"That's it," Jaune said. He pointed out the big window of the bullhead's cockpit. Neo craned her neck up and struggled to see over the dashboard.
Below them, the fields and forests of Vale's hinterland territory stretched out, largely untouched by the constructions of civilization aside from spottings of small towns and villages. Ahead of them, by a crooked bend in a wide river, was the beginning of one such settlement.
They closed in on the town and hovered just outside of it.
"Yeah, that's got to be it," Jaune muttered. The village was clearly in its infancy, still more of a refugee camp. In a clearing by the river, tents big and small were all cramped close together. Piles of felled trees showed their plans to make new homes and more space. There were already some cleared fields, the beginning of humble agriculture.
"We're probably freaking them out," Jaune said. "Let's find somewhere to land."
Neo nodded and tugged on the pilot stick. She had been remarkably uncurious thus far, only making him insist that this wasn't a waste of their time and otherwise not caring about the specifics.
Can we trust this guy? Yes.
Is he strong? Yes.
They maneuvered over the forests and found a clear hill further down river. The landing equipment touched down, and the bullhead precariously sagged to one side on the uneven and soft ground.
Neo and Jaune looked at each, sharing the same nerves. Then the bullhead settled, and they each let go of a stifled breath.
The exit ramp lowered and the pair stepped out, then headed up alongside the river. They were intercepted barely ten minutes later.
They heard a group running hastily through the forest, crashing through foliage and branches in their rush. Neo made to draw the sword from her umbrella, but Jaune held out a hand. "Don't worry," he said, "it'll be fine."
"Who's there!" a breathless man shouted as the group slowed down. When Jaune squinted, he saw they were all armed with rifles and hand-axes. He saw the man who yelled as well, and the familiar voice clicked with recognition.
They walked back through the forests, and now the proto-village was nearly in sight. Jaune himself engaged in an act still relatively difficult for him: small talk.
"So yeah, I never thought trees were so hard," Victor said. He flexed his hand and showed Jaune the blister he had gotten from handling his axe. "But hey, Orion can crackdown ten trees for every one I get!"
That made Neo raise an eyebrow; she had never completely gotten over her doubts about this new and mysterious ally. Buy anyone who could take down so many trees on his own had to be pretty strong, right?
"Ah man, this wouldn't work without him," Victor said. "He does so much of the heavy lifting, and not just work. He took out a whole pack of beowolves that came around, too."
"Right," Jaune said. Doubt suddenly smacked into him. Orion loved these people, and these people loved him. This was a critical time for them all, the establishment of a brand-new home where they could all live and be free. Would he really part with that just to go after revenge?
I wouldn't blame him for staying.
Jaune couldn't quite reaffirmed his earlier confidence that Orion would agree. Neo would be pissed, too, about wasting her time.
But who gives a fuck how Neo feels?
He refocused on the walk. They entered the village, and just about everyone was hard at work. Men and women dug ditches and laid foundations for houses, several of which were already half-completed. In the distance, he even saw the fields he'd spotted from the air, now being tilled and cleared of weeds and grass by all the children,
In the raw sunlight, most denizens looked unnaturally pale. Living mostly underground for twenty years would do that to you. Jaune knew from experience.
As they passed, they got many curious and worried looks accompanied by harrowed whispers. Jaune prickled at the attention, but he forced himself to keep his cool. He also got a few smiles from people who recognized him, smiles and waves of gratitude. He was their friend, after all.
Then Angela, the rabbit faunus and councilwoman, caught sight of them. Her eyes widened in surprise, then settled with a worried look. She excused herself from a conversation and jogged over.
"Mr. Arc," she said as she stopped in front of them. "What are you doing here?"
"I need to talk with Orion," he said simply.
"And her?" Angela pointed to Neo. "Is she your little sister?"
Neo's look of disgust was almost a snarl.
"No. She's someone I'm working with right now"- he held up a hand, preempting Angela's next question –"and she won't tell anyone anything." She has no one to tell, after all.
Angela frowned discontentedly. "Alright…"
She stepped aside and pointed to the only fully constructed house in the little village, a squat building with a huge door at one end.
When they reached it, Jaune turned to Neo and said, "You have to stay outside."
She crossed her arms.
"You have to. That's just how it is."
"Listen, if he agrees"– he hesitated –"when he agrees, you'll understand."
She gripped her umbrella tightly and looked distrustfully at the men around her. Jaune didn't bother for a further assent. He pried open the door just enough for him to step in, then slammed it shut behind him.
The dark space had no windows, giving it no light and no fresh air. Jaune almost winced at how stuffy it was. His nose twitched at the smell of smoke, for only a small candle lit the place.
Orion sat back on his haunches, laying on a bed of branches and leaves. The candle burned quietly before him, illuminating a large book. He gingerly reached out one of his long razor claws and flipped the page over.
"Hm. I was wondering when you would come," he said without looking up. Jaune had forgotten how exceptionally rough his voice was, how he almost hissed out words that his inhuman lips could not quite form.
"You've been expecting me."
"Hm." His contemplative growl still unnerved Jaune, striking at his innate human instincts to worry about any such animalistic noise. He subjugated those feelings; Orion was his friend.
"You know why I'm here."
"Have you got your answer?"
"Hm." Orion closed the book, a survivalist manual.
"It is complicated," Orion finally said. He tapped his claws on the dirt floor, driving their sharp tips into the earth and leaving scratches. "It is very complicated."
"I bet it is."
"Hm. On one hand, I want to kill Bishop and destroy the Enclave. I want to ruin them. I want to avenge my family.
"On the other hand, I have responsibility here. I love these people, this town."
Jaune nodded. "I know you do."
"Hm. I feel such responsibility here. Felling trees, preparing them for cutting, hunting game, killing Grimm. There's a huntsman here, but he's old. He's training new apprentices, however, who I've been training as well. They should be strong enough to protect this place. And everyone is willing to do hard work."
"But you're still worried."
"Hm." The deathclaw's chest rumbled as he let out a heavy sigh. When he finally looked up, Jaune saw a deep sense of confliction in his eyes. "I do not want to leave here."
"But… I do not want to leave Bishop alive, either. Hm. A part of me chastises myself for considering a selfish quest for revenge. Another part of me reminds myself that Bishop is a threat to us all."
"He is." Jaune shrugged. "But I get if you want to stay."
"Hm. You are not the best at convincing."
"I guess I'm not really trying to convince you," Jaune admitted. "I… well, I understand. I really do."
"I suppose your team will be accompanying us?" Orion asked.
"I…" He shook his head, finding it incredibly difficult to spit out the words. "I left them. I left them cold. They… they're not cut out for this sort of fight. I'll go find them again—once it's over."
"Once it's over," Orion said. "Over…"
He bunched up his claws and scraped them against each other.
"It won't be just us," Jaune added. "There's this other girl, waiting outside right now. She's a piece of shit, just a criminal who kills for money. But Bishop killed someone she cared about, so she's on our side for now."
Orion scoffed. "What strange alliances revenge makes."
"Hm." Orion sighed again. "It is difficult, because…
"War… war never changes. We leave those we love and that which we care about. For what? To fight? Ostensibly, we fight for them. To protect them? But how valuable is the time we would have spent together?
"How many laughs and smiles, how many good moments and memories will I never have because I am gone, gone just for the purpose of killing?
"I have never been apart from family, be it the one I shared blood with or this new one I've made. The thought of leaving them behind and possibly dying, dying far away from them… it scares me."
Jaune looked at the floor. He had never expected to hear such saturnine talk from a deathclaw, of all things. Orion's words, however, struck him more directly than just about any other human had.
"Hm. But that is all futile," Orion admitted. He shook his head tiredly. "The decision, however much I dislike it, was made for me when I learned Bishop was alive. I've been trying to convince myself otherwise, but I don't have a choice."
He rose up from his haunches and flexed his claws.
"Where is that monster? And how soon can we kill him?"
"Alright buddy, you're going to have to look after Qrow and dad for us while we're gone."
Ruby looked down at Zwei with a sad smile. The good boy sat on the floor of their cramped hotel room, looking around with confusion as they all packed their bags, jamming blankets and rations and (of course) their weapons into sacks and backpacks.
"Just sit tight and wait for us to come back," she said, ruffling the fur on the top of his head. "Right now, we're just going to sneak out and go on a bit of an adventure." She scooped the dog up and gave him one last snuggle in her arms. "And we'll be back before you know it."
The dog nuzzled his head against her neck, not understanding her words but picking up on the tinge of sadness in her voice.
"Everyone ready?" she asked when she heard the noise of zipping, packing and pushing finally cease.
"Yeah," Blake said as she swung her backpack on.
"And you're certain you know where you're going?" Weiss asked her. "I don't want to trudge through the forests for days on end trying to find this place (and I never liked hiking anyway)."
"Yes, I'm sure," Blake said. "I committed it to memory." It had been a bit awkward for her to admit that she had gone through Jaune's things and read that letter, but no one protested. Not even Ruby. This was the only sort of lead that any of them had. It might not lead them to Salem or the Enclave, but it could at least lead them to their friend gone rogue.
"Alright then," Ruby said. She set Zwei back down. "Let's get going."
They filed out the room. Ruby left last, giving Zwei one last wave goodbye before shutting the door.
The dog tilted his head. He wadddled up and sniffed at the closed door. He batted at it with a stubby paw and whined. When he realized that they were not returning, his ears drooped. He plodded back to the spot where Ruby's sleeping bag had been, where her scent still lingered. It comforted him as he curled up and tried to sleep.