Definitely no drama in the reviews and PMs. Definitely not. Well, should I address it? I don't want to wade in and make things worse and certainly not accuse people of anything when they're just expressing their views and many might be making fair points (and even if they're not all fair, it's your opinion anyway), so I will just answer one completely fair and reasonable issue raised.

That of forewarning readers.

Should I have warned people of the possibility so they could decide to read this or not? Yeah, I can see a world in which I should have but then I also made that mistake with Forged Destiny where I said it was Lancaster and then wanted to do more with Blake later and changed my mind and ran into one of the worst review wars and insulting streams of my time here. After which I said I'd just not announce pairings anymore for my own peace of mind. It's a catch-22 situation on my end, and I'd have been screwed either way.

It's up to you if you want to read or not. We're nearing the end of this story anyway and what happens relationship-wise may not be as obvious as it otherwise seems. Still, the choice to quit or not is obviously yours.

Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 81

It was the night before the Vytal Festival and Jaune was sat in a bar waiting for a man. Not, as Saphron may have teased, for any reasons of the heart. He sat in the dive bar with a drink of amaretto ignoring the people looking his way – the two by the door were casing him, they liked his suit and had seen him draw out his wallet. He had a feeling they'd be slipping out after him later to try and take it, though they might drop that plan when they realised who was meeting him here. It was ten minutes later when a glass of whiskey slammed down on the bar next to him and the stool scraped out.

"Hey handsome. Come here often?"

Jaune couldn't entirely hide his snort. "Does that work on anyone?"

"It worked on me once." Qrow took the seat with a laugh and necked his drink. "Saucy girl at a club came up and said it. Had me in bed one hour later. Then again, I am kind of easy."

"According to Ruby, you have no luck with the women."

"I let Ruby believe that for a reason. Aaand it's bad luck – not no luck. Even the unluckiest son of a bitch can get lucky once or twice in forty years." He waved down a new drink, necked that and then held the glass out for a refill. Jaune couldn't help his brows rising. That was raw whiskey, unmixed and no doubt burning its way down.

"Should you be drinking that much?"

"Sorry mom." He rolled his eyes. "And why not? It's a national holiday."

"I meant it more as being too hungover to support your nieces at the tournament."

"Hmm." Qrow twirled his glass so that the amber liquid washed about the interior. He sighed, his lips flapping as he hunched his shoulders and said, "I'm not going. I can't watch that rot. I'm proud of them, I am, but all that crap isn't what being a huntsman is all about. I can't stand it."

"The competing?"

"Hmm." He nodded and took a thankfully smaller sip, clicking the glass back down after. "They compete and show off and the people laugh like it's all a game when people are dying out in far-flung settlements because not a single huntsman can find the time to go down. Meanwhile, here we are partying and fighting for sport."

"And drinking." Jaune pointed out.

"Yeah, I'm as much a hypocrite as the rest of them but I have an excuse. Ozpin called me back. If it weren't for that, I'd be out there doing what I can. Fighting the good fight. Someone has to."

Someone had to. It was the same reasons he gave for what he'd done, and it stole his response away. Qrow was right. No one had wanted to deal with Black Sun so he'd had to despite all the casualties, and if no one wanted to go save those villages and frontier outposts because they'd rather come here and watch children knock one another out, then Qrow only had more work on his shoulders. The kingdom should have cared enough to do better but calling Vale a Kingdom was a joke nowadays. Vale was a city. The policies and the people only cared about that city, with every other village and town existing under their own laws and customs and only paying a nominal tax to share the same country. It was Jaune's turn to neck his drink and sigh.

"Sorry to bring the mood down." Qrow said.

"It's fine. My mood is pretty low of late."

"Is that what you asked me out? To have a shoulder to cry on." Qrow snorted. "And here I thought it was my fantastic ass that drew you in."

