Alright, time for my favorite chapter. I imagine some won't like it as much as I do, but eh, I think that's kind of the nature of this particular character.

Anyways, without further ado...


Chapter 6 – Cinder


The bullhead touched down in what, to the untrained eye, was a completely average snowfield in the middle of a barren wasteland.

Of course, given that this was a highly confidential military facility that they were visiting, that was kind of the point.

Jaune wrapped the heavy coat he'd picked out for the Solitas weather around him, and pulled the hood up around his head. Surely, he could've simply blocked the cold with aura, but he'd always been wary of wasting aura for something that he could simply trust to the classics – case in point why he still used Aurea's normal sword form for fighting most of the time.

He dismounted out of the bullhead and felt himself shiver, even past the multiple layers on both his upper and lower body. It was well, well below freezing out here, far away from the heating elements that kept Atlas and Mantle far warmer than Solitas' winters truly were. Out here, it was bone-chillingly cold, the kind of cold that seeped into your very soul, and sapped the life out of you.

Jaune moved quickly, making to get inside as soon as possible.

There were two people waiting for him, both guards. He didn't know one of them, although the other had him smiling, despite everything around him.

"Good to see you, Elm."

"Likewise, Arc." The giant of a woman clapped him on the back as he passed her by, and his aura probably fell a good three or four percent from that alone. "It's been a while. How've ya' been?"

"Eh, fine I suppose."

"Well, I can't say I understand why you're coming by," Elm muttered under her breath as she led him back towards a nondescript section of rock that gradually began to peel apart, revealing a clearly manmade metal tunnel that dug into the earth. "But you're more than allowed to, so I won't say anything."

"I appreciate it."

"Hah. Still, don't go letting her get to you, got it?"

He couldn't really promise that.

"I'll try."

Elm just nodded.

"How're the others, by the way? I hear that Marrow is heading the guard unit on Whitley's daughter, but Harriet?"

"Hare's… I don't know if she ever really forgave herself." Elm spoke, sounding rather sad. "What happened to Vine was… well, it both was and wasn't her fault. But… she took all of that on herself. She's doing better these days, but it's clearly something she's still working through."

Jaune nodded. He'd not been one of the one's to fight against the Ace-Ops… really ever, but he'd met and interacted with Harriet during their stay in Atlas while they'd trained to be Huntsman, and again once they'd arrived back in Vacuo. She'd seemed brash, but kind.

Apparently that had changed when Clover died, and Jaune supposed he would've been a hypocrite if he blamed the woman for becoming more unstable after the death of a comrade after what he'd pulled due to Pyrrha's passing.

Still…

"Well, I guess let her know that she's got people looking out for her."

Elm smiled down at him. "I will."

"What's she been up to, anyhow?"

"Public service worker. Helping out the disenfranchised of Old Mantle, trying to get them back on their feet. I think she feels it's her penance for all that she did."

Jaune hummed in acknowledgement as they reached the end of the metal corridor before them, and Elm stepped up to input a code into a nearby touchpad. It took another three or so seconds for the massive door in front of them to begin to crack open, separating into four sections like some kind of reverse metal whirlpool. Eventually, it had entirely cleared, and he followed Elm further inside the complex.

It was massive, which caught Jaune a bit by surprise. He hadn't expected such a big place for what was, ostensibly, a job that he felt could've been done in a far smaller enclosure. When he asked about that, Elm had this to say.

"Well, just because she's the only high-profile criminal we have at the moment doesn't mean she'll stay the only high-profile criminal we have. If someone close to her level of strength comes around again, and needs to be locked up, then we have a few cells already prepared to house them."

Jaune supposed that made sense, effectively future-proofing the place so that it wouldn't need to have work done on it in a hurry, and potentially risk something important being forgotten about, or skimmed over.

"And besides, it being larger also gives us a longer period of time to disable the prisoner in the nearly impossible case that she manages to break containment."

That, too, added up, even if the scenario that Elm conjured had Jaune swallowing without really meaning to.

"Here, onto this lift. We're taking it to the bottom."

Jaune followed along, although the other guard who had, up until that point, been walking alongside them, departed back for the front, apparently making sure that it didn't go unguarded for long.

As the elevator carried them further and further into the bowels of Remnant, Jaune found a nervous sort of energy building in his stomach. This had seemed like a much better idea a while ago, when he'd been far, far away from this place, and considering it as he laid down to rest. Now…

He shook his head.

No. He wouldn't run away. Not again. He'd done that enough.

He needed to face this. Even if he stumbled. Even if he fell.

"This is as far as I go." Elm said as Jaune stepped out of the lift. "The gate guard will open the final outer lock, and then you'll be able to speak with your prisoner."

Before she pressed the button to rise back to the surface, though, Elm stared him down one last time. She seemed pensive, although there was a certain something in her gaze there that Jaune couldn't really identify.

"Hm. You've grown, Arc."

"…Uhm… thank you?"

"Hah, it's just… I remember you, when you first arrived in Atlas." Elm spoke, and she sounded nostalgic, albeit for once in a pleased way. "You were scrawny, with no real talent other than offering support. And now, you've just got this air of confidence about you. You're the kind of person I would follow into battle."

That… Jaune found himself blushing without really meaning to, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand.

"Thank you… I don't really–"

"And hey, if you ever find yourself in Atlas again," Elm spoke, winking his way as she pressed the button that closed the shutters on the elevator, and began to take her back up. "Hit me up. We can get a few drinks together. My treat."

…Wait, was Elm…

Before he could seriously consider the woman's words, she was already a good ten meters in the air, and only climbing higher by the minute. He found himself letting out an exhausted sigh, even as he smiled, shook his head, and made his way towards the final checkpoint.

The guard there nodded his head, and suddenly the massive bulkheads were opening. All of this would've seemed overkill to Jaune, had he not known exactly what the woman on the other side of all of this was capable of. There were two sets of bulkhead's here. They worked almost like an airlock.

The first bulkhead opened and let him inside, then sealed itself behind him. Only then would the second open, and he could move forward.

That one, too, would lock behind him.

But that almost immediately fled his mind as the second bulkhead began to open, and he got his first glimpse at the person he'd came all this way to see. She was eyeing him with curiosity, and something darker as well, as he stepped forward, allowing the second bulkheads to begin to shutter closed behind him.

And only once they had entirely shut, blanketing the space in complete silence, did Jaune find it within himself to speak.

"It's been a while, Cinder."

The woman sat before him seemed like a being frozen in time. Looking almost identical to how she had when he'd turned around and left her in Evernight. The only thing missing to complete the look would've been the Grimm arm that had tried to kill her.

But no. The stump of her left arm was inactive, hidden from view by the long-sleeved shirt she was wearing. Jaune's eyes were drawn to the woman's outfit; a rather simple set of white cotton clothing that seemed to be a standard set given to prisoners. And on the left side of her face was the same eyepatch she'd always worn, albeit in a white color, evidently remade.

The cell around her was a slightly brighter shade of that same white. It seemed sterile, like a medical room from a TV drama. Inside of the room was a simple bed, a separated cubicle that Jaune imagined was a bathroom, and a sink. There was a table in the corner, albeit its edges were all blunted, and it seemed to be lightweight, perhaps made of plastic.

And finally, after four or five seconds of quiet observation, Cinder found it in herself to speak.

"Hm… You got a haircut it seems. It looked better scraggly and untamed." Her tone carried no emotion at all. "So, what, here to visit little old me?"

Jaune wasn't surprised to hear that her voice had only slightly recovered from when the Grimm had covered it. It was not quite that same sultry tone she'd once weaponized. No, it was scratchy, and Jaune couldn't imagine it being easy to speak that way.

Perhaps he should've been glad for that. That the woman who'd caused so much harm now suffered to even talk.

He wasn't.

And he was still just standing there, right in front of Cinder's cell, staring down at the woman who'd walked over to sit in front of the – likely extraordinarily reinforced – glass in front of him. Without really thinking, he found the smallest bit of contempt bubbling up within him, and he voiced it along with a question he'd carried.

"There was a part of me that thought you'd simply slit your throat rather than be kept in captivity for the rest of your life."

"As did I at first, and yet, here I am. I suppose the natural desire to live in most beings overcomes even myself." Cinder shrugged, as if the concept of her killing herself was an entirely normal thing to discuss.

Jaune found himself with a lack of anything to say, although before he could let the silence stretch on, it was oddly Cinder who took over, and kept the conversation going.

"So, how long has it been. Four years? Five?"

"Five." Jaune said simply as he sat down before the most heavily secured cell in the world, mirroring Cinder's position with his legs crossed. "Nearly six now."

Cinder nodded, and seemed to contemplate something or another, which gave Jaune the chance to look at the cell that rested before him.

He'd read up on it a little bit when they'd first constructed it to house Cinder. It was Atlesian technology and reinforced material. According to Winter, even someone with the Maiden's power would take a good five minutes of channeling it on one spot to escape, and if the walls were damaged in any way, then a neutralizing gas would flood the chamber.

Winter had called it foolproof at the time. Inescapable. Impregnable. To Jaune, her saying such things had been inviting trouble. And yet, here they were, five years later.

Cinder was still here. Still locked up.

So Jaune supposed the word of another Maiden was likely worth more than his own, in this case.

"So, why come here, Jaune Arc?" Cinder spoke his name with an almost theatrical quality, mocking him as she let her head rest on her right hand, propped up by her elbow. "Have you come to tell me you've moved on with your life? That little old Cinder means nothing to you now?"

"Not really." He admitted with a shrug. "I thought about doing that a few years back but decided against it. It was all still raw back then. You would've been able to bait me with ease."

Cinder smirked. He found himself growing just the smallest bit annoyed by it.

"But I've cooled down. Can't stay broiling at someone for five years. And hey, I hear you've been good. Maybe they'll bring that sentence down from a few thousand years to a more reasonable hundred or two?"

The barb had exited his mouth before he'd really known what to do with it, and he found himself feeling guilty, of all things, which felt ridiculous, given who it'd been aimed at, but Jaune wasn't the type to be so… so venomous, no matter to whom.

Cinder, however, did not seem to care much at all.

"Hah, hah," She rolled her eyes. "So, you've come to taunt me, then? I must admit, your smarm could use work."

"Eh, it's a work in progress." He shot back. "But in all honesty, I'm not quite sure why I'm here."

Cinder hummed disinterestedly. "Well, I'm afraid if you're asking me for ideas, I'm a little short on activities for the two of us to partake in, on account of the whole…" she trailed off, gesturing to her almost entirely empty, padded cell. "Incarceration thing."

…Since when had Cinder been dryly witty?

"Yeah, I noticed."

"Oh, then it seems your observation outpaces your smarm."

He wanted to glare at the woman, but knew that would only be a point for her if he did. Instead, he simply sat there, waiting to see if she had anything else to throw at him. Any further insults.

She didn't.

Instead, she talked.

"You know, quite a few of your ilk have visited me." Cinder commented absently, changing the subject. "There was little miss Rose, and her sister. Of course, the Ice Queen herself, and the Winter Maiden. I see the members of that little Atlesian special forces outfit every once in a while. And I suppose Emerald visited me as well, a few years ago."

Jaune's brow drew down. "When was this?"

"You seem to assume I have any concept of time down here." Cinder spoke flatly, eyeing him. "Occasionally they'll tell me the date when I ask, but often times months go by without my realizing it. Emerald dropped by a few years ago, like I said. It's been quite a bit. If you want an exact timeframe, ask her."

"Fine, then, what did the two of you actually discuss?"

"Hah, of all things, her impending wedding." Cinder said, although there was an odd note of something in her voice there that Jaune couldn't particularly identify. "Apparently she'd somehow gotten married to that one girl from the White Fang, the chameleon faunus. At some… ball, or some such?"

"Ah, the Vale Gala."

Somehow Jaune's conversations always drifted back to that damned Gala, and yet he still didn't have the story.

"Yes, that. I…"

It was incredibly rare to see any sort of emotion on Cinder Fall's face at all, let alone one as soft as what appeared to be…

Pride.

Not in herself, for once, but in another.

"I wished her well."

Jaune had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do with that innocent expression. A look that would've been at home on the face of Ren, or Nora, or Ruby. Not on Cinder Fall's face, the woman who'd plunged the world into darkness.

Cinder must've seen his shocked expression, for she smirked as she raised an eyebrow in his general direction.

"You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Didn't expect you to be… what, proud?"

"I suppose that's what you'd call it." Cinder shrugged. "I do not see why that's unthinkable. Do you think I possess nothing in my heart by hatred and villainy? That I'm some inhuman monster."

Yes, he sort of had assumed that.

"Well, you're right," Cinder's teeth peeled apart, revealing a sharp smile. "But I have some emotions too, you know."

He frowned her way, even as he sighed and shook his head, barreling through her words.

"Emerald's a nice girl." He decided to build off of what she'd said earlier. "So is Ilia. I ran into Emerald back at Beacon. She's the Grimm studies teacher there now."

Cinder actually cackled.

"That… she replaced that portly old fool?"

Jaune felt some indignation at the way she'd so thoroughly dismissed Professor Port, someone who had saved Jaune's life more than once, but felt that getting angry with the woman over something like this would only be playing to her benefit.

"She did."

"Hm. I suppose I can see Goodwitch's reasoning there."

"You don't have a snarky title to call Ms. Goodwitch?"

"Unlike the mustachioed buffoon," Cinder sneered. "Glynda Goodwitch actually has my respect. We dueled once over a dust shop in downtown Vale. She was good. Without the Maiden's power, perhaps she could even have matched me as I was back then."

He conceded that, from the woman's warped point of view, that actually made some semblance of sense, and nodded his head.

"As I was saying, however, Emerald's knowledge of the Grimm is second to none." Cinder spoke. "Perhaps the foremost expert that is not banished to a realm beyond all worlds, dead, dead again, or in a high-security Atlesian prison."

Jaune imagined those people were the God of Darkness, Salem, Ozpin, and Cinder herself, in that order.

"Hm. It's funny," Cinder spoke, her eyes glazing over ever so slightly. "She told me that she'd gotten over me when she was leaving. Like I thought you'd come to do today. She told me she wasn't going to let me haunt her life forever, as if I had anything to do with her feelings."

The fact that Cinder couldn't recognize that she had angered him somewhat.

"You did. You toyed with Emerald's love for you for most of her teenage years." At Cinder's almost surprised look, Jaune expounded. "She told us a while ago when she drank a bit too much. Said how hard it was to fight you when she couldn't stop thinking about the good times."

"The good times… hah." Cinder shook her head. "When we roamed about the world killing anything in our paths. And she calls such the 'good times?'"

"Emerald never had anything. And then she had you."

"Yes, believe me, I know. I understand the girl's emotions better than most."

"You would." His eyes narrowed. "You abused them."

"Hmph. I suppose I did." At his aggravated look, Cinder raised an eyebrow. "What? Do you expect me to apologize?"

Jaune…

He wasn't sure what it was, exactly, that he felt when he gazed upon Cinder Fall. There was anger, assuredly, but he didn't think that stemmed from hatred any longer. It had simply been too long. His life has advanced, as a person he'd advanced. This woman was a relic of his past.

But even so, there was something about her that he just… that Jaune just didn't understand.

He tried to think of how he wanted to articulate that, and ended up saying, "…Don't you ever regret it?"

It was Cinder's turn to look annoyed. "Regret what?"

"Becoming what you are?"

Cinder barked out a laugh, like what he'd said was the pinnacle of idiocy.

"Jaune Arc, you speak of my life as if I ever had a choice in the matter, but it is not so." She held out her hands at her side, as if gesturing to the entire world. "I am what I was made to be."

Words echoed at him from somewhere at that, but exactly from where eluded him in the moment.

For now, Jaune just stared at the woman, his eyes gradually dimming as he let his posture fail him somewhat, slumping just a bit as he looked at the woman across from him, who seemed to project strength, as if she was proud to be how she was.

He couldn't help but think that was a front, and not a particularly strong one.

"So what? You're satisfied with it, then? How your life ended up?"

There was the smallest twitch upon Cinder's face there, before it was buried beneath a smirk. She didn't speak, though, and it was the surest sign Jaune had received that day that the woman was holding back something.

"What if you could go back?" He felt like asking. "Do it all again?"

Cinder just scoffed.

"At every point where I could've taken a different option, arrived at a different outcome, I took the choice I felt was most appropriate." Cinder spoke, staring directly into his eyes. "I am who I am. If I could go back now with the knowledge I possess, then yes, perhaps I would choose differently. But the choices I made then, with the information I had then, would result in the same outcome every time. Nothing will change that."

"Hm. No want for redemption, then?"

"Hah. No." Cinder's tone sounded harsh now. "I am not Emerald. Or Neopolitan, Nor Mercury, whatever that boy is up to these days."

"I believe he's a special agent working out of Mistral, last I heard."

Mercury had, for better or worse, known only fighting since he was a child. His entire being had been fighting, and though Jaune had never sensed the man particularly enjoyed it in some of their later skirmishes, well… he'd chosen his career, Jaune supposed.

Although he hoped the man might one day change his mind.

Jaune hadn't heard anything about him in years, but Emerald was in contact with him, so he'd have gotten any news if something had happened. Jaune assumed, therefore, that he was doing well enough.

"Hm." Cinder hummed noncommittally, absorbing the fate of the other of her enforcers without much emotion. "So, what, Jaune Arc? Are you finished, or do you intend to deny me my peace and quiet for even longer?"

"The latter." He took some small solace in the brief glint of annoyance in the woman's eyes. "Besides, I can't help but think that you probably get enough silence these days."

"Oh, I'm allowed to speak with others quite often, actually." Cinder spoke, smiling his way when his brow furrowed. "After all, research shows that being locked in confinement without any interaction drives one insane. Surely you'd know this, Jaune Arc?"

He hadn't, actually. It sounded like the kind of thing that someone like Blake or Ren would've known, perhaps Weiss. Jaune himself had always been the more logical type. He was not so much book smart as he was quick on the draw, and a fast planner.

"I speak with the giant woman and the others quite often." Cinder said. "She entertains me at least, and she gives good exercise tips. I've been able to keep my abs rather toned thanks to her advice."

That sounded like something Elm would do, somehow.

"So, what, you're just… content in there?"

"Hm?"

Jaune stared at Cinder, the way she eyed him out of the corner of her eye as he let out a sigh, and found something bubbling up from within him. He did not know the source of such a thing, but he had a feeling it was related, at least, to his own troubles.

"You're just fine to sit in there and… exist?"

"I fail to see what other option I have."

It was a fair comment, Jaune couldn't help but admit that, and yet at the same time, he felt it was… weak. Not at all what she truly felt. She was projecting strength, trying to pretend everything was alright, when beneath the surface–

And Jaune's eyes briefly widened as a spark ran through his brain, and he realized just what it was. The relation to himself. To his problems. To taking a step forward.

"It's funny… I think I can kind of understand you."

"Oh?"

"Just… why you are like you are." Jaune said. "It's because you are – or were – afraid, right?"

Cinder actually flinched, even if it was so subtle anyone else would've missed it.

"Yeah. I thought so." He said, laughing mirthlessly. "After all, why else would you need to be the strongest person alive? Why would you need the Maiden's power, and then try and get another, and another, and another…? Because you were worried. Because you couldn't bear to be weak again, right?"

Cinder said nothing, just glared his way.

"I understand that. Hating being weak." And it was the truth. "When Pyrrha… when you killed her, I was weak. She sent me away to protect me, to prevent me from being harmed. It hurt. Being weak. More than anything had ever hurt before. I knew it then. I'd never be that weak again. I refused to be. I trained every night. More than my teammates, long after they'd gone to sleep. I considered myself less than worthless. That even if I died, as long as it bought them time–"

"Hah. Yes. I remember." Cinder cut in. "You told me much of this when we fought at Haven."

He wasn't bothered by the woman's haughty interruption as much as he'd have been a few years back. Time dulled all wounds, even if the woman was desperate to rip them open…

They'd scarred over, now.

"I'm surprised you care to remember." And honestly he was. He hadn't thought he'd made much of an impression, given that she'd quite literally asked who he was. Apparently, however, that remark very well may've been for the sake of baiting him.

"You cut my mask." Cinder explained, as if that answered everything. "Like you said, for just a moment, my veneer of strength was broken."

"You lashed out." He summarized, remembering the way that she'd stopped toying with him, and destroyed and defeated him so effortlessly, so casually, that he'd been completely blindsided by it.

And then she'd thrown a spear through Weiss' chest.

And because of it… because of it, he'd unlocked his semblance. Because of it, he was who he was.

Oddly enough, he had her to thank.

"I did. And because of that, you had my attention."

"Not afraid to admit it anymore?"

"Time dulls all wounds." Cinder said with a shrug.

"Funny. I was just thinking that."

"But if you must know, then no. I'm not afraid to admit that I was once afraid." Cinder said, a casual air about her words. "I'm going to be in a padded cell for the rest of my miserable little life, aren't I?"

"It certainly seems so." Jaune spoke, albeit with a bit of… he didn't even know, something in his tone that he didn't really want to read into.

And then there was silence.

This seemed, to Jaune at least, to make sense on paper. After all, the two of them had once been bitter enemies. Of course, they could not carry on some normal conversation, or come to a conclusion that wasn't hate between them.

But there hung in the air something between them, now, that neither of them seemed to know quite how to address. And it wasn't hatred. It wasn't a lust for battle, or combat, or death between the two of them.

No, for him, it was the uncertainty that warred within him when he thought back on that day. When they'd fought against Cinder in the final battle. The uncertainty he'd felt when he'd looked at her, and saw that dead look within her eyes.

That pleading look she'd fixed him with, perhaps even unconsciously, when the Grimm that had once been bound to her flesh had made to devour her whole. It had been so much more real than anything else he'd ever seen on her face.

And for Cinder herself, another question was likely on her mind, although Jaune imagined she would be far too proud to ever ask it. He was wondering if he could perhaps steer the conversation in that direction himself, but just as he was thinking about doing such a thing, Cinder did just as he'd thought she wouldn't, and came right out and said it.

"Why did you save me?"

Jaune found himself hesitating.

Back in the Grimmlands. After their final battle. Ren, Nora, Neo, Emerald, and Jaune had stood against Cinder, armed with the maiden's fire, and more skilled than any of them in single combat. But they'd defeated her, nonetheless. Cinder's Grimm arm, after her defeat, had sought to absorb her completely, likely to make her into some Maiden Hound Hybrid.

Jaune should've simply killed her and been done with it. That was sense. After everything Cinder had done, it was perhaps even justice.

Instead, Jaune had bent down, and pumped his aura into her.

Had given her the strength to burn away the black encroachment.

And he himself had always wondered, if the woman had asked him again, had asked him why, what it was he'd say. And yet, no matter how many times he thought about it, no matter how much he considered it, he always found himself coming back to the same general conclusion, even in its simplicity.

"Because you were hurt."

Cinder was about as satisfied with that answer as Jaune assumed she would be; ala not at all.

"I killed so many of your friends." She seemed to try and remind him of such a fact. "I attacked your Kingdoms. I did such wrong–"

"You were hurt." He reiterated, unwilling to say anything beyond that. "You were going to die."

"You should've let me. I would have."

Jaune felt a sneer crossing his lips.

"I told you then, didn't I? I'm nothing like you."

At that, Cinder just laughed. It was a sad, pained thing, like strumming the strings of a guitar that was horribly out of tune.

"No. I suppose you're not."

And not for the first time in that conversation, Jaune had absolutely no idea how to react to that. Because once more, Cinder continued to show depth beyond what he'd once given her credit for. She continued to surprise him with her words and expressions.

…It had him thinking on things he'd thought before. Shortly after their journey through Evernight, when Jaune had, on a whim, doubled back towards the dining hall. He'd found Cinder still unconscious there.

He'd been the one to carry her out of there, to hand her to Winter and the other elites as they left the brimstone of Evernight behind.

He'd felt then, and still did, now, that he'd never truly understand the woman before him now.

But for some reason, he tried regardless.

"May I ask you something?"

"I don't have much option to decline."

"If you said 'no', I wouldn't."

Cinder raised an eyebrow.

"I'm serious."

Cinder paused, and Jaune found himself wondering, idly, perhaps unnecessarily, if Cinder had ever been asked such a thing before. Had ever been given the choice of what it was she wanted.

It was not a good thought for him. It did not work to keep him steady, or cognizant of the woman's sins.

"Go ahead, then, since you seem so dead set."

Jaune wondered how he should word this.

"…Why are you the way you are?"

Cinder's eyes narrowed. "That is rather broad in scope. You will have to narrow your question down somewhat."

"What I'm saying is… Someone doesn't end up like you without suffering. And you must've suffered, gone through something horrible to be as you are. But that doesn't have to be your whole life. You could try, you know. If you tried to be better, if you genuinely tried to change–"

A laugh as cruel as that which Cinder had thrown at him then, five years ago, echoed out. A laugh as cruel as that which she'd uttered before she threw herself at them to die. A laugh filled with so many emotions that it sounded paradoxically empty. Jaune understood that now. Perhaps he'd even understood that then.

"Save it." Cinder practically growled at him, the shake in her voice making itself known as she briefly lost control of herself. "I don't know who you think you are, Jaune Arc, but I am not going to be swayed by honeyed words. Emerald tried, her wife tried for her sake, hell, even little Ruby Rose tried. You're not going to 'fix' me."

That…

"…Why?"

Cinder looked shocked for a brief moment, before her brow drew down once more, and she muttered, "…I fail to understand the question."

Jaune failed to understand her, too.

"I mean, why not? Why not try and be a better person?"

Cinder opened her mouth to speak, then, and Jaune could tell she was going purely off stream of consciousness then, just saying exactly what came to mind. But she stopped herself, prevented herself from slipping, and reigned her emotions back in.

Jaune found himself frowning at that.

"Because I cannot comprehend wanting to be as you are, Jaune Arc." Cinder eventually gave as answer. "I cannot comprehend going and trying to reintegrate into so called 'normal life' after the things I've seen and done."

And Jaune gasped.

That… those words were…

The tiny little inkling in his heart, that desire to travel, and see, and continue onwards, pretending as if nothing had changed, pretending as if it was still the seven of them against the world, that Remnant hadn't moved on, that they were all still…

That they were still the people they used to be…

And then Cinder had come out and somehow identified that exact emotion within his chest without any effort.

…How did Cinder of all people mirror him more than any of the others.

Still, Jaune shook off that brief distraction, instead finding himself shaking his head once more.

"I guess I just don't understand." He said, even though he somewhat did.

"Hah. Then allow me to give you some advice, Jaune Arc."

And he looked up, and saw her expression. A desolate thing, but also undeniably by far the most real look she'd yet given him.

"Pray you never do."

Her words were harrowing, despite their dramatic flair. Jaune supposed that was simply who Cinder was, always announcing things in that same manner, like she was an actor upon a stage. She'd lost some of the strength she once had, though, with her voice deteriorating. Even so…

Jaune found himself just… watching the expression on the woman's face, wondering what it was she was actually thinking. Perhaps she really was as simple as she made herself out to be. Perhaps she simply was just a spiteful, hateful woman, who had nothing left to do but rot away the rest of her days in here.

But Jaune just…

"Do you really want to sit in this padded cell for the rest of your days?"

Cinder breathed out a laugh. "Not particularly."

"Then why not? Why not… I don't know, put in the effort?" Jaune spoke. "Why not try and improve, why not try and reform, or… or just make some progress. What could you possibly have to lose?"

"Nothing." Cinder said, looking away from him with a flat expression. "I'm simply not interested."

And then it hit him, and once more, Jaune was struck by just how similar they really were.

"…You're still scared."

Cinder's eyes widened to enormous proportions. The woman looked both caught and offended, and if Jaune were a more insensitive person – or really, if he'd been the type to be rude to just about anyone under any circumstance – he might have laughed at that.

He didn't, though. This was something he was serious about, and he wanted to confront the woman with what he knew now was the truth.

"What?" Cinder finally managed to stammer out.

"You're scared to try." Jaune spoke, and he felt an odd fire fill his breast as he pushed onwards. "Because you know there's no way you can half-ass this. There's no way you can pretend to reform, or to do whatever the hell it is you'd need to do to get out of the highest security prison ever created. It's the same as always. You're scared. This time, it's to find out what's next."

Cinder said nothing, just glaring at him from behind reinforced glass.

"So, you'll sit in your little padded cell because it expects nothing of you, right? Because you can keep getting food, keep getting water, have all your little needs met, and you can huddle in the corner with the remnants of the Maiden's powers and play around, pretending as if nothing's changed, that they're the same as they ever were, right?"

"Shut up!" Cinder screamed at him, although it was somewhat stilted with the damage done to her throat.

"No!" He shouted back, almost caught off guard by the energy within him.

Cinder seemed to be too. She actually leant back somewhat, halfway caught between continuing to argue with him and asking him what the hell he was on about.

She apparently decided on the latter.

"What the hell… why do you care!?"

"Hah…" There was no mirth in Jaune's laughter, just a sad little thing that had him leaning back as well, holding himself up with his arms as he stared up at the metal ceiling above them.

"Because you're me."

Cinder just sort of gawked at him. She didn't seem to know what to do with what he'd said – and Jaune couldn't much blame her. To be honest, he wasn't entirely sure what to do with it either – as she regained her former posture, and then leaned forward somewhat.

"…What the hell do you want from me?"

Jaune looked back over to see Cinder grinding her teeth together. Her jaw looked tense; her single hand balled into a tight, white-knuckled fist.

And yet, somehow, Jaune didn't think she looked angry. More frustrated. More…

"Ever since…" Cinder shook her head. "Ever since that day, when I was so set to die, and you saved my life, I've been… I've been wondering just what the hell it is that I'm alive for."

The words… they did something to Jaune that he wasn't really sure what to make of. He decided to push those feelings aside for the time being to focus on the woman's continuing statement.

"Like you said, when I first arrived, I thought I'd just… take the Maiden's flame to my throat, and end it. After all, I had nothing. Nothing at all. No reason to go on."

Jaune asked his next question before he really thought it through as to whether or not it was a good thing to inquire about. "Then why didn't you?"

Cinder looked at him then, and this time, for perhaps the first time in the entire conversation, Jaune could read the look in her eyes.

It was hesitation. Hesitation, and doubt, mixed with a million other things.

Cinder didn't even know.

And again… again she mirrored him. He almost hated it, the way it seemed like the both of them lived not even knowing why. That they continued not even really sure what it was they wanted out of tomorrow.

Jaune was getting there. He could tell that soon… soon he'd have his answer. Perhaps, even, by the end of today.

Perhaps he had it already.

Cinder… Cinder didn't.

And she, unlike him, didn't have the benefit of great friends to help her along the path.

And frankly, there was a part of Jaune that wondered if she deserved such a thing. If she deserved anything more than to rot inside this cell until the day she died.

And yet…

Jaune was a soft thing. That was what everyone always said.

He agreed with them. He was… he was even a bit proud of it, in all honesty.

So, he wouldn't abandon the woman. Even if she deserved to be left to fester, and rot, and stew in her anger and rage in her here, he would offer out his hand to her.

If she denied him even then… there would be nothing he could do. His mother had once told him that there was only so much one could do for someone who did not want to help themselves. That had been in relation to Jaune's maternal uncle passing away from drug addiction, despite his family having continuously reached out to help him.

And now… staring at Cinder…

He was going to offer help, just as she had, knowing she might scorn it regardless.

"What made you like this?" He questioned for the second time in this conversation, feeling like he'd broken through the woman's guard enough to perhaps get an answer. "You never spilled a single thing. And by the time we captured you, we never needed to know."

Cinder was silent. She just stared at him with a disbelieving expression. She said nothing. She did not move; barely fidgeted at all. Jaune felt himself grow just the smallest bit apprehensive…

But he pushed through.

"You don't have to tell me." He wanted to make that clear, most of all. "I certainly can't force you. If you want me to, then… I'll leave. I'll leave, and you'll never see me again if you don't want me here. But–"

"I grew up in an orphanage."

And Jaune's eyes widened, even as his heart soared ever so slightly.

"I was… it wasn't a normal place. I didn't learn the real truth of it, that it was a hub for a bunch of human traffickers to sell young children, until I was much older, when I returned to burn that place and everything it stood for to its very foundations."

Jaune heard the vitriol in Cinder's voice, then.

"But… that's another story. You asked what made me as I am, correct?"

He nodded.

"Well then… I suppose it was… when I was eight or nine. I was 'adopted', and taken to the Kingdom of Atlas, to serve as the daughter of a woman who ran a hotel."

"It was called the Glass Unicorn."

/

"And so, I ran. Because like Rhodes said… it was all I could do. Eventually, I escaped the city of Atlas without being caught, and ran out into the snowdrifts. In my hurriedness, I nearly died. I was a few minutes from freezing to death when Salem found me, and took me in. From then on, I was her enforcer. I take it you can assume the rest."

Jaune could. He could without much effort assume exactly what it was that Salem had given her. Power, and a direction in which to use it. A feeling of control that she'd never once had.

Freedom.

And yet such a thing had come from the very embodiment of evil. From the Queen of Darkness.

From yet another collar around her neck.

No wonder Cinder was as she was.

"Spare me your pity, Jaune Arc."

Apparently Cinder saw through his silence without much issue.

Even still, he couldn't not say anything. Not after all of that.

"…No one ever loved you, did they?"

"…What?"

He wasn't really sure why that was the first thing to come out of his mouth. That single fact.

To Jaune, at least, unconditional love had been something he'd taken for granted every day of his life. His parents had loved him. His sisters had loved him. Eventually, his teammates and friends had loved him.

He'd sort of assumed that everyone had people like that.

Even as Blake had told him, it seemed from her stories that Adam Taurus, one of the worst people he'd ever heard of, had had a mother who'd loved him, allies to confide in, at least for a while. Hazel had a sister. Watts' had been a scientist on a team with Doctor Polendina, and had, from the way the man talked of it, been a genuine friend for a long time.

Even Tyrian had had 'love', even if such a thing had only been in his own imagination.

And yet…

"I mean… never." He found himself murmuring. "You never once even had a positive interaction with another human being in your entire life. Even the man who trained you didn't risk himself to try and save you." Jaune found a righteous sort of anger filling him then, despite who it was for. "He was still selfish, and then, he went and gave a sword to an abused, helpless little girl, and expected her to have the strength not to use it."

Cinder's face contorted somewhat then. And Jaune, briefly, thought that to be guilt of some kind. He'd briefly considered it progress, before she stunned him with her next few words.

"…I didn't use it."

Jaune looked up at her in surprise. "What?"

"I killed my first stepsister on accident." Cinder explained so casually, without any inflection, that Jaune was almost convinced she didn't care. The next few sentences, however, betrayed that she did. "They found me with the weapon one night. I had just wanted to get some extra training in, but…" She shook her head, not looking at him. "They found me. I was… I was panicked. I knew that they would take it from me. And I knew I would be punished. More severely than I ever had been. I was on edge. I was… when my stepsister lunged at me, trying to take the sword from my hand in her own hasty worry… I cut across her throat without even meaning to. It was an instinctive strike. Something Rhodes had drilled into me. Meant… to be used against someone with aura. By the time I realized what I'd done she was dead, and her sister was screaming. Her mother was sending lightning through my neck. I just… acted. I didn't think. They were all dead within thirty seconds. Rhodes… was dead within another two minutes."

That…

Jaune found himself horrified at the absurdity of that. That Cinder's entire life had gone up in smoke within… what, a combined seven or so minutes? Perhaps less?

She'd been attempting to train one moment, and running to avoid being charged with the murder of her adoptive parents, siblings, and teacher seven minutes later. That…

That would've changed anyone. Jaune didn't dare think he would've been immune to such a thing himself had he been in Cinder's position.

Did that justify everything she'd ever done? Of course not. But at the same time, Jaune found it hard to think of the woman before him as a callous, cold, unfeeling murderer when he saw the smallest glint in her eye. The tiniest, most forgotten piece of regret.

She hadn't wanted what happened to happen. She genuinely hadn't.

"I'm sorry." He said for lack of anything else to say.

"I said save it." Cinder's voice was bitter.

Jaune was faltering, now. He'd expected something bad, assuredly, but being raised in an 'orphanage', before being sold into slavery to the care of an abusive woman and her two equally abusive stepdaughters, not given a single piece of affection in her entire life except by one man who even having seen what she was going through only trained her and said 'well if you can hold out for a few more years, you can leave' and expected that to go well.

And then she'd been taken in by Salem, and turned into a weapon, into a killer and a murderer and was that at least somewhat her fault? Surely. Cinder Fall wasn't a good person, that much was clear.

But Jaune found himself remembering something, the same something that had briefly flashed through his head earlier that he hadn't been able to identify. Words that Blake had said to him a few weeks back in that moment, when the two of them had been discussing Adam.

"Yang tells me similar things. Adam made his choices. It's just… did he? Did the world really give him a choice, or…"

Jaune understood, then, what Blake had been trying to say.

Certainly, Cinder had chosen incorrectly. But the choices she'd been offered… what was the best scenario she could've made with the cards she'd been dealt? To suffer as a slave for another few years? To get her sword confiscated and assuredly been abused even more heavily for it? To allow Rhodes to take her into custody; into another prison, into another place where she had no control over her life, no freedom at all, likely to rot away for years?

Jaune sighed, because as per usual, the world was far too complicated for him. Too dark, and cold, and unfeeling.

The world just was. It didn't care. It wasn't fair. It played no games.

There was no point getting upset about it, thought. The world would not change.

"So, what now, Jaune Arc?" Cinder spoke, looking up at him after having seemingly centered herself. There was just the smallest bit of that snarky energy she'd channeled before in her gaze again. "What now?"

"I… don't really know."

And Cinder actually laughed. "Yes. I had thought as much."

Jaune hesitated for a moment, before speaking again.

"What is it you want?"

Cinder pondered that for a moment. "…I… haven't really considered it. I have no grand plan for escape, or any such nonsense."

"So, you mean to just… sit here?"

Cinder stared at him with confusion evident in her gaze.

"I just…" Jaune shook his head, trying to communicate his thoughts. "Sure. Maybe you could rot away in here for the rest of your life. And if that's what you actually want, then go for it. But… I guess when I think about that, you being trapped in here for the rest of your life, put in another prison, in another cage… it doesn't make me happy. Just… sort of sad. To me, the thought that you could do something for the world – genuinely try and better it… that outweighs any hate I could have for you. No, it… that's not even…"

Jaune found himself biting down on his bottom lip, trying to resist speaking, because really, how soft, how utterly, foolishly soft, but…

"I want… I guess I want you to be able to live in the way that I've lived. I want you to have the chance to meet people who will show you genuine, actual care. Who will think of you as a person and not an object or a tool. People who will love you for you." He was pouring out his heart now, and wow, this was going a bit differently from how he'd thought it might a few evenings ago. "I think all people, even people like you, deserve that. Despite it all, that's how I feel."

It was only a second or so later, when he noticed the way that Cinder looked at him entirely gob smacked, that he realized what he'd said was in fact rather weighty.

He'd come out and admitted his hate was something he was able to look past.

Hell, more than that, he'd so much as said he wanted the woman to find happiness, even given their – in layman's terms – sordid past.

…He wondered if Cinder was capable of processing such a thing. Capable of putting her own hatred of him, of the rest of their group, aside to try and live a life other than the darkness she'd always known.

Jaune wasn't sure.

"You are… good."

Of course, then Cinder said something that had him going wide-eyed.

"What?"

"Truly, actually good." Cinder further expounded, as if that explained everything. "I saw in the Rose girl the same, but in you it's… she does not see anything but black and white. Good and evil. She does not see the gray as you do. And yet even so… you embrace it regardless, this world, with all its hang-ups."

Jaune wasn't sure he was… that good. In fact, not five minutes ago, he'd thought about all the flaws of the world. Had thought of all the ways it pushed against its people.

But in a way, by accepting that, he was, he supposed, embracing the world.

Still…

"…I do my best."

Cinder leant back, and let out an exhausted noise, caught somewhere between a laugh and a breathless sigh.

"And here I am thinking… why could it not have been someone like you who found me that day, instead of…"

Her words cut off there, but Jaune's eyes were wide. What was she…

"You said you had no regrets." He said a bit dumbly.

"I said I wouldn't make any different decisions." Cinder clarified. "Not that I did not wish that different things had happened to me. Is it not the same for all people? To want for better?"

Jaune…

Felt just the smallest bit sad.

"I suppose so."

Because she was just like all people, wasn't she?

Wasn't everyone, in their own way, simply looking for better?

…That wasn't an excuse, though. A part of Jaune hammered that in over and over again. But…

There was silence, then. Honestly, Jaune wasn't really sure what else he wanted to say. He still had to say something more, given that he wasn't sure if he'd managed to fully sway the woman away from just sitting here in this cell, and wasting away.

And he didn't want that. He could admit that to himself now. He'd rather have her actually contribute to the world than just die here in a cage.

He wanted her to see it. The world that he, apparently, embraced. To see more than the worst, most terrible parts.

And so, he gathered himself, and he spoke.

"About a week ago, I visited Beacon Academy. I talked with Professor Goodwitch, and she gave me a letter. In that letter was an offer to teach at Beacon Academy. To become a Professor."

Cinder didn't seem terribly surprised at that.

"So… I've decided that I'm going to become a teacher. I'm going to move forward with my life."

"Are you asking for my input? If so, then I suppose 'Congratulations'."

"…What will you do?"

Cinder looked at him with her brow furrowing rapidly.

"What?"

"I said what will you do?" Jaune spoke, and he put a bit of fervor into his voice. "What will you do to get yourself out of this place? In order to contribute to the world? To be free?"

Cinder just sat there for a while. For… for an awful long time. And she stared at him like he was an annoyance, and nothing more. An insect that she hated, that she wanted nothing more than to burn to ash.

And yet, there was something else, there, too, that Jaune couldn't quite identify.

And when she finally spoke, it was with a breath like fire.

"Gods you're annoying."

Jaune could only laugh.

"I learned that one from Ruby."

"No, somehow I think that stubbornness was inherent to you." Cinder fall glared at him. "But fine. If you'd like me to come up with something on the spot, then–"

"You don't have to decide now." He interrupted the woman, wanting to make sure that she'd actually take such a thing seriously, before admitting something he was almost positive he wasn't going to when he'd first arrived. "I think… I think I'll be coming back, actually."

"Oh? Decided to visit me regularly?" Cinder cocked an amused eyebrow. "You know, I don't think the wardens allow those kinds of things for non-conjugal visits."

Jaune raised an eyebrow of his own.

"Unless you're proposing to me – I'm sorry, by the way, it's not you, it's me –" Cinder snorted in a rather undignified manner. "Then I don't see why you care how I get in. Besides, I'm one of the Seven Heroes who defeated the evil witch that threatened to destroy the world, and battled back the Brother Gods, aren't I? I think they'll let me in."

"Ah, abusing your power." Cinder let out a breath of laughter. "Some hero you are."

He rolled his eyes fondly, before realizing what the hell he'd just done. And then and there, whatever strange energy had hovered over them for the last few minutes dissipated, and he was left staring at Cinder Fall, the woman who'd killed Pyrrha, made him kill Penny, had served Salem…

The little girl who'd never known love, or kindness, or anything but apathy, and pain, and loneliness.

Jaune grimaced as he turned around, seemingly returning to his senses, again unable to reconcile those two halves.

Cinder didn't say a thing. Neither of them did. What was he supposed to say, really? 'I wish you well'? 'I hope you succeed'? A few minutes ago, he'd been ready to. To say those things to someone who'd ruined his life, or at least tried to, on multiple occasions. Someone who'd tried to murder his friends' countless times.

…And how was he supposed to admit that he'd honestly enjoyed chatting with the woman.

No, he would not dwell on such things. Instead, he just waved his hand, never looking back himself, as he signaled to the guard to open the bulkheads, even as he desperately tried to ignore the way he heard the woman behind him let out a low laugh, before muttering "Look who's afraid now."

Finally, he exited out, trying to pay no attention to the feeling in his stomach that claimed the entire world was spinning.

And not for the first time, Jaune felt like a fool for how soft his heart could be. For how easy it was to let others in, to accept others for what they were. It seemed a weakness in moments like these, but…

Weiss, Ruby, Ren, Nora… Blake and Yang and Ilia and Sun and Whitley and everyone else… none of them had ever considered such a thing a weakness.

No, they called it a strength,

Jaune lifted his chin just the smallest bit higher as he made for the elevator, and allowed it to take him back towards the surface.

/

It was back in the civilization of Atlas, still cold, but undeniably less so than he'd been earlier, that Jaune finally got around to making the call.

The scroll on the other end rang thrice before it was answered by a stern, yet calm voice, and Jaune found himself smiling as he spoke into his own, despite it being an audio-only affair.

"Hey, Ms. Goodwitch. It's uh… It's Jaune Arc."

There was some brief chatter from the other end, leading to his smile growing just the slightest bit wider.

"Yeah. That's right. I uh…"

He steeled himself, and finally, for the first time in years, took a step forward.

"I think I'd like to take you up on your offer, if you'd have me?"


End Chapter 6


And that was that, the second to last chapter of AHEA! I really did enjoy writing this one. I'm actually not done with Chapter 7 yet, and am still workshopping certain elements in that. So that might come out next Saturday, but it very well may not, so don't hold me to a schedule there.

Anyways, see you all next time!