Huge news! They've found my medical records. Not my results – they need to apply for those to be sent again – but I now exist on the database as I should. What a relief. What a colossal waste of my time as well, but relief is the predominant emotion I'm experiencing right now. My family are all for me complaining about this but I'm too happy to. Also don't want to complain to healthcare during a pandemic as they're busy enough. I'll probably just give them a stern word, make it clear I'm not impressed but that I won't burden them with a formal complaint.

As for some people asking me why/how I'm releasing chapters so much earlier in the day; it's because I've been trying to work on them the nights before so I could spend my days hunting my medical records and past addresses down. That's all. No magic involved.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 158


"This is going to have been noticed…"

Raven's quiet warning broke through Jaune's confused thoughts. He flinched and dragged his eyes away from the Relic of Choice, casting the visions into the back of his mind. "What?"

"This," she said, indicating the devastation. Ozpin's office was destroyed, and not quietly. They'd been fighting for their lives, so Raven didn't need to expand on what she meant. "Goodwitch will be on her way. Qrow as well if he's close by."

"He's not," Summer said. "And let… let me handle Glynda. I'll say I came too late and saw Tyrian escape. The wound…" Summer looked from Oscar's body to the sword in her hand, lifting it up to wipe the blood away and stuff the stained cloth into her skirt. "It's not too distinctive."

"Covering up your first murder," Raven mocked. "How the mighty have fallen."

"Go to hell, Ray. Just because I responded to your cry for help doesn't mean all is forgiven. You and I will be having words."

"Not here." Jaune said. "We need to leave."

Summer nodded. "Hm. I arrived late, Ozpin died and Tyrian escaped. I didn't see anything about a Relic. Though… if he gets in touch with Glynda somehow then he can reveal everything. Maybe I should leave Beacon. Take Yang and Ruby with me. With us. Should I tell Taiyang? Qrow?"

He was aware time was short, but the elevator had yet to head back down, and Raven could portal them out at any moment. "Consider telling Taiyang first. I think they'd both believe you, but Qrow would be the harder one. You might want to double team him." He would be stubborn in trusting Ozpin, but Qrow would never side against Yang or Ruby. "We're on a timer now. We've got until Ozpin is able to influence his next host into giving him control. I don't know how long that takes him, but it's not immediate or Oscar would have gotten in touch with Beacon long before Summer and I found him."

He'd be pushier than usual, though. Ozpin would try and force his host into making contact so he could expose them. That still gave them a few days, maybe a week or two if they were lucky. A week at best. We can't rely on luck for this when Ozpin will be trying every trick in the book to get back.

"The attack will take place within a week."

"Attack?" Summer asked.

"On Salem. Our chance to finish her. There's no need for you to be there. Stay here and look after Ruby and Yang."

"I… but…" Summer's face was a medley of emotions: relief, guilt, anger. He knew she wanted to stay, retire, be with her family. At the same time, she was disgusted at herself for it. "I can fight…"

He gave her the easy way out. "Raven will open a portal if we absolutely need you. If things get bad, we'll need every ally we can find, but there's no point you tagging along otherwise."

"R-Right. That sounds good." Relief. Pure and simple. "Make sure you call on me, though. You might need a silver eyed warrior on your side. Ozpin always made them seem important." She smiled bitterly. "I'd rather it be me than Ruby."

"Ruby won't be getting anywhere near the action. That much I promise."

"I believe you." Summer looked back to Oscar and grimaced. "I believe you more than I do Ozpin." She sighed heavily. "You should go. Get out before Glynda and the rest arrive. I'll… I'll run interference as best I can. Good luck."

"Thank you. Raven, can you open a portal back to Vernal?"

"Tch. Course." A red slash cut through the air. She made to step through it but was stopped by Summer's fingers catching her sleeve. "What now?" she snapped. "Haven't we said everything that needs to be said?"

Summer Rose giggled. "We haven't said a damn thing, you big, dumb bird. There's way more that needs to be said. So… don't die, okay? Stay alive so I can kick your ass later. Good luck, Ray."

