The finale, in a sense. Though one chapter still remains. Thank you to everyone who stuck with this, through the flames, the horrible reviews and everything else.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Rachel Marks

Chapter 18


"Cinder…"

She could hear his heart breaking as he struggled to comprehend what was happening, what she had done. The final vestiges of power from the Fall Maiden swirled about her, the heady rush of power almost being enough to excite her. Almost.

"I am so sorry, Jaune." She stepped slowly towards him, allowing her blade to materialise in hand once more. The distance between them closed, even as he continued to stare, never once moving a muscle.

"Get back!" A green blur shot between them, Cinder reacting automatically and snarling as her blade connected with a solid metal cane. Ozpin's eyes were angry, furious even, but he still had the presence of mind to slam a hand into Jaune's chest, sending him tumbling off the platform. "Run Mr Arc, tell everyone what has happened here – do not let her reach the tower."

"Out of my way old man," Cinder sighed, winning the strength battle in an instant and blasting a conflagration of flames into him. She huffed as he pushed them back, green aura materialising around him.

"Run, Mr Arc!"

"I can't!" Jaune shouted back, glancing over to his partner's tube, where the redheaded girl continued to pound futilely on glass. Her words were swallowed before they could hear them, nothing more than muffled thumps.

The headmaster looked that way for a moment, and Cinder took her chance to attack, scoring a cut down the front of his jacket. Blood dripped to the floor.

"The best thing you can do for your partner is flee," the man pointed a hand towards her and golden eyes widened as a great beam of green energy fired forth. What a troublesome old fool. Cinder generated her own flames, intent to see if he could hope to match her newfound power. "She is focused almost entirely on you," he went on. "If you escape now then she will try to follow. If you stay here, you condemn not only yourself but also Miss Nikos!"

"I-" Jaune grit his teeth and looked towards them, eyes meeting Cinder's as she watched him. That seemed to make up his mind, the blond turning and running, Crocea Mors in hand.

Cinder made to follow.

"Your battle is with me," Ozpin appeared before her, making her leap back as he slammed his weapon down where she had once stood. "I'll thank you to leave my students alone."

"I don't have the time for you."

"Perhaps you ought to have thought of that before killing Amber."

Cinder sighed, stepping back to dodge his attack, before whipping her blade up to parry another. The second materialised in her other hand, striking out towards him. Her blows felt heavy and sluggish, even to her, as though she couldn't quite muster the energy. Even in the midst of combat she found her eyes straying over to the elevator Jaune had left through.

How long she had waited for this battle. How long she'd dreamed of crossing swords with this man, of cutting him down and proving her superiority once more.

But right now, come the moment, the satisfaction was muted. She had better things to do. Like ending this charade once and for all, of freeing herself from this malady.

Ozpin skidded back from her next attack, carving a furrow into the ground as he stopped himself with his weapon, before green runes began to spread out towards her. Cinder snarled, leaping back and using the Maiden's powers to suspend herself in the air. Flames fanned to life behind her. She didn't care about this. She didn't have the time for this.

She just wanted him gone!


The final lights vanished, dissipating one last time as the flames that dotted the hall were slowly snuffed out of existence. Heels clacked lightly against the floor as she touched down once more, surveying the carnage with a disinterested expression.

Where was the joy of victory, she wondered, as she let out a long sigh? Where was the rush?

All that remained was crackling flame and the muffled pounding of fists on glass. Cinder looked towards that noise, meeting emerald eyes from clear across the room. Pyrrha stopped, frozen solid in fear.

"I wonder if you can even hear me," Cinder said, stepping onto the platform so that she stood before the tube. The machine had long since died, leaving the girl trapped inside. She would escape in time, no doubt. If she were allowed that time. "I wonder what questions you have for me, what you would shout and scream."

The girl said nothing. Instead, she scowled through the glass, expression filled with hate. It made Cinder laugh, particularly the impotence of it. The girl had hated her for so long, and then that had somehow turned to the girl regarding her as a friend of all things. And now the world came full circle once more. It seemed fitting.

"You should thank me," Cinder said, tracing one finger onto the glass. "If I had allowed the transfer process to go ahead then I would have needed to kill you as well. I would have made it agonising, just to ensure that your last thoughts were of no one but myself." Her hand on the glass heated a little, steaming the pane. "We couldn't have you thinking of another at the end, and robbing me of what is mine, could we?"

She let go, stepping back and turning around. Pyrrha shouted something, but to Cinder's ears it was nothing but a full roar.

"Things cannot remain as they have, as much as we might all wish it. For what it's worth, this was never supposed to happen. At least, not as it did."

She doubted that would be any consolation for the girl, who had lost not only her headmaster, her school, but would now lose so much more. Cinder paused, fifty metres or more away, but voice raised regardless.

"Jaune and I… it is time to end this once and for all." The blades dropped from her hands, splitting into atoms before they struck the floor. They coalesced and swirled around her, forming into a dark shape held in one hand. "I will not condemn you to a world without him, however." Cinder said, as she turned, bow in hand. "I am at least that kind."

Pyrrha's eyes widened, mouth falling open in shock and horror. The string drew taut, resting against Cinder's cheek as she whispered.

"Goodbye… friend."

The arrow flew true.

Cinder turned away as the glass shattered, memorising that final scene within her mind. She would remember it, as some last favour to the girl. Golden eyes finally locked on the elevator Jaune had fled through, the carriage trapped at the top. Metal peeled away beneath her hands, the doors wrenched open as she stepped into the empty shaft. Far above she could see it, nothing more than metal reflecting the light from her own eyes.

"It's time to end this Jaune," she sighed, kicking off the floor and racing up towards the light. "Once and for all."

The floor of the elevator carriage exploded before her, sheering wood and steel aside as she slammed one hand through the door, melting it so that she could step through. The clash of combat, along with screams and the roar of murderous Grimm, it all assailed her ears in an instant, as people ran left and right before her. They did not even stop to look at her, too lost in their own battles. Naturally, the Grimm did not dare turn on her, though some of the White Fang proved not so fortunate.

Fools, all of them. Let them all kill one another. She no longer cared who proved victorious. She had what she had come for, and nothing else mattered.

A flash of gold through a window of the tower caught her eye. No, that wasn't completely true. She still had one loose end that needed to be tied up. Cinder shook her head, a tiny laugh bubbling forth as she rose up off the ground once more. If he wished to flee then he had chosen a poor path indeed.

But maybe he did not wish to run. Maybe he felt as she did… maybe he understood that things could not end this way.

As she flew up the side of the tower, she spared a glance for the dragon wreaking havoc behind her, spawning Grimm across the entirety of Beacon. So many would fall to its spawn, torn asunder by monsters they had no right being forced to fight. A part of her marvelled at how little she cared. Jaune would have agonised over it, he would have wept and sought to aid them and yet here she could watch, with nary a care in the world for those fools.

They were different. That much was clear. He personified everything that made a Hunter what they were. Not just skill or intelligence, which some might have said he lacked. But bravery, determination and compassion – the ability to care for those you did not know. The desire to protect and to create a better world.

We were always incompatible, you and I.

Cinder had never wanted to make a better world. Everything she had ever done had always been for herself. Those with power crushed the weak, it was the way of the world. She had lived by that rule. She would die that by rule. But she would never be weak again.

We saw the world in different ways.

He would see his partner in emotional pain, and seek to help her. Even if it placed his own happiness at risk. He would stand up against enemies he could not defeat, so that others didn't have to.

Where you saw inequality, you had to try and fix it.

She would have cast aside Emerald and Mercury in an instant. The very moment they stopped being of use, she would have happily disposed of them. The betrayed looks on their faces would have moved her little.

I am not like you, Jaune. I never was. And I never will be.

And as she flew up another level, her breath caught at the sight of him, silvery blade in hand, his shield in the other, charging up staircase after staircase. She could have killed him at that moment, but she selfishly chose to watch, for just a little bit.

He was young, idealistic and foolish. Everything she hated in a person. Everything she had never been. Or was it… everything she had never had the chance to be?

The roof approached, not a floor or more – just a few more staircases. She had no idea what he desired of it, but if it was his goal then she could not allow it. Glass imploded inwards, as though struck with the force of a tidal wave. He was blown back, from the force but also the rolling heat that billowed inside. He roared in anger, in pain and grief as she lit down on two feet before him.

"What did you do to Pyrrha?" he shouted, pointing his sword at her. His face, normally so happy to see her, was twisted in pain and rage. It looked good on him. Better than she had thought it would.

"I killed her," Cinder said simply.

His eyes closed, body shaking. Cinder smiled sadly, cocking her head to the side.

"Did you expect any different?"

"Why!?" he rasped.

"Because she annoyed me. Because she was a jealous fool. Because she simply stood in my way. Take your pick."

"Why!?" he repeated, shaking his head and glaring at her. "Why did you betray us?"

Cinder sighed, crossing her arms and frowning at him. "I did not ever betray you. I was never on your side to begin with. You simply assumed that."

"You lied to us…"

"I did." She smiled. "I am a liar Jaune, never forget that."

"I loved you…" he whispered it. No louder than the times he had whispered it to her in bed, or into her ear – or when he thought she wasn't listening.

She always had been.

"That is because you're a fool." Cinder snapped, slashing one hand to the side as though to cut an imaginary foe in half. "You were nothing to me Jaune, nothing. I chose you out of a hundred other men, of which you were firmly the last choice, believe me."

There were tears in his eyes. It seemed odd that this would be what drew them forth, with everything else that had already happened. Maybe it was just the shock, or maybe it was the final nail in the coffin.

"You're lying," he whispered.

"Am I?" she laughed, "Ask yourself this Jaune. How many women before I showed an interest in you? And didn't you think it even a little odd that I would go through so much effort for you? Don't make me laugh. You were never anything more to me than a fuck. That was all you were ever supposed to be. That was all you ever were."

"But I loved you," he said once more, expression filled with agony. It spiked her anger immediately, making her grit her teeth as she summoned a single blade and took it in both hands.

"Then you should be happy to die by my hand. Go be with your partner. She at least would have returned your pathetic feelings!" She flew forwards, blade reared back as she delivered a strike that would have torn his head from his shoulders.

Sparks flew as her blade met against his, blue eyes, stained red with tears, stared back at her from above the cold steel. Her arms strained to push him back, but it seemed like he had found strength he hadn't shown before.

"I refuse to believe that," he whispered, taking one step forwards – and to her shock – actually pushing her back. "I refuse to believe that everything I saw, everything I felt, was a lie!"

"Believe what you want," she growled. "It doesn't change the truth."

"The same applies to you Cinder."

She howled, spinning to the side and disengaging the blade lock as she drove a knee into his side. He buckled, gasping for breath as she looped her arm around his neck and tugged, throwing him into a glass table. It shattered beneath him, leaving small cuts across his skin as he staggered back to his feet.

"I'm not the one lying to myself," she said, holding one hand out as flame burned to life between her fingers. Drawing her fist back, she slashed it forward across her body, sending a medium-sized ball of fire hurtling towards him.

"Are you so sure?" Jaune taunted, throwing himself to the side. It couldn't be called a dodge. Not with how he hit the floor awkwardly, rolling across broken glass and cursing as he pushed himself back onto his feet. "If you were so sure then my words wouldn't bother you."

"After putting up with you for so long, even the sight of you is enough to cause me distress!"

She would kill him. She would put an end to this once and for all. He ducked towards the stairs but she cut him off. He caught the edge of her sword on his, but gasped as she drove her other hand into the side of his face. It weakened his hold just a little, enough for her to overpower him and try to impale him against the wall. He was faster than that, however, ducking at the last second and waving Crocea Mors before him to prevent her following up.

She sent fire instead, making him curse and dive for cover. The room had begun to fill with smoke, small flames licking greedily at wooden furniture. It created a haze before and between them, obscuring one another from view. It was thicker near the smashed window, as the smoke was drawn there and outside.

"Come out, come out, Jaune," she cooed, keeping one eye on the staircase as she paced softly about the room. How he could be so quiet was beyond her, but the sound of glass crunching beneath her feet, not to mention the battle outside, made it difficult to hear his breathing. "Do you hope to hide forever, until this is all somehow over without either of us dying?"

She laughed.

"You can't be that foolish. One of us must die tonight."

"Why?" he asked, and she tried to pinpoint where it had come from. "Why does one of us need to die? Why can't we talk this out, or come to an agreement?"

"Will you join me then?" she called back. "Will you put aside your friends and stand beside me as I wage war against the Kingdoms? Can you do that, Jaune?"

There was no response but for fire, glass and the screams of the dying.

"You silence is answer enough," she laughed. "And it is the same in reverse. I cannot turn back from this path I am now on." Salem would not allow her to, even if she wished it. The Grimm parasite within her, that which gave her such power. It was insurance as much as anything else.

"So it has to end like this?" she could hear the pain in his voice. But more than that, she could hear where it came from.

"I'm afraid so Jaune," Cinder sighed, pointing her hand towards one corner of the room. "But worry not. I shall make it swift."

"Argh!" He cried out in pain, fleeing from that corner as the flames rolled in. She knew she caught him, and the way his sleeve burned said she'd damaged his left arm. His face was a mixture of pain and anger as he charged towards her, Crocea Mors gripped in one hand. It seemed he'd finally realises his only hope was in close quarters, even if it was a forlorn hope at best.

Cinder deflected the lunge to the side, reversing the grip on her sword so that she could draw it across his body. He surprised her, however, by driving even closer, blocking her swing with his own body so that the blade instead slapped weakly off his armour. His shoulder caught her breasts, making her gasp as he drove her back and into a wall. Her back roared in pain, but she still had the presence of mind to grip his sword-arm and draw fire to her fingers, scalding his wrist and making him drop his weapon with a gasp.

"Any last words?" she whispered, spinning her sword so that she held it backwards, the blade pointed towards his spine.

If he had any, he didn't speak them.

He kissed her instead.

Golden eyes closed almost automatically, relaxing into the kiss as one leg came to wrap around his waist, drawing him closer. He forced his tongue past her lips, wrestling against her own as one hand came up to massage her breast through her top, making her gasp. The other dipped lower, and with a clatter her sword fell to the ground, fingers grasping into his coarse hair instead.

Right before his forehead met hers.

"Guh!" she fell back, dazed and with the taste of him still on her lips. Her eyes widened as she saw his fist coming in, right before it caught her left cheek, knocking her to the floor. Cinder's breath was still heavy, cheeks flushed, as she looked at him. He staggered over to his weapon, grabbing it and looking back, before half-climbing, half-crawling up the stairs to the next floor.

A tiny bit of blood dribbled from her lip. She had no idea if it was hers or his.

"Clever bastard," she tried to growl, but it came out as a laugh instead. She'd taught him well, it seemed. But now well enough, as she pushed herself up and summoned her weapon back. He should have taken advantage of the situation and killed her when he had the chance. "You can't keep running Jaune," she shouted as she made her way lazily towards the staircase. "This ends here!"

She reached the next floor as he fled higher, a sigh escaping her as she trailed slowly after him. There was no rush. There was nowhere he could go.

Another floor passed, and then another. Before she finally reached him.

It was not the final floor, or rather, it had not originally been it. The dragon must have struck it, that or a stray shot from the Atlas battle fleet. The walls were gone now, leaving nothing but a scorched ruin open to the elements. He stood at one end of it, staring out over the desolation, his blonde locks fluttering in the wind.

"Nowhere else to run," she said, stepping out into the freezing air herself. "I've told you Jaune. Your fantasy world cannot exist here. The only way this will end is with one of us breathing our last."

"How am I supposed to kill the woman I love?" He turned to her, and there were tears in his eyes.

"You love me, even after I killed your partner?"

"I hate you," he snarled. "But I love you as well."

"The two emotions are not mutually exclusive." Cinder took a stance, raven hair whipping to the side as she held her blade out before her. She could have floated far above him and rained fire down until there was nothing but ash, but she would not rob him his chance to fight.

"You say you didn't feel the same, but what was that down there?" He sounded victorious, pleased with himself even as she frowned.

"What we had was physical," she said. "But that was all it ever was. You were never more than a tool to me. Something I could use to slake my desires, and in that you did well." His smile fell, Crocea Mors rising to point at her. "But it is the fate of all tools to lose their use eventually."

She watched him grit his teeth, eyes flashing a dark blue as he glared at her. An expression filled with equal parts rage and grief, of despair and sadness.

"Come Jaune," she stood side-on, blade extended. "Allow me to do unto you, as I did unto your partner. As I will do unto everything you hold dear."

He roared and charged towards her. Such anger, such primal power as he propelled himself forward, with the full intent to bury his blade within her. Once upon a time that might have meant a different thing, and she might have welcomed him with open arms, drawing him into her. Their words would have been replaced with different things, with fevered breath and heavy pants. The bitter air of this place would have been lost in their own heat. An inferno of their own making.

Gone now. It was all as ash.

She caught his weapon on her own, only to widen her eyes when he let go of it entirely, ducking beneath and going straight for her. One hand caught her wrist, the other her collar as he tackled her. They hit the ground together, his weight pushing down on her, oh so familiarly, except that this time he tore not at her clothes, but in an attempt to prise her weapon from her hand. She drove a knee into his legs, trying to knock him off but for his own legs pushing hers down. He reared up above her, taking her wrist and slamming it down into the hard stone. Her fingers cracked loudly, not broken, but in agony as he slammed them against the ground, using the hilt of her sword to drive them down.

She did not let go, however. She could not afford to. Instead she leaned up to bite his neck. Not as she might have once before, small nibbles with teeth and tongue – but with heavy teeth and a growl, making him cry out in pain as he struggled free. A hand cuffed the side of her face, even as her own knifed into his neck, making him gasp and struggle for breath.

There was no technique to it. No glorious combat or foolish notions of honour and fair play. He sought to cause her pain, while she did the same in return. The victor to be determined by whomever gave in first. Whomever decided that death would be preferable to the agony of living.

He groaned as she managed to get a knee past his own, driving up between his legs into his softest parts. He panted loudly, gripping his thighs together to stop her doing it again and driving his elbow into her sternum so that she gasped for air. His head came down again, not to kiss, but to crack his forehead against her own, sending dizzying spots of light across her vision. With a furious growl she broke her arm free, slamming the pommel of her sword into his temple with enough force to make him cry out in pain.

He fell off her, and Cinder surged to her feet as he crawled for his weapon. She spat a small amount of blood aside, surging forwards to kick the sword with all her strength.

Crocea Mors flew off the rooftop, shimmering away into the night sky.

She would have gloated, if not for the way he gripped her other ankle, wrenching to the side at the very moment she kicked, left balanced on one leg. Cinder gasped as she fell, arms flailing for balance before the cruel stone failed to cushion her fall. A knee drove down into her wrist, crushing the nerves and making her hand open.

"No!" she growled, trying to close her fingers around his scrabbling ones. A hand cuffed the side of her face again, and with a blast of cold air she felt the sword torn loose. He pulled it back above her, holding it in a reverse grip with the point aimed down towards her face. Cinder's eyes slammed shut as he plunged it down towards her chest.

Pain did not come.

"I- I can't do it," he whispered, voice laden with pain. "I love you Cinder. I still love you… I can't do it…"

Golden eyes drifted open, glancing past the cruel edge of her weapon and into blue eyes filled with tears. Not even an inch separated life and death, but for both his hands atop the hilt, he did not push it any further.

"Then you are a fool," she whispered.

Blue eyes widened as the weapon in his hands faded to nothingness, ruining his balance as he pitched forwards. Cinder kicked back, propelling him up and over her as she rolled onto two feet. The motes of dust formed once more in her hand, as she walked up to him, using one heeled foot to kick him over. Flat on his back he stared up into her eyes, all fight gone from him.

"You were so very close Jaune," she said. "So very close indeed, but yet again you let your pathetic heart get in the way." She lowered the edge of her weapon to tickle his chin. His face remained defiant. "That is why you are a fool."

"Rather a fool in love then one destined to a life alone."

Cinder's breath caught, but she pushed through it. It did not matter. This was what had to be done. There was no other choice. Salem had ensured it, or maybe Cinder was to blame. She no longer knew. She hadn't for a while.

"This is goodbye Jaune," she whispered. It hurt to say it. Even to her. Her throat felt dry, her limbs heavy. "Do you have any last words?"

"I love you Cinder."

"Heh," she laughed, eyes closing for a second before looking back down at him. "At this point I suppose hearing that doesn't even surprise me."

"That's all I want to say." He kept his eyes locked onto hers, and she didn't dare look away wither. "Send me to be with my partner now. Kill me."

Cinder smiled sadly. "You will be with her," she said. "Of that I promise you." The sword raised higher, leaving his neck and rearing back over Cinder's shoulder. The blow would kill him instantly, separating his head from his shoulders. His eyes scrunched shut, teeth grit in readiness.

The dragon continued to roar in the distance, great explosions from artillery and ships blasting down. One blue eye cracked open.

"Do it!" he gasped. "Kill me. Why are you hesitating? What are you waiting for!?"

Cinder smiled, sword still held high. It wouldn't be long now. An explosion of noise came from behind her, metal and rubble blown aside as she heard someone appear onto the rooftop behind her. She saw Jaune's eyes widen, as he whispered in shock.

"Pyrrha?"

His eyes flashed back to Cinder's.

"I'm not waiting for anything," Cinder whispered softly. "Not anymore."

Blue eyes widened, "Pyrrha, no!" he screamed, as something whistled through the air.

Cinder clenched her eyes shut, drawing on that one memory she had locked away. Of Emerald eyes, wide with fear, set in a pale face with hair the colour of blood. Pyrrha had looked so afraid, screaming in fear as the arrow hurtled towards her. Glass shattered, tinkling left and right – but the shaft quivered in metal, two inches to the side of her face.

It was important to think on that, as the agony struck.

Gods, but it hurt. It was like pure molten lava, striking the centre of her back, before cold air rushed in from the front. Cinder's eyes snapped open, blood dribbling from her lips as she looked down at the bronze point that protruded from between her breasts. Bronze once, but now it was covered with thick, red liquid.

The black blade melted away, power failing her even as she felt it transferring to the girl stood at the top of the staircase. Cinder looked back, in time to see the girl's face twist in confusion, in shock and then horror.

Two arms caught Cinder as she fell, familiar and warm, they lowered her to the ground.

"Why?" Jaune whispered, a face appearing above her, the tears on his cheeks mixing with blood and grime. What a silly boy he was, crying over a monster like her. She wanted to laugh but it hurt too much. Blood was filling her lungs, making it hard to breathe.

"I told you," she whispered brokenly. "I told you… how it had to be."

"But why!?" he cried, trying to stem the blood pooling from the wound on her chest. It hardly made a difference, since there was more pouring from her back. "Why didn't you dodge? Why didn't you get out the way!?"

Because then she would have lived. Because then she would have had to continue the fight. Because Salem would have known if she tried to betray her. Because she would have found Cinder. Because she would have found Jaune.

Because there had been only one other choice… and she couldn't kill him.

Instead, she reached one hand up to touch his cheek, to feel him one last time. He caught it with his, pressing her cold fingers into his wet cheek. She smiled, revealing teeth stained with blood, but her eyes still shone like flecks of gold.

"Because I suppose you made me a fool as well, Jaune Arc."

His forehead pressed down against hers, his tears falling down onto her cheeks. She had never been able to cry, but this was the closest she would come.

"I love you," he whispered.

"I-" she tried to reply, only to fail as her voice finally cracked. She struggled past it, as he called her name in horror. But it was for naught, her vision slowly dimming, robbing her of the sight of his face as she was plunged into darkness.

How cruel life was. That she would never get the chance to utter those wonderful words.

But she had experienced it.

And that was enough to make her smile.


T_T

One last chapter, to bring this story to an official close. I suppose the ending better explains an earlier comment this chapter.

"Rather a fool in love then one destined to a life alone."

Cinder's breath caught, but she pushed through it. It did not matter. This was what had to be done. There was no other choice. Salem had ensured it, or maybe Cinder was to blame. She no longer knew. She hadn't for a while.

Yes, sadly that distress she felt was not aimed at herself. Because deep inside, she knows what the life he will live after this. What he will go through.


Next Chapter: 12th September

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur