This is it everyone, the finale!

Without further ado...


Chapter 7 – Jaune Arc


It was late in the evening on a Friday much like any other that he found himself yawning, sitting back in his chair, and stretching his back out a bit. Despite the general relaxing atmosphere, however, he wasn't exactly feeling completely calm.

Namely, because Professor Jaune Arc was awaiting a call.

This was not at all an oddity, of course. As the newest Professor at Beacon Academy, and a member of the Seven to boot, he received quite a few calls from all sorts of people. Ranging from parents of students, to reporters looking for interviews, all the way to disgruntled students trying to prank call him.

Those last few he always got a small amount of enjoyment out of, despite his position.

But for once, he was actually excited to receive a call. This had very little to do with his position at Beacon, or even his position as a member of the Seven.

It was a personal call.

And so, as he graded homework – theoretical questions about how each of his students would handle a certain situation, there was no correct answers, but Jaune had a general set of things he was looking for to give high marks – he found himself glancing towards his scroll nearly every two or three minutes.

And yet, despite being nearly an hour late in contacting him, he'd still yet to receive a hint of news.

This was… well, it wasn't normal for them, per se, but it also wasn't an odd thing. Jaune knew from prior experience that sitting here and wondering just what the hell it was that had happened – almost certainly something as mundane as a bad connection to the CCT, or maybe even that their scroll had run out of battery – was not going to get him anywhere. Thusly, he stood from his desk, vowed to finish grading said homework later, and headed out the door.

He exited out into the corridor beyond his office, where the teacher's themselves had permanent lodging, and decided he might as well talk with someone, seeing as how he had little else to do.

So, he hopped into the elevator at the end of the hall, rode it upwards, and into the room of one Glynda Goodwitch, who looked up and smiled when she saw him.

"I'm taking it that you've not yet gotten a call?"

"Is it written all over my face?" Jaune asked, knowing that it was.

Glynda didn't have to say anything to confirm his fears. Instead, she merely gestured towards the chair pulled up in front of her desk, and Jaune sat down with a worldly sigh.

"Jaune, if there's one thing I've learned about you in the Semester you've been with us," Glynda spoke, seeming rather amused despite his plight. "It is that you're a rather easy man to read."

Jaune couldn't help nodding his head to that, laughing. "Yeah, okay, that's fair."

"I'm sure they'll call." Glynda reassured him. "After all, there could be any number of reasons that they haven't. Bad reception, a delay on the other party, perhaps even a dead battery."

Jaune had considered quite literally every one of those options, but somehow, having someone else lay them out for him made him just that smallest bit calmer.

"You're right." Jaune admitted with a sigh, running a hand down his face. "It's just… I know they've been working hard for this. I guess I just don't want to hear that something went wrong, or that there was a mistake, or–"

And then his scroll rang.

Jaune's eyes widened, and he opened it up and saw the name he'd been hoping to see on the scroll. He swallowed down his nerves, and answered the phone.

"Nora, how'd it–"

"WE GOT THE FUNDING!" Nora screeched, voice audible to even Glynda despite both not being on speaker, and his scroll being turned to half volume. "THEY'RE BUILDING THE RAILWAY!"

He found himself beaming, even as he turned his phone on speaker, held it far away from himself, and tried to get his right ear to stop ringing. "That's awesome! I'm so–"

"GAAAH!" Nora screamed out excitedly, and with much mirth, Jaune thought he could barely hear Ren in the background telling the girl to "calm down", as if that could somehow possibly work. "JAUNE! YOU'RE COMING TO VISIT US THIS WEEK!"

Jaune's brow crinkled. "Uh, Nora, that's kind of short–"

"MS. GOODWITCH!"

"Yes, Ms. Valkyrie?" Glynda asked, sounding rather amused herself.

"JAUNE'S GONNA' NEED WEDNESDAY TO FRIDAY OFF!"

"Uh, Nora–"

"Understood, Ms. Valkyrie." Glynda said, now smirking.

"THANKS, GLYN."

"Don't call me that."

And, that, seemingly was that.

Apparently, he was taking a vacation.

/

Kuroyuri hadn't changed very much since Jaune had been by roughly eight months prior. It was late in the Summer, nearly Fall, now, so while it was no longer quite as cold, it also meant that a lot more people were out and about, and the general buzz in the air was one of excitement.

Evidently, Nora and Ren had told their people of what had happened.

He arrived at their house and was almost instantly tacked in a double hug by both Nora and Magni, the latter of whom didn't really seem to understand what was going on beyond that his parents were happy and excited, and thusly he was happy and excited.

He was beckoned inside and treated to a right and proper feast. He wasn't at all complaining, especially given that he felt he'd earned it, given that Nora had, essentially, kidnapped him from his job.

The logistics of that were hard to parse out, but Jaune stuck by the statement regardless.

Nora went about explaining what it was, exactly, the funding would be allocated for. According to her, it would, of course, be going to rail workers installing the tracks themselves, linking Kuroyuri to Mistral proper. It would, also, be contributing to loaning out guardsman from Mistral, the same types that patrolled the walls of Kuroyuri, to guard the tracks and the workers, making sure they stayed clear and danger free.

But Weiss had actually come through with a surprise of her own.

She'd be pouring in her own contributions, donating a good quadruple what she normally did on a monthly basis to Kuroyuri's development, and making sure that her friend's home had ever bit of security it could possibly need.

That extra funding also meant that Ren and Nora could afford to hire other Huntsman and Huntresses, effectively guaranteeing the Village's safety…

Even if they weren't around.

"We're not going to be going very far," Nora said, smiling even still and evidently remarkably exuberant. "But Ren and I, and Magni too, are going to go around some parts of Upper Mistral, and help out around the frontier villages there. Doing odd jobs, assisting in any way we can."

"The kind of work you thought you might want to be doing?" He asked, and earned a smile on Nora's features.

"Yeah."

That was that, then. This party was also doubling as a going-away party for Nora, Ren, and Magni. They would be leaving at the end of the weak, which Jaune supposed made Nora's insistence he come both more understandable, and something he admitted he was glad for.

And so, he spent the week in good company, laughing and braying and just in general being an idiot with his old teammates, with some of his greatest friends. He found himself thinking on the good times, but for perhaps the first time in a long, long while, not at all in a bad way.

He could look back on their adventures and be happy they'd happened, be sad for the more difficult parts, but not long for them. He no longer wanted to pretend like it was still the seven of them against the world.

He had a place to belong to, now, and a goal to work towards.

At the end of the week, Jaune stood at the gates and waved with the rest of the townsfolk as Nora, Ren, and their son began their trek long the roads of Mistral's wilds. They wouldn't be going very far, like they'd said, but it would still likely be the first time that they'd left Kuroyuri since finishing the rebuilding of it.

Jaune was happy for them.

As he himself boarded the Bullhead that would be taking him back to Beacon, Jaune found himself smiling almost against his will. He was just…

He was able to feel happiness for his friends with no underlying feelings from himself, something he'd not been able to manage the last time he was here. He had been able to look them all in the eye and wish them well, and then depart himself with no feeling of inadequacy, or regret, or underlying envy.

And he was, admittedly, just that little bit proud of that fact.

/

About a month later, on a long weekend, Jaune found himself sitting in front of a pane of heavily reinforced glass.

"So, they're off, what, traipsing through the countryside of Mistral, then?" Cinder raised an eyebrow. "I suppose if that's their calling."

Neither Nora nor Ren had really known if it was, but Nora, seemingly, had known that all she really wanted was to be with her family. Still, neither of them were truly satisfied yet, and so they'd set out to find something that could get them that. Trying things out in a low stakes environment made sense to Jaune.

"And you?"

"Hm?"

"Your being a Professor at Beacon." Cinder clarified. "How is that going?"

He let out a little laugh. "Good enough, I suppose."

Cinder huffed as she rolled her eyes. "You are a rather boring conversationalist when you're not venting your entire soul to your worst enemies."

"I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment or an insult."

"It wasn't meant as a compliment."

He shook his head, trying to ignore the way that talking with Cinder was just… easy.

Some part of that still felt wrong.

"What about you, then?"

Cinder raised an eyebrow.

"What about your efforts, I mean, to get out of here?" Jaune inquired, leaning forward.

"I am… considering my options. Or lack thereof." Cinder spoke, letting out a sigh. "They're not exactly just going to… release me, not even if they had concrete proof that I'd completely changed my state of mind. No. The only way I'm getting out of here is if I can give them something worth risking my possible escape." Cinder leant back. "And that's a rather hard thing to come by."

Jaune would admit that was rather truthful. He hadn't much considered what it was that Cinder could offer to Atlas to earn her freedom.

Although he did have an idea.

"Well, you are the Fall Maiden, are you not? One of the strongest Huntresses to ever live?"

"The strongest." Cinder spoke, and the raw ego in her voice made Jaune chuckle. "But yes. Continue."

"Then, why not offer to work for them?"

"…I do not think they would want me as a member of the specialists, Jaune Arc."

"Neither do I." Jaune shook his head, rephrasing his meaning. "What I was trying to say was being an almost… off the record sort of force. Y'know, like a sort of secret force that they can call on."

Cinder seemed to consider that for a moment. "I'm sure that in your mind that makes perfect sense. However, might I remind you that I once brought down the whole of Atlas myself? I doubt they would much trust me trying to retrieve secret intel, or take down a high-profile target. They'd likely expect me to join said targets, or blackmail them with said intel."

That… alright, admittedly, when Cinder said it, Jaune felt a little dumb.

"You know, for someone so quick on his feet, you are quite the fool."

"Oi," He complained, narrowing his eyes.

Cinder actually snickered beneath her breath.

"Well, do you have any better ideas?"

"In all honesty? Not particularly."

He nodded his head. He maybe could've gotten on a high horse about Cinder admitting he was right, but eh, he didn't particularly feel like it.

"Then… do you not want to do that?"

"It's less that I don't want to do Black Ops work," Cinder explained. "And more that I do not want what I am sure they will demand go with it."

"And what is that?"

"Another cage." Cinder spoke, completely confident.

And though Jaune didn't quite know what the woman meant… he also knew she was far too certain of her words to be incorrect.

/

It was later in that week that Jaune managed to get Winter Schnee – no longer acting head, but the head of the Atlesian Military – down with him in the bowels of the Maiden's Vault, facing one Cinder Fall, who was now currently speaking her case.

"So," Winter addressed the both of them after Cinder had finished speaking. "You say you wish for us to allow Cinder Fall to be an… agent of Atlas, then?"

"I figured it's a better usage of resources than having to hire a crew to guard her prison, having to keep it staffed, heated, and have running water moved to it." Jaune attempted to use logic at first. Appealing to emotions with Winter Schnee was about as likely to win Cinder any favor as trying the same thing with a Grimm. "Plus, this way, you essentially have the single strongest Huntress in the world running ops for you."

"You would speak truth, had I any faith in the woman not attempting to escape, or worse, harm someone the moment she was out of here." Winter's voice was even, but there was the tiniest bit of hate mixed in with it that Jaune could not begrudge the woman for.

Not with what Cinder had done to Atlas once.

"I believe that Cinder–"

"And can she not speak for herself?" Winter cut him off, no longer facing him, but Cinder. "Can she not reason with me?"

Jaune clamped down on the next few statements he'd prepared, and hoped that Cinder would be able to pick up his proverbial slack. Things were going… not particularly well so far.

Cinder had expected that, to be fair, but still. He'd been hoping for something a bit easier.

"I can." Cinder spoke, her voice having gained some strength in the past few months. It seemed having an actual goal, an actual thing to build towards, had provided Cinder with something unexplainable, yet real all the same. "Although what I will say is rather similar to what you have already been told."

"And yet Jaune Arc would only speak the best of you." Winter explained, as if it was the most obvious thing in all the world. "He is far too kind. Far too lenient. Far too soft. I will not be. Nor, I imagine, will you."

Jaune felt the smallest twinge of offense at being labeled, essentially, too nice to be trusted, and also the smallest twinge of pride.

It was a complicated emotion, that.

"Then I suppose I will say that my true desire is freedom." Cinder explained. "Not just freedom from this prison, although that is first and foremost in my mind, but freedom to, for the first time in my life, make my own choices. I aim to work for you until I have proven myself worthy of freedom, worthy of a life outside of all of this. At that time, I intend to disappear. I intend to, after that, never be seen again. Not by anyone."

Jaune… he'd not heard such a thing himself. It… he supposed it made sense to him. Cinder Fall was far too well known a name. She was far too well known a person. By disappearing, perhaps to some frontier village off in the middle of nowhere, she might be able to start a new life, one which she could live for herself.

He could not fault her for that.

"And suppose we did offer such a lenient, and horribly generous offer." Winter stared at Cinder; eyes steely. "You must realize that the things we would ask of you in return would be difficult at best, even for one such as you. Taking on entire crime families on your own. Weeding out terrorist organizations without any assistance. You would have no team, for I would not trust you with one. For us to give you any of what you ask for, we would be sending you on veritable suicide mission."

Cinder didn't even seem remotely surprised about that. She simply nodded. "It would not be my first."

The raw confidence in Cinder's words seemed to do something to Winter, for the woman stood just a little taller, and shook her head, letting out a weary sigh.

"I cannot believe I'm even considering this. You must understand that for the things you've done, you don't even deserve to rot in a cell. It is only the laws of Atlas that have spared you, and your possession of the Fall Maiden's power."

"You did not wish for me to die and send it to some backwater corner of the world." Cinder shrugged. "I've long since understood that."

"And yet, you ask me to send you to your death now. On missions that will no doubt kill you."

"They will not."

Again, Cinder spoke without doubt. Without a moment's hesitation.

And Jaune, in that moment, could understand just how fearsome Cinder's life had made her to be.

A force of nature, Qrow had once called her. after she'd somehow managed to battle all of them to a standstill in Vacuo, before Tyrian, with his dying breath, had managed to get the Relic of Destruction to her. To his Goddess.

And now it was presented to him again. That ferocity and drive.

She would not die. Jaune knew it somehow.

She was far too strong for that. In the same way that the Seven had been beyond the Grimm, had somehow risen beyond even the Gods…

Cinder would not be brought down by criminals, or terrorists, no matter how many she had to face.

And Winter must've seen the same thing, for she let out a haughty sort of breath, before motioning behind her to one of her attendants, who came forth holding a briefcase. Winter took it, opened it, and presented it to Cinder.

And Jaune watched as the woman's confidence snapped.

"Very well." Winter spoke, holding the contents of the briefcase up to where Cinder could easily reach out and take it. "Starting today, you are officially under my direct command. This will, if you go off book, or injure anyone not directly related to your given assignment, administer an injection that renders you inert. It also has a secondary option to neutralize you entirely. That is our insurance that you will cooperate."

The insurance, in this case, being a collar.

And Cinder… her eye was looking far past it. Far past that collar, likely to the last time she'd had one forced upon her neck. The last time she'd had incentive not to misbehave, not to act up, or fail.

And Jaune was interjecting before he even realized.

"Not a collar."

Winter and her attendants turned to him, looking mildly surprised he'd spoken out. Cinder, for her part, was much the same, although her expression was more guarded, he could tell she was perhaps even more surprised than the others.

Although that surprise had not entirely erased the fear she felt.

"You can give her a wrist-cuff, or… or something that's attached to the arm or something, just…" He shook his head. "Just not a collar."

Winter studied him for a moment, before turning back to Cinder. Whatever she saw must've been enough to convince her of Jaune's words, for she sighed, and closed the briefcase.

"Very well. I will have our science team make a variant that attaches to the upper arm instead. In the meantime, you will be confined to your cell."

Cinder nodded a bit blankly, still clearly shellshocked. Jaune smiled Winter's way, shot her a quick thank you, and turned back to Cinder as the nearby guards gestured for her to get back inside her enclosure.

It might've been dangerous, letting her out of the glass, and technically, it increased her chances of escape by roughly half a percent, but when there was still what was effectively an entire metal sarcophagus built around that single point, Cinder would be hard pressed to find a way out of here, even past the initial trap.

Although, Jaune didn't for a moment think Cinder was going to abandon all of what she'd been working towards for months for some flimsy shot at escape. Not with Winter Schnee, some of her best guards, and Jaune himself in the building.

No, if Cinder had genuinely wanted to break her way out, she'd have tried it by now in the last six years.

He found himself drawn from his mental ramblings by Cinder turning to face him, her face still incredulous, seemingly caught on exactly what to say.

"You… I…"

He just smiled at her, although there was something in his chest, something he wasn't proud of, that screamed out that she deserved to have to wear that thing. That she deserved to have to relive her traumatic childhood for what she'd done in her life.

But… that part of him was weak. Weak, ineffectual, and something he didn't listen to any more. Hadn't in quite some time.

So, he pushed down on it, and kept smiling.

Soft. Easy. Kind.

He liked being those things a lot better.

"I really don't understand a single thing about you." Cinder said as if in reply, before she turned around, and walked back into her cell. A nearby guard shut it behind her, before sealing it closed once more.

And it appeared that that was, for the time being, that.

/

He was grading papers in his office, sort of minding his own business one night, when his phone rang.

"Hey, Ruby, wha–"

"YANG'S IN LABOR!"

The coffee he'd been lightly sipping coated his poor, poor laptop rather thoroughly.

His ear was, again, ringing.

People really needed to stop yelling at him when they called.

/

One very abrupt flight to Menagerie later, and Jaune was now sitting inside of Kuo Kuana's hospital lounge, along with about two dozen other concerned friends and family, which consisted of himself, Ren, Nora, Magni – who didn't seem to really understand what was going on, but was nervous because everyone else was nervous – The various S's and N's of SSSN, Ilia, Emerald, Qrow, Oscar, a few of Yang's friends that Jaune had never actually met before, the same for Blake – including a couple of people that Jaune would've bet money were former White Fang themselves – and a smattering of medical professionals who were doing their best to explain to a very anxious crowd that a prolongated labor was an entirely common phenomena, and that while a C-section would take Yang out of commission for longer than normal, it was a completely routine procedure.

That didn't make the wait for news any less agonizing, of course.

At the very least, Jaune was glad that Ruby, Weiss, Tai Yang, and Kali and Ghira Belladonna – and of course Blake herself – were all there for Yang. And hell, for all he knew, she may've already had the procedure. It'd been a good two hours since they'd been informed it was happening in the first place.

The entire 'Yang being pregnant' thing had been known about for a while, obviously, and they'd been getting frequent updates within the last month or so that Yang would be having her child sometime soon, but still, her due date had been next week, so Jaune had, about twenty hours ago, been comfortably grading papers in his office, and trying to think up plans for the first years they'd soon be receiving come the end of summer break.

And then, boom. Baby.

Well, it had probably been a lot less incidental than that, to be honest, but that was really neither here nor there in Jaune's book.

In all fairness to his less than polite mind, he'd now been awake for roughly thirty-six hours straight. He had of course tried to nap on the plane, and had briefly managed to nod off for a few half hour intervals here and there during his prolonged stay in the hospital, but neither came particularly easy when he was worried – whether that was justified or not – about his friends condition.

It was around thirty minutes later that a rather exhausted looking nurse approached their group, with a wide smile on her face, and announced rather happily, "The procedure was a success. Mrs. Xiao-Long has just given birth to a healthy baby girl."

There was a smattering of both sighs of relief and loud cheers, which earned their already rambunctious group no end of glares from the hospital's other patients. In response to that, Jaune subtly asked the nurse on attendance if there were any cases in the hospital that might benefit from a semblance that enhanced aura, and he was glad when she informed him that they had one or two of them.

It seemed that Jaune had not gone and gotten his license to operate out of a hospital – so that he could assist in Beacon's nurse's office – for nothing.

It was going to be a few hours before guests would be let into the room anyways, and probably even longer than that before the more crazed members of their group decided to clear out, and actually gave Jaune a moment to see the child himself, and to congratulate the new parents. So, for the time being, he busied himself in work.

He used his semblance on a logger who'd gotten his leg caught under a tree, breaking it rather severely around the femur, which was a nasty wound. Still, he had aura, being a former member of the Menagerie police – which Blake had told him a few months back was actually code to mean that he was a former White Fang member, but Jaune had taken the Hippocratic Oath, so he wasn't about to start discriminating now – which allowed Jaune's semblance to affect him.

His semblance had grown rather substantially since his days journeying from Mistral to Atlas, and through the flying city. Now, he could localize the effect, strengthen only one area to a much more powerful degree.

He held his aura over the man's leg, and watched as the skin gradually grew less bruised, less pained looking.

"It'll still be a few weeks before you can return to work," Jaune spoke, wiping away at his brow. "But that should make things a bit easier for the time being, I hope."

"Ya' hope?" The man let out a lively guffaw. "Kid, you moved my timeframe for gettin' back to work up by nearly three months. I'd certainly hope you'd consider that a bit easier!"

Jaune found himself grinning as he excused himself, and traveled through more corridors.

It was about an hour later when Jaune, having made his way back to the waiting room, got his chance to see the newborn lass. He was escorted in fairly early on, actually, and apparently Yang and Blake had wanted to see him earlier than a lot of others. That… actually meant a lot to him, he found, and when he arrived inside, seeing the young couple flanked by their parents, Weiss, and Ruby, he was smiling from ear to ear.

"Hey guys." He whispered, making sure to keep his voice quiet so as to not wake… "So, this is her, huh?"

"Mm." Yang hummed, and she looked more alive than Jaune had ever seen her in his life. "Little Summer."

He felt a touch emotional as he watched Ruby preen off in the corner. The name had been something that Yang, Blake, and the entirety of their group had tried for a long while to get right. And then, well…

It had been Ruby's idea, in the end, to name her after their mom.

And Yang had known Summer for longer than Ruby had, been closer with her. Facing the Big Bad Wolf in Vacuo had arguably hit Yang harder, despite Ruby and her mother's similarities.

But… this would in some ways cleanse them of that, at least that was what Jaune guessed they must've been thinking.

He didn't want to intrude long. He had put in time off for this months ago, and thusly would be spending the week with the newly-fledged parents at their rather sizable mansion, along with the rest of the Seven, and a few of their closest friends.

He gazed down on little Summer, though, and felt the name was rather appropriate. She had little tufts of blonde hair already growing from her head, along with a tiny little fluffy tail, the same golden color.

He found himself smiling as he looked up at the proud parents, and nodded his head.

"Alright, I'll leave you all to it. Congratulations, again."

Blake nodded her head towards him, though Yang actually spoke.

"Jaune?" He looked her in the eye. "Thank you. For giving us the courage to make this decision."

He felt a bit embarrassed to be given so much credit. "It wasn't really–"

"It was." Blake interrupted him before he could discredit himself.

And he…

He couldn't go against their word, no matter how much some part of him tried. And so, he simply nodded his head, laughed a bit awkwardly, and bowed out.

/

It was two days later that Yang and Blake were finally departing the hospital itself – although given that they were friends of Weiss Schnee, they would have a neonatal doctor hired to attend to them in their home around the clock.

Still, it was a rather joyous time. He was not alone in spending the time casually enjoying the days amongst friends, catching up on the things he may've missed during his being at Beacon for a year and a half now. He'd seen them more recently than that, but he'd missed out on a few more minor occurrences. Blake and Yang's baby shower he'd been unable to attend, and had had Weiss pick out a gift for him – which he'd reimbursed her for, despite her saying he didn't have to – to bring on his behalf. Likewise, he'd been one of the last to know that Qrow and his mysterious partner had apparently tied the knot, and frankly, good for them.

It was as Sun and Neptune, both some of Ilia's closest friends, were making their seventh 'shouldn't you guys go and try that procedure too?' to the poor chameleon faunus and her wife's expense that Jaune got a touch on the shoulder, and he turned to see Blake smiling down at him.

"What's up?"

"There's something I wanted to show you." She spoke quietly, and Jaune could tell that despite her enthusiasm to be a parent, she was exhausted. "Would you mind accompanying me for a few minutes?"

/

A mile or so's walk later, and he and Blake were stood in front of a now very complete-looking building. It evidently needed to be polished up, for it was missing several key features, but the core of the building itself was well and truly finished.

And at the top of the school, high on a sign with big, bold lettering, was…

'Union Academy'.

He smiled.

"I like it."

Blake had on a bashful grin, even as she nodded her head as well.

"We do too."

/

Jaune's scroll rang about a day later, late in the evening, and far past the timeframe where people trying to sell him things, scam him, or even just call him. He picked up his scroll, frowned briefly as he saw the 'Unknown Number' prompt, and silenced it.

If it was important, they'd call again.

…And they did.

He let out a quiet sigh as he excused himself from the couch he'd been sat upon, with Sun on one side and Ruby on the other, and made for an adjacent room. He answered the scroll on perhaps the fourth or fifth ring, and tiredly asked, "Uh… hello?"

"Ah, I suppose caller id wouldn't exactly help out in this case, given the burner I've been given."

His eyes widened, even as he did a double take behind him like some sort of child trying to pretend he wasn't doing something bad.

"Cinder!?" He hissed out, stepping a bit further into the space, and thusly preventing anyone from overhearing.

"Indeed."

This was… not entirely expected. When Cinder had finally been given her first mission under Winter, Winter herself had made it rather clear to him that Cinder would likely be out of contact for quite some time. Potentially years, working to undermine a rather high-profile crime family operating out of Mistral.

And that had only been eight or so months ago.

Forgive him for being caught slightly be surprise.

"I thought you'd be busy with that whole… crime family thing you had going on? And… Hey, wait, how did you get my number anyways?"

"It was given to me by Ederne."

That made sense, actually.

"And as for the Elechandros, as I believe you are referring to them, I wiped the last remaining member from the face of remnant six months back."

Jaune's eyes widened. "…That quick?"

He could practically hear Cinder shrug. "It felt quite insipidly slow to me."

Leave it to her to be cocky and be able to back it up.

"Well… what are you up to? Why are you calling now?"

"I finished annihilating a cartel working out of Mistral, a rival who tried to rise and take over the Elechandros' territory and resources, a few days back. I actually ran into Mercury, believe it or not. He was the liaison I was meant to work with from the Mistral side of things."

Jaune's eyes widened. "Really? How was he?"

"Retiring, from what I heard." Cinder said it evenly, without much emotion, but that brought a wide smile to Jaune's face, the fact that the man was finally letting go of combat. "I've no idea what he's going to do next, and frankly, I don't particularly care. Apparently he might be going to live in Vale somewhere."

Jaune nodded his head, before realizing that Cinder couldn't see that over a scroll call, and so instead hummed affirmatively.

"Ah, but as for the reason I am calling you, I've been injured, and am thusly unable to move for the time being. I have exhausted all other types of entertainment, and am now calling you."

"Wow, way to make a guy feel special." He commented in monotone, rolling his eyes, before growing more serious. "And what do you mean 'injured', what happened?"

"My aura was fully drained by a team of rogue Huntsman under the cartel's employ. I managed to deal with them all despite, although the last managed to stick a machete in my thigh before he died. I am, thusly, recovering."

He let out a horrid breath. "Cinder, I thought you were supposed to be doing… y'know, clandestine affairs?"

"I am."

"Nonviolent clandestine affairs?"

"I was." Cinder explained. "But the Ice Witch quickly discovered that I am also rather effective when given jobs of a more… lethal variety as well. Thusly, she's been giving me both."

Jaune could only sigh as he leant against the back wall of the room, and slid down it.

"Y'know, I don't think killing people for a living is quite what I had in mind when I got you out of there."

"It is not as if I am killing innocent people, Jaune Arc," Cinder practically mocked him. "I am killing killers. The vilest people on the planet. Those whose actions would make the things that Salem was responsible for look almost saintly."

He grimaced. "…I guess I just…"

"You are good." Cinder reiterated, repeating a line she'd used on him roughly a year and a half ago, now. "You are kind, and see the best in people. I do not think you have ever met a monster the likes of which some of these people are. Perhaps Tyrian is as close an example as I could make. Think Tyrian, but working for someone far more interested in personal gain than Salem. Utilized to brutal efficiency."

"You're saying Salem wasn't interested in personal gain?"

"No. She was not." Cinder spoke. "At the very least, not to the degree at which these people are obsessed with greed, with power. Salem could've been far more brutal in her actions against Ozpin. But in the end, and deep inside of her, I do not truly think she wanted to annihilate all of humanity. She merely wanted to die. The former, however, came part in parcel with that latter. She very rarely, I might remind you, took the course of action that would lead to the most painful, deadly outcomes. Often, she let people escape. Let refugees survive. Hell, your little plan to evacuate the people of Atlas was allowed to commence once we had the relic, was it not? Do you not think we couldn't have opened that same portal to Vacuo that you all did and mopped up the remnants?"

That… Jaune had never thought of that.

"And in Haven, we snuck our way in. Do you not think we could have utilized some massive Grimm, much like Monstra, to have done the same in a more violent manner?"

When Jaune thought about it, he supposed she wasn't wrong.

"At the end of the day, Salem was immortal. And she was powerful enough that she could not in any feasible way be imprisoned. That meant that the worst that could possibly happen to her was that she be pushed back slightly. Or slight in her terms, I suppose. She could risk playing things more elegantly, more to her tastes. What is another century to someone who has lived for ages, eons?"

"You're saying these people are worse than Salem, then?"

"I'm saying that take the death Salem sought, and replace it with some nebulous power," Cinder spoke, and her voice was hauntingly serious. "And you would see things that no one should ever have to, were these people put in her place."

His lips formed a thin line as he closed in on himself by just a bit.

"Then even more reason that I wouldn't want you to have to face them. You shouldn't be forced to experience that kind of horror either."

Cinder's side of the conversation went quiet for a few seconds after that, and Jaune initially thought he might've made some kind of mistake, perhaps insulted her in some way, before she quietly muttered, "Even now, you surprise me."

"Hm?"

"You are somehow softer than I expect even now."

He pursed his lips. "…Thank you?"

"Hmph." Cinder let out in a little huff. "Now, I did not call you to discuss the jobs I've been given. Distract me."

"Yeah, yeah," He found himself rolling his eyes again. "Right, so… Yang and Blake had their child. A wonderful baby girl. They named her Summer."

Cinder quieted for just a moment. "After the woman's late mother?"

He hummed out an affirmative.

"…I never met Summer Rose. I was, obviously, far too young to have ever encountered her alive. The Wolf… that I saw, but…"

"It wasn't her."

"No, it was not." Cinder confirmed. "Perhaps it wore her face underneath that blackened exterior, but it was not her."

He leaned back, his head hitting against the wooden wall of whatever room he was in. He hadn't much paid attention to it when he'd entered.

"So, uh… what've you been up to?"

Cinder actually breathed out a laugh. "Wow. Excellent change in the subject matter. You're doing wonderfully in keeping me entertained."

"Hey, talking isn't exactly my strong point, alright!?"

/

Jaune had thought his tenure at Beacon Academy had been going rather well thus far. In his opinion, at least, the last two or so years he'd been a teacher had gone successfully, and his students had all gone on to do rather well in future coursework. There were exceptions, because of course there were, but by and large, Jaune thought he'd done well.

So, imagine his concern as Glynda Goodwitch called him up to her office one day without a hint as to why.

He rode rather nervously up to the woman's office, bemoaning not for the first time how absurdly tall Ozpin had thought to build the tower of Beacon Academy. It was nearly a minute and a half to the top.

Of course, Jaune also had a feeling the elevator had been built to move a lot slower than most did. For whatever reason, Jaune did not know, but it made a frightening amount of sense to him. Ozpin seemed the type to do such a thing for no real reason other than his own amusement.

As the doors finally opened, it was to see Glynda sat rather casually at her desk, nursing a drink. It was, likely, some form of hot tea, which the woman had always partaken of over alcohol or coffee – which was probably all the better for her, honestly – before she looked up at him and beckoned for him to take a seat.

He followed her orders without a word.

"You've been with us a while, Jaune."

Oh god, he was being fired, wasn't he!?

"Uhm, Ms. Goodwitch, if I've done something to upset you, then I promise–"

"Upset me?" Glynda's eyes widened, and her eyebrows rose. "Where do you figure that?"

"I… is this not… you're not firing me?"

She shot him a look that told him she was utterly baffled he'd even said such a thing.

"No. I am not firing you."

"Oh. …So, uh… what are you doing?"

Ms. Goodwitch shook her head. "As you may be aware, when Ozpin was headmaster here, I served under him directly as the deputy Headmistress of Beacon. This was in effort to both groom me to be the Headmistress when Ozpin left, and to, perhaps more accurately, offload an awful lot of his workload onto my shoulders."

Jaune winced.

"The latter I don't entirely plan on engaging on myself." Glynda said, and this time her lips turned just the smallest bit upwards as she looked him in the eye. "But it has been an awful long while since Beacon has had a deputy. And I think I have found myself a rather fantastic candidate."

His eyes widened.

"Oh, that's great!" He let out a little laugh. "Uhm… probably Emerald, right?"

For the second time that conversation, Jaune saw a look of utter befuddlement cross Glynda Goodwitch's face.

"You know, I have seen an awful lot of things in my days as a teacher here in Beacon. I have seen some rather… dense people."

Jaune wasn't really sure where this was going.

"But you… you, Jaune Arc, somehow always manage to take the cake."

/

Jaune was just a bit dumbfounded as Glynda showed him to his new, now much larger office. Apparently, it had once been hers, albeit completely re-renovated and stripped of all of her personal affects. Jaune understood that if he took the position, he would have to move most of his stuff in here over the course of the next few days, but for some reason, that thought was hardly at the forefront of his mind.

Because again, he found himself asking, "Why me, exactly?"

"I believe I've answered that question, Mr. Arc."

"…Answer it again, for my sake."

Glynda rolled her eyes. "Because you are the candidate it makes the most sense to promote. You have, in my eyes, the most potential to become Headmaster when the time comes."

"Why not… I don't know, Emerald, or Oobleck, or–"

"First of all," Glynda's gaze actually narrowed somewhat as she shot him a disbelieving look. "Do you honestly believe Professor Oobleck, ah, my mistake, Doctor Oobleck would want to be Headmaster? Or, even, do you believe that that man has what it takes to sit still and listen to the Council, or our sponsors or patrons, or any other manner of people drone on and on to him?"

…Okay, admittedly, that one made sense.

"But Emerald–"

"Do you believe Emerald would want to be Headmaster? Or that she would be better at any of that?"

"…No."

"Exactly." Glynda spoke, before sighing. "All that being said, I would like to clarify that this promotion, and even the possibility of a subsequent promotion to Headmaster, are not at all mandatory. I have not been pressured to take on a deputy, nor do I have much reason to, but you stood out to me as someone to perhaps begin shaping to one day take on my role."

That…

"I… don't know what to say."

"If you wouldn't mind, Mr. Arc," Glynda was smiling now. "You could simply say whether or not you wish to take the position. It is not at all required that I have an answer today, but please try and give me one before the week is out."

He nodded a bit blankly as the two of them exited out of the room, and he bid the woman farewell as he ventured back towards his own, which was only a few doorways down the hall.

He opened his door, sighed out in exhaustion, and nearly screamed when he saw that there was already a figure in his room.

"Oh. You're finally back." Cinder Fall spoke casually, as if her being in the middle of his office – well, it was more of a living room than anything, but it had a desk with a nice reclining chair, so it kind of counted – was an entirely normal affair. "I was wondering when you were going to show."

"What–" Not for the first time when it related to Cinder, Jaune found himself almost guiltily checking behind him, making sure that there was no one spying on him, catching him in the act of associating with her, despite the fact that at this point, he could admit – perhaps through clenched teeth, but admit regardless – that he obtained an odd sort of enjoyment out of talking with the woman. "What are you doing here!?"

"I've been given time to roam about on my own." Cinder spoke, seemingly missing that he'd meant more along the lines of 'why did you choose to come to my room' and instead answering the much broader meaning of the question, but he supposed he wouldn't push. "Apparently for good behavior."

That was… was that reassuring? Jaune wasn't entirely certain. It meant, likely, that Cinder had been doing unexpectedly well, and that likely meant that she'd dirtied her hands even further.

He acknowledged that what Cinder said, about the people she hunted being the scum of the earth, should've lightened the proverbial mental load for him, but it really didn't. he simply thought too often about how she had to deal with all of that. How it was up to her to put a stop to it.

It didn't seem fair. That the little girl who'd gone through all of that, never even been allowed to live, was still held back.

He supposed it was her penance, in a way, for the person she'd been, helping to cleanse the world of those who were unashamedly, unabashedly monstrous, like she'd pretended to be.

"…How long are you allowed to roam?"

"A day. Twenty-four hours."

Jaune's brow furrowed. "Is that the longest time you've been allotted to just… not have a job to do?"

"I suppose." Cinder shrugged, clearly not thinking much of it.

But Jaune felt that was rather sad, to be honest. Surely, Cinder was a lot freer than she had been, but…

"Oh, do not fret for me over such frivolous things." Cinder rebuked him before he could continue thinking any further. "I have never had very much… what would you even call it? Personal time? This is no different from the entire rest of my existence."

"But that was supposed to be the whole point." Jaune sighed. "You were supposed to get to live your life. Not just… have it dictated for you, but by the good guys this time."

Not for the first time, Cinder seemed… uncertain as to what it was she should say in response to him. He could've probably waited until she gave some response, and on a different day where he was less worried about his own issues, he might've sought to do just that. As things were now, however, he didn't much have the emotional energy for such a heavy conversation, and thusly, he pushed onwards.

"You were in the area, I take it?"

Cinder seemed grateful for the change in subject. "I was. There was a human trafficking ring making a deal out of the docks. It had… connections to the one that had once trafficked me from Mistral to Atlas. Mine must've been a simple subsidiary, given that I annihilated it nearly a decade ago, and yet here they still are."

His eyes widened minutely, although he'd learned by now that Cinder hated when he showed her pity, so he tried to keep it out of his gaze.

If her small glare was anything to go by, she was not fooled by his attempt.

"I confess that I was a tad less… forgiving than I normally am whilst dealing with this particular batch of slavers."

There was an odd sense of morbid humor in the way that Cinder suggested that how she acted normally was forgiving.

"Suffice it to say that we won't be hearing from them again, then?"

Cinder shot him an odd look, like she hadn't expected him to say anything at all.

"No. I do not believe anyone will be. On the plus side, their documentation had a list of sales and logs regarding them, and Winter is working with intelligence agencies around the world to make swift work in both apprehending those responsible for purchases, and rescuing those who've been taken. According to Winter's calculations, as many as eleven hundred people might be able to be rescued from their predicaments because of this."

That… was a fairly astounding figure. It was hard to imagine that many people for most, but Jaune himself was a Professor at Beacon, and each year contained a frankly astonishing number of students.

And yet, even so, the amount of students that attended Beacon Academy in its totality was less than eight hundred.

More than the amount of students at Beacon… the very thought that Cinder had saved that many people brought a smile to his face.

"That's amazing."

Cinder… did something then that he had not seen her do. It was like… like she had to hold herself back, somehow. That she prevented herself from fully expressing… something.

"I suppose it is." She spoke quietly, almost under her breath, before shaking her head and turning away from him.

And yet before the woman could say anything, something else came to Jaune.

"Hey, wait, didn't you always call Winter 'Ice Witch' or something? Why the proper name now all of a sudden?"

Cinder scoffed. "She assisted me personally in assaulting their base of operations. She has earned my respect."

Again, the woman's logic was, in her eyes, likely faultless. Jaune found it all a bit silly, although he wasn't going to go around saying anything about it.

"Now before you attempt to distract me with some other inane question, tell me, what is on your mind. You came in looking rather uncertain."

Ah, she'd caught that, had she? Jaune supposed he should've expected as much from Cinder.

And somehow, it occurred to him for the first time in this conversation that Cinder's voice had, once again, grown stronger since last he'd seen her. It still wasn't quite up to that almost sultry tone she'd once weaponized, but it was perhaps sixty percent of the way there, and clearly improving. Perhaps one day her voice would truly return to her.

But, onto more personal problems…

"Glynda offered to promote me to Deputy Headmaster." He decided to just come right out and say it. "To uh… to hopefully train me to one day take over her position."

Cinder hummed.

"It sounds like quite the honor."

"I guess it is. I just… I don't know."

"Ah. You are, what, not sure you are worthy, or some other such nonsense?"

The way that Cinder had worded that had his brow furrowing in annoyance. "What, is that so hard to believe?"

Cinder raised an eyebrow. "Yes."

And… it was the raw honesty there, the complete seriousness with which Cinder had practically come out and told him that it was ridiculous for him to doubt himself, that blindsided him. That nearly forced him to his knees.

"You… actually mean that?"

"I do not see why you would question yourself." Cinder said simply, turning away from him entirely and looking back at the window she'd entered into for some reason. "You are one of the strongest Huntsman to have ever lived. You battled me, defeated me. There is not a one who doubts you other than yourself."

Jaune was well and truly speechless.

"I… you…"

Cinder shook her head, despite the way she let out a breath of what sounded to be amusement.

"Thank you." He finally stammered out.

Cinder just nodded, though she still wasn't looking at him.

…And yet, there was something he'd thought of in that moment, something he'd never truly considered that stuck out to him like a sore thumb now.

"I don't think I ever really thought about it, but…" He spoke as he took a singular step forward, not wanting to infringe upon Cinder's space. "You've called me by my name for a long time. Ever since… after Haven, yeah?"

Cinder stiffened, although she didn't say anything in response.

"Does that… mean that ever since then, you respected me?"

"Did I not tell you? You cracked my mask. You earned my respect then."

He… Jaune…

He wasn't sure that was it. At least not entirely.

But in that moment, Cinder turned around, and she looked him in the eye. And he could tell there was something in Cinder's gaze, then, that the woman did not wish to confront. Instead, she simply walked across the room, stepped over into his bedroom, towards the window that she'd presumably used to sneak in, and spoke back only, "Don't read into it."

She was gone without another word.

/

Being Deputy Headmaster of Beacon Academy was a rather busy position.

He'd had an awful lot more free time as a Professor. And of course, it wasn't like that was unexpected. No, Glynda had made it rather clear to him that accepting this position was tantamount to taking on an awful lot more work.

Even still, perhaps he'd underestimated it.

Although, in some ways, it had positives.

Namely, that he had a lot more say around Beacon Academy than he had had before.

Because when a wealthy donor visited, it was Jaune Arc himself who was sent to greet them, and to smile as to just who it was that was walking up to him.

Two someone's, actually.

"Jaune!"

He was run into by a Rose-colored human missile going roughly Mach 5, and even with his aura up, it staggered him slightly.

"Hey Rubes." He grated out under his breath, letting out a little laugh. "How've you two been?"

"Oh, we've been good!" Ruby exclaimed, and from her enthusiasm, Jaune didn't doubt it. "Haven't we, Weiss?"

Weiss Schnee smiled as she shook her head with some small exasperation, fixing Ruby with an expression that Jaune knew almost by heart. That same annoyed fondness that she'd once directed at him. That had once been reserved only for him. That had once been his.

He felt oddly proud of himself that he didn't at all mind that it now belonged to Ruby.

"Yes, well, a certain someone has been driving me up the wall recently," Weiss rolled her eyes, even as Ruby pouted and pushed herself up against her. "But yes. We've been good."

"Alright, well, for now, allow me to invite you in," He spoke dramatically, trying his best to mimic Klein's mannerisms. "This way, ladies."

Weiss just seemed exhausted with him, but Ruby giggled, and curtsied theatrically, taking his hand, and following along beside them. The two of them laughed only harder when Weiss let out a groan.

"You're going to be the death of me, the both of you."

/

Showing Weiss Schnee around Beacon, and giving her the service pitch as to why certain budgetary increases he felt were needed was a lot easier than doing so with any other wealthy patron on the planet.

Because when he told Weiss that really, he felt the cafeteria staff were being underpaid, she quickly agreed that they could spare a million or so Lien to increase wages. And surely, the outdoor gardens could use renovations, given that the benches were starting to rust, and the flowers themselves were all too similar, and if a disease were to hit they'd all be wiped out, so they needed a good five hundred thousand Lien to work on that.

Because Weiss Schnee was what Jaune liked to call 'Stupid Rich'. He was glad that, unlike her father, who only ever gained wealth to… well, to gain more wealth, she instead stuck to a life of philanthropy. She gave to causes all over the world, frequently donated to charities, and was even doing her best to shift the SDC over to sustainable practices now that Dust was beginning to become scarcer and harder to find in Atlas. According to her, her scientists had cooked up a method to generate energy entirely unrelated to Dust, something to do with utilizing things like the wind, and the sun, and even the movement of the currents to generate electrical charges.

The whole thing went over Jaune's head, but he did his best to follow along.

Still, he'd long since known that Weiss was going to allow nearly all of his expenditures, given that she trusted him to make good financial choices, and to assure that the staff of Beacon, and the students, were provided with the best possible place to both teach, learn, and live that they could be given.

He was far more concerned with Weiss and Ruby, who had, for a few months now, officially began dating.

"So?" He asked once he had the two of them alone, in the comfort of his own office. "How've you guys been? Really, now that we're not talking out in the middle of the courtyard."

"We are well, that was no lie." Weiss spoke, smiling over at Ruby as she leant on Weiss' shoulder, closing her eyes and humming pleasantly, like some kind of puppy. "It's more… I'm not entirely sure. I feel like I am enjoying my life more in these past few months than I have in quite some time."

That… that made Jaune really happy, actually. And more than that, it made him happy with himself that he was happy for them, rather than being some spiteful prick.

He was happy for his friends. Happy that they'd found joy in each other.

"What about you, Jaune?"

What about him? That… was actually a decent question.

"I'm… better." He said, and he was once again happy that he meant it. "I've been busy, obviously, but not… not a bad busy. I've worked, and I've learned, and I've enjoyed chatting with my students, and watching them grow. I'm uh… I'm Deputy Headmaster too, and Glynda keeps making jokes about retiring early, but I'm starting to think she's less joking and more giving me a heads-up."

Weiss and Ruby both snickered at that.

"But… I was scared a while ago, to be Headmaster. I was scared to have that kind of burden on me, but now it's… I think I'm ready. Or, well, as ready as I'll ever be, I guess."

"You sound like Yang talking about another kid." Ruby joked, and Jaune had to laugh.

"That's both scathing and fair."

"And… what about… her."

Ah. Yes. He supposed that was fair, too.

"…What do you want to know?"

He'd informed his friends of his involvement in Cinder Fall's 'rehabilitation' a few months back, now. At the time, most of them had called him a loon – well, they said it in a nicer way, but that was the underlying sentiment – but now… it seemed as if most of them understood his intent, and his meaning, even if they didn't really know how he could be how he was.

Perhaps, like Cinder herself, they found how soft he could be truly baffling.

"Cinder's doing better, I think." Jaune said, even if he was working off of a lot less information than he'd have liked. "We talk every few weeks. She has a burner scroll, so it's not like I can get in contact with her. She calls me when she's finished with her jobs. Sometimes she breaks into my office. It's… I'm not really sure what to make of that, to be honest."

Weiss and Ruby were both wearing these odd expressions, like they knew something he didn't, and weren't entirely pleased about that fact, and Jaune debated whether or not he wanted to go about asking about that, but before he could do anything, Weiss shook her head, sighed, and looked him in the eye.

"I understand that you're far too kind to ever abandon someone. I really do. Just… I…"

"Yes?"

Weiss shook her head a second time. "I'm not quite sure what I even want to say, to be honest. Perhaps tread carefully?"

Jaune nodded, even if he didn't quite know what was going on.

Ruby, apparently, noticed.

"You have no idea what we're talking about, do you?"

"…Should I?"

The way they both groaned told him that yes, he probably should've.

/

Jaune was often in a hurry these days. It was, to be honest, pretty much standard fair for him.

As Headmaster of Beacon Academy, he was expected to be an awful lot of places at an awful lot of times.

It was his first week in the position. Ms. Goodwitch had given it to him, and then taken up her old position as combat instructor.

"She didn't even retire!" He had shouted semi-jokingly over the line to a cackling Nora, and an equally-amused Ren and Magni. "She stole my job and gave me hers! I call foul!"

Still, right now, that was not at all on his mind.

It had been a weekend. His first weekend as Headmaster of Beacon.

And yet he was in Atlas. He'd taken a flight from there on extremely short notice. Winter Schnee of all people had been the one to message him, to give him an update that had his eyes widening, and his face paling.

Cinder had been hurt.

She had been hurt bad.

He arrived aboard his personal shuttle – that had been a gift from Weiss to celebrate his promotion, and less a gift so much as a thing he didn't have to budget into the school's expenses himself, given that as Headmaster of Beacon, he'd have been forced into owning something he could travel to and from events within anyways – and powerwalked down the ramp. He was moving without even really knowing where, far too concerned to stop for even a moment. Luckily, it seemed Winter had expected that, for she was there already, gesturing for him to follow.

They were walking side by side a few seconds later.

"What happened!?" His voice came out just the smallest bit more accusatory than he'd meant it to.

"Routine Op. Cinder pushed as she normally did to handle the situation on her own, despite limited info. It hadn't ever failed her before, so I greenlit it." The woman shook her head. "She was up against three full squads of Hunter-trained individuals that were completely prepared for her. That she came out alive at all is improbable. No one else on Remnant could've pulled off such a feat."

He grimaced, even as they snaked through ever-more-complicating hallways and corridors, and eventually ended up in what seemed to be some sort of high-security hospital room, perhaps meant to treat those who were far too secret to be known of.

At the moment, Jaune couldn't find it in himself to care.

When they finally entered into the room, Jaune found his lips pushed against one another harshly, his jaw tightening as he took in Cinder's form, the red splotches all over the bandages that were wrapped around nearly every part of her body. Without even thinking about it, he was moving, and had activated his Semblance on her.

A doctor nearby nearly slapped him for that, and he was this close to shouting at the man before Winter got between the two of them, and glared Jaune's way.

"She is stable, Jaune." Winter invoked his first name, making it clear to him that she was addressing him, not the Headmaster of Beacon. "Your semblance will help, I'm sure, but barging into a room where doctors and nurses are actively working on someone, walking up to their patient and doing something unknown to them is not going to be well received."

Jaune wanted to argue with the woman, but his anger was deflating before he could even find it. He just nodded weakly, shooting the doctor he'd nearly got into a petty argument with an apologetic nod.

He looked back towards Cinder, and decided to really look this time.

She was hurt, and bad, just as he'd been told. It shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did, but then, being told something and seeing it were far different matters.

Her arms were raked with little cuts, some of them deeper than others. Jaune thought they looked like the kinds of injuries one would receive from jumping through glass, or landing on it. Her face was similar, including a nasty cut along her cheek that Jaune couldn't help thinking would leave a scar. Along her chest and stomach, however, were the real problematic injuries.

She'd been stabbed clean through not once, but twice with a bladed weapon. If Winter's reports were anything to go by, it'd been a halberd and a great sword. Both wounds were far wider than Aurea would've left were he to have struck with the same blows. Winter's intel had told him that despite her injuries, Cinder had managed to continue fighting for more than fifteen minutes after sustaining both. The only way she'd been able to do such a thing had been to cauterize both wounds with the Maiden's flame.

And then her movement had ripped both open again.

Winter had barely made it there in time to save her life.

And Jaune… his jaw wouldn't stop tightening.

Cinder had nearly died, for the second time in her life, at someone else's beck and call. Serving the aims of someone else. So, what if this time, she'd have died doing the right thing, instead of the wrong?

This… he knew what Cinder did was for the greater good. He knew that.

But he couldn't accept it any longer.

"Winter?"

She turned to him.

"Cinder Fall is a ward working underneath the direct command of the Atlas military, correct?"

"That's correct." Winter spoke, her brow creasing somewhat. "Why do you ask?"

"I would like to request a transfer. That she be given to another warden to serve her time."

"Ah." Winter, apparently, had already seen through him, for she gave a minute shake of her head before she addressed him again. "And to whom do you believe she should be transferred into the care of?"

He stood just the smallest bit taller.

"To the Headmaster of Beacon Academy."

/

Cinder wasn't directly transferred into his care until she'd more than recovered enough to make the journey from Solitas to Sanus. It was a tiring time for him, mostly because Cinder flitted in and out of consciousness rather regularly, and he didn't truly get to discuss anything with the woman until she'd been transferred into Beacon's medical wing for final checks, and then she was sent out, but given the explicit order to rest.

And it was only then, nearly three weeks after the fact, that he and Cinder talked.

He'd made sure to clear a good few hours from his schedule, and to block any and all calls for the time being. Cinder arrived a good minute or so early, her eyes scanning his office and apparently taking the place in.

Neither of them said anything immediately. Cinder seemed to be waiting for him to talk, and he, likewise, wanted to see if she had anything to say. After a good five or so seconds silence, Jaune concluded that no, she didn't, and spoke his piece.

"You were hurt."

"Yes. That seems rather obvious." Cinder raised an eyebrow. "Is that all, or do you have any other nuggets of wisdom to offer?"

He rolled his eyes, even as he rubbed at his temples with both hands. "Cinder… you were about a minute away from bleeding out. Your wounds were so heavily scarred and burned from being cauterized multiple times that if one of the doctors present at the facility in Atlas hadn't had a healing semblance like mine, they might not have been able to sew the skin there together. About a hundred things had to go right for you to survive that."

"But they did." Cinder concluded, as if the result in this case was the only thing that mattered. "I survived. I always survive."

"You can't–" He cut himself off before he could become overly upset. Cinder was just… being Cinder. "Regardless of the circumstances, I… had an epiphany."

"Do tell. Is this related to why I'm no longer receiving calls from one Winter Schnee?"

He ignored the latter few words for now. "I heard that you were injured and personally traveled to Atlas. I saw the extent of your injuries. And I… I realized that you nearly died in the service of someone else. Once again, doing someone else's dirty work. Still unable to be free."

Cinder didn't say anything to that. Just stared at him, pondering something.

"And that… that wasn't why I got you out of there. That wasn't why I got you out of that white room, with that nothingness for you to be trapped within. It was… you were supposed to be free."

"I was freer than I've ever been." Cinder said, shrugging. "I was free to take on any job that I wanted, and decline those that I didn't."

"And how often did you exercise either of those rights? How often did you reject a job, Cinder?"

She didn't answer, and Jaune felt that was answer enough.

"…I couldn't let you die like that. Not in a situation where… where you still haven't gotten to live your life. Not really. And so… I decided I'd do something about it."

Jaune pulled up his scroll, and he turned it to a certain document. Rather highly classified, and likely something he shouldn't have been showing anyone, least of all the person it was talking about, but Jaune had never really been one for all of this high-security nonsense anyways.

Cinder's expression became just that little bit looser as she looked at what Jaune had presented to her.

"Cinder Fall… Ward of…"

"Ward of Headmaster Arc of Beacon Academy." Jaune confirmed for her, smiling ever so slightly. "I uh… kind of got the idea from Ozpin. After all, he was able to enroll Blake into Beacon even though she was, technically, a wanted terrorist. But he just kind of swept that under the rug, and used his authority to do what he wanted. I figured… why can't I do the same?"

Cinder seemed rather surprised by his explanation.

"So… I serve directly under you, then?"

"I suppose by technicality, yes." Jaune said, before he let out a little laugh. "But, uh… well, there was something I wanted to do."

"Oh?" Cinder cocked an eyebrow. "And what would that be?"

"Do you feel well enough to travel about? To roam without, y'know, tearing open any stitches?"

"The doctors made it clear that I'm not to overexert myself in combat, but I should be able to move and walk around normally, yes."

"Mm. Good." Jaune said.

He stepped back from the woman, and traveled around to the backside of his desk. Cinder followed him with her single eye, glowing orange like a flame, ever flickering. He reached to one of the lower compartments, and took from out of it a small metal device.

Cinder's eyes widened when she saw it.

"That's…"

He smiled, even as he stepped over towards her, and, with a few simply motions, turned a mechanism with it.

And the insurance that had been bound to Cinder's upper arm, that which had caged her to her duty, that which had made her nothing more than a pawn in the game of someone else, fell the ground, and impacted against the floor.

The sound felt like it echoed more heavily than it should've, to Jaune's ear.

"What are you…" Cinder whispered under her breath, a certain sort of vulnerability in her gaze.

"It's off." Jaune said, smiling her way. "You're free."

Cinder stared at him like he'd grown a second head.

"…Why would you…"

"Because…" He rubbed a hand up and down the back of his neck. "I don't know. I guess I figure… you should be able to live your life the way you want to. To go where you want. See what you want. Meet who you want. You shouldn't be some enforcer under the will of another. You've done that enough."

And in that moment, it seemed like Cinder fully absorbed the truth of his words. The reality of what he'd said. That she could go anywhere, do anything, as she stepped towards the window to the right side of Jaune's office.

And she just sort of… gazed out of it.

"I can go where I want, hm?" She said after a while.

"Yeah. Anywhere you want." And again, he found himself feeling the smallest bit out of his depth. "I'll claim you're still under my employ, and as long as you don't do anything stupid – and to be clear, if you do, I will personally hunt you down myself, but I don't think that'll be a problem – then you're free to act as you will."

"I can see what I want? Meet who I want?"

"Yeah."

Cinder gave a tiny smile at his words.

"Mm. I see."

Jaune had left the window open. He'd known that, despite Cinder having been told to take it easy, she didn't particularly like being around others. Thusly, she would probably take a leap out of it, and fly off with the Maiden's fire.

He wondered, idly, just where she would go. Perhaps she would try and re-integrate into life in some far-off frontier village. Maybe she'd live as a hermit, or become a painter, or sculpt with glass, or any manner of thing.

That was her decision to make, now, though. And for that, Jaune was glad.

And just when he thought he had the woman all figured out, just when he thought he knew what she was going to do…

Cinder promptly moved to the window, grabbed the handle, and shut it.

Jaune's eyes widened as she turned around, and sat down in the chair across from Jaune's desk.

"…What are you doing?"

"I am going where I want." Cinder said, giving him an almost challenging look. "Is that not obvious?"

…Not for the first time, Cinder Fall had managed to catch him completely off guard.

"You… what?"

"By everything, I had known you were dense, but the fact that it is to this degree is rather impressive." Cinder sighed, shaking her head. Pointedly, she also wasn't looking at him. "I am… staying here."

"…Oh."

"Mm."

And… well…

That was that, wasn't it?

"Though there is something I have wanted to try for a long time."

"Oh, uh, sure. What is it?"

Cinder turned to him, and met his eyes again. There was a coy look within them, like Cinder knew something he didn't. Though it was offset just the smallest bit by a faint redness hanging about her countenance.

And Jaune felt for the first time in a long while completely out of his depth.

"I've not eaten at a restaurant in well over a decade. And frankly, I intend to use my newfound freedom to do so. And you," Cinder poked him in the chest. "Are coming along."

"…This doesn't seem to be a request so much as an order."

"Ah, look at that. It appears your density does have limits."

"I resent that."

"Yes, but you do not disagree, do you?"

Jaune couldn't really say anything in his defense on that one.

/

Jaune had known, realistically, that going to dinner with a former criminal most thought dead or imprisoned would have repercussions. He really had. He'd even factored in what he was going to say in response to the council, as well as any of his colleagues, who he'd not consulted when he'd taken over as Cinder's warden, and then freed her.

He had, however, not really expected this.

""Beacon Headmaster courting woman who once destroyed his school"." Glynda Goodwitch read off casually, although Jaune noticed the smallest upturn of her lips. She was, rather clearly, enjoying this far too much. "Ah, here's another. "Breaking down the strangest power couple on Remnant." Oh, and a personal favorite of mine, "Why you should never sheath your sword in crazy.""

Jaune rubbed his hands up and down his temples, even as he let out a beleaguered sigh.

The press was having a virtual field day with him.

"We're not dating!" Jaune felt the need to express his frustrations to Glynda, one of the few people he could currently vent towards. "Or courting, or… or sticking longswords into sheaths or what have you!"

Glynda gave him a look then that Jaune wasn't entirely certain the meaning of. She must've studied the look on his own face, however, because she simply shook her head, let out a sigh, and picked up from where he'd left off.

"I imagine you can see how the press, and the general public, might see differently?"

Jaune frowned. "Perhaps."

Glynda Goodwitch just smirked.

Jaune found himself missing when he'd known the woman only as a strict, but fair disciplinarian. Someone with no sense of humor. Someone without any reason to mock him for making an utter fool of himself by going out to dinner with a woman who he should've ostensibly hated with every facet of his being.

And yet, no. Life could not be that simple.

"So. I feel like I should ask," Glynda reached up towards her glasses and straightened them, seemingly without meaning to. "Are you and that woman…"

"No, no," Jaune shook his head. "They've got the wrong idea. We're… I guess we're friends, in a weird, sort of hard to explain way? I guess I want her to rely on me, and I want her to be able to live her life free of being someone's slave. But we're not together or something."

Glynda nodded her head, despite the way her brow furrowed deeper and deeper with every word Jaune spoke.

"And you're sure Ms. Fall feels similarly?"

Jaune nearly snorted. "Yeah, somehow I don't think Cinder Fall of all people is making puppy eyes at me."

Ms. Goodwitch actually sighed.

"You are hopeless. Terribly and completely hopeless."

"Huh?"

"Nothing." Glynda let out a groan as she massaged the bridge of her nose. "Fine then. I will choose to believe what you've said for now."

"Why wouldn't you?"

"Regardless," Glynda barreled through his question. "I feel I must make clear that you will need to do one of two things. Either address this before the media can make up their own stories about why you're consorting with who you're consorting with, or sweep it under the rug. Let Cinder go off on her own, and never be seen with her again."

Jaune immediately shook his head. "I'm not going to make her leave here."

"Hm?" Glynda seemed confused. "What do you mean 'make'? Are you saying you have authorized her to leave?"

"Er…:

"Jaune."

"Ok, ok, I did." Jaune admitted, rubbing at the back of his neck, and reaching over towards his desk. From within it, he took the now unlocked shackle, and handed it to Glynda. "I just… she almost died. She nearly died doing the exact same thing she always had. And sure, she was working for the good guys this time, but… She's never been free. Not once in her entire life. She's… done enough. She deserves to be able to leave it all behind her. To make a life for herself."

Glynda seemed to have some disagreements with what he'd said, but then again, his entire friend group had as well, so that tracked.

"Alright. But why did she stay when you let her go?"

"Oh, uh…" He rubbed at the back of his neck. "She said she wanted to stay."

"Were those her exact words?"

"No, she said… Well, first I said 'you should go where you want', and then she went over to the window, closed it, came back, sat in front of my desk, and said 'I am going where I want'."

Glynda's eyebrows rose higher on her head.

"And then she invited me to dinner."

They somehow grew higher, even as the woman let out a noise that seemed caught halfway between a scream and a guttural groan.

"W-What?"

"You are…" Glynda shook her head. "Simply unbelievable."

"What? What did I do?"

"I am not going to spill the secrets of another, Jaune," Glynda rolled her eyes. "Even if such a thing could hardly be called such in this case. Just… go and talk with Ms. Fall. You're letting her stay in a guest room, no?"

"Er… yeah?"

"Go."

"Wh– right now?"

"Go!"

He did not need to be told twice.

It was only while he was riding the elevator down that he realized that he technically outranked Glynda Goodwitch, and could, thereby, go against her orders.

Of course, one did not simply dismiss the orders of Glynda Goodwitch.

That way led rather certainly to an early demise.

/

Cinder did not seem to have expected him when she answered the door wearing what were, ostensibly, the most civilian-looking clothes he had ever seen on her. She had dressed herself in a simply long-sleeved turtleneck, along with a pair of comfortable-looking sweatpants.

It was an odd sort of thing, seeing Cinder Fall of all people looking domestic.

"I wasn't expecting anyone." She seemed to try and answer his mental question. "What is it? Did you need something?"

"Erm… Well, no," He wasn't quite sure how to put this. "Basically… I was sort of explaining how all of this… y'know, uh, with you and I and the news and stuff, happened, to Ms. Goodwitch, and when I had finished, she told me in no uncertain terms that I should come and talk to you like right now?"

Cinder Fall stared at him for a moment, before she shook her head with a little chuckle under her breath.

"Well, I'll have to thank her later, I suppose."

Apparently Glynda had been right, and he'd been wrong – which was an annoyingly common phenomenon. He followed Cinder inside of the guest room she was currently staying within and stood off to one side.

"Why are you standing?" Cinder asked him as she sat down on the couch.

"I… didn't know if you'd want me to–"

"Sit." Cinder rolled her eyes. "Honestly, you are a fool."

Jaune felt a bit of red creep into his features as he made to sit down beside Cinder, but he couldn't help catching the smallest hint of something beneath Cinder's breath.

"How did I… with such a fool…"

He pursed his lips as he sat down.

There was an awkward sort of distance between the two of them, one which Jaune didn't think he should try and bridge immediately. He'd give it time.

"So… I take it you've seen the news?"

"Ah, yes," Cinder actually smirked. "About how I've corrupted the hero Jaune Arc, and am currently concocting another plan to bring Vale to its knees? Yes. I have heard, although I believe the reports of my return to villainy are rather exaggerated in this case."

He grinned. "I'd certainly hope so. If you were free for less than a day and already plotting to overthrow me, I'd be a little miffed."

Cinder chuckled, and it was an oddly comfortable sort of feeling that fell over the two of them.

"So, Headmaster of Beacon Academy. Headmaster Arc." Cinder annunciated very theatrically. "How do you feel about that? Did you ever see such a thing coming?"

"Hah, not in my wildest dreams." Jaune admitted, shaking his head. "But… I don't know. I think the fact that I'm doing something that makes me happy is, above all else, a good thing. Surely, I never could've pictured myself here, doing this, but…"

He tried to figure out how to properly word the feeling in his heart.

"I think, after we beat Salem and the Brother Gods nearly a decade ago now, I… I wasn't the only one who didn't know what to do. I wasn't the only one left confused, and bewildered, and spinning my wheels. I think we all were. I mean, our very mission to save the world was just… over. And then we had to just… go on and integrate into society. Pick a normal career and settle down."

Cinder nodded.

"And I think… some part of me assumed that everyone else had done so without any issue. That each and every one of them had managed to faultlessly find their way forward. That I was the only one struggling. But… that wasn't the case. They all were. We all were. But they… they had the courage to take a step forward. To risk falling flat on their faces, and then, even if they fell, to start crawling along in the dirt. While I just stayed still, and did nothing. The only one to hope that meaning would just sort of… find me without me having to go looking for it."

Jaune could see a glimpse of familiarity in Cinder's eye. She knew what he was talking about.

He hoped she would, given it was her words on the topic that had made him realize all of this.

"I just wasn't ready." He admitted, able to smile about it now. "I wasn't ready to admit that the part of my life where it was the seven of us against the world was over. I wasn't ready to move on. None of us were. But regardless of what we wanted; time marched ever forward. And so, we had to."

"And you did." Cinder finally spoke up. "You did move forward."

"Hah, yeah, but after quite a bit longer than everyone else." Jaune shook his head. "Honestly, even after all this time, they all outshine me so easily. It's almost funny. I'm so damned pathetic compared to them."

He had expected for Cinder to join in with him, to mock him a little, and let him get lost in laughing about how he'd used to be. But instead… instead the woman huffed out an aggravated breath, and she turned on him with the tiniest bit of annoyance in her gaze.

"You don't give yourself enough credit."

Jaune laughed, trying to downplay her concern. "Honestly, I think everyone else gives me too much credit. I'm barely holding it together as it is. I'm not worth all of their–"

"Quiet."

Jaune's eyes widened.

"Huh?"

"You seem to think that you were some pathetic loner. That the rest of your friends had it all figured out. That only you stood idle. And perhaps that was true. Perhaps you took longer than them, as you always did, but…"

Cinder took a breath, then, and there was a faint heat that came to her cheeks that Jaune found himself unable to comprehend.

"But regardless of how great, or how powerful, or how wise they all were, it was not them who came to my cell that day and talked with me. It was not them who spoke with me as a person, addressed me as someone worthy of having a conversation with for the first time in my life. It was not them who… who treated me with dignity and respect. Who saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself."

Jaune's mouth hung open, such was his shock at Cinder's words.

"Cinder, I… I appreciate it, but any of them could've–"

"Don't belittle yourself!" Cinder sounded almost angry as she fixed him with a cold stare, close to shouting now. "You think you're lesser than them!? In combat, perhaps. In strength, perhaps. In wisdom, perhaps. But not in loyalty. Not in kindness. Not in how utterly foolhardy you are. Not in how you gave me a chance when no one else would, and…"

Cinder's voice caught, and Jaune found his eyes widening when he realized the woman's eyes had grown the smallest bit teary.

What was…

"Don't you dare talk about yourself like that." Cinder ground out beneath her breath. "Not when it was you who saved me. Not when it was you who… who made me think that I wanted to live to see something more than that empty cell, with its white walls, and its white floors, and it's endless nothing."

And she looked up at him as tears streaked down her face, and he was speechless, well and truly.

"Not when it was you who let me see that I deserved to live, when I was sure above all else that I didn't." Cinder's voice was steel and flame, despite it all. "Not when it was you who saved my life. Who made me desire something more than to disappear. Who gave me a place to belong."

Jaune had been accused of being oblivious before. And yes, looking back on his life and the many, many signals that he had missed from various people, he could perhaps admit that that was true. But in this moment, something just… clicked for him.

And so, without second-guessing himself, without doubting or overthinking, he reached across the gap between them, and pulled Cinder into a tight hug.

"…I'm sorry." He spoke, smiling despite the way his chest ached. "I didn't… I wasn't thinking."

Cinder's next breath was shaky, even if she tried to disguise it as a laugh, burying herself in his shoulder.

"You'd… better be sorry."

"I am."

"Don't you ever… don't talk about yourself like that in front of me. Never again."

"Okay." He said, and it was a promise despite how fragile it sounded. "Okay. I won't."

Cinder hummed something out in affirmation of his words, but it was lost in the way that she moved her body so that she rested closer against him. He found himself mimicking the motion, until eventually, they were pressed up against one another, just…

Just enjoying that closeness, Jaune felt. The hug was…

It was nice. It was…

It was enough to make him feel like he deserved to live, too. Even if he'd never really doubted that fact like Cinder had…

He hadn't realized he'd wanted a confirmation of it so very badly until now.

/

It was on a random weekday, smack dab in the middle of Jaune's lunch break, when he remembered just what it was he was constantly meaning to ask one Emerald Sustrai. He managed to corner her in the teacher's lounge, and ask her on hands and knees for the story of the Vale Gala.

He'd waited far too long.

"Oh. That." Emerald actually winced. "I don't really like telling it, but… you've been asking around about this for like three years, haven't you?"

That might've even been low-balling it, to be honest.

"Alright, sure. I guess I can tell you." Emerald cleared her throat, took a more even stance, and then said…

"So, there we are… it's three in the morning, I'm more drunk than I've ever been, and we've just leaked documents that link multiple members of Vale's council to working alongside Salem whilst simultaneously setting the Gala building on fire, when all of a sudden-"

/

"Headmaster–"

"You know it's Jaune to you, Ms. Goodwitch."

"Fine, then, Mr. Arc," Glynda pushed up on her glasses, shaking her head. "I feel I must advise that you take a different course of action in this matter."

"Ah." Jaune nodded his head. "You're referring to Cinder, correct?"

"Yes. Though in actuality, I am more referring to your choice to directly confront the media with the truth of your involvement with her. Just because she is your friend, and someone you somehow trust, does not mean that you should set yourself up to be assaulted from all sides, veritably picked apart by the woman's past misdeeds."

It was, to be fair, probably good advice.

"What would you suggest, then, Ms. Goodwitch?"

"It would be far smarter to keep this private." She explained. "To not make it known. Keep it behind closed doors. I'm not telling you to send her back to prison or any such thing, but…"

He debated just how it was he wished to respond to that, and ended up settling on…

"…It may be smarter, perhaps, yes." Jaune spoke, before smirking and feeling the smallest bit of devious energy well up inside of him. "But not at all a very me thing to do."

Glynda groaned. "Yes. I believe I had a feeling you would say something along those lines."

Jaune himself had grown rather accustomed to seeing his name in the news cycle lately, and very rarely in a positive light. Some channels – ones that Jaune was fairly certain were directly sponsored by the SDC, and thusly didn't exactly want to be making an enemy of one of Weiss' best friends – reported the truth as Jaune said it; that Cinder was someone he wished to help reform, to help give a second chance at a better life.

Most, however, were far less kind than that.

He understood, perhaps, their concern. They assumed him either corrupted or easily manipulated, or perhaps simply evil or some other such thing. In their defense, without the information that Jaune – and recently, his friends – possessed, he couldn't exactly blame them for thinking such things.

It was not like Cinder's work in the shadows serving Atlas had been public, after all.

More damning, however, were when 'psychologists' who were supposed to read his body language were called onto these shows, and they almost always had the same things to say about himself and Cinder.

"She follows him everywhere–"

"They're rarely ever seen apart–"

"It's clear that there's something more going on there–"

"She's practically his shadow–"

None of that was fair to Cinder. Surely, they could target him. He didn't particularly mind it, and it wasn't like the council was going to oust him when Beacon was bringing in record profits and churning out successful Hunters.

Cinder wasn't bothered, though. Every time she heard something like that, she seemed to just… grin somewhat, and go along with her day.

And Jaune found himself wondering, however idly, if he should perhaps be reading into that more than he was.

/

It had been on a whim, really, his decision to invite her along.

It was going to be his first time in a while leaving Beacon for more than a day or so since she'd arrived and decided to stick around. Even then, Cinder often attended his sojourns with him, even if only as a bodyguard. This, however, was a far more casual affair.

He was heading back to Domremy, his home village, to see his family.

Jaune had, of course, visited back home quite often. He made the journey every year around the winter season. The previous year, Saphron and Terra hadn't been able to attend because Adrian had gotten a virus, and they'd been taking care of him in Argus, but apparently this year, his entire family was going to be able to make the trip.

And Jaune wasn't entirely sure why it was that, hearing that, he had the weirdest inclination to find Cinder, and…

"What?"

"I said I'm going away for a while. Two weeks, give or take." He spoke, seeing the way her eyes widened minutely, evidently unhappy with that. "I'm off to visit my family's village. It's out in the sticks. A frontier town called Domremy."

"…Alright."

It did not take a genius to see the way that Cinder was almost…

Was it disappointed?

Jaune had always been told he was oblivious, and… yeah, okay, that was more than fair. But every once in a while he found that he was rather decent at parsing out others emotions.

And he'd learned something about Cinder from being around her these past two or three months in Beacon, and even more so from the previous year's they'd been in communication while she'd served under Winter.

She was surprisingly clingy.

"So, I was thinking…" Jaune rubbed the back of his neck, smiling a tad awkwardly. "Would you uh… want to come with?"

Cinder's brow drew down rather harshly, and she seemed well and truly gobsmacked at the question.

"You… want me to… go with you?"

"Well, I figured, I mean…" He wasn't entirely sure what the right answer here was. It felt like it might be… "Yeah. I guess I do."

For a woman who had once been a master infiltrator, Jaune had found more and more that Cinder's emotions were rather writ upon her face. He could tell that, despite the way she tried to play the invitation off as nothing…

It was anything but.

"I suppose I've nothing else to be doing." Cinder stated, not meeting his eyes. "When are we leaving?"

/

They left a week later, taking a personal flight out of Beacon itself into the sticks of Vale, where there was just about nothing as far as the eye could see. Normally he'd have taken his personal airship, but Domremy did not have a landing pad of any sort, and so the village could not afford to have its single landing pad – aka a field that had been cleared of trees – filled for an extended period of time.

And, of course, in the middle of nowhere, there was Domremy.

It was a quaint little village, in Jaune's opinion. It had always felt too small, too suffocating to him as a child, but there was something about its size now that appealed to him. It drew him in in a way that the city of Vale couldn't.

Here, everyone knew everyone's name. Here, there was a single butcher, a single tailor, a single smith. There was a sense of community almost as powerful as what Jaune found himself feeling within Beacon itself.

And waiting at the air docks – again, a grassy field, but that felt lame to say – despite the fact that Jaune had specifically told them not to worry about coming to get him, was a certain sister of his, along with a very special someone.

"Well, well, well!" Saphron called to him as he pulled the door to the bullhead open. "The prodigal son returns!"

"I don't know if I'm the prodigal son," Jaune felt the need to comment. "Given that I visit quite literally every year, unlike a certain someone."

"Bleh, Adrian was sick, that wasn't my fault." Saphron spoke, before smirking, and looking down to the boy hanging about her waist. "Speaking of…"

"Uncle Jaune!"

Adrian ran face first into his chest, wrapping his arms around him and causing Jaune to laugh merrily. He wrapped his own arms around the little man and hoisted him up, which was beginning to grow a lot harder, given he was now nearly ten years old.

"Man, you get heavier every year!" He laughed out, enjoying the way the boy giggled. "Next year you're going to bowl me over if I'm not careful!"

Saphron watched him with a smile, until eventually her gaze was diverted back to the bullhead behind them, where, just as Jaune thought, Cinder had stepped out into the crisp winter air.

"And who's this?" Saphron asked.

Ah, and what a question that was.

"This is Cinder. She's a…" Jaune didn't quite know how to describe Cinder as she walked up to stand beside him. "A friend."

Saphron raised an eyebrow at him. "Ah. A friend, hm? A friend who you've chosen to bring back to meet your family? That kind of friend?"

He coughed. "Yes. That kind of friend."

"I see."

Cinder herself just rolled her eyes, and Saphron had a laugh at that, likely at Jaune's expense.

"It's nice to meet you, Cinder."

"I… yes." Cinder bowed her head ever so slightly. "The same to you."

"Shall we make our way to the house, then?" Saphron offered. "It's a touch bit cold, and you did keep us waiting out here."

"Yeah!" Adrian pouted. "I got cold!"

"Well, I'm very sorry bud." Jaune laughed as they began the trek towards the Arc family home, Saphron and Adrian in front, Jaune in the middle, and Cinder trailing behind him, out of his line of sight. "Next time I'll pilot the bullhead myself."

"You'd better!"

There was a round of laughter at that that Cinder was notably exempt from. Jaune couldn't quite help feeling a touch awkward at that, because really, that was probably his fault. Of course, he should've expected Cinder to have no idea what to actually do around his family. She was awkward and standoffish around him on occasion.

Maybe this had been a mist–

"Ms. Cinder?"

Adrian had purposefully fallen a few steps behind his mom, walking alongside Cinder herself and peering up at her with curious eyes.

Cinder didn't seem to know what to do about that. "…What?"

And Adrian, dear, sweet Adrian, decided to throw Jaune to the proverbial wolves.

"Are you Uncle Jaune's wife?"

Oh yes. Jaune thought as he turned himself around, facing forward and trying to ignore Cinder presumably glaring daggers at the back of his head as he let out a horrid groan.

This was definitely a mistake.

/

The Arc family home in Domremy was not an entirely large, or overstated place. It was big enough to house the many inhabitants it had once had to, and no bigger. In fact, it was likely smaller than it needed to be, but across the sixteen or so years that Jaune had inhabited the place, it had always served him well.

It would also, likely, serve as the sight of Jaune's early grave.

"Oh, Jaune!" His mother tackled him in a hug, swinging him from side to side in that easy way she always managed, despite the fact that he had at least a head and a half on her. "Look at you! You clean up quite well in that outfit, don't you?"

Said outfit was rather similar to his headmaster's garb, which was to say it was similar to his battle garb. He wore a jacket that functioned more for style than substance, and a white pair of pants. Overtop that he'd slung on a coat that Dr. Oobleck of all people had got for him as a winter festival present last year.

He had a surprising sense of style for a man who wore a brown trench coat with a yellow tie and green hair.

Honestly, he looked like some kind of exotic bird.

"I guess so." He let out an embarrassed laugh, trying not to pay too much attention to the way that many of his sisters were giggling at his expense. "It's good to see you, Mom."

"Mm. You too, sweetie." And then, of course, her focus changed. "And who's this?"

They were the exact same words Saphron had used. Remembering back to that, Jaune also found himself remembering how hard he'd fumbled that particular exchange.

It would perhaps be better to allow Cinder to handle herself in this case.

"Cinder." She said rather simply, and Jaune could feel a bit of awkward energy flow through the space already.

"Cinder hm?" Jaune's mother, however, was having none of it. "Well, you seem like a lovely young lady. My son's never brought a girl home, you know!"

Jaune went red in the face for the third time that night, and was a second away from stammering into the conversation like a battering ram when he had a second to observe Cinder's expression.

She was… looking away from him. Looking away from all of them.

Jaune had begun to notice a bit of a pattern regarding that.

"…I see."

His mother smirked victoriously.

"Well then. How about you come to the table. We'll have some chairs drawn up!"

/

Dinner was delicious.

Jaune had known it would be. His mother had been able to raise eight children veritably by herself while his dad went on missions to pay for them all. She would not have been able to do such a thing if she'd not been able to make great food in greater portions. She served a rather delicious stew alongside a slow-cooked ham, and a variety of other winter festival classics. Jaune himself was partial to the cranberry sauce – although he understood that most members of his family weren't fans.

Frankly, in his opinion, they were crazy, but hey, more for him.

And all throughout it… Jaune found his eyes occasionally drifting to the person sat beside him. To Cinder.

He'd been worried for a moment that this might overwhelm her. After all, she hadn't been around this many people in… years? It had to have been a decade at the very least. And he didn't think she'd ever sat and ate at a table like this.

He'd felt horrible that he'd not thought about that ahead of time. He'd simply invited her without thinking at all.

And yet…

Cinder was watching the rest of them, out of her singular eye. She was paying attention to the way the family jeered, and yelled, and laughed as they traded barbs and jokes in equal measure. She paid attention to the way his sister Laguna and her boyfriend were making kissy-faces at each other. She paid attention to the way that Saphron and Terra were laughing and feeding dessert into each other's mouths. To the way his mother kept fussing over every one of them.

Jaune couldn't quite tell what it was she felt, if he were being honest.

Dinner lasted about an hour and a half – they didn't eat the entire time, but they stayed around to enjoy each other's company – and then, when it became late enough that the kids were to be put to bed, the group broke apart. Some went back to their rooms, others went out to see the lights that had been hung up in town, and others stuck around regardless, keeping the conversation going.

Jaune left what he'd be doing up to Cinder.

"You okay?" He asked as a few members of the group dispersed. "If this is too much for you…"

"I'm fine." Cinder spoke. "I just… this is…"

She shook her head, before she turned towards him, and asked in a quiet voice, "Is there a place we could talk alone?"

Jaune found the hairs sticking up along the back of his neck as he nodded, and took Cinder outside into the crisp winter air. It wasn't terribly cold yet, having only really begun to snow within the last few days, but it would be dropping well below freezing later in the week, and there were a few inches of snow laid out upon the grass outside. Jaune led them to a large tree on their property, a place he and his siblings had always thought of as a kind of hub, and turned to face Cinder.

"What is it?"

"I…" Cinder looked away from him, biting down on her bottom lip. "I'm not… sure."

He didn't say anything at first, giving Cinder a chance to try and formulate the thoughts running through her head.

"I… I remember when I was a girl… when I worked in the Glass Unicorn… near the winter season, there'd be all sorts of families coming in for the night." Cinder began, and Jaune understood this was going to be a long story, so he settled in, smiling, and nodding to her. "I saw all types of people there. Rude. Kind. Somewhere in between. And… I saw parents with their daughters. With their children. Who they… who they loved."

Jaune felt some small sorrow in his breast when he realized where this was going.

"I… I think some part of me back then has always wanted something like this." Cinder spoke, although she still wasn't looking at him. Jaune wasn't going to force her to. Not ever. "A chance to… I don't know to explain it, I suppose. But… your family are… rambunctious, and loud, and a bit irritating…"

He smiled, because yeah, that was fair.

"But they are warm, too." Cinder spoke, turning her whole body away from him, facing the house itself. "Warmer than I have ever known before. And… somehow, despite it all, once again, it's you."

He tried to ignore the way his stomach fluttered at that.

"It's you bringing me along to something like this. Letting me experience something I've never managed to before. It's you encouraging me to live my life. To be allowed to have the things I only ever dreamed of. The things I used to… to consider impossible."

"And yet, it seems these days that whenever I dream of impossible things, you find some way to fulfill them, regardless."

He had to stifle a gasp, despite the way his heart felt full.

"…Why did you invite me?"

He felt an odd sort of tension fill him, and he could tell whatever it was was affecting Cinder as well.

"Well, I…" He hadn't been entirely sure himself. But… he thought he had a pretty good idea at this point. "I wanted to give you some of it… some of all of this. This was the place I grew up. For me it's… it's a bit stifling, but it's a happy place. I don't know. When I thought of it… I just… I guess I wanted you to see it."

Cinder's head bobbed up and down, although he still couldn't see her face.

He heard a quiet intake of breath, but it was shaky, not all there. Jaune found himself hesitating somewhat. He didn't want to overwhelm Cinder. Even if…

Even if there was something here… some moment he did not entirely know how to describe.

This sort of ethereal pull.

"…I've never had a home. Or a family." Cinder's voice echoed across the snowy expanse of their front yard. "I always wanted one. I was always jealous of those who had them, and took them for granted."

That had been Jaune, once. Having taken for granted the things he'd been born with, gotten lucky with. But it seemed that the both of them had grown.

A snowflake hit her head. And then another. One landed on his shoulder. On his arm.

It was snowing now.

He found himself smiling as he took a single step forward.

It was crunchy and weighty, what with him walking through the snow that had fallen across the past week or so. Cinder would have heard it. If she didn't want him to approach, then he wouldn't. But… he thought he understood, now, what had been hanging between them for months. Unspoken, yet there all the same.

"…I'd like for you to have a home." Jaune said, taking careful steps forward. "I'd like for you to have a family."

Cinder took a breath, expelling it as a cloud of vapor that rose into the air. Her breath was shaking.

Jaune found his heart racing at a mile a minute.

"I think…"

It was a whisper against the quiet winter wind, and yet Jaune couldn't hear anything else.

And then Cinder turned around.

He noticed the way that her nose was pink from the cold first, for some reason. He wasn't entirely sure why it was that that was what he zeroed in on first, and yet… it was an oddly domestic thing. Seeing Cinder like that.

She, a person who'd once thought of herself as a monster, smiling like that, with her eyes red with tears that threatened to spill out at any moment, barely holding it together as she…

As she took a step forward.

Jaune did the same.

She licked her lips. Just a tiny motion.

"I think I've found a home."

And then Cinder kissed him.

Realistically, there was a tiny part of Jaune that had perhaps known of Cinder's feelings for him. In fact, there was a rather large part of him that had known of his feelings for her. But it had just seemed so… so complicated. So incessantly, horrifically complicated.

And yet, when he felt a warm drop of water impact against his own cheek, running down from Cinder's eye… when she reached across his body, and pulled him in closer, and hung onto him like he was the only lifeline in the entire world…

He pulled her in a little closer as well.

Still, if there was anything that Jaune hadn't wanted, it was to abuse Cinder's trust in him. After all, there was a part of him that reasoned that the only reason Cinder might've carried feelings for him in the first place was because he'd been the first person to actually treat her with kindness in her entire life. That was no grounds to build a relationship on.

He tried to voice as much. "Cinder… if you're only doing this to… I don't know, to thank me, then I want you to know that–"

"Don't be stupid." Cinder's voice cut him off, even quiet and stunted as it was. "It's… it's you. You're the one who I… don't make me say it!"

That was…

"…Okay." He said with the tiniest curl of his lips.

Jaune wasn't entirely certain how long the second kiss lasted, really. Perhaps five seconds? Fifteen? Three full minutes? It didn't particularly matter. When he pulled away, breathless, it was to see Cinder looking up at him with an expression so delicate that it seemed almost paradoxical upon her face. Like it was breaking some sort of unspoken rule.

"I'm sorry." She almost gasped out, shaking her head as tears flowed more freely down her face.

"What for?"

"For… just taking it like that. I'm… I'm greedy, and I take and take and take and–"

"Cinder, I wanted to give it." He smiled for her. "The only reason I hesitated was that I didn't want to make you feel like you needed to provide something."

"I…" Cinder seemed like she was a few seconds from falling apart. "I'm sorry… I'm so sorry for…"

"It's fine, really, I wanted to–"

"Not for…" Cinder shook her head. "Not for that…"

"Wha–"

"For Nik– for Pyrrha," She spoke, and Jaune's blood felt iced over. "For her, and for Ozpin, and Beacon, and Haven, and Atlas, and Penny. For Vacuo and for Evernight and… for… for everything."

…Jaune hadn't ever really thought that Cinder would say such a thing.

He'd… there'd been a part of him that'd hoped. That had thought that maybe with Cinder changing for the better, becoming a better person, she might eventually reach this point. That she might be able to feel that guilt, and eventually learn to heal through it.

It was an odd thing, feeling proud at the way she leaned into him and cried silently, but…

He sniffled himself, from the cold and other things, as he wrapped his arms around her, and hugged her close to him, slowly rocking them back and forth as the snow fell down upon them.

"…Thank you."

Cinder shook her head against him.

"It doesn't…" Cinder's voice was muffled against his coat. "It doesn't feel real now… I hesitated and… I should've told you before I admitted how I fe… now it sounds like I'm just trying to trick you for my sake, or–"

"Cinder. Please." He said, and he lowered his head to plant a kiss along her hairline in the center of her forehead. "I believe you. Thank you."

She nodded, biting down on her lower lip as she leaned into him.

And again… Jaune wasn't entirely sure how long the two of them were out there. It was long enough that by the time Jaune opened his eyes, it was to see his mother at the window taking pictures of the two of them, along with a few of his sisters. He smiled, trying to shoo them away, but that inevitably only got Cinder's attention, and when she saw that they were being watched, she pushed away from him hurriedly, red in the face.

"…I shouldn't have broken down like–"

"Please don't apologize for being you." He reiterated, reaching down, and taking Cinder's hand in his.

Cinder seemed to be briefly taken aback by that, but eventually she hummed out something noncommittal, pouting somewhat. Crucially, however, she did not try and pull out of his grip.

"Now, I do believe we're about to be interrogated in front of my entire family, so prepare yourself."

Cinder snorted.

And so, the two of them walked back towards the Arc family home, hand in hand, both taking yet another step forward.

/

It had been a spur of the moment thing, apparently, their decision to hold a bit of a reunion party.

Ruby had just sort of come up with the idea one day when she'd looked down at the calendar and realized that it had been nearly nine years since they'd defeated Salem, and that the anniversary of the day they'd invaded Evernight was coming up.

And then she'd practically ordered everyone who'd been there that day to attend a reunion.

It shouldn't have been that simple, really. After all, nearly every one of them had something preventing them from simply attending such a thing. Ren and Nora were the unofficial leaders of Kuroyuri – they were also some of Mistrals best Hunters – and raising their son Magni, along with their young daughter, who was just an infant. Yang and Blake had similar duties, as leaders of Menagerie, and those in charge of Union Academy, which was just now beginning to officially open its doors to students. Along with that was their own daughter, with them planning on having another child sometime in the near future.

Ruby and Weiss, likewise, couldn't exactly afford to leave Atlas – Mantle, Solitas, whatever it was called these days, Jaune didn't really worry about it – with Weiss heading up the SDC. They could perhaps leave for a day or so, but even then, it would likely be a lot easier for them to simply hold the event in Atlas itself.

And then there was Jaune, who was stuck being Headmaster of Beacon Academy.

And so, what did they do?

Why, get the day that the world had been saved from Salem and the Brother Gods declared an international holiday, of course. To be fair, it was kind of a deserved thing, and no one ever seemed to complain about getting an extra day off a year.

Honestly, it was genius in its simplicity, in Jaune's opinion.

And so it was that Jaune, along with Ms. Goodwitch, Dr. Oobleck, Emerald, Ilia, and a smattering of others found themselves touching down at the Schnee Manor's landing pad – and wow, it occurred to Jaune that the Schnee Manor had a bigger landing pad than Beacon, which was both impressive and sad – and headed down into what was promised to be quite the party.

Most stuck to their little groups. Ms. Goodwitch and Dr. Oobleck were by themselves, although they quickly perked up when they realized that a former colleague of theirs had also been invited. This was made painfully obvious when a boisterously loud voice shouted out towards them, and Peter Port tackled the two in a bear hug which seemed to sap the very life from them.

Emerald and Ilia traveled inside by themselves, the couple conversing quietly and smiling at one another. Jaune himself hung back a moment, allowing the others to all leave, and then finally turning to the last inhabitant of the carrier.

"…You're certain you wish for me to attend?"

"I am." He said, smiling, and holding out a hand.

Cinder took it with some small hesitation, and did her best to smile for his sake as she squeezed his fingers in her own.

"Now c'mon." He said, smirking rather devilishly. "I have a feeling this is going to be a night to remember."

/

The Schnee Manor had, in Jaune's memory, never managed to be quite as full as it was this evening. He'd heard, of course, that it had been used to host charity gala's of all kinds in the past, so he assumed that at some point, it had managed to pack in a few more people…

But at the very least, he had a feeling it had never been quite this rowdy.

Stuffing a good hundred Hunters, along with a smattering of wait staff, a hundred more close friends, and a promise that around fifty more people would be arriving later in the evening, made for quite a bit of noise, and even Jaune found himself almost overwhelmed by the sheer scale.

He couldn't imagine what it would be like for Cinder, who was staying rather close to him, her eyes darting from one side of the room to the other in quick succession.

He still had hold of her hand, so he gave a reassuring squeeze as she looked up at him.

He nodded down at her and tried for an easy smile.

No sooner had he done that than quite a few people had seen him, and were all coming up to him to catch up.

He talked with Sun and Neptune first, who were, even now, still single. Jaune found himself growing just the smallest bit suspicious of that, wondering if maybe the two of them had something going on that they weren't admitting to the rest of them, but hey, that was their business. He talked briefly with Sage and Scarlet, and laughed when Ilia came over, and the entirety of SSSN started treating her like a little sister again.

Emerald sat nearby, laughing at her wife's expense as Ilia tried desperately to retain some of her dignified image as a warrior.

It did not work very well.

It did, however, likely help in distracting all of them from Cinder, who had, even if Jaune had wanted her to try and be a part of the festivities, gone and taken a spot in the corner where she wouldn't be bothered.

Jaune couldn't blame her, really. This party was, in some ways, to celebrate the fact that they'd managed to prevail over her. He didn't think of it that way anymore, and he hoped the rest of them didn't either – or, well, at the very least those he'd directly told of Cinder's efforts to reform – but Cinder always seemed to have a hard time with this stuff.

Her apology for her actions had meant the world to Jaune, despite the way that Cinder had worried it would seem fake, or feigned.

Still, he allowed himself to be distracted in the evening, to simply zone out and enjoy his time.

He spoke with Ruby and Weiss, the hosts, next. They were bubbly and fun, and he laughed and joked around with them as they discussed the two's plans. They were going on a year and a half now of officially being together, and that had Jaune grinning from ear to ear.

"I'm happy for you guys." He spoke.

"Thank you, Jaune." Weiss let out a little laugh, before raising an eyebrow at him. "And I'm happy for you as well. I suppose you'll be a good influence on her."

His lips pulled together. "Wait… do you mean me and Cinder? But I hadn't told anyone about us being together yet."

Weiss and Ruby both just sighed.

"Jaune… I feel like I perhaps shouldn't need to say this, but Cinder has been rather obviously pining after you for quite some time."

"…Well, I mean… I don't know if obviously is the word for–"

"I don't really think she's all that good at disguising her true feelings." Ruby said, giggling to herself. "She's surprisingly honest, really. It was written all over her face how much she cared about you."

Jaune found himself growing a bit hot at that, and he rubbed at the back of his neck in embarrassment.

"I… I care about her too. Quite a lot."

"Mm." Weiss' grin was a centimeter away from smug. "That was pretty obvious, too."

They talked for a little while longer about this and that. How the SDC was working to make sure that the people of whatever-the-hell-this-place-was-called were going to be properly governed, and properly funded. Weiss was already assisting in making sure to build stronger, more well-kept walls near the edges of the territory alongside Robyn Hill, who'd been elected to the council in the last major election. Ruby, for her part, had actually begun to personally instruct the next generation of soldiers. It was a bit funny for Jaune to imagine Ruby as a drill sergeant – and also surprisingly easy, given that he remembered the draconian way she'd used that whistle she had back in Beacon – but he felt that such a position – ostensibly just a more huntress-y form of teacher – suited her.

He was talking to Yang and Blake next. The two of them were discussing things rather animatedly in a circle alongside Ilia, Sun, Ren and Nora. He joined in without much ceremony and was laughing at Nora's jokes within the minute.

"You are insane." Yang said, smirking over at Nora. "Like actually insane."

"No siree!" Nora put her hands on her hips. "Just incredibly hyperactive! I used to take medication for it but now I don't."

Ren rolled his eyes. "She had to stop taking it while she was pregnant, and then got too used to that level of energy that she didn't want to start on it again."

"Ah, I see, I see." Yang smarmed.

"Renny! Don't go giving away my secrets!"

Jaune laughed.

"Oh, well, I wasn't really sure when to announce this, but…" Yang turned towards Blake, and the woman's wife smiled back at her. "We're having another baby."

There was a chorus of 'congratulations!' and "We're so happy for you!" at that. Funnily enough, it was actually Ilia who interrupted it, a bit red in the face, but with a beaming look on her face that betrayed the underlying happiness.

"…Actually… Emerald and I think we're going to try as well."

It was Blake who reached out to her old friend, and brought her into a tight hug. Ilia giggled a bit as she hugged her back, and Jaune found that, even if he hadn't exactly said anything, that this was certainly nice.

He gravitated towards Ms. Goodwitch and some of the other older teachers at Beacon. There were a few that he didn't recognize who Glynda explained to him were older year teachers that had retired before his tenure, and he greeted them all with a shake of a hand and a respectful nod. Most complimented him on his position, and a few even joked around with him, which he found himself appreciating.

He bounced around pretty willy-nilly after that. To Nora and Ren, talking about their respective times spent traveling, and their newest addition to the family, little Freya. Then back to Ruby and Weiss to ask about their relationship. Then back to Blake and Yang to talk parenting, and how Summer was growing up. At one point, Neo revealed herself, and she and Winter got into a wordless staring contest that Jaune found himself quite amused by.

Silently – and he would never voice this aloud – he thought that the two might actually complement one another nicely in a relationship if either of them would ever consider such a thing.

They wouldn't, so that would safely remain an odd sort of fantasy of his.

The Ace-Ops arrived, including Harriet, who looked like she'd had to be dragged, but was soon inundated with people all around her. He hoped she could forgive herself one day for what she'd done. Elm and Marrow were laughing and joking around with Qrow and his fiancé, who Jaune had forgotten had officially tied the knot. At one point the Happy Huntresses arrived, and then all hell seemed to break loose.

Whitley and Neon and Lydia stepped in for a while, and Flynt and her old teammates went and spoke with them. Pietro Polendina was discussing something with one Maria Calavera, and Jaune was happy for the two of them. He wasn't sure what the nature of that relationship was, but at the very least, the two were friends.

Pietro had discussed something with Jaune, recently. That perhaps sometime in the near future, he might pour all of his aura into another artificial body. That he might try and see if he couldn't bring Penny back one last time. They'd dug out a few pieces of the robotic body she'd once had from the ruins of Atlas, and…

Well, it was a longshot, but Pietro seemed deadest on trying, regardless as to whether the maneuver would certainly cost him his life, and regardless as to the odds of such a thing working out.

Jaune could respect that. The lengths the man was willing to go to for his daughter.

Mercury showed up too, albeit later in the evening. It was the first time that Jaune had seen the man in roughly a decade, and he smiled as he saw that Mercury looked well.

Emerald ran up to him and hugged him, and the two of them talked quite a bit about this and that. Jaune looked to Cinder, seeing if she might want to join in, but…

She was actually busy herself.

He found his eyes widening as he realized that it was Ruby who was talking with her. They seemed to be exchanging words rather calmly and quietly. He couldn't make out any of what they were saying. But…

There was a smile on Ruby's face.

That was probably enough.

He waited until Ruby broke off from her a good fifteen minutes later to walk up to Cinder himself. He understood that Cinder relied on him, but he also didn't want to become a crutch for her. He had full faith in her to continue growing, and a part of that was being able to talk to other people like she could with him.

"Hey." He greeted a bit lamely as he leaned against the wall just beside the corner she'd chosen to claim for herself. "I saw you were talking with Ruby. What was that about?"

Cinder was silent for a moment. She had a habit of doing that, taking time to formulate her thoughts and then speaking only when she was assured of them. He had a feeling that dated back to her time serving under both the Madame and Salem. If she spoke out of turn, or said the wrong thing, she might have been punished.

But he'd also seen how Cinder could, on occasion, be incredibly talkative. When she got going – which, to be fair, was a rarity – she could just go on and on. It never failed to make him smile to see her so animated.

He hoped that one day she could let those barriers fall away entirely. Perhaps they should start talking about her attending therapy. It could only really help, even if he was sure it would take ages to hammer home the point through Cinder's rather potent pride.

He'd do it anyways. For her sake.

"She… said that she was glad that I was here." Cinder murmured just loud enough to be picked out over the ambient crowd. "And that she was proud of me. I don't really… I wasn't sure what to make of that."

"I think it's similar to how I feel for you." He said, continuing when she turned to him. "I was sad when it seemed like you were only spiraling, that you couldn't recover. And now… seeing you like this makes me happy. Makes me glad that you can just be how you are, with no complications to hang over you anymore."

Cinder nodded her head, but it was a bit of a stunted motion.

"I told her, too. That I was sorry for everything I'd put her through. She… she believed me, just like you did."

Jaune was happy to hear such a thing.

"It's strange… despite being surrounded by those who'd once thought of me as enemies…" Cinder looked out over the party; her lips puckering together in thinking. "I do not think I've ever felt this… this contented."

"Hah. I'm glad to hear it."

Cinder smiled his way, and even if it was a tiny, fragile thing…

It was progress.

Another step forward.

And then, of course, Sun Wukong started singing karaoke, as he always seemed to find some way to do, despite the way that Weiss had specifically not set up a karaoke machine for today's party, which meant the man had smuggled one in.

The fact that he'd managed to sneak anything by SDC security had Jaune fairly impressed.

…That or Ruby did it, which honestly seemed about as likely.

Even so, there was a chorus of laughter as the man attempted to hit the high notes of 'Mirror, Mirror's' bridge. It was a painful, grating thing to listen to, but the fact that he tried such a thing at all deserved applause.

And so, Jaune found himself reaching down, and taking Cinder's hand once again. When she looked up at him with a bit of confusion, he just grinned down at her, and urged her, "C'mon, the night's still young."

Cinder rolled her eyes. "What a cliché turn of phrase."

"Hey, what can I say, I'm a cliché kind of guy."

"Yes, I suppose you are." Cinder smirked. "What's that trope called in dramas? Enemies to lovers?"

He glared down at the woman as she laughed at his expense.

"Veeeery funny." He huffed in exasperation as Cinder hummed in victory. "Alright, let's go, young lady."

"Young lady? I do believe I'm nearly six years your senior."

"Nope."

"What? How does that–"

"Nope."

"Stop saying that–"

"Nope."

"…What are you doi–"

"Nope."

Cinder glared at him rather harshly, and Jaune mentally concluded that he would have to steal Ruby's technique's more often. They were quite effective.

"Now that that argument's settled," He declared, ignoring the way Cinder groaned. "I do believe we have a party to get back to."

Even still, despite her exasperation with him, Cinder relented, nodding her head.

"Mm… I suppose we do."

And so, the two of them stepped into the celebration proper. They laughed, and danced, and partied the night away. And yes, perhaps Sun Wukong managed to somehow knock the chandelier down from the roof, racking up tens of thousands of lien in damages. Perhaps Nora broke not one, but two different chocolate fountains in an effort to 'drink from the tap', and yes, perhaps there was a warrant out for Neopolitan's arrest signed by Winter Schnee herself come the following morning for petty vandalism – aka she had taken a marker to the woman's military coat while she wasn't looking and doodled designs on it…

But that was all another story.

And this story in particular ends here.

But there's something said at the end of all great stories. One last little line.

'And they all lived happily ever after.'

Again.


End Chapter 7

End After Happily Ever After


That's all, folks!

This story has been fun to work on, in all honesty. I don't have a ton to say about it here in this afterword, but I will try and respond to reviews/comments with any questions, feedback and the like. I'm pretty pleased with how this turned out, and the speed with which I was able to churn it out.

Now that this story is done, Cinderella may move back onto a weekly schedule, releasing every Sunday, but we'll have to see on that front. I might want to keep Cinderella bi-weekly until I've finished working on Paved.

Anyways, that's all from me, I hope you all enjoyed After Happy Ever After!