A/N: Dear readers,
I received a review which presumed this story was at its end, which is not true. There are projected 26 chapters at present, though I don't know how to denote that on FFN. As always, I am a chapter ahead on AO3, and that's primarily where I spend my time beyond Tumblr. Thank you for reading.
She was so easy and light in his arms. The fire behind them licked at his back, and he had to navigate the crumbling path more by feeling than by sight. Cinder had gone limp, but not quite passed out, her breaths coming fast and her grip hard against him through his blackened armour. She could have pressed harder; he would not have minded.
"You're alright, I've got you," he told her, as he readjusted her weight, hushing her more as he went. He could not help himself. He told her that he was here and she was going somewhere safe, and she did wonderfully, and she was good and he was going to take care of her.
It calmed him, too. He embarked onto the ship, and not a moment sooner did they take off. The others watched on as he sat Cinder down carefully in one of the seats, and when her head flopped back against the shuddering wall, he finally looked up and saw Ruby. Her big wolf mouth was drooling.
"Ruby?" he tried.
The wolf barked.
He was kneeling down in front of Cinder, and he buried his face against her knees. He counted what he could see— the press of Cinder's dress against him, the warm heart-of-the-flame blue— what he could hear— the thrum of the engine, the murmur of talk— what he could feel— just her. He was not sure how long it was before he could look up and finally ask if everybody were alive and if someone needed his Semblance.
"I think we'll be fine," Weiss said, puffing.
Jaune thought for a long moment about what to do. If Salem emerged from the flame with a new vindictiveness, she might want to strike Vacuo for the sake of it. But Ruby could not be taken back to Vacuo; most would want to kill her on sight, whether or not that inside the wolf was their friend. There would be nowhere to hide her. Salem wanted the next Relic, though, and it was somewhere no one knew about.
"We can't go back to Vacuo," he said to the pilot, and his co-pilot. Mercury's flying was not quite as good as Winter's.
"Where else are we gonna go?" said Yang. She had a gash in her forehead, over her left eye.
"We've got to warn them, too," Blake added. "It's not over."
"Well, they don't have a Relic that Salem would want. It just depends how vindictive she's feeling, I suppose." Jaune thinned his lips. "She'll be going for Vale next. She'll want Cinder, or at least to kill her."
Cinder did not stir.
"Well, Atlas and Mantle are gone," Weiss said primly, "and it's not like Mistral would want… Ruby… in her current condition. I'm sorry, Ruby."
"Right," Jaune said easily, "so let's go back to Vale."
"Beacon's in ruins," Yang said.
"I saw it. The rest of the place is pretty scattered, too," added Qrow. "Though I guess if you wanted to hide a— a— I can't do it, kiddo, I can't joke about this."
"The boy's not wrong," Raven said. "Exactly what do you think Glynda Goodwitch is up to? Neopolitan had been selling her services. It's why I came just in time." Raven shook her head. "I'm not exactly sure they would have the resources to support us, and I assume none of you would like my raiding."
Jaune looked on and saw their discontent. Not Vacuo, not Atlas or Mantle, not Mistral or anywhere in Anima, and not Vale, either, since Beacon had fallen. He watched their faces fall and heard Ruby snuffle in disappointment, or perhaps apology.
He was not exactly fond of his solution, but it was about the only one he had.
"I think we need to go see my parents," he said. He brushed a thumb along Cinder's knee. "They're in Vale. They have a big acreage, a farm. We've got room for Ruby and we can figure something out. If she wants to get out, no one will try to hurt her. Well, she'd be a tough match anyway… my parents would understand. I think. Maybe less so my sisters, though I'm not sure where they are."
"Your parents," Yang repeated.
"Yeah, I mean, I've done everything possible to avoid them, including joining Ruby to walk slash swim to Anima, but hard times, right? Although it's going to be awkward explaining how I broke the family heirloom," he said, aiming for levity, but it fell face-first. "We can regroup there and figure out what to do, and we could send someone ahead to Vacuo. What do you think?"
The ship was silent, and they seemed uncertain. Finally, Mercury said from the front, "Sounds like the world's most awkward family reunion ever."
"I think only the second," Jaune mumbled.
"Come on, tell me where to go."
It was a couple of hours away from Beacon, but not too far away. Jaune had no piloting knowledge so he left the rest up to the competent ones, once he had identified where his home had been and pointed decisively on the map. There had been a question of fuel, but Emerald said there was an underhanded way of conserving Dust, which meant they flew high. The pressure did Jaune's head in.
He hoped they did not call him Vomit Boy. He felt marginally better when he breathed through his mouth and looked straight ahead with the direction the ship was going. Then he wished that Ruby could speak, and she could call him a mean name, even Vomit Boy. Especially Vomit Boy.
Cinder was still in and out of it, so he touched her with his Semblance. Compared to their trip to Evernight, the ship was mostly quiet. Winter and Weiss talked amongst each other, and Blake and Yang held hands, and Oscar tried to hold conversation with Qrow but met short responses. Ren and Nora sat opposite to Jaune and Cinder, and sat there with both of their eyes closed, like they were trying to sleep. Ren checked on Jaune, and Nora did too.
Jaune spoke to Ruby instead, and Yang and Weiss took turns. He tried to talk to her about aimless things, memories of when they had travelled together, the things he had got up to in Atlas when she went on her trips with Penny, but Ruby did not respond to much of it. She snuffled, and sat her head between her paws, taking up nearly half the ship.
When that was not enough, he eventually told her about everything he and Cinder had got up to. What he could tell her, anyway, without waxing poetic about how lovely she looked in bed. That was a bit far, even for the sake of transparency.
"That night Cinder helped Mercury and Emerald, she'd gone to bargain for the Summer Maiden power. At least figure out what was going on, because Tyrian was— Tyrian. But you know, the craziest thing before all that, is she'd— she'd used the Staff of Creation to go get something important I left behind, when I was on the beach, and you were all gone. Before then she'd been locked up watching over Salem— you remember what Salem said about her, not making a good—" Jaune groaned. "Anyway, she effectively broke out all on her own, though I think maybe she was getting sick of being stuck inside talking to me all the time." He laughed self-consciously. "Honestly, when the time came and she pulled me through, I don't think there was anything cooler, for me. It's one thing to see a Maiden in action, it's another to be her ace up her sleeve. I made sure Merc was okay."
He omitted the part with Tyrian.
"No nicknames," said Mercury.
"Okay, okay, sorry, no getting chummy."
"I don't want you getting attached. You're way too attached. Like a limpet. I don't know when to expect you to make me a friendship bracelet."
"Well, it's obviously not happening now," Jaune intoned.
Cinder laughed, just a faint little thing. He smiled, though it was an effort and a half to do so.
"I'm sorry I got Emerald and Mercury to lie," he said to Ruby. "But I know you're not mad at them. It's my fault."
"Well, what else happened after that…" Jaune blushed. He had found her in his room, in his clothes. He did not need to tell them that. "I guess you know about Cinder secretly clearing out Grimm. It was after my shifts in the hospital had been long. She was pretty tight-lipped about the connection, though if you tried to admit she's ever done any good, she'd fight you tooth and nail the whole way." He shook his head.
Cinder lifted her head weakly and glared at him. "Stop it."
"See? I told you. What a way to wake you up, though."
"I was hoping for something else," Cinder grumbled foggily, and then she blinked a few times, her sight unfaltering over Ruby. "Well. She's in there, I suppose."
"We think," Oscar offered quietly. "She came with us."
"Typical that she would be the one to not succumb to it," Cinder said. She snorted. "I feel outdone. It took me months to tame it." At the inquisitive looks she received indolently, she added, "Salem kept her where I stayed. I was her experiment, until she found the golden mean. It did not quite stick to me." Then, addressing Ruby, she added, not an afterthought but more like a confession wrenched from her, "I'm sorry."
Jaune hid his face in Cinder's knees again. He felt an uncertain hand hover before she placed a hand on his head, so still and awkward. He did not blame her. They stayed like that.
He did not quite fall asleep, but he hovered in that borderlands between waking and sleeping. The position he laid in was not kind to his neck, and it was loud, but he had been disturbed by raised voices. Jaune got up, and then Cinder did with him.
"What are you bickering about?" she demanded of Mercury.
"We don't have enough fuel," said Emerald.
"Then how much do we have?"
"Maybe enough to reach the mainland."
"Then we'll do just that," Jaune said. "The rest of it can work out. If we have to, we could search for fuel, or we can just walk."
"We can't just walk," Cinder snapped. "This isn't some merry journey to go see who's deciding to attack Haven. Look at Ruby. Tell me she can walk." She poked her tongue against her cheek. "Or ask Ruby if she can walk, see what answers that gets you."
"Then we'll find Dust," Jaune told her.
Cinder mumbled something under her breath about SDC heiresses aboard. He hoped they did not hear.
But he did say, "There wouldn't happen to be any SDC outposts anywhere in Vale, would there? That would like to see Weiss? Or Winter?"
Weiss answered, "Considering that most of the Dust in Vale had been smuggled out by certain criminal organisations, certainly not including anybody in our presence, the SDC is under as strict regulation in Vale as it was in Atlas. That is to say, we would probably need to steal some."
"Now that sounds more like it," said Emerald, sounding at ease.
Winter seemed disappointed, though. "I'm still in possession of Atlesian military credentials. Though I did not work in such an official capacity in Vacuo, we could do this— the proper way."
"The proper way," Cinder said, "ah, yes, Atlas sucking dry resources when it feels like it. How familiar."
"It's either that or thievery. But I'd suppose you're acquainted with that."
"It's more honest," Cinder replied coldly. "Which is saying something."
Jaune helpfully added, "And besides, we've already stolen a ship from the Atlas military."
Cinder turned to him and smirked. "You didn't."
"We did. At Argus."
"You thought of it, I take it."
"Oh yeah," he said, and then added, "Qrow didn't approve."
"Stick in the mud," Cinder slyly said. "We did the same thing, more or less."
Aw, he thought, flirting over grand theft auto… or whatever it was when it involved airships. He looked at her too long, and she drew her gaze away.
Weiss cut in with a clearing of her throat. "If we're going to do this, then I should hope we do so prepared. Some of us will need to stay with Ruby. I— would highly suggest this does not involve Cinder, or Emerald or Mercury, given their wanted status— but I doubt you'll take my suggestion seriously. With that being said, given the increasened security measures since both the Fall of Beacon and the Fall of Atlas, this is not going to be simple."
"May I make a suggestion?" Raven asked, and then did not wait for an answer. "Glynda has not been idle, as I said. There's been an attempt to build a new outpost outside of the city. I suspect, if you wanted to intercept an SDC truck… well, I'm just simply making an idle suggestion."
Ilia said, "Aren't the SDC trucks remotely operated and instantly hit an alarm if they go off route?" She coughed. "Not that I would know for any particular reason."
Jaune and Cinder shared a look. He said, "We could cause a car crash."
"That's putting lives at risk!" Winter exclaimed, and at the same time so did the others, and he was pretty sure he heard Nora start accusing him of losing his morals.
"Okay, okay, if it's remotely operated there won't be anybody to hurt, and it would just be a little accident!" he tried. "Like a small one!"
It was not a small one.
They had landed, and then Jaune had stolen the second car of his lifetime. Upon compromising with Cinder, Weiss and Winter had separately gone to the SDC headquarters and were permitted a tour, where they asked ceaseless questions of the rebuilding of Vale, which had been covertly conducted whilst Salem scrutinised every other kingdom and left her shadow puppet to lurk Beacon.
Yang, Blake, and Qrow had stayed behind with Ruby, and Ren, Nora, Emerald, Mercury and Ilia would track the truck they had picked as their target, once Weiss had passed through the information in the middle of the women's toilets she complained about the hygiene of, and was going to force a not-so-contrived distraction of questioning the health and safety standards of the remnants of the SDC in Vale, since the SDC in Atlas was now, after all, dust.
Raven had turned into a raven and was just going to enjoy the chaos.
He and Cinder were in the car together.
"Is it strange seeing Vale again?" she asked him. They were parked and ready to turn onto a hairpin, blind corner which was just asking for trouble.
"I've barely looked," he said stiltedly. "I got out of the ship and went running. It's much greener than I remember. More humid."
She hummed. "I might even miss Vacuo this time."
"It was nice," he said. "It was sort of strangely beautiful." Jaune tapped his hand on the steering wheel. It was not the time to ask, but he still wanted to ask. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
"Don't," she said. "Not now."
"Okay, so after we crash into an SDC truck and make it look like an accident?"
"After," she agreed. There was something brewing there he did not know how to name. By the time Nora signalled them through the Scroll when they were close, he could not say more.
He revved the engine.
"Now don't drive slow," Cinder began, "like that time going back to Shade. You want to be going fast. I'll even put the music up so it makes us sound like hooligans who've had too much to drink."
"And then you're going to make sure we don't become meat paste," he said.
"That's right," she replied with a smug half-smile.
Jaune was not sure what music she put on, but it must have just been something on the pop channel. It was something a normal person would listen to. The last time he had heard anything like it was at the dance, and that had not quite turned out the way he had hoped.
He had to drive fast. But he had run pretty far, and this was easy by extension.
"This honestly feels a little fun," he said, once he had started the engine in earnest and took off. The car was nothing special, but for a moment he remembered when Ruby had told him about how much she had sucked at learning to drive and failed her driver's license twice. She had not gone back a third time. That was what he thought about when he went really fast, and he felt the pull of force right in his stomach.
They hit the truck right in the side. It split open like a pinata. Jaune felt the glass from the window land on his lap as it cracked open, and his head whipped forward. Cinder beside him absorbed the impact, with what little energy she had left, the Maiden power whipping forward in between to catch them.
Jaune got out and then ran around the other side to drag Cinder out with him. "Are you alright?" he asked her.
"Fine," she said. "We don't have long."
Cinder burnt a hole open in the back of the SDC truck. He climbed up after she floated.
"Gravity Dust?" he checked.
"Gravity Dust… whatever else you can find," she said.
"We don't need anything else, Cinder."
She rolled her eyes from where she had crouched. "Only if you say so. My moral radar had been totally broken." She sent him a double-take. "What, it was a joke. I know they need it more than us."
He shook his head and when he found the right looking case, he tucked it under his arms. Jaune and Cinder stole away from the truck armed with enough Dust to get them to his parents' farm and all the way to Vacuo again, which meant they had the opportunity to warn Theodore and company of what might be coming. He hoped Glynda forgave them for it, though he was not so quick to really care what the SDC thought.
So Cinder was rubbing off on him too.
Nora pulled up in their stolen car— she had been mildly insulted when Jaune had asked if she knew how to lockpick— with a screech. Jaune silently apologised to the inanimate truck for hitting it, and also silently apologised to the person who would have to clean it up, and the subordinate who would likely get in trouble for it, and then he and Cinder squeezed in the van with them.
"I am actually returning this van," said Nora from the front. "I can excuse a sedan, but I draw the line at a van. How many kids do you reckon this person has?"
"At least six," said Ren. He was, of course, in the passenger's seat beside her. "That's why there are six seats in the back."
"Yeah, but do you need to have six kids to fill up a van?" Mercury added, and Emerald nodded sagely in agreement.
"I'm not sure the van is actually the working part of this scenario—" Jaune tried, and then frowned. "I guess I should just ask my parents when I see them."
Nora did, after all, return the van. She reverse-parked it outside a red-and-blue house not too far where they had landed, which was almost a public park they had hoped to avoid detection in. The walk was not far, but they remained on alert like it was a warzone. Which it sort of was.
There were kids playing in the park they had to go back past, and when they watched on with interest, Jaune told them they were LARPers, or, as the kid asked, Live Action Roleplayers, and then he explained further that they liked dressing up in costumes and pretending to fight. The kid had got bored and run off.
"That is the opposite of espionage," Cinder remarked.
"Exactly. They'll never know a group of Huntsmen and Huntresses carrying stolen cargo just walked through their nice neighbourhood and caused a car 'accident'. Perfect disguise. Hidden in plain sight."
"Because they got too bored of your explanation." Then she sauntered off.
He shook his head and followed her anyway, and ignored the others laughing at him. He tried to keep apace with Cinder, but she kept walking ahead of him.
They came back to find Ruby sleeping at the bottom of the ship, and Yang and Blake murmuring lowly to each other. Qrow talked to Raven, but she was still a raven, so he looked a little crazy. But Jaune talked to the apparent air, so he had little room to judge.
It was another hour before they reached his parents' farm, but it was much quicker than it would have been on foot or by ship, and after all, someone had to go back to Vacuo. Cinder kept moving away from him when he came near. He tried to keep the distance she wanted.
Mercury landed them in a field, under the coverage of white-barked trees. The sap ran red, like they were bleeding, and the leaves were thin and delicate like hair. When Jaune stepped out, he could feel the coolness of the forest nearby on his skin, and he could hear the titterings of birds. The white-bearded Vale whipbird and its melodic call. It was so familiar, it felt like a rubberband pulled back in his chest and snapped. He could smell the wildflowers, dewy and fresh. It was summer, and everything was growing.
"It's not far from here," he said, and then he led the rest of them, Ruby in the middle of the pack, down the muddy trail to where his home had been. There was a running stream they crossed over, the water clean enough to see through, but they were otherwise unimpeded except by his memory. When he searched over his shoulder on instinct, Cinder was there, not just through the bond, but really there.
He knew where he was going. When they came down the long driveway and he saw the house, he did not know what to feel. It was something like longing. The paint had peeled a bit more than he remembered and his mother must have planted hydrangeas in the front, a dusky light blue.
It was a house as old as his grandfather and grandmother, and had the look of it, too. Old single-glazed windows, extensions on top of extensions, and around the back there was even an outhouse nobody used anymore.
"I guess I just knock?" he asked nobody.
"Do you want me with you?" Cinder asked back.
"If you could be?"
Qrow had reluctantly accompanied Jaune, when he had wanted to stay behind out of sight with Ruby. But Jaune had said to him that he was an actual Huntsman with an actual license, and his father would probably take him more seriously for that, especially given that Qrow Branwen had something of a name for himself. Ren and Nora were with him, too, but the rest of them stayed with Ruby.
Jaune knocked. Then he knocked again, when no one came. He sighed. His parents were probably out the back, or maybe they were not even here at all. The cold fear that something had happened to them had not even sprung up before. He thought they would have been safe out here, away from all of the Vaults.
"Stop catastrophising," Cinder said. Then she thumped on the door much harder than he had.
Finally, it opened with a creak. His father had grown a beard, and he had a bit of a tummy now. Jaune could hear his mother somewhere far off in the middle of the house complaining about visitors coming all the way out to their property and did God-botherers not read the signage?
"Hiiiiiiii dad," Jaune said eloquently.
His dad nodded, like he had been expecting it. "Alright. Still full of surprises."
Jaune cleared his throat. "Do you— want to know why I'm here?"
"No," Jaune said. "Um, kind of the opposite, got more involved in things than you might've expected. We need a place to stay. Please."
His dad nodded again. "Alright."
"This is Cinder," he said, gesturing gently to her, "she's, um, well, it's kind of a long story."
Cinder said nothing, just stared off with his father.
"Qrow Branwen," Qrow said. "Full-time Huntsman. Jaune said you'd listen to me." He whipped out his Huntsman card. "We got a little trouble to put in your hands, if you don't mind."
Nothing seemed to faze Jaune's father, since he just nodded again and then he said, "We can handle trouble."
Jaune just laughed. He could not help it. He hung his head and laughed.
"Could you tell them to go away already?" he heard his mother call.
"You want Jaune to go away?" called his father back.
"I want Jaune to come home, but don't pull my leg."
"No, Jaune's here."
"He is, he's right here."
"You're full of it."
"You think I'm joking? He's right here, even brought his girlfriend and that Huntsman Qrow Branwen and says he's got trouble. No idea what though."
"You're a liar, Jaune'd never get a girlfriend."
"Oh, ouch," Jaune said under his breath, and then called out to his mother. She shrieked and came running.
They took their shoes off when they came inside and Qrow seemed annoyed about it but did as Jaune's mother asked. Jaune fixed himself tea in the kitchen he remembered better than the back of his left hand and sweetened Cinder's with more sugar than anybody needed. Qrow asked for water. His dad sat in his recliner and seemed nonplussed by the whole experience.
"So you're the Fall Maiden," he said, pointing at Cinder.
"I am," she answered delicately.
"And you've got the other Maidens with one of your friends turned into a Grimm, but she's not evil."
"That's right," Jaune said.
"And you managed to stop the evil woman from killing everybody and Cinder saved you from her."
"Right, and we saved Vacuo."
His dad said, "Huh."
His mom said, "What magical power have you got, then?"
"Um, nothing. Well, there's sort of this bond thing—" he cast a look at Cinder. "I— I awakened my Semblance, though, so there's that." He cast a look away to survey the lounge room. The quilt on the back of the chair had been there since he had been little, criss-crossed crocheted blues and purples.
"Jaune has saved a great deal many people with it," Cinder said. "It's an exceedingly rare Semblance."
"Don't talk me up," he told her. "It'll only disappoint them." He got up and went to wash his cup out, and then he said he was going to go get Ruby and the others.
Ruby picked a spot out the back underneath one of the big fig trees. The farm was less a farm now and more of a hobby for his parents. His dad watched them settle her in with his hands on his hips, chatting with Qrow about what they were doing now with all of the leftover academy students in Vale.
Jaune watched Weiss thank his parents for their hospitality, and his mother did not quite know what to do with it. The rest of them filtered outside to check in on Ruby, and Raven lingered to the side, looking about ready to bolt. From the way Yang kept sending her looks, it might have been the air of domesticity freaking her out.
None of his sisters were at home, though, so it was just an empty nest. Other than what he had brought home now.
"We'll take shifts sitting with her," Oscar said, forlornly watching Ruby, copying the way she was sitting. "In groups of two. I'll start now. Weiss, would you like to sit with me?"
"Yes, I would, but how are we going to help her? We can't just leave her," Weiss replied, her hands cupped together.
"We'll just try to stay with her."
Ruby let out a small whine, and turned her head to the trees, away from Oscar and Weiss.
"She needs someone with silver eyes," Cinder said into the windy silence.
"Yeah, and Salem's been hunting them for some time," Jaune said to her.
"Then I suppose we'll have to look."
Jaune and Cinder would have the next morning shift.
He led the rest of them back inside and through the big house. There were bedrooms upstairs, and in the basement, and an extra extension built off of the loungeroom, which meant in total there were about eight rooms, one larger room for the twins. The master bedroom was still his parents', and so was his, but he said there were sleeping bags if anybody wanted to pair up.
It was sort of sweet, leading them like ducklings through his house. He had to keep steering them away from the baby photos, especially Cinder, who seemed to know where they all were.
Dead on his feet, he went to his room, still clean like his mother came in there frequently, and shucked his armour off. The light slanted through the window just how he remembered, and the guitar he was very bad at sat in the corner of the wall, all lonely. The Grimm goop down his front had dried, and he would have to clean it later, but the first thing he wanted was a shower.
"You can come in," he said to the spy at the door.
"I just wanted to see if you were…" Cinder trailed off. "I don't do sweet and considerate particularly well. Are you alive?"
"I'm alive. Don't worry."
She grunted, and then she came in and closed the door behind her.
He said, "I'm pretty sure there'll be some of my sisters' things that could fit you, but if you don't want those, I have a bunch of clothes here—" he neglected to mention how much he liked seeing her in them, "— and thankfully I've got my own bathroom here, too. The rest will be sharing amongst the other ensuites and guest bathroom downstairs."
Cinder was concealing something. He let out a long sigh, and when he began to take off his black shirt and jeans, she turned around, like he had a shred of modesty to spare for her. When he came out of the shower, she had barely moved, like she had no idea where to go or what to do.
He put an old, stretched out t-shirt and worn-in jeans he had not seen in years. He searched for a comb and combed out his hair, and made himself look nice, mostly because he had half the mad idea he was trying to impress Cinder.
After all, he was a real stunner in his baggy clothes. He laid down on the bed and waited for her to shower, like they were back in Vacuo and trying to hide the fact he was keeping her in his room, and he was trying really hard not to look at her in his clothes or with just her towel on.
He had seemed simple when he had kissed her. Everything had fallen away and it had all made sense. But she was being eaten by something, and he just wanted to talk to her. She came back out and put his clothes on. That, at least, gave him a little bit of possessive satisfaction. In his clothes and in his bed. He really was like her.
"Cinder?" he tried, as her back was turned to him.
"What," she said flatly.
"Do I have to ask you if we're going to talk about it?"
"You just asked if you have to ask to talk. I think you should try again."
He huffed and ran his hands through his hair, with a strange rush of nerves. "Okay, cool, let me try again: I kissed you, and usually we're more than handsy with each other and now you're acting distant, and you know I'm like one degree removed from clingy."
"More than handsy with each other," she repeated, and he almost considered it a win that she sounded like she was about to laugh.
"It's an accurate description."
She still had her back to him. The tense set of her shoulders told him that she was barely containing herself.
"Did I hurt you?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," she snapped.
"I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you."
"Then you shouldn't have done it," she bit out, but her voice did not raise. "You made a mistake. Now I'm correcting it. We have to stop. Do you understand that?" She turned. "I'm sleeping somewhere else. And you've— you've got to keep away."
Jaune raised a hand to his chest, feeling like something had struck him there. He tried to not let it show, because he did not want to guilt her. He knew it. He knew that he had to be careful. The part he had not really considered in painful detail was that maybe she simply did not return his feelings.
He thought for a long moment, and then he finally said to her, "I'm sorry I took advantage of you. I promise it will never happen again. I'll— I'll do whatever you need."
"What?" She crossed her arms and glared at him heatedly. "Took advantage? I've no idea what you mean. I'm referring to the fact that this is a patently bad idea and possibly the worst one you've ever had. It's foolish. I don't know why I have to keep reminding you of who I am, but remember to count the terrible things I've done before you go to sleep; it might help."
"I thought you were saying you didn't want it and I hurt you."
"I kissed back," she hissed, but she did not meet his eye contact, and Jaune felt like his eyes were deceiving him as she blushed. Her soft-sided cheek went bright red. She added, in a low voice, "It hurt because— it hurt because good things hurt. I don't— I can't have good things. When you touch me it's like being tortured."
She really did look like she was in pain, almost vibrating with it. Of course it would be that way; all she had known had been pain in exchange for pain, and to regard kindness with suspicion. Jaune still wanted to touch her to make it better, but he was not sure what to do. So he said to her, "I just want you to be happy and safe. I want to look after you."
She covered her face and her shoulders heaved, and a dry sob wrenched from her. He got up and he had to hold her. He had to.
"I'm sorry," he said to her, "I'm so sorry."
"You have to let it go," she said, like she was the one giving wise advice.
"I don't want to."
She groaned, the puff of her breath hot against him. "If this were someone else, what goody-two-shoes advice would you give? Because you're at the heart of the problem, and you're whom I'd ask."
Jaune played along and said, "I would say give it a little bit of space and see where it goes. Maybe some separation might help, so you can both get clear heads, but nobody's life is on the line, is it? And you'll never find out if you don't try."
She groaned again. "Just what I expected. And what would you do, then?"
"What would I do?" He snorted. "Kiss you again, obviously."
She did not groan. Instead she stilled, and he moved to release her, but she moved with him.
"I mean, I reserve the worst ideas for myself," he tried to joke. "Easy to give others good advice." He rested his head on the top of her hair, and he wanted to kiss the crown of her but he thought better of it.
"You wouldn't, anyway," she said, finally pulling back. She went and hovered by the window, looking out over the yard and into the rest of the acreage.
"Are you trying to goad me?"
"I'm just saying that I expect you to have a better temperament by now. You'd never do something so foolhardy."
"Oh, you are. Wow." Jaune shook his head at her and sort of dimly laughed, but he took the bait. He turned her body to him and she glared up at him like he was annoying her, but he took the time to stroke her cheek and set the other hand on her waist. She let out a little breath, like he had squeezed it out of her.
When he kissed her, she met him halfway. This time she put her hands up against his chest, and leant her body into him. He had wanted to kiss her like this for a long, long time, and they had the room to themselves, and she was in his arms, and he just wanted to show her the way he felt, as much as he had told her. Their kisses were messy and it felt like she wanted to eat him, or to save him for later, or to keep him all to herself, but he could not pull away.
She did, though. Jaune's lips were wet and he was a little dizzy. He felt his cheeks flush. He cleared his throat.
"Am I not good? Because I just want to clarify that I have, about, um, well, no practice— I mean, you heard my mom when we arrived," he babbled, "and you're kind of right, I mostly run on foolhardiness—" he cut himself off when Cinder kept staring at him. "What?" he asked.
"That's not even remotely close to the problem." She shifted away and cast a suspicious glance at him, her mouth pulled in a moue of confusion. "It would be good because it's you, anyway." She turned away so he could not see her face.
"Oh," he exhaled dumbly.
"And I haven't either." Her shoulders grew tight.
"Maybe we could— learn together?"
He put a hand at the soft place between her shoulder blades. He could feel how tense she was, her muscles pulled taut, like she needed a dark place to hide. It felt unfair, maybe for her more than anything, that something good could hurt.
So he said to her, "Don't worry. You know I'm going to always be here. If you want to sleep somewhere else, I guess it's not like Shade Academy where we were in need of beds. You could stay where Emerald and Mercury are."
"First of all," she said, "I highly doubt that they would allow or want that. I was just going to take a blanket and go sleep in the laundry. Second of all— it's not fair to you."
"What's not fair?"
"Leading you on," she said coldly. "You want— you want to kiss me. I don't have any frame for it. Do you think the girlfriend jokes are cute? Because I can't be your girlfriend. That can never happen and you know it. It will never be normal. Why do I have to keep reminding you—" but she cut herself with a fist over her mouth, in that vulnerable way he never saw her with anybody else. "I just wish you'd say it first."
"Say what first," he dimly repeated.
"That I'm a monster and you don't want this. I wish you'd say that first. Then I can pretend."
"I still don't follow. How is that better? Because I don't think you're a monster— and if you are a monster, you're— you're my monster."
She turned to him and the look on her face was open and broken. The sunlight turned her half-golden, though, and it made the white tips of her long hair stand out. She had had a little of those at Beacon, he remembered, just a useless detail he had never thought would be relevant again. The dust motes— or the dust fairies, as his mother called them— danced in the air around her. Then she said, "You deserve better than that."
"Oh, okay then," he agreed, with heavy sarcasm, "you tell me what I deserve, then, if you've got such high standards."
Her mouth twisted from its moue to an angry pout. "Someone good. Someone who wouldn't make you beg for scraps of affection. Someone that would make your friends happy. Someone who cared about you and— who would protect you when you were busy doing that for everybody else. I don't know. I hate the idea of it. You shouldn't expect me to think on it so deeply." But it sounded like she did. "And maybe someone who doesn't laugh at you."
"Well, do you wonder about who you deserve?"
"No," she snapped, "no, I don't give it thought. I've never needed anybody."
Jaune knew what he felt for her. He had known it the first time it peeked its head around the corner. He did not know what she felt for him, other than that she had, functionally, risked everything, and did not expect to get out of it alive. He just wanted to make it better, but he was finding it difficult when he was the source of the struggle.
"Do you—" she started and stopped.
"Do I what?"
"It doesn't matter," she grumbled. "It's a stupid, childish question."
"I doubt it. Whatever you want to know, I'll answer. Unless it's a question about where mom keeps the other baby photos, I'm not telling you."
She shook her head and smiled, though it was a bit weak, he still liked the sight of it. She said, "Do you— do you call your friends— that word."
"The word you said."
"I say a lot of words?" He huffed a laugh. "Famously too many words."
"The word you said at Evernight and— at the dance, when I crashed it. And when you—" She almost seemed like she was going to stamp her foot, but she just crossed her arms, flesh and glass, instead, and she really was intimidating even just standing there in worn clothes and bare feet. "I can't believe you're doing this to me," she added. "Sweetheart. Do you call all of your friends that? Because I figured it was some sort of strange term of endearment— is it a thing your mother does?"
Jaune ran a hand through his hair and refused to meet eye contact with her. He searched his room like it had the answer buried under the mess he had stowed under his bed. "Ohhhhhh," he said, long and very unsubtle, "that, yeah, no, um, well, I guess— I got carried away." He did get carried away indeed.
"I think ordinarily I would try to come up with an excuse, like, 'Oh, you know, it happens all the time, one minute your Aura soulmate's running away back to her evil master because she thinks she has to, the next you're trying to take her back with you,' but I don't want you thinking it's— well, it is sort of an accident, I guess, I just— I don't know, no, I don't call my friends that, no one calls their friends that. But it's just silly, anyway."
"I've been called a lot of things. Never that."
"Well—" He cleared his throat, but nothing was stuck, just his ability to talk. "A lot of people think they're stupid. And you know I'm stupid."
"You're not stupid. I don't think it's stupid."
"Of all the things to make you feel safe and reassured I put that on you, maybe it is stupid—"
"I do feel safe," she said shortly, not quite a snap, but like she had wanted it to be and changed her mind to be gentler. "I know that whatever the cost of leaving Salem would be— which meant your friends and teammates hating me, which meant never— whatever the cost, I would pay it. But I told you already. I feel safe with you. So you don't need to heap on anything else. I've already got what I need."
"I'm not heaping on anything," he said back quietly.
"Is that why you kissed me?" She started to pace. "Was that about the Maiden power? Was that about keeping me?"
Jaune stood out of her way and said, "No. Purely selfish on my part. Well, it was a bit about keeping you, but not just for Salem-motivated reasons."
"The answer is really simple. I wanted to kiss you, and for you to know I was there and I wasn't leaving."
She backed herself up against the wall, like she was afraid of him, but the way she was glowering it might have been herself. Jaune had no idea what to do.
"I'll just— go, then?" he tried. "I think I should help mom with dinner. She's probably going to go all out—"
"Okay, then what do you want me to do?"
She sucked in a long breath. Jaune watched her, her and her glower, the square of sunlight at her feet, the way she shrank herself into the wall, half-predator and half-prey. She finally said, "Come here."
Jaune went to her, but he stopped in front of her with a generous space between them. "I really can go," he said. "My parents aren't exactly enthusiastic about my being here, but they're not bad, either. I'm sure my dad is talking Qrow's head off still."
Cinder looked him up and down, a glint in her eye that he was sure he had seen before.
He continued, "And for that matter, I probably need to talk to Nora, and see how Emerald and Mercury are after all of that, and Oscar too. He's taking what happened to Ruby pretty hard." Jaune tried to think of what to ramble about, and it was not a task he usually had to work for. "I can help you get settled elsewhere, but I would really prefer if you didn't sleep in the laundry— and so would my mom, too, she'd probably be kind of insulted."
"Can you do it again," she uncharacteristically blurted.
He did not need to think about it. In one swift movement he pulled her closer and kissed her again. Against the wall felt different, but she felt the same and somehow new all at once. She wound her arms around his neck and he found he liked it.
Of all the sounds he had heard from her before, like the screams of agony when Ilia had to keep cutting the Grimm arm off, again and again, or her huffs and groans and muffled laughs, or even the little sounds she let herself make when he scratched her scalp, he finally found a new one to catalogue. It was the quietest but it was also the sweetest, just a tiny, tiny moan which almost, unbelievably, was like a squeak. He smiled against her, and she pulled back, bumping their noses together, breathing very hard.
He was sure that was supposed to be it, but she surged up and kissed him again, like she was trying to break into his mouth. She pressed hard and he tried to meet her energy back. She was all over him, wet and messy and wanting, more teeth and tongue than lips. He liked it anyway. The force of it pushed him backwards, until he fell back on his old bed, and she stopped, her chest heaving, her solemn gaze looking down at him where his legs had spread and he had fallen back on his elbows. He wondered what he looked like to her. His cheeks felt hot, and his mouth was hanging open like an idiot.
"Oh," she exclaimed softly.
"What," he tried.
"Like an idiot?"
"No. No, not like that at all."
He looked down when she did, and he figured he had no modesty left, so he did not try to covertly move or cover himself. It was just there. He swallowed and said, "Sorry."
"We should stop."
"Uh huh," he agreed airily.
"Then why do I want to climb on top of you."
Jaune thought about it. Then he said, "Not sure why you're trying to stop yourself from getting what you want now."
"I was being good."
"Well," he began almost warily, "I like you bad."
"Oh, come on."
"Is it working?"
"Unfortunately," she said, and climbed on top of him and kissed him.
His grip went to her waist, as if they were supposed to be there. Where her legs were spread to balance on the bed, she hovered over his pelvis, straining herself, just above where he knew he was hard and he knew she had seen and he tried, with a great deal of effort, not to press it against her. Yet it would have felt like the most natural thing between them for her to bear down on him, and for him to take what she could give. It all seemed so silly. They should just kiss. She was with him, and they were back in his home, and for a dizzying moment— if he had to pretend— he would pretend that it was their home, and their bed. Maybe somewhere by the sea. Vale had good beaches.
She kept pulling back to watch him between kisses, and she played with his hair. She said, "I like it down."
"You put it up."
She hummed in agreement and said, "Yes, but everyone sees you with it up. Now I see you with it down."
Somehow she found a way to make him blush in new ways. He tried to hide it with a kiss.
But she just said, "I told you, you were the eye candy."
"Is that all I'm good for." He rolled his eyes. "My hair's not even as thick as Yang's."
"Aw, pretty boy's sad."
"That's enough from you," he said. He tried to kiss her but she evaded it and the sound of her laughter was soft and low. Finally their lips met again, though it was only at her discretion, and she led him where she wanted him. She kissed him like they were never going to kiss again, and touched him like they were never going to touch again.
With a chord of sadness in his belly, he knew that was what she was thinking. She acted as if they had borrowed time, and in a way, they had. When Salem was sleeping, when Salem was waking. She had acted like she was really going to die, when they went to save Ruby. He wondered what that felt like, knowing you were going to die and then not. She must have been at a loss. It must have been why she drifted, why it seemed so unreal to her.
He stroked the rough side of her cheek. This close, he could see the depth of colour in her eyes, the faintest sheen of milky moonstone in her glass eye. When she tilted her head at him in curiosity, the light moved with it, and he saw new refractions there. There was a faint dusty brown beauty mark just below her right eye now and he realised then and there he could brush a kiss against it, so he did.
She used to wear her fringe long on one side to cover her lost eye, but she had cut it so it was even across and brushed across her forehead in wisps. Her dark hair fell down over her shoulders, surrounding and encasing him like wings, so he saw nothing else but her. When she stopped straining herself and settled down on top of him, he said to her, "That's it," and then wrapped an arm securely around her to hold her against him, tight and safe. He wanted to help her let herself want it. His other hand went to her scalp, and he scratched his hand gently, pressing against her soft head.
It was not rough. But it was desperate. She let out another one of those tiny moans and his hips pressed up, and she ground down. It felt inevitable. That was when she pulled off and sat beside him, her dark curtain of hair disguising her expression.
"Was that too much," he asked faintly and not at all really like a question.
"You don't want that with me."
"I— I'm not going to lie to you, I—"
"Allow me to correct myself. You shouldn't want that with me. The last thing you need is someone finding out you're sleeping with Cinder Fall."
"Well, I already was and Nora already guessed that."
"Euphemistically," she bit out. Then she said, "Nora?"
Jaune sat up and crossed a leg over the other. "Generously, she extrapolates. And she didn't understand— how. So she assumed that you seduced me."
Cinder raised a brow and said, "I suppose she thought I was some jezebel. Seducing you for secrets of the old man's order. Hm. I never considered it. Perhaps that would've been simpler."
He sighed. "Very funny."
"You seduced me, anyway."
"Oh, I did not."
"You did. You even wore your hair all nice for me."
For a serious moment, he considered it, and then he thought better of it. "I didn't, I was just— I was just—"
"I'm just terrorising you."
"Thanks very much," he said with a dry edge, and flopped back again on the bed, his legs loosening. "I corrected Nora's assumption, by the way. But it's been a bit rough. I don't know how she's feeling now, though."
"I told you. Any cost, I'll pay it."
"There's a difference between you being our enemy once and what she's assumed of me. I know she's hurting, and after the Fall of Atlas, I guess things changed, especially when I was gone, and then when I was keeping you a secret… I know she can't see the things the way I do, but—"
"What has she said," Cinder asked flatly.
He told her. "But she's not trying to be mean," he qualified, "she's just trying to make sense of it. I get it. And for the record, that's not what they've all been like. Actually, when the whole mess went down, Blake was trying to help me, and then so did Ren. We all took Pyrrha's death differently. I got angry, Nora got protective, Ren… was always a bit closed off, but he started to open up. Maybe anger is easier."
"It is," Cinder said, hushed. She raised her voice, "But it's me that's the problem. It's not your betrayal."
"It's like a betrayal, I think. I think—" Jaune hesitated. "I think it scares her, to feel like she doesn't know me. She's always been the one with her head screwed right on her shoulders."
"I didn't want this to happen."
"Well, too bad, because I accepted the consequences too." He got off the bed and offered his hand to her. "Let's go see if my mom needs help. You can sit and watch, she just likes the company."
She took his hand. He obstinately held onto her down the stairs, and through the hallway to the kitchen, which had a big window overlooking the veranda and part of the yard, overgrown with prairie grass and long-necked wildflowers. His mother had got out one of the big pots she used to use for him and his sisters, and Emerald was chopping up celery and onion and Mercury was going at the carrot like it had personally offended him. Nora and Ren were chatting by the window, watching Oscar and Weiss outside with Ruby.
Cinder let go of his hand. Jaune tried not to think too hard about it or act wounded.
"You do the onions," Emerald told Jaune. "I'm done with them, they're making me cry."
Jaune did the onions, but it was sort of perverse that the tears streaming down his cheek made him feel better, like he was being forced to cry. His eyes burnt though. That was actually painful. His mother chatted away in the kitchen, asking about his travels and what he ran away for.
"I didn't run away, I left a note," he said.
Then she started asking Cinder questions.
"Where'd you go to school?"
"I didn't," said Cinder. She swung a leg back and forth on the stool, her back stiff and straight.
"Oh, that's alright. Did you go to one of the Huntsman academies?"
"I didn't," Cinder said again.
"Where are you from, then, honey?"
Jaune looked at Cinder, trying to see if she wished him to answer for her. But she said, "It's a long story."
"And how'd you two meet?"
Jaune choked on his spit and he said, "Mom, you are not."
"I am. I got one shot at this," his mom said back. "Don't know when you're going to get so lucky next time."
Then Cinder said, "I was a servant of the evil woman. I was his enemy. Then we weren't."
The rest of them had been watching the back-and-forth as a spectator event, but at that, Mercury burst out laughing and then Emerald joined in. "That's one way to put it," said Emerald.
His mom had heard a lot, though, so it was hard to shock her. She just said, "Well, I'll be damned. Good on you."
No one else would have caught Cinder's surprise if they had not already been watching her hard, and looking for the tell of the slightest raise of her brows, the smallest rear back.
Mercury said, "Jaune almost died and she totally saved him, too."
"Yeah, and us," added Emerald, "though that one was kind of complicated, because we also— worked for Cinder, and Salem. The evil woman. So it was kind of her fault? I don't know."
"You almost died?" Jaune's mom said to him.
"Well, the operative word is almost— also, Cinder helped us get Ruby back, too—"
"World's most subtle conversation change ever," Cinder sniped.
Jaune, quite nervously, looked over to Nora, and caught her still watching on in interest. Ren seemed content. A horrible part of him was waiting for Nora to mention the fact that Cinder had done worse things than that, much worse things, terrible things, but he had sort of hoped, in his fantasies, that Cinder meeting his mother could skip over those parts, though he should have known that from the first getting-to-know-you-questions it would be awkward.
But it was not Cinder that made it awkward. It was those that had hurt her that did, and it was not fair she had to carry that alone.
His mom, though, still took it in stride and asked Cinder, "So what do you like doing with yourself, then?"
"I— like to sew," Cinder said stiltedly.
"Oh, I got a machine in one of the girls' rooms you can use, go mad with it, mind though that the bobbin's a pain in the ass, and sometimes it skips a stitch, but if you hit it, it usually starts working again, and if that doesn't work, if you swear at it, it scares it good."
"Thank… you," Cinder tried.
"But then how'd you two get on then, if you were trying to kill each other?" his mother circled back. She took over from the preparation and dumped the onions in the pot, shooing Jaune and Mercury away.
"Well," Cinder began, shooting half a real smile at Jaune, "that's also a long story."