A/N: Dear reader,

A few housekeeping notes: there is a hint of Emerald/Mercury in this story, but it won't be outright if that's not to your taste. Thanks to all of the guests and people who have left reviews, I really appreciate it. Still getting the hang of using FFN. As always, you'll find me on AO3 or Tumblr at onewomancitadel on both platforms.

Thanks for reading! I love all the comments you leave.

Yours,

Seraphina


Jaune woke up. He was sure he had dreamt her, sleepy confusion which made him feel safe and unthreatened. He should have been scared of her, but maybe it had worn off. Maybe the knowledge she could do little to hurt him soothed him. It was more than that, though. Cinder's shadowed silhouette, her armour gleaming in the night, her quiet crouch; that seemed like it had come from another world, a softer world, not this one. It must have been a dream. But he had felt so warm.

There was something gnawing inside him. It had been there before Pyrrha died, but it had flared to life with her loss. But no. It went back further. It went back before Beacon. He didn't think about it especially much, because it wasn't important. It was a type of loneliness he didn't know how to name, not when he had friends who wanted him back, and a Ruby Rose who forgave him for killing her kindest friend. It was a loneliness older than loss, found somewhere thin, where the only thing he wanted to think about was what he could do for other people. That was a refuge in itself, because before that he had been selfish. Hadn't he? Jaune had forged his transcripts into Beacon. Jaune didn't even understand Aura. So what right did he have to loneliness?

He did not know.

Ren and Nora's reception to his return had been quieter than he expected. But he had sensed a guilt about them. He had sensed that Ruby's assumption about his underworld liaisons had unsettled them as equally it had unsettled him; for that, he felt even worse. He was so good at lying. But had Ozpin known he lied?

He had thought Ozpin had a sense of humour.

Now Jaune was a secretkeeper like him. He could not tell them. He went over it many times; he could not tell them, he could not make them understand why he did what he did, he could not threaten the precious peace. No, no, worse than that. If he were honest with himself, he thought, washing his face with cold water from the stiff tap, he simply wanted to keep it to himself because he was greedy. He was covetous.

Because the Aura bond was his. It was a terrible thought. It was one of his worst thoughts. There were a few times in Jaune's life when he wondered if he were secretly a bad person. Most vividly when he picked up his now-broken sword, and prepared himself to drive it through Penny's heart. He would never forget that. He might know who he was, and who he could be, but he would replay that over and over again like a broken tape recorder.

Jaune, too, would replay that scene when he found Cinder: all that blood, her, the way her one-eyed stare cut him open to bleached bone. She was his enemy. He would have to stop her or fight her or even kill her one day. But she had allowed him to choose something different, as much as he had wanted to do it because he had to do it. Cinder did not realise what a gift she had given him. That he could think on that. That yesterday, she had, in her own strange way, reminded him of who he was.

So he didn't want to tell them.

He still did not know why he dreamt of her. He did not dream of anything else.

Jaune went about his morning, fussing with his hair. He remembered the first time she talked to him on the beach. He was foolish to let it grow so long. He was more foolish listening to her. It brushed past his shoulders, combined with his timeless stay on the beach urging on. Ruby had said a few weeks. It felt like longer.

He had been alone with her for so long.

He needed to find Emerald to ask her a very important question. He had a feeling she would not receive him well, and it did occur to him to ask Oscar for help with it. But then, he also carried his own secret, and he found then that maybe she could not tell Oscar what she knew already because she was afraid.

Like she had been when they found her, and Jaune could only think of all the things she had done. He thought of all the things he had done now instead. It tasted bitter.

Of course, his own personal feelings didn't stop laundry from accumulating. His old clothes, beach-worn, seawater-scented, were still in that knapsack. Her sword. It felt somehow both odd and right to see it sheathed in his shield. Black and white. Its gleam was preternatural. Emerald would recognise it. But he didn't need a weapon, not to talk to her. He was pretty sure.

Emerald's room was near Nora and Ren's, whom he somehow wanted to speak to and fervently avoid. They were his dearest friends. He had tricked them. But then, what he knew and felt now, made him alien. But he had already felt alien. Penny.

Emerald was not in her room.

His next port of call were the gyms. It was too early for breakfast yet, he was pretty sure. He had slept early and slept well. There were little students milling around, and the high-vaulted halls of the ziggurat were decorated with reliefs of warriors and priests, rich, russet reds, blues and turmeric yellow. The walk was longer than it should have been, because he kept getting distracted by the appearance of orange: here and there, decorating headdresses or ornamental floral motifs.

The open courtyards were bright with morning sun. It didn't take him long to find her. She was practising kicks. She was by herself. Jaune wasn't sure how to start a conversation with her, but Cinder had given him oddly good practice. Cinder also couldn't kill him. That worked in his favour. As he figured out how to make his approach, he also recalled that she had not killed him, even when she had the chance at Haven. She had gone for Weiss instead.

"Um, hi," Jaune tried. She stopped kicking. That was something.

"What do you want?" she said. Emerald had seized up, defensive. She looked prepared to be angry, but not quite so yet.

"I just wanted to check in." He shrugged. Then he remembered what Cinder had said about him shrugging. So he tried not to shrug. "See how you were settling in. We only worked together briefly, but you might've noticed I like making sure everybody's okay."

"I'm fine," she said.

"That's good," he said. A beat. He almost wished Cinder were giving him running commentary now. But he figured Emerald wouldn't have liked that much.

"Do you wanna introduce me to your new lame team name with mine included, or something? Or some stupid team exercise? Do you guys practice trust falls?"

"Well, I'm sure with that sarcasm you'll fit right in," he said, huffy. He crossed his arms and sighed. He tried again, "I lost somebody once. She can't come back, but you… well… let me lay it out on the table. It doesn't take an idiot to figure out someone's here causing trouble, and they're probably tied to Salem in some way. But there's only one woman we know who was interested in the Summer Maiden powers who worked for Salem, and it wasn't her."

She froze.

"I'm not accusing you. And I'm sorry to mention Cinder to you. But Tyrian's not accounted for, and neither is Mercury. I don't think it's your fault you didn't mention him yet, but it's obvious he's here. Isn't he?"

Jaune already knew. But she said, slowly, "I don't know what you're getting at."

"He was your teammate. You knew he was involved here, but nobody seemed to mention it yesterday in Theodore's office."

Emerald turned to him. She was on the defence now. "I didn't even want to join you guys anyway. But I wouldn't keep stuff from you like that. I just— didn't know how to tell you! And I thought it was obvious!"

