I'm really sorry for how short this chapter is. I'm just so stupid busy with work, and yeah it's dragged into the weekend. I was meant to have such a relaxing and easy time after my big speech, but my assistant leaving two weeks after that has really messed work scheduling up. Missed deadline with a few articles, which means I have to do them this weekend. On top of that one of my students is looking to publish his second book soon, and job interviews for new staff members and my weekend has basically been lost. It's not even a day off work for me right now.

Already had an issue with Self Made Man on Thursday where I had to do half Thurs and half Friday. I'd do that with this if I didn't have Arcanum tomorrow, then Knight of Salem and Rabbit Among Wolves on Monday and Tuesday.

Well, enough whining. More writing. Something is better than nothing. I don't want to take a week off as I'll be doing that around Xmas anyway. That'll be where I catch up, and I'm hoping once I have a new member of staff in, that things will go back to normal quickly.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 173


In many ways the world didn't change with Salem's death. Not drastically anyway, not visibly to the average people. The Grimm continued to exist, the academies taught, and the Vytal Festival approached. The biggest difference was perhaps the one that would go the most unnoticed, that the festival would commence, carry and end without incident. No attack by the White Fang, no Grimm on the streets, no death of Pyrrha or fall of Beacon. People would celebrate and continue their lives as normal, and perhaps that was worth it.

Jaune knew better. That was enough. And yet he found his thoughts less on how Pyrrha would live and how Ren and Nora would be able to stay in Beacon, and more on spoiling Emerald and Vernal. Recreating those fond moments of younger years, some that may have seemed childish to some. Neither of them complained.

He had taken to reading stories to Emerald at night, sitting by her bed until she fell asleep. Vernal, he taught all of Pyrrha's old tricks to, and instructed her in the running of the ASH Gym should she want to continue it. Their days were spent on activity after activity, each of them free to request whatever they wanted and him never saying no.

They visited the zoo, the aquarium, they bought brand new weaponry. They went back to the water park – packed now with the Vytal Festival close, but fun all the same. They played in the pools and Jaune bought each of the overly-expensive photos the park peddled at the booths. Most were stupid, but the occasional ones of Vernal or Emerald smiling when they didn't realise they were being photographed were worth it.

Those, he bought two of and slid into thick albums he kept in secret. One for Emerald and one for Vernal, each full of photographs and handwritten letters from him. Each private, but hopefully something to remember him by. It was daunting, frightening, and each time he recalled the oncoming mortality his hand would still and his stomach drop. Luckily, he'd cried himself out with Summer and Taiyang, and he would shake his head clear and go spend more time with his daughters. At this point, he refused to waste any more time grieving when he could spend it with them.

He made sure to invite Yang and Ruby along when he could; it would be unfair not to as they would also grieve his death just as he had theirs, though unlike him they would have people to console them. It was a delicate balancing act. He had so many people he couldn't afford to neglect – and maybe that was a wonderful problem to have. Too many friends, too many important people, too many loved ones still alive.

None went ignored. His days were with Emerald and Vernal, sometimes with Yang and Ruby, sometimes with Sun and Jaune, his younger self, if they were around. Time was set aside each day to call the Schnee manor, to ask about Winter and spend time talking to Weiss and Whitley, still shaken and stunned after the loss of their mother. Then, he would bring Emerald and Vernal over to Taiyang and Summer, to spend time with Yang and Ruby while he did Summer and Taiyang. Qrow was often there as well, butting in with his usual style and helping to defuse the tension.

In the privacy of Summer and Taiyang's home, with the fire roaring and Zwei quietly sleeping before it, with the girls all upstairs playing video games or gossiping, the conversation would often turn to larger things. Topics that no normal person might understand, and that stretched so much further than anyone had a right to.

"So," Taiyang said, "There's not been any contact from the Brother Gods. Do you think that means they've given up on us?"

"The Relics became worthless, and Salem is dead and gone. No news on Ozma," Qrow said. "Technically speaking, the Gods' demands were met. Salem was killed, and by using the Relics."

"But she wasn't killed by the Gods, and they weren't summoned to judge humanity." Summer said. "Unless… do you think they have? Maybe the fact we're all alive is a sign they judged us positively. That we passed the test."

"No." Jaune shook his head. "Ozma was clear that their promise was to then come back and exist among us again. I don't think they'd see what we are now as enough to pass."

"Why not? We're independent. We're strong."

"Is that what they wanted from us? From what little we know they created Remnant and its people, but they chose to come down and live with us, to exist as worshipped figures and even fulfil requests made of them. And apparently, they considered that a golden age we should aspire to wanting back. That Ozma would fight and die to return."

"We wouldn't be independent." Qrow said, catching his point. He sighed and took a swig from his bottle. "We'd be… what, subservient? Expected to worship them? I dunno if that'd be a problem for most people."

"But it would for some." Jaune said. "I wonder what the Gods would think of those people. What they might do. They're Gods. They were worshipped before and nearly destroyed the world when that worship stopped. Call it what you will about Salem defying them, but they're the ones who chose to spit their dummies out and crack the moon. People make mistakes. Since they made us, they should have known that."

"You always make them sound childish." Summer said. "Do you… Do you think they are? Children Gods, I mean? Or new…?"

It was a thought. He hadn't put much into thinking about them, only that he didn't want them back, but was it possible that the Brother Gods may have been… young? Thinking how Gods came to be was a headache in itself, but theoretically speaking, there had to be a beginning. A birth. Or maybe it was more a `coming into being` - but maybe there was another God, or other Gods, and they'd birthed the Brother Gods. Maybe there were hundreds, thousands or even millions of Gods out there, each creating their own worlds, their own subjects, and ruling over them differently.

Maybe some were benign and loving, watching from a distance and guiding their followers on. Forgiving Gods. Understanding Gods. Loving Gods. Maybe others were cruel or vindictive, or hedonistic or judgmental or wise or whatever else they wanted to be. Maybe some never made living, sapient creatures at all, but created paradise worlds of flowers and trees.

From the stories Ozma and Qrow had told him in his last life, the Brother Gods did sound a little… uncertain of themselves. In the legend, the God of Light created, and the God of Darkness destroyed, getting in one another's way until they came up with the idea of working together.

That did imply youth, didn't it? Had they been around for ten million years before that then surely they'd have come up with working together sooner. Maybe time to divine beings like that was different than it was to mere mortals. Maybe ten millennia was considered `quick` in terms of deciding to work together. But if so, then ten thousand or million years might still mean young in godly terms, and whatever the case the legends had made it clear Remnant was their first effort.

The fact they had been so shocked that Remnant's people turned against them supported that. It proved that the Brother Gods had neither experienced it before nor expected it, showing their inexperience. Their naivety. Again, it all came back to that word Summer had so casually thrown out.

Children.

"Maybe they were children…" Jaune said slowly. The idea was growing on him. "Not children as we see it, but young and inexperienced. If Remnant was their first world and it went wrong, it makes sense they'd act like children when they left. The God of Darkness took his magic away and ran off, destroying the moon on the way past."

"It's my ball and I'm leaving with it." Taiyang joked. When no one laughed, his eyes widened. "Seriously!?"

"Why not?" Qrow asked. "They let Salem trick them, then cursed her with eternal life, then dragged Ozma out the afterlife and punished him for it when none of it was his fault. Does that sound like something an intelligent person does?"

"They were angry and lashing out." Summer agreed. "Trying to find someone to blame but never once imagining they might be the problem." She smiled lopsidedly at Taiyang. "As if we haven't seen Ruby and Yang do that."

"Hell…" Taiyang wrapped an arm around Summer and pulled her close. "Guess that puts things in perspective. It makes sense why they'd come and live down with us too. They wanted to play with their creations. We must have been like toys to them. Or pets at the least." He paused. "How does that explain why they're not here and causing problems now?"

"Because," Jaune said, "Maybe they've grown up. It's been several thousand years," he explained. "They can be as patient as they want to be, but when it became clear Ozma and Salem weren't going to kill one another anytime soon, do you really think the Brother Gods decided to stick around and wait? I wouldn't. If they have the power to create worlds and people whenever they want, and one is being a problem, well… why not go and make another in the meantime?"

The idea stunned them.

It was possible, though. The Gods had the power, they had the motive, they had the ambition, and they even had the reason to go and have a second shot at what had failed the first time. Sure, they could come back to Remnant if the Relics were brought together and they were summoned, but there was no reason to sit and wait around for it.

Why not make another world? Try again. Maybe do things the same, but maybe different. Learn from what went wrong, adapt, just like children did as they grew up. As the Brother Gods grew more experienced, more intelligent, and finally figured out how to do things right.

By that logic, Remnant might well have been forgotten entirely. A failed experiment. Gone, written off, ignored. There could be hundreds of other worlds by now, some thriving, some destroyed, some ignorant of the Brother Gods in their entirety. They might not have even realised that Salem was dead, of if they were then maybe they didn't care anymore.

The Brother Gods had presumably been angry when Salem and Ozma betrayed them, but could they really hold onto it that long? They were gods, so maybe, but they were also gods so maybe they were beyond it. Beyond petty grudges, at least after a few thousand years of growing up.

Maybe, just maybe, they weren't even the Gods of Light and Darkness anymore. Maybe they had come up with better identities, names, or even decided to work together more fully, committing to twin gods of creation. It had been thousands of years. Thousands. Cruel as it was, the Brothers might have forgotten about Salem and Ozma entirely.

"This is insane." Qrow said. "If it's true at all. For all we know they could be watching us and laughing right now."

"They could be living among us." Jaune said. "Summer could literally be the God of Light for all we know."

"She's my goddess," Taiyang said sappily.

"Please. That phrase comes across really creepy ever since I met Tyrian." Jaune snorted and rolled his eyes at Qrow as the two lovebirds shared a moment. "The point I'm making is that if we haven't seen the Brothers yet, I don't think we need to worry about them. They'd have come back by now if they really wanted to, if only to rub Salem's nose in it as she died."

Honestly, they should have come back to kill me, Jaune thought. If they threw a fit at Salem wanting to bring Ozma back to life because it upset the balance of life and death, then what am I? I literally went back in time and changed who died and didn't. That must be worse.

No. The Brothers weren't interested. Remnant had been forgotten or pushed aside, and as far as he was concerned, its people were the better off for it. There was no need for their return.

Remnant would move on.

/-/

Two weeks after Salem's death, things changed, as they often did. Jaune's day had continued as usual, bringing Emerald and Vernal back from an expensive restaurant, their tummies full to bursting with far more dessert than either needed. Vernal had even convinced him to let her have some wine – "I'm over eighteen, dad!" – and had handled it about as well as he expected anyone raised by a Branwen to: badly.

He carried her over to the couch slung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, dumped her down and forced her to drink some water. She mumbled something that was so slurred it could have been "fuck you" or "love you". From Vernal and her prickly personality, both meant the same thing. If she really didn't like someone, she wouldn't waste breath talking to them.

"Let this be a lesson, Em. Alcohol is fine in moderation, but too much and people will take advantage of you."

"No one is taking advantage of-" Emerald paused when Jaune pulled a felt-tip pen off the kitchen side and came back to Vernal's face. "Really, dad? At your age?"

"You're only as young as you feel." He drew several penises on her face. "Besides, how else will I teach her a valuable lesson about moderation?" He offered her the pen. "Want to have a go?"

Emerald crossed her arms. "No."

Jaune raised both eyebrows.

Emerald blushed. "Maybe…"

The pen remained held out to her.

