Yo! Here's a weekly chapter because I wanted to be validated today (No, really, that's about it in terms of reasoning)
Hope you guys enjoy!
Start Chapter 30
Despite Ruby's disastrous opening line, Cinder actually takes her words decently well.
"I cannot blame you for what you did, then." She says, and Jaune feels a well of pride building in his chest. "You reacted in order to protect your friend. I am glad that you stopped me, in truth. I do not know if Jaune would've been able to forgive me had I… had I fired that arrow into Nikos' heart."
Ruby nods her head, still seeming a bit confuzzled about everything going on here. Jaune can't really find it in himself to blame her for that, what with the… well, what with the person who'd attacked Beacon being Jaune's soulmate. That's a lot to take in for just about everyone that they meet.
"I'm glad you guys limited casualties as much as you could." Ruby says all of a sudden, and Jaune nods his head, feeling much the same. "I heard there were no fatalities, despite everything going on, so I think that's a pretty major accomplishment."
"Yeah, definitely." Yang agrees, her stance loosening slightly as she seems to realize that Cinder isn't going to be biting Ruby's head off. "I admit I kind of thought things would be a lot more brutal. But you guys did good. Your plan was solid, it seems."
"You can thank Cinder for that one." Jaune says, turning and facing his soulmate, who looks away with a small huff. "She came up with our defense herself."
"I suppose that tracks." Yang doesn't say anything else, but left unsaid is that the reason that tracks is what had happened at Beacon, and that kind of halts the general good atmosphere that had been building between them.
Again, Jaune can't find it in himself to actually blame Yang for her words. It's a fair thing to say, at the end of the day. Still, he cares about everyone here. Having them at each other's throats is the last thing he wants.
Luckily, Ruby is way ahead of him on that one.
"So, uh… you're Jaune's soulmate, then?"
Cinder nods her head, seemingly a bit unsure as to why Ruby's asking, but all of a sudden, his friend giggles under her breath, and Jaune pales as he realizes what she's about to do.
"Y'know, he used to talk about you all the time." She says, smirking at him, and even though he runs his hand over his neck in as clear a 'stop doing that right now!' motion as he can give, Ruby continues. "You should've seen him; it was all he ever worried about. He came to Beacon all so that he could be strong enough to protect you, y'know."
Jaune winces then, feeling embarrassed that Ruby had called him out, but as he turns to see how Cinder is taking that, he sees…
She is looking away from him, and her cheeks are red.
"I see." She murmurs under her breath.
Ruby looks between the two of them with an easy smile. "Well, it's uh… good to meet you? I don't really have anything else to say if I'm being honest."
Cinder just nods. "Neither do I, in truth. I'd only intended to tell you what I have."
"Ah, gotcha'." Ruby raises her hand to her head in mock salute. "Well, then, I'm off to talk with Blake!"
And then Ruby's gone in a flurry of rose petals. As she does, Yang, too, breaks off from them, and goes to follow her sister.
…Well, it seems as if Jaune had underestimated Cinder. He'd thought that she and Ruby talking on their lonesome might be trouble, but…
"I'm sorry," He says to her as he walks to stand beside her. "I saw you about to talk to Ruby and panicked. I should've had more faith in you."
Cinder shakes her head. "No, you can't be blamed for being realistic. I'm doing my best for your sake, but if I wasn't, then–"
"But I know you are." Jaune counters. "And that means I need to believe in you. I didn't, so I'm sorry."
Cinder just stares at him for a long while after that, long enough for the sound of an explosion to jolt them out of whatever odd trance they'd been caught within. Despite Jaune's worst fears, this particular explosion is not the result of a rocket or grenade launcher, but instead…
It is a firework. A brilliant display of golden fire alighting the sky, illuminating the entire island of Menagerie in light. Jaune finds himself grinning from ear to ear as he places his hands on his hips, gazing up as more and more of them go off.
"Wow." He mutters. "It's beautiful."
"…I suppose it is eye-catching."
It is a similar statement in scope to something that he and Cinder had been discussing a few days prior, when they'd first traveled down into Kuo Kuana from the jungle just outside of it. He had thought the sights of this island wondrous, idyllic. Cinder had countered with its history, with what it had always represented to the people here.
Their ideologies had clashed, and though they'd had a small debate, Cinder had, he thinks, wanted for him to convince her otherwise. She had wanted to believe that there is beauty in the world.
He's hoping she'll be able to see the same things as him, someday.
"You don't find it interesting?" He says after he's finished thinking.
Cinder hums noncommittally. "It is aesthetically pleasing."
"But not beautiful?"
"I would not use so heavy a word."
He finds himself curious. "Then what's beautiful, to you?"
Cinder turns to look at him, and somehow doesn't even hesitate to say, "You are."
Jaune doesn't think he can be blamed for the way that he goes frightfully red at that, unable to meet Cinder's gaze as he turns away, staring at the ground beneath him. He knows she must just be messing with him, trying to rile him up, and to her credit, it's definitely worked. He expects her to interject with a laugh at any moment.
Of course, then the seconds pass by, and suddenly, going on ten, Cinder hasn't given any indication that she'd meant what she'd said as a joke.
"Wait, you…" he turns back around, a bit shocked. "Do you mean that?"
"Why would I not mean that?" She asks him, tilting her head slightly.
"I'm just…" It's hard to really quantify what it is he feels deep inside of him. That emotion that has lurked within him his entire life. He's fairly sure most people feel it, that tiny voice inside one's head that tells them they're never good enough. "Y'know. I'm not anything special."
Cinder shakes her head. "There is no one more special than you are."
He laughs, trying to deflect Cinder's praise. "In what way? I'm special because of how doofy I am?"
He's not expecting the way that Cinder stares at him, then. The way that she sets her gaze upon his own and almost forces him to give ground. Then, when he has sufficiently been cowed, she speaks again.
"You are everything anyone could ever want." She says, and again, Jaune feels heat rising into his cheeks. Into his whole form. "You are someone that I… that I care very deeply about."
She shakes her head, and then, she continues.
"You are kind and conscientious. You pay attention to others, you listen to what they have to say, and you remember. You do not have to be told things twice. You are always the first person to put yourself in the line of fire, and the last person to leave when the coast is clear. You do not push me. You're always willing to be patient, and let me make the first move. You make me feel at ease, and comfortable, and loved. You sat by me when I couldn't so much as speak, and you held my hand, and talked with me. When I had nothing, when I had no one, when I felt like there was nothing left in this world, that I was nothing but a failure, you were there. In my darkest moments, you have been a constant in my life. I would not even be here today without you."
Jaune cannot do anything but stare.
"So please, do not doubt yourself. To me, there is no one I think of more highly." Cinder says, and despite her rosy cheeks, she does not falter. "You are wondrous, and you are beautiful."
Jaune doesn't really know how he's supposed to respond to that. Well, he has some idea how, but he doesn't know, more, how he's supposed to just… absorb all of what Cinder has told him. He decides after a while that he'll simply have to try and do so over the course of the next little while, and instead focuses back in on the here and now.
"I think you're beautiful too."
Cinder looks away, then, but she has the tiniest little smile on her face, despite it all.
"I believe you, somehow."
Cinder nods, before seemingly seeking to explain.
"I am horribly disfigured." She speaks, and Jaune's brow draws down instantly. "I am missing an arm, and an eye, and more than any of that, I am a monster. I am evil incarnated; I am not a good person. And yet when you look at me I just… in your eyes, I feel like I can be something greater than that."
Jaune doesn't think someone's ever paid him any greater compliment than that.
"Your life has conspired to try and make you into a monster." Jaune says. "And maybe you succumbed to that for a while, but now you're doing your very best to be better. And besides, regardless of what you think about yourself, of your appearance, I think there's no one in the world more beautiful than you."
Cinder doesn't look at him, but he hears her breathe out a laugh.
"…We'll have to go back to Salem. You know that, right?"
He hums. "Yeah. I know."
"I am not entirely sure what she'll have to say about… all of this. After all, we have, technically recruited the White Fang, but that's only on a technicality. We do not exactly have the force she desired."
"She'll just have to make do."
Cinder actually snorts. "Remind me to not be in the room when you give her the report."
"Why do I have to give the report?"
"Because you're intriguing to her." Cinder clarifies. "Because for some reason, she has decided that you are interesting, and I am still not sure as to whether or not that is a good or a bad thing. Currently, I'm leaning towards the former, but it could switch at any time."
He nods his head, unable to argue with Cinder's words on that front.
"Do you think the two of us should go alone?"
"You could certainly attempt to distance yourself from your team," Cinder states, though she stares at him flatly, "If you wanted them to try and fly into Grimm territory on their own to come along."
He winces. "Okay, yeah, that's fair, actually. Nora would probably commandeer a ship, and that'd be a whole mess."
Cinder smirks. "I'm glad we're on the same page here, at least. We should probably leave sometime in the morning. It will take us an indeterminate amount of time to make it back. At the very least, we won't need to ride a Nevermore this time."
He was glad that was a shared feeling. "Do you think our bullhead is still parked where we left it?"
"Somehow I doubt it." Cinder rolls her eyes. "Given we left it parked in front of the White Fang's base. They've likely already moved it to somewhere else on the island, or broken it down for parts, of any number of things."
Jaune nods, before an idea strikes him all of a sudden. He's not entirely proud of said idea, but…
"Well, I mean, surely the White Fang probably has a few bullheads, no?"
"Probably." Cinder states, turning to him and narrowing her eyes as if she's already cottoning onto what he's about to say.
"And it wouldn't be terribly odd if, while Sienna had been gone, one of the bullheads… mysteriously disappeared, would it?"
Cinder sighs as she runs two fingers up the bridge of her nose, before taking a deep breath, and, finally, looking over at him.
"No." She states. "I don't think it would be too weird at all."
And Jaune just smiles.
"In that case, I now announce the beginning of 'Operation: Steal a Bullhead 2: Electric Boogaloo'!"
Cinder can only groan.
This bullhead stealing goes quite well, in Jaune's opinion.
Of course, they don't do that until the next morning, and during the evening, after the party, the majority of their numbers had returned to the Belladonna mansion to get some shut-eye. Jaune had been among them, wanting more than anything to have a chance to lay down and rest.
During that time, he'd managed to be privy to the very, very awkward talks between Blake Belladonna and Taiyang Xiao-Long. Yang had done her best to support her soulmate through her fathers… it would be charitable to call it a critical shovel talk.
And then Yang had gone through the same thing with the Belladonna's, although to a far lighter degree, given Kali Belladonna's presence – Jaune is going to have to contact someone about getting this woman declared a saint, because frankly, no one has ever deserved it more than her.
Honestly, Jaune had really only been able to laugh by the end of the night, given how frightfully exhausted he'd been. However, his night hadn't ended there. Ren, Nora, and Pyrrha had needed to be filled in on their plan, and so he'd gone about doing that once he'd been able to get all of them alone.
"And… you're all sure you want to come?" He'd asked. "I want to make it clear that you guys don't have to. Honestly, I wouldn't at all blame you if–"
"Nope." Nora cut him off, smiling. "Now tell us how we're stealing this bullhead! I'm really starting to like doing that. It's like our signature move!"
He had just chuckled, as had Ren and Pyrrha, albeit the former far more sleepily, but Jaune had run them through the rather simple plan. Eventually, they'd all gone to bed, and he had retired to Cinder's room. They'd slept next to one another as they had the previous night, and it had been just as nice as before. When they awoke the next morning, Jaune and the rest of his group had set about saying their goodbye's, and inquiring as to what the others would be doing now.
"We're off to Atlas!" Ruby had said as Blake and Yang stood beside her. "We're going to go get Weiss back, and bring her home to Team RWBY!"
"And hope that she hasn't gone somewhere else in the meantime." Yang had muttered. "It would be really awkward if we got there and it turned out she had a similar plan."
Jaune laughs, but he can't help feeling like some odd force is trying to tell him something in response to Yang's words.
He wishes he could fully decipher… whatever it is, but seeing as how he's not getting anything clearer out of it, he decides to forget about that for right now. He'll just have to hope it's nothing.
He thanks Ghira and Kali Belladonna, who smile his way, and give him a book on faunus mythology, which he will most certainly be reading up on in the coming days. It might actually serve as a decent thing to do aboard the bullhead as they made their way back to Salem's, seeing as how the trip is going to be quite long.
And then he had a chance to speak to Sienna Khan, who…
"Know this, Jaune Arc," Sienna spoke as she kneeled before him, and though his face had been ashen white, she'd not stopped. "Although we will for now swear fealty to your mistress, I, personally, owe you a greater debt. You saved my life, and helped to bring my organization back under my domain. Call upon me in your hour of need, and I shall answer."
It's a bit odd for the leader of a terrorist organization to tell him that she owes him a life debt, but frankly, Jaune just nods his head, says that he'll keep it in mind, and then promptly steals a bullhead from the woman, which sounds a lot worse without the added context that technically, they'd drawn first-bullhead-stealing-blood.
And so it is that the seven of them – Jaune, Cinder, Pyrrha, Nora, Ren, Emerald, and Mercury – sail south, taking the far more direct route towards the Grimmlands in a technically stolen bullhead, which they'll arrive at some time in the next day.
It is, at the very least, much faster – and much less vomit-inducing – than traveling via a Giant Nevermore. Jaune does unfortunately remember something about himself as he sits next to Cinder in the cockpit, trying to read the book on faunus mythology, fairytales, and just general stories, however.
He is very prone to airsickness.
So the whole reading thing lasts about five minutes, until his stomach starts to bother him, and then he has no choice but to look out the window, and just sort of… well, talk to Cinder. Which is, at least, very nice in its own way.
"How long is the trip?" He feels the need to ask. "Last time it took two-ish weeks on the Nevermore, but then that wasn't exactly fast."
"It should be around a day and a half." Cinder explained to him. "We managed to steal a long-range bullhead, so at the very least, we won't have to land to refuel at any point. Unfortunately, that also means we're travelling a lot slower than a commercial intercontinental airliner would. We're still going fast, just not that fast."
He nods his head as he tries to settle into his seat. There are around fifty different buttons in front of him that he can't really make much sense of, and he has half a mind to reach out and play with them before realizing that that would be extremely stupid.
"That's our altimeter," Cinder says after he's spent too long staring at a particularly confusing gauge. "It measures our height. That knob there," She points to a knob nearby, "Is a calibrator. If the altimeter said we were fifty meters off the ground when we were on the ground, we'd want to calibrate it so that it read properly. An improper reading could, in a serious storm, for instance, result in us crashing instead of safely landing, or perhaps even running straight into a mountain or hill if we were flying low enough."
Jaune nods his head, paying attention as Cinder begins to break down more pieces of the cockpit for him.
It is what they spend the next few hours doing, just going over the little bits and bobs that take up the space. Cinder shows him the general controls one would require in order to pilot a bullhead midair, and even how to make an emergency – if terribly bumpy – landing.
"Any landing that you can walk away from is a good landing." Cinder states, and Jaune nods his head. "If you can use the bullhead the next day, it's an outstanding landing."
He snorts, and Cinder smiles somewhat. "Where'd you hear that?"
"Mistral, of all places. Watts paid off a pilot a few years back to teach us all how to actually fly these. It was a phrase he threw around, though I don't think he came up with it."
Jaune likes hearing little tidbits about Cinder's past. He'd never known that she – and presumably the rest of Salem's forces – had been taught to fly by, seemingly, a normal pilot who'd been bribed.
"Is that guy still around?"
"The pilot?" Cinder shrugs. "I've no idea. We didn't kill him, if that's what you're asking. He taught lessons to anyone willing to pay for it, the only thing we paid him off for was so that we didn't have to give any personal information to be listed on our pilot's licenses. Scroll number, address, that kind of stuff. Everything you'd find on mine is falsified. It wasn't even that unusual a procedure. He'd clearly done it before. I think he'd been bought out by a few members of Mistral's crime families before then. To him, the four of us weren't anything he hadn't seen before."
Jaune hums in interest at that. "You have a pilot's license?"
"I'm also technically certified to drive armored vehicles, airbuses, paladins, and all vehicles like them. I know all four major languages of Remnant, and I have a license to operate a library." Cinder's eyes narrow. "Do not ask about that one."
He can't quite help the way he snorts at that.
"Is that the weirdest thing any of you are? A librarian?"
Cinder smirks at him.
"Tyrian is technically a certified fridge repairman."
Jaune feels the bout of cackling that comes over him then is completely justified.
Evernight is just as depressing as Jaune remembers it being.
The sky grows an odd shade of violet long before they actually make their way towards the castle itself, but he's always sort of had a fondness for that particular aspect of the place. It's an odd thing, he thinks, to enjoy the way that the sky looks at the very end of the world, but he can't quite help it.
It is something he cannot find anywhere else. And so he appreciates its beauty despite its meaning.
When they do eventually land atop Evernight's small dock, Jaune lets out a breath as he is allowed to step out, and plant his feet on solid ground. His airsickness is getting a bit better every time he's forced to face it, but still, it's not quite there yet.
"Ah, I see you've returned."
The voice is one that Jaune has not heard in roughly a week, which doesn't sound like a long time, really, but it had been an unfairly lengthy week. He turns to see Salem herself floating her way down the dark plum staircase towards them, her feet never touching the ground.
Cinder steps out of the pilots section, and nods her head in deference towards Salem. She acknowledges Cinder with a slight movement of her head, before she turns to check on each of them. Jaune is not entirely sure what purpose it is she does this for, but eventually, she turns to him.
"My descendant," Salem speaks, smiling. "How fare you all?"
"We fare… decently." He feels that does a good enough job summing everything up. "Honestly, things didn't go exactly to plan, but everything ended up alright in the end."
"Mm, you will have to inform me at some point as to the logistics of your mission. For now, I assume that the lot of you are likely exhausted from the long trip, no?"
Jaune hadn't been about to say anything himself, but if Salem's going to bring it up, then…
"I certainly wouldn't mind the chance to take a shower?" Jaune says, rubbing his hand up and down the back of his neck. "If that's fine?"
Salem nods her head. "Then we will reconvene in some time. Welcome back, all eight of you."
And with that, Salem bids them adieu, turning her back to all of them and floating away, back up towards the gate into Evernight. The doors swing shut behind her the moment she's clear of them.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to her." Mercury says under his breath, shivering slightly.
"I can't say I disagree." Ren shakes his head. "Although she has played a far more gracious host than I'd have expected."
"Definitely. She's actually kinda' nice, all things considered." Nora plants her hands on her hips, before turning back to Emerald with a glint in her eye. "But more importantly, I forgot to ask you all trip, did you get to spend any time with Ilia?"
Emerald blushes somewhat, looking away from them all. Pyrrha just behind her gives a soft smile, and Jaune can't help but feel similarly, even if he also thinks she's acting just a bit weirder than she otherwise would.
"We… just talked. About stuff. It was nice."
"You just talked?" Nora says with a sort of suspicious air to her voice.
"Well I got her scroll number." Emerald says, bringing her scroll out and pointing towards her messaging app, which, sure enough, had quite a few from Ilia herself. "We've been texting."
"Mhm." Nora mutters, her gaze narrowing. "And, correct me if I'm wrong here, but you definitely didn't run off with her while the rest of us were celebrating surviving Adam's attack to an undisclosed location out in Kuo Kuana?"
Emerald's face pales somewhat, even as Ren rolls his eyes. Mercury, on the other hand, looks like the cat that's caught the canary.
"I… I have no idea what you're talking about." Emerald tries to argue, but she's not sounding very convincing. "We just… okay, we went and walked around, but we didn't do anything."
"Uh-huh." Nora sounds unconvinced. "And if I were to, say, check underneath that cloth right there, by your neck," Nora points to where Emerald's collar swirls around her throat. "There definitely wouldn't be three or four hickies right there that I spotted while we were getting dressed, is what you're saying?"
Emerald goes about as red as a tomato.
"…No comment." Her voice is barely audible.
"Mhm." Nora smirks victoriously. "That's what I thought."
Jaune rolls his eyes, even as Emerald speed-walks past them all, slinging a frankly massive bag around her shoulder and coughing out excuses under her breath as Nora stays on her tail, hounding her at every opportunity. Mercury follows, with a devilish grin, and Ren goes along likely just to keep Nora in line.
Pyrrha, Jaune, and Cinder take up the rear, and the three of them begin to talk idly about nothing in particular as they move their way into Evernight proper.
And even as the gates close behind them, even as they step once more into the very end of the world…
He turns to see Cinder watching him out of the corner of her eye, with an expression similar to his own on her face. And he reaches down towards her hand and takes it in his own, giving it a light squeeze.
And so they return to Evernight. To their rooms and their showers and their giant meeting room that also functions as their dining room. And yes, Tyrian is around and being annoying, and yes, Watts' is just as ornery as ever, and yes, Nora does immediately start chatting up Salem about how cool she was on their most recent mission, fending off half of Adam's attackers all by herself.
And yet despite it all, in some small, kind of weird way…
Jaune's sort of glad to be back.
End Chapter 30
Next chapter will be Jaune and Salem talking about magic and stuff, so I hope you look forward to that one!
See you all (variable amount of time ranging from a few days to two weeks) from now!