While I haven't decided the days yet, I'll be taking 2 weeks off writing for Christmas as usual. Not only a time where I'll be too busy to write, but a time I want to use to crack open some old Terry Pratchett novels I never got around to finishing. Recharging my writing batteries as it were. It'll probably start Dec20th and have me come back Jan 3rd. Or 4th, given 20th and 3rd are both Wednesdays, but you get the point.

I'll decide and announce it more specifically closer to the date.


Cover Art: Curbizzle

Chapter 34


It was strange to see Beacon carry on as normal. While Jaune was sure things had changed and that security was being taken seriously, being expected to attend lessons and training like nothing had happened was still an odd experience. The only difference was the notable absence of Cinder's team, and the absence of Trivia on his lap at lunch teaching him sign language.

Jaune found he missed that.

Her absence felt like a hole in his stomach.

The others wouldn't have understood him if he tried to explain it. Trivia was by all accounts as criminally liable as the rest of her team, and the obvious answer was that she'd hung close to him to keep an eye on him for Cinder and report if he found out anything he shouldn't.

And yet he didn't believe that.

He'd confessed the truth to her and he'd seen more of her than anyone else. More, she'd willingly showed him it, drawing him into her dreams and enjoying the time they spent together. Even if it was one of her dreams that nearly cut his throat open, he couldn't see that as an assassination attempt because of how frightened she'd been at the time.

"You're not still moping over that criminal, are you?" asked Pyrrha.

"No—"

"Jaune!" Pyrrha didn't believe him, and rightly so. "They tried to kill you. Actively. This isn't Cardin and some wasps. This is cold-blooded murder."

"I know. I know. I just feel like Trivia wouldn't do that to me."

"You can't know a person until you've walked in their shoes," said Ren. "Who can say what she's really like under the image she portrays?"

"Are you on Pyrrha's side or Jaune's with that?" asked Nora.

"Both, but mostly Pyrrha's." His partner nodded her head, satisfied with his decision. Jaune sighed. "While I realise there's more emotionally going on here than is on the surface, there's no denying she and her team had ill intentions. It would be foolish to trust her without some assurances."

"Thank you!" said Pyrrha. "See, Jaune?"

He saw, but it wasn't anything he didn't already know. He wasn't stupid. Trivia had obviously been in the "know" with regards to Cinder, which was probably why he got attacked in her nightmare. It was probably Cinder who did it – dreamed up by Trivia as reference to the fact Cinder must have talked about killing him if he found the truth. She'd known there was a risk to his life, but she's also had a nightmare about it, which meant she didn't want him dead.

It was that which made him sure she wasn't a bad person, even if she'd made bad decisions.

But it wasn't his call to make.

And he couldn't blame his teammates wanting to keep him safe.

Nor Ozpin and Ironwood stationing security around the school that would presumably take a very lethal approach to her if she ever came back. Not just her, either. There was the threat of the White Fang now as well. At least they were taking it all seriously.

"Are we sparring tonight?" asked Pyrrha.

"I can't. I have another meeting with Ozpin in his office."

"I thought you told him everything you saw?"

"I did, but he has me recounting it to other people. Ruby and Yang's uncle is here again, and he's apparently a big-shot huntsman who's going to have a go at hunting them down in the city. He wants to ask his own questions."

They accepted that. It wasn't entirely true, but only in the sense that he didn't need to tell Qrow those things. The huntsman very much was scouring the city for Cinder and her crew, and he was ready to carry out the vengeance for Amber that Jaune couldn't in the waking world.

"Do you want us to escort you there?" asked Pyrrha.

"You don't have to—" He saw their bodies tensing, "—but you can if it makes you feel better."

"It does. Who knows who might attack you?"

"Maybe Blake!" teased Nora.

It was a testament to how utterly unlikely it was that Blake had any romantic interest in him that even Pyrrha could burst out laughing at it. She was still awkward and hurt around Yang, but there was just no way Blake could be a legitimate threat, so even Pyrrha joined in on the teasing whenever Blake was around. Jaune was taking it well, but Blake was still overreacting and blushing and getting defensive about it, which was only egging Yang and Weiss on. It had gotten to the point that even Sun was teasing her about it.

Team JNPR escorted him to the elevator and then handed him over to Qrow, who was already waiting there drinking from a flask. The two rode up together, leaving the others behind. The huntsman took a long swig and asked, "How you holding up, kid?"

"I'm okay. Confused, mostly."

"Yeah, I get that. Even I never had to deal with an honest to goodness assassination in school." He paused. "Other than the time Taiyang and I tried on Raven and Summer's underwear and were caught doing it, though that only felt like we were close to being murdered."

Jaune smiled faintly at the attempt to cheer him up. "Yeah. Mostly, I'm just annoyed that I had so many chances to stop Cinder and never noticed. I was in her dreams before Amber's death. If I'd done something—"

"None of that." Qrow cuffed his shoulder. "If I got to her sooner, she wouldn't have been hurt in the first place. And there's no saying Amber wouldn't have passed away even if Cinder were dead. You only met her after she was critically wounded. It might well have been too late by then."

"I guess. I just wish I could have done more."

"Hmm. I know what that feels like. Someone your age shouldn't have to." He sighed and offered his flask, then pulled it back before Jaune could even wonder why. "Scratch that. Yang would kick my ass if I turned you into another me. Truth is, kid, the pain and regrets won't ever go away. You'll be having them for the rest of your life, probably up until the day you die, when, on your deathbed, you have one final moment to shed a tear and wonder if you let them down. Best you can do is hide it, push it down, and try to move on. Trust that's what they would want."

Jaune stared at the elevator doors in silence for several long seconds.

"Mr Branwen?"

"Yeah?"

"You're really bad at this."

"I know, kid. I know."

The door opened and they stepped out into the office. Ironwood was already there, as was Glynda Winter stood by the far wall as well, her hands linked behind her back and her eyes sort of staring ahead into nothingness.

"Mr Arc. Thank you for coming," said Ozpin. "Would you like a seat?"

Literally no one else other than Ozpin was sitting. "Uh. No. I'll be okay. Do you need me to go over things again?" he asked. "I haven't been in any important dreams since it happened. Last night was someone's wet dream."

About Glynda, no less. He'd done his best not to pay attention and intrude, but the sounds... good lord, he'd never thought someone would enjoy a whip being used in that way.

"Anyone good?" teased Qrow.

His eyes flicked to Glynda and back. "No."

Qrow's grin lit up his eyes.

Glynda's scowl darkened hers.

"Moving swiftly on," said Ozpin. "The reason we asked you to come here wasn't to talk about what happened. You were able to give a good recollection of that, and Miss Belladonna's testimony helps. What also helps is that we have their records from Mistral now, though the one for the girl you knew as Trivia is rather obviously fake."

"Our agent in Mistral has committed suicide as well," said Ironwood. "Suggesting he was a traitor who realised he was about to be caught."

"Who—?"

"Mr Arc doesn't need to worry about that," Ozpin said, shooting Ironwood a dark look. "You'll read it in the newspaper at some point, I'm sure, but that's not why we're here. As someone with knowledge of both their team and Amber's fate, we thought it best to include you a little in this meeting. Also, because your Semblance may serve as an early warning system if they ever return, and we need you both aware and ready to warn us if that happens."

He was here by necessity then. No one had said he had to keep this a secret, but it was obviously implied and he wasn't about to blab about it. He got the feeling he was meant to stay quiet, however. That he was being included because he had to be, but that he should still listen and defer to them in these matters. He was an attendee at this meeting, not an active participant.

"Onto matters of the suspects. James. How goes the search?"

"We've yet to disseminate descriptions and images outside of Beacon for fear of the risk to innocent civilians. Currently, they are at large but don't see the need to harm anyone. If we release their images on the news and people become witnesses, then the criminals may see fit to silence them. They've already shown a willingness to commit murder already."

"A fair point."

"I don't argue it," interrupted Qrow, "but there's no denying that these lot are meshed in some way with the White Fang. It was my nieces' team who saw him working with them before, and now we have confirmation it's related. Panic is bad and all, but their plans obviously go further than just killing Amber. There might come a point where the risk to the public is worth the help we'd get in tracking them down."

"That can and will come after my forces are dispersed more assuredly across Vale," said Ironwood. "But we're not without means to track them even without the public's help. Leonardo's profiles on them highlight that Mercury Black uses prosthetic legs. If those are anything like my arm, they'll require regular maintenance and specialist tools. I already have every shop dealing with prosthetics monitored. We've also got medical facilities being monitored for any treatment involving burns on the facial area. Sadly, we cannot account for underground medical practitioners."

"Good thinking, James." Ozpin nodded his head. "But Qrow raises an interesting point on Torchwick. Perhaps he might be the weaker link."

"That was my thought as well, Ozpin, but he's almost entirely vanished. Our attempts to get news from Vale's underworld are only confirming that his absence is conspicuous. He's been hitting dust stores on and off at least once every three days, and yet it's been eight since his last robbery."

"Could he have bit off more than he could chew?" asked Qrow. "Maybe someone kept a shotgun under their counter and he got cocky."

"The last reported robbery of his was a success, and the proprietor didn't dare risk himself by resisting. Unless it was Cinder removing him, I expect he's alive, and he's been succeeding at stealing dust so I don't see why she would kill him other than in a fit of anger. And he vanished before Arc exposed her."

He was alive, then. Jaune could fully believe Cinder killing someone in her rage, especially after he burned her, but she wouldn't have had the reason before. If she was going to kill him for failure than she'd have probably done it after Team RWBY foiled his robbery at the docks. And yet he'd been kicking around for a while after. They hadn't really stopped him, only delayed him and robbed him of a single shipment.

"We'll continue the hunt, but our primary focus must be on protecting Beacon and Amity," said Ozpin. Everyone nodded along with him. Everyone except Jaune. "If their sole goal was to kill Amber then they will have departed by now. If not, then we know they will have to come back to us. Qrow will continue to search for her in the city, but we cannot afford to leave ourselves open. Does everyone agree?"

"Yes."

"Sure thing."

"It's the common sense answer."

"Actually—" Jaune flinched as all eyes turned on him. "I... um. I don't agree. Sir..."

There were frowns, but not from Ozpin. "Go on, Mr Arc."

"Qrow is hunting Cinder in Vale during waking hours, but I think she's probably sleeping then. It'll be easier to move at night and her big fear will be me reaching her in her dreams again. Not to sound arrogant, but I'm God in a dream. I can hunt her down and she can't escape me. If we took me into Vale during the days and shipped me around, I could try to catch her or one of her teammates in a dream and incapacitate them—"

"No." Ozpin was firm. "We will not do that."

"But sir!"

"No, Mr Arc. And not because your plan is a bad idea. I am rejecting it because you are a student at Beacon Academy. You have lectures to attend, coursework to complete, and free time that you should be spending with your team."

Jaune felt irrationally angry. "This is more important!"

Ozpin didn't rise to his anger. Instead, he linked his hands together and looked Jaune dead in the eye.

"Is that what Amber would think...?"

Jaune flinched. Struck. "I... I..."

"Amber hated me for the actions I took in trying to keep her safe. The freedoms I refused to grant her. I cannot turn back the clock and help her, but I can keep her wishes in mind after her passing, and I do not believe she would want for you to be utilised as some attack dog in a battle that should not be yours."

Jaune stared at the ground.

"You are angry," said Ozpin, softer. "You are grieving. You believe that killing Cinder as she killed Amber will take away your pain. It will not. And I will not see you sacrifice your education and your youth to chase such a goal. Rest assured, we will hunt them down and we shall bring them to justice. Your offer is appreciated, but we shall not be making use of it. Am I understood?"

"..." Jaune's hands clenched into fists. "Yes sir."

"We're about done here," said Qrow, laying a hand on his shoulder. "I'll take the kid down and head out myself while you lot discuss particulars. Might as well get my hunt started."

Jaune let himself be ushered into the elevator. He wasn't in the right mind to stay and listen to long-term plans anyway, and it looked like the conversation over Cinder was done with. As the doors closed, Jaune crossed his arms and said, "I won't apologise."

"No one expects you to. I figure I should apologise for Ozpin. He really does only want the best for you."

"I know. But Cinder is a threat."

"She is, and we're taking her seriously. Look, Jaune, if I see her then I will kill her. My orders aren't to bring her in alive for questioning."

"You can only hunt her when she's awake. I can hunt her while she sleeps. Between us, there'd be no escape—"

"Killing someone isn't that easy. I'd know. It changes you, and not in a good way. You might have to do it as a huntsman one day. Not every enemy we face is a soulless monster. Some are monsters in human form. But none of us are going to be happy letting someone your age do it, not when we're more than capable ourselves. Spend time with your team. Enjoy your youth. Love those around you." The door opened and Qrow stepped out, his own face haggard. "Because you never know when you might lose that opportunity forever."

Jaune had no answer to that.

/-/

Neo let herself into her and Roman's apartment and looked around. He was out, probably at Mountain Glenn as per Cinder's orders. The place hadn't been used in days. Angrily, she kicked her boots off, wishing he could be there to bitch and moan about Cinder. That was something she could have happily gotten involved in right now. Padding over to the sofa, Neo threw herself down onto it, then rolled onto her front and buried her face in a cushion to scream.

It was just a rush of air, but that was all it ever was. The act of it still made her feel a little better, as did biting into the cushion and thrashing her head around like a dog. Releasing it, she punched down twice, imagining Cinder's face crumbling under her small fists. Neo then linked her hands over it as if to choke her.

Not for the first time she wished she could use her Semblance on herself.

Trivia...

It had been years since anyone called her by that name, and yet he called her it every day. It was an old name, a dead name, and one she thought she was happy to be rid of, and yet she'd found it oddly soothing to hear it. Maybe because it didn't come from her bastard parents, and was without its usual snide, disappointed undertones.

He even saw them as two people.

Trivia and Neo.

Neo and Trivia.

Not even the good and the evil twin, but just two girls who had an unfair lot in life. Neo felt her anger spike, as it so often did, but for once it was something both sides of her felt at the same time. They were both in agreement, which was so rare for anything other than Roman nowadays. And Cinder, she supposed, as both sides of her hated that bitch and her stupid minions. That feeling had only grown when Cinder called Emerald and told them to flee Beacon. It wasn't until Neo had met with them outside Beacon, in the forests, and seen her burnt face that she realised what had happened.

Cinder had tried to kill Jaune.

Neo had thought a million times about running the bitch through, but never had she been so close to doing it. If Emerald hadn't been staring at her at the time, she might have tried her luck. Left all three of them gasping for air and bleeding out on the floor.

Trivia agreed with her, too. It was unusual to not feel that quiet sense of distress, but she supposed Cinder was that much of a bitch. Even with DID, as her parents' expensive doctors had tried to frame it, sometimes there was someone so repugnant that both sides of a coin could hate them. Cinder achieved that with room to spare.

Honestly, her and Roman should just run.

He kept saying he wanted to, but he was too much a coward to take that risk, and even if Cinder couldn't hunt them down, there was always the chance her associates could. Roman didn't want to set up somewhere new, either. He had his connections here, his place, his reputation, and as much as he liked to act like obeying Cinder was the "only choice they had", Neo knew that wasn't the case. It was the convenient choice. The easy choice. The choice that was less risky. The other path just had a whole lot of shit attached to it and might cost them their lives.

Though she was getting to a point where she thought it might be worth it.

Neo's scroll pinged and she pulled it out.

Emerald: Cinder wants to know where you are. Says your job isn't finished yet.

Neo sent back a shrugging emoji, followed by a bed.

Emerald: Being mute doesn't mean you can't write.

Emerald: Respond properly or Cinder says there will be consequences.

Neo's blood raged.

Her fingers moved faster than her brain.

Neo: The only consequences we're dealing with are the consequences of your boss' stupid actions. I'm resting away from you in case she manages to screw up a second time and rob us of another place to sleep.

It was an unusually eloquent response from her.

Roman had gotten used to her texts filled with emojis and called it charming. Said it gave her character. As much as he might have moaned, she knew he enjoyed the little game of deciphering them, even if he sometimes got them wrong. It was their own little way of playing with one another, and she knew his constant texts begging her to use words were never serious. He just liked to complain.

Emerald's response was anything but.

Emerald: You should watch your words. Cinder isn't in the mood for games.

Neo: Then she shouldn't have played them in the first place. She knew there was a risk in being discovered when she made the frankly stupid decision to hide in Beacon. Sure enough, we got discovered. Now, she's got the scars to remind her of it. No one is invincible. She fucked around and found out.

Emerald: You'll be lucky if she doesn't kill you for saying that.

Neo: If she tries, I'll make sure you die first, Emmy.

Neo switched her scroll off, leaving that haunting final message for the stupid bitch. She'd do it, too. Hell, maybe she should just cut herself loose. They couldn't blame Roman if she didn't go to him, and he was too important for their plans to kill at this late point.

There was a fragile feeling within her. Something she normally ignored.

Trivia was signalling her own agreement.

Approval, even.

Neo's smile grew to a feral size. Tossing her scroll down, the drew her sword and stabbed down into it, then used the tip to scratch a message into the woodwork. A simple "I quit". They'd understand the message once they forced their way in here. Neo could almost imagine the feral look on Cinder's face when she did. It almost made her want to stay and see it.

Tugging her boots back on, she strode out the door. It would have been good to leave a message for Roman, but he'd only be returning to Vale for enough time to be arrested by Ironwood, so it wasn't like he'd see it. She'd save his bacon when that happened, but it wouldn't be to carry out "her part" of the plan as Cinder so wanted.

Neo grinned wildly as she jogged out into the rain, both sides of her soul laughing in delight at their newfound freedom. Of course, staying in Vale was a bad idea with the authorities out looking for her, but a quick flash of her Semblance made her hair brown. Made her unrecognisable. She opened up her umbrella and held it over her head, smiling to herself as she sauntered past police officers and the occasional Atlas soldier marching down the street.

Maybe she could take a break in the Emerald Forest.

See if he would pay her a visit in her dreams.

And whether he'd hate her.


Next Chapter: 7th December

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