"It's certainly not your personality." Jaune smirked as Qrow burst out laughing and took a swig of his own drink. "But no, I'm not here to cry. Life is shit, no one cares enough to try and improve it, but that's normal, isn't it? It's just naïve to expect those living comfortable lives to care."

"Yep. A little charity is all you can expect of them. No one wants to risk their comfortable life helping others."

"I bet they only donate to make themselves feel better."

"Hmm. So, this is a cynical night, eh? Bitch at the world to make ourselves feel better. I can do that."

"I meant it more to unwind but things have been shit lately."

"I get you. That all-out war in the city was a bit of a shocker, eh?" Jaune tensed but Qrow either didn't notice or didn't connect the dots. He kept talking. "It's lit a fire under the city's ass and got them talking about safety and security. About time if you ask me. They pretty much ignored the White Fang being here, then those gangs. It's like they'll accept anything if they don't have to look at it directly."

"That's people for you." Jaune said tensely. "It's not much different with huntsmen though, is it? Ozpin has had every chance in the world to postpone or cancel the Vytal Festival and won't."

"Why should he? It's a done deal."

"Don't be stupid." He didn't mean to sound so disparaging but it came out that way. Qrow raised an eyebrow but let him finish. "The White Fang didn't attack for no reason, and all that stolen dust Torchwick collected is still missing. That's not being used to power a terrorist barbecue."

"You think they're planning a show during the festival?"

"I know it. And so does Ozpin."

Qrow took a deep breath, then a deeper drink of whiskey. "Fucking hell. He hasn't filled me in on any of that. How sure are…? This is your sources, right? The same as last time."

"They're accurate."

"Have been so far so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. If I had to take a guess, I'd say Ozpin doesn't have much of a choice. He's in charge of running the tournament and making sure things are in order, but it's the city that hosts it. They probably told him they'd put someone else in charge if he pushed to have it cancelled, and if shit is as bad as you say then it's better he be in control than not."

Jaune finished his drink and waved over a refill, then took a hefty drink of that as well. Qrow echoed him, the two drowning their annoyance in alcohol. It probably wasn't good form to drink before a date, even if he still wasn't sure him and Dove were going to be on a date, but he needed it right now.

"Can I trust you, Qrow?"

"Ehhh…" Qrow made a so-so gesture with one hand. "You can trust that I'll always do my best to help those I call pal, but you can't trust me to do a good job most the time. I try, but shit, man, trying sometimes just isn't enough."

"You're knowledgeable though. You work with Ozpin."

"I do what he asks when he asks it."

"Would you happen to know if something is stored at Beacon that some bad people would want?" Jaune kept his eyes fixed firmly ahead. "Something they would kill to get a hold of?"

There was a silence after his question, or one between them anyway. The bar continued was filled with clinking glass, the sound of beer being drawn and the low him of conversation mixed with the obnoxious 8-bit tunes of a pinball machine in the corner. Eventually, Qrow sighed. "Do I want to ask how you know?"

"I don't know anything. That's why I'm asking you."

"That's a small relief." Not much of one by the sounds of him. "Yeah, I happen to know of something that might draw attention. Something that shouldn't be hidden in a school filled with children. Ozpin knows my thoughts on that but it's not something you can just lock away in a vault."

"You don't need to tell me what it is." Jaune said. Qrow relaxed slightly. "But what you need to know is that the person looking for it is back and plans to take it."

"Fuck. When?"

"Unsure. Sometime during the festival but not on the first day." Jaune smiled and added, "So you can keep drinking if you need it."

"Oh, I need it alright. Especially after hearing this. This from your source?"

"A little closer to home."

"Fuck. Jaune, you…" He sighed, ran a hand through his hair and downed his drink in one before waving over another. The fact he did was more a relief than Jaune cared to admit, because it meant Qrow intended to stay. "You really going to drop this on me now?" he groaned. "Invite me out, get me drunk and then drop the big bombs on me? Is there anything else in there?"

"I'm going through a crisis of my sexuality."

