Jaune fell. He felt like he was falling forever. He would land eventually. He knew it was going somewhere.
The water caught him. It sang a wave's chorus, pulling him away from the shore in sight. He swam. Waterlogged, he dragged himself up and out, heavy with loss. When he turned to look back he saw the water so blue. Its unseen edges were nearly rainbow. Littered around him were briny creatures, the fetid scent of salt about them. He leant back on his elbows.
Weiss had fallen. She would not have been there with him on the bridge if the rest of her team had not also. He knew that too well. He let his team go ahead; he would stay behind. Weiss only stayed behind because hers had already gone. Winter could not save Weiss, but then, she would not have lost her now. Ruby would find Yang, Yang would find Blake. Torn between horror and relief, he couldn't decide whether to be grateful or not, for this warped second chance.
Penny was dead.
Maybe it was a type of penance instead. A trade. Oz had once gifted the powers to the first Maidens, many moons ago. Jaune, failed healer, killed them.
He tried to retrace his steps. But a small eternity had passed. He could only think again, and again, of when his focus snapped to one of the open-mouthed portals just as obsidian shards cut through the air. He didn't need to see who had done it. He knew it was Cinder. Sure as anything. That moment played on repeat, him turning his neck, black glass, her. No choice, went to her anyway.
They had not accounted for her. She had been quiet, and smart, and she had preyed and preyed upon them until she tore apart what they had built, brick by brick, with a bluff and a smirk. Ironwood had been their focus. Cinder worked better when she was underestimated.
Jaune was immobile. He did not know what was beyond the beach of the void. Little kids were told not to go into the woods alone, and he was alone. He was tired, had failed at his one job, and the beach was quiet, his mind loud. He set about making himself comfortable. He shucked off his wet clothes and hung them on the jutting out palm fronds, makeshift clotheslines, and used his Aura where he could to expedite the tedious aftermath of landing in the middle of the sea.
By the time his clothes had dried, the twin suns had begun to dip with a steady grace. The painterly orange was so vivid he nearly forgot where he was, at the end of the world. It was a familiar colour: he could not place for where he had seen it before, but it was beautiful.
He set about for some dry bark to make kindling for fire. Fire was always a good idea by nightfall. It was rhythmic work rubbing twig against twig, trying to get friction. When he and his team with Ruby were wandering Anima on foot, this was the part he was usually in charge of. Setting up camp came easily to him. Plus, he was fussy, and if any of the others tried to do it, it would usually end in an argument as Jaune tried to micromanage them. He would have called it giving advice, anyway.
Cicadas came out. The tundras in Solitas were full of solitude, echoes upon echoes of wind and ice. Mantle and Atlas were full of their own sounds, in their own way, loud cities, Mantle crowded in the shadow of Atlas, the industrial ambience of heating pipes, cars running on empty, drones. Now, wherever he was, cicadas cricketed.
The waves crashed. He focussed on trying to get flame.
He felt a sensation down his back, a nerve spasm. He tried to ignore it. Mid-twist, he felt something watching him, and stopped.
When he looked up, he saw Cinder.
He sucked in a breath, silence heavy. His sword was broken, his shield a useless offense. She would just perch on it again.
He should have dismissed it as a vision. A waking daydream, or a nightmare. Strange dreams always came to him when he fell asleep exhausted. In that abandoned cabin, he had dreamt of parts of Atlas he didn't recognise— nothing much, really, but it was enough that when he awoke, he thought he was still there.
It was no vision. Somehow he knew it wasn't. It felt like her. He did not imagine the raw shock on her face, no anger, no condescension. She was windswept. Her arm stuck out like an open wound.
Before he could deliberate any further, she grimaced and sent a wave of fire. He waited to be burnt.
He was not. Now he had a proper fire going, though. It crackled with an unusual intensity. But it was warm to sit beside.
She had disappeared as quickly as she appeared. He should have been scared. Disturbed, yes. He let out a long breath. But scared? What did he have left to be scared of? He was already scared of himself. He had fallen, and the night was long and dark, and Jaune was alone.
He had killed Penny.
He gathered fallen fronds to construct a makeshift bed, and fell into a guilty sleep. Aura could keep him going for only so long, before his body made demands he had to meet. When he rest his head, it felt unreal, less real than his dreams, the foreign nowhere place alien. It was beautiful, but it was frightening: the tropical plants brightly coloured, poisonous-looking. The air humid. He let the lullaby of fire and water soothe him to sleep.
The days passed like that. He tried to set out a sun dial with a large stick and rocks to track the shadow, but the twin suns seemed to alter the course, so he couldn't tell the hours. He found fish to eat, cooked and descaled them. He ventured a few times to the edge of the bush, but found himself uncertain. It would be likely that the others would not manage to keep still, and even more likely they would eventually find him on the beach. He acknowledged the passivity might well be damning if he had made the wrong assumption. But then, he wondered if he should be found.
He tapped the trees for drinking water with the supplies he'd kept on his person since their Mistral expedition and waited.
Jaune could wait.
He took off his armour and stored it under a palm leaf. The salty air might rust it, but he also wondered if it even should belong to him. That clear white, the perfect gold.
When she came to him again, he sighed and waited for her to try and kill him. All he could think of was the blood on his sword. Of her, remorseless. Him, angry.
Cinder was the only person he had seen in days lost. He had nowhere to go, nothing to do, just a perpetual limbo of cicada-wave-sand. The suns were so full he wanted to shoot them down with a bow.
She looked clean, with her hair brushing down her back. Her hair, long. Jaune wondered if time were passing differently. The sun dial did not work. The days blended into one another. The void-place was out of space, out of time.
She squinted, tracking that anxiety. Her calculating gaze was followed by her crossing her arms. They said nothing.
Her hair had been short.
"Why did you cut your hair?" she said, like she had been waiting to ask.
He froze. She had spoken. He answered in the only way he knew how, "Why does it matter?"
"It looked better long."
Jaune found it faintly ridiculous. But he felt self-conscious just like he always did. Sarcastic, too. "Well, I'll just have to grow it back then."
"You can use Aura."
"I said, you can use Aura."
His haircut Weiss had suggested aside, he felt vaguely thankful for her intrusion.
"Is that what you did?" he said, warily.
She raised a brow, which was good an affirmation as any he could expect. He nearly bowled over with relief, which he had to disguise. His reaction only seemed to make her suspicious, since he was poor at hiding his emotions. He knew that well.
"That master plan of yours led you on a magical road to Vacuo. So why are your clothes wet? It rarely, if ever, rains there. If you had reached a stronghold with amenities to wash, I doubt you would sit about like that."
He ran through the possibilities. Cinder must have seen the others fall, all except him. He had just missed the entry to Vacuo once she had fled and likely used the Staff. Cinder would believe them dead and would be planning the next move accordingly: satisfaction she thought Ruby dead, anger at the new Winter Maiden, and a demoralised refugee movement in a hostile desert. If she thought them weak enough, then she and Salem may not account for those, who on a distant hope, might return. But she could also spy the evidence. She had brought down Beacon. She had brought down Atlas, with a little help and a bluff. Helpless, Jaune tried to think of how to explain his condition.
"You wouldn't believe me even if I told you," he said. It was true: a world in the void existed, with twin suns beating down in eternal heat, the moon at night a persistent crescent, no phases, unbroken. Cinder would never trust him. She hummed.
"I can't kill you. I can't control this. So tell me: where are you?"
"You wouldn't rather trying to figure out why this is happening?"
At that, her eye twitched.
"You used the Staff," Jaune said.
Cinder half-smiled, a little feral. "I added flames to the kindling of Atlas."
He watched her warily. "I thought you couldn't use the Staff for destruction."
Tap, tap, went her Grimm claw against the other arm. She said, "Do you stay warm by a fire at night? Does the burning of a field not make way for more crop?"
"Right. I see how you convinced him, then."
"It only took some. But he said I was less imaginative than his previous visitors. It really was a cute little plan. You took the Schnee monopoly on Atlas and used it for good. I bet the heiress was especially pleased about that, making up for her family's sins."
He pursed his lips. Cinder was good at this, finding ways in. "Well, it mostly worked."
"I know. You saved so many lives."
He laughed at the absurdity of it. Cinder congratulating him on an outcome which felt more like failure to him. Her escaping with the Relics. The Winter Maiden powers the only thing out of her reach. Himself, alone on the beach, at the end of world, and only her for company.
"More than the general could have. You should feel proud of that. When I left to meet my master, I found him crawling across the floor, reaching for his little pathetic gun. Such a pedestrian weapon. I made sure he knew."
"How successful you were. How all of Atlas escaped except him. It was partly a lie, of course, if only because of me. But you really, really were. Barring the Relic, the part which mattered the most."
"The people mattered the most."
"So you insist. Of course, Penny knew better."
She dug in and twisted the metaphorical knife. Jaune recoiled back, as if he really had been stabbed. He could not forget who she was. She would not let him forget, not even if they couldn't hurt each other, not even if he stayed down here forever.
"You were so level-headed," Cinder continued. "So different from our meeting in Haven, no? You were practically deranged then."
He would not think of it. He would not think of it. She wanted to disturb him, unsettle him, prise information from him. It would have to be good.
So he said, "You used the Staff. I was the last one out before you. I ran…. I fell. I fell for I don't know how long, and I waited to plummet and die. Then I didn't. If the fact we're seeing each other is any indication, then I'm not dead. There are twin suns, and a crescent moon every night, no cycles…" he trailed off, but he watched the shock ripple across Cinder's face transform into that old anger. It didn't take her long to figure it out. She was quick, he would give her that. "You didn't get to celebrate Ruby being dead for long, then, did you?"
She snarled at him. "You haven't even found her. Otherwise you wouldn't be wasting time speaking to me for so long. She could be dead, for all you know, but now—!" she cut herself off. That furrowed brow, the true panic. It was like when her Grimm arm pained her, on the bridge.
"You're afraid of her," he said. He didn't need to say why. "She's your only weakness."
He shook his head, mostly to himself. He felt petty. She unsettled him with Penny, he used Ruby. No matter that she was the Fall Maiden. In her strength lay her weakness, the silver-eyed warrior threat. He did as she said. He let her brood. She paced impatiently, and she could probably leave, if she wanted to, but it looked like she wanted to say something, or scream. He waited it out.
Cinder let out a breath of fire. "Why is this happening?"
"I don't know."
"You're the strategist. You know. Was this part of your plan?"
He picked up an errant twig to begin drawing shapes in the sand. "There was no plan," he said, carefully avoiding eye contact now. There wasn't a plan. Only instinct.
She barked out a mean laugh, shaking her head, still pacing. Like a caged tiger, rattling the bars.
"I can only see you. I can't see where you are, and you can't see where I am. We can't fight. I don't think we can control it, either, which I doubt makes either of us happy."
Then, when she had been quiet for so long he thought she wasn't going to respond, she said, "Has this happened before?"
"Never. I didn't even know it was possible. I mean, obviously it started with—"
"I know what it started with," she interrupted.
"Okay, I guess I don't need to explain my theory, then. Have you figured out the rest? Why this is happening now?"
She clutched at her arm, maybe subconsciously. She said nothing.
"I fixed the Aura drain. What do you think that did?"
Cinder had already figured it out. But he was cautious, tentative.
"My master does not think much of Aura or Semblances. But few like yours have been seen before, and, well, weren't you late unlocking it? I saw that shock on your face when you healed the Schnee. How sweet."
He found himself unable to reply, surprised she remembered much of anything about him, surprised to think of her thinking of anything much about him. But she must have tabulated their weaknesses and strengths on instinct.
It was then he noticed the faint vibration in the air around her, something like Aura. It reflected sunlight, crowning her with the faintest of haloes, her black hair blocking it out like an eclipse. If he had any suspicion before about her presence, it was gone now.
"So when you deigned to show me… what would you call it?"
"Mercy," offered Jaune.
"Mercy," she spat, "foolishness, rather, since you appear to have made a grave mistake. Thanks to you, I know you children aren't dead."
He set the twig down, faced her fully. "You would've figured it out eventually. Besides, we're not getting out of here anytime soon."
Jaune considered his fire. He could not say how many days he had spent on the beach, how many times he had replayed those scenes in his head: obsidian, portal, Cinder, Penny, Cinder, fall. He could keep track of neither the hours by sundial nor the days by moon cycle. Every night in Anima, he searched for the trailing moon., the solitary light at night.
The moon was whole, here. Untouched.
"You said that you fell," Cinder tried.
"Don't you have anything better to do?"
"No," she snapped. She turned away, and he thought perhaps to leave, but she pulled out a fabric so dark a blue it was nearly black, and sat with it on her lap. She thread a needle. Began to sew. It was the strangest sight he had seen. She sat there sewing quietly. She must have been soaking up the victory in Atlas, waiting to strike on Vacuo. If Jaune's intuition were correct, somebody had been sent ahead of her to Vacuo. Cinder wouldn't be sitting there quietly, methodically hand-sewing, otherwise. She was not flanked by Mercury, and he knew well where Emerald was. Emerald had made her choice.
Emerald was with Oscar, after all, and Ren and Nora, and Winter, too. He could only think of his failure, killing, murder, as a healer.
But each side needed rest, and he hoped only that, in Cinder's small respite, they had time enough in Vacuo to retreat. There was sufficient chaos to percolate for now, he reasoned.
Salem had waited long enough in her war of attrition. Cinder could use the Aura bond to interrogate him for now. Jaune thought it clever. Cinder should have been furious with him for the Grimm arm's inability to sap Aura from the Maidens. She was holding back.
Before the thought could even form, he knew he couldn't do the reverse to her.
It felt profoundly wrong. He knew that Semblances evolved, except this didn't feel like any evolution; it felt like he had pushed it there, forced it in because he was so caught up with reaching out that he didn't realise what he had done. He had helped her. His Aura amplifying had wound so deep, not just touched her but went inside… that was how far the Grimm had attached itself, its death-dying-abyss rooted.
"I fell," he said, conceding. He looked at the ground. The shapes in the sand were aimless, with neither sense nor shape. The tide would wash them away soon.
"You said that."
"You saw our great plan?"
She looked at him, meditative. "I used the Lamp."
"Of course you would use the last question just to get a leg up over us," he muttered.
"There are only three every century. The first had been used, and… well…" He trailed off because he didn't know whether to tell her or not. The still-beating heart of the matter: Salem and Ozma's primordial enmity, from the end of the first world to the birth of the second, their marriage, their divide.
"You used the second question," she said. It didn't take her long to figure much out. She was smart. He already knew that.
"What would you have even needed it for? Aren't you the foolhardy pack of insufferable heroes who always manage to save the day, by the skin of your teeth?"
Jaune watched her carefully. She was trying to bait him again. What she didn't know was that the knowledge gained from the Lamp was not a call to action. It was a killing blow. It was accepting a futility to their task they had been completely unprepared for. They had gone on anyway. By the skin of their teeth, in the hollow of the moon.
It must have been writ over his face. Cinder was pensive.
"You look… defeated," she said. "What of your anger, then? You had been so desperate, once."
"You wanted to kill me so badly you would have died for it. Where did it all go? All that rage? All that hatred?"
It washed over him, went inside him, absorbed her goading. It hid itself away. The reality of Salem's immortal curse had stoked his anger once, but it had to be put to rest. Jaune would burn inside before he would let anger like that threaten his team. But it didn't matter.
He had tempered himself, and failed them anyway.
She waited. He said nothing. There were no words for it. Deep and desperate, an unnameable kind of self-loathing. When he refused to look at her, he kept track of the suns in the sky. Bruised grey clouds blotted out the light. He would sleep soon, tend to the fire he had kept steadily going. Eventually he searched for Cinder, the Aura glimmer in the heavy air gone with her.
He did little else. He knew well that team RWBY would find each other. He deserved to stay here. He had killed Penny.
He would have to tell Ruby that. He would have to watch her belief in him die. He did what he had to do, what Penny beseeched of him, her choice and only her choice. Would that be enough? He could have healed her. Ruby would wonder. Ruby's wondering would kill him.
Jaune did not leave the beach.
A stick did not make a good sword. The heft of it was not quite right. He did not know if he could ever lift a sword again. There were things bigger than him that demanded it, though. If he ever could leave. If he could ever face them again.
The cold panic of what he had done cut through his heart. Another part of him told himself to stop wallowing.
"How did they let you into Beacon? I forged my transcripts into Haven with help from Lionheart's betrayal. What was it that you did?" came a voice.
"Just tell me I'm sloppy," he muttered. He threw his stick down.
"And then I offer to train you, is that right?" she said.
Jaune faced Cinder. He said, "I cheated."
"I forged my transcripts." He found it funny when she was taken aback. Like she was unused to, or the very least, disliked, being surprised. She always had a plan.
"You cheated?" she demanded.
"I know, I know, we're supposed to be the good guys and never do anything wrong, blah blah blah. Well, I'm a murderer. And a cheater."
The sand was hard where he sat. It began to rain. He had seen the oncoming storn on the horizon, blurry and ominous. The clouds so angry they were a dark grey growing into a purple.
Tropical rain, in this sort of netherworld, sort of nowhere-place bucketed down without pause. The scent of petrichor nearly soothed him. The rain was hot where it hit his skin, and he was keenly aware of his lack of shirt. Not that it mattered. He had a well of Aura. He could grow cold, hot, fevered, and it would protect him, and he had so much. He didn't care.
He checked on Cinder. She was scrutinising him again. She looked oddly put out, almost annoyed. Her one-eye kept flicking up and down, though he knew not what she was looking at. He felt the rain run down his chest. He was sodden as quickly as he had noticed the downpour.
"That's… oddly clever," she said, nearly wrenched from her. He raised his brow at her.
Ren had apologised for his outburst in the tundra, and truthfully, Jaune had not really been angry with him. He could have been hurt, and he probably would have been justified. But it was not anything he hadn't wondered before. He knew Ren needed other people, just the way Jaune did.
Jaune had not ever thought his cheating clever.
She shrugged. "I don't have much respect for Huntsman academies. I find it quaint you pulled one over the old man."
Of course. Three down, one to go. What a fragile truce their conversations were.
So he said, "I'm pretty sure he knew."
"He does have a perverse sense of humour. Drama, too."
"He's not the only one."
"Are you referring to me, or my master?"
"I don't know, I mean, you might have her beat."
Jaune had seen Salem in the flesh. The dim thud of the leviathan's gurgling reverberated off his skull in memory. In the belly of the beast, Salem was just a woman. If only he had been able to tell Ruby she was less than half the height she appeared in those apparitions. She really wasn't that tall. She had a cruel countenance, maybe even alien, but she had shoulders, and arms, and legs, and presumably a heartbeat, indomitable and ancient as it was. Fingers. That spindly, spider-like hair.
Cinder, though. Salem had besieged Atlas with a big whale, and an unannounced, dramatic arrival, but Cinder had a certain gravitas. Intimate.
"Tell me, how do you judge this?" Cinder asked.
"Well, I've met her, for one."
"You've what," she said flatly.
He awkwardly laughed and scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, so, we hatched a rescue plan for Oscar when he… don't you already know this? We blew up the leviathan. Well, Oscar blew up the leviathan. With Oz's cane. Salem was there. She also blew up."
Cinder covered her face. As he watched her he noticed the rain didn't touch her. He wondered when it would let up.
"I would say you have a little more drama than Salem," Jaune said.
"It was related to me… that … the boy simply broke out."
"We went to a lot of effort, you know. The Ace Ops had taken us prisoner, and we managed to strike a deal with Winter before they were going to try blowing up the thing."
At that, Cinder's fists tightened. They were always borderline a touchy topic. When he considered it, it was miraculous they had said anything to each other at all. It should have been impossible. She, the vessel for the Maiden powers serving Salem, and he, the guy who cheated his way into Beacon and accidentally ended up on the team trying to save the world.
He waited for something to happen. Her anger to boil over. The black clouds to give way to the light. He had never seen a sky so dark, the twin suns hidden. He waited for anything to happen at all.
Salem had lied to her. Did Cinder know that? She had turned away from him, looking at something he couldn't see. From his point of view, it was the insistent crash of the waves she was watching. The sound almost didn't register anymore.
"You think yourself a murderer?" she said, voice distant.
"I killed her."
Her one-eyed, sharp gaze met his. Crash, went the water. Crackle, the fire in her hand. "Because of me," she said.
He shook his head. "It was my sword."
"It was my power."
He tried to speak, but he didn't know how. Opened his mouth. "Why aren't you angry at me? I— I helped Penny keep it from you."
"I'm not interested in your self-flagellation. And I told you. You were very level-headed."
"Level-headed? Level-headed? I should have helped her. I could have healed her, but you were— we were all out of options, and you think it was level-headed? I killed her. I'm a healer, and I help people, and I killed her—"
"What other choice did you have? Let me take the power? Waste precious time trying to save her?"
"It wouldn't have been a waste," he insisted. "It's the only thing that matters."
"Then why didn't you do it?"
"She begged me," he said.
Penny, with her kind smile, and her knowing look, the shake of her hand as she rested it on the pommel of his sword to suggest the cruellest of choices. It was hers, it would have only ever been hers. He was the only one able to do it. To help her. Maidenhood had made her unparalleled in power, yet also a pawn in the scrabble for the Relic of Creation, for pieces on the board.
The innocent blood leaking from her chest besmirched his sword, and broke its purpose.
Cinder was contemplative. Something seemed to unsettle her, but he didn't know what.
Then she said, "What did you ask the Lamp?"
There was something else she wanted to say, he was sure of it. She had changed the topic. But there it was. He knew it was coming. All the information she needed from him was already on the table. She knew Vacuo was next. She knew team RWBY were alive. Ruby was the enemy whom she cared about, not him.
He had shown his hand mentioning the Lamp. He wanted to lie, but she was silver-tongued, twice as clever, and twice as quick. So he said, "We asked what Ozpin was hiding from us."
The rain was still falling.
"You care about your leader's motives? Such is your consistent folly. It only matters what you can get out of it. But then, you are sweet and naïve."
"If anybody's our leader, it's Ruby," he said.
She seemed dissatisfied with that.
He continued, "Oz… left, for a while. And really, Ruby knows what she's doing. It doesn't matter what we get out of it. There's no other choice."
Nearly softly, as soft as he had ever heard her, she said, "No choice."
He did not know what to make of that. There was a solemnity to her now he did not recognise.
He was almost thankful for the pained diversion. He doubted she knew the truth of Salem and Oz: but it seemed like she didn't care. Now he knew she was done with him. She could simply ignore him. He couldn't think of anything else she would want, not unless he found a way out. Not unless he heaved himself off the shoreline and searched for the others. But then, he wondered if he were worth finding. He thought once again he was better off here. He wanted to submerge himself in the water.
Ruby had said to him once, long ago now, that being a leader meant putting aside his own self-doubts and worries for the people who needed him. That should he be sorry for himself like this, he should remember his team. Ren and Nora had each other, they all had each other. Ruby was twice the leader he was. He had fallen. His sword broken, as brittle as the hand that held it, tainted.
He swam in the ocean.
On foot through Mistral, he and team RNJR found lagoons they broke at for lunch, or because Nora's feet were hurting from the long trek. Jaune was pretty sure it was more that she could sense Ren needed time alone, after they were all stuck together for so long. It hadn't been so bad. Ruby couldn't be trusted to estimate how long a part of their journey would take, but he was glad to be there for her. He didn't think she knew, but he had seen her focus draw on the horizon, quiet and contemplative. Surely thinking of her own team, her sister, her friends. He knew they would come back when they could. It broke him now to think that perhaps Ruby would not want that: that the others would not want that. He had been a healer.
When he left the sea, he lay down and let the suns dry him. He found things to do. He did not wait for Cinder to return. He did not wish or want for a thing at all. He grew in his hair the way she had said it was possible to do: more than healing, simply aesthetic frivolity, close enough to weaving Dust into fabric. His Aura was flexible and malleable, and sometimes he thought it could stretch fields with the way it wanted to emerge from his skin.
The Aura shimmer in the air was oddly beautiful. It was faint, so faint he only noticed it because he searched for it. Only the slightest suggestion of reflection, light threaded through a diamond. She looked unimpressed, nonplussed. He sighed.
"We have to break this somehow," he said.
Cinder did not speak. In her lap was her sewing again. Her hand held the needle steady.
"You've got everything you need out of me. There's not much else I could tell you. Besides, I know— something is wrong with that arm of yours. You were angry. When you fought— Penny." He let himself say her name.
"You were very audacious," said Cinder.
"The Aura drain. That was the arm."
"You already know."
He opened his mouth to speak. He had tried once, twice, many times to articulate it to himself. Instinct. Something deeper than that, which he could not name, did not notice was part of him until he had looked for it. He thought he knew what he was, and what he had to do. He had wanted to be his family's ideal of a Huntsman. Then he had discovered he could be something else: softer, kinder, yet still something inside of him was lonely and untouched.
He wanted to be filled as much as he wanted to fill.
"The Winter Maiden is not mine now. But Summer and Winter will meet in Vacuo, no doubt. I'll deal with both. The Spring… will have to wait. I'll just do it the old fashioned way."
"What do you mean?"
"The Grimm arm," Cinder said, setting her fabric down and raising her Grimm arm menacingly, "drains Aura."
It was wrong. It was like being told the sky was green and the grass was blue.
"It certainly expedites the acquisition of the Maiden powers. Thanks to you, it no longer works. I have now learned to appreciate the challenges as they come," she continued. Then she smirked.
"How can you think of it like that?"
"Be glad I have not sought out the most efficient and timely manner to kill you. Don't think me kind."
"I don't understand. You're the Fall Maiden." She had power unparalleled. It transcended Aura, Dust, Remnant. It was of an old world, a dead world.
"Would you rather one leash, or four? Would you rather one sword, or two? I am one leash, two swords."
"I have one sword," he muttered.
"It broke," she said drily.
It had. It sat in its sheathe, the stain of its last kill marking where it had shattered. "Why did you come back?"
"This cannot be controlled, obviously."
"But you could leave."
She paused. She said, "There is nowhere else I can go."
"You have everything you might be able to glean from me. You know Ruby's alive. You know we were all headed for Vacuo, and if my gut's right, you were already prepared for that. You don't care about what we learnt from the Lamp. What else could you possibly talk to me for?"
She took a pair of scissors and cut the golden thread she had knotted. "Why do you?"
Because he was alone. Because he did not know better. Because he wanted to know who she was, killer, mastermind of Beacon's destruction, toppler of Atlas on a bluff. Why was it that when he touched her, Aura to Aura, he felt her heartbeat thud-thud with anger, pain, hatred, heat, longing? She wanted to devour everything whole.
Because he was alone, he spoke to her.
So she was alone.
Emerald had fled. She had seemed quick to provoke, jumpy, snappish, but she had done so well with them. He had been one of the first to react when Oscar suggested she come with them. Now he could only think of what he had done.
Mercury must not have been with her either. So that confirmed his Vacuo theory.
"I have read every book in my inventory on the matter of Aura and Semblance. My master thinks little of it. Crude, ill-made matter. Magic is superior, limitless, pure chaos, unknowable in nature. Atlas has liked to think itself capable of understanding the soul. It will never understand magic, thankless task it is. But you."
He had been staring at his hands.
"I have found nothing on an Aura bond," she finished.
His hands, hovering over her body as he healed her. As he refused to kill her. The ash, and the blood, death circling her, prowling.
"Why you?" she said quietly. Quiet, yet dagger-like in sharpness.
That was not the question he expected her to ask. "I don't know," he said.
She kept watching him.
"I don't know," he said again, "I didn't mean to do it—"
"That wasn't the question."
"I wasn't asking why you did it. I asked why it was you."
Now she seemed desperate. Caught between fury and longing, searching, leant forward intently. She must have disliked not knowing things. But there was more to it than that. It was the way somebody would look for first rain after drought, begging the cloudless sky to open up. He was scared.
"Why you?" he said back.
"Why me?" She laughed. "I'm walking the path I was born for. I know exactly what I'm doing, and where I'm going. I don't understand why you're in the way."
Of course she was. He was strangely jealous. She knew what she was meant for, even if it were ruin. Because it was.
She was part-Grimm, and when he had felt her soul, it was strained with anger and injustice like those Mistrali performance masks: cheeks taut, brow furrowed, mouth an open howl, orange lacquered reflection bottomless.
"I fear what may happen if we attempt— to break it, as you put it," she said.
"If nobody has had one before—"
"Then it is simply fraught with danger."
"Besides, you can always spy on me."
"I don't need to spy on you," she sneered. "I may tolerate you for now. But it is only academic curiosity. And because my—" but she cut herself off.
There was a flash of vulnerability across her. He did not say anything. Theirs was a tempered peace which seemed only possible to exist in a place like this, where he was out of time.
It did not last. Fire sparked. Cinder burnt hot, blocking out the suns hanging overhead high.
He felt his heart beat hard in his chest. She stalked towards him. She couldn't hurt him. But she could scream.
"Where is she? WHERE IS SHE?"
Jaune stepped back a few paces, and could've kept going down the whole coastline if he wanted. White sand stretched indefinitely. It was a damning sight.
"I don't know who you mean! I've been sat on the beach this whole time and I haven't seen any of them, what is it to you anyway— we're all stuck down here!"
"I want you to think very, very carefully about who is, presumably, down there with you."
"Ruby, Weiss, Blake, Yang…" he trailed off. His breathing was as heavy as Cinder's. She had worked herself up into an anger, stoked her own fire.
Ruby and the others would have found each other. Jaune, solitary on the beach, as lonely as the waves, had not seen them.
"I want you to think very carefully about that deluded message Ruby Rose spent the precious few minutes of airtime addressing Remnant. I want you to consider WHO YANG'S MOTHER IS!" She had finished with a screech. There was a fury there which went beyond Ruby. Jaune could feel it vibrating in the air, as palpable as Aura.
"Raven Branwen. Why does the thought of her make you so angry?"
Then, suddenly, Cinder laughed. It was high-pitched in disbelief. "She never told you."
He didn't say anything, just waited for her to talk.
"Who do you think walked out of that Vault? Did Yang not bother to tell you who the true Spring Maiden is? The one person capable of travel to the netherworld which you inhabit now?"
He had put the pieces together quite quickly. Ruby had broadcast a message which, if Raven Branwen had the mettle, would have the capability to retrieve her daughter and company from whence they had fallen to. It was dependent on a chain of factors Jaune did not have the full picture of. Yang had been tight-lipped enough about the confrontation with her mother and quite swiftly dismissed conversation with her successful retrieval of the Lamp. It was not Jaune's place to ask, and neither Ruby nor Blake had shared anything with him.
At this very moment, however, if Cinder were to be trusted, her anger a sign of her truth-telling, then Yang had kept a secret. Less egregious as his killing of Penny. He could hardly hold it against her. But it was a secret when they had decided not to keep secrets.
Now the thought that they had left already ate at him. He had accounted for them to be the active ones. But now he considered his own predicament. Perhaps they had not found him, because Raven already had.
"Ruby Rose is who knows where with a Spring Maiden in tow. You might understand my fury. And you're all alone."
"They didn't know I fell. I was last. They wouldn't know to look," he said, mostly to himself.
Cinder tilted her head. "You really haven't seen them."
"They would be going to Vacuo anyway. I don't know if Raven would stick around that long."
"If Raven would even go to you children," Cinder said, mostly to herself, and now it was like they were both thinking aloud to each other.
Jaune put his head in his hands. He didn't know how long it was before he said, "You'll have your chance to kill Ruby. After all, if she were still down here, you'd never be able to get to her. Just… leave me alone."
He didn't know how to tread this strange connection. They could not kill each other but they could barely ignore each other either. Still, Cinder was more focussed on her bigger goals. The Maiden powers. Ruby Rose and her silver eyes. The Relics.
Jaune was as only as good as he could give, and what did he have to give now? If the others were gone, and he, in his morose failure, had not found them, what would he do?
"How quickly you give up," Cinder said.
He ignored her.
"Weren't you the strategist, the leader? Of course, only second to Ruby, and you've made your fair share of questionable decisions. But quitting now? Really?"
He felt anger flood him. It rushed to his head and he got up on his feet, padding pitifully through the sand towards her. "This is because of you. You came in and you ruined the safe way we had set up for the people of Mantle and Atlas to find passage to Vacuo. You and your master BESIEGED ATLAS. You blame me for giving up? Me? I'm not even your real enemy! You're concerned with Ruby, so scared of her silver eyes because of the Grimm fusion YOU CHOSE FOR YOURSELF—"
"I DIDN'T CHOOSE IT!" Cinder screeched over him. They were both breathing heavily. Jaune had not let himself get angry in some time. He felt immediately like he should apologise, which was bizarre, because Cinder, if she spared a thought for him, hated him anyway.
"What?" he said, sapped. The tension in him disappeared as quickly as it appeared. She always had him upside-down.
"I—" she tried, and cut herself off. She was one-eyed wide, her mouth working to speak: fury, confusion, and the faintest shade of vulnerability lined her face.
"No, you said you didn't—"
"I didn't say anything," she denied.
"You think you know everything about me—" Cinder stalked forward, looking up at him through her tilted head, face shadowed, eye bright. He tried to manoeuvre backwards but she was focussed, intent, and she was going to bowl him over. She had settled on fury.
She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck with both hands, human and Grimm, and then shoved him up against a cold wall.
The beach had disappeared. Around him was a room the colour of dried blood. Outside the light was sickly, finding its way through the floor to ceiling windows with a confused ambition. It was neither night nor day, stuck between the two. Wherever he was, it was a dead place.
The wall was hard against his back.
He breathed deeply. It took him a moment to notice for each breath he inhaled, so did she, and they exhaled at the same time. It was silent. The air was stale.
"What… did you just do?" he asked her. Like she knew.
She was still holding him tightly. She did not look like she belonged here, too saturated. But this must have been her room. So much light, though it was weak. A bed which looked slept in, bedspread red. Her sewing.
She must have tracked his eyesight, keen eye she had. He could hide very little from her.
"What?" she whispered, mostly to herself. Then she released him, and he steadied himself clumsily. She would see where his hand touched, where he balanced, must have already known what she had inadvertently done. There was a hairbreadth's moment where they watched each other. Would they fight? Would he run? Where would he go?
He had no weapon. He could not hurt her. It seemed like she could not hurt him before, when they had appeared to each other. But now he was not so sure, if she had touched him, pulled him here.
Out of thin air, she summoned a molten sword and held it to his neck. It pressed against his skin, though it did not cut.
"It won't be long until one of the Seers comes for you. Nobody comes in or out without the custodians noticing. I'll leave it to them."
Jaune had been waiting on the beach a long time. He could wait now. He waited, and waited, and they shared a tense stare.
"Any minute now," she said.
Her sword was flaming, and hot. He pursed his lips. Any minute now. It had been a while since he had laughed at anything, not genuinely.
"Any minute now," he repeated.
She narrowed her eye at him.
"No, it's alright. These things take time," he said. "Maybe there was somebody else with an Aura bond causing trouble. You never know."
She lowered her sword, dissatisfied. "I don't understand."
"Grimm sense Aura. They know to let you in, right?"
The bond hid him, the same as her. Cinder looked very upset about that as her shoulders drooped. "Seriously?"
"Whoops," he said, flatly. "I guess you can just take me to Salem instead."
She looked away guiltily. Jaune was running high on adrenaline. He had sense enough to notice that something was amiss, more than an inconvenient Aura signal, or lack thereof, to the Grimm.
"Salem's busy," Cinder said.
"Busy? Isn't all she does is biding her time and waiting?"
Did Salem sleep? Did Salem eat? Did she hunger for anything quaint, anything small, anything human? She was immortal, and always had time on her side.
"The kind of luck you have is frankly baffling. Salem sleeps the long sleep. Atlas tired her. The leviathan was a grand production. You should be dead by now, by Seer or by her hand. I suppose," Cinder said, drawing her blade up again, not touching him, "the task is left to me."
"Could I have a sword?"
"To make it fair. And when do you get to fight other swordsmen, anyway?"
Cinder tilted her head and scoffed. "More of that inanity of fairness."
Jaune tried to think on his feet. He was not condemned to the void. The Seer, whatever that was, was not coming for him. He would not be brought before Salem.
He had an infinitesimal opportunity to flee this place, if he knew where it was.
"Best of three. If I win, you get me out of here, and I'll… trade you a secret. Anything you want. If you win, you kill me, I guess."
"You can't beat me. Or do I need to remind you of who I am?"
"Yeah, but you're competitive," he said, and somehow he felt like he had already won, watching that gleam enter her eye, the faintest shadow winking back.
Salem was not here. Cinder wanted to prove herself. She wanted to fight Maidens, that was for certain: but sword on sword was different, he knew that, and he had only ever fought her.
"A longsword?" she said.
He nodded. She knew anyway. Then, magic trick, she crafted a longsword, lava-made. She tossed it to him and he caught it by the hilt. It felt right in his hands, and that, in itself, felt wrong.
An identical copy appeared next, and she kept that one for herself.
"This is your room. Don't you think—" but he was interrupted by her leaping straight at him. He had overplayed his own bluff. She was all aggression, cutting her way through anything she encountered. Each hit was heavy, thundered with the noise of clanging, and he found himself retreating through a hallway leading to her room. It was bigger, but there was nowhere to hide.
"What secret would I even want from you?" she huffed out, barely out of breath, strike for strike. She was aggressive, yes. He knew that. But she was oddly graceful, half-sword, half-kick, and he knew she didn't need her Maiden power to kill him. She leant over him, parrying.
He swallowed and said, between the lock of their swords, "Why Emerald left."
She growled then. That was the wrong thing to say. But it set her off balance and he thrust back, and watched her elegantly regain her footing. She was more like a dancer.
Or maybe he was heavy-footed, and all sword, and no temper.
"You don't know anything about me—" a swipe and a clang, "and you have nothing I need to know!"
He was not going to win.
"You don't even know where Ruby is!"
She was smarter, and cleverer, and quicker than him. The ephemeral sword she had given him was broken, shattered shards spread across the ground, pressing into his back. It was only natural he ended up beneath her, blade to his throat again, foot on his chest.
"I can find out where Ruby is. Send me to Vacuo, and I'll find her for you."
Cinder was taken aback by that. "You would— betray her."
"I'll find her, and I'll tell you. You want to kill her that badly—"
"I can't kill her."
"It must be hard, not being able to kill her or me."
"You can't kill me," she said, all acid.
Cinder wanted Ruby dead, but Salem had a fate for Ruby worse than death.
"I can find her myself anyway," she added.
"Not in Vacuo. They'll be on high alert, and they're already prepared for situations like these. I think, anyway. Either that or, well, I could find you the Summer Maiden."
He had her. He knew it. The gleam in her eye was sharp and mean, a hint of something desperate and shuttered away.
"I know Mercury must already be ahead there, but I don't think Salem's ever been as concerned about the Maiden powers as you. It's just the Relics she wants. I helped keep the Winter Maiden's powers from you, so I'll— help with Summer."
"Bargaining does not become you."
"I have no team, I've been in the literal, actual middle of nowhere for weeks, or months, or— I don't know how long. Bargaining is basically all I have."
The Maiden powers. That was what she wanted, wasn't it? Maiden powers, Ruby, Relics. She already had the Staff and the Lamp. He would not think of that.
"If you knew who the Summer Maiden was, you wouldn't be here right now," he finished.
He had lost the fight, but he had won something more.
"I thought you didn't care anymore," she said. "I thought you had given up."
"That was when I thought I had no way out, and the others had left me behind. And, honestly, sometimes I just get moody."
She seemed sceptical of that, but said, "You're too comfortable with a sword to your throat."
"I've had time to get comfortable," he said.
She removed it again, and considered him for a long time. She was still as a statue, as delicately sculpted as one. He did not look at her legs, or her arms. It felt improper.
"I've made unorthodox deals before. But I have no reason to trust you."
He would not bring up when he healed her. That would be unbecoming. So he said, "You were right. Back in Atlas, when I found you. My side, if you want to call it that, cares about the Maidens too. If we don't know who she is, we're not as worried as you. But I'll look. Because we need to know anyway."
"Desperate," he amended. "I'm going to assume you have some sort of a way out of here."
"There's a Mistrali airship. My master and I are not in need of them, as it happens."
"I can't pilot."
She twisted her lips, and he sat up and rolled his shoulders. Wherever he had ended up was really unnerving a place. It was so cold.
Cinder said, "I almost regret killing Watts, now. It really is disappointing lacking other people who can fly one of those contraptions."
"There's a bathroom down the hall and on the right. Wash, since you smell of saltwater and brine. Be quick. Meet me here, and I'll take you to your ship. You'll find me my Maiden, and you'll tell me… about Emerald." Her tone went sour at the end, barely contained. She turned on a sharp heel and stalked down the hall, her sword broken and burning, his laying on the ground, melting.
She had not gone in her room, but went in another, and came out before he had even left for the bathroom. She threw clothes at him and he caught them dumbly. He escaped and went to wash himself, and nearly cried when hot water hit him. He did not know how he went so long without a hot shower, the smallest and greatest of pleasures. He was nearly surprised by how normal the bathroom was, an ashen red-tiled room filled with candles. It was ornamental.
He had not seen himself in a mirror in a long time. It was dark and murky, but he could make out how long his hair was, his long his shadows, how the clothes Cinder had given him fitted. The shirt fit him fine enough, though the jeans were just slightly too long. The palette was dark. Jaune just appreciated clean clothes.
He met Cinder in the hallway. She was wearing what he recognised as the outfit she had been working on in their strange meetings. His eye for fashion only went as far as he had absorbed Weiss' sartorial lectures, which was not particularly much. She wore an asymmetrical skirt in that iridescent blue, the shorter side on her Grimm arm's, and wore silver armour over it which disguised it.
She must have caught where he was looking again. She said, "Aura does not protect it."
He nodded wordlessly. He could have assumed that. Cinder must have felt everything, then. Anything which touched it. It must have hurt.
"Vacuo is uneasily accepting strangers into its borders, unlike Ironwood's haphazard scheme to control Atlas. We'll have passage in. You're one of Beacon's students. It should be easy enough."
Beacon which fell. "What about you? Aren't you a wanted woman?"
There was that familiar smirk. "I'm merely a ferrywoman. It seems like you can talk. So do the talking. I'm doing you a favour."
"At this point, I'm not sure whose favour is whose."
She sighed and shook her head. "Follow me. Don't move out of line."
"Do you just boss everybody around?"
"Yes! And you had better do as I say, or this place will eat you alive."
So he followed her. Jaune had bargained so far, and he would not be stupid enough to die now. He could not shake the feeling that she was not wrong. That this place would eat, if it could open its mouth.
Through the gaping windows, he saw the moon's reflection hidden in the black pools. The black pools, he noticed, which were that faint colour of nothing, no light, bottomless, with Grimm wandering around, hungry. They were slow and lazy in movement, comfortable, even. He had never seen them in such number.
Cinder kept her gaze focussed straight ahead, ignoring him, and ignoring the sight. The restless Grimm. But then she had a warped relationship with them. If what she had shouted at him meant anything.
Jaune was not going to die today, and he was not stuck in the nowhere-place. Now he had seen the emptiest place outside of Remnant, and he had seen the darkest place in Remnant. Grimm howled. The palatial halls shook with it.
This was not Cinder's home. This was Salem's home. This was where she returned to sleep, when she had exhausted herself letting Ironwood do all the work for her. Between howling and hushed, poisonous silence, Jaune and Cinder had eventually made their way to the ostensible docking area.
Jaune thought he knew what he was doing, but he didn't. He had killed Penny, yes, at her request, yes, but now he had helped Cinder. He had struck a deal with her. The worst part was that he had been honest. They needed to know who the Summer Maiden was, and it seemed like his deductions were correct. Her identity was as secret as Fria's had been. So the game of Maidens went on.
He was on a flight with Cinder Fall to Vacuo. She was confident in her pre-flight checks, and by the time he had buckled himself in they were already off, the deafening sound of the engine almost soothing.
"You… fly often?"
"Don't make small talk."
"I was just asking."
"I fly enough. I can literally fly. I don't need airships."
He shouldn't have sat in the co-pilot's seat. But she had seemed skittish when she had her back to him, and she could see him beside her.
"Does the radio work?"
"Are you serious?"
"Well, I feel awkward not talking—"
"I tried to kill you."
He huffed and crossed his arms. Jaune was thankful to see the Grimm gone. "Yeah, okay, when you put it like that it sounds weird, but normally when people are in a car, or like, an airship, I guess, you talk, or you put the radio on."
She was resolutely not looking at him.
"Mercury broke the radio," she said presently.
Jaune covered his mouth. He tried to cover his laugh by watching the scenery. The eternal night had given way to a dusky sky, and rocky scenery. It was green.
"Why did Emerald leave?" Cinder asked. Her voice was flinty.
"I think only she could tell you that."
"No. You were on the leviathan. Something more happened."
He had bargained with Emerald. He felt badly for it. It felt wrong. So he would tell her what he knew, the way he had used truth to misguide her. That felt wrong, too. He said, "Hazel saved us. Emerald. I don't know what went down, not really."
"I see," she bit out. "Hazel helped you. Hazel helped you, and the boy. And Emerald. That's impossible."
Jaune shrugged. "And I didn't know I was going to kill Penny. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes good things."
"Surely there's more logic to the order than that," she muttered.
"I don't know if there is."
"There is. It happens for a reason. You may not see it now, but later, you will. It will be as clear as glass."
"You really believe that."
"It's everything," she said, as if not speaking to him, just her reflection, Maiden-ignited eye drifting embers.