Jaune was blinded by the sunrise. He had to shield his eyes and look through the gaps between his fingers, like a small child playing peekaboo, to get a proper glimpse of Vacuo. It was a vast desert, with a flat horizon, and the sun was a perfect, deep red. It had a strange sort of beauty, bottomless but not barren. He almost let himself get excited.

"The view isn't bad," he said to his pilot.

Cinder did not say anything.

Atlas was beautiful, too. It was also rotten on the inside.

"You were wily," Cinder said. "I'll give you that."

"I don't know what you mean," he artfully evaded.

"You? Giving up the Summer Maiden? You really are cutthroat."

Jaune shrugged and said, "Stole an airship once."

"And who was your victim?"

"Argus Atlesian military outpost. And then we had a fight with a giant mecha. And then, well, Ruby— it's a long story."

Cinder didn't take her eyes off the view in front of her, but he could see the consternation marked on her face. It worked well to distract her, he had to admit. But it did also feel satisfying watching her reaction, just for the sake of it.

"I suggested the airship stealing."

"Of course you did," she muttered. "They probably deserved it," she added, mostly to herself.

"You really don't like Atlas, do you."

"I don't know what you mean," she sneered, mocking him in repetition.

"Back in the—"

"Stop. Pushing. Your. Luck."

She had barely ground it out and Jaune tried to look away from her, but couldn't. She looked furious, but pained. He was on thin ice already. He had better not push it.

Her inquiry of the Summer Maiden, however, was not pressed, and for that he was thankful. Jaune had found her wound and applied pressure, and it had certainly won him freedom from Salem's domain, but he had also made a bargain he was not sure he could keep.

On the other hand, Cinder Fall would probably find the Summer Maiden anyway. There was no doubt the headmaster of Shade Academy didn't already know who she was, though. Jaune would be quicker. It would be a betrayal if he told her. But she was clever.

"How did you figure out who the Winter Maiden was?"

"Ironwood was predictable."

That little obsidian chess queen. Ruby had said it was placed delicately on the middle of Ironwood's desk, a small offering. A gentle reminder. That had undone him, Ruby said. That was all it took, the queen, waiting on the desk, reminding him what he couldn't afford to lose, what he wanted to protect.

The Summer Maiden would not be so easy. The Winter Maiden, she was obvious. But she was free of her Relic, and as threatening as she was to Cinder, she was not as necessary as Summer.

A voice came through the intercom, "Mistrali airship 479er, state your intention. Vacuo Airship Patrol, over."

Cinder gestured with her head for him to talk.

"Um, hi, I'm a student from Beacon? Well, Huntsman now. With any luck you might already know team RWBY, and team JNPR, I'm— I'm the J, I'm Jaune. Jaune Arc. Don't ask where the airship came from."

Cinder was mouthing J in JNPR and he was about to kick himself.

"All clear, J from JNPR. Feel free to land."

"That was miles better than Atlas," Jaune said, mostly to himself.

Cinder rolled her eye.

"Yeah, yeah." Then he became serious. "What are you planning to do next?"

They were descending now. She said, "None of your business."

"I'm helping you."

"And clearly this is neither the last you'll see of me, nor I of you. Do you ever stop asking questions?"

He crossed his arms. He was in probably the most unusual situation he had been in his entire life, and that included that ridiculous food fight. Nora didn't stop smelling of turkey stuffing for days. He was thankful his motion sickness had cleared. It would have been more embarrassing if Cinder had seen him puke his guts up. But her flying was surprisingly skilled, and he found if he watched straight ahead and didn't squirm too much, he was fine. Plus, being in the co-pilot seat helped. Not that she needed to know. She could try to kill him and ruin his life, but he really didn't want her to see his vomit.

When they landed, the oars of the Mistrali airship whipping gently like goosewings, Jaune hesitantly sat up out of his seat. Cinder turned her head as if to talk to him, and he waited, hesitant.

She seemed to think better of it before she got up and moved over to a satchel. From it she pulled a calico cloth bag, nothing special, just rags, really, and unwrapped a black sword, dark as night.

"Your sword is broken," she said.

"That's— right," he said cautiously.

"I have no need of this. Until your sword is repaired… or discarded, for that matter, use this." She gripped the sharp end and held the handle out to him. Her hand bled.

He had seen her conjure her swords from the aether, burning hot and bright. She did not need a sword. She did not need to give him hers, either.

She was probably going to gut him with it, given the chance.

"Are you sure?"

"I want my Summer Maiden. I imagine you'll not get far without a weapon."

"It's not like I'm going to kill her."

Cinder smirked. "You say that now…"

His chest went cold.

"Maybe you'll do it just to spite me," she added. "But you're still so broken up about Penny. I can't see how you'd manage it again. Besides, you're probably thinking of something clever to trick me with."

"I considered it."

"But you're a man of your word," she crooned.

His face shuttered. He sheathed the sword unconsciously into his shield, not even thinking about the movement, and realised with a start it fitted perfectly. "Okay, I'm done. I'm going. Thanks for the sword, I guess."

He turned before he could watch her reaction. He heard a scoff, like maybe she was unused to being left. Jaune disembarked. The wind blew fiercely around him, desert dust brushing through his hair. He would not turn around. He walked forward. He turned around.

Cinder watched him go. She mockingly waved at him. Or it felt mocking, anyway, that slow wave like a queen.

He had narrowly avoided a life in the void, death, and made a bargain with the Fall Maiden. He should have searched for the Relics, but they had been near the last thing on his mind. Selfishly, he thought of his life, but also her. She seemed to supersede everything else.

Where would she go, he wondered. Back to wherever they had come? She would not be welcome here, but it seemed like Salem had other plans for her.

He knew he could not tell them how he came here. At least not for now. Of course, what he would tell them was as doubly hard. He just walked out of the underworld?

Well, it seemed easier now he had thought it.

The tarmac was cooked in the sun, now midday. She took off. He watched her, still. Maybe he was waiting for her to turn around and decide to kill him instead. He wasn't sure. He wasn't sure of anything at all, not anymore. But neither the wind nor the sun waited for him, so Jaune had to move. There was little coming and going, the rest of what made up the landing area empty. It stretched as far as he could see. Flat ground on for miles. He made his way to the closest building, ostensibly the receiving area. Blinking lights and important looking signage dotted the perimeter.

There was nobody there to greet him, and so he searched for any life. There had been the air controller he had spoken to, so they must have been around somewhere. But Cinder had already told him how to get to Shade Academy.

It was hard to navigate by the weather, but Jaune had to keep going. Before he knew it, the ziggurats loomed far in the distance. The sky was a bright blue, dizzying. The outposts surrounding it were dotted by date palms, heavy with fruit. Jewel-toned prints on linen and tarps lined stalls and smaller mudbrick buildings, and he passed them as he tried to figure his way up to the entry. Myrrh, frankincense, patchouli filled the air, rich and heavy in scent, a mix of a musky rose. There was the bright sound of windchimes singing.

There wasn't even a check in desk to the ziggurats. He just went in. The atrium opened up, sun-gilt. It spilt light, though it wasn't thick with heat. A susurration of voices drifted through the hall, so Jaune followed. It was worlds and worlds away from Atlas, hard blues and sharp angles. The walls were built by hand, brick by brick, and the glass was hazy and soft. When ornate, carnelian and lapiz lazuli hall doors opened themselves, griffons scowling, Jaune found himself in a feasting hall.

The room didn't go quiet. In fact, it barely noticed him enter. It was as big as Beacon's, and doubly loud, the room completely packed with who must have been students. Ruby and the rest of them weren't students, but he suspected they'd be here anyway.

He searched for them. Each table he passed regarded him strangely, quietly, voices drawing down, but Jaune paid little mind to it. He searched for silver eyes, red hair. Blonde hair, violet. Not that table, not the one by the window, and wouldn't that be his luck? He came all this way, that hot tarmac, the dizzying perfume, the atrium, and he couldn't find them.

So of course he'd turn and find them in the back corner, Ruby balancing on a chair with two feet in the air, precarious as anything; Yang mid-exit of her own chair to rescue her; Blake, laughing; Weiss, huffing; Ren holding Nora back from joining her.

"JAUNE?" Ruby yelped, and then, arms flailing, promptly fell on the floor.

"Okay, that wasn't exactly the entrance I was planning on," he said, kneeling to help her up. Shock was written all over her face, though he did think it was partly to do with falling.

"Hey," he tried again, scratching the back of his head. Ruby was hugging him and blubbering, and Ren and Nora had leapt up, too. The others were acting like they were seeing a ghost.

Maybe he was one.

"Jaune! You— you came back!" Nora said.

"We didn't know you fell!" Ruby said. "We— we never found you, we didn't see you fall too, you weren't on the island— and then we— we— we came back, and you weren't here— I'm so sorry."

He had one arm around her, and one around Nora and Ren. He said, "You didn't know. It's okay."

That was when he caught Weiss watching him.

She knew what happened to Penny. He shook his head infinitesimally, a silent plea. Not yet. Not yet. How would he tell Ruby? Had Weiss already told her? But Weiss just pursed her lips, looked at her lap. He didn't know what she thought, either. It cut through the reunion like cold water. He had wanted to come back, and he had never wanted it at all. The only reason he was here was because of Cinder, pushing him against that wall, the Aura bond. The irony of it bit at him.

"I have a feeling I know how you got out," he said, voice a little strained. Yang raised a brow. "Raven. Your mom."

"How'd you figure that?" said Yang. But he knew.

"I mean, how else? Sure, it was a strange void place, but seriously?" It was better to put the focus on them, anyway.

Yang leant back in her seat, and thought about her answer. Instead, Blake said, "Yeah, Yang's mom. She came. It… wasn't exactly simple."

"Like it ever is with her," Yang muttered.

So Cinder had been right. He felt himself take in a shuddering breath. Cinder had been right, on that lonely beach; they had left without him, because he had not searched for them, or they had not searched for him, not knowing he was there. Cinder did. She knew Raven would come.

Ruby pulled away from him and tried to stealthily wipe at her eyes. Nora pulled a seat out, so he sat, and surveyed the table. He had wanted to stay on that beach. Now it was a bittersweet type of return.

"I hate to ask the question… but how long have I been gone?"

They all shared a look. Jaune watched it flit Ruby to Weiss to Yang, then Blake, and he had a horrible feeling.

"We left that place a few weeks ago," Yang said cautiously.

"And I don't know how long we were down there. By the time we came back here, my sister was a mess," Weiss added.

"But Qrow had already found my mom."

"And then Raven found us," said Blake. "And then we came here, and my dad was here. And Ilia. So. Family reunion, yay."

"Now we just need your family here, Jaune," Weiss said.

"I hope Sapphron stays in Argus, gotta be honest," he said.

At least she and Terra were safe there. Jaune was lucky. They weren't in the middle of this mess.

"Help did come, anyway," he added. Ruby half-smiled at him. It wasn't for nothing.

"So you're gonna tell us how you got out of there, right?" Yang blurted. The rest of them looked just as eager to know. Jaune scratched the back of his neck. What had he said to Cinder?

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he said. "Could we talk about it later? I only just made it back, and honestly, I haven't slept on a proper bed in a— while. Speaking of, what's the situation here?"

"Headmaster Theodore's prepared. Never doubt the hospitality of Vacuo!" Nora said.

"We have our own rooms," Ren said. "Well-ventilated, too. Extremely ornate stonework. It's good to have you back, Jaune. We weren't sure what we were going to do without you."

That horrible pain in his chest wouldn't go away. He tried to search for a response, settled on, "I missed you guys, too. But it seems like you've managed pretty well, all things considered. Have to ask, though: where's Oscar? And Emerald?"

Ruby crossed her arms. "Oscar got called over by Theodore. Emerald went with him."

"It's good to stay in pairs," Ren said.

"There have been… problems here," Weiss said.

"Delicate, Weiss. There's been human trafficking of people with powerful Semblances," Blake added.

Jaune sat back in his seat. "Any other surprises?"

"Not that I can think of!" Ruby said. "Not that would outdo you, anyway."

Jaune turned to her and sought her out, trying to catch her mood. Ruby didn't look too different, but there was just an edge of fragility he could recognise. The Hound had shook her in a way he hadn't seen before. It was still there, just in the slight worry of her silver eyes.

Ruby wasn't unshakable, but he also knew she wouldn't talk to him about it. He would still worry.

"So what now?"

"Well, the Summer—" Ruby started, then cut herself off as her Scroll pinged, high-pitched. "It's Oscar!"

Dimly, Oscar's voice came crackling through, "Ruby, bring everybody to Theodore's office. There's—somewhat of a problem. I'll tell you all when you get here."

"Never a dull moment."

At the back of his mind, his deal with Cinder throbbed. Summer Maiden, Summer Maiden. Now he was just like her.

Theodore's office was two stories up and tucked in a nondescript corner, a small altar by the entry. Iron figures of three-legged pigs were arranged neatly around incense. Jaune entered hesitantly, trailing behind everybody else.

"So we have news too," said Ruby.

"I'm news," Jaune said behind her. He put his arms out.

Oscar gasped, caught between what seemed like relief and surprise, maybe, but he looked like he was carrying a lot too. Jaune swept him up in a hug. So much for reunions.

"I can't believe you made it!" Oscar said. "I'm so sorry, the portal wasn't two way, and I wanted to come back for you and Ruby, and I—"

"Buddy, I'm in one piece. It's fine." Jaune patted him on the back, then keenly aware of the headmaster in the room. "Um, hi. I'm Jaune."

"Yes, that much I could tell," said Theodore warily. Jaune let go of Oscar and stepped back, nodding to Emerald. He put out a fist and she bumped it. It was about as well as he could do.

"I imagine you have a long story to tell us," Oscar said.

"You could say that."

Theodore seemed impatient, if Jaune could judge him correctly. Oscar and Ruby sat down in the two seats offered, but the rest of them stood, the office only a little cramped: papers, books and shiny bric-a-brac filled the room, and then more papers and books, and cacti sprouting little pink flowers.

The office was almost cosy, but they were called here for a reason, and he did not allow himself to settle yet. Theodore kept snapping his gaze to Jaune, and Oscar was fidgeting with Oz's cane. Weiss was tapping her foot. Yang crossed her arms. Jaune thought about the beach. The endless quiet.

He should have known he'd see her again now. For a wild moment he feared that they could see Cinder, but it seemed that she only appeared to him. Surely they would have noticed her, just off to the side of Theodore's desk, seemingly surveying the room as if it were her own office. Jaune tried to contain his reaction, but he couldn't still the quick breath, nor the way his gaze kept snapping back to her. But to the others, he was seeing nothing.

She was still there. That arm, hidden by silver armour. That one-eyed scrutiny, golden and fathomless. That mouth, half-smirk, half-grimace.

"See? I told you," she said.

He huffed, passing it off as idle movement. He had to snap his focus between Theodore and Cinder. Maybe she got the hint he was busy. Surely she was still flying. But maybe it had auto-pilot.

"But it seems you've found your way, if your silence is anything to go by. I knew you were good at following directions."

Did her voice dip low? But he couldn't consider it, as Theodore paced, and eventually Oscar stood up and said, "You must tell them, Theodore."

"The Maidens are such trouble," he muttered.

"Tell me about it," Jaune equally said under his breath. Cinder squinted.

Ruby said, "We've dealt with a lot, headmaster. Salem turned up on our doorstep. There's not a lot you can scare us with."

"Well, when you put it like that…" Theodore laughed, but it was grim. "The Summer Maiden is dead."

Jaune heard a chorus of worry. He had been accounting for the tightly kept knowledge of the Maidens to work in his favour. Of course, he had been proven wrong.

"We suspect it was murder."

Cinder was watching his every response. She sensed something wrong, with the way she prowled just a little closer, curious.

Jaune considered the possibility that she was really the one playing him. But she had been with him, on the beach, and then at Salem's fortress. She had been there the whole time. The breadth of opportunity between unceremoniously absconding with him from Salem's to Vacuo, and then wherever she was now, would not allow for a swift killing of a Maiden. Not for when Oscar had already been called away.

He immediately ruled her out as a possibility. It was bitter, but it was true. She would be smug, too, if she had the power. That would surely be obvious in her countenance. But as he was scrutinising her, so too was she him, and she furrowed her brow. His job was now a little harder. He had promised her a Maiden.

Of course, he could go back on his word. But then he didn't know if maybe she were paying him a small mercy, through the bond. It could be used against him, though equally against her, he supposed. On fairer grounds, Maiden for a Maiden, it was almost a truce.

"Cinder," Ruby said. "How do we keep forgetting about her?"

Jaune had not forgotten.

"Don't you think if it were her, she'd be strutting around already?" he said, tearing his focus back to the people actually in the room. "We'd know."

"Are you talking about me?" Cinder demanded.

He pursed his lips and crossed his arms. He wanted to snap at her that he was defending her.

"Who else could it be? We know she wants all the powers, and we've been waiting for her to turn up. Now, apparently, she's gone and murdered the Summer Maiden!"

"The timing is… suspicious," said Theodore. "I must ask, Jaune Arc, how did you make your way here?"

Jaune did not like the direction of that question.

Jaune had killed the Winter Maiden. So a Summer Maiden, too?

Ruby gasped. Jaune tried to catalogue everybody's reactions as he worked out what to say. He was in a particularly damning situation. He could not reveal the truth of Cinder, not especially with how suspicious he was. But not revealing it meant he needed a cover story, and that cover story could have holes. He had considered it in the flight over, mulled over it. The less he said, and more the truth of it, the better. It was just like with Cinder, but then, she had ripped the whole truth from him anyway.

Cinder concentrated on him, saying nothing, but her eye saying more.

He flicked his focus away from her, hovering in the back, thin air to everybody else. He said, "You know where I came from, right?"

"The beach," Ruby said quietly.

"I had help."

"Help?"

"Well, you did. Right? From Raven? Someone helped me, and I don't know how," he said, truth, true: he did not know how the Aura bond worked, if it had any true rules to reality, or was inescapable and indescribable as Aura was. Cinder herself had said Atlas had qualified it scientifically; had machines, too, fit for Aura transfer, but Jaune was stubborn. There were things about his Semblance he was pretty sure were impossible. The bond was one of them.

Oz's bonding to Oscar was one thing. He had already considered the possuble similarity, but it was different. They weren't in each other's heads, for one. For another, he had done it himself. It was no move on the miserly God of Creation's part. She was here in the room with him, solid as anything, his ever sentinel.

"And then I was out of there, and there was a Mistrali airship. A pilot. They took me where I asked and then left without a word."

Lie. They had talked. His cover fell apart there. The gulf of where he had been at Salem's. His deal struck with Cinder, stupid and harebrained as anything. But then, had he been himself very much?

"I couldn't tell you what happened down there. At the beach. Wherever that was. It was just—"

"Pyrrha?" Ruby asked.

"What?"

"I saw… things. Down there. Pyrrha helped you, didn't she?"

He had not thought her name. He had avoided it.

"When Jinn showed us what happened with Salem and Ozma, there was that white place. Where he wanted to go be with her, but she wasn't there. She was here, on Remnant. There's a place we go to. You saw Pyrrha? She helped you?"

Jaune did not say anything, just turned his head away from Ruby, unable to bear it. He had reconciled himself to her fate long ago. It wasn't that. It was that he wasn't like her anymore. He wasn't bravely carrying on. He killed, and he struck a deal with her killer.

Worst of all, he let Ruby think it. He let his silence speak for itself, and his silence spoke back: "Adequate. It was a good idea to divert to the part easier to make ambiguous. Anybody magic down there could have helped you, lawless place it was. Pity you it was me."

He clenched his jaw. He couldn't say anything back to Cinder.

Ruby said, "Jaune would never kill the Summer Maiden. It's not like the powers could go to him, anyway. And who would he be helping? We're on the same side, here. Listen, headmaster, I know you're worried, and you have reason to, but Cinder's more of a likely possibility. She wants all of the powers. And she's always waiting to turn up."

She was leaning forward, imploring. Her goodwill was so unabashed. Oscar was nodding emphatically beside her. Jaune checked on Weiss. She was looking in her lap, pensive.

"Did they buy it?" Cinder asked. "Are you finished yet?"

Then Yang said, "No, Jaune's right. Cinder would be here already. If she had the powers that easily. How was the Summer Maiden found on her own? Shouldn't she have been protected?"

"A Maiden can hold her own," Theodore finally said, but he was slouched in his chair now, cupping his head in his hands. He looked like he didn't want this job anymore.

"When the Maiden powers have been announced to the world. When people with powerful Semblances are being hunted," Yang said, flatly. "Wow. Great security measures."

It was dangerously true.

Cinder, easily, could not have been the only person interested in them now.

"We dealt with most of the Crown. Well, some of them," Theodore said, "and Salem's more of a threat than any petty business here."

"But that's how Salem gets in. She finds the wound and presses. Beacon, Haven, Atlas and Mantle. I mean, it's not like she does it without help. It would've been impossible without Cinder. Atlas might not have gone the way it did if she hadn't turned up when we least expected her, after we thought she was dead. But all Salem needs is just to find where it hurts," Jaune said. It was like being a healer. To help somebody, you had to find the pain.

"So you are talking about me. That was close to flattery," Cinder said.

Ruby let out an uncharacteristically long sigh. "It would be easier if it were Cinder."

Jaune crossed his arms. This was going to be a problem. He thought he could skirt around it and handle it as it came. It's not like she could figure out much with one-sided commentary, and if he had to, he could find a reason to leave. He had no reason to on the beach. But here, now, in the real world, he did. This was his real life. This was what he had wanted to run from. His team. His home, he had not been to in a long time, probably would never go back. His friends. His family. He was terrified. He was terrified of himself, most of all.

Not just Penny. Not Pyrrha. No, what really scared him about himself was standing in the room, unseen by all except him. He had healed her when he should have left her. He had shoved himself in and driven out that hideous Aura drain from the Grimm arm, and then forged the bond, just by accident. Because of his sheer arrogance. He stretched his Semblance as far as it would go, with her, and he had felt her. He had promised her a Summer Maiden, and she stood there, resplendent and cold and warm and beautiful. Terrifying, too. Terrifying most of all, but maybe it was the same thing.

"Then I must confess, Jaune, I can't suspect you currently," Theodore said. "But then, we have so few suspects as it is. You must forgive me."

"This was why we made the Maidens secret. Because of this. Because they became targets," Oscar said. "Not that I doubt you, Ruby."

"And Oz tied them to the Relics. So, maybe not the most ideal setup," Jaune said. To get a Relic you needed a Maiden, and for a Maiden you needed a young and willing woman, and you either needed to be ready to kill or wait for her to die. Or you find one woman, and you made her the vessel for all of them, then send her to murder.

It was simpler that way, Jaune would give Salem that. One leash, like Cinder said.

"Who better to guard the Relics than she who is most powerful? Already prepared for one fate. Why not throw in another?" Cinder said.

He watched her quietly, and sadly. He detected something deeper. Like the Atlas problem with her. Why was she the way she was? He wanted to know. Despite it all, he wanted to know.

But she was fiercely guarded, and pushed back twice as hard when she admitted anything. That arm. He thought she chose it. He thought she took it up with the same ambition as the Maiden powers. But then she had screamed at him she had not. She had denied it just as quickly. Jaune had heard it anyway. Who was she?

He thought he knew. The more he watched her, the more it seemed like the less he did.

Cinder looked thoughtful. He wasn't any mystery for her to unpack. There was the path between her and the Maidens, and he was a simple detour. He did not factor into anything else. He was as relevant to her as he was useful. He could be sure of that.

"So what do we do?" Weiss said.

"We find the Summer Maiden," Ruby said, resolute.

"Qrow had my mom to work with finding the Spring Maiden, Ruby. It's like finding a needle in a haystack," said Yang.

"Strange weather patterns is a start. And this is a desert," Ruby said. She sat back in her chair and shrugged. "Rain and ice would be weird. Fire? What burns around here? Sand might just become glass. Wind? Sure, Vacuo gets its fair share of dust storms, but Maiden powers in use are sporadic, right? I don't know if Winter would be able to help, considering how stretched thin she is, and— well— she's got a target on her back now. But we just need to… look."

"Right. If the Summer Maiden was a target…" Weiss trailed off. She covered her mouth.

"Winter will be alright, Weiss. She's helping people settle in here, and she's rarely alone. Robyn and the Happy Huntresses have her back," Ruby reassured her.

If the Summer Maiden was a target, and the Winter Maiden was a target, then Jaune watched the Fall Maiden lurking in the room and realised that, if she weren't the one who had killed the last Summer Maiden, well, she was now a Fall Maiden in danger.

He had been tasked with hunting the Summer Maiden. He was pretty sure there was somebody with the exact same interest regarding Fall.

He let his shock register briefly on his face before he could school it, but she had seen it already and tabulated it. As subtly as he could, which was not terribly, he shook his head at her. Later, he wanted to tell her. He would have to find her later. But it was ironic.

"Well, if Jaune's not implicated in killing a Maiden, I think we should all get some rest," Nora volunteered. "Or him, at least. I'm going to go see how the Mantle kids are getting settled in. School just opened back up."

"I'll show you to our rooms, Jaune," Ren said. He watched his team, who had picked themselves up and come together stronger than before.

"I'm glad you're all okay," he said. It was somehow sad. It was somehow happy too.

Just as they left, Weiss stood near him and pursed her lips, then directed with her head at Ruby. Penny, she mouthed. He nodded. To placate her, mostly.

Nora continued on, "Oh, no, Jaune, we're worrying about you, not you worrying about us!" Nora said. She grabbed him by the arm and swept out of the room, Ren following behind them, and then he was given a lecture on all things Vacuo: date rolls (delicious); other students (fun, sometimes mean); teams SSSN and CFVY (cool, not as cool as teams RWBY and JNPR); the food (again); and then they were on the floor with their rooms. They were individual, not grouped, and the bed and shelves were carved out of stone, the rest of the furniture slotted in where it fitted. There was an electric light but also beeswax candles, and intricate stoneworkings around the single window, allowing filtered light in.

"Vacuo does things a little differently. So when's the last time you slept in a proper bed?"

He said, "Last time we were in Atlas, I guess. Otherwise I just had a bed made of palm fronds."

Jaune deposited his little travelling bag on the sandstone floor, and stealthily hid his scabbard beneath it. Cinder's sword gleamed, black and smoky.

"Why not we let you get some sleep, then. Considering your crazy last couple of hours, huh?"

"And when you want to talk, we're here," Ren said from the door. There was so much hanging onto what he said. What Ruby had come outright and said, and what Jaune had not denied. He felt dirty.

Pyrrha wasn't there. Pyrrha had been their teammate, and she was his— well, she was gone. She had a fate bigger than herself, and she had gone to it anyway. But Ruby offered him an out, and he had taken it, rather than tell them that it was Cinder who pulled him out of there.

That she had done it in anger, telling him he didn't know who she was. Not really. So angry about it too, so angry she yanked him between worlds, and shoved him against that wall like she did it every other day.

They took his silence for something else.

"You take care, big guy," Nora said, and shut the door behind her.

He noticed, luxury of luxuries, there was even a small bathroom connected, and he hadn't used private facilities not even since before he left for Beacon. Everything had been shared with his sisters, so that by the time he was with his team, it felt like he had more space. The seven of his sisters shared two bathrooms, and Sapphron always took the longest showers and used the hot water. He grew used to showering at strange times, like midnight or before the sun rose. He didn't mind how long Ren needed in the bathroom by comparison.

The bathroom was only small, with tiny stone basin cramped beside the toilet, and the shower didn't even have a curtain. But he had lived on a beach by himself for who knows how long.

As it was, he laid back on the bed, rough linen against his neck, and tried to sleep. It didn't find him. He could not quiet his mind long enough to rest, and he wasn't exhausted to the bone. In fact, it felt like all he had done was sleep. He had slept poorly, yes, but he had slept. So he lay there, on the borrowed bed in his borrowed clothes, waiting for one thing or another: sleep or Cinder.

He traded sleep for her.

The sun bent and shadows grew longer. The air thickened, and light flattened itself in fine shapes through the windows, hazy yellow. Jaune waited, and waited. She would come again eventually.

When she did, he blew out a sigh of relief he didn't expect to feel. She seated herself on the bed beside him, which must have been a seat for her too. They lined up well. Not that it made any sense.

"I'm alone," he said, close enough to soft. He did not know how that entered his tone. He did not know if softness and Cinder belonged in the near vicinity, but as he looked at her he could almost believe it. Her nose. Her mouth, dried rosebud in colour.

"And?" she said. She was staring at the floor.

He could start with the Summer Maiden. But that would probably anger her. So he said, "Everybody knows about the Maidens."

"Ruby's broadcast."

"Right. You saw it?"

"I… know of it," she said carefully.

"Everybody across Remnant saw it. How did you not?"

"It doesn't matter," she said. "Are you going to elaborate?"

He sighed and scooted back on the bed. Cinder was guarded again. He made a mistake. "Everybody knows about the Maidens, and that put a target on the Summer Maiden's back." He paused. "She's been murdered. And we think other Maidens might be next."

Cinder's eye widened and flared that Maiden fire, mixing in the sunlight with her faint Aura shimmer. It was nearly beautiful, if he weren't so worried.

"That explains your conversation, then. I take it I'm the first suspect," she said, slow.

"Yeah, and I was defending you. There's no way you could've done it, not with— well, I don't exactly have to spell it out." He laughed awkwardly, and then realised whom he was laughing awkwardly with. Jaune scratched the back of his neck self-consciously. Cinder catalogued his movement, ever-watchful.

"No, spell it out."

"You were with me, and then you pulled me through to Salem's. You weren't in Vacuo. By the time we got here, and between you leaving and me making my way to Shade, and news of the Summer Maiden's death had made it, you couldn't have done it. They thought I did it. Theodore entertained it, anyway. And is he so wrong?" Jaune covered his face.

"Why are you defending me?" Cinder was distant. Confused, even, but her voice wasn't sharp.

"Because if it were you, then we know you. But it wasn't. And somebody we don't know is dangerous. You don't know who it is, because why else would you let me get away? You were serious about getting me to find her. A third party involved here is not what we want. We might know who they are, we might not..."

Cinder was silent.

Then Jaune revisited what he had said to Theodore. Salem finds the wound and presses. It would be in Salem's interest to work with whoever this party was.

So why didn't Cinder know?

She seemed to come to the same conclusion. "You implied I'm in danger."

"Any Maiden is. If they're not working with Salem." Then he considered what Cinder had tossed out carelessly, and said, "You killed Watts."

Cinder grunted and crossed her arms. She was defensive. The armour over the Grimm arm clinked with the movement. It glinted in the light from the bond, her hovering presence.

Jaune was very, very aware of her presence. In fact, he was aware of the fact they had radically different interests. So why was he defending her? Why was he telling her this?

Why had she killed Watts?

"I take it you're not all exactly cosy," he tried.

"This isn't relevant."

"Somebody is ahead of Salem in Vacuo, aren't they?"

At that she snapped, and she pushed into Jaune, just missing him, not quite touching. She said, "Are you trying to use this to score an advantage?"

"You let me go for the Summer Maiden."

"I pulled you out from the abyss. I'd consider that even. But I could do more than eavesdrop. All you need do is pull me, and I'll be there. And I'll do whatever I want," she hissed, but her voice dipped low at the end. She sounded threatening. Jaune betrayed himself and felt something low in his belly.

That was bad.

He said, "You'd have to make me pull you. If it even works that way."

"Make you," she repeated, grinding it out.

That was very bad.

His breath ran a little short, and he tried to run through everything he knew about her. Brought down Beacon. Assaulted Haven. Helped push Atlas to its plummet. Killed Ozpin. Killed Pyrrha. Who else? But Pyrrha, Pyrrha was the one.

"I see it," Cinder said. "The building of your hatred. Piece by piece, reminding yourself of the things I've done. You need to remember to hate me."

"You do enough to remind me."

"I do, don't I?" It was wistful. "I look forward to whatever I do next to offend you."

"Offend."

"It's nothing personal. Or do you think I'm sadistically out to get you? No. Not even I could have set it up so that your blade would kill Penny. But you did, anyway."

"I didn't think that. I know what's important to you. I doubt personally offending me is anywhere up there."

"Ah, yes. You know me so well," she gritted out. She stood up and began pacing, pacing, back and forth across his room. Her skirt flitted behind her and smacked around at each turn.

"Do you think I know anything about you?" eventually she said. "Just because I've held a sword to your throat, it doesn't mean I know you. I know you're smart, that you're— all fools, and you think you can save the impossible, but you keep acting as if you know what I want. You don't."

"I'll bite. What do you want?"

She stopped. Jaune waited. His hands fidgeted. Cinder seemed surprised he asked.

"I want everything," she shuddered out.

More than the Maiden powers, then. All of it. Everything. If he did know anything about her, though, it was that she wanted to burn the rest of it down.

"That doesn't really narrow it down," he said instead.

"What?"

"Nobody wants everything."

"I'm nobody," she said. "I have nothing. I am nothing."

He could not say anything to that. Parts of her slipped through like this, cracks in a dark cave. She killed Watts. She did not want the Grimm arm fused to her. She screamed in torturous pain from it. She spared him.

"Why do you look confused?" she said. She looked it, too. The hint of scarring over her forehead creased with her brow. "I could understand resentment, maybe kill you for pity. But confusion?"

Jaune wanted to hide. He was clumsy, and he felt naked under her scrutiny. He was good at rousing others, but she shouldn't have cared about his opinion.

He turned away from her. He said, "Even excepting that you're only a little less dangerous than Salem, you're the Fall Maiden. You're hardly nothing."

"It's not enough. And I'll never—" but she cut herself off. "Whatever it is you're doing, stop."

"I didn't do anything. You started it."

"If we're playing that game, I place the blame squarely at your feet," she said, sardonic.

Jaune huffed and pouted. It wasn't fair, but she was right. He did start this. He had to finish it, too. It would be dinnertime soon, and he would have to go. Leave her.

So he said, "So you don't know who the Summer Maiden is. And I'll still find her for you. Is that right?"

"You clearly don't have to. I can't hurt you through… this. And the pull likely has to be intentive. I really did want to shove you against that wall."

Jaune hid his reaction in his hands again and groaned.

Cinder then said, in a quiet voice, "There was little reason to let you go. You played on my reliance on the Maiden powers. And, unknowingly, the fact I know who's ahead in Vacuo. I don't like it. I don't like— one of them in particular. I don't like— being stuck here."

"You're back at Salem's?"

"Unfortunately," she said.

"Why aren't you here causing trouble?"

"I do not question Salem."

"But you left. With me."

"It was ill-advised," she said, acidly. "Clearly."

Jaune knew it was a gamble, but he decided to ask her anyway. "Do you think whoever's here is working with the new Summer Maiden?"

Cinder regarded him coolly. Posture straight. Her hair curled just so. Then she said, surprises of surprises, "Yes. I believe that they are. It may not be a typical working partnership."

"And you don't like this person."

"No."

"So you and Salem's lot don't get on, then," he said.

"It's not a ground ripe for attachment. There's no time wasted on teamwork." She must have seen his expression, because she added, "Don't regale me with the power of love and friendship. You won't make an impression on me."

"I wasn't going to," he said, but she was unconvinced, and so was he. At that, he saw the barest of smirks. It was almost soft. "Will you be… careful?"

"What?"

"Whoever's here, working with the new Summer Maiden. They might still be after you. You don't know what's been promised. After all, I promised you a Summer Maiden." Not that he had thought she would take the power. But he had done it anyway.

But she was cautious, slow. Not angered at the possibility of him underestimating her, which it seemed like everybody did, no, it was like she didn't understand what he said at all.

"The powers won't be on your side either way. Why does it matter?" she said.

"I—" he tried, but his chest thudded and he didn't know what to tell her. Somehow, foolishly, he almost said: because there's no other Fall Maiden but you.

He didn't know why he thought it.

"Ah. You killed a Maiden. Now you have a complex about it," she surmised.

"No! That's not it," he said, and then he got off the bed to be level with her. He had been on the beach with her, at Salem's, here, in the room he had just been quietly given, she was everywhere; he was still yet unused to her closeness, her presence, how when he stood near her she radiated her own light, threading through her, and he didn't like how it drew him in.

Or he did. He did not like that he liked this secret, he did not like that he had lied to everybody else, and told only her the truth.

Then she said gently, "Of course. That misplaced sense of compassion. Or madness. But you spared me then to keep track of the powers, too. So you do so now."

"I really don't think that was it." He said it before he could stop himself. "I really don't think it worked out on paper like that."

Cinder looked like she couldn't parse what he was saying. She couldn't process it. Because he had done something for her without expecting anything in return; the bond, after the fact, was just a byproduct. That she somehow, in her fury, rescued him from the beach place was immaterial. Anything subsequent to what he had done in that sad little alcove, in that leaking, fiery womb she had carved out, was not his intention.

"I still don't understand. You sparing me, helping me? It only worked against you. You saved me, and then you had to kill Penny anyway." She paced forward, close to him again. The faint opalescent glow surrounding her was beautiful. It was. So long as he didn't think about her, he could allow the thought.

When he did not speak, a shadow passed over her face. Like the dark, shattered side of the moon. "You demanded once why I could kill with… what was it? A smile on my face. How does it feel? For your Semblance to be too early for Pyrrha, too late for Penny— fine enough timing for the Schnee—" she paused. Then laughed, just a little bit, disbelievingly, "and me."

Cinder did not say it proudly. Quietly, curse-like.

"You don't understand why I did it. I don't understand why you killed her." He did not know how he said it. It had been hidden inside of him, with that old anger. He did not know how to carry it.

"So hung up on Pyrrha. What about Ozpin? I slew him in his tower. A woman, who found me emerged from the vault's cave after my plummet, her horror so pronounced from seeing my arm. I took her clothes, too. Who else? Ah. How could I forget. Vernal, in the vault. Of course, she was just a decoy. Watts. As you know. But perhaps, because you didn't like him terribly, that's excusable."

She was so close.

"I let you go. You forget that part, don't you? When Ozpin was trying to stuff Amber's soul inside Pyrrha's puppet body? But because it was your headmaster, because it was the old man, it was right. Better than a respectful killing. No. No, I let you go then, and then she came back. She came back for the Fall Maiden power," then her voice dipped low, low, angry, possessive, "and it's mine. And she would never have it. And she would never use it the way I could."

"You think she went up there for the power? She didn't. She just wanted to stop you. She wanted to save us."

Cinder pulled back, not expecting that answer. "But it was futile. She was good, and she was the Fall Maiden candidate, but I'm the Maiden. We only took Amber down because she was inexperienced, and we had the advantage of surprise. And we were a team." Then Cinder looked away. "Why wouldn't she come for the power? Why wouldn't she want it?"

Then Jaune sadly said, "She knew it was what she was always meant for. Protecting people. Even if she lost."

"But she would lose."

"I know," Jaune snapped. "I know. I know. I never stopped thinking about it. She was never going to win against you, and you killed her anyway."

"Because the power is mine!"

"But it wasn't about that! Only you want it! She didn't want it! She didn't want it at all!" His voice lilted up, nearly breaking. He abruptly turned to the door, listening for motion. Nothing but a steady ambiance of a hall. A clank somewhere. His raised voice did not draw suspicion.

"And you're right. What they were going to do was wrong. The Aura transfer— I already spent time being angry about that. And Pyrrha didn't really know what the powers meant. She didn't even know about Salem. She went to fight you anyway."

A beat. "It was her destiny," Cinder said, blank, turning away from him.

"Because there wasn't any other option. Otherwise she wouldn't have been her. Pyrrha was Pyrrha, and it had nothing to do with me, nothing to do with you, nothing to do with Maidenhood. It was just the right thing to do. It was the only thing."

Cinder contemplated it, her gaze somewhere faraway, where Jaune couldn't see. She opened her mouth a few times to speak, silence hanging, heavy and thick. Why did she look sad?

"That's why you did it," she said, distant. She didn't need to qualify what. Jaune already knew. He already knew, thought about it more than anything.

"No other choice," he said, near enough to broken. "I couldn't have left you. The Fall Maiden powers, who you are— none of that matters. I just couldn't leave you."

"That's why killing Penny broke you."

He forced out, "Yeah."

She turned. He watched her lips when she spoke. "So who are you, then?"

"What?"

"If you killed Penny. Who are you now? Would you leave me? If you found me dying again, if you knelt in my blood."

Terribly, horribly, brokenly, he shook his head. No, he would not leave her. No, he would help her. Given the chance, he could not kill her, if he found her like that again: he would come back to the blood and the ash and the moon and he would reach out to her and he would heal her, and it was all he would ever be able to do. He knew who he was, even broken like this. He would find her again and again and again. It terrified him, helping her, equally as killing. More. He was scared of himself.

"And you wouldn't do it for any other reason."

"No."

"Not to— lord it over me. Not to use it against me."

"No."

"Not—"

"No," he interrupted. Slowly, more and more about her was becoming clearer to him. She thought Pyrrha came for the powers. She could not understand why somebody would want to stop her, knowing they lost before they went. She could not understand why Jaune did what he did. Just because he had to. Just because he wouldn't be him without it, and now they were tied together.

Because as much as he was himself, he was part of her, and she was part of him. That must have scared her more than it scared him; she must have wanted to shuck it off, strategy be damned. But now, oddly, his chest felt somewhat lightened. He wanted to understand her, to know why she could do what she did: just a little peaked through the veil, just a bit of her, pushing through. He saw her.

He understood why Penny did what she did, too: it was the same as Pyrrha, her choice, the choice that made Penny Penny, that gave the Winter Maiden powers to somebody who could carry Penny with her, too. It was the same as Jaune, finding Cinder dying. It was the same as Jaune killing Penny. It was the same as Cinder coveting the Maiden powers.

But he wondered, as he watched her, watching something else, unseen to him— surely that dead place, its rotted halls, its Grimm— whether, if given the opportunity, the same choice would always be made again and again. Yes, he would help her. Yes, he would do as Penny bid him. But would Cinder? Would Cinder always reach for the Maiden powers? She wanted everything. She wanted it all.

She was already the Fall Maiden. Could she not see it? What was right in front of her?

"What did it feel like? When you killed her?" Cinder asked.

The answer only came to him then, but it was a revelation. "I felt just like you," he said, "inside of me, where you are." A branding inside of him. Making the only decision possible in front of him.

He knew he had to tell Ruby. He had to tell her, and accept what she felt. But he had no other choice, and did only as Penny bade, as Pyrrha did, as Cinder did, as he did, and Ruby, gentle, warm, would react the way she would react. He could not keep it from her, and he knew that Weiss' silent urging was right.

"I need to ask you something instead," he said.

"Well?"

"If you knew Pyrrha hadn't come for the Maiden powers, would you have spared her?"

He waited. The question hung in the air, dreadful, horrible; he did not know what the answer would be, and that was worse than knowing she would have killed Pyrrha either way. It was worse. Because it meant Cinder wasn't just Cinder, Fall Maiden, Salem's strongest: no, then she was Cinder, a woman standing in front of him, with the mystery in her one-eyed, molten perpetual stare; her lovely hair; the hint of scarring on her face, sore-looking but strangely beautiful; her long legs, and that horrible arm; her heart, somewhere in there, pumping blood through her he had helped supply. Her Aura, part of his, them touching, driving out the Grimm curse, protecting her. She was Cinder. He was starting to know her.

"She wouldn't have come to Beacon Tower, if all she wanted was the power. If that was all she cared about, as you say. She only came to stop me," Cinder said, not unkindly. He let out a long, long breath, and he tried to blink away tears. Jaune wasn't sure if that were worse, a scenario where Pyrrha came out alive. A scenario where Cinder won, whatever she was intending to do at the top of the tower with that petrified Grimm.

"You must wonder what you would do with her alive."

"I wished that I were dead instead of her. I wish you'd killed me instead."

"That would never have happened," she said gently.

"At Haven?"

Her eye twitched. "I recognised how much you wanted to die. We've been over this. Living is much more painful."

"It doesn't have to be."

"Either you're in pain, or you inflict pain," she said.

Then, he said, almost jocular, "I heal. I want to make it better. I couldn't help Penny, but— that's who I am. I want to help."

She turned to him fully and frowned, looking at him like he was mad.

"You can't help somebody without knowing where it hurts, though," he added, and shrugged.

"How do you say such things and then shrug?"

He couldn't help himself. "I'm awkward!"

She tilted her head. "I see. So it's not an affected cuteness?"

"An affected what," he dumbly repeated.

Then she gestured with her hand, twirling her fingers. "I thought it was supposed to be endearing."

"No?"

"You really are a bag of surprises," Cinder muttered.

He crossed his arms. "You're telling me."

"Nothing to see here," she said, ironic.

He ignored her comment. She surely meant it mockingly. Well, if he had established Cinder hadn't killed the Summer Maiden, didn't like whomever was sent ahead of her to Vacuo, then Jaune had a difficult question to ask Emerald. She'd been mysteriously quiet in Theodore's office. He had a bad feeling, a type of Fall Maiden feeling: Mercury was not with Cinder, Mercury was not with Emerald, and, well, he was pretty sure Cinder didn't especially dislike Mercury.

"Who's the person in Vacuo?"

"That's tantamount to strategic suicide if I tell you."

"I know Mercury's here. Give me something to work with. You clearly don't like this person, and it's not like they're helping you get what you want—"

"It's Tyrian," she ground out. "You know him already. He's trouble."

"Yeah," Jaune said. He remembered, vividly, that abandoned settlement in Anima. Tyrian and his melodrama. Qrow, the venom. "We've met. When we were going to Haven."

"That's right," Cinder murmured. "Ruby cut his tail off."

"He called her a bitch for it."

Cinder smirked, and he thought he heard the tiniest of chuckles. "I'm torn. I want her dead, but I want him dead too."

"You're not killing her," he said, steely.

"We'll see," she said. "Need I remind you of our disparate goals? Nevertheless, you know your problem now. Tyrian's no Maiden candidate. But he's a murderer, and one who likes his job too much. And he doesn't like me."

"But why wouldn't he try to help you? You're in it for Salem."

"I'm not in it for Salem," Cinder snapped. "But he worships her. And he doesn't like anybody else having her attention. Tyrian delights in my failure. Go figure."

This was much messier than Jaune assumed. How did she just drop casual anvils like that, mid-conversation? Not in it for Salem. So what was she in for?

Jaune sat down on his bed again. It was dark out, and it had already begun to sharply drop in temperature. He was alone, and somewhere, miles away, so too was Cinder, her master sleeping the long sleep. He knew that they had time. The others didn't, and he had no idea how to tell them. He would have to tell Ruby about Penny, and he would have to ask Emerald if she knew anything. He would also have to be careful not to let her think he was blaming her.

He, after all, had his own secrets. It didn't seem likely that she had betrayed them. She had helped them on the way to Vacuo in a way which meant no going back. But she might have known something. There might something— or somebody— she was protecting.

Much like his own Fall Maiden, whom he shouldn't protect; was, anyway. But there was a complicated knot between her, Tyrian, Salem, and whoever was causing trouble in Vacuo, and he was going to tease it out.

But that would have to wait. He needed to find Ruby, and tell her what happened. He could not yet tell her about Cinder, or the Aura bond, not before he fully understood it.

"I have to find Ruby," he said, rubbing his leg nervously.

"Fine. Go, then," Cinder said. Her expression shuttered away, then she turned, and he caught the barest hint of a frown.

"What was it you said? We'll see each other again?" He walked towards the door, past her, not touching. She felt electric anyway.

But she didn't reply. When he opened the door, and turned to shut it, she was gone. A faint shimmer only remained, sparkling and forgotten. Why did it feel like a loss? He walked by himself, leaving her, recalling where Nora had directed Ruby was staying. He had been so afraid, but he knew what he needed to do now. Cinder had helped him.

"Hi!" Ruby called through the door when he knocked. "It's unlocked!"

He peered through, and she grinned in greeting.

"Come in, Jaune!" So he did.

He knew she was more than the joy she put on sometimes— sometimes her expression was cloudy, and guarded, sometimes mysterious in a way he knew he'd never understand— but it was infectious, anyway.

"How are you doing?" he asked. He awkwardly stood by the door before Ruby gestured he take the small stool. Her room looked much the same as his, though Ruby's clothes were always a mess.

"Fine as can be. You know I like having a plan. I think we'll start tomorrow looking for the Summer Maiden. Can't be too obvious, though," she said. "My hunch was Cinder… but if it's not her, trafficking of Semblances is our best bet."