Raven stared down at her shorter teammate. There was something in her eyes for the briefest of moments – something raw. It was gone before Jaune could categorise it. Raven turned her head away, ripping her sleeve out Summer's grip. "That's rich coming from the one who died first in the other time. I'm a survivor. I don't need your luck."

"Did it upset you to hear I died…?"

"As if." Raven's lie was as obvious as her discomfort. She stormed into the portal without another word. It remained open for him, Summer chuckling as she wiped a hand over her eyes. Jaune placed a hand on her shoulder.

"That was a little mean of me, wasn't it? I can't help it. I was always afraid Raven hated me or wouldn't care if I died."

"It's not like that…"

"I know. I saw it." Summer sniffed loudly. "Go," she said, giving him a push. "I'll sort this all out. I'll talk to Tai and Qrow and make them understand. Even if they don't, I can come crash with you and Raven, can't I?"

Jaune didn't believe for a second that would happen. There was simply no way those two would turn on Summer. Maybe he was exaggerating their devotion – you tended to appreciate someone's memory a lot more once they were gone – but he still trusted them to side with her. They were a team. You didn't just ignore your teammates like that.

"We'll be here if you need us. Keep an eye on Ruby and Yang."

Jaune moved swiftly away, sparing one last look for Oscar's body. They'd never been close, him and Oscar. He'd liked the boy, respected him, maybe even pitied him for being chosen as Ozpin's host. The issue had always been his mistrust for Ozpin after Pyrrha's death and the knowledge that even if he tried to talk to Oscar, Ozpin would be there listening in. It drove him away from the boy. Soured relations.

He felt horrible for it now, but was there any point? Ozpin and Oscar had completed the merge almost a whole year ahead of schedule. There simply was no such thing as Oscar Pine now; he was a facet of Ozpin's personality. Oscar had ceased to exist the moment that happened.

"Sorry," Jaune mumbled quietly, then stepped through and back into Atlas.

/-/

James looked tired and worn when Jaune dropped by the following morning and placed a wooden box upon his desk. The General opened the lid and glanced inside, then slammed it shut when he saw the crown. If anything, he looked even more exhausted.

"Did you have to kill him?"

"Glynda got in touch?"

"With all Ozpin's allies," James confirmed. "The story thus far is that it was an assassination by Salem at a time when she knew his guard would be down. That's not even close to the truth, is it?"

"He was in contact with Salem. Asked her to kill me."

James sighed. There was no surprise in his reaction. This was a man used to making harsh decisions on the grand scale. He knew about sacrifices, about backstabbing, about being in contact with the enemy. James even knew that in a different time he would have become almost as bad as her.

"He wanted to minimise risk." Jaune said. "I even told him about the time travel. He was angry at what I did. Said I'd ruined the world's best chance of being rid of her, and that he'd kill me for it."

"I suppose he would kill me as well for betraying him. Can't have someone following his enemy running Atlas' military." James opened a cabinet on his desk, removed a bottle and two glasses. He poured one for each of them and Jaune took the glass in hand. "We've sealed the deal now, Ashari. There's no going back."

"Was there ever?"

"Not really. Let's just hope this works."

"It will. I used the Relic."

A brief widening of the eyes over the rim of a glass was the marked reaction he received. James did not splutter or cough his bourbon out over the desk. He finished it slowly, considering his thoughts and setting them out alongside the glass that clinked down onto the table.

"You used the Relic of Choice to see how this would end?"

"You don't get to pick how you use it. It selects the vision. I guess there's no choice bigger in my future than this one, so it's not a surprise it showed me it. And the consequences of it."

"And what are those consequences…? How bad is it?"

Jaune twirled his glass, watching the dregs spin about the bottom. "Not as bad as the last time."

"Do I get any specifics?"

"People do die. It's not bloodless…"

"No battle is." James said quickly. Firmly. "You can't waste your life looking for one. No one likes to hear it but there is such a thing as acceptable losses. It's one of the first, and hardest, things you learn."