"Yeah, okay, we suck," he said, monotone. "I understand you didn't know how to tell us. I— have— things— I've struggled to mention. But is there anything you know? About Mercury here?"

Her mouth worked for an answer, and somehow, Jaune didn't know exactly how, the Mercury question was more complicated than he anticipated. He had seen that longing before, and in her red, sad eyes, he knew. There was a note of hesitance.

"I don't know anything," she said quietly. "I just know he's here," she added, and turned away from him, her voice this close to breaking. "Don't ask me again. There's nothing else I can tell you." She must not have meant to let him see that vulnerability. But then, he did not know what he would do or how he would manage if his teammate were his erstwhile opponent now. Or more than teammate, if his intuition were correct. It often was.

No, but he knew enemy well. He knew it all too well, as he searched for her, wondering when she would appear to him. Emerald gave him one last considering look before she went back to kicks.

"Emerald," he said.

"What now?" she stopped, turned, and snapped.

"Last time I'll annoy you, but I have to say this: you're with us now, if you want to stay. And I know I judged you when you first— turned up— but you did well. On the bridge. And um, I didn't really get to say this before, you know—"

"You really know how to do these speeches, man."

"I'm just trying to say welcome to the team!"

"Yeah, I guess you needed to get that out of your system," she said, and then she laughed at him. "Nora said you'd try that once you got over your initial reaction."

"Oh, Nora said it, I see."

"She's nice," Emerald said. "Great at navigating a desert. Eats my crusts."

Jaune laughed into his hand. "Okay, Emerald. I'll see you later."

He had been prepared to not like her, even if she were on their team now. But Emerald did not know how she endeared herself to him on the merit of liking Nora.

Jaune would then have breakfast with her, and Ren, and everybody else. It was if he had not left, the only person who knew that he had being himself. He knew how it felt to be alone on the beach, having done what he did, confronted with that shadow that spoke back; Cinder, who had cast fire at him and lit his kindling instead. Whom he had given cover with his own soul, to protect her from the Grimm malfestation. Now tied to him, open Aura to open Aura.

The Winter Maiden passed his table, moving to sit with the Happy Huntresses. The academy was certainly home to more than students, now. It was the virtual oasis against Salem's war of attrition. He saw Winter briefly tap Weiss on the head, just to annoy her, he thought, but Weiss only seemed to giggle.

Last he had seen Winter, she was grieving what she thought was the permanent loss of her sister. Vowing a familiar type of revenge against Cinder. Now she laughed with Weiss. Now she was the Winter Maiden, powerful, equally hunted.

The dining hall was loud. His attention zipped between Ruby's conversation with Nora about the Mantle settlement to Yang and Weiss discussing how to track a Maiden.

"Depends how flashy she is about her power. She probably doesn't want people to know. But you need a mask to hide the… eye-flame things, which is suspicious enough," said Yang.

"But that's not enough either. Is there anything from her home to give us an indication?"

"They knew the place. So whoever's involved knows how to track a Maiden, better than us. I mean, we stumbled onto every other one, right?"

"Yeah, I got kidnapped by one, apparently," Weiss muttered. Yang grimaced.

"That's… not a bad idea," Jaune said, and Weiss and Yang looked at him, expectant, the latter still half-grimacing.

"Here we go. You're worse than her, you know," Weiss said, and inclined her head towards Ruby.

Jaune was smothering a laugh as he said, "No, no, hear me out. Let's bait them. Sure, we could go searching in the desert for weird looking weather patterns, and from the way Ruby's bouncing around I think she actually wants to do that— I thought walking across Anima would be enough for her." He stopped and smiled to himself. "Okay, but consider: somebody went out of their way to find and kill a Maiden, and we really shouldn't leave Shade unprotected for too long, what with the Relic and all… so…"

Weiss gritted out, "You are not using my sister as bait."

Jaune knew it sounded bad. "She's already here anyway, and probably already being hunted, Relic or not—"

"It's the principle of it! And don't you dare mention this to her, because she'd probably agree!"

Yang's gaze was in her lap. He couldn't tell if she were ambivalent about it or not.

So Jaune said, "Okay, let's consider an alternative. If we know Tyrian and Mercury are here now—"

"Mercury?" said Yang.

"I mean it's obvious," he said, glossing over it, for Emerald's sake, "let's move on. We know there have been people trafficking powerful Semblances, and presumably it's the same people interested in the Maiden powers. So let's find somebody with a powerful Semblance."

"Like who?"

Jaune pursed his chin. "Like me?"

"That's— that's even worse!" Weiss said.

"Well, it's fair. I suggested it."

"I think I would prefer tracking weather patterns," Yang said. Weiss' high-pitched objection had attracted the others' attention, and Ruby got out of her seat to lean over Weiss.

"Is Weiss being nice or mean?"

"Too nice," said Jaune.

"I see, I see. And this is a problem how?"

"Because Jaune wants to nobly get himself killed," Weiss said.

"It's not noble! And I wouldn't die anyway. Probably," he amended.

Though Jaune knew that Salem slept, the Summer Maiden's murder complicated things. It made Winter a target. Raven, too, wherever she was. A certain Fall Maiden.

He couldn't help himself checking the room for her, if she distantly appeared to him.

"Jaune, we've talked about this," Ruby said. "Only I get to do the buttheaded stuff."

"Oh, I've had enough from you," Weiss grouched.

"Weiss, we'll check out the Summer Maiden's home. Then we'll do some stormchasing, how does that sound? Jaune won't get himself killed, at least not today," Ruby said, wisely. "Winter will be here, safe at the Academy, and we'll figure out what to do next."

"Now that sounds better than human bait," Yang quipped.

Blake said something funny about bait which made them all laugh, but he had missed it. He met Nora's concerned gaze and smiled, dimly.

"Well, who's going with you then, Ruby?" said Nora. "I think I'm staying behind, what with— Mantle, you know, the kids. Ren?" Ren beside her nodded.

"Maybe just a small team. Blake, were you thinking of staying with the White Fang?"

"Yeah," said Blake. "I think Ilia really wants to help you, though. So maybe we'll go together."

They talked amongst themselves until they figured out a team. Jaune had been silent until he said, "I'll go, too."

"But you only just go back," said Nora.

"Yeah, and I sat on the beach for a long time doing nothing," Jaune said. Something tightened in Nora's expression.

"Are you sure, Jaune?" Ruby asked.

He had a Fall Maiden problem more pronounced than his Summer Maiden problem. He was sure.

