(Winter Hunt updates every Tuesday and Friday.)
Coco Adel looked up from the book she had laid out on her desk to observe Velvet Scarlatina. Velvet, the team's only Faunus member, was poised in the door frame of the borrowed room Team CFVY had been living in since the Battle of Beacon, a hand grasping each side, and her legs nearly as spread out, as though she was bracing herself against something. Her tall rabbit-like ears were perked up even more than usual, and her normal meek and mild expression had been replaced with one of agitation.
It was almost a good look on Velvet, in Coco's estimation. It may not have been a positive emotion, but it was still more assertive than the poses Velvet usually held. Usually she held herself in a somewhat reserved pose, meek and unassertive, as if she were prey trying to remain unnoticed by a predator. Velvet's rare aggressive moments were actually damn fine to watch, in Coco's excellent judgement.
Despite the improvement in appearances this created, the cause of Velvet's agitation was probably best dealt with quickly. Coco turned around in her chair, picked up a steaming mug of the coffee that shared its pronunciation with her own team's name, and took a sip. She lowered the mug, then slid her glasses down her nose with her free hand to better focus her warm, brown eyes on her teammate and friend, and addressed Violet. "What do you mean?"
"I went to see how Yang was doing," Velvet replied. "Losing her arm has been hard on her, and with Ruby being in a coma for a while… It just seemed like the right thing to do."
Coco nodded. Velvet had been making occasional trips out to visit both girls ever since the battle that had disrupted so many lives. Classes still had not resumed for Beacon's students, and half of the student body had been forced to find new accommodations, such as the case was with Team CFVY itself. Fear and doubt had flooded the air of Vale like a miasma, filling the city with a nervous tension. Velvet had taken to visiting the Xiao Long household every couple of weeks as a means to burn off her own palpable worry.
The bunny eared Faunus woman continued speaking, her voice a touch frantic. "When I got to their house over on Patch it was…" She let go of the door frame and shook her head, entering the room proper. "It was awful. Her father was so upset. He was just falling apart. He kept trying to find tracks in the snow around the house or on the path even though the path was clear of any snow! And Yang… She refused to see anyone. She just locked her door and didn't respond to anything." Velvet wrapped her arms around herself in a sign Coco had learned long ago meant the Faunus was worried.
Velvet, you're entirely too kind and sweet. It's why we all adore you so, but... She sighed quietly and turned to close her book, taking time to add a bookmark to save her place.
Across the room, Yatsuhashi lifted his seven foot, muscular frame up from the corner where he had been sitting cross-legged on the floor. He typically spent at least fifteen minutes a day that way, meditating and centering himself. Not, in Coco's opinion, that he needed it. The giant man was a veritable rock, emotionally. He walked over to Velvet's 5'6" frame, dwarfing her like a self-mobile wall and set a hand on the little Faunus girl's shoulder. "Did anyone say where Ruby'd gone?"
"Haven, I think," Velvet replied. "She'd been talking about it for days, ever since she'd woken up. Her dad told me once I got him to acknowledge I was there. Apparently she thought that what had happened here might happen there as well. She felt she had to go there and try to keep that from happening."
From atop his bed, the fourth member of their team gave a small cough that was his way of calling for attention. Red haired and dark skinned, the lanky man named Fox sat up, dropping a magazine. "She may be onto something. Ruby has demonstrated a considerable amount of luck in finding the White Fang." He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood to begin pacing, counting things off on his fingers as he continued. "She interrupted them at the docks when they were attempting to steal an entire shipment of dust, and again during their attempt to use the old train tunnels to breach Vale's defenses and let Grimm in. During the Battle of Beacon she appeared armed and ready in the stadium before anyone else."
"Not with her own weapons," Yatsuhashi pointed out. "She used that Atlas' student's swords."
"Yes," Fox acknowledged. "But while everyone else was still reacting, she was acting to defend Pyrrha."
"Yeah…" Velvet quietly whispered, as each briefly lost themselves to remembering their fallen classmate.
