The final chapter is here. On Penny, I know the idea of her as an anti-maiden weapon seemed "foolishly risky" to some, but I would point out that Ironwood and Ozpin never did seem quite… you know, genius at times.
Ozpin basically let people get away with things under his nose, and Ironwood is shown to be quite headstrong and aggressive in his approach, so I like the idea that he wouldn't be satisfied with just leaving his Relic in a cave somewhere. Ozpin does also have that, "You brought THAT HERE!?" moment when he realises what Penny is.
I'm not saying I think that IS canon. Just that it's an idea, and I could see it happening if RT wanted to take it that way. From a tactical standpoint, yes, it's a risky gambit on Ironwood's part. But no more risk than, say, leaving the Relic in a cave opened by a completely unloyal maiden.
Cover Art: Kegi Springfield
"Beacon will be rebuilt in time."
"I'm not sure I'll be going back."
"I wouldn't blame you."
"It's not that. I didn't… We all lost people, but that's not it. Truth is, I just don't have the time for that life anymore."
"I knew what you meant. But emotional distress is as good an excuse for it as any."
"You're right. Will you be staying?"
"I'll have to. People will notice if we all drop out. Don't worry, I'll still work with you when I can. Weekends, perhaps?"
"Of course. Our doors will always be open."
"Don't work yourself too hard, Jaune."
"I won't, Pyrrha. Get well soon."
The SDC Security & Training Facility, Vale Branch, was a building that popped up almost overnight. The squat, rectangular building was two stories tall with windows lining the top floor and two entrances on the first, leading through to a foyer and friendly receptionist. Corridors branched off from it with offices at the intersections, each staffed by jovial guards and chatting interns. A training hall stood in the centre with a firing range off to the side, enclosed on all sides to protect any training within.
Why the Schnee family had chosen to create a training facility in Vale, no one knew, but the land was purchased cheap – off the back of a terrorist attack on a tower block that housed a company which, on second thought, no one could quite remember or place the name of.
It probably didn't matter.
The SDC were likely responding to the recent attack on Beacon, which had been thwarted through the combined efforts of huntsmen, students and the Atlas military – a tragedy which claimed numerous lives, including Headmaster Ozpin himself. The full list was far larger, detailing such names as Ciel Soleil, Coco Adel, Glynda Goodwitch and even Winter Schnee. With such losses, the expansion of the SDC's security forces made some small sense. Better to be safe with future dust shipments to and from Vale.
At least, that was what the public assumed.
Jaune stepped past the receptionist and through into a corridor, nodding to those he passed. Each nodded back, and the smiles on the faces of the guards faded the deeper he went, until those he came to gripped their weapons tightly and asked for ID at every turn, even from him.
"You never know, sir. Semblances are weird like that."
"I agree. You're doing well."
"Thank you, sir. Code?"
"Sigma-Sigma-Alpha-Bravo. Clearance Eighteen-Tango."
"Clearance accepted," the first guard said, whispering something into his comms device. The room flashed green and the wall behind him clicked and slid away, revealing another checkpoint, this one guarded by three soldiers, an automated turret and a fortified pillbox. There was a woman resting against that, balanced on one foot with a metallic crutch under her left arm.
"Sorry." Jaune stepped forward with a small smile. Blake already had the elevator waiting and they stepped into it together, revealing a whole list of basement floors on the keypad. Blake pushed the one for Sub-Level Eight and the doors closed. "Pyrrha's on the mend," he said. "I just got off a call with her."
"I heard." Blake's smile was, for once, honest. "I visited her yesterday. The wound… It's a miracle she survived at all. Her health is going to be impaired for a long time."
"She wants to stay at Beacon for now."
"Makes sense. It would be too suspicious for someone so famous to drop out. If her health gets worse, however, no one would fault her for retiring."
"You think she's working towards that?"
"I imagine it's something she has in mind."
"Why wouldn't she tell me?"
"Because you're you, Jaune," Blake said, not unkindly. "She knows you'd fret and focus all your attention on being there and trying to help her. Pyrrha's a big girl. She can look after herself."
Jaune nodded to her leg. "How about you?"
"I'm a big girl, too."
"Not that. What did the doctors say?"
"Plenty. I've already had the surgery and I'll be fine. Anything else isn't important." Blake punched his arm gently. "Stop trying to borrow misery. We have enough as it is."
"I guess so."
The elevator doors opened and the two of them marched out, Blake keeping pace with him easily despite her disability. Though he'd asked and she refused to tell, Jaune wasn't a spy for nothing and had already had one of his teams hack into her medical records. One might have called it a betrayal of trust, but if Blake didn't expect him to have done so, she deserved it.
Considering the dirty looks she'd shot him the day after, she knew. Blake's clearance was high enough to see that he'd requisitioned a specialist team for a job, even if it didn't say what it was. She could put the pieces together.
Blake's left leg had been shattered in numerous places and her kneecap was pulped. It was a testament to how much of a badass she was that she hadn't been screaming when they'd found her. Typical Blake, really.
The surgery had been successful, but the conclusion from the doctors was that she would never have full mobility back. There would always be a limp, along with a tendency to favour her right leg and side over her left. Not enough to ruin her life, but enough to put a round through the head of her career as a huntress. Ironwood had offered her a cybernetic leg, if she agreed to have hers removed.
Blake had turned it down. Jaune didn't push on why.
Blast doors lined the corridor they travelled through, their boots echoing on the metallic grill floor. Codes and symbols emblazoned each door, but it was the one at the end they stopped at, one labelled RV-614. Blake flashed the card hanging from a lanyard around her neck over the control panel and it flashed green, the door sliding open a moment later.
Inside, a few heads turned in their directions, before people went back to their work. A dark-haired man in a white labcoat stood at the front of the room, leaning over someone's shoulder as he spoke and directed them on the screen. He stiffened when Blake coughed behind him, relaxed, and then turned with a smile.
"Late, I know." Jaune grinned and slapped a hand on Ren's arm. "What's with the get up? You trying to found a science division or something?"
"Just came from medical and didn't have time or the inclination to change. Not for me," he added, when he saw Jaune's concern. "I'm fine. Wouldn't have a labcoat if I was a patient now, would I?"
"He's just been speaking with Pyrrha," Blake explained.
"Ah. He's in worry-wart mode, then?"
"Hey," Jaune complained.
Blake snorted. "He is."
"That's our glorious leader for you," Ren said, and there were a few muffled laughs from other agents in the office. It had only been two weeks now since the agency opened, but already people were beginning to settle in and get a feel for their dynamic. It was a more relaxed and personable one than the VSS had ever been, but no less strict.
That was something he'd focused on. The VSS had been cruel and uncompromising, and in a way, it was the correct decision. The work demanded a certain level of action and much of what they knew was too sensitive not to punish leaks and deal with problems with swift, decisive action. It was dark work. It had been before, and Jaune knew it would be going on.
And yet, it didn't all have to be that way. Jaune took what lessons he could from how Oobleck acted; firm, focused, dedicated, and yet personable. Jaune spend most of his time in the HQ with his mask off, face fully revealed, even if he never asked it of the others. Blake and Ren followed suit, however, and there was a fair few of the newer agents who now felt relaxed enough to do the same. People knew one another by their names, rather than code names or registration codes.
It wasn't a family, not yet, and maybe it never would be – a family being a little too soft for what they were. But there was life to it now that was lacking in the VSS, and those who worked for the agency were well-treated. If a traitor ever did appear, Jaune realised, they would need to be put down lethally.
But there would be no bombs in helmets. No throwing away of agency lives. No ordering of personnel to hold a line that could not be held.
That was a line he wouldn't cross.
"Any news on the White Fang?" Jaune asked.
It was Ren that answered, "Current reports have them going through something of a schism in Menagerie. Adam's allies lost a lot of credit attacking Beacon, and the fact they failed has only made it worse. Those loyal to him are trying to point towards the killing of Winter Schnee as a sign of his success."
"I want someone there."
"Already ahead of you," Ren said. "I dispatched two agents there, designated temporary codenames; Fox and Hound. Their mission is to ensure the public opinion goes the way of moderate forces, and, if possible, to kill the leaders of those supporting Adam."
"Why wasn't I made aware of the mission?"
Ren and Blake exchanged glances. "You needed rest," Blake said. "You're working yourself to the bone. As Acting Directors and two-thirds of the C4 Council, we approved the mission. If you want to change anything, you're welcome to…"
"No, it's fine. I trust you." Jaune managed a smile, and to push his fear away. The C4 Council was a new style of leadership they'd decided on, numbering the four members of Jaune, Blake, Ren and Pyrrha. Naturally, with Pyrrha currently in Beacon, the C4 Council numbered only three, but her spot was reserved.
Missions and decisions of a certain clearance level or above required a majority vote from the C4 Council. Those were the new rules, put in place to prevent one person ever amassing too much power. Such wasn't really a concern right now, but they all knew this would outlast them. Better to put plans in place to limit problems in a hundred years as much as the next two or three.
The VSS never bothered with such things. They had a strict line of command that put too much power at the top, in the hands of Directors who could act with far too much autonomy, sometimes without even making the other Directors aware of what they were doing.
"You'll keep me in the loop on any developments?"
"Of course," Blake said, smiling.
"You can review Fox and Hound's files later," Ren agreed. "They're more than qualified for the job and we needed someone out there immediately. You were sleeping for once. We didn't want to wake you up."
"Either way, that's not why I called you down here," Ren said. He swept away from the computers, motioning for them to follow. His silence made it clear he wasn't willing to speak in so crowded a room, so Jaune and Blake followed after him. Ren started to talk again when the door closed behind them. "You've had me keeping an eye out for the maidens, particularly to see if the Fall Maiden resurfaced. I've not been able to track the Summer or Winter Maiden, but we believe the Spring Maiden to be in Mistral, a part of the Branwen Tribe."
"As in Qrow Branwen?"
"His sister, yes. Rumours have it that the Spring Maiden is named Vernal, but our thinktank isn't convinced. I've spoken to representatives from the department who have hunted down some victims who faced the Branwen tribe recently. They claim the one named Vernal, as we provided images, fought without any unusual abilities."
"A smokescreen?" Blake asked.
"That was the thinktank's thoughts," Ren said, "And mine after reviewing their evidence. Raven Branwen would know about Salem and the risks involved in her discovering they had the maiden, so having her tribe spread rumours would be a pointless risk at best, and idiocy at worst. We think the Spring Maiden is there, but it's not Vernal. Our current guesses are limited, but the thinktank is saying Raven herself should be a priority suspect."
"On what grounds?"
"Raven is one of the few who has been noted to have a limited involvement in recent attacks, indicative of her leadership position – however, past records showed that she took part on the front lines regularly."
"So, she's holding back for some reason," Jaune mused.
"Exactly. Whether that is to hide the maiden's powers or mislead further, we don't know, but what we do know is that if the Spring Maiden is in the tribe, she would know who it is. And given her focus on strength and the tribe's tendency to choose its leadership on the basis of who is strongest, the fact Raven remains the leader lends credence to the theory she has the Spring Maiden's powers."
"Makes sense to me. What do you think, Blake?"
"As good a theory as any. Are we going to try and bring her in?"
"Might be too dangerous for that but we should get someone in her tribe. What does the C4 Council think?"
"It's risky," Blake said. "We'll have to hold a meeting about it."
Jaune nodded. They'd cover operational details, agent selection, exfiltration protocols and more. Everything and anything they could think of would be discussed, planned and put into motion – and that would be before they even decided if the mission would go ahead.
Once they did, the selected agents would be brought in for a thorough briefing, during which it was encouraged they ask any and all questions – no matter their clearance. It was time-consuming, and probably something the VSS would have called inefficient, but it let the agents know the C4 Council had their best interest at heart, and it ensured no one went into the field lacking important information.
"The reason I was in the medical wing, though." Ren smiled. "Well. Come and see."
Ren held out his key card for another blast door, and when this one opened, a chill wind blew forth, misting around their ankles. The room was empty of personnel, though there were a few labcoats and even some thermal vests hanging from the walls. The main operating centre was empty, there having been no injuries recently apart from training accidents, but there was a metallic coffin nearby, stood up against a wall with a number of wires and chords leading to and from it.
"Yes," Ren said, moving forward. He rubbed a hand over the glass front revealing a figure laid asleep inside the tube. Tan skin, pale from the cold, and green hair. Emerald Sustrai did not move. She hadn't, ever since Roman knocked her out and Jaune faked her death.
A thrill of excitement ran through Jaune's body. "Did it work?"
"We think so," Ren said, still smiling. "Preliminary tests show an increase in activity around the brain, while her aura readings are off the chart. Far greater than they should be. We can't be certain without waking her up, but as it is, we're over ninety-five per cent certain that Cinder's final thoughts involved her. Emerald Sustrai is the fall maiden."
And she would be locked away, sustained and frozen, deep within the vaults of the once-VSS headquarters. Her tube would fit within one of the sarcophagi, and if Jaune had his way, she would be placed alongside Vanguard and Magician, who would guard the Fall Maiden until the day she expired. A cruel fate for Emerald.
One the C4 Council had agreed on unanimously.
Jaune knocked on the door and waited. It took a moment or two for there to be a response, and that was some small animal scrabbling away on the other side, trying to get to him. Jaune waited until footsteps eventually came, someone mumbling for Zwei to stop being an idiot and move aside.
The door opened a crack. Blonde hair filled his vision.
"If this is another recruitment attempt, I already said no."
"What? It's not that. I-"
"Oh, relax," Yang said. "I was just messing with ya." She opened the door and ushered him in, grinning down at the bouquet of roses in his hands. "Though it'd be a cheeky attempt if it was. How are things?"
"I can't tell you that without killing you."
"Ooh. Spooky." Yang laughed, unafraid. "Tell me how Blake and Pyrrha are, anyway."
"Both on the way to recovery. Blake will have a limp, but I doubt that will hold her back. Pyrrha is going to keep going at Beacon once it's repaired, and then join our training division helping new recruits get up to par."
"Sounds good. Weiss is back in Atlas for the funeral. She's going to stay there for a month or two, get her affairs in order. But she'll be coming back once Beacon starts up again. All of Team RYWN will be there." Yang's grin faltered a little. "I'm taking it the same can't be said for Team ABRN?"
"I'm afraid not. Officially, I'm dropping out due to stress. Blake's crippled and Ren… well, he doesn't want to go back if there won't be a team to return to."
"Nora will be upset."
"Ren tells me he's already handled that. They came to an agreement."
"Something involving regular visits and Ren-sponsored meals out in town."
"Those sound suspiciously like dates," Yang said with a grin.
"Yep. Blake and I are betting on how long it takes Ren to realise. You want in?"
"Put me down for him not realising until Nora snaps and forces him up against a wall."
Yang and Ruby were back in Patch for now. With Beacon out of commission, everyone had to go home or find accommodation of their own. Emergency shelters had been set up to provide temporary housing, and the Council was working on finding more, but there were already enough injured, and some properties had been badly damaged in the attack and were no longer fit for purpose. Vale was in a bad way.
But it had survived. It persisted, and in time it would get better. At least Yang and Ruby had the option of going back to live with their dad. Even if it was, as Yang grumbled, one hell of a trip to go shopping.
"Have you considered my other offer?"
Yang's smile fell. "Yeah, and you can fuck off."
"Yang, we need-"
"I'm not being your failsafe and I'm sure as hell not being the one to hunt down and kill you in case you go rogue," she spat. "I told you, I'm done. I'm retired. I'm going to be a huntress with my sister and I'm going to dedicate my life to killing Grimm, not people."
"But what if I turn into another Alpha?"
Yang's anger faded. She reached out with on hand to grip his shoulder. "The fact you're worried about that tells me you won't. I trust you, Jaune. Trust yourself a little. There's more of Oobleck in you than you realise. In the end, the only one who can stop you going bad is yourself. I'm not going to be the one to do it." Yang nodded to the bouquet in his hands. "Especially not if you're here for what I think you're here for."
"Y-Yeah. I am…"
Yang nodded. "She's upstairs."
Jaune nodded and made his way up, poking his head around the corner of an open door. Yang's from her clothing strewn across the floor. There was a room further down with the door open and some music coming from within. Zwei nestled at his feet and Jaune crouched down, "Where's Ruby?"
The dog, sensing the potential for play, perked up and darted into the open room. Jaune followed, pausing to knock at the open door as he heard Zwei bark happily and Ruby complain about the dog jumping on her bed.
"Who is it?" she asked, laughing.
The laughter died. He heard a muffled curse, followed by the sound of Ruby jumping off her bed. She fought with something, probably her boots, before Ruby appeared in full in the doorway. She was only half-dressed, her pyjama bottoms and black tank-top, but now with a cream gown thrown over the top. She had her boots on too, though there was little explanation for why. Her hair was frizzy, stuck up in places and generally a mess. Ruby looked like a mess.
And yet Jaune still found himself swallowing, averting his eyes and standing there a little awkwardly.
Luckily, it didn't take much in the way of social grace to push the flowers out towards her.
"Oh." Ruby stared at them like they were coiled snakes ready to bite. Heat crept up her neck as she reached out to take them, and then stood there holding them. "W-What am I supposed to do with them?"
"I… honestly don't know."
Ruby stared at him, eyes wide and lost. He stared back.
As one, they both broke into giggles. It wasn't a moment of understanding or acceptance, but more a moment in which they both realised they were the biggest dorks in the world trying to act like adults. Neither had any idea what to do other than go through the motions and hope the other did, leading to stupid silences where both acted like a deer in the headlights.
"We're the worst," Ruby said, laughing.
"We really are. We're total idiots."
Ruby smiled and awkwardly kicked her toes against the back of her other foot. "I thought we agreed it wouldn't work." Her voice was barely a whisper. "The secrets…"
"The secrets won't ever go away, I think. It's my job. But… I trust you, Ruby. I'd tell you." Jaune met her eyes. "And more than that, I don't think I'm prepared to agree on it not working just yet. Maybe it won't work. Maybe we'll never work. But I don't want to accept that without trying." He reached out with one hand, shyly, for hers. When she didn't pull away, he meshed his fingers with hers. "Do you?"
Ruby swallowed. "I don't know…"
"Do you want me to leave?" Jaune asked.
"Do you want me to stay?"
"N- I don't know. I'm not sure."
Jaune's heart hammered in his chest. He took a deep breath. "Do you want to go catch a movie tomorrow?"
Ruby's mouth fell open. Her eyes sought his, then flicked away, doing a full circle of the room before finally coming back to him and affixing on his chest. Her smile, what little of it he could see with her head down, was shy and nervous.
"Yeah. Yeah, I kind of do…"
"What's my schedule looking like?"
"What am I, your secretary?" Despite the complaint, Blake brought out her scroll. "Ten-hundred hours, you have a meeting with General Ironwood to discuss an international training initiative. Twelve-hundred hours, budget meeting with Council of Vale. Fifteen-hundred hours, orientation for new recruits. Fifteen-forty-five-hundred hours, recruitment interviews for the medical chief of staff position with Ren. Four interviews, lasting until seventeen-hundred hours. Eighteen-hundred hours, dinner with Ruby Ro—How did this make it onto your schedule?"
Jaune grinned. "Who can say?"
"Spare me the sordid details of what you get up to after. Or is this a mission?"
"Never again," Jaune said. "Not with Ruby."
"Hm. I guess you learned something after all. You've an appointment tomorrow at ten, too."
"I have? Since when?"
"Since two hours ago," Blake said, putting the scroll away. "It's a C4-Sanctioned mission. Full ops."
"We're going in? What mission requires our presence?"
"Ren found him."
"Torchwick. He fled to Mistral. Confirmation came in. We have permission from Mistral to orchestrate a sting in their Kingdom. They're giving us six hours and a clear path in and out. Anything that happens will be concealed. Black ops."
"Well…" Jaune felt his adrenaline spike. His lips curled into a vicious smile. "I did warn him he'd pay for turning on us."
"You think Ruby will want to come along?"
"For this? Heh. I bet both Ruby and Yang will be chomping at the bit. I'll ask her tonight over dinner."
"Hey, this is Ruby. Inviting her to come capture an international criminal with me? As far as she's concerned, a chance to go out and kick ass together is the height of romance."
"Ha. True. It's about time we cleaned up the loose ends." Blake glanced to Jaune. "You think he'd be proud? Oobleck?"
"I dunno. Maybe. I'm not going to think about it. Once this life is over, assuming there's somewhere else, I'll ask him in person. Until then, I'm just going to focus on keeping Vale safe. One step at a time."
"And we'll be right behind you," Blake promised.
Of course they would. Even if they'd never been drafted properly, they were all – like he was – a part of something bigger. As Jaune and Blake stepped out into the corridor, they drew on their sanctioned jackets, now sporting a picture of a crown and three weapons, a sword, a gun and a knife emblazoned above it, crossed. Beneath, the name of their new organisation.
The Kingdom's Service.
So, there we go. In the Kingdom's Service completed. The last chapter was written in something of a different style to usual. I wanted to be vague on the times of it, leaving people to piece together dialogue instead of too much exposition. As ever, the world is still out there, Salem, Watts, Tyrian and all the other bads, but that's not their issue. Their job is to protect the Kingdom.
Oh, and hey – surprise, Emerald was a trap and a bait. The taunt a method designed by Jaune to make it more likely Cinder would think of Emerald if she died, and her body stolen and sequestered away so that if she became the Fall Maiden, they could contain her.
SCP Protocols, one might say.
There will be no update next week as the next story is planned and tweaked in readiness for its arrival. The story to replace this one will be "The Unseen Hunt".
On this fic, I'm probably a little "eh". I don't think it was my best, nor was it my worst. Somewhere in the middle. I'm at least content with it, even if I can see areas where I let things drag on a little. Pacing towards the end became problematic – but a part of me thinks the biggest issue is that these kinds of stories, spies and subterfuge, rely in part on the villain being a credible, dangerous and unknown threat. Cinder is, by definition, a little two-dimensional, and we also know ALL her plans.
Looking back, I might have actually REPLACED her with Watts if I could start this again. Make it an AU where Cinder is found early and flees, and Watts replaces her, beginning a completely AU plan that could have remained more of a mystery to the readers, and thus actually had some twists and turns. Watts might have made a better enemy too, because he strikes me as someone used to sneaking around and taking the subtle approach.
Alas, hindsight is easy!
But I'll be learning from this and keeping that idea in mind for future.
Next Story: The Unseen Hunt
Release Date: Sunday 23rd September
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur