Burned two fingers on my left hand yesterday afternoon and now they're all stiff and tingly today and I can't curl them properly. Makes writing awkward. Complete brain fart moment where I was just like "Oh look, hot tray in oven. I'll take that out with my hand."

I'm an idiot.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 61


A crow alighted itself on the edge of a rooftop and pinned its wings into its side. Its small head twitched left and right with jerky motions, eyes scanning the street below and the city as a whole. Early morning mist wisped through the roads and around post boxes and road signs. A traffic light blinked and changed colours but no cars moved through. A squirrel darted up a tree on a sidewalk. The sun had only just begun to peak over the horizon, shining past Amity Colosseum and the numerous Atlas battleships that hung moored in the air.

The light shone over the city, bathing its buildings and streets in a warm glow.

No blood. No death. No devastation.

With a puff of feathers, the crow became a Qrow, legs dangling over the edge of the roof. The squirrel fell out the tree nearby, eyes wide. Chuckling, the man adjusted himself and pulled out a hip flask, unscrewing the top and taking a long drink.

"Not a bad way to start a morning. Don't you think?"

Feathers ruffled behind him. Heels clicked down. "Drinking again? How unlike you."

"Heh. You didn't answer my question."

"It's well enough," Raven said, stepping up but not sitting. She perched to his left, one foot on the peak of the roof and knee bent, her elbows crossed over her thigh as she leant forward. "And here I thought that idiot girl would need my help."

"That idiot girl just won Vytal."

Though she'd never admit it, Raven's eyes danced proudly. "She did."

"Top of that, Ozpin managed to avoid Salem declaring all-out war on Beacon."

"He did." Raven acknowledged. "I'm surprised."

"Impressed?"

"That a man his age can do something others have been for millennia? No. That it took him this long is bad enough. Perhaps if he'd learned this lesson ten years earlier, things could be different. Summer might still be here. I might…" Cutting off, she spat. "It doesn't matter."

"You might still be with Tai?" Qrow finished, ignoring her snarl. "Never too late to try if you want, Raven."

"I think it is now."

"Nah." Qrow laughed. "I used to think the same way – and you know what, so did Oz. Then look at us now." He spread his arms to the sun. "Still here. City in one piece. A deal – an honest to goodness agreement made with someone we always thought was nothing more than a monster. Compared to that, how crazy does you and Tai getting making peace sound?"

"Too crazy. You've been drinking."

"I have," he admitted happily. "All night. Why not? I'm hardly the only one celebrating."

"This won't change anything. Salem is still out there. Still hunting the Relics, the maidens and Ozpin's head. This isn't peace, Qrow."

"Not for us, but it is for Vale. It is for Beacon," he added, nodding in its direction. "And that's fine with me. I'm a huntsman, Ray. It's what I signed up for. What we both sighed up for." He watched her snort and look away. "I'm not afraid to fight the Grimm and whatever comes, but watching them go after Yang and Ruby? That scared me."

"You've gone soft."

"Proud of the fact, sis. Proud of the fact."

Qrow looked down, smirking as a lone person walked through the cold and empty streets. A green apron, a white shirt and a little red trolley trundling behind him, stacked high with crates and milk and other supplies. It wasn't five in the morning, and while all of Vale slept, he worked on, whistling to himself.

Chuckling, he looked back over his shoulder. "Hey. Fancy a drink?"

"I'm not an alcoholic like you."

"I meant coffee. Sit down. Chat. Not about Grimm and shit for once, but about us. Maybe even about Summer."

Raven scowled. "Don't assume I'm as easy as them, Qrow. You won't convince me to give up the tribe and make amends with Tai over coffee and cake. That time is over. It's gone."

"We'll never know unless we try. What, are you afraid?"

The sound of flapping winds heralded her departure, Raven flying away to somewhere where she could open a portal safely. Unsurprised, he still laughed as he looked forward again, placing one hand down and taking a long drink.

"Guess you are," he whispered. "Another time, then."

Impossible as it might be, foolish as it sounded even to him, if Ozpin and Salem could make peace over something so simple, who was to say Raven and Taiyang couldn't do the same? Not to get back together, but to talk, get out their feelings and make contact once again. As of this morning, weirder things had happened. Qrow took another long drink and laughed.

"What a crazy world we live in…"

/-/

"You know," Ruby said, "I thought winning the Vytal Festival would be fun. I thought it would be cool. I thought I'd feel proud."

"Weee aaaarrre the champions!" Yang sang drunkenly. "Weeee are th' champions!"

"Yang!" Weiss hissed, trying to fish her down off the table she'd clambered up onto. "Stop that. You're causing a scene!"

"Nooo time for loosers – h-hey, Russel!" Yang stabbed a finger across the diner. "You're – hic – the looooser! C-Cuz we arreee the champions. Yeah! Whoahhh!" Yang tumbled and fell. Jaune rushed forward along with several others, but Blake caught Yang before she could hit the floor. "Blake," Yang mumbled, held in her arms. "You really do love meee."

Blake let go.

"OW!"

"I can't believe I'm saying this," Ruby said to Russel, "But I wish you won."

Russel grinned, not all that bothered by his defeat to Yang in the finals. It was either a sign of how good a sport he was or just how he'd not expected to get that far anyway. He knew his chances against Yang better than Jaune did. "I don't know. This is good entertainment. Takes the sting right outta the loss."

"Since when has Yang been old enough to drink?" Jaune asked, coming over with their drinks – coffee mixes for three, and a pail of water for the champion. He opened his mouth as Blake took that, then winced when she upended it on Yang's head.

"Wet T-Shirt party!"

"NO!" Blake tackled Yang to keep her from doing something no one in the diner would regret.

"Since when has Yang cared about age restrictions?" Ruby asked rhetorically. "We were going to have our own party after the tournament, but Yang got invited to a party with the upper years of Beacon. Apparently, Coco held it to celebrate Beacon kicking butt in the tournament. We weren't invited," she said petulantly, "But Yang had to be because she's the champ."

"Alcohol was included I take it?"

"Either that or Yang gives new meaning to the phrase `drunk on the atmosphere`," Weiss growled. "She's been like this all night. I can't believe I'm agreeing, but I almost wish Pyrrha had been there to knock her down a few pegs. She's going to be insufferable after this. As if her ego wasn't large enough already."

Jaune laughed and helped Blake pull Yang up into a seat. Insufferable or not, she was alive and well to enjoy her hard-earned victory. And why not enjoy it? Things could have been so much worse. Sure, he had to pull away when she tried to give him a sloppy kiss on the cheek, and Blake had to prey Yang's arms off his shoulders when she fell asleep on him before even managing the kiss, and Ruby took pictures – traitor that she was – but it was fun and vibrant and alive.

He was still walking on air for that.

The morning newspapers couldn't talk of anything but the festival. Some from Mistral complained that Pyrrha Nikos hadn't fought and called it a conspiracy from Beacon – accurate, but not in the way they thought – to keep her out the way. Most didn't care. Yang certainly didn't. He didn't either. Passing by Russel with a smile and offering a sympathetic one to a Velvet with bags under her eyes, he swept behind the counter, collected a latte and brought it out to Adam, sat in the corner. The leader of the White Fang, masked by a hoodie, nodded politely and took a long sip. His presence, here drinking coffee, only led further credence to the fact the city was at peace.

Because of him?

He didn't think so. It wasn't his plans that made it, nor was it he who negotiated it. All he'd done was bring the other players into a room together and let them sort things out. If it wasn't for Ozpin and Cinder, this wouldn't be possible, but that was fine.

His scroll pinged only a few seconds before Glynda Goodwitch came through the front entrance, catching his eye and nodding over the heads of the patrons. The diner was… well, he couldn't call it quiet with what Yang was doing, but it was a slow morning across all of Vale. The people had been drinking and partying all night. The pharmaceutical industry, especially the headache tablet companied, were rubbing their hands together in glee. Those happy with Vale winning drank in celebration, while those unhappy drowned their sorrows.

"Mr Arc." Glynda nodded politely. "I trust you're ready to meet with Ozpin?"

"I am. Russel and Velvet can look after the place."

"Excellent. That-" Her eyes narrowed. Not on him. "Miss Xiao-Long, are you drunk?"

Yang brought her head up, peered at Glynda and finally shook her head. "No."

Unimpressed, Glynda sighed and planted one hand on her hip. "You realise that you are the champion of the Vytal Festival-"

"Miss Goodwitch, no!" Ruby cried.

"I am?" Yang blinked. "I am! WHOOO! Weee arreee the champions!"

Glynda pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "I'm not sure why I'm surprised. This happens every single time. At least we won't have to deal with hosting it again for almost a decade. Miss Rose. Please ensure your sister doesn't make a fool – sorry, any more a fool – of herself. Mr Arc, with me. I have a taxi waiting."

"-the champions! No time for Russel, cuz we are the chaa-"

Smiling, Jaune followed her out and closed the door. Yang's voice became quieter but didn't entirely cut out, nor did the laughter from the other patrons. Glynda opened the taxi door for him to climb into and closed it behind him. Looking out the window, he watched Blake and Weiss dragging Yang down.

Leaning back, he continued to smile all the way to Beacon.

/-/

"Jaune." Ozpin raised his mug in salute. "Good morning. And what a good morning it is. The sun shines, the city is calm and people rest in their beds, safe and happy – though I dare say a little worse for wear."

"I think I'm okay with that."

"Myself as well." Ozpin gestured to the chair and even went so far as to pour him a drink when he sat. The headmaster looked more relaxed than Jaune had seen him in a while.

"Is it all over?" Jaune asked.

"Over? Well, I wouldn't say that. I have a whole host of transfer students to ship home, foreign politicians asking why Pyrrha Nikos didn't fight and even several pundits claiming I'm in cahoots with the betting agencies since most people bet on Miss Nikos to win." Ozpin chuckled. "I'm obviously a scoundrel like that. Besides that, while the Vytal Festival may seem the biggest thing in the world, there's something far worse coming up."

Jaune tensed. "And that is?"

Ozpin leaned forward. "End of year exams."

He couldn't help it. He burst out laughing.

"Oh, you may laugh, Mr Arc, but I assure you that the students won't be. I imagine you'll have quite the collection of stressed customers soon, and then a bevvy of exhausted and relieved ones afterwards. The upper years especially. It's also a tiring time for us, so leave a little on the boil, hm?"

"I'll have some cake delivered."

"I'm sure Peter would appreciate that."

"Seriously, though," he said, "Are we safe? Has the attack been called off? Pyrrha wasn't able to tell me what it was you all agreed to."

"With good reason. The details are best kept hidden, I'm afraid. It's not a lack of trust – after everything, I think you've earned it – but rather that the less people who know, the safer we will all be."

"Okay."

Ozpin hummed. "You are happy to accept that?"

"Yes. I'm just a barista."

"Mr Arc, I don't believe you are just anything."

"No. I didn't mean that depreciatingly." Jaune laughed. "I might have. Once. Back when I wanted to be a huntsman for the sake of being someone. I don't even know what I wanted. Fame, glory, direction? I have no idea. I just thought being a huntsman would make sense. But now…" He shook his head ruefully. "I'm happy where I am, and that's not as someone who has to save the world. It's been stressful enough saving my diner, sir. I'd prefer to leave the world to you."

"That much faith in me, hm?"

"Shouldn't I have?"

"Well you did call me out at the meeting. My hypocrisy, I believe."

Saying it in the heat of a moment was one thing, but having it brought up now with Ozpin watching, one eyebrow raised, was another. Jaune shrank down, blood rushing to his face as he tried not to laugh nervously. He wouldn't go back on what he said – it had been the truth – but that didn't mean he couldn't be embarrassed about it.

"I can't say you were entirely wrong," Ozpin finally allowed. "Spend long enough thinking something is impossible and you come to believe it. Peace was that for me. I will try harder from now on. Sometimes all you need is a little reminder." He raised his mug. "Thank you for that. For reminding me."

"You're welcome. What happens now?"

"Now?" he asked. "Now you continue your life, run your diner and look after your friends and loved ones, Mr Arc. You spent time with Miss Malachite. Or perhaps it will be Miss Nikos herself who claims you in the end."

Jaune blushed harder still.

"As for myself, well." Ozpin leaned back. "That's a different matter."

"Headmaster…?"

"Not for much longer, I'm afraid." Ozpin opened his eyes. "I will be stepping down at the end of the year and leaving Vale."

It was a hammer blow. "What-?"

"Negotiation always comes with a cost, Mr Arc. A compromise. I could not convince Cinder – no, not her, but the one behind her – to grant us peace without offering something in return. I will be rescinding my position at the end of the year and retiring. Glynda will take over in my stead, and I trust her to protect Beacon in my absence."

Jaune sagged back. "They're forcing you to retire? That's what Cinder wanted?"

"Not quite. What they wanted, I was unwilling to give, but this was a compromise that we could all agree on." Ozpin chuckled. "Don't mourn for me. I'm certainly not dead, nor am I all too unhappy about the situation. I will miss Beacon, but there is a part of me that trembles with excitement. I was a warrior long before I was a teacher."

"You mean a huntsman?"

Ozpin's eyes danced. "In a manner of speaking. It's been a long time since I took the battle to the enemy myself, and faced with it now… well, I'm more excited than I expected. There's a wonderful simplicity to it. And while my life will be on the line, it will be my life. It won't drag my students and my colleagues – my good friends – into the firing line."

Why? Why would Cinder accept that? No, it wasn't Cinder. Like he said, it was the person behind her. If they wanted Pyrrha for whatever reason, then why compromise for Ozpin leaving Beacon? And the firing line…

"They want to kill you," he realised. "They're going to kill you."

"No, Mr Arc, they're going to try to kill me." Ozpin chuckled. His eyes were sharp. Amused. "You'll find I'm quite a bit more difficult to kill than the average man. But yes, they want me vulnerable and away from Beacon. That was enough of a lure to interest her."

"You're sacrificing yourself…"

"Hm? Oh goodness no." Ozpin laughed. "You make me out to be more than I am, I'm afraid. I won't be hiding away on some mountaintop or accepting to be locked in a cell. I'm going to take the fight to the enemy myself. I'm going to do what I should have for a long time. Beacon was only ever a moment of preparation. Both for myself and for Vale, so that it could stand tall without me. Over the years, I suppose I forgot that. Settled down. Beacon will be fine," he said, smiling proudly. "Its students are strong, passionate and determined. Glynda, Peter and Bart will take good care of them, and I dare say they won't be the only ones to do so. It is time I moved on."

"And Pyrrha? They wanted her…"

"Miss Nikos will naturally move on once she graduates as well. Oh, she may live in Vale – there's something she wants here – but her work as a huntress will bring her out the city. She knows that, and so do they. Waiting four years for her to graduate without gaining anything wasn't possible, but with me on the loose? Well, they're going to have their hands full."

"They're letting Pyrrha go?"

"They are giving her a reprieve. They'd have to split attention between us anyway, and I dare say they'd rather deal with us one at a time and on our own than working together. She was willing to accept, and in the end that's all that matters."

That was it. As long as both sides agreed, a deal could be made. Presumably, Ironwood had accepted something with Adam – or maybe Ozpin handled that. Adam's demands weren't too unreasonable. Roman and Neo just wanted to be free, and would no doubt start up their `removals` business again soon enough. Life would go back to normal. For some of them at least.

He thought he ought to feel sorry for Ozpin, but the way the man was smiling. Well, he felt sorry for the poor soul he was going to hunt down. There was a hunger there. Excitement bubbling to the surface. Had Ozpin always looked so old before, or did he just look younger now? More alive.

"Will I see you again?" Jaune asked.

"I'm not leaving until the end of the year, so yes. Quite a bit I imagine."

Jaune laughed. "I mean after that."

"I'll return to Vale every now and then. I'm only leaving my position and becoming an active huntsman once again. I'll pop back for a drink and to check on my former students every now and then. Don't fret, Mr Arc, for nothing truly ends – least of all me. This is nothing more than a new beginning. And I, for one, welcome it."

"And General Ironwood?"

"Initially against it."

"Initially?"

"Oh yes. Until I pointed out that my leaving Beacon would allow me to be an active aggressor, and that I'd be happy to work alongside Atlas." Ozpin cracked a smile. "Those complaints dried up rather quickly. James has always preferred action and we always butted heads as headmaster to headmaster. We'll be working a lot more closely together. And then there's Glynda."

Jaune smiled. "I imagine relations between Atlas and Vale will be good."

"Hmm." Ozpin chuckled. "One could certainly say that."

They shared a laugh at Ironwood and Glynda's expense. Something neither would dare do if either of them were in the room. Jaune wasn't even sure it was that funny, but relief had a funny way of making the smallest things hilarious. With the final dregs of adrenaline pouring out of him, he felt like he could sleep for a decade.

Not that his customers would let him. With Vytal ending, the diner would become quieter, but he found himself looking forward to it. Russel and Velvet in exams would mean a return to waking up at four, but he'd be waking up without the fear of his friends being involved in a war. Frankly, four am wake-ups had never sounded so beautiful.

"Are you happy with it?" Jaune asked suddenly. "Or would you have preferred it the other way?"

"Death and blood in my school? Mr Arc, though I may not be the best at showing my thoughts, trust me when I say I am ecstatic with how this has worked out." Ozpin leaned back and took a long drink, sighing contentedly. "But how about you? Are you happy?"

Jaune blinked. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"No one will recognise the work you put into this. Few will know a deal was ever made, or how close we came to disaster, but even among those who do, it will be myself and Cinder who take the credit for what was decided. What was averted. Your involvement, despite how important it was, will likely never be recognised. Are you content with that?"

"I am."

Ozpin inclined his head. "Really?"

"Really," Jaune said, nodding. "I didn't do all that much. I provided the venue, but this only worked because you and Cinder made it, and I'm happy with what little I did." He looked up. "I think I wouldn't have been when I first came to Vale. I wanted to make a name for myself. Be someone special. Even opening my diner wasn't because I wanted to, but because I was afraid to go home and admit I'd failed to make it. Because I was embarrassed."

Embarrassment at that, when he'd had no right to be a huntsman anyway. Looking back, he'd been dumb. Egotistical too, despite having so little to be that way about. His family would have welcomed him back, but he convinced himself it was better to suffer alone than accept it. Back then, he'd wanted recognition. Popularity. Fame.

"I'm not like that anymore. Give me a quiet day with my customers – my friends – and I'll be happy. I've got everything I want. Everything I could ask for." To the point that not even Café Prime's money would make a difference. He wasn't going to expand. Didn't want to. It wouldn't be the same and he was happy where he was. "So yeah, you and Cinder deserve the credit. Thank you." Jaune bowed deeply. "Thank you for making peace."

"You are more than welcome, Mr Arc. And thank you for enabling it. I don't suppose I can trouble you to consider politics…?"

"After all this, I think I'd rather run my diner." He smiled. "Sorry."

"That's fine. I think that with the promise of a simpler life for myself on the horizon, I can understand the appeal. It's going to be a pleasant change not having to worry about politics when I'm out there, so it would be a little hypocritical for me to push it on you. You've done enough."

Silence stretched between them. Jaune wasn't sure how to break it, or even if he should. In the end, he said the first thing to come to mind.

"Want to come down to the diner for a drink?"

Ozpin's eyes opened. And then, they crinkled. He stood, reached for his cane and set his empty mug down. The headmaster - the huntsman – rose.

"Yes. Yes, I think I do."

/-/

"Is it really alright to let the maiden escape?"

"Has she escaped, dear Cinder?" Salem's voice came from the Seer, calm and measured with an inflection that hinted at subtle pleasure. "We know where she is, who she is and where she will be. Four years means little."

"I could have killed her."

"You could have."

"Then why?" Cinder asked, more curious than upset. "Why accept this?"

"Why? Because this is a surety. You may have been able to kill Ozpin, defeat this girl and claim the maiden's powers, but you may also have failed. Variables and accidents happen. If you had, our plans would have been set back even further, and you would have died. How long would it take me to find and train up a replacement with your talents?"

Not long, Cinder felt like saying, but even if she took someone as talented as Neo, it would still be the better part of ten years to ensure absolute loyalty. It would take time. Time in which Watts, Tyrian and Hazel would be growing older. Time in which plans had to remain stagnant, and in which Ozpin could further consolidate his power, forewarned of future attacks.

Even if the attack on Beacon was perfectly planned, there were always going to be risks.

"Compromise isn't something I'm used to," Salem said, "But pride is. I'm not afraid to lay mine down now if it benefits me in the future. And it shall. Perhaps not in this lifetime or the next, but when you've been fighting as long as Ozma and I have, every advantage matters."

"So, you took the sure option," Cinder said. "The certain benefit, over the potentially greater but riskier rewards."

"Indeed. This way, I can be sure of coming out ahead. And while Ozma gets his own benefits, I'm not too concerned about those. Whether Vale falls now or in a thousand years matters little to me. It's not truly going to fall until I deal with him. One way or another. Whether I try to gather the maidens, Relics or invade the Kingdoms directly, Ozma is always going to stand in my path. Why not take an opportunity to get that out of the way?"

"The Kingdoms will grow stronger."

"They would grow stronger regardless. Attack Beacon and they will all be on guard. And should we fail, they both grow stronger and I lose you." Salem's voice caressed her. "You're valuable to me, Cinder. I don't see the benefit in throwing you away like that."

Not valuable for love, she knew. Valuable as a tool. But then, wasn't that similar in a way? It still meant that Salem both wanted and respected her, that she had a place, someone who cared for her wellbeing and a home to return to. Gently, Cinder ran her fingers over Snowfall's soft fur, teasing between his ears so that the puppy kicked in his sleep.

It wasn't what many would call a life, but it was to her. It was enough of one. More than she'd had.

"Thank you," she replied. "What shall you have me do in the meantime?"

"Stay in Vale for now. Watch Ozma and make sure he sticks to his side of the deal. So long as he leaves at the end of this year, I am happy to let Vale be. It will just make life harder if we deal with Ozpin and the huntsmen of the city at the same time. If he wishes to take our battle somewhere more secluded and make himself more vulnerable at the same time, I'm happy to oblige."

Away from the city. Away from the people. Exactly what Jaune wanted – and made in such a way that neither Salem nor Ozpin saw an issue with it. Ozpin had his opportunity to let the Kingdoms and Academies he'd helped build grow strong in peace, while Salem, content she would deal with them whenever she wanted, saw no reason to split her attention between Ozpin and the academies at the same time. Both sides were confident they had the upper hand, and both would follow the letter of the agreement, if only because it benefited them.

As for her? Well, it benefitted her as well. The maiden's powers wouldn't be going anywhere and she was still Salem's most trusted. The one who stood to inherit the most. To become the most powerful person on Remnant. As the Seer drifted away, Cinder sat back and tickled her fingernail down Snowfall's back, smiling to herself as the puppy cracked one eye open, yawned and rolled over between her thighs, nestled in the crevice of them with its belly offered for rubs. Manipulative little thing. Cinder rewarded its cunning.

"Whose victory is this, do you think? Ours? Ozpin's? Vale's? Or is it Jaune's?"

Snowfall yipped and licked her fingers.

"Of course. Silly me."

The answer was obvious.

"This is obviously your victory."


This story isn't over. Yet. As far as an ending goes, I was thinking of one more chapter. This was always meant as a slice of life story, so a big and dramatic finish doesn't suit it because, as "slice of life" suggests, life goes on.

Would Salem accept this in the show? Probably not, but she also might.

Salem and Ozpin are both so much more long-lived than anyone else, so planning for the future would be pretty good for them. Getting a long-term advantage like ensuring Ozpin ceases interaction and leadership of the huntsman academies could be valuable in the long-term. Yes, it means letting the Fall Maiden (Pyrrha) build up her skills, but so long as Salem honours the deal, it can translate to literally hundreds of years of Ozpin not hiding behind the walls of a fortified city. Salem could make use of that. They're not gated like us in terms of securing a victory in a lifetime. Even a single advantage could be worth fifty or a hundred years for them.

For Ozpin, I see it the same. As far as I can tell from his past, he was a powerful and skilled warrior in the past, so I could see him enjoying a return to that life. Taking the fight to the enemy once more and bringing this Salem vs Ozpin battle down to a smaller scale again. Keeping the cities out of it as they duke it out personally and away from population centres. Again, this isn't some "This should have happened in the show…" thing, because this would be boring as a show. It works as a slice of life fanfic, but the show is right to keep it focused on action.

Also, I'm totally not in favour of Raven and Taiyang getting back together - Raven messed up and it's DONE as far as I'm concerned - I'm simply having Qrow muse with an "anything is possible" kind of thought after seeing Ozpin and Salem agree a deal.


Next Chapter: 21st January

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur