Dear Potential Reader:
Please note that the characters that appear in this tale are not mine; they belong to Rooster Teeth. This story is not intended to generate profit; it was merely written for the joy of writing and, hopefully, your joy in reading. This is a companion tale to my earlier stories, 'Sisters Grow Up' and 'Conversations with Mother'.
That said, please enjoy.
I know you've all had some bad things jump up and just hit you out of nowhere. It's called life, it happens to all of us. Have you ever had something good, the best thing that ever happened to you, just come out of nowhere?
Have you ever had that wonderful thing show up and then stick around for years until you actually realized it was a wonderful thing?
No? Well, that's what happened to me. That's why I'm sitting in a hospital right now, with my left leg hurting, waiting to see some very special people. Are you a little confused, maybe interested? Well, let me tell you how I got here.
First of all, my name is Jaune Arc. My family is known for producing heroes; huntsmen who stand between the innocent and the creatures of darkness. You would think that as a youngster, I would have gotten the best training available, but you'd be wrong. My grandfather and father decided that we should take a generation off, so as a child I was absolutely forbidden from touching weapons. What started me on this path was one of my older sisters.
I was fifteen years old when we were visiting grandpa. The eight of us grand-kids had been planted in his spare rooms for the night. Well, one of my older sisters woke me and another of our sisters up and led us to the top of the stairs. Grandpa was sitting in his big chair, next to a fireplace while my parents and a couple of other adults sat around him. He had the sort of happy, sort of sad expression on his face and was telling about some place he called Anima. We were sitting in shadows, so the adults couldn't see us.
"What's happening?" I whispered to Cerise, my oldest sister.
"Grandpa's telling stories about his adventures," she whispered back to me and Ivoire, the second oldest. "They're the stories that he wont tell when we can hear him."
"So we shouldn't be here, listening?" Ivoire asked her.
"Exactly!" Cerise grinned.
Of course Ivoire and I grinned back. There's nothing like forbidden tales that will make teens go through anything to learn.
Come to think of it, maybe that would be the best way to teach school. Tell the kids that they are absolutely forbidden to learn history, math and science. Then, attempt to teach the lessons to empty classrooms and allow the kids to sneak in and covertly listen. Once you tell a kid that he can't have something, he'll go to any length to get it.
Okay, sorry. I'm getting off the topic. What I mean to say is that because grandpa, mom and dad didn't want us to hear the old man's stories, we were determined to hear as many as we could. Even through the years, I can still remember sitting there, in the chilly dark, while the old man spoke of his life as a huntsman. He didn't dwell on the foes he had killed, he told about the friends he had made, the hardships he had suffered and the people he had helped. Occasionally, dad would prompt him and he would admit that he had fought grimm and bandits, but he never went into details. I didn't realize it at the time, but he didn't like to talk about the grimm and the people that had fallen to his blade.
The other thing that sticks out in my memory is the other rough men and women who were a part of his stories. These tough people who had suffered so much were delighted that father had managed to keep my sisters and me out of the combat academies. They were clearly envious that grandpa now had eight grandchildren. I also remember them demanding, begging, and simply asking both father and grandpa to never let any of us take up that life. According to all of these old, rough people, they had suffered and sacrificed so we wouldn't have to.
When we returned home from our visit, I took to the town and school libraries a great deal more than usual, reading about my grandfather. It wasn't a quick and easy study. You see, the history files don't follow the exploits of individuals, they deal with the events, what led up to them and the consequences of them. I had to do searches on my grandfather's name, then read up on the events that he was involved in. All that study didn't go unnoticed. My parents figured out what I was doing.
Remember when I said that forbidden knowledge will drive a kid to learn? Well, my parents sat me down and told me that they had promised my grandfather that they wouldn't allow any of their children to become hunters. Then they did something that was incredibly foolish; they forbade me from looking into the family past.
If there was ever a way to fire a child's imagination and determination, that's it.
Okay, my parents regularly checked my scroll's browser history. I simply borrowed a friend's scroll to do my research. They made periodic checkups on what files I accessed at the school and city libraries. Again, I used a friend's identification. I learned that I came from a long line of huntsmen, dating back to the great war. While my father was a member of the city watch, he hadn't attended a huntsmans' academy...at my grandfather's request. While the old, hardened men of my grandfather's generation considered this a good thing, I was by now sixteen years old and knew better. My father had broken an old and honorable tradition.
It would be up to me to restore it.
If my grandfather hadn't passed away before I turned seventeen, I would have probably never managed to enter Beacon Academy. You see, he had gone to such great lengths to separate my father from the hunter's life that my father didn't even realize what it took to get into a huntsman's academy. Because I was determined to restore my family's honor, I researched the requirements, using my friend's identity, a great deal. I had already started to assemble fake credentials when the terrible news came that the old man had finally laid down his last burdens.
Of course, that only herded me more firmly towards my goal.
Take an awkward sixteen year old and have him attend his grandfather's funeral, where dozens of hard-bitten old men, draped with medals and other honors, speak his praises. Then, let him watch a small parade of various dignitaries speak, either live or via a remote transmission, of the cities, villages and even kingdoms he fought to protect. Finally, after the funeral is done and that boy is in his room, have the boy's father come in, hand him the legendary sword and shield that belonged to his grandfather. Have the boy's father say that the sword and shield are now his and if, sometime in the future, he manages to have two sons, one of them will be free to take up the huntsman's life.
If all of this happens to that sixteen year old, he will look at the honors piled on the deceased and think, 'that could be me'. He'll listen to the legacy and think, 'that's my obligation'. He'll take up that sword and shield and instead of thinking of a son, maybe a decade away, he'll think 'this is mine now'. I'm sure you know where I'm going with this. I used those false credentials and applied to Beacon. By some miracle or tragedy...I'm still not sure which...I was accepted. Had my grandfather still been alive, he would have realized that something was severely wrong but my parents didn't know about the entry standards. They simply told me that if I couldn't make it, it would be okay and I could return home.
Now seventeen and with those words of confidence to bolster me, I set out on the next step of my life. Looking back, I kind of wonder if my parents had realized just what I was getting myself into and hoped that my first taste of hunters' training would make me realize that I wanted no part of the life. That's actually a good plan; give the rebellious teen exactly what he wants. The only thing that they couldn't have predicted was more blessings coming my way; good friends and adversity.
The good friends came in the forms of Lie Ren, Nora Valkyrie, Ruby Rose and Pyrrha Nikos. The adversity came in the forms of Cardin Winchester and Cinder Fall. I won't bore you with all of the details of my life at Beacon. The only things I'll say are these: When a child prodigy so capable that she's accepted to a prestigious huntsman's academy two years early won't accept that you're a failure; you can't accept it yourself. When a couple of tough and resourceful teenagers, orphaned as children, stick together, pull through life and are accepted to that same academy accept you as their team leader and friend; you force yourself to become a leader and a friend. When a bullying jerk sets his sights on you and makes your life a living hell until you find the courage and strength to stand up to him and force him to treat you with respect; you can't help but respect yourself.
When a young woman, who is already a living legend for her fighting prowess and turns out to be kindly, supportive and nurturing, turns that support towards making you a better person; you can't help but become a better person. Then, when a psychopathic bitch on a power grab murders that same, wonderful young woman, shortly after the wonderful young woman admits that she loves you; you look for answers. You look to find a way to make up for your failures and shortcomings. You look for revenge.
In short, you band up with your three friends and try to deny Cinder whatever it was that she killed Pyrrha to obtain.
By all that I hold sacred, by the dust of creation itself, we were naive, green idiots! Okay, Ren and Nora had been there and done that for years, so they kept us out of the worst trouble but we really didn't know what we were in for. We hiked out of the Kingdom of Vale, across the north of Sanus, took the first boat that would deliver us to Anima and trudged across the continent to Mistral. We traded our ability to fight for room, board, upkeep and a few lien. It took us months, it was a completely stupid thing to do, yet it was probably the best thing that we ever did.
Do you want to be able to do a lot of sit-ups? The best way is to do a lot of sit-ups. Do you want to be able to run for miles? Then get out and start running for miles. Do you want to become a capable huntsman? Then walk across two continents while fighting grimm and bandits. Force yourself to live off the land and off of your skills. Deal with people who need your services but don't have the money to pay you. Okay, Ruby's uncle was trailing us, keeping the worst of the grimm away from us, be we still faced more than our fair share of fighting and other hardships. By the time we reached Mistral, we were a solid team and while I was still the weakest of us four, I had narrowed the gap on the other three.
Instead of them having to protect me in a fight, I was the one that could do the least.
I know, that last one still sounds bad but it was an important step. When I started at Beacon, I couldn't handle a single Ursa. By the time we hiked out of Vale, I could handle myself against the most common grimm. By the time we reached Mistral, I could hold my own against most bandits, as well. Okay, an elite huntsman or huntress could hand all four of us our collective asses, but I was leagues beyond where I had been. This meant that my teammates didn't have to worry about me once steel, claws and fangs started flying through the air. Something else happened on that journey; Ren managed to put some personal demon to rest. It wasn't necessarily the blessing you would think it would be, at least not for Ruby and me...but more about that later.
Have you ever been through an attempt to violently overrun a kingdom? I don't mean a minor revolt where some folks want the powers-that-be to do things differently and are willing to block traffic and maybe even lynch some folks to get their way. I mean, have you ever been in a kingdom when some psychopathic bitch unleashes forces she's been marshaling for years, in an effort to kill every man, woman and child in the kingdom? No? Count yourself lucky. My friends and I have been through three, but it's the second one I'm talking about right now.
There were certain things that the Battle for Mistral had in common with the Battle for Vale. It consisted of mainly White Fang and grimm invading the kingdom from the outside while Salem's operatives sowed mistrust, anger and confusion within the kingdom. There were some differences; since Haven Academy isn't separated from Mistral City by a physical barrier, the struggle to save both Haven and Mistral merged into one, big fight. Another big difference was that Mistral happened to have a large under-class that resented their upper-class overlords and were subject to rising up to fight. I'll tip my hat to Salem, she convinced the White Fang that they would have a place in the sun when she was done with the kingdoms and she convinced some of the Mistral under-class that she would limit the slaughter to the upper-classes.
In the end, I think that the deciding factor was that Atlas hadn't sent in a mass of androids to provide security. Without them present for Salem's forces to subvert, the other side didn't have the massive firepower that they had in Vale. On the other hand, they didn't have Team RWBY stumbling onto one of the major component of their plans a couple of days ahead of time. It was a rough and chaotic fight and a lot of people died.
You never met Neptune Vasalias. If you ask people who knew me back in Beacon, they might say that we didn't like each other. That wasn't the case. You see, I had a foolish infatuation with this girl and she had the same infatuation with him and I didn't understand how he couldn't return her feelings. We had a talk and we were pretty good with each other by the end of it. Well, he and that girl didn't last more than a week but when she was in danger during the Battle for Mistral, he stepped in, saved her and paid with his life.
You also never met Sage Ayana. I'll admit that I never even spoke to him but I owe him. He helped behead a giant nevermore that was threatening Pyrrha, fought in the Battle of Beacon and saved a lot of lives during the Battle for Mistral. He paid the price, as well. I guess that's part of being an aging huntsman; missing old friends and wondering why you never got to know other acquaintances better.
In the end, Mistral and Haven survived. Airship transportation was limited to the rebuilding effort in Mistral City itself, so the four of us hiked to Windpath and caught a ship back to Vale. That trip wasn't eventful for the fighting, it was eventful because of Ren and Nora. You know that personal demon of Ren's I was talking about earlier? It turned out that when it was gone, he finally started to look at Nora as a young woman. She had been looking at him as a young man for some time, but now they were suddenly free to really explore this new discovery.
Okay, they tried to be a little discrete about the whole thing but they had this little problem consisting of healthy teenagers' hormones, a major adrenaline rush and a several years of buildup. They managed to contain themselves the first two days out of Mistral, simply cuddling at night, but by day three they had had enough. Every evening for the rest of the week-long hike to the coast, they would excuse themselves from the camp, walk a respectful distance away, then proceed to have sex with all of the discretion of an avalanche hitting a bell factory.
Conversations with Ruby were more than a little awkward with that going on.
It didn't stop when we got on the ship. A long sea voyage can be boring; so guess how the two of them decided to pass the time? I've always been a little subject to motion sickness and I blame the two of them for contributing to it on the voyage back to Vale. Fine, try to tell me that no amount of motion from two people, massing about 160 kilos between them, is going to have any effect on the ship's stability. I lived through the motion and I can tell you that it did. I fed fish all across the northern passage and I was ready to kiss the dirty dock at Vale when we finally put in. Look, I'm not trying to act like I was mad at my friends; I was very happy that they had finally worked things out. Besides that, the grimm are attracted to negative emotions and the positive emotions the two of them were putting out probably had every dark creature running like hell. It's just that I was a healthy young man at the time and hearing and, at least on the ship feeling what they were doing played havoc on my nerves.
I didn't think of it at the time, but Ruby was a healthy young woman and it wasn't exactly easy on her, either.
Of course, once we were in Vale we were confronted with the issue of what to do with ourselves. We wanted to attend classes at Beacon, but we were late for the current semester and we had an awful lot of time before the next one started. We checked the mission boards and there was work to be had, so we decided that we'd help out by taking missions to sweep the area of Grimm. However, I had one thing to do first; I wanted to go home, let my parents know that I was fine and confess my actions. I'll admit that it was a convenient confession; I was now nineteen and had built a fledgling reputation as a huntsman, so I was capable of living on my own if my folks decided to throw me out. I didn't think they would; we're all way to close for that, but I had to admit to them that my career, if you will, was based on a lie I told them. To this day, I don't know how we came to the agreement that Ruby would come along with me.
If you ever want to find out just how much you've changed, visit home. I had only been gone for a little over a year and nothing about the house had changed...but I didn't fit in it like I was supposed to. I actually knocked on the door, rather than just walking in. My parents' eyes actually flew wide when they saw me. Both of my sisters, who were still living at home, also gave me the shocked look, although it didn't stop all of us from sharing a heartfelt series of hugs. The hallways and rooms seemed narrower and my father wasn't the large man I remembered. My sisters and mother had shrunk to petite women.
In short, I had grown up a great deal without realizing it.
I should have guessed what was going through my parents' minds when they asked me if it would be okay for Ruby to have one of my departed sisters' rooms while I had my old one. Okay, I was being an idiot; it was only a logical conclusion when your legally-an-adult son visits for a few days and brings a girl along with him. In our defense, we had been traveling together for so long that the idea of letting one of us go off on his or her own was as unthinkable as gnawing off our own arms. Teammates stick together. At the time, she was only seventeen and I'd punch anyone in the eye if they suggested that anything improper was happening between the two of us. We were teammates and close friends. We were still fixated on Cinder and completing our education. Add to this, I was still not over Pyrrha, so the thought of anything romantic didn't occur to us.
Looking back, it would have saved the two of us a fair amount of frustration if we'd have just noticed the knowing looks my parents kept giving us whenever the two of us interacted.
To make a long story short, we stayed with my folks for two days. The rest of my sisters lived fairly close to home and were able to come visit. Again, it was weird being treated as an adult and not as a kid brother. Ivoire was now married and Cerise was engaged, hammering home just how much could happen when you were on the road. By the time Ruby and I had to leave, Zwei had so thoroughly charmed my two remaining sisters that there was no question that we could leave him with my folks. I can remember that it was a bright, clear morning when Ruby and I left to catch the ferry back to Vale City.
I remember it because that was the day I realized that the house I had grown up in wasn't my home anymore.
But enough of that! We got back to Beacon and the staff tried to accommodate us and several other students who had arrived too late to attend formal classes. A lot of us took jobs sweeping the Emerald Forest, Forever Fall, and Beacon Academy itself of grimm. The dragon was still on the side of Beacon Tower and was drawing grimm to the school, so there was plenty of work. A boy named Oscar showed up with Ruby's uncle Qrow, and the staff let him take the position of headmaster. Oscar set up some evening classes for what he called the non-traditional students. Ruby, Nora, Ren and I rented some rooms at a hunters' hostel in town and attended classes part-time.
Let me say something about Qrow Branwen at this point; he isn't my favorite person to this day but I have to admit that he understood being a huntsman. He once told Ruby that each day on the road was worth a week in an academy and he was right. Several of the classes that had seemed so daunting to me back before Cinder made her move were now trivial. Qrow did something else; he suspected that there were spies around so he set a trap, suggesting that the Beacon Relic was to be found in the cellars under the tower. Sure enough, we caught the same jerk that had once bullied me down there, trying to find it.
Okay, now back to what I was saying about a day on the road being worth a week in class: Cardin Winchester had been attending classes, when they were available, ever since the Battle of Beacon. He was a tougher man when he was caught spying than when Beacon fell. On the other hand, I had been on the road almost the entire time and had fought the Battle of Mistral. I didn't realize it at the time, but the road had done a number on me. My team took care of the rest of his team, leaving me to face him by myself. I'll admit that he got a couple of shots in on me, but that was mainly because I didn't want to kill him...dead men tell no tales and all that. In the end, I had a couple of bruises and he was laying on the ground, aura depleted and several ribs broken. Look, I don't take any pride in inflicting pain on him...I take some joy in it, but no pride. The thing about that fight was that when we forced the rest of Team CRDL to carry their leader out of the cellar, I was a different person than when I went in.
For the first time, I felt the part of a huntsman.
I still had a lot to learn, and I knew it. It was just that now I knew that I could get there...I wasn't always going to be the weak link shouting strategy in the group...I was going to be able to be a true huntsman.
Anyway, back to Beacon. We continued to take evening classes and patrol around Beacon. Eventually, I helped come up with a bizarre plan to get the giant grimm off of the tower. I won't go into details, but it was just off-kilter enough to work and that really dropped the number of grimm in the area. We started go farther afield, patrolling and escorting. We made some solid lien and picked up solid experience, as well as academy credits. Then came the day that Taiyang Xiao Long sent word that the enemy appeared to be moving on Vacuo. Headmaster Oscar asked Ruby to go there and help deal with the situation. I don't know if he realized it, but there was no way that we were going to let Ruby go on such a mission by herself. We had almost reached the midpoint of the fall semester, but the road waits for nothing. We wrote off the classes we were attending as a lost cause, packed our bags and were on the trail again.
Here's something else you should know about the way that both Oscar and Qrow think: if an area is under attack, they are firm believers in taking the fastest transportation possible. On the other hand, if they suspect that an area is going to come under attack, they believe in the slow approach. I guess it makes sense to me; if you travel the back roads and talk to people on the way, you draw fewer suspicions onto yourself and you get a chance to hear news and rumors. The people you meet in the towns between the kingdoms aren't information brokers like the headmasters; but if you put them all together, there isn't much that they don't notice. We took a ship from Vale to a point about halfway to Vacuo and put our boots back on the road.
Fortunately, Ren and Nora had worked out their pent up drives by this point. Don't get me wrong, they were closer than ever and weren't about to cut out that portion of their relationship...they just had a little more restraint so they weren't in danger of tearing up whole forests when they went at it.
Once again, we were a wandering hunter band, trading our skills for what the folks could afford to pay us. As we did on our trip to Haven, we escorted caravans, eliminated bands of grim and bandits and patrolled forests and plains. A big difference, at least from my perspective, was that I started to enjoy the life. When we stopped in towns, I made it a point to sit in the inn's common room at night, listening to stories and gossip and supplying a bit of my own. Most town residents don't travel very much, so they both enjoyed and appreciated news. I hadn't realized it, but the long trek from Vale to Mistral, as well as my current trek, had given me good stories to tell. Local folks appreciated news from a town a few dozen leagues away, as well as news from distant kingdoms. I actually became sociable with strangers.
That last item might sound trivial, but it isn't. Locals are much more likely to talk to travelers who are friendly and forthcoming. This not only gave us leads to investigate, it let us know about hardships and dangers on the road ahead. That was important, because we had never traveled through desert before. As we traveled across the Isthmus that separates the west end of Sanus from the rest, the climate got drier and drier. Getting tips from locals and other travelers went a long way towards keeping us from dying of thirst out in the wasteland.
Another thing we did was attend the various celebrations and gatherings in the towns we passed through. The local musicians aren't the professional performers that you find in the kingdoms, but they can belt out some lively tunes. What the music and dancing lacks in polish and sophistication, they more than make up for in sheer exuberance. What I'm trying to get to, in my round about way, is that I started to really live again. I danced with the local girls but somehow, the first dance of the night and my last were always with Ruby.
Maybe I better clear something up right now. I don't care if you call it necking, making out, sparking or just kissing, I spent some time with a fair number of local girls during that trip, but that's as far as it went. I had my reasons. For one thing, a very good way of getting the locals mad at you is to take things too far with their daughters and sisters. At the time, it looked like I was going to be a career huntsman and the idea of coming back to a town a year or so after committing some indiscretions didn't appeal to me a great deal. For another thing, huntsmen are dependent on the towns; that's where we get food, clothing, services...you name it. If I left town after a bit of kissing and exploring, nobody was going to be upset and the next hunter team to pass through would still be welcome. If I took things too far and left a little me behind, the next welcome might be a lot more chilly.
It wasn't until a few more years passed that I found out how fortunate I was to have adopted that attitude.
There's not a whole lot more that I want to talk about that trip to Vacuo. By the time we got there, we were pretty accomplished at traveling the wastelands, we had picked up rumors that allowed us to guess where Cinder's base of operations was at, and we had gotten a little tougher. We met up with Ruby's father, Taiyang, as well as old friends Sun, Scarlet, Yang and Blake.
Shortly after we got there, all hell broke loose.
Cinder didn't have the firepower at Vacuo that she had assembled first at Vale and then at Mistral...but she really didn't need it. Vacuo is the least organized and has the smallest population of any of the kingdoms. Yes, the people who live there are incredibly tough, but they're scattered, mostly poor and there aren't very many. Trying to turn the people against each other is a waste of time, because they all have an 'us against the rest of the world' attitude anyway. At the time, I had never met Salem but I got the impression that she wasn't very forgiving. While Cinder had toppled Beacon, she didn't topple Vale. While she inflicted casualties and damage in Mistral, neither the kingdom nor Haven fell. Her attack on Shade didn't have the flair and the subtle planning that her other attacks had shown, it was just a sudden assault by White Fang and grimm. Still, it came close to working.
We weren't there for the big fight; so what I'm giving you is what I later heard from Yang and Blake, who were there. Taiyang was in the battle and tangled with the current leader of the violent White Fang. When Taiyang dropped the man, he refused to kill his opponent. That made the White Fang officers nearby listen to him a little and he managed to get most of them to understand that whomever was driving the grimm onto the kingdoms wasn't about to stop with humans; the faunas would be next. Emerald was also in the area, having turned her back on Cinder. Emerald is a self-centered thief, not an idiot, and she worked out that a world overrun by grimm wasn't a world she wanted. She did everything she could to make everyone nearby realize just how much Cinder was manipulating them.
Not all the White Fang turned, but enough did that when the grimm attacked, they were facing a fairly united front.
Where were we in the meantime? Team RNJR infiltrated Cinder's hideout and attacked her. It was a very, very near thing. Mercury was there, some very tough grimm were there, and Cinder had the power of the Fall Maiden. We took a beating but we managed to eliminate Mercury. In the end, Cinder had us at her mercy but she paused to gloat over us before she finished us off. My companions think that it was because she had such an ego, she needed to stoke it by relishing our helplessness. I prefer to think that after everything she had seen, she really didn't want to win. In the end, she was standing over me, her flame magic had heated my sword to the point that I couldn't touch it and she was drawing her bow on Nora, who had placed herself between Ren and danger. Ruby was down and I didn't know how badly she had been hurt so I did the only thing I could think of doing.
I swung my shield and drove the pointed end into Cinder's belly.
A lot of stories tell how a hero vanquishes the villain with a single stroke that takes her in the heart or lops off her head. I'm no hero and I'm especially no fairy-tale hero. Her arrow went wide, missing everything and I stumbled to my feet and just pounded on her with my shield, with no grace or skill, over and over until she quit moving. It wasn't a quick or clean death and I never would have managed it if we didn't outnumber her four to one at the end. I'm not proud of what I did, but I'm glad I managed it. The cost would have been too great if I hadn't.
At some point, something that I can only describe as pure energy burst out of Cinder's body and flew into Nora. My friend was staggered but suddenly looked stronger than I'd ever seen her. I didn't know it at the time, but Nora had just become the new Fall Maiden. Of course, we weren't interested in things like that, we had to help Ren and Ruby.
We were lucky; their injuries were bad but not life threatening and Oscar managed to reach us fairly soon after Cinder fell. The next few days were a bit of a blur to me; I was recovering from my own wounds and eliminating the woman who had killed Pyrrha had a profound affect on me. You'd think that I would have been happy, or at least content.
Instead, I was completely disoriented.
Going back to fairy-tales, when the hero kills the villain, that's supposed to be the end of the story. He's supposed to go back to his kingdom, home, or whatever and live happily ever after. The only problem was that killing Cinder didn't fix things. Pyrrha was still dead and no magic bell or light let me know that she was now resting in peace. I didn't have a kingdom and the home that I grew up in just wasn't my home anymore. Add to that, Nora needed some instruction in using her new powers and wherever she goes, Ren goes. The two boarded an airship and Oscar and General Ironwood let us know that it wouldn't be a good idea for me and Ruby to accompany them until Nora had a chance to come to grips with what she now was.
We took a week to let our wounds heal to the point where we were ready to travel. Blake and her father, Ghira, obviously wanted to get back to Menagerie and make sure that Salem wouldn't be able to make a move against the Faunas population while they were gone. Ruby, Yang and Taiyang wanted to get back to Patch. For some reason, I didn't want to go with them. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to go back to Beacon and continue my education but I wasn't ready to just climb on a ship and be there in a couple of weeks. I remember Taiyang and his daughters asking me why.
"I don't think I'm ready to just start classes and training again," I admitted, struggling to put things into words.
"And traveling across Sanus will make you ready?" Somehow, Yang wasn't mocking me by asking. She was honestly curious.
"I've heard sailors talk about how the sea can take away your grief," I told her, still trying to describe my feelings. "The road is that way with me. It's always there but always different. You can keep busy but still think things through while you're on the road. Somehow...I think that if I make the journey by foot again, I'll be ready to be a student by the time I get there."
I was expecting them to laugh at me. Instead, I saw confusion on Yang's face but understanding on Taiyang's and Ruby's. I agreed to travel north with them to catch a ship past the desert; I wasn't needing the road so badly that I was going to walk that wasteland again. Instead, we all took a ship past the isthmus and landed in a fishing town on the inside of the 'elbow' of Sanus. Once there, the others made arrangements for another ship while I looked for work that would take me in the right direction.
I remember standing outside the inn that night, looking at the stars. It was autumn again; this last mission had taken a full year already and it would be winter before I reached Vale. My last close companion would be aboard a ship in the morning, while I would be accompanying a caravan to an inland town. The night seemed dark and cold, but maybe that was the way it should be.
Maybe the bad times make you appreciate the good ones so much more.
I walked into the inn's common room to find Taiyang and his daughters having an intense conversation. I intended to walk well around them, giving them some privacy, but Yang spotted me and waved me over to them.
"I need some time to straighten things out, as well," Ruby told me. "If...if you'll have me with you, I'd like to make the trip back to Vale with you."
"Of course you're welcome," I told her. Suddenly, the world didn't seem so dark and cold.
The look Taiyang gave me wasn't hostile and it wasn't friendly. There was a sort of resignation about the look. He shook my hand and told me to take care of his daughter. That was odd, as Ruby was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Still, I told him I would and we said our goodbyes, as we would be too busy in the morning to do so.
Like I said, the road waits for nobody and the tides don't, either.
We accompanied the caravan to the next town, took on a contract to round up a handful of bandits and continued to the next. There, we joined another three hunters and eliminated a grimm pack before continuing on again. It was our usual routine; trading our services for what we needed but it was different somehow. I started to notice Ruby's grace and poise. I noticed that her voice had changed slightly over the years, becoming somewhat melodious. Those eyes! Those silver, warrior's eyes! How I got lost in them whenever we were face to face.
In short, I noticed that she had grown from a quirky girl into a petite, beautiful young woman.
It wasn't right. We were teammates and partners. We were fellow hunters. We were good like that and any move on my part to change the dynamic could tear down what we had. Was I so weak that I couldn't maintain this very good thing that I had? I tried not to stare at her but she started to mesmerize me. Even when I noticed her giving me looks, probably weirded out by my behavior, I couldn't help myself.
I'll never forget the evening even though I forgot the name of the town. We had taken on a job to eliminate a deathstalker that was terrorizing the town. It was a big one and a tough fight, but we took it out. Upon our return, the headman decided to declare a celebration. Okay, the town was looking for an excuse to have a social event, they had just finished the harvest and it was time to celebrate anyway. The town had a large, common building where I swear everyone congregated. A few local musicians were playing lively tunes and the food was hearty, tasty and plentiful. Ruby and I were celebrities, so both of our dance cards were full. Somehow, I just couldn't get into the proper mood even though a very pretty girl had let me know that she'd like to hear some of my stories...in private. Instead, I politely excused myself and went outside to think.
The main street was deserted, so I walked about half a block and sat on the steps leading into a shop. For a long time, I stared at the moon and wondered about my future.
"Hey," a familiar and welcome...but somehow not welcome...voice addressed me.
"Hey," I looked to see Ruby standing next to me.
"You cut out pretty early," she told me. I made room for her on the stairs and she sat next to me.
"Just wasn't feeling it," I shrugged. "I hope I didn't offend anyone."
"No," she chuckled a little. "We're mysterious hunters. Of course we have memories that most townsfolk can't imagine haunting us. Her father is telling that blonde girl you were dancing with that you just don't want to burden anyone with your past."
"If it makes them feel better," I snorted. "I guess they can think of me as some hero."
"Jaune, what's wrong?" She asked, putting a hand on my arm.
How many times had one of us comforted the other with that gesture? How many times had that simple touch told the other that we would go through fire and blood for each other? So why did her touch set my nerves on fire right now?
Okay, I knew why so I got up and took a step away from her.
"Jaune?" She asked.
Two years ago, Pyrrha Nikos, a capable warrior and beautiful young woman couldn't even admit to a scroll that she loved me. Now here I was, a gawky, awkward, half-trained hunter in the same situation. The only thing I had going for me was that I had learned how much she wanted to say those words, and how much not saying them bothered her. A hunter's life is dangerous, so if you don't say something the first time you have a chance, you might not get a second.
"I don't want this to end," I admitted, my back to her. I couldn't bring myself to see how she might react. "You, me, together. The thought that someday we're going to just go our separate ways is just tearing me apart."
There, I'd said it. Maybe not a proper confession, but close enough.
"You're not just talking about being teammates, are you?" Her voice sounded very small.
"No," I admitted. "I...I..."
Now I couldn't say the words.
I heard the stairs creak as she got up. How could I have screwed this up so badly? I had just destroyed our friendship and we now faced a long, awkward trek home. I turned around to apologize, only to find that she hadn't walked away; she was now standing on the second stair, allowing her to look me straight in the eyes.
Those glorious, silver eyes were shedding tears now. By the dust of creation itself, what had I done?
"Ruby, I'm sorry," I stammered. "I..."
I never finished the statement. One small, strong hand reached out to rest on my chest while the other hand reached behind my head. Those glorious eyes closed as she pulled my face to hers.
Her lips were the sweetest thing I had ever tasted.
To be continued...
A/N: Thanks to Joe Stoppinghem, for beta reading.