"I think we need to talk to Emerald and see what she knows," he said.

"But why would Salem be involved if Cinder isn't here?"

"Salem plays mind games," Jaune said.

"Right. Of course. Unleash her when we least expect, pull Cinder back when we do." Ruby huffed. "That's just typical."

"Yeah." Jaune didn't know how to broach it. Penny.

She took pity on him. "It looks like you need to say something, Jaune. Is it about… Pyrrha? Is it— we didn't know you were down there. If we did, we would have looked, but it was so strange. I'm just glad you're here."

So Jaune tried to tell her the only way he knew how. The way Cinder cut through the truth, unhesitant. "Did Weiss tell you about everything which happened on the bridge? To Vacuo?"

Ruby seemed confused. "You were the last to fall? You fought Cinder, and… Penny died," at this her voice cracked, but she kept going, "and she passed her power onto Winter."

"Do you know how she died?" His heart was as fragile as glass. But he had come here to tell her what happened. He had to stop feeling sorry for himself, for what he was. He had to accept it. He had to accept who Penny was, too.

"No," Ruby said, high-pitched yet quiet. The moon was waning tonight.

"Penny was injured by Cinder," he said. "She tried to use her Grimm arm to sap her Aura, and take the Maiden powers. It didn't work. But we still lost. Penny was bleeding, and Weiss was fighting Cinder on her own, and I went over to help her. There wasn't enough time." He drew in a breath. "I tried. And she put her hand on my sword and told me what to do instead."

"No," Ruby said again, but this time it wasn't confused, it was heartbroken. "Jaune."

"She told me to do it. If I did it, then Cinder wouldn't get the power, and Penny could choose." Jaune hid his face, but was it his tragedy to hide from? "I killed her."

"You…"

"I killed her, Ruby. She told me to and I did it. I know what you're thinking. I could have tried healing her, I could have tried fighting Cinder, but she begged me. I couldn't— deny what she wanted. Not when you were already gone."

Ruby was crying now. When Ruby cried it made Jaune want to cry, too.

"I'm so sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry. I didn't deserve to come back, but I did—"

"Pyrrha killed Penny once, too. And I forgave her." Ruby hiccoughed and wiped at her eyes, red-rimmed silver. "Cinder was involved then, too."

"But I did it, Ruby."

"But Cinder—"

"Ruby. I still did it. I'm a healer—"

"But it was CINDER!" Ruby said, frustrated, nose snotty. Jaune pulled back. "She wanted the power, and you had to keep it from her!"

"It shouldn't be that kind of tabulation. I should have protected her—"

"Well, she's gone now, isn't she," Ruby snapped. "She's dead. It doesn't matter who let her down, or who wanted the power then, does it? The Maiden power made her a pawn, and we swapped her around like one. I thought— I thought she was going to stay this time. But she didn't."

"I'm sorry," was all he could say.

"You know the worst part, Jaune? I knew Winter was the Winter Maiden, now. I knew Penny was dead. I already heard from Winter that if Penny hadn't have passed the power on when she did, she would be dead. So who would be better off? Weiss or Penny? At least Penny saved Winter. Penny chose."

"Like Pyrrha," he said quietly, because her choice, again, made him think of his.

And Cinder's.

"What did you think I was going to say?" Ruby said.

"I thought you'd hate me. I thought you'd tell me to leave and never come back."

She shook her head. Somehow, Cinder's judgement of him had made him ready to accept Ruby's, and Ruby's was this: kind, understanding, limitless. Who carried what Ruby did wrong, then? Who did she turn to when she was worried? When she killed somebody she should have saved?

"You're back now, and you're alive. We need to find the Summer Maiden. Winter is settling in. We just— can't stop. We don't know when Salem's going to hit us next."

"The Summer Maiden," Jaune repeated. They let silence fall, and he waited for Ruby to blow her nose on a tissue, and then she passed some to him. He had missed her, he couldn't lie.

"So what about the Spring Maiden?"

Ruby's expression clouded. "How do you know about that?"

"Whoever beat Cinder in Haven's vault had to be talented. It wasn't Vernal. But they were arrogant, and left her to live. There's only one woman I can think who fits that description," Jaune lied.

"Right," Ruby said. "Yeah. Well. We talked about that… down at the beach. When Raven turned up. It's a long story."

"Is she here now?"

"No," she said shortly.

It must have been a long story, and Ruby had closed off to him, and strangely it reminded him of Cinder. He sighed.

"I'm sorry. It's tough work keeping track of all of these Maidens," he said, trying for brevity.

"I can't envy them," she said, mostly to herself.

Jaune couldn't envy them. World-ending power, doubly lethal, doubly hunted.

"Coming for dinner?" Ruby asked. It was a diversion, but food perked her up. If Nora's enthusiasm was anything to go by, the meals was good here.

So they went for dinner, and even having skipped meals and survived off seafood for weeks, he didn't eat as much as Ruby or Nora, the anxiety in his stomach taking up room. But it was nice. He liked the normalcy of the mealtime: Ren and his delicate handling of utensils; Yang getting food in her hair accidentally; Blake stealing food off her plate when she wasn't looking; Ruby talking loudly and enthusiastically; Weiss dabbing at her face with a napkin. Though it was an unusual place, in a new kingdom, with different faces, some familiar and some new, he felt oddly comfortable.

He met Ilia, who was Blake's friend. She sat near Weiss, chatting amiably, and Weiss kept sneaking him looks. He nodded to her yes, he had told Ruby. She seemed to get the message.

"I hear you're looking for the Summer Maiden. Is there anything I can do to help?" Ilia asked. "Anything you need, I'm game. I'm very good at reconnaissance."

"So we've heard. We don't really have anywhere to start. The obvious place is the Crown, but the Summer Maiden was just killed in her home. In her sleep. So we could start there," said Weiss.

"They must've been tracking her, then. If they knew where she lived."

"That's what we think."

Somebody had planned it. It got worse and worse. Cinder was right. A Maiden could only be taken down with the right strategy, and especially numbers. So the assailant wasn't working alone.

Cinder was working alone now.

Why was he so worried about her? Maybe it was because he had gone to the trouble of helping her. Or perhaps because any other Fall Maiden he couldn't consider. Or because Salem's own lot would work against Cinder, and he didn't know why.

So when he departed for bed, showered, methodically went about his evening routine as if he had never stopped, he fervently wished for her to appear to him again. He slowed in his movements, slipping on pyjamas he had borrowed from Ren before he could get more of his own, waiting for her. He turned the lights off. The room was lonely, aching.

Just when he was drooling on his pillow, half-asleep and hazy, he saw her faint silhouette: the silver armour on her arm glinting in the faint light weakly protesting itself through the window, her billowing skirt, her petite shoulders. He thought maybe it was a dream, fevered, but she stepped closer and crouched in front of his bed, right beside him. She felt solid, real as anything, her mouth conformed into a moue, thinking hard. Not a dream. Jaune had grown cold and pulled the linen blanket over his shoulders tighter. He felt warm air rush over him, settling him, and he was sure if he opened his eyes any further she'd disappear. He let out a long sigh and fell asleep.