They would suit up. Jaune went to do a double-check on his gear before he went out. His sword he hoped nobody noticed. It was too ridiculous a notion: why would Jaune be carrying Cinder's sword? But then, his situation was pretty ridiculous. At least it felt almost normal going out with Ruby and the others. They had a plan, now, even if it weren't much.

"You know, when I said your hair looked bad short, I didn't know you would grow it so long," said a horribly familiar voice to his side. He looked up from where he was polishing his shield to see her standing there, expectant, relaxed.

"I didn't know I would get a running commentary from the Fall Maiden on my hair, so I guess we're both surprised," he said. "Fall Maiden… enemy… Salem's second-in-command. You pick the weirder sounding one."

"Second-in-command?" She huffed, almost a laugh, dry, mean. "I do like the attempt at discerning the organisational structure of Salem's following. It's quaint. For that matter, I'm nobody's second."

"Oh, so you tell Salem what to do?" Jaune heard noise in the hallway. Ruby was assembling the team, which was a hard to miss call. He slid his shield and sword onto his side, double-checked for everything he needed. He hadn't done laundry. He had left his armour on the beach.

He had buried his armour in shame and left it there. That armour, made from inherited gold. He had been so ashamed.

Cinder was tracking him.

He said, "I left my armour on the beach. I— buried it."

"I know. I saw you do it. Why?"

"I can't talk now, we have to go—"

"Ah. On a detective's expedition, I take it. You certainly leave no room. But don't try to distract me. Why did you do it?"

He did not speak. She deduced him too well. It was like she already knew why he buried his armour. She was just baiting him to say it. He couldn't.

"You're not worthy," she said gently. It was nearly condescending. But it was a type of kind cruelty, too, because he refused to say it. "Or you think you aren't, anyway," she said distantly behind him.

Ruby was outside his door. He clenched his jaw and left, the feeling of her behind him fading. But it was still there. It didn't compel him, or try to pull him back. He thought maybe he would feel something that with the bond. No. There was just that steady knowledge she was there, and he was leaving her behind. He had things to do. She was locked in her tower, biding her time with Salem.

The receding walls of Shade Academy behind them gave way to a relentless horizon, stretching out infinitely. It would have driven anybody unused to it mad. The Summer Maiden, or, the one who once was, had lived in a secluded abode far enough out that it wasn't quite residential. The wadi nearby was the landmark they were looking for.

"I always thought deserts were supposed to be dead and ugly," said Yang.

Dead and ugly it was not. Yet it still marked a grave, the desert garden surrounding the Summer Maiden's home all hardy plants, cacti which took root in the ground and then didn't let go. It was a suspiciously secluded home, but Jaune figured if you were the Summer Maiden, you had to be.

"Wait, so, Ruby, if this is the site of a crime, are we allowed here?" Weiss asked. Jaune saw Blake roll her eyes, which he tried not to laugh at and failed.

"I think we're closer to being the ones to figure out what happened, don't you think, Weiss?" Ruby said, which wasn't an answer to satisfy Weiss.

"No witnesses," said Blake.

No witness to her murder. A dried up riverbed. A forgotten garden. Heat disturbed the way ahead, faintly blurry. Jaune had been used to heat, and he had been used to water for so long. The night before he had almost felt restless for the sound of the waves. He had been cold, but eventually warmed up.

The front door was unlocked. Yang had gone ahead to try it on a lark, and they all shared a look of surprise.

"How was she killed?" asked Yang quietly. "Did they say?"

Ruby and Yang talked amongst themselves, the Summer Maiden having had her throat simply slit in her sleep. It was unfair, a Huntress caught off-guard in her own home. No fight. No resistance. Nothing. Whoever had killed her certainly knew they would need either numbers or they would need to catch her unawares, and they had the latter for a reason, and they had, in the first place, figured out who the hell the Summer Maiden was.

Her home was undisturbed. The entryway, neat, shoes by the door. Kitchen, pantry full of food, sitting area littered with magazines on gardening, her bookcase stacked with romance novels. The Summer Maiden was a woman independent of her powers. She had been killed anyway. All Maidens were Maidens before they were anybody else. That could be a curse or a blessing.

The previous Summer Maiden's weapon was just by her bed, out of reach. Her bed was bloody. Weiss gasped and left the room, and Blake moved forward ahead of her. Yang went to comfort Weiss.

"It's just— not right," Blake said.

"No fight. In her sleep," Ruby said, putting her hand on Blake's shoulder, maybe more to steady herself than Blake.

Blake was upset by something Jaune didn't understand. Not until Ilia said, "Adam killed Sienna Khan the same way. Well, similar. He just stabbed her, in front of all her guards. He said she would be considered a martyr to the humans, but I found out otherwise. Obviously."

Bizarrely, horribly, he thought of Cinder's fevered words to him, tainted with blood loss: if you had to kill, you had to respect your opponent. Know them, and kill them respectfully. You couldn't gut them like a butcher. He had thought the same thing: he could not gut her like a butcher, and carry her blood like that on his hands.

Whoever had killed the Summer Maiden did not share a similar view, even if they were messed up in different ways.

"Ruby?" called Jaune.

"Yeah?" said she.

"Tyrian's involved. There's no question. He's not our Maiden, but he knows enough about them. He must've been the one to at least suggest this. But how do you ensure the power goes to the right person in her sleep?"

Yang appeared at the door. "Yeah. About that."

There was nothing in the Summer Maiden's bedroom which indicated who had been there. It was a crimeless crime scene, but for her blood, and presumably her body, now long gone.

They all waited expectantly for Yang.

"Cinder had a Grimm arm she used to sap the Maiden powers. Mom told us. But she didn't use it on Penny? I don't know why. But they could've used something like that, right? Or maybe they just have somebody with a Semblance which can drain Aura. I don't know," Yang said. "But Jaune's right. Tyrian's involved. But exactly how did a Summer Maiden be found out and then murdered? Why weren't they prepared here in Vacuo?"

"You heard what Theodore said," Jaune murmured. Why indeed had Cinder not used her arm. Why indeed.

"Why not send Cinder? I don't get it," Ruby said.

"Cinder's the angry one, right? Who wants all the Maiden powers?" Ilia said.

The angry one who wants all the Maiden powers. Jaune twitched. He was not covering himself well. Yes, she was the angry one who wanted all the Maiden powers. She was the one who instructed him how to murder properly, lent herself to his direction. She was the one who drew him out from the beach, and resented him for his insignificance and his imposition.

"You think this is connected to the Crown?" Jaune tuned back in to hear. Ilia answered Blake's question in the affirmative.

"But most of them were locked up," Weiss said.

"Like that's enough. Tyrian's proof," Jaune said sullenly.

It was a beat before Ilia said, "Not all of them were. And besides. If this Tyrian guy is involved, it could be anybody. Who wants to be a Summer Maiden? Find somebody who wants power, and it seems like you could convince anybody to do what you want – unlock one of those Vaults you're all obsessed with."

"Yeah, and Tyrian's not a Maiden. Now that would be funny," said Yang. "A guy as a Maiden. Tyrian."

"But Cinder could be here. Why isn't Cinder here? Why isn't Salem?" Ruby shook her head. "There's something I'm missing, and I don't get it. She should want the Summer Maiden. She should be here for her. But until now, there's been nothing."

Jaune knew well why. Cinder had orders. She would not leave, not whilst her master slept alone in her fortress.

"There's only one person I can think of with a Semblance that could drain a Maiden in her sleep, but even then, she's, well, she's been dealt with," Ilia said. "She's in jail. Gillian Asturias. Teams CFVY and SSSN dealt with all of that. How do you guys not laugh at the names?"

"Team RWBY is cool," Ruby said under her breath.

Jaune went outside for air. A wind blew through, rustling his hair and bringing with it cool relief. Cinder did not kill the Summer Maiden, but Tyrian was involved. Tyrian did not like Cinder. Salem was sleeping, and had sent Tyrian to do whatever Tyrian wanted.

Jaune sighed. Tyrian was evidently spiteful, and eager to please Salem. He had expedited their plans, whatever they were. They did not know when Salem would decide to strike next, if at all, and now wonder and worry was in the air. If it hadn't have been Cinder, then who was it?

Tyrian must have known how dangerous that thought was. It had already eaten at Jaune, and it would eat at everybody else without a personal line to the Fall Maiden herself. Their trip out to the Summer Maiden's home had been fruitless.

Ruby came out to stand beside him. "Do you think she knew she was being followed?"

"I don't know what she was like. If I were being followed, I'd put security cameras up," said Jaune, and he nodded towards the front door. No cameras.

"She got careless."

"Maidens haven't been hunted for a long time. Not until Cinder. She banked on that when she found Amber, right?" He pretended not to know.

"Yeah. It just scares me. This isn't what this type of power should be about. Like my eyes. It shouldn't be… a threat," Ruby said, her voice catching lower and lower.

"Maybe it could change. Who knows. The Maiden powers matter now for the Relics."

"I guess if they have their Summer Maiden, who's to say when they'll attack the school?"

Jaune said carefully, "That's dependent on how co-operative she is with them. Think about it. Cinder's interests already aligned with Salem, but given how long you all have already been here, Tyrian had to work with whoever this woman is, for a while, to convince her to do this. We don't even know what her interests are. At least we knew with Cinder. And Tyrian, if he's working by himself— well, he and Mercury— he's never done anything like this before."

"And Shade Academy's on high alert," Ruby finished for him.

"So it's actually not that straightforward. Who knows."

"But who else will he help kill in the night? Because that's what we're dealing with. Not a full-scale assault or some manipulation, like with Cinder. This is Tyrian, and this is Tyrian without Salem around."

"So let's not leave it to chance," he said. He thought of Winter. He thought of Cinder, in her room alone, that damp place. He hadn't wanted to stay there long at all. It felt more dead than the beach, and he had been alone there, all except for her.

They headed back, empty-handed. The trek was long and hot.

"I wish we hadn't gone there. That was her whole life in there, gone," said Weiss beside him.

"We had to see it," he placated.

"I know, but you could see nobody but her lived there. She didn't have any photos of family, or friends, nothing personal. We only found out she had been killed because of a cursory check, and how long do you think her body had been sitting there, Jaune? Did Theodore say?"

"No," Jaune said thoughtfully.

"Who'll bury her? Who'll miss her?"

"Well," he tried, "At least we could."

They witnessed the aftermath of her horror, and horror though it was, seeing it meant something. Even if she was the last Summer Maiden, nameless and forgotten, they had seen what became of her, and the remnants of it, before her murder: the books she liked, the Mistrali recipes she saved on her fridge, the unopened package of rice in the kitchen. If nobody could mourn her, they could.

"So I guess we just wait until something happens?" Yang threw her arms in the air, puffing with exertion up the sand dune. "Great. Maybe another murder could keep things interesting."

"What have you been up to, anyway?" Jaune said, because he could see Ruby about to tell her sister off for trivialising murder.

"Training, just like Beacon," Yang said, monotone.

"Given that my sister is now the Winter Maiden, I have been aiding her in practising with the power," Weiss said primly, hands behind her back. She described to him their manner of routine, which now involved Weiss using her own Summoning against Winter, something she was proud of. She delicately avoided mentioning Winter's distress over her loss. "Winter is doing very well now," Weiss said, as close to it as possible. "My mother and Whitley, of course, didn't know how to handle her moods as well as I do, but things are better now we're back."

"Courtesy Yang's mom," Blake piped up, which Yang scoffed and rolled her eyes at.

"Change of heart?" he asked, curiously.

"Qrow had a breakdown," Ruby said, not looking at him. "Well, sort of. He flew looking for Raven, and he got into a fight with Winter over looking for Raven, and Winter was here looking after Atlesians and— negotiating I think was the word she used, with the Happy Huntresses—"

"Which wasn't pretty," said Weiss.

"—anyway, it's kind of a long story," Ruby finished.

"You said that," Jaune said.

"It's really long," Yang said.

"Some weird stuff happened down there?" Ruby tried. "Neo tried to kill me. Again. It didn't take."

"Yeah, weird," Jaune said, mostly to himself.

"Well, we had a crazy trip from where Atlas used to be," Ilia said. "And then we came here, and Blake's dad was really upset. But the White Fang's been helping people settle in. Oddly enough, a third party between Atlas and Mantle has been kind of helpful, as things are."

"Yes, Winter has spoken very highly of you," Weiss said. "She finds your reconciliation skills adept. Generous praise, from my sister."

Ilia blushed at that. Jaune shook his head and looked away, smiling to himself. They bantered on for a bit as Ilia tried to deflect the compliment, and Blake encouraged Weiss, and then, as Shade Academy came back into view after the long walk back, Jaune turned and looked behind him. At the top of the dune he almost expected to see her, as often on the beach she would turn up unexpectedly. Cinder was not there. He should have been grateful. Mitigating the bond as they were, he did not know the full consequences of it.

But still, he searched for her. It was partly fear. It was partly curiosity. He had not grown used to her; every time she appeared was as shocking as the last.

The heat bore down, familiar and kind, the heatwaves blurred the distance.

"Jaune?" said Ruby. He turned to her, caught in his guilty reverie.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good," he said quickly, and kept up with them, ahead of him now. He felt a prickling sensation down his back, and he turned back again, hoping she was there. She still wasn't. He felt foolish, and kept walking.

By the time they came back, Ruby tittering about needing a meteorologist, Jaune caught Emerald scrutinising him with crossed arms. He rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. He hadn't told the others where he had learnt that Mercury was here, so he wasn't sure what he had done wrong.

Shade Academy was safe. It was the safest place in Vacuo. Ren and Nora were off spending the evening alone together, and team RWBY were having a board game night, and who else? Well, they were all doing their own thing. For that matter, Jaune had spent an hour waiting for Cinder to appear, and she hadn't. He couldn't discern the patterns of her appearances. So he went for a walk.

Vacuo at night was brightened with lanterns, and he followed the street markets selling everything from incense and scarves to every fried food known to Remnant until he began to recognise passing the same stalls again. It bustled with people talking and people eating and people walking, and whatever place the beach had been, this was the opposite.

So the prickle down his back, familiar as it was, unsettled him. He searched for her, past unfamiliar faces, marketgoers pushing past him as he stupidly stood there, right in the middle of the way. He couldn't find her. Again. Because she was not following him, a head of soft green ducked herself around a queue for something that smelt good, certainly involving a lot of oil. It was Emerald.

Well, she had to be following him for a reason, and it's not like she was going to kill him in the night. If she wanted to do that to any of them, Oscar or Ruby were more at risk. Oscar had taken a quick and easy liking to Emerald, and, well, he didn't quite know what was going on with her and Ruby yet, but Ruby's heart was big, even when it had been hurt.

So he kept going through the market precinct and tried not to bump into anybody, but being clumsy was still in his nature, and he narrowly avoided collision once or twice. Drums and string instruments warbled out in thumping beats and Jaune found himself in the small urban precinct, where the music had died out, and the pretty buildings gave way to peeling paint and the steady buzz of a generator.

"I know you're following me," he said.

"I know you know," said Emerald.

He huffed. "You don't have to follow me if you just want to talk. You could just ask for a conversation like a normal person."

"Well, I'm not socialised properly." She walked ahead of him and crossed her arms, looking as hesitant as he had ever seen her.

"You'll adjust." Jaune had a not insignificant amount of experience with Cinder. He had learnt how to wait, and prise out a difficult conversation.

"Okay," Emerald said to herself. She sighed. The rest of Vacuo looked haunting. It was dark, dark for miles, no light.

"If there's something you need to talk to about, I'm all ears. I mean, I know I judged you at first, but you did a really great job with us evacuating everybody and—"

"What's with the sword!" she nearly yelled. "Sorry. I just. I was mustering up the—"

"No, it's okay—" He scratched the back of his head. "Um, what's with the sword?"

"Don't play dumb. It's Cinder's. I'd know it anywhere. But she doesn't use it anymore," said Emerald, and it looked like it pained her to do so. Still, she stepped forward, inquisitive and accusatory at once. "How the hell did you get half of Midnight?"

"Ah," he choked out. He scratched the back of his head. Remembered, then, that Cinder had commented on his hair. That she had given him her sword, and clothed him, for his Summer Maiden hunt. Maybe, too, out of a displaced gratitude for saving her. He had told her he wanted nothing at all. She had not listened.

The mark of her on him was obvious. No need for the evidence of an Aura bond. She was all over him, physical as anything.

"Um," he tried, stopped and started, and Emerald only grew more suspicious. There was nothing wily he could come up with. "Strange things happened down on the beach—"

"You're telling me you picked up Cinder's very own weapon from the beach," spat Emerald. "I'm not stupid. It might've taken me a while to get out of Salem's, but it wasn't because I was ignorant. Mostly. Kinda. It was complicated. But there's no reason you'd have Cinder's sword, no matter what you claim went on down there. So what. The. Hell!"

Jaune did not like the pain contorting her face. He didn't fully understand what went on between them, could only discern based on Cinder's responses and what he could remember from Beacon and Haven, but the mention of her hurt.

Still, her sword sat elegantly sheathed in his shield. The black gleamed against the white.

Jaune wished the ground would swallow him up. He had been so afraid to tell anybody about the bond. It was his secret. It was complicated. It made no sense. It would brand him, surely, as some sort of traitor, not especially since he had only just been forgiven for his hand in Penny's death.

So the explosion and the rumble felt oddly unbelievable. Emerald and he only shared a look at each other before they ran towards the noise, senselessly, or rather, with the only sense they had. Sandstone tripped over itself as it crumbled, and they rounded round corner after corner to where fences had been felled, and a great hole had been blown through a nondescript looking building. Its lettering announced it was a Vacuo jail. Smoke rose.

Jaune drew his sword, and it felt balanced in his hand. Emerald beside her had drawn her guns. They approached slowly.

"It's not Grimm," Jaune said.

"Yeah, I figured."

They waited. There was nobody else around. There had been the ear-piercing explosion and now nothing. It wasn't an organised assault. Not like Adam's White Fang, with their assault on Haven. No. There was nothing.

But there was strange molten metal, hot and burning, dripping around the makeshift entry.

"Should we go inside?" Emerald asked. Her aim stayed steady.

"I'm calling the others, cover me," Jaune said, and he pulled out his scroll. He waited for Ruby to pick up, and when she did, he didn't pause, "There's an assault on the Vacuo Jail! I repeat, an assault on the Vacuo Jail, Emerald and I are currently covering where they've broken in, but—"

"On it! Over!" She hung up, the callsign piercing out.

"Emerald, I don't think we should go in. We don't know who's there."

"It's obviously Tyrian," Emerald said, distantly. He turned to catch a shadow pass over her face, sad and longing. It wasn't for Tyrian.

"We have more of an advantage here."

"Yeah, sure, advantage. If Tyrian doesn't make us mincemeat."

Alarms blared, for all the good they did. The smoke gave way to a scorpion silhouette, and Tyrian's mean, jaundiced yellow eyes surveyed them.

"Oh! It's all the little girls! And you, the boy!" Tyrian clapped his hands together. "What a special day, special day indeed. What say you come back with us, Emerald? Salem misses you so much. Not Cinder, though. I don't think she remembers you." Then he laughed to himself. "Sad, sad, so sad, but oh wait— yes, Mr. Black, do come through."

Emerald was swearing under her breath, her hands now starting to shake. Jaune moved slightly forward to cover her. He did not know if this would end in a fight. If it could even end in a fight rather than them just running.

"Boost me," Emerald mouthed at him, and he quickly got the message. He stepped back behind her and didn't touch her, trying to be subtle.

Mercury stepped through beside Tyrian.

"Emerald?" he said. Jaune had never heard him sound forlorn like that. His expression was unguarded, confused.

"What a happy reunion," said Tyrian. "I do so love bringing people together. Now, now, you two have some catching up to do, hm? Emerald betrayed Mercury, Mercury left Emerald behind, Emerald joined the thorned rose here, and how cruel? Poor Mercury. Stuck with Tyrian, like his mean daddy."

"Shut. Up. We came here for one job, we get out," Mercury said, trying to intimidate Tyrian, but Tyrian laughed at him full in the face.

"Big bad boy upset now? Maybe you should get therapy for your… attachment disorder. I really am disturbed with how you project onto me. Marcus Black was such a horrible daddy to you. Me? I am much kinder. Don't you think? I haven't even taken your Semblance. Not that there's one to take!"

"Leave him alone!" Emerald snapped, and then she reared back, surprised at herself.

"You can't protect him," Tyrian said, droll, hands clasped together. His expression was disappointed.

"What are you two idiots doing?" said a woman, loudly and confidently, bringing up the rear behind them. With her, hand-in-hand, was another woman, but she was mildly frightened, somewhat uncertain.

"Oh, Carmine, we are simply becoming reacquainted with some old friends," said Tyrian. "Are you and your woman quite done?"

"Quite," said the woman named Carmine. She had a head of flaming hair, and wore chainmail and aquamarine blue. "Are you done terrorising these hapless children?"

Emerald hissed, "Jaune, what do we do?"

"I don't think there's a way we fight out of this. We can't take them on."

"I don't think I could fight… Shit," Emerald said, then seemed to consider it. "Okay. I guess there's only one thing I can do." She closed her eyes for just a moment as Tyrian and Carmine had an argument about the gaggle of idiots in front of them, which Jaune figured was Emerald's projection onto them: she had made them think that all their friends were there, standing behind them, a pretend army to scare them.

Emerald cleared her throat, then gathered herself and raised her voice, "Mercury, you know this is all a waste of time. Salem doesn't care about you. Tyrian's a loser, and he sucks, and even if we can't stop all of this shit from happening, you don't have to make it worse." Tyrian started to laugh, but Mercury's usual unbroken swagger did not see its return; his expression only deepened and he took the smallest of steps forward to Emerald, unconsciously. "And what's the point of this without you? I don't want you to leave again!"

"Oh, but he left you, didn't he?" Tyrian said, and put an arm around the woman who shrugged him off and started to make her exit, deciding not to bother with them.

"We came here for one thing, we leave," Carmine said. Tyrian made way to follow her.

"You should work on your Semblance, Emerald. I thought you'd fight us with you all there," Tyrian said, low and cruel. "The boy amplifier is unsubtle."

Emerald growled and pushed Jaune away, and his Semblance slipped. He felt it grow for just a moment and he turned and saw Cinder.

Embers in the air floated past her. He shook his head silently.

"What now? Enjoying your evening with your gang of… friends?"

Jaune could not take his eyes off her, but now Emerald was pleading with Mercury, "Seriously! I'm here now! You left for Vacuo, but I came for you anyway. I know we didn't get on the best at first but you— you— you and Hazel— and you— I'm here now with everybody else but you're still gone."

Jaune couldn't watch her. It was too raw. He now understood. It was the secret she had kept about knowing Mercury was in Vacuo, the difficulty of her with them, and he with Salem.

Cinder tilted her head at him, curiously. He almost laughed. She was wearing pyjamas. In the middle of the Vacuo desert, she wore a midnight blue, long-sleeved nightgown, silk hanging over her, her left arm gloved.

"Please," Emerald said, finally.

Mercury held a fist to his mouth until he said, brokenly, "I have to go."

"You don't. You could come with us—"

"Emerald, are you forgetting it was what we did? What I've done now? This is it. This is everything. I know you might miss me annoying you, but you never liked me anyway—"

"I didn't know how to tell you! I couldn't!"

"You're too late," he said. "Because I already knew then how much I—" but he cut himself off this time, and Jaune felt like he was witnessing something far, far too intimate, such that he again turned his attention to Cinder instead.

"I wonder where you are now. Is the weather in Vacuo tolerable? It gets so hot during the day, yet cold at night. Sand doesn't retain much heat. When lightning strikes it, though, it's quite beautiful. Or so I've heard. Great fountains of glass. Like chaotic, nature-born sculptures," said Cinder, mostly to herself. She must have been trying to misdirect his attention, but she did not know she was the only thing he was trying to pay attention to.

"Merc? Merc?" Emerald called, but Mercury was already leaving. She went to chase after him.

Jaune caught her by the forearm. "Emerald, let him go."

"Don't tell me to let him go! He's right there, and he's so close, and he could just— WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS A PAIN IN MY ASS?!" she yelled, but it was at Mercury. Her call rang out through the hollow night.

Mercury did not reply. As he followed from whence Tyrian and Carmine had come, though, he let out something which either could have been a laugh or a cry, perhaps both.

Emerald cried. She landed on her knees, and Jaune didn't know how to help her, if she wanted a hand on her shoulder or not. He tentatively touched her, and she leant into it.

The sort of sob she let out was the type reserved for many unshed tears. Jaune watched her, sadly, and turned back to Cinder.

"I see," said Cinder. "I see."

That was how Ruby and the others found them. Emerald, still kneeling, her red eyes puffy with tears. So Jaune said, because he couldn't think of anything else, "My sister, Sapphron, always says it's good to cry. Gets out all the bad stuff. Calms you down."

"Babies cry," Emerald said, sullen.

"Babies need to eat and sleep, too, and cry, just like us," said Jaune, and then he found himself chuckling awkwardly.

Ruby came over beside them, surveying the scene. "You're gonna tell us what happened?"

He was looking at Cinder when he said it, "A strange woman named Carmine, accompanied by Tyrian Callows and Mercury Black, blew a hole in Vacuo Jail. They left with another woman. They didn't fight us."

"I used my Semblance to make them think you were all here, but I lost my focus," said Emerald.

Everything else faded away as he helped Emerald up, as the security alarms still blared, as Ruby went forth with the others and Emerald to survey the dead bodies of the guards, as Cinder's sword sat in his sheath, as the wind howled and the night was desert cold.

"Tyrian is tactless as ever. Any subtlety he ever possessed was the work of Watts. How did you fare?" Cinder said. Jaune was bent over pretending to catch his breath.

"Fine," he breathed out. "Why would you ask?"

"We don't know what happens if the other is hurt."

"Right. Of course," he said. "Well, not to worry. They had other plans."

"Yes, and you found me my Summer Maiden. All is well."

Slowly, so slowly, he lifted his intent focus from the ground up to her, and she was amused, and looked hungry.

"Oh, please. Tyrian deferring to another woman? Leaving you be? The answer is obvious."

He felt a pain in his chest, and his belly sunk low, low. The others were all inside, surveying the scene. He was out here, under the pale moon. He wasn't sure for how long he could talk, but he wasn't sure if that's all she wanted to do.

"So I guess you have all you need now," he said, and laughed, sharp.

"Tyrian has decided to acquire himself a Maiden vessel of his own. Salem sleeps, and demanded I stay… here. I have somehow acquired myself an Aura bond with you, the full consequences of which neither of us are sure. Forgive me for saying if I don't believe I'm quite finished," said Cinder.

"With what?"

"With you."

She did not move, but it was like she was almost touching him anyway, with the heat rolling off her.

"Oh," he said. "I see. So… what do you want from me?"

Cinder laughed, and somehow it was light. It could have been condescending, but it was more surprised. She had to think about her answer. "I thought I knew."

Jaune was going to ask her what she meant. If she knew now. He heard muffled footsteps in the sand and Ren and Nora sidled up beside him, their body language tense.

"Hey," he said, turning to them.

"You okay?" Ren asked.

"I'm fine."

"Well, you don't seem it!" Nora snapped. Jaune pulled back, and she seemed shocked at herself, just a little bit. "You've pulled away from us. And we were so happy to have you back, but something was different about you, and then you said you saw Pyrrha, and we left you behind, but— Jaune, what's going on? I thought you had figured things out, and I'm sorry we couldn't come back for you. But just talk to us."

Jaune had told Ruby. He could tell them too. "Nora. I killed Penny."

Nora's mouth fell open.

"How do you think Winter became the Winter Maiden? Penny died," he continued, the words flat.

"But I thought Cinder—"

"I drove my sword through her heart," he interrupted. "I'm supposed to help people and I killed her."

He did not add that he had saved Cinder. That he had saved her when he had killed another.

"Oh," Nora said quietly.

Ren was scrutinising him so that he felt naked, as bare as the sand. They were his team. They were his friends. But he had made himself different, and he didn't know if he could go back.

"Jaune? Your... Aura," Ren said, with great care, "It's… very strange."

Cinder was silent.

Jaune said, "What's wrong with it?"

"I didn't know you carried this much hurt. I'm sorry." Ren put a hand on his shoulder. "I wish I'd done something sooner."

Jaune hurt, yes. He ached. He ached and ached and ached. Yet there was something else pinched in Ren's expression, as if he had looked into a hidden pocket and seen the deepest of hollows..

There was a pain in Cinder which was like a woman all-razor. He had felt that when he had touched her, and she had surrounded him. It didn't supersede him. It made him acutely aware of where he began and ended. There had been the quietest and sweetest of moments, which he barely registered at the time, where he had seen something inside her which wasn't angry, which wasn't hurt, which wasn't hungry, which endured. Surrounded by an ocean of agony. Then at the centre: something light and beautiful.

She was looking away from him, and he saw that mask still pulled tight on her face. There was something thoughtful about her, though. He felt like he had caught her in a secret moment, when she didn't mean for him to be looking, her face soft.

"We should go back," Nora said. She tried for levity, "I suppose Theodore might want to know what's happened. Not that he likes his job much."

He didn't know how to say goodbye to Cinder. So he said to Nora, "Yeah, let's go."

They went. The others filed out eventually. Blake made a remark about Tyrian and company not even being kind enough to release the other inmates; so much for a prison break. The guards had all been left dead. Oscar checked on Jaune, and chatted to him idly about this and that, and what a shame it was his walk had been cut off.

Jaune asked him, "How is everything with Oz going? Are you okay?"

Oscar was pensive. "Same as usual. It's frightening. The fear doesn't go away."

"Do you mind if I ask you a question about it?"

"Go ahead. I think I'm the only person in this situation, so I can give you interesting answers."

Jaune laughed, but it was sad. "Yeah, yeah, I guess so. What does it feel like? Oz being there in your head. Do you notice it?"

Oscar stopped walking. He crossed his arms and uncrossed them, and said, "It's like I forget where he ends and I begin. My body is his body… his thoughts are my thoughts. But then sometimes I wonder about him, because mine can be his. I'm not alone in my head. And I just woke up with it."

"I'm sorry, Oscar," Jaune said, solemn.

"It's the card I'm dealt." Oscar resumed walking.

So what, then, of the burning alcove? Of the bond to Cinder? It was not the same thing. Oscar had not woken up and chosen this, again and again. Not like Jaune had. Not like Cinder had let him.

He felt like he knew more who he was now than he did before. Even if he really were capable of horrible things. Good things, too.

Because he knew saving her had been the right thing to do. If he got everything else wrong, there was at least that, and it was not quite the same thing as Oz's tie to Oscar. No, this was his Semblance.

Theodore said it could wait for the morning, by the time they had made it back to the school. Oscar rolled his eyes, and Nora and Ren said goodnight to him before they retired to their rooms.

Emerald came up beside him, just as he was the last to filter out. "Thanks for that back there. Sorry I broke down on you."

"Don't apologise. It sounds like things are complicated," said Jaune.

"Yeah. Complicated. And you don't like, think it's— ugh. I know he's still with Tyrian, and I shouldn't, well, I mean, he's my friend, kind of, and he…"

Jaune took pity on her and said, "Emerald, I'm not judging you. It's complicated, and you miss him. Just because he's on a different side, it doesn't change how you feel. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to intrude." As he said the words, the irony overtook him. He had to school his face, so she would not tell.

She nodded, and then said, "Well, thanks."

He shrugged and smiled.

At least he had avoided explaining to Emerald how he had Cinder's sword. He couldn't help laughing at the black humour of it. Sure, the apparent new Summer Maiden had turned up and wrought havoc, with Tyrian and Mercury in tow, but at least Jaune didn't have to make awkward conversation explaining his Aura bond to Cinder. Small mercies.

Jaune showered and was about to get into bed before he saw somebody was already lying in it.

It was just barely large enough for two. She was curled over in half, and she looked small, for how tall he knew she was, where she met him at his shoulders. Her thick black hair fanned out over the pillow. He rested his knee on the bed, watched her silently in the moonlight and the dim lamp left on the bedside table. So to his shock, when he thought her asleep, she turned over and caught him.

"Sorry," he said, voice low, awkward. "You're kind of in my bed."

The silence was taut. "You told them you killed the girl. Penny."

Cinder stretched out her arms in bed and then sat up. Her nightgown rode low across the decolletage, a choker interrupting the flow from there to her neck. Her skin, smooth and just a little dark.

"Yeah." He settled on the bed, trying not to touch her. He felt like he was being pulled away from her yet towards her at the same time.

"And? Did they cast you out?"

He shook his head. "No. No, Ruby forgave me. And Ren just wanted to help."

Something wrought itself across Cinder's face. It wasn't shock, and it wasn't fear, but it looked confronting.

"Right," she said, and he had not heard her sound that uncertain before. She grabbed her Grimm arm, and held it at the forearm, her grip tense, her hand fidgeting.

"Does it hurt?"

"It doesn't matter if it hurts."

"It does to me," he said.

That arm. Would she be prepared to accept what he knew about the Hound? The silver-eyed man, who had been stuffed inside that Grimm, like a farce of a puppet? Even if they were fundamentally at odds, she deserved to know.

She turned on her side and tried to ignore him.

Jaune said to her, "I should say thank you. I mean, I know it's sort of weird, but you helped me. I thought I forgot who I was."

She was still silent.

"But you made me remember. Isn't that weird?" He let out a breath which approximated a laugh, or a huff. She was the architect of his ruin. But she had helped him.

He thought she wasn't going to reply at all. Then when he was on his back and thinking about how close she was, she said, "I didn't help you. I'm used to being blamed, even for things I didn't do. But you shouldn't make the same mistake in reverse. I did no good for you."

"You did," he insisted, somewhat petulantly.

She sat up in the bed on her forearms. "You are worthy, you know."

"What?"

"Earlier today. You left your armour behind. You think you're not worthy of it, or you have some other strange guilt. But you are. You wear no mask, and you're relentless."

"Well, it's gone now," he said. "So it doesn't matter."

His chest went thud, off-beat and skittering. He was in bed with her. The gravity of it did not quite occur to him until he realised how she looked down at him, flat on his back, his sleeping shirt a little loose in the shoulders.

There was something dancing around in her eyes. It was inquisitive, her eyes burning, yet no Maiden fire to be seen. She turned over on her side again and Jaune switched off the light. He thought he would sleep well, after a day like that, but he was aware of her every movement, her sighs and each breath and the times she turned over this way and that to get comfortable. She was facing him, her eye closed, absent-mindedly scratching at the skin around the edge of the mask she wore even to bed. It looked tight and uncomfortable.

"Do you want to take it off?" he whispered.

"No."

"I can turn over if you're worried. It doesn't look nice to sleep in."

"It doesn't matter."

"Cinder," he said flatly, "I'll look away if you don't—"

"I don't want you to look away," she snapped.

He half-smiled. "Okay, I won't."

She sat up, hooked her fingers in deftly and pulled off the mask by the straps, then threw it somewhere over his shoulder. He didn't see. He was busy watching her. He could make her out by the shadow and light in the room, just by the broken, insistent moon streaming in with a fierce sort of determination. The hidden eye had been sealed shut, the skin around it scarring the epicentre of her wound. It looked dry, and it must have been, covered up like that all day. He realised that whilst he had been watching her, so had she. She had furrowed her brow.

She must have only taken it off because the room was dark, and it felt like a secret, or another world. For a crazy moment he wanted to reach out and touch her. Run his hand over her scar. Only to help her. Maybe see if the skin would soften, check if it had been healed properly, or offer some emollient. That was all.

He had watched her too long. She had gone from defensiveness to confusion, and then something quieter and desperate. She sucked in an uneven breath.

It wasn't like he forgot who she was. No, it was worse. He knew well who she was, and what she had done, and he had seen inside her and then she had looked back too and hadn't been driven away. That scared him more. If maybe for a moment he could pretend he was somebody else, and she too, then it would have been excusable. But he didn't.

"Well?" she said.

"Well what?"

"It's ugly."

He almost laughed. Had she been thinking that? "It really isn't. It just looks sore."

"You can blame Ruby for it. Still feel bad for me? I got what I deserved."

"Wait, when?"

"Beacon," she said slowly. "Obviously. You cracked my mask at Haven."

He remembered that well. But he didn't understand. "Cinder, Ruby's eyes only work on Grimm."

Cinder stilled. "I'm… aware. Surely you would be aware. You saw."

"But you had a Grimm eye?"

"I don't follow."

"Why would Ruby burn out your eye? How were you Grimm then in the first place?" Jaune felt faintly ridiculous.

She grimaced, cautious. "I had been bound to a Grimm to take the Maiden power. Before Beacon. After that, Salem…"

Ruby had said to him that the man, a Faunus with silver-eyes, the Hound, had been missing one eye. Black liquid, a miasmic fluid, dripped down his face, his one-eye still shining true, until he had died.

Cinder had screamed at him she didn't choose this. She hadn't chosen the arm. It was an unflappable mask she wore, but when it came off, she was barely contained.

She was holding up her right hand and it was shaking. "It was this hand," she said, "that I drained Amber's power with." Her right hand, human and fleshy, pumping with blood. "No. No. I need—" She sat up in bed and then clenched her fist. "I don't understand what you're trying to get at. And whatever you're trying, it's failing."

"I'm not trying anything," he said carefully. "I just don't get it."

"There's nothing to get. This is what I am. This is what I have to be to get what I want, to get what Salem wants, to stop you on your doomed quest to ostensibly save the world. None of it's worth saving, anyway. It's all wretched."

"It isn't," he said.

She laughed, then, but it was angry. "You haven't the slightest clue."

She turned over then in the bed, and he wanted to ask her to tell him. But her breaths were coming in quick and he heard her suppress a noise which sounded oddly like a cry, but aborted and choked. He didn't fall asleep for a long, long time. He could only watch the shake of her shoulders, curled in and defensive. It was a while until he heard the slightest of snores, on the outtake of breath. It was her.