"I mean, that's normal. Have you seen me? I'm sexy as all hell."

"Not for you sadly." Jaune grinned as Qrow feigned a heart attack and swooned on his seat. "And I'm not sure either way to be honest. I thought I was straight but I like him, but if I can be honest with you then right now, I'm not sure I can be interested in man, woman or anything."

"Oof. Your right hand must be heartbroken. You know, not being in the mood is a thing. I'm as straight as they come but I couldn't look a woman in the tits for three years after Summer's death. I felt nothing. Doesn't mean I'm asexual or such, I just was too down in the dumps to care about love."

There were times he felt the same, and now was as apt a time as ever. He'd conducted a war, slaughtered over a hundred people and been responsible for over a hundred more deaths, many of innocent people. Now with Cinder weighing down on him and the festival up and coming, he was more worried that he wouldn't be able to reciprocate even Dove's friendship, let alone his feelings. It had been no better than when Coco was trying to set him up with Velvet; he hadn't been able to unsee Meg's face as that had killed the potential relationship faster than he had Velvet's mother.

"I wanted to ask you to keep an eye on Beacon." Jaune said, breaking the awkward silence. "An active eye and not a drunk one. Ozpin… I don't know what Ozpin thinks or plans but it's obvious his attention is already being split multiple ways. Yours isn't."

"What about Amity? My nieces are up there and if you say there's trouble-"

"I'm handling Amity."

"How much can a bartender do there?" Qrow asked jovially. Jaune didn't reply, nor laugh, nor even respond. The silence said more than he ever could and Qrow dipped his forehead against the rim of his glass. "Fuck me. Am I the dumbest motherfucker alive or…?"

"I wasn't what I am now when we first met. I really was exactly who I said I was. It was other people that changed things and I… never really had a choice."

"Didn't have a choice or didn't see one?"

"It was a gun to the head kind of deal."

"Ah." Qrow seemed to relax just a little on hearing that. "And is it still there…?"

"It won't be assuming all goes well during the festival. I'm a little tired of having it against my temple if you know what I mean."

"I think I get you." Qrow finished his drink but didn't order another. "Where does this leave us?"

"Hopefully, the same as we've always been. Friends. That's how I see you, Qrow. An annoying neighbour who kept stealing my shower who slowly became a friend. Everything else…" Jaune shrugged and finished his drink as well. "There's no reason our jobs have to come between that. As long as we're on the same side."

"Are we on the same side?"

"Yes." Jaune removed an envelope from his suit and slid it across the bar. "Don't open this until after the first day is over. The tournament, I mean, not the day. I'm serious about this. You could ruin everything if you do and get me killed."

Qrow took it, flipped it over and then stashed it away. "What's in it?"

"A photo of the person you need to kill."

"I'm not a hitman."

"You won't have to be since she'll be coming to Beacon to kill everyone there. I'm trusting you not to take that to Ozpin. He'll try and act on it ahead of time and I guarantee she'll go to ground, kill me and then start working on her next plan to get at Beacon. She won't stop, nothing will change, and the next time you won't have insider information."

"You really think Ozpin can't handle this?"

"You said it yourself, Qrow." Jaune stood from the bar and slid out a wad of lien for the bartender. More than enough for his and Qrow's drinks both. "Someone has to do this. The Council won't, the kingdom doesn't care and Ozpin's hands are tied. If it's not going to be them, it's going to have to be us. I'll see you around. Unless you tell Ozpin, in which case goodbye and it was nice knowing you."

Qrow groaned and slumped over his drink, ordered another – the whole bottle this time – and started pouring. There was no way of knowing for sure which way he would decide, but he trusted the man to do what he thought was best. If he failed here, Qrow would pick up the slack and deal with Cinder, and that was what really mattered. As long as someone did something about all this.

He snatched his long overcoat from the hook by the door, swung it over his shoulders and stepped out into the cold night air. The alcohol had left a warm and pleasant buzz behind so it didn't feel all that cold. Shoving his hands into his jacket pockets under his coat, he started the walk back to the Club. Lisa hadn't asked too much as to why he was absent of late but she was more likely to assume work was demanding all his time than anything suspicious. It was the night before the festival after all, and the Club was open tonight and absolutely packed.

The click of footsteps was what alerted him to his new friends and served as a reminder to something he'd all but forgotten. The two by the door, he thought with a tired little sigh. I forgot about them completely. Bad form on his part, though to be fair he and Qrow had drunk enough to leave anyone a little tipsy. Jaune sighed and moved off the main road and down a quiet side street. It was abandoned this late. With it being a national holiday, everyone was either at home getting ready for the big day tomorrow or out celebrating tonight. With how much alcohol was flowing, it was probably a good time to mug a few people. This was, what, the third time he'd been mugged since coming to Vale? The first ended with Hei saving him, and he'd saved himself on the second, leaving them beaten. Now, he was tired. Tired and not in the mood. His hand reached under his jacket as he turned.

Two men, as expected, both burly and freezing at being seen. They shared a quick look and kept on coming, the one on the left flicking out a knife and saying, "Give us your wallet and no one has to get hurt."

Prompt if a little cliché. Jaune raised an eyebrow. "Do you have any idea who I am?"

"You think we care?"

"I am the Xiong. You are on my territory."

"I don't give a rat's-"

Draw, aim, squeeze. Jaune had the gun out and fired into the man's left shin before he could finish his sentence. His leg was blown back, whipped out from underneath him. It sent him hurtling to the ground with an agonised scream and a spray of red. It was only a moment later, as he moved the gun to the man's partner, that Jaune realised he really could have just shown it and threatened them. They'd have probably gone running after that.

He was getting antsy. All this dealing with Cinder, Torchwick and then Black Sun had left him too used to people who would shoot first and ask questions later. It had never been a viable idea to try and threaten any of them – it would have gotten him shot. These were just two idiots trying their luck. As the second dropped his knife and backed up with absolute terror on his face, Jaune holstered his weapon under his jacket and stared the man down.

"Take your friend and get the out my territory."

He turned and walked away before the man could respond, walking away back to the club as the wounded man cried and rolled about on the sidewalk. That was too extreme, he thought, but couldn't bring himself to care enough to feel guilty. They'd have gone after someone else if not him and he was busy trying to save Vale from Cinder. He didn't have time to play nice with a couple of idiots like that. Plus, this was his territory. His land. He hadn't wanted it, but he had bled and shed blood to keep it, and he damn well wasn't going to let a pair of idiots run around causing trouble for the people here.

This city is shit enough as it is…


Melanie and Miltia had helped him get ready. He hadn't needed it but he'd wanted a second opinion so he didn't go looking like an idiot, and they were understanding (and not hungover) enough to help him out. "Don't dress up until you're sure what it is you want," Melanie had said as she put him in a pair of well-fitting jeans with a white dress shirt and a navy jacket over the top. "You'll send mixed signals that way."

"Are you sure? Dove dresses up."

"Because he wants to impress you."

Dove had not, in fact, dressed up when Jaune stepped off the airship onto Amity and was met by both him and the rest of Team CRDL. They were dressed in their combat uniforms, which made perfect sense given they could be asked to compete as early as the first round. Dove still looked good in that with his hair swept back to clear it away from his eyes and his tight brown top showing off his broad shoulders. He looked jittery though, and Jaune had the impression that he might be regretting the date now of all days.

Asking someone out when you didn't know if they would accept you for what you were was already hard, but add a tournament televised all across Remnant to the mix and you had a recipe for an absolute breakdown, and Dove looked like he was on the edge. To be fair, so did the rest of Team CRDL. He would laughed if he didn't know they were all taking this so seriously.