Coco quickly shook that off. Best not dwelled on. The past is the past. For now there are more immediate concerns. "You think she's on their trail again, Fox?"
Fox shrugged, but Yatsuhashi nodded. The big man turned to take a seat along one wall, not bothering with a chair. "She certainly has reason. They killed her friends, maimed her sister, and shattered her team. If I was her, I'd certainly be looking for some paybacks."
Coco felt warmed by the idea of Yatsuhashi being that fond of his team. She'd worked hard to make them an integrated whole during their first year. Yatsuhashi, the most phlegmatic member of the team was the one least likely to express strong emotions over anything, so hearing him admit to understanding the desire for vengeance for one's teammates was quite the testament to her work.
"Ruby can't do it on her own," Velvet asserted. She was shifting from foot to foot, clearly concerned. "She's an amazing fighter, and a good strategist. One of the most promising of the first year students, in fact. But she's always shone best when she had a team behind her, backing up her every move. Alone, she's just one 16 year old girl going up against…" Her words stumbled to a halt.
Coco nodded as Velvet's voice faltered. The poor thing had never been comfortable discussing the White Fang even as a vague entity. Bringing them up specifically had always been nearly impossible for the girl. There was a block there, somewhere, she had never revealed, and the team had never pried.
Coco took mercy and finished Velvet's statement for her. "Going up against an entire fanatical terrorist organization with years of experience she lacks and hundreds, maybe even thousands of combatants."
Coco thought a moment, gauging the mood of CFVY's dorm room. They were all aware of what Velvet was asking for, even if the girl hadn't vocalized her request. Ruby needed backup, with a full and capable team that knew the business if she was going to stand any chance against the White Fang. Her own team was scattered or crippled. Who, then, was there for her?
The problem was that, if Team CFVY agreed, they were putting themselves at risk, and not just physically. They were all planning to be huntsmen and huntresses, and were prepared for the dangers that entailed. But this went a bit above and beyond what they had trained for. They had been learning to fight the creatures of Grimm. But Faunus weren't Grimm. If Team CFVY went, they would be called upon to fight, and even to kill, other people rather than monsters. What would they become if they followed that path? Would they still be huntsmen and huntresses, guardians of humanity, if they themselves began taking those lives?
This wasn't a decision she could simply make for the team. It was too big for something like that. Each of them would have to face the consequences, and so each would have to make this decision for his or her own.
Coco turned in her chair to face the slender red-head seated on his bed.
The dark skinned redhead tapped his head once. His expression was thoughtful, and she could tell he was having similar thoughts to her. However, there was no uncertainty in his voice when he answered.
"You know I always welcome a chance to test my skills."
Coco nodded, then turned to look at Yatsuhashi.
The giant met Coco's eyes directly. "You know the professors are trying to rebuild the school. If we're gone when they restart classes it might hurt their efforts. We might not even be allowed to come back if we see this through. If we even make it back."
Coco nodded. It was not a minor consideration. What they did now could affect more than their own futures.
Still, Yatsuhashi shrugged. "It might be nice to go home for a visit. I haven't been back to Mistral since I came to Beacon." He leaned over and patted Velvet on the shoulder, not needing to stand to do so. "Besides, you know she'll go without us if she has to."
Coco gave a curt nod and picked up her beret. She took a deep breath, then settled it on her head, cocked at an angle. "Alright. Start packing. Ruby… She's good, but she's still only a first year. She'll need help, and we're going to give it." She stood and pretended to dust off her dark colored pants, then quirked a grin. "Besides, they destroyed my favorite school. The White Fang has it coming."
The look of gratitude Velvet gave her was worth every bit of risk she knew she was about to ask her team to take.
The island of Patch lay just off the coast of the Kingdom of Vale. The island's forests were home to a population of Beowolves that stubbornly refused to be wiped out, but it was a relatively peaceful and safe place by most standards of judgement. Home to Signal Academy, it had a large enough population to maintain regular transportation connections to the city of Vale, even during the crisis that had shut down so much of the world's communication and transportation network.
Being that it was the last place Ruby had been seen, it was the first place Coco brought the team. While they knew her origin point (home) and destination (Haven), they didn't know the path she was planning to take to get there. The one thing they could be sure of was that there would be no direct flight to Haven, for Ruby or for them. None of the Kingdoms appeared to trust each other anymore, and so travel was pretty much the venue of the hardy types willing to get there through whatever ad hoc arrangement they could make. For the most part, that meant the good old fashioned foot.
Feet had been the first clue they'd gotten as to Ruby's path. They hadn't bothered to interrupt Yang or Taiyang at the Xiao Long household. Velvet had already learned as much as they were likely to during her first visit. Any further attempts would likely have been nothing more than an intrusion on what had to be a difficult moment for a family that had already had more than their share of such things. Instead they, like Taiyang, had chosen to search for tracks in the snow.
They'd finally found them on a side path near the main road to the house. The four teammates now looked down solemnly at a carved stone bearing the name of Summer Rose, and pondering the words "Thus Kindly I Scatter".
"Those were definitely Ruby's tracks," Yatsuhashi commented. "I can't think of any reason anyone else would have come here."
Coco nodded, but turned back towards the woodline behind them. "Honestly, I'm more concerned about the tracks over there. There were at least two, maybe even three people following her. A woman and one or two men, I think."
Fox nodded. "That's how I read the tracks as well."
Velvet looked worried again. "Do you think it was them?"
"The White Fang?" Coco shrugged. "Maybe. I mean, they might have been watching for her to leave the safety of a home with two other huntsmen and a huntress living there. Still, would they be so frightened of one little girl that they would spend several weeks watching her home?"
"Two huntsmen?" Fox asked. "I thought they lived alone with their dad."
"Their Uncle, Qrow," Velvet replied. "I noticed him there a couple of times when I was visiting Ruby. I didn't see him this morning, though," she mused.
"That's not particularly important at the moment," Coco commented. "What's important is where she went next."
"She would have flown back to Vale," Fox responded. "There's nowhere else to go from Patch. But she wouldn't have been able to catch a direct flight to anything near Mistral from there. Not with everything that's happened."
"No boats, either. Not from here, at least." Yatsuhashi added. "Everything shipped to Patch comes through Vale, first." He held up his scroll. "I checked."
"So that leaves the mountains," Velvet responded. "She'd have to go through one of the passes and head east."
"During the winter?" Yatsuhashi looked down at Velvet. "Why not go by sea from Vale? It would be much safer, and more comfortable."
"She could," Velvet replied. "If she could talk her way aboard something traveling between Vale and Mistral. Since the Kingdoms aren't exactly encouraging foreign visitors after what happened to Beacon..."
Coco nodded. "Adorable as she is, I doubt Ruby could convince someone to risk the wrath of any harbor inspectors at Haven. After those broadcasts showing Yang and… well… the other fight..." She shook her head. "Beacon students are likely to be rather unwelcome guests. The best way to get there would be a route less guarded."
"Which brings us back to the mountains," Yatsuhashi nodded. "I see where you're going with this. Once through them she could take a smuggler's ship to the west coast of Anima, then walk to Mistral. I should have thought of that."
"Hardly," Coco reassured him. "Smuggling yourself between kingdoms isn't exactly something we've had classes on. Which pass would she have taken, however? There are several ways through the mountains."
"Forever Fall," Fox replied. "It's ideal. It runs deep into the mountains, and even has a train that runs through it much of the length. She could have hitched a ride on it, then headed into the mountains on foot. It's quick, convenient, and warm and gets her right to the start of her trip. And no one would ask questions. No one's worried about someone trying to leave Vale. Just getting in."
"Alright," Coco said. "Any other candidates?"
"What if she went through Mountain Glenn?" Velvet asked. "I know that would take her Southeast at first, but she already has experience with it. Didn't she fight those people there at one point? She may have decided to pick up their trail there. She could be trying to figure out what their plan is before she actually arrives at Haven."
"That's a good thought, Velv. It's what I would do in her shoes." Coco turned to the remaining member of the team. "Yatsu?"
"I don't know. I'm not from around here. I just know some good spots to find a boat out on the coast, and either choice would get you to them. Get me to the coast and I'll be a bit more useful. But for now?" The big man shrugged.
"What if she didn't take either path, but is planning to take a different pass?" Fox scratched his head.
"It's possible," Coco admitted. "But I doubt she is. None of the other passes are as convenient as the train, nor do they have evidence to the White Fang's activities like Mountain Glenn does. It's all of the disadvantages without any of the advantages."
"Alright," Coco nodded. "Let's catch an airbus back to Vale. We'll start looking there and see if we can figure out which way she went."
Velvet twitched an ear. "Should we split up?"
"I'd rather not. It may be quicker, but I don't want only half of us poking our nose into Mountain Glenn without the other half there to bail them out. We'll start with the train theory, but if no one around the station can identify Ruby for us, we'll head to Mountain Glenn."
Together the group turned around and began tracing their way back up the trail toward Signal.
The train station at the Vale end of the tracks was not in Forever Fall. Rather, it was tucked neatly between the commercial district and the industrial district of Vale. This allowed Schnee Dust Company shipments easy access to both, whether it was finished goods headed to stores or raw dust crystals heading to factories. Shipments came in like clockwork from the mines and refineries located at the far end of Forever Fall, along with frequent commuter trains for mine employees.
Because of the commuter trains, the station included a passenger terminal. It was there that the hunt for Ruby began in earnest. While Fox and Yatsuhashi essentially cased the place, checking odd corners on the slight possibility that Ruby would be hiding in one waiting for an evening train, Coco and Velvet waited at the ticket counter.
As a lull developed between trains, Coco took advantage of the lack of customers. She strolled up, her confident swagger in full play, a slightly salacious smile on her lips.
First impressions set the tone for everything that comes after, my dear. Let's knock 'em dead.
"Excuse me," she asked the man behind the counter. "We're looking for someone who may have come through here this morning."
The ticket agent had stirred from his malaise as Coco approached, watching with interest as she approached. After hearing her question an expression of surprise mixed with a eagerness to help crossed his face. "Yes?"
Score one for the 'do me' hips, Coco thought. She turned to the girl beside her. "Velvet?"
Velvet stepped up next to Coco and held up her camera. She powered it on and showed the agent the photo on the back.
"She'd have been calling herself Ruby Rose, most likely. She's on the short side, and probably would have babbled a bit."
"Coco!" Velvet sounded mildly scandalized. Coco patted Velvet on the shoulder, and the Faunus settled a bit.
The man briefly looked over Velvet's ears for a moment, his face shifting from pleased to carefully neutral, but then turned his gaze on the scroll. His look at the picture was much briefer than Coco would have expected. Seeing as many people every day as he usually would, she would have thought he'd have needed a few moments to match memories to faces. He seemed quite certain as he spoke, however.
"Nope. Just the same as I told that other girl as was asking. Haven't seen that one. I'd remember that cape."
Coco felt herself go stiff, though she fought to keep it from showing. Beside her, she felt Velvet shift under the hand Coco still had on her shoulder.
"Other girl?" she asked.
"Yeah. Strange little thing she was. Showed me a picture of that same girl what was on your scroll. Never said a word, but I knew what she was askin. No other reason to show me the photo, right? Just like I told you, said I hadn't seen who any of you are looking for. She in trouble or somethin? Seems a bit young for that."
"The girl who was asking, she wasn't a Faunus, was she?"
The man snorted. "Not as I could see. She had black hair, black and white outfit, frills and lace. Kinda fetishy, you ask me. Oh, and she had her hair up in twin tails." He then grinned. "She walked just as saucy as you, I can tell you that."
"Saucy?" Coco felt her eyebrows rise behind her sunglasses.
Next to her, Velvet muttered a quiet "It is rather saucy…"
The man straightened up, his face suddenly neutral again. "No offence."
Coco shrugged. Maybe a little less 'do me' hip next time. "None taken. Where'd the girl you talked to go after that?"
"Dunno. Walked out the door as pleased as could be."