This time on the misadventures of Jaune, Cinder, and company; We're off to Vacuo!


Start Chapter 41


Jaune doesn't want to admit it, but they really have gotten too good at stealing bullheads.

The fact that he, Nora, Ren, Cinder and Pyrrha manage to procure a bullhead from a military installation a smattering of kilometers out of Vale in roughly twenty minutes clearly inspires both awe and disappointment in the eyes of Team RWBY – sans the 'W'.

And honestly, given that they'd not even taken along Emerald or Ilia, both masters of stealth and illusion, means they could have honestly been faster if they'd wanted to.

"So, uh… we got the thing." Jaune exclaims, trying to keep the mood light as he slaps the side of the bullhead's steel chassis.

Ruby just sighs.

"You think you know a guy…"

"Oh, c'mon, it's not that bad, is it?"

"Four bullheads now." Blake whispers under her breath, shaking her head and trying to feign disappointment despite the fact that Jaune can tell she desperately wants to smile. "Utterly shameless."

"Well, I for one am impressed." Yang states, smiling. "Nice going, guys."

"At least one of you can appreciate our craft!" Nora harrumphs, placing both hands on her hips. "I swear, the nerve of some people!"

Their trip southwest towards the deserts of Vacuo is as long as it is frightfully boring. Jaune had honestly been expecting for them to be hounded by Grimm at every turn, assaulted by Nevermore and Griffons in the sky now that Salem thinks of them as enemies, but instead, things are largely as they have always been.

Surely, they do spot the occasional creature, but most steer clear of them.

A day or so later, and they arrive on the outskirts of Vacuo, the first dunes coming into view.

Jaune feels a pulling in his gut almost immediately at that, albeit not in a magical or special way. It is more the weight of their task settling in; that they are, as Qrow had said, going to comb the very sands for a speck of gold dust.

"Having second thoughts?" Qrow snorts at seeing his expression.

"Not quite, but…"

"The enormity hitting you?"

"Yeah."

"Well, focus on what you can do, first. Worry about what could happen, or what might occur, later."

Jaune nods, knowing Qrow's right.

There's a pulling in his gut for an entirely different reason as well, but that's not one he has any real want to bring up with… well, anyone. Knowing him, though, he'll probably talk with Cinder about it later.

"So, uh…" Ilia eventually walks out of the cockpit, seemingly having set the bullhead on autopilot. "Where exactly am I going? Everywhere you look there's just sand. I'm heading due northwest, but… well, I don't think we're going to suddenly find any meaningful landmarks out here."

That… yeah, Jaune can't really disagree with that.

"Oz gave us a general location." Qrow says, standing from his spot and making towards Ilia. "Here, I'll input it into the ship's GPS."

"How general is this location, exactly?"

Qrow laughs a bit gravely. "Roughly a hundred square kilometers."

Jaune can't quite help the way he himself deflates somewhat at hearing that.

/

They make it to their destination – and Jaune's using the term destination incredibly loosely – about six or seven hours later. By the time they've jumped out in a relatively flat area within the dunes, night has fallen, and the desert has gone from a scorching hot to an almost freezing cold.

Jaune really wishes the desert would make up its mind on that particular front.

"Alright," Qrow clears her throat, seemingly having become their resident planner while no one had been looking. "I'm going to take off in the bullhead along with Ilia, Emerald, Mercury, Ruby, Yang, Cinder, and Summer. That leaves Jaune, Nora, Ren, Pyrrha, Blake, and Raven on the other squad. We've separated two pairs of soulmates so that we have an easy method of communication even if our technology fails us. Rae's on portal duty, which is why me and her are going our separate ways as well. And our group has more members in case Summer suddenly… well, you get the idea, don't you?"

All of them nod. They've gone over the plan before, but it helps to be reminded of all of this.

"Right," Qrow clears his throat. "I've never been much for speeches, so… let's all come back alive. If none of us have found anything within three days, we'll fly to the edge of the desert, and Raven can portal everyone to us. We'll regroup and formulate a new plan then."

Again, there's a general murmur of assent, and its finally time for them to begin.

Jaune knows that it's an important part of their plan, the fact that he and Cinder are to be separated, so that they can communicate with one another via their link in an emergency scenario, but even so, he can't help but feel a loneliness inside of him as he watches her step into the bullhead, and hears the engines kick on.

When he thinks on it, this will be the longest that Jaune has spent without Cinder by his side in… Gods, has it really been half a year already? Half a year since he and Cinder had first encountered each other within the depths of Beacon, half a year since everything regarding General Ironwood, and Ozpin, and everyone else had occurred.

It feels like forever ago. And at the same time, it feels like yesterday.

Right then and there, however, it's all Jaune can do to shake his head and break himself out of his memories. He's only going to be apart from Cinder for a little while. Three days, at the most.

He's definitely hoping either of their groups will discover something, so that they can cut that time down by quite a bit.

And so it is that the bullhead carrying half of their party takes off, leaving the six of them technically stranded in the middle of the grand desert of Vacuo, surrounded on all sides by endless dunes.

"For right now, our top priority should be creating a fire." Raven immediately speaks up, taking charge before any of the rest of them can say a thing. "As much as we'd like to begin searching tonight, this cold is far too unforgiving for us to be toying with. We will move at sun-up tomorrow, and not a moment sooner."

Jaune can't find any fault with that plan.

"As much as I'd like to disagree with her, on account of the whole bandit thing," Nora speaks up, glaring at the woman, and receiving a glare back in return. "She is right. The cold isn't something to go messing around with. Me and Renny know that from experience."

Ren nods, and Blake does the same a moment later. Aside from Pyrrha, Jaune gets the feeling he's the least experienced outdoorsman of the group, which is honestly a bit surprising. His family had, after all, gone camping a few times a year in Mistral, and while he'd not exactly have called himself an expert, he'd thought he'd be getting pretty good at all of this by now.

But then, when he's placed up against two people who had been forced to rely on only each other for company in the wilderness, a woman who'd trained as a White Fang terrorist for half her life, and the literal bandit queen of Mistral, he doesn't quite stand a chance.

Even so, Jaune can't quite help but be slightly puzzled by something as he raises a hand, and watches Raven sigh as she looks towards him.

"What is it?"

"So uh, lighting a fire is all well and good, but…"

He looks around.

Sand.

Sand.

More sand.

"Where are we going to go getting anything to burn?"

The group shares a rather long moment of silence following that. After what feels like too long, Raven finally lets out a little, "Huh."

"Well shit."

/

One portal to the forests of Mistral – Jaune himself had been among those sent into the Branwen's camp on a mission to collect fallen branches and logs – and roughly thirty or so minutes later, they have a roaring fire going in the middle of Vacuo's sand dunes.

As much as some part of Jaune had somewhat doubted the idea that he could freeze to death in a desert, he's begun to see just what the others are getting at as the night goes on and on, and the temperature only seems to fall further. By the time they manage to get the fire up and running, Jaune's pretty sure the temperature has fallen well below freezing.

They settle into a fairly quiet atmosphere as they begin to discuss nothing of import. They're not particularly tired, due in large part to the fact that, as much as it is technically eleven or so o'clock in the evening, they'd spent the entire day as passengers in a bullhead, and a good majority of them had spent at least some part of that time sleeping.

So, they make light conversation. Ren and Nora ask Blake how she and Yang have been doing – quite well, apparently, which makes Jaune smile – then Pyrrha lightly teases Nora about whether or not she and Ren have finally acted on their status as Soulmates, and Nora promptly declares for the thousandth time that the two of them are totally platonic soulmates, and not at all romantically inclined.

Jaune's pretty sure that Raven, who's known the two of them for, at best, forty-eight hours, already knows that's a crock of shit.

Eventually, however, the hours tick by, and the exhaustion of the day, alongside the fact that they still have a task to do tomorrow, finally takes its toll.

"We'll set up a standard rota." Raven speaks. "Anyone want to volunteer for first watch? If not, I'll–"

"I'll volunteer." Jaune himself lazily raises a hand. "I'm honestly not too tired, so you guys can go ahead and get some rest."

"A'ight kid," Raven shrugs. "I'll go second then. White Fang girl, you're third. Pinkie, Greenie, cereal girl, you guys can decide who's after that."

Jaune actually smiles at that, even if Raven doesn't see it. As much as she'd likely rail against the fact, it's humorous to hear her give nicknames to his teammates in the same way that Qrow, her brother, had once upon a time.

"Right. Get to sleep, all of you. We've got a job to do."

Jaune nods, even as he himself stays stationary. The others all begin unpacking their belongings, bringing out the sleeping bags that they'd bought over the last few days, alongside a tent that Ren and Nora had bought themselves with some extra money. They have a small portable heater as well, so it seems they're content to set up a way's away from the fire, and rely on their own warmth.

Jaune envies them a tad, but has no real qualms.

He sort of expects the next few hours to fade by without anything being said or done. He'll just sit, and watch, and maybe a Grimm or two will show up. The worst possible case his mind can conjure is something like a bunch of thieves trying to attack them in the night, but…

Well, they're quite literally in the middle of nowhere right now, so Jaune kind of doubts anyone of the sort is out and about prowling the dunes at the moment.

Even so, their fire is sending up a rather detectable signal for miles, so he'll take this seriously.

What he's rather notably not expecting, however, is hearing a figure step out from their campsite and take the few steps towards where he himself is sitting, gazing out at the dunes beyond.

He's expecting maybe Blake or Pyrrha, in all honesty. He knows it's not Nora, given he can hear her snoring, and he hasn't heard the zipper to their tent open, either, so he's pretty sure it's not Ren.

However, when he sees that instead of any of them, it is instead Raven Branwen walking over to him and sitting down beside him on the sand, he can't quite find the words.

"Oh, uh… hey."

Raven just stares at him a moment, as if somehow, he's the one making this weird.

"…What's up?" He asks.

Again, Raven says nothing.

Jaune decides to just stay silent, then. Maybe Raven will say something on her own if he gives her time.

He does so, twenty seconds of it, to be exact. Raven's face twists and shifts a bit every second or so, like she's trying to force herself to say something.

"Did you uh… want to talk or something?" He asks again. "You just seem kinda'… I don't know… not the type to do that?"

Raven glares flatly at him, before, with a titanic sigh, finally saying, "You were right."

"Huh?"

"I said you were right." Raven speaks, crossing her arms over her chest and staring ahead, not meeting his eyes. "I was a coward. I let my fear prevent me from doing something I should've for someone I cared so much about."

"That…" well, it's true, to be undeniably fair. "You came through, in the end."

"Too late." Raven shakes her head. "Nearly two decades too late."

Jaune's brow furrows. "She's still alive, isn't she?"

"Barely. Hanging on by a thread. And that's just physically. Mentally… I don't even know how much of her is still in there." Raven says, running her hands down her face and letting out a shaky breath. It is already the most weakness that she has ever shown to him. He imagines it is the most weakness she will ever allow him to see. "She recognizes Ruby. Responds to Ruby. I think she might recognize Yang, too, but evidently not as well as she does her sister. Qrow and I… she doesn't really seem to react to. She hasn't attacked us, either, to be fair, but…"

Jaune doesn't say anything. He wants to give this person, who's been bottling up their feelings, allowing them to fester, an actual chance to voice them. Even if, deep down, he can't help feeling that the woman's daughter, or niece, might be better choices to go voicing these things to.

Perhaps that is why she can tell him, of all people. Because despite that he'd ultimately been the one to key Qrow into the fact that Summer had been alive, he'd not been terribly relevant after the fact.

He isn't as involved with this as Ruby or Yang. He doesn't know Raven as well as her brother.

So, he's the perfect choice, in a way.

"If I had to guess… that thing has entirely supplanted Summer, leaving only a tiny piece of her mind behind, one that acts mostly on instinct, on id. It knows not to attack Ruby and Yang, because they're family. It knows, even, to protect them. An animal can learn such things. To protect its young with its life. But I am not sure if an animal, or a Grimm, in this case, can…"

Raven shakes her head.

"I've no idea why I'm even telling you any of this."

Jaune brings up his own theory, that he is involved, but not terribly so, and that that might make this all easier for her.

"Hah. It certainly makes me sound like one helluva' coward, doesn't it?"

"I don't think there's anything wrong with being afraid sometimes. Though, well… some occasions are a bit more acceptable than others."

Raven seems to understand what he's getting at as she nods her head.

"Besides, we all have things we aren't happy with ourselves about. I worry about my own flaws too."

"What do you concern yourself with?"

"Do you mean currently, or usually?"

Raven actually breathes out a small laugh. "Currently, then."

Jaune nods his head, feeling for that knot in his stomach that had been bothering him all day. No. not all day. For longer than that.

"When we were escaping from Salem, when my friends were in danger, and it was my fault… I couldn't do anything. Salem was threatening them, not me, and… and I had to rely entirely on Cinder to pull a rabbit out of a hat in order to bail us out. And it was my fault."

Raven hums. "I see. So, your fear is that you are weak?"

Jaune nods his head. Then a question pops up in his mind that he can't help asking. "What is it you were afraid of, exactly?"

"Hah… dying, I suppose? No… no, that's not right. I was afraid of not being enough. I was afraid of betraying those I'd finally grown to care for. I was afraid of opening up to hurt, of being hurt by those I cared about. And so instead of risking that, I chose to distance myself. I chose a life of cold loneliness to one of potential heartbreak. Summer tried to pull me out of it. for a while, I think… I think she might have succeeded. She certainly came close. In the end… it was too late. I've always been too late, it seems."

Jaune doesn't say anything for a moment, then, before he suddenly leans forward, gazing at Raven out of the corner of his eye, feeling a touch awkward about his next line of conversation.

"Summer Rose, did you and her… were you two like… y'know…"

Raven's face is like a marble statue. "I'll pretend you didn't ask that."

"Right, gotcha." Jaune backs off, raising his hands in surrender.

Raven surprises him, however, by letting out a great big sigh, like she's letting the air out of a particularly depressed balloon.

"Let's just say that things at that time were… complicated. Summer and I… there might've been something there. Something that I wasn't letting myself see due to certain events, and something that Summer was unwilling to given who she was with at the time. Not to mention that I was still reeling from everything with Tai and Yang and… well, nothing came of any of it, but perhaps the underlying feelings existed."

"You're… actually telling me this?"

"Hah. If you must know, spilling my guts out is actually giving me some perspective. I haven't talked about any of this shit in nearly two decades, and all of a sudden, it's like all of those problems I left to fester are surfacing at once. So… I think it's either this, or I explode. I choose to live. And hell, if answering a harmless question about my sordid love life – if you can even call it that – is what gets you off, then hey, who am I to judge."

"I don't… did you have to word it like that?"

Raven cocks an eyebrow at him. "Of course not. I chose to."

"…Never mind."

Silence falls between them, then. Yet, somehow, it is an almost peaceful thing. Jaune hadn't in a million years thought the two of them would ever come to some sort of… what even is this, an understanding? And yet here they are. Barely three or four weeks after they'd literally been at each other's throats.

The world can be odd like that.

"Your soulmate, Cinder Fall."

Jaune's eyes widen minutely, and h


e turns back with a, "Yeah?"

"You miss her."

It is stated as if it is a clear and obvious fact.

In all honesty, it probably is.

"That's… yeah."

She actually smiles. It is a small, almost absent thing, and it is somehow corrupted by a thousand different evils that plague the mind of Raven Branwen, but…

It is there, and it is real.

"Ah, to be young."

Jaune listens to the fire crackle behind them as he stares out at the dunes beyond; at the canyons hanging far off in the distance, and at the stars hanging overhead, which seem so much more vibrant and alive then he's ever seen them.

Alongside them all is the shattered moon, hanging there like a broken reminder.

"It's not too late, you know." Jaune finds himself saying, without much idea as to why he's saying it to Raven Branwen of all people.

But his friends call him a gentle soul, so perhaps that's the reason.

"…It is, for certain things. In certain ways."

"Not for all of it."

Raven just hums.

"…No." She says, with a quiet, absent lilt to her voice.

"Perhaps it's not."


End Chapter 41


Raven's going through some shit atm, which maybe she deserves, but still, Jaune can't help but want to help.

He's just that kind of guy.

Anyways, see you all next week!