"You made it." Cardin was the first to speak and wave him over. He looked tense and stiff, and Jaune was sure it was the tournament more than the date. They were Dove's teammates and probably knew him better than he did. "Here to see us kick ass and take names?"

You look like you're about to faint…

"I know you guys will do well." It was a lie, but then so was Cardin's bravado. He was putting it on for his team, psyching them up and taking on the pressure of being the rock that kept them steady. In truth, they were first years in a tournament combining the best of four academies, and that put them firmly in the underdog category. Winning wasn't necessary, however. "Just make sure to do your best and put on a show. I know you guys will rock it."

Russel and Sky cheered weakly. They looked terrified. Cardin gave Dove a solid shove with his elbow and nodded to Jaune, and Dove finally caught on and stepped away from the pack. "Uh. Hey, ready to hand out?" He cringed. "Okay, that sounded bad."

"You're panicking over the tournament. I get it."

"No, I… Ah. Yeah." Dove's smile was a little more honest, a little embarrassed and – if Jaune would admit to it – a little pretty in an insecure kind of way. "Kind of regretting signing up if I'm honest. Compete in the tournament and be famous sounded a lot better when Cardin was telling us about it a few months back. Now it's here I feel sick to my stomach."

The rest of Team CRDL had vacated the airship docks to give them space. Jaune hummed and nudged Dove with his arm. "It's just nerves. You'll be fine once it starts."

"I know. I know. I get in the mood when a fight starts. Not as much as Cardin does but well enough. It's the before part I'm worried about. We have to pose on the arena in front of all these people!"

Jaune laughed.

He couldn't help it!

He'd expected tense conversations about their relationship, painful quiet moments and a lot of introspection and fear. He'd expected and prepared for all that, and instead got a Dove terrified out his mind because of stage fright. The best part was that he couldn't even blame him – he'd be shitting himself if he had to do this as well. Forgetting the issues and the dread, Jaune flung an arm around Dove's shoulder and grinned. "You'll be fine. It won't be as bad as you imagine. Half the people here are going to be looking for Pyrrha anyway."

"Don't remind me," he groaned. "What if we get her in the first round!?"

"Then you have a very good excuse for being knocked out the tournament early."

"Jaune! You're meant to cheer for me!"

"I will cheer for you. Even as your body is carted off."

Dove laughed too. "You are such an asshole."

"I am." But it was distracting him and that was all that mattered. "I bet you haven't eaten anything either with how worried you are. Shall we grab some food and have a look around the stalls? It's a couple of hours until everything starts, right?"

"Right. And I need to find my parents too. They've come all the way to see me get my ass kicked."

The talk could wait. Jaune felt his worry float away as they laughed and walked together among the stands, chatting as they always had. He wasn't sure what – if anything – he felt, but that didn't matter. He'd have fun in the time he had and while he could, then deal with what came as it did. That was probably the most honest way to figure out what it was he felt, and whether he felt anything at all.

The big decisions could wait anyway. His people were planting the tampered bombs all across Amity right now and would continue while the fights were happening. The dust had been siphoned off and replaced with party-dust, which was still dust but watered down and used mostly in fireworks and celebrations. They'd look and sound much the same but burn out quick and not have the force necessary to destroy the stands. He just had to hope Qrow had held off on telling Ozpin, or this date might end a lot sooner than intended.

Aside from setting up plot and finalising conflicts, Qrow serves here as a counterpoint to Saphron's advice last chapter. Do keep in mind that Saphron offered the best advice she could but she obviously had to work with never having met Dove, and also not knowing just how much pressure Jaune is under as well. He hasn't told his family much after all, or even seen him since he left for Vale. I imagine if his family did see him, they'd instantly realise something is wrong because he's struggling to keep things together because of all the stress.

If Saphron's angle is the angle of "just be honest with yourself and see what you like", Qrow's is more "take the time to decide if you want anything with anyone at all". Sometimes things are just too hectic to think a bf or gf is a good idea.

Next Chapter: 11th August

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