Notice: Due to an awards ceremony that I have to organise, foot questions over and chair in September, I'm going to be taking the week starting Monday 12th – Sunday 18th September off. I'll be back Monday 19th. I'd definitely rather be writing fanfiction than doing this as it's always so painful and I hate – well, it's less the public speaking and more the stress of the organisation. People call you at all hours with questions; prize winners say they suddenly can't make it; stuff goes wrong with parking; inevitable errors on Eventbrite. The usual. It's just a long, long week of stressful work so I won't have time to write.


Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 82


The Vytal Festival was more than just the tournament that took place at the end but you wouldn't have thought it to see the people today. Amity was packed from the docks to the fairground – and what a fairground it was. Tent space had obviously been sold at a premium because each of the stalls was small and cramped, and yet with all the people going about they were sure to make a profit. They had been placed in long rows and aisles by some meticulous organiser, and they had probably showed up hours before Amity opened to erect them. They might have even been allowed up the night before to make sure everything was ready for the first arrivals.

There were games and competitions, slides and bucking Beowolves, educational petting zoos for animal shelters, over-priced souvenir stands and an entire courtyard of food stalls. The scent of meat, spices, pastries and other delicacies from around the world mixed into a wonderful and heady combination that had Jaune licking his lips. Given that Vytal was all about celebrating peace and multiculturalism, it made sense for various cuisines and delicacies to be represented, but the competition was stiff and the various food vendors were more interested in profit than cooperation.

Up and down those aisles of brightly coloured tents milled huge throngs of people; there were thousands for sure and it was only the first hour of the first day. Children and adults both moved around in a hurry, the former looking excited and the latter exasperated with the crowds. If they'd thought getting in early would let them avoid masses of people – they were wrong. The crowds will be useful for hiding our people, Jaune thought. There were just too many people for every Atlas soldier to keep an eye on, and the Xiong Clan would slip between the cracks as they needed to.

Meeting Dove's parents was simultaneously less and more harrowing than he'd expected. The safety net, as Saphron put it, was up, and that meant they didn't come and outright imply Jaune was their son's boyfriend. They obviously knew how he felt but they chose not to make a scene of it and potentially ruin anything, and that spoke well of them. Jaune was sure his own mother wouldn't have been able to resist dropping an innuendo or a teasing remark here or there. The fact that they didn't come out and say it meant that Jaune did not have to address it. That he didn't yet know how to address the issue made that timely, because he'd have been helpless otherwise.

It did confirm things if those things still needed to be confirmed. It was ironic that it was everyone else who gave confirmation and not Dove; if this were just the two of them then Jaune thought he might still believe they were just friends. It was the way everyone else acted – both Dove's parents and Team CRDL – that made it obvious there was more going on. Dove was tense about the fights but relaxed otherwise, and the only touching that had taken place was the occasional bump of an elbow or the odd nudge here or there.

Jaune would not claim to be a master of the art of dating and flirting, and with good reason because he'd only dated one person ever, but the movies and books always suggested there would be a lot of handholding, surreptitious brushing of fingers and meaningful glances. The only hungry look on Dove's face was when they stopped for some Vacuan street food. Was it the fact they were two men that made it different, or was this the safety net at work – Dove keeping a safe distance so he could claim it was all a misunderstanding if it went wrong? It was oddly aggravating whatever it was because it didn't provide any answers. He couldn't very well tell if he felt the same way or not if Dove refused to make a move.

Wait, do I want him to make a move or not? This is too damn confusing.

He kept mostly quiet during the meeting and Dove's parents thankfully didn't ask too much – potential boyfriend or not, he was a stranger to them and they seemed to realise how awkward things were. There were a few hugs toward Dove, a "go get 'em" from his father and a "it was a pleasure to meet you, Jaune" from the mother, and then they were released to travel aimlessly about the stalls again. Jaune felt he ought to break the silence and so said, "Your parents are nice."

"Yeah." Dove wore an embarrassed smile. "They've always been pretty chill and supportive. I'm lucky to have them." Dove glanced his way. "I'm sorry about how weird it must have been. I couldn't very well refuse to see them when they came all this way."

"It's fine."

"I'll make it up to you."

"You don't have to." Jaune looked away uncomfortably, unsure if the reason why was because Dove felt he had to apologise or if it was because his mind had grasped at some very indecent things when he said that. Not erotic but flirtatious. Bad flirtatious. "You warned me we'd be meeting them. It's not like you threw me in the deep end." Jaune saw a distraction as long lines formed and took it. "Should we be queuing up for our stands? Those lines are getting kinda crazy."

Dove looked, then laughed. "Oh wow. I feel bad for mom and dad now. We get to skip them." He winked and pointed off to the side where several Atlas soldiers were standing before another door. A sign nearby read Competitors Only in big red letters.

"I'm not a competitor."

"You're in the competition stands though. Trust me, we got an informational on this and everything. There's time yet. Those people are just trying to claim seats."

"Aren't they booked in advance?"

"Scalped, you mean." Dove snorted. "Tickets were sold out first hour and then put back up for sale at ten times the price. That doesn't mean there won't be some assholes who plan to just show up, take seats and refuse to move. They figure they'll try their luck and see if people have the guts to call security on them. Happens in concerts all the time."

"What concerts do you go to where there are reserved seats?" asked Jaune with a snort.

Dove grinned back at him. "The sophisticated kind. Talk to Russel if you want heavy metal. I'm more a musicals kind of guy."

They spent a little longer among the slowly emptying stalls and shops but stuck mostly to chatting. Many of the games were designed for a much younger audience and Dove was not so cliché as to win him a teddy bear – much to Jaune's relief.

The fact he felt that way had him wondering if it wasn't just as cringe from a woman's point of view, and if yet again mainstream media hadn't lied to him about what to and not to do on a date. He'd not had the easiest of times with Tammi either, but then their relationship had pretty much revolved around physicality. Lisa had called it the one night stand that never happened, and he couldn't say he disagreed looking back. Their dates had just been him taking her places and her filling the silence with chatter until it was over and they could make out.

That thought inevitably had his eyes darting to Dove's lips and the image in his head. It wasn't revolting at all, but nor was it immediately arousing either. It was more embarrassing than anything, and only because Dove caught his eye and raised an eyebrow. "I was thinking how weird the bookies are being." It was the nearest stall and the first thing he latched onto as an excuse. "I know Pyrrha is a championship fighter and all but she's a first year like you. Is she really that good?"

"As a man who's lost to her when it was our whole team versus just her I can say that yes, she is that good. As good as a fourth year, though? I'm not sure." Dove crossed his arms and tapped his fingers on his biceps. He pursed his lips and forehead in a way that Jaune immediately thought was just a little cute. "It's hard to say. I've not actually sparred with any upper years. I'd be kind of disappointed if she did go and win it all because then what's the point of attending Beacon at all, you know? We're meant to grow here. I want to see progression, not an OP character coming in and smashing everyone."

"Is this a video game now?"

Dove shrugged one shoulder and shot him a cheeky grin. "If it is then Pyrrha is a broken-ass class and needs rebalancing. It's her team that'll drag her down though. No offence to them but they just can't keep up. If she goes against us or another first year team, she'll carry them, but I've a feeling they'll be picked off against anyone better and then it'll be her against all four. Whether she wins that…" He sighed. "It's ridiculous that I can't even say she wouldn't."

"I guess the format must help her as well."

"Yeah. The format is stupid."

"How so?"

"Some teams do better with teamwork than others. You know, synergistic semblances or just plain old strategy. Others have one powerhouse like Pyrrha. All she has to do is carry them past the first round and then it's a two-on-two, and then a one-on-one. At that point it doesn't matter how bad her team is because they don't get to fight. It sucks the other way around as well. How is it that if we win the first round, we have to instantly choose two of our team that don't get to fight again? Isn't that a punishment?"

It did sound a little odd. Jaune hadn't put any thought into it since he'd been too focused on Cinder and Black Sun before her, and so the tournament had been an unimportant thing – little more than an event that was happening. If he'd been a huntsman here and on a team however, he felt he might be just as annoyed as Dove was if he had trained hard all this time just to be told that the tournament was no longer four-on-four and you had to sit out after the first fight. "It is dumb." Jaune said. "You'd think four-on-four would be more interesting to watch."

"You'd think there would be two competitions." said Dove. "A four on four and then a singles tournament. That way you get the best of both worlds. That's why Nikos is such a favourite. She's only weak in the first round where she actually has to carry her team, and after that it becomes the Pyrrha Nikos show. Unless she literally rolls the strongest team in the tournament in round one, she's untouchable."

"Seems unfair."

Dove shrugged, changing his tone quickly. "I wouldn't say it's unfair. It's not like she asked for the advantage or anything. It's just bad luck or bad planning. I don't know. Maybe there's a good reason why the Vytal Tournament is this way. Maybe because people can get injured in the first fight, they figured allowing teams to go with less members into the next rounds made sense."

"Still shitty for you. Who is going into your doubles rounds?"

"Cardin and Sky."

"Oof."

"Nah." Dove was all smiles again. "They're just better – and Cardin is a fair guy. We did our own mini tournament to decide who was best. Sky is hands-down the best fighter of all of us, and Cardin comes in close second. If we make it to the singles it'll be Sky representing us."

It was happening again. He was relaxing and getting into the swing of things and having fun – a lot of fun. The problem… well, it wasn't so much a problem at all, was it? It was just that he couldn't tell whether Dove wanted more, except that apparently everyone else could including his teammates and his parents.

Should I just ask him right now?

No. Dove was stressing out over his first fight. His only fight, even if he did well. It really was a stupid way to run a tournament. Win or lose, Dove would only get the one chance to show off in front of all these people, and even if his team somehow won it'd be Sky who got all the glory. Or Pyrrha Nikos if the bookies were anything to go by. Outshining her poor teammates as she probably already did, except this time relegating them to sidekicks on the international stage. He wondered if that bothered her as much as it did her team; she hadn't seemed at all prideful or arrogant when she helped him on that one weekend Ruby couldn't make.

"I guess we should get to the stands." said Dove.

/-/

"Jaune!"

It was Ruby who spotted him first as he entered the competition stands with Dove, and then her team soon after. Blake's eyes narrowed on his and then narrowed even further as she took in Dove, who sighed under his breath but continued to smile as Team RWBY approached. Yang gave a look between the two of them, smirked, but didn't say anything. Jaune was grateful. Weiss looked like she was only there because Ruby had dragged her along.

"Hey Ruby." Jaune raised his hand in greeting. "Looking forward to your first fight?"

"NO!" the girl wailed.

Dove burst out laughing. "Welcome to my world."

"It's stage fright." said Yang. "She'll be fine once the fighting starts. What about you, Dove?"

The last he'd seen of them, the two teams didn't get along, and Jaune was better at reading people since working in a club. It was obvious they were on frosty terms – and that Yang was offering an olive branch. Dove, of course, didn't hesitate to take it. "I'm nervous but we'll see who we end up against first. I just hope it's not Pyrrha."

"You and three quarters of the competition. Best chance to take her down is in the four-on-four rounds though."

"Tell that to a team that hasn't already lost to her in that."

Yang snorted and couldn't hold back her laughter. Her mildly annoyed stance broke and she slapped Dove on the shoulder. "You're alright," she said as if that was the end of it.

"These are the competition stands, however." Weiss said.

"Jaune is my guest. We all got a free ticket extra. Did none of you…?"

"My parents are too busy." said Weiss.

"Same." echoed Blake.

"Dad couldn't make it and Uncle Qrow says it's stupid." Ruby looked more annoyed by the latter than the former, adding, "Stupid Drunkle Qrow. He was out all night drinking and didn't even call to wish us good luck!"

"Ah. That might be my fault."

"Eh?"

"Eh!?" Yang was louder and leaned forward. Her eyes widened. "Wait, wait, wait, don't tell me you're Uncle Qrow's new drinking buddy?" The way she said it made it clear she expected him to deny it, and yet Jaune could only smile awkwardly. "No way!" It was hard to tell if she was mortified or delighted. "You-? Wow, Uncle Qrow is really robbing the cradle on this one. How did you meet?"

"He runs a club." Blake pointed out.

"I do, but we actually met because our apartments were next door and Qrow's pipes kept bursting. Then someone broke in and tried to murder me and Qrow saved my life." It wasn't a big secret or all that impressive after what he'd been through now, but Jaune realised very quickly that not everyone agreed. Mouths had fallen open. Dove looked terrified. "It was ages ago!" he said quickly. "The police handled it and I moved out. It was when I moved into Beacon for a week, remember?"

"I remember that but I don't remember you telling us all the details." said Dove.

"Nor Uncle Qrow telling us how he saved your life." Ruby said. "And you got shot a few weeks back as well when that person…" Ruby trailed off, unwilling to remember it. "How unlucky are you? Do you have the same Semblance or something?"

The way Blake's eyes were locked on his all but confirmed she knew, or suspected, that his involvement in so many occurrences might be more than just poor fortune. Jaune looked back, meeting her eyes without words. I know about your past as well, he didn't say. And active terrorism is a lot worse than being a crime lord. Ruin me and I'll make sure you go down with me.

Blake looked away.

"I'll be sure to cheer you on as well. Good luck out there." It wasn't like he didn't want to speak with them but he could tell Dove felt out of place. The man shot him a grateful look when he ended the conversation and moved aside to find their seats over by Team CRDL. "Do they really dislike your team that much?"

"It's just some bad blood." said Dove. "Cardin did something stupid that I've already given him enough flak over and even though he's stopped, they won't let him off. Sort of a once guilty always guilty kind of thing, and the rest of us are guilty by association or because we didn't turn on him. It's best not to talk about it," he said. "You'll just get dragged in otherwise."

There wasn't much he could say to that without knowing the details. His first thought was that Cardin had been misogynistic somehow – Team RWBY were an all-female team after all. He couldn't think of much else but then he didn't have all the pieces and, as Dove said, it wasn't worth thinking about if Cardin had decided to try and be better. That was something to be encouraged. As for Dove not abandoning him, well, he imagined it was like what Saphron had said about friends abandoning her. If Cardin accepted Dove then chances were that Dove was going to stick by Cardin through thick and thin.

"Hey, you made it." Russel made space for them in the seats he'd been reserving with his legs and feet. The competition stands weren't nearly as packed as the main ones but there were still a lot of people from the other academies there. "In the nick of time as well. We've got to be down and ready to go out in five."

"That's why we're here now and not six minutes later." said Dove.

"Smartass." Cardin chuffed. "We should get gone though. Don't want to be last down." The larger man looked to Jaune and said, "You be alright here on your own? It'll only be for the one fight."

Because win or lose, Team CRDL would be down to two people. Jaune nodded. "I'll be fine. Kick ass if you're the first fight."

"We'll win."

"Unless it's Niko-"

"We will win." Cardin repeated. "None of this what if bullshit. You go in thinking you've lost and you already have. Team CRDL are fighting to win. Remember that."

Dove rolled his eyes and sent Jaune a last grin before the four of them left. The stands were draining quickly, Team RWBY having already been on the way out and most of the others filing away as well. He noticed Cinder among them and his body tensed, but she either hadn't seen him yet or had decided she wasn't going to acknowledge him. Once she got out there and the camera caught her face however, Qrow would know her. If he'd opened the envelope. Hopefully, he trusted Jaune enough to take his words to heart and wait.

Once they were gone and the competition stands were sparsely occupied by family members, friends and boyfriends or girlfriends, Jaune picked out his scroll and dialled. It took a moment before it was answered with a click. "Tony here."

"How is it going?"

"A little slow, boss. There are still stragglers outside waiting for the fights to start – I reckon they plan to jump the barriers and try and sneak in." It was quieter on Tony's end of the call than his own, and Jaune had to cup his hand over the device to hear him. "We're going to wait until the fights start proper and everyone is nice and distracted."

"Do what you have to. I don't want anyone attacked however."

"Don't worry, boss, we're being sneaky. We're going to plant them deep inside Amity but away from any power or control rooms. Janitorial closets, storage areas and backrooms. They'll go off and make a terrible noise but they shouldn't hurt anyone."

"They have been modified, right?"

"I know the one who did this. Trust me, these things won't do a quarter the harm she wants."

That didn't change the fact he was complicit in placing bombs on Amity, or that people might get hurt in the panic. That was bound to happen and he would hold some serious blame there. He could only hope the results would be worth it. "Good work. Text me if you have any updates but don't call. I'll be too busy to answer."

Tony agreed and hung up and Jaune sat back to watch the opening ceremony. It was loud, dramatic and probably a whole lot more impressive than he gave it credit for. Teams were introduced, schools were touted and the audience roared. It was louder for Pyrrha, who stood with an arm raised as people chanted her name. "Nikos! Nikos! Nikos!" The others received applause to a similar level, but polite, and without recognition. The first teams were rolled and, much to what was sure to be Dove's dismay, Team CRDL were first. On the brighter side, they were against a team from Atlas. First years as well. It was about as good a result as they could have hoped for.

The arena changed and the people began to stamp their feet as everything got ready. It was slow, intentionally so, and the crowd reached a fever pitch. As they did, but before it happened, Jaune heard the seats on the row behind him creak and felt a pair of fingers brush against the back of his neck. They were hot – scalding hot.

"Don't you have work to be doing?" asked Cinder.

"The work is being done." said Jaune without turning to face her. They were strangers, or that was how they had to seem. "The whole reason you hired me is because I have an organisation of people to do your work for you. Nowhere in that was it said I'd be the one personally handling it." Her fingernails scraped down the back of his neck to his collar. Jaune shivered.

"Such a sharp tongue. I saw you before with that boy." Derision dripped from her every word. "Had I known you swung that way I would not have wasted my time offering a closer relationship. Or would you rather I offer Mercury?"

"My personal life and the people in it aren't anything you need worry about, Cinder."

"You will be right to worry about them if you fail me here, Jaune. We are too close to have this ruined by your indiscretion."

"It's being done right now," he hissed. "Right now, there are people trying to sneak into the stands to watch the tournament. My men are using them as the perfect distractions. If they're caught, they'll pretend they wanted to watch the fights and try to bribe the guards to let them in. They'll be kicked out but no one will think it any worse than idiots who couldn't find tickets."

Cinder hummed. Her finger left his neck. "Very well. As long as the job is done by the end of tonight."

"It will be." Jaune hesitated, then said, "Did Mercury pass my message on?"

"About more details?"

"I know you don't trust me and I know I'm just a pawn, but that doesn't mean I can mobilise the entire underworld in a single hour. I'm going to need some time in advance to call them together and get the message out."

"What excuse will you be using?"

"Black Sun. I'll tell them Black Sun is planning something and we need to beat them to it. By the time they realise the truth, it'll be too late."

"Devious."

"Necessary." Jaune corrected. Team CRDL were about to start and he kept his eyes on that. He'd promised he would cheer for Dove and he intended to keep to that. "My relationship with the alliance isn't like what you have with me. I have to convince them to do what I want. I can't get by on demands and threats."

Cinder was silent for a long moment, and then, "The third day."

"When?"

"That's all you're getting," she said. "Have your people be ready to move at any point on the day – tell them you know Black Sun will attack but that you don't know when. They can be flexible. You can act when you see the sign."

"What will that be?"

"The bombs. Obviously." He could feel her rolling her eyes even without being able to see behind him. "Do keep up, Jaune. You're all kinds of distracted."

"Yeah, well, I'm here to enjoy the fights."

"Then by all means don't let me keep you." Cinder sat back, but not without a few parting words. "Just remember that I'm nearby and I'm watching. You've been so very helpful thus far, Jaune. Don't ruin it now."

"Don't worry. I pride myself on finishing what I start."


My parents have gotten into meme culture by watching old compilation videos on youtube and I had no idea what to think when I saw it yesterday. Went around to see them and they're both watching like ten year old memes. The worst part was that my father felt the need to explain them to me like I didn't know what they meant. Equal parts hilarious and mortifying, especially when they couldn't understand the jojo "continue next time" jingle and kept asking me to describe it. I also had to fully explain "omae wa shinderou "to them since it kept coming up without explanation.

You know, memes are kind of hard to explain to someone. There were so many where I was just like "I can't explain it; it's just funny". In the end I pointed them to a channel that literally explains memes, which I wasn't even aware existed. I'm going to die if my mother calls me her little pogchamp. I will literally drink myself to unconsciousness.


Next Chapter: 18th August

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