Sigh. A toilet overflowed at work so I put an "out of order" sign on the door, yet someone went and used it anyway. They said they thought it was "just the door that wasn't working" and that I'd left them no sign it was the toilet as well. RIP my sanity.


Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 83


Team CRDL won their first round much to Jaune's relief, and they returned to the stands jubilant and bouncing off one another. It was the kind of cliché, cringey but utterly wonderful camaraderie that had Russel, Dove and Sky crediting Cardin's leadership, and Cardin crediting their teamwork. "We get it," said Jaune, deeply amused. "You're all amazing and everyone is wonderful. Good work out there."

"We were amazing, weren't we?" said Sky.

"Don't let it go to your head," said Cardin. "We've still got to fight the doubles, and we'll get our asses kicked if we start being arrogant."

"When are those?" asked Jaune.

"Tomorrow." It was Dove who answered as he took the seat on Jaune's left again. He finally looked relaxed; how much of that was his not having to fight again, the adrenaline or just flat relief couldn't be said. "Doubles rounds on the second day, singles on the third – and finals on the third as well."

The third day. Cinder's day. Jaune didn't let his concern show. "They have to fight twice on the las day?" he asked instead. "That sounds a little unfair."

"It's everyone who has to fight twice so I guess it's not that bad. You can't switch your nominee either. Whoever you pick to fight in the semi-finals will have to fight in the finals."

That might keep it fair in the sense that everyone was tired, but it yet again felt like such a poor way to show off a team in this team-oriented tournament of theirs. What was even the point if it was going to be a one-person show for the entire last day? It didn't make any sense.

The next few rounds went by quickly, and with Dove and the others focused on analysing the competition more than talking. Team RWBY won their round with relative ease – they won by working together at the end, which raised the question of why they started off by splitting into four one-on-one fights. Had Beacon slipped some of the Xiong Clan's product into the water supply or something? Either way, they won, as did Velvet and Coco's team, and, sadly, Cinder's as well. He was one of the few to not clap at them, and instead stare at Cinder, who had chosen to portray herself as the weakest of her team along with a fourth teammate Jaune had never seen before today. It looked like she'd be sending Emerald and Mercury through to the doubles rounds.

The matches blurred together in a haze of applause, loud sirens announcing the start to finish, and commentary from two of the teachers – one of whom was Oobleck. Jaune clapped, talked and drank with Team CRDL until the first rounds were over. The stands remained mostly full as it turned out there was going to be a few extras like a local school band, a singer and other things, but Dove nudged him in the side and said, "You up to stretch your legs?"

"Sure." Jaune stood with him, and the rest of Team CRDL looked over. Dove made the same excuse, and Cardin nodded, keeping Russel and Sky behind as they slipped down the aisles together. Jaune felt Cinder's eyes on his back, then noticed those of Coco, along with Yang, Ruby and Blake. Are we some kind of show? thought Jaune. Watch the festival, damn it.

It was quieter outside the stands. Not quiet because everything inside the stadium could still be heard, but the circular design of the stands meant that it trapped a lot of that noise inside. It was duller outside, muted, and although a few people had the same idea as them and were milling around the stands and stalls, it was much less busy.

"What did you think of it?" asked Dove. "Pretty cool, huh?"

"The fights were," said Jaune. "I don't think they'll be as fun when it's less people but maybe I'll be surprised."

"I shouldn't have put that thought in your head," said Dove, shaking his own with a rueful smile. "Honestly, it's not such a big deal. Just means we get more time to hang out together." He paused. "If you want to come again tomorrow, I mean. The free ticket lasts for every day and… well, I don't want to assume. If it's not for you then-"

"I'm busy tomorrow."

Dove cringed. "Ah."

"It's work," said Jaune. "I have a huge meeting." The Valean Alliance. "It's not something I can put off, and not something I should put off. A lot relies on it working out." Lives. A whole lot of lives. "You know I'd come if I could."

"Yeah. I know." Dove sounded like he didn't. He was looking away, one foot tap-tapping his toes against the floor. "Just a shame is all. I'd been… well, what's done is done. It's cool you were able to get today off. Feels like we haven't had a lot of time to hang out."

"You always know where I am," said Jaune. "You're not competing. You could come to the club tonight."

Dove's smile was back. "I could, couldn't I?"

Oh man, why was this so difficult? Jaune couldn't look away from Dove's face. He didn't know what to say; didn't know what to do. As horrible as it sounded, it felt like things would be easier if Dove were a woman. Or if he was. It felt awful to even think it. He didn't feel put off by Dove – quite the opposite. Dove was prettily handsome, almost effeminate, and he was by no means bad to look at. It was less a sense of wrongness and more a sense of not knowing what the hell he was supposed to do. There were expectations in a typical relationship, and even with the limited knowledge he had, Jaune felt he could have figured out what he should do. It was confusing. Maybe, then, he needed to unconfuse it.

"Dove."

"Hm?"

"Do you…" There were many, many words in the world, and Jaune's brain found the worst of them. "Do you like me?"

It was childish, silly, and honestly quite ambiguous. He liked Cardin; he liked Oobleck; he liked chicken drumsticks. You could like a whole lot of things without it meaning what he meant, and yet if the sudden tenseness to Dove's body was to be judged, he knew exactly what Jaune meant. "Ah," said Dove, licking his lips and suddenly nervous. "Ah," he repeated, as lost for words as Jaune was. "I… ah… I guess the cat's out of the bag there?"

"You didn't answer the question."

"Was kind of hoping that'd answer it for me." He laughed. It didn't sound natural. "What gave it away?"

"I don't know. I wasn't the one to figure it out."

Dove grimaced. "Cardin told you."

"What? No. It was the twins. At work."

"Oh." He looked surprised, then rueful. "I thought- ugh. Cardin has been riding my ass to tell you, get it out there, and I thought he went and took the choice out my hands." He looked away, reaching a hand up to slick his hair back. "And now I feel like an asshole for even thinking he'd go and do that. Fuck me." He glanced back. "I guess that's your answer. Yeah, I like you."

He was so aggressive all of a sudden. Not romantically aggressive either, but… confrontational. Jaune leaned back and asked, "Did I say something wrong? I didn't mean to make you angry."

"What? I'm not."

"Then why am I getting the cold shoulder?"

"I'm just… fuck." Dove relented and let his shoulders fall. "It's… I was just preparing myself is all. Easier to take it if… argh." He covered his face with both hands and tipped his head back, groaning into the palms of his hands. "I am such a freak right now."

"You're not-"

"I mean the way I'm acting, not my sexuality." Dove snorted, amused despite the tension between them. "I'm a dork. That was full defence mode. You know, in case you suddenly got all revolted and started throwing insults around. Easier to take them if I'm ready for it."

"I wouldn't-"

"I know, and I shouldn't have done that. It's habit by now."

Jaune didn't like the sound of that. "It's gone bad before?"

"Yeah." Dove sighed. "I'm not going to say I've had the worst of it – I really haven't. My parents supported me the whole way, no one in the family cared, and where I lived wasn't an old-fashioned place. But when I first realised I liked guys, it was to my best friend in school. I came out to him first and… well… you can probably guess what happened."

"He lashed out?"

"Not even. He said he was fine with it; said I was brave and that he wouldn't judge me. I was over the moon." His face fell. "Then, well, it started subtle. Him not wanting to shower near me after sports. I mean, that's fair, I thought. It made sense. Then he didn't want to do sleepovers, moved if I ever sat too close, got weird around contact sports in school. It was never an overt thing. I don't even think he meant to do it. He wasn't homophobic or anything, just… avoidant. Things got weird."

"Did you ever ask him?"

"Course I did. He said that it was different now. Said that he wouldn't just go up and throw his arm around a girl's shoulders, so I shouldn't his. Never mind that he did to all our other friends. Things were different because I was… gay…"

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. So, are things going to be different here?"

Jaune shook his head. "No."

"You sure? I've heard that a lot."

"Dove, I…" Jaune took a deep breath. "I'll be honest and say I don't know how I feel."

"You what?" Dove looked shocked, then snorted, then laughed. "Don't be an idiot, Jaune. I know exactly how you feel. You're straight."

Jaune wasn't sure Dove actually believed that, or that he was so confident – and he certainly wasn't himself either. Was this another defence mechanism? Was Dove trying to push him away to make it sound like he hadn't hoped for anything more? Jaune wanted to step aside, call the twins and ask for help, but he was here and he had to sort this out on his own. And I thought I was the bad one with relationships. You're giving me a run for my money, Dove.

"I've never been with a man before," said Jaune. "But, to be honest, I've only ever been with one woman as well, and you saw how that ended."

"You were attracted to her, though."

"I've been attracted to you as well."

"You…" Dove's face had gone slack, his mouth open, but there was a hope in his eyes that Jaune knew he hadn't misplaced.

"I'm not saying I'm in love with you," said Jaune. "But I've… noticed you. I've looked at you and thought you're handsome before. I don't know if that means anything, and to be honest with you, Dove, I'm not sure that now is a time where I'm ready to find out."

"Okay." Dove agreed quickly. He looked, and sounded, like he'd agree to anything right now. "But you're… open to the idea? Interested?"

"I'm open to the idea. I've had – I do have – fun when I'm with you. I like hanging out with you. I'm not sure if that…" Jaune sighed. "I'm confused," he admitted. "This is new. I know I'm not repulsed by the idea of you liking me. I feel flattered, special, and maybe even a little happy." He saw Dove's lips curling upward. "But I'm not ready," he said, firmly. "Not just to try something like this, but to try anything at all."

"Yeah. I get that. You just got out of a relationship, like, two weeks ago."

"Yes. That one didn't end well. I thought it was what I wanted as well, but… I guess it wasn't." It hadn't just been Black Sun, no matter how much he would have liked to blame them. He and Tammi hadn't been working out; she wanted more, steady commitment, and he… well, he wasn't sure what he'd wanted. Their attraction had been physical, but also desperate. He'd accepted her because she was the first person to show that interest in him, and because it felt like he should. "Looking back, I shouldn't have gone out with her at all. It wasn't just the age difference but that what we wanted from life was at odds with one another. With you…"

Dove looked excited. "With me?"

"I mean…" Jaune grinned weakly. "At least you wouldn't have an issue with me trying to become a huntsman. And you're in schooling as well, so that wouldn't be an issue. It's not a settle down now or lose everything sort of deal."

"I can be patient, you mean." said Dove. He nodded after. "Yeah, I guess I can be. If you need time then I'm happy to give it. And even if it's a no…?"

"We'll still hang out." promised Jaune. "If you want to, that is."

"Yeah." Dove smiled. "Yeah, I want to. This… This was not as bad as I thought it'd be. I was sure it'd be a no. Mentally prepared myself. I'll take a maybe in the future any day of the week. How far in the future are we talking?"

"Just give me a few months."

"That's it? I thought you meant a year or two."

"No. I just need to get some things sorted out. We can try a proper date after that. Not that this isn't, but… uh. You know what I mean."

Dove didn't look upset. "I know. I appreciate this, man, I really do. You giving me a chance."

"It's not that," said Jaune. "I'm not giving you anything and I'm not fobbing you off. We will go on a proper date, and we'll do the things. Hold hands..." He trailed off, embarrassed, and Dove's shit-eating grin didn't make it any easier. "Shut up. I'm stressed. There's a lot going on. Work things, Club things, and things beyond that as well. I'm not in the right mind and I'm not…" Jaune trailed off as he noticed a man in a black suit and red shades leave an employee only door, closing it behind him. Jaune tore his eyes back to Dove. "I'm not ready to explore a relationship. You'll be the first to know when I am."

/-/

"How did it go?" asked Melanie.

"I'm still single."

"That bad?"

"I told him I've got too much going on, but that we'd try it after."

"Bold of you to assume we survive this," said Miltia. "Very bold."

Jaune grimaced. It was at that, and that was all the more reason to focus on the matter at hand instead of exploring his options. If they got out of this alive, he'd have his whole life ahead of him in which to figure out where he stood with Dove and what he wanted. "It wasn't bad, though," he said. "I had fun with him, and I felt like I wouldn't have been too bothered if we held hands."

"Hardcore," said Miltia, voice thick with sarcasm. "Don't go too fast there, buster. You'll get a speeding ticket."

"It's fast for me."

"I'll say. You dated that girl for weeks and didn't even fuck her."

"Our boss is an innocent," said Melanie, "But he's right that we should focus on Cinder." They were back to business. "The bombs were planted all across Amity without issue. One or two of the boys were caught and questioned, but they played dumb fans and, in one case, a Nikos fanboy trying to confess his undying love to her. They were let off with warnings."

Jaune didn't know whether he should be amused or appalled. "Is security really that bad?"

"It's not bad; it's just that there's too much going on. You have over sixty thousand people up there. There's only so much Atlas can do, and they have to be family friendly while doing it. They go in too heavy-handed and they'll be torn apart. It's the Vytal Festival," she said. "You can't ruin that by being paranoid."

"Cinder is going to ride that to the bank."

"Not if we have our way, eh?" asked Miltia. "Tony says he's contacted the heads of the Alliance on your behalf. They've agreed to a meeting tomorrow. Noon. Will that be soon enough?"

"Cinder plans her attack on the third day. It's in time."

"You know, she might have a spy among them."

"I know. It's a risk we'll have to take." Jaune stared at the twins and said, "If she does, and if she does kill me, I want you both to claim complete ignorance. Play along with her, agree to whatever she wants."

"Then stab her in the fucking back?" asked Miltia.

"That's for you to deice," he said. "I can't tell you to risk your lives. If you'd rather run, go for it."

"Nah." Miltia laughed. "I'mma stab that bitch in the cooch."

"We're of the same mind on this," said Melanie. "She murdered Hei, then forced you into the position and left us to drown as the gangs moved in. You kept us alive, Jaune. Not well," she admitted. "Hei would have avoided half the wars you dragged us into, but we're still here. We're still kicking."

Jaune closed his eyes and smiled. He hadn't asked for this, and he hadn't wanted it, but he was glad to have had them by his side all the same. He raised his glass, and theirs met it. "To the end of the world," he said.

"Dull." said Miltia. "To the look on that bitch's face when she realises how badly she's fucked up."

"Cheers!"

/-/

Numerous crime lords and family heads filed into the new restaurant that would become the future location for Summits since the old had been destroyed by Black Sun. It was a nice place, he supposed. He hadn't had any choice over it, partly because it wouldn't have been neutral if he had and partly because Tony thought it would send an arrogant message if he demanded their presence and then picked where. He was the head of an alliance that was, essentially, now defunct. He only had as much authority as the good will he'd earned bought him.

It was with that in mind that he did away with the three tables that Rust and the others had used before, and instead replaced it with one singular, very round table. That didn't stop Vincent and Catelyn taking their place on his left and right, centralising the power, but it at least did away with the veiled insult of putting people in booths.

"Thank you all for coming," said Jaune, standing and raising a glass. "I know it was on short notice, and I know you're all wondering why I've called us back. I won't waste your time. There is a threat to Vale, to its peace and stability. Our business relies on Vale remaining stable, and we can ill afford another war after ousting Black Sun. That is why I wanted to bring this to your immediate attentions, and suggest we deal with the matter swiftly."

Jaune took his seat, surrendering the floor to a woman who stood a few seats down. "What threat is this?" she asked. "I've heard of nothing, seen nothing, and I've been watching the docks as requested. Black Sun haven't made any landings."

"They don't need to when Atlas already has so many troops here," said Catelyn. "Is that what you are suggesting, Xiong?"

"It is." Jaune nodded. "My informants have already let me know of a diversionary attack on Amity itself. Several low-yield and mostly harmless explosive devices have been placed around the stadium that will go off on the third day – tomorrow – and force everyone into a panic." He paused to allow the muttering and murmuring to die down. "This is designed to keep Atlas busy, and lock the competitors to Amity, while the real attack takes place at Beacon."

"Beacon!?" The surprised shout came from the opposite end of the table. "Why Beacon? What would anyone want there?"

"I'm told the plan is to destroy it."

It was chaos. People talked, argued and shouted over one another, and soon it was hard to hear anything but the deluge of voices. Jaune remained calm, or as calm as he could, and waited for tempers to burn themselves out. Inevitably, they did. There were more questions than answers, and the people at the Summit realised he might have them and settled to hear it. Once they were quiet, Jaune nodded and continued.

"Thank you. I've recently discovered that the original plan to destroy Beacon was supported in no small way by both the White Fang and by Roman Torchwick." He let that sink in; let people curse Roman's name. "That is where all the dust he was stealing went – toward explosive devices to cause the distraction at Amity, but also enough to destroy the academy."

"The White Fang would leap at the chance to be known for that, but what does Black Sun have to gain?" Vincent asked. "Other than destabilising us, that is. I had thought they despised the White Fang."

"I only said that I believe this to be Black Sun," said Jaune. "I could be wrong. Whatever the case, with Roman's arrest and the White Fang being ousted from Vale, I'd thought the matter closed. That's not the case."

"The destruction of Beacon Academy would be bad for everyone." said Catelyn. "Leaving aside the issue of it being a school and thus a target that all of us should wish to avoid; the school brings a lot of stability to the city. Its destruction would not only weaken Vale against the Grimm but send the people into a panic."

"It would also send prospective and current students to other academies while it's being rebuilt," said someone else. "To Atlas for instance."

It was an angle Jaune had not considered, and yet the summit began to talk about it and nod. It was a good idea – and he wished he'd thought of it. "That's a good point our friend raises," said Jaune. "Black Sun's angle may be subtler than I expected. By closing Beacon, even temporarily, you bring the best of the best to the other schools. Atlas has an alliance with Vale, which puts them in the perfect position to accept refugee students. Pyrrha Nikos, Weiss Schnee, not to mention many others who might become famous from this very festival. I'm sure Atlas would be enriched by their presence."

"A lot of students choose to live and work where they graduate as well," said a mean-looking man toying with a knife. He had an open shirt and a tattooed chest. "Black Sun is all about that patriotic spirit. Making Atlas stronger. Getting an extra 30% students is a win enough for them."

"It'll cripple us as well." said another. "And you can bet your asses we'll be blamed for this."

"The gangs in general will be blamed," said Jaune. "As all this gang violence we've been through will be seen as a precursor to what happens. You can see why I wanted to bring you together and suggest we put a stop to this." He looked about and saw only agreement. Even so. "Who is with me?"

The reaction was immediate, loud, and confusing.

"Let me rephrase that for ease," said Jaune, smiling. "Is there anyone against the proposal?"

Silence.

"Very well." He stood. "Then it is my honour to say that the Valean Alliance is reformed – temporarily, as always – to respond to the threat. We will need to be ready tomorrow, and I expect the attack to happen during the festival of course. That would be the perfect time to cause the most chaos. I would ask everyone to have as many fighting members of their gangs as they feel comfortable committing ready for action."

"Will you be taking part?" asked Catelyn.

"I will be right there at Beacon," said Jaune. He saw several nods around the table, some pleased, others respectful, none surprised. He supposed he'd built a reputation after Black Sun. "I have my people looking over the list of suspects to try and figure out who is behind this, but thus far I've only been able to confirm two people." He drew out his scroll and held it against the table. "If you will?"

Scrolls came out and people placed them nearby, close enough to join a closed and short-range server grouping. He tapped a few buttons and image files were sent to each of them. The crime lords drew them back and opened them up, taking in the images of Emerald Sustrai and Mercury Black.

"After extensive research, we believe these two to be important in some way. They should be on Amity when the attack happens, and I want to ask for volunteers who will be able to keep them from reaching Beacon."

"Leave that to me," said Vincent. "I'm expected, nigh forced, to attend the festival anyway. I need to show face." He sighed dramatically. "I might as well be doing something useful while I'm there. Do we want them alive or dead?"

"I want them away from Beacon." said Jaune. "I trust you to decide what's best either way."

Vincent nodded, smiled, and said, "Dead it is."


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.


Next Chapter: 25th August

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