"O-Okay-" Emerald snatched it far too quickly. "But if – when – she goes on a rampage, I'm saying you did it!"

Fair enough. Jaune chuckled and moved over to the office, glancing back as Emerald connected several ball sacks into a silly pair of glasses going around Vernal's eyes and over her nose. It was something Nora would have done to him back in the day, not that he'd ever gotten drunk enough to give her the opportunity. He was still sure she would have given him a huge thumbs up for it.

Still smiling, he pulled the scroll he'd left charging and connected to the CCT. Still whole and able, the Beacon CCT had no problem covering and connecting calls between the continents. Ideally, it never would in the future either. The call rang on the other end several times before someone answered.

"Is this important!?" Snappy, angry and hysterically impatient, Jaune recognised the voice immediately.

"Weiss? Is something wrong?" He gripped the scroll. "It's-"

"Mr-Mr Ashari!" Weiss did a full one-eighty, going from haughty to mortified in a moment. That calmed him down a little; maybe she was having an off day. "I-I'm so sorry, I- no, that's not important. Mr- Jaune, it's Winter!"

Jaune's heart froze, panic and hope locked as one. "Is she-?"

He had no idea which of the two possibilities he would have said.

"Her brain activity is really high!" Weiss said. It was the excitement in her tone that sold him, that had him standing taller and smiling fit to split his face in two. "The doctors are looking at her right now, but her vitals are stable. They think she's going to wake up soon!"

"How soon?"

"I-I don't know. They haven't said. It… It could be today, or maybe a day or two. I saw some maids running to fetch fresh clothing, and she's been in hospital gowns for so long. They wouldn't be sent to do that unless she was close to waking up."

"I'm coming to Atlas." Weiss wasn't surprised by the decision and quietly said she'd tell her father. "I'll be there as soon as I can make it. Within the day if I can pull it off. If she wakes up tell her…"

What, exactly? That Salem was dead? That it was over? That he was dying? That she had missed the final battle? That their time together would be painfully limited?

"Tell her…?" Weiss promoted impatiently. "What should I tell her, Mr Ashari?"

"Tell her… Tell her I'm on my way. If she wakes up, tell her I'll be there soon."

"And that you love her?"

"No." He heard Weiss' confusion. "I'll be telling her that myself."

"O-Oh!" Weiss giggled embarrassedly. "Of course. I'll make sure a room is made up for you, but I want to go to her if that's okay…?"

"Yeah, of course. Go be with her. Thank you for letting me know, Weiss."

"It's no trouble. Goodbye, Mr Ashari."

"I'll see you all soon."

No sooner was his scroll down than was he moving. Emerald hadn't even finished drawing eyes and smiley faces on all the phalluses Jaune had etched on Vernal's face. She almost jumped out her skin when he bowled into the room shouting for them to get ready.

Vernal bolted upright, eyes bloodshot, to see Emerald leaning over her with a felt-tip pen, the tip uncapped. Her eyes narrowed and Emerald yelped out, "Dad did it!"

It wasn't very convincing given she'd been caught red-handed.

Jaune didn't have the time for it.

"Winter is waking up!" he shouted, turfing the sofa over so that Vernal rolled off with an undignified yelp. "We're heading to Atlas asap! Get whatever you need ready. Hurry, please! I'm going to book us the first flight I can and I want you both ready!"

"W-Wha-?" Vernal slurred. "B-But my face. Ugh. A-And my head!"

"Your face is fine!" he lied. "Take some painkillers for the headache. Or a few shots. You can pass out on the aircraft." The bad parenting, he hoped, would be forgiven, but Jaune was already bowling past them for his suitcase, tossing whatever he could into it.

Clothing could be bought in Atlas if they needed it. Just the essentials, the barest essentials. He'd have to call Summer and Tai, too. Call off dinner tomorrow and tell them the good news. Book a flight, too. Damn it, there wasn't time. If only Raven wasn't being a cowardly bitch and avoiding him, this could be sorted in an instant.

Just another person I need to hunt down. Winter first.

She was going to need an explanation.

/-/

Winter's eyes opened slowly and painfully. The light was too bright, burning her retinas, despite that she was sure most of them were turned off. Her eyes felt sore, too, heavy and wooden. Colours blurred together and she had to close them and groan against the influx.

"Take it slowly, Miss Schnee," an unfamiliar voice said in that overly calm and placid manner of a doctor. "You have been through a lot and your eyes may need a few minutes to adjust. Any discomfort on your part is to be expected. Do not worry."

Dimly, she could feel that both her hands were being held by different people. She was laid on her back, sheets up her chest and fingers stroking her own on both sides. She couldn't tell who was who, since no one in the Schnee family could be called overly cuddly. Weiss, maybe? Jaune?

"Can you hear us, Miss Schnee?"

"Hn." Winter nodded, but that hurt more than she cared to admit. "Y-Yes. It's… my eyes hurt."

"Give them time. You've been through a lot. You've been out for some time," the doctor said. "Can you remember what happened to you? What do you remember?"

Out for some time? Yes, obviously.

"Nothing," Winter said. "Who am I? Who is everyone here?"

Sudden gasps – and far more visceral than she thought they would be. There was a ragged choke that she was certain was Weiss, and that she was also sure she hadn't heard in years. It sounded like she might cry.

"A joke!" Winter said desperately, coughing it out. "A-A bad joke. I remember everything, I promise. I was trying…" Her eyes cracked open slowly, a flush reaching her cheeks. "I thought I would lighten the mood…"

"That was not funny…" Whitley mumbled.

Oh, come on. She was the one waking up from a terrible injury. What right did they have to make fun of her? Sighing, she let her eyes adjust. Weiss, Whitley, Jaune – his smile made her heart beat a little faster – and then Jacques. His smile made her heart almost stop. Jacques Schnee, her father, sat at her side with tears running down his cheeks, both hands clasping one of hers and his fingers rubbing on the back of hers lovingly.

It was that more than anything that told Winter something had gone much worse than she thought.

"What is the last thing you remember?" the doctor asked.

"Aura machine. Transfer. Stepped in and something went wrong. People shouting, Jaune screaming and smashing into it. I remember the glass breaking and him trying to pull me out before… nothing." She closed her eyes again. "Nothing after that."

"The machine was sabotaged." Jaune said. "Arthur Watts set it to rip out your soul and kill you."

Well, that certainly constituted an attack on her person. Winter clenched her teeth together. "And when do we hunt him down and punish him for this?"

"He's dead."

Her breath came out in a rush. "W-Well, I suppose you already handled that…"

"And a few other things," he said. "It's… It's been a while, Winter. You've been asleep for a little longer than you probably realise. There's a lot to cover."

"How long?" she rasped. "Days? A week?"

No one answered her.

"Weeks!?" she gasped.

Weiss coughed. Whitley looked away.

Winter's mouth fell open. "M-Months…!?"

"A few of those," Jacques told her. "Things… Things have happened, Winter. Some things you need to know, but for now you're awake and that is all that matters. We are here, your fiancé is here, and the young miss Emerald and Vernal have also expressed a desire to see you once you feel up to it."

"Not everyone, I notice." Winter said waspishly. She wasn't surprised, but it still stung to note the one person missing. "I see mother didn't care enough to come and witness her daughter waking up."

When everyone cringed, when Weiss and Whitley's eyes closed and their lips peeled wide in sorrow, Winter knew she had made a mistake. When Jacques dipped his head and wouldn't meet her eyes, her heart clenched, unknown grief gripping her.

"W-Where is mother?" she whispered. "What happened?"


Well, I managed to get 4,000 words out despite the workflow. That's honestly a lot better than I imagined. I thought I'd only get 2,000 – 3,000 out considering how late I got to start this, but this isn't so bad.


Next Chapter: 30th October

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