Objectively, he knew that to be true. On the subjective level however, there was no such thing. You couldn't convince someone that the loss of their loved one was for the best. If so, he had to accept Pyrrha as that because Pyrrha's death was the catalyst to Ruby unlocking her power and freezing the dragon atop Beacon. If she hadn't, so many would have died.

Was it irony or hypocrisy that he would now accept the concept when it was other people dying? Maybe a little bit of both. The toll wouldn't be nearly as high as it was the last time, neither in terms of personal losses to him or losses among the forces helping against Salem. Compared to the last, this was practically bloodless. Practically. The worst part was that he felt he would be able to pick out the faces of those he'd seen die in the vision if he passed them in a corridor. The images were fresh in his head in a way that felt unnatural, like a picture-perfect memory that refused to fade or lose detail.

"Don't tell me any details," James said. "In fact, don't tell anyone. Even if you saw them live, the knowledge might cause them to become complacent and get themselves killed regardless. It's best only you know."

"There were one or two things I didn't like the look of, but I have a feeling they need to happen for the vision to come true."

"Things such as…?"

"Emerald and Vernal were there."

"Hmmm." James hummed. "They are huntresses. Your daughters they may be, but they can fight. I can keep them with me if you wish it. That will have them as safe as can possibly be."

Jaune nodded his thanks. Part of him wanted to prevent their coming at all, but they'd been alive at the end and so it was best to play into that. It might even have been a self-fulfilling prophecy where he refused them and they snuck along. Emerald's Semblance would let them trick a random soldier into letting them on an airship. Better they do that openly and safely.

At least Ruby and Yang hadn't been there, nor Blake, Weiss or the others. They were children and should be spared it. With any luck they'd be enjoying the Vytal Festival while older and more qualified people saved the world.

"Are there any other details you think I should know?"

"No. That's it." Jaune finished his drink and set it down. "It's worth planning what to do about Ozpin, though. He's going to be furious, and I'm worried he'll get in touch with Glynda asap. Anything you can do?"

"Other than shut down the CCT? No."

Jaune tilted his head to one side.

"Are you serious?" James asked. He sighed a second later, cupping his face. "Of course you are. Ugh. I'll see what can be done. Shutting it all down is dangerous but perhaps I can let a glitch sink into Vale's system. It won't last long, but we can delay sending a team of technicians to fix it. It won't stop Ozpin reaching outside of Vale, but he won't be able to call anyone in Beacon."

"Sounds good to me. Does he have agents in Atlas we need be worried about?"

"I expect so, but it'll be too late to do anything to us soon. Unless he plans to have us both murdered. I'm already under constant guard by the Ace-Ops. The Schnee manor should be secure. We'll be leaving in three days anyway, so I doubt he'll have time to introduce himself, take control, find a CCT station and convince any moles here to act on his behalf any time soon."

Three days? That was a lot quicker than he'd expected. For the best, though. The sooner this was done, the safer everyone would be. Jaune nodded, swallowing back a little nausea that threatened to bubble past his lips. He must have wavered because James reached out to steady him with his good hand.

"Are you alright?"

"Y-Yeah."

"You looked like you were going to throw up."

"Nerves. Even if I saw this work…"

"There's always a chance for something to go wrong," he finished, patting Jaune's shoulder. "I know. Trust in this, Ashari. Trust in me. I've put everything I can into this, as have you. We have the Relics, we have the numbers and we have Salem weakened. This will work. Three days and this will all be over."

It most certainly would…

/-/

A lot of people called Emerald oblivious; she liked to consider herself selective with what she cared to pay attention to. A lot of things just weren't worth her full attention. The people most important to her were worth it, of course. Auntie and Uncle, Yang, Ruby, Vernal (reluctantly) and of course her team.

All of that paled in comparison to the man who had saved her, however. To the man who had given her everything.

The man she got to call dad.

A man who, at that very moment during breakfast, had not touched a single thing and who had dark rings around his eyes. She'd noticed it the second he came down and immediately dropped her conversation with Whitley to stare. Everyone else was either too stupid to notice or too polite to mention it. Since both results were stupid, she went with that.

Suddenly, her own appetite was nowhere to be seen. Emerald forced herself to eat anyway because food was important – a lesson her dad should have been following. Besides, she couldn't find out what was wrong and fix it on an empty stomach.

"Mr Ashari is quiet this morning…"

Perhaps Whitley wasn't as stupid as she first thought. Good for him. She would have encouraged it if she wasn't sure he'd take that as a sign to ask her out to the Vytal Festival. Boys weren't important right now. Men were. And not in the way Yang would have teased her over.

"Hm," she replied.

"Are you going to talk to him?"

"Hm!" she hummed again, this time sharply.

"You don't think something happened with Winter, do you?"

Emerald froze. Oblivious, yes, cruel, no. Had Winter died…? No. No way. Mr Schnee didn't look upset, and someone would have definitely said something by now. "It's not Winter. Don't panic like that."

"You're right. Sorry, I just…" He sighed and ran a hand through his white hair. "It's hard not to worry when your sister is in a coma."

"I understand."

Well, in theory. If Vernal were to fall into a coma then her reaction might have been a little different. Emerald would never wish death on her bitchy sister, but a perfectly peaceful and safe nap lasting ten or fifteen years wouldn't be so bad. Just imagining how much peace and quiet would come from that was wonderful. Dad would tell her off if she said it though, so Emerald kept the fantasy to herself.

Once breakfast was over, Emerald asked one of the maids carrying it away if she could have one of the baked breads and some jam to keep. The woman eyed her shrewdly until Emerald promised it was for her father, at which point the maid melted and gave her a whole plate, along with some fine ham and expensive cheeses.

"Your father didn't touch his food," she said. "Make sure he eats properly."

"I will."

"Such a dutiful daughter. He's lucky to have you."

Emerald considered it more to be the other way around, but she enjoyed the praise for being the best daughter enough to smile anyway. Suck it, Vernal. She was the conscientious and sweet daughter.

That didn't mean she was the only daughter with a functioning pair of eyes however, as by the time she reached the entire wing of the mansion their family had been granted, Vernal had already cornered their father in her usual, brutish manner.

"Alright. What crawled up your ass and died? Come on, spit it out."

"Vernal. I'm not sure what you-"

"No bullshit old man! I'm not fucking blind. Spill the beans."

Unsubtle, ungrateful, unpleasant bitch. Emerald stalked into the room and plastered an adoring smile on her face. "I brought you some breakfast, daddy. You need to eat more."

"Huh?" He looked over. "Oh Emerald. That's sweet but I already ate-"

"You didn't eat enough." Emerald bounced on the cushion next to him on the sofa and placed the plate of food in her lap. She picked up a slice of toast and put some ham on it. "Open up."

"Emerald…"

"Oi!" Vernal jumped up on his other side and glared past their father's chest. "Don't interrupt me when I'm talking, bitch."

"Don't talk to your sister like-mph!" Dad's rebuke was cut off by Emerald taking her chance to feed him. His eyes widened around the slice of toast before biting into it reflexively. He chewed and swallowed before saying, "And you shouldn't shove food into people's faces like that."

"You're hungry."

"I'm not hungry."

"Your body is," she stated. "You fed me when I was hungry. I'm returning the favour."

"This and that are two different things. You were a starving waif and I'm a grown man. Also, I was patient with you. Unlike what you're being with me right now."

Emerald shrugged and wielded the plate of food like a weapon. "You will eat one way or another."

He raised an eyebrow. "Will I now…?"

"Yes."

"And then you'll tell us what has you being such a mopey bitch this morning," Vernal demanded. For once, Emerald agreed with her. "We're family, aren't we?" Vernal's cheeks flushed bright red. "That means we stick together. Your problems are our problems."

"Vernal is right…"

"Hell yeah!"

"For once."

"Oi! Fuck you!"

"Alright. Alright. Come on, you two…" Jaune smiled and opened up both his arms. Emerald snuggled in immediately, claiming her rightful spot. Vernal was a lot more stubborn about it, even if Em knew she wanted it badly. She sat there refusing to lean into him but refusing to move away wither, forcing Jaune to reach out and take her, at which point she offered exactly zero resistance and let him pull her in against his side.

What a waste of time. Why not just accept the chance to cuddle? Emerald tucked her knees up onto the sofa and into his side, closing her eyes and listening to his heartbeat. Its rhythmic beating was almost making her sleepy. This, she decided, was perfect. There was no better feeling than this.

"I'll tell you what's wrong. You both know about Salem, right?"

Emerald nodded into his chest.

"Big evil bitch you and Raven are fighting against? Yeah, I know of her."

"Good. We're planning our final attack on her and it's going to happen in three days' time." He squeezed them both. "I guess I'm just anxious about it."

"Three days? We're coming!" Vernal decided.

Emerald nodded swiftly.

"You both are," he said, making Emerald relax. Good. If he'd said no then she'd have started plans to sneak along anyway. This saved her the effort. "You'll be staying away from the worst fighting but we could use help against the Grimm. I want you both to look after one another. I mean that, okay? No rivalries, no silliness and no risks. Neither of you is allowed to get hurt."

They both nodded. It wasn't like she'd let Vernal die or anything. That would crush dad. And maybe, in a little way, she didn't want Vernal dead. Humiliated, sure, but not dead. Emerald was sure it was the same the other way around too, except worse because Vernal was a bitch like that.

"We'll be fine." Vernal said. "You will be too. You're the toughest man alive."

He was. Emerald nodded with her sister. Almost every child thought their father was the strongest person in the world, but they were in the unique position of knowing that to be true. Maybe not the politically strongest or anything, but they both knew it would be a cold day in hell when someone could best their old man in the ring.

"You can never know in a war, girls. Salem is no pushover and we'll be wading through Grimm to get to her. I'm not trying to frighten you, but you have to be prepared for anything." He squeezed them tight. "Even me not making it."

No, Emerald thought.

"No!" Vernal spat.

"Listen," he said, stroking both their heads at once. "You know me. I'm going to do my best to survive no matter what. I'm only saying this because you wanted to know why I'm so bothered. This is what's bothering me."

"The thought of dying?" Emerald asked quietly.

"No. The thought of what'll happen to you two if I do. Those that die don't have to feel pain; it's the ones left behind that suffer. I know that all too well. I don't want either of you making any rash decisions like I did. I don't want you hurting like I did. I've left you both equal shares of my fortune…"

Emerald's eyes watered. "Dad. Stop…"

"You'll each have enough to be comfortable your whole lives even if you never work for a day of it. Auntie Summer and Uncle Taiyang have agreed to take you in if you're not old enough. Same as would happen with Yang and Ruby if they died. It was agreed a while back."

"Stop," Emerald begged. Even if it was just planning, even if it was just in case, she didn't want to hear it. Her hands clung to his coat and she buried her face harder into him. She didn't want money. She wanted him.

"-you'll be fine financially and otherwise, but I want you to promise me you'll both look after one another. I know you fight. I know you have your arguments and that's fine, but I'd feel a lot better knowing you'd set it aside if I were gone. You're sisters. I want you to protect one another."

"If we say we will, will you shut up with this shit?" Vernal snapped. "It's… I don't want to fucking hear it. You're worrying over nothing. You're too strong to die."

Emerald could not have agreed more. "I'll look after her if it helps," she said.

"The fuck? I'm the older sister. He's clearly asking me to look after you."

"Older physically, maybe. Not mentally."

"Fuck you."

Jaune chuckled and pulled them both in. "I'm glad to hear it."

/-/

Raven looked better for her rest and recovery after the battle with Ozpin. She came through a portal with her side bandaged up and a nasty bruise forming along the left side of her face. It didn't stop her sarcastically raised eyebrow on seeing him stuck between two girls, all snuggled up and asleep. He kept a hand on both their heads, listening to their even breathing.

"You've made Vernal weak."

"We'll agree to disagree on that," he said. "And I'll thank you to whisper. I don't want them waking up."

Raven shrugged. "Looks like they've been crying."

"We were talking about life and death. The possibility of mine and what it would mean."

"Why?"

"I'm worried," he admitted. "History is repeating itself and we're going against Salem again. It's making me think of the first time we did. We… We weren't honest with ourselves back then. No one said goodbye because we refused to believe any of us could die."

"The folly of youth."

"Yeah. We thought we were immortal. We weren't." He swallowed and leaned his head back. "I don't know if it would have helped in any way. I was still alone and grieving when Salem came to me with her deal. I like to think it might have. At the very least I don't want Emerald or Vernal making the same deal if I kick the bucket. Wouldn't that be ironic?"

"Emerald going back, adopting your younger self and training you."

"Then Emerald goes to get revenge on Salem, wins, dies, and that Jaune makes a deal with her in his grief and goes back, adopts Emerald…" He trailed off. "You get the idea. This will all be for nothing if that happens. Same as I made Ozpin's plan and victory all for nothing when I did it the first time."

"If she made the deal once, she can make it again." Raven said. "We'll just need to take the time to finish her off. She can't send anyone back if we do that. At least she needs the relics for it or she would have sent Tyrian back already."

"Time travel is a magic that shouldn't be played with."

"If it's time travel at all," Raven pointed out. "It could be alternate universes. Perhaps the world you left behind, where Ozpin won, continued on without you."

Maybe it did. There was no one left to mourn his loss there anyway so he wouldn't lose sleep over it. "Either way, I don't want them doing the same. Whatever happens, happens. I'd rather be remembered than avenged."

Raven raised an eyebrow. "You want me to stop them…?"

"If they try. I hope they won't."

"Why me?"

"Because I trust you."

She looked away, scowled and crossed her arms. "I don't see why. You more than anyone know what I am like. I'm a coward. Why should I wade in to stop them making the same mistake you did?"

"Because if they do then all the hard work you put in might be thrown away. Plus, they might bring Salem back if they fail. As a self-proclaimed coward, I'd have thought that would be the last thing you'd want."

"Too right. Fine." Raven made a show of sighing, all drama and pomp. "I'll do your dirty work for you if the worst happens. I hope you don't expect me to die, though. I've a vested interest in survival."

Jaune laughed. "You'll be fine."

"You won't be…?"

"It's up in the air. Contested."

"Ah." Raven frowned, understanding that what he was saying was neither theory nor baseless fear. "That is… unfortunate. Are you sure it's a consequence and not something else?"

"Salem made this body. Her magic sustains me. I'm really nothing more than a golem made of flesh, blood and aura. Either I'm kept alive by Salem, or I'm kept alive by the Relics she used to make me. Both will go when she does. The Gods only made them to assist us in defeating Salem, not to stick around after. Between you and me, I'm not sure that a pair of Gods who punished Salem for trying to ignore the cycle of life and death will appreciate me for doing the exact same on a scale so large it breaks time itself."

"I see." It was hard to tell if Raven was upset. Hard, but not impossible. It was in the way she kept looking away, the way her fingers tightened around the hilt of her weapon. "It won't feel like a victory," she said softly. "Especially not to them. Nor me."

Jaune Ashari, Jaune Arc, smiled back at her. "I'm sorry. This isn't by choice."

"I know." Raven's blood-red eyes closed. "This… Perhaps this is what Ozpin should have been. I'd have followed him if it felt even remotely the same." Her eyes opened and looked to Emerald and Vernal, registering pity for a brief moment. "I will leave you to spend time with them." A portal opened and she stepped towards it. She stopped at the last, not looking back. "I wish you'd kept this from me."

"Sorry. I wanted to be honest."

"Ha." A bitter laugh. "I asked you to be, so I've no one to blame but myself. To finally feel like I have a teammate again and then to find I must lose them, however." Her hair waved as she shook her head. "I guess Qrow isn't the only one in the family with shitty luck."

"Again. I'm sorry…"

Raven made to reply but could not. With a shake of her head, she walked through the portal and away. Jaune let out a sigh with her departure, laying his head back and staring up at the ceiling. His fingers played through Emerald and Vernal's hair, the action more to comfort himself than them.

Is this what you felt, Pyrrha…? How did you do it with a smile on your face?


Next Chapter: 26th June

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