then and there."

"Delightfully proper and demure as always, my dear." Kuja said. "Still, she speaks true. Your actions there were brave – if desperate." Jaune didn't confirm or deny it. "A cornered rat is no less a fighter, however. Don't you think it curious they didn't talk about us, however? They have to know that Atlas and we are making moves, and yet not a single mention, even after you so boldly pointed it out."

He was right. The White Fang and the huntsmen were a problem for now, but there were bigger problems afoot and this would have been the perfect chance to talk about them. Sure, Mistral and Atlas had representatives there who would be spying, but they should have wanted those contingents to take back news of a united and prepared Valean front. If nothing else, that should have made them more eager to discuss it.

"They're keeping their heads in the sand." Sanlan spat. "It's not that they're not aware – they just don't want to talk about it. Cowards. Well, what can you expect from those lot? A crone on the verge of death, a blob of fat with the mouth of a child and a ponce with more lip than sense. Any one of the clans would tear them apart. United? Well, the fall of Vale will be nothing more than a formality."

"Let us hope that Jaune is not the one to unite them, hm?" Kuja's smile was friendly, his threat anything but. "Come now, Sanlan. It has been a fun night but I'm sure we must leave Jaune and his date be. A good evening to you both."

"Aye. Aye." Sanlan squeezed them each and let go. "Don't be strangers now. We should get together for drinks sometime."

The trio sauntered off, one of the EDC's limos pulling up for them. Jaune watched them leave, then led Cinder toward their own vehicle. The suited man there had no idea what had gone on inside. Tony and the twins were going to freak out. Jaune held the door open for Cinder and then took the other side, the driver pulling up the privacy screen as he ignited the engine.

"Quite the interesting night," Cinder said at last. "I do believe they see me as your subordinate."

"I'm under no such illusions myself," he said quickly.

A smile. "I am well aware. Fear not, I have no problem playing a role if it benefits me. This certainly does. I must admit to finding myself impressed tonight. I did not expect much from your earlier words, but you have a fire in you. Compared to those others," she said scathingly, "You're far better. They were frightened by you."

"By you," he pointed out.

"No. They were intimidated by me, yes, but they fear you. They fear your youth and ambition, your ability to challenge them. Those in power often fret about who will come to supplant them. Given how weak they currently are, I dare say they're hanging on to power by the skin of their teeth. You represent change, and they are terrified you might spark similar rebellion in the others attending."

"Maybe they need a little rebellion," Jaune said darkly. "They were pathetic."

"I agree on both accounts. It seems I struck gold with you and yours – I'm not sure I could force myself to play along with that mountain of flesh masquerading as a man."

"You realise I have to act against Roman and the White Fang now."

"Hunt them if you wish." Cinder waved a hand. "Roman has proven himself ineffective and the White Fang are causing undue problems. They are but forerunners anyway. Should they fall, I will simply feign ignorance of why. Of course, that also means I can't help you against them. Not directly. Should you have need of Mercury or Emerald, however, I may see fit to lend them to you. As long as no one survives to bring word to Roman. He will recognise them."

Jaune wanted to say no and keep her out of this, if only for his sake, but there was too much chance Laurie or Dominic or even one of the three families he'd insulted would try and put a dagger in his back. His failure here wouldn't solve the huntsmen issue, but it would get rid of him and quell the others at the summit.

"Thank you. I'll make sure to repay you with more dust."

"Hmhm." Cinder chuckled. "See that you do, Jaune. See that you do."

Going to try and set out two lots of cat food tonight and separated so that these strays aren't in competition. It's all I can really do for them, though I suspect they are living in a barn nearby. Lots of straw and hay for them to make nests in and rats to catch.

I'd catch them if I could, but they run away whenever someone goes near. Even when I come out with food, one flees and the other kind of hovers a healthy distance away until I put it down and back away.

Next Chapter: 3rd February

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur