Here we go. The last chapter. It's been a long, long time coming.
Cover Art: Jack Wayne
Jaune had never been good at weddings. He'd attended a few in his previous life – first his sister and Terra's, then a friend of his mother's. He never knew what he was meant to do other than smile, nod happily and watch two people speak words that solemnly linked their lives together. It all seemed so big and important but not to a guest, who was only there to fill seats and look attentive. He'd never thought about visiting any again since the fall of Beacon, there had always been so much to do. He certainly never thought he might be attending his own.
In all honesty, it was a bit of a blur. Was that bad? He wasn't sure. Oh, he had time to note that Emerald looked adorable and that Vernal had to be wrestled into compliance lest she rip her bridesmaid skirt open for easier movement. He had time to be fussed over by Summer, teased incessantly by Qrow and learn that Taiyang could not keep himself from crying at weddings. He'd been hugged near to death by the man. He'd complimented Yang on her dress, done the same to Ruby as she stumbled on heels, and even shaken hands with Adam Taurus, who had come all the way from Menagerie to attend. He wasn't the only important guest at a Schnee wedding. Rashem had come from Vacuo, Ironwood was in attendance in a fantastically adorned military dress suit, and, of course, Raven had come in her usual attire. Armed, too. No surprises there.
Taiyang and Qrow had been remarkably calm about the whole thing. Yang hadn't been but had decided to ignore her egg donor. Summer hadn't, and Jaune was grateful they'd settled for a quick and harsh-sounding discussion in one corner of the hall and not an all-out brawl. He didn't get to see Winter until the moment. Custom, apparently. It felt outdated to him, but if it was important to her then he wasn't going to ruin it.
Before long, the bells tolled, the guests took to their seats and Jaune stood at the front of the hall with as close to a confident expression as he could manage. I faced down Salem. I fought Tyrian. I should be able to handle a wedding. My wedding. Oh hell…
The grand doors opened and Jaune wasn't alone in turning to watch Winter enter. She came with her father escorting her, his arm linked with hers and her wearing a flowing white dress. It ought to have clashed with her hair and bleached her complexion out, but it didn't. Fashion magic, he guessed. Winter looked far more confident than he, or maybe just better at concealing it. The organs blaring to life made him jump but luckily no one was paying attention to him.
It was all so quick. In seconds, she had reached him. In seconds more, she'd stepped up and the songs were winding down. Cameras focused in on them, chatter lessened and the bridesmaids, Emerald and Vernal, stood on Winter's left, with James standing tall and proud on his right as best man. The General had been positively thrilled to accept the honour.
"You're nervous," Winter whispered. Her ice-blue eyes sparkled mischievously. "Having second thoughts?"
"Only about the size of this. I thought we were having a small, private ceremony."
"This is small."
"There are at least three hundred people here!"
"Small for the Schnee family."
"Bloody Schnee," he grumbled teasingly. If they'd had all the time in the world, Jacques might have pushed for a televised wedding to rival the Vytal Festival in scope and size. They were the richest people on Remnant after all. Winter elbowed him as the official began to speak.
The words blurred together and could hardly be heard over the pounding of his own heart. It didn't help that the hall was otherwise so silent you could have heard a pen drop and he could hear Taiyang struggling to control his sniffles. He watched the man's mouth open and close as he read out the vows, not hearing a single word but saying "I do" when the man looked at him expectantly.
Winter did the same.
James stepped up and offered Jaune an open box, which Jaune took with shaking hands and opened. The Schnee family ring was the same Winter's mother had worn, and it seemed fitting to use it. It was an oddly simple gold band with three white diamonds studded in a line, not at all as ostentatious or dramatic as one might have expected from the Schnee family. He took it and slid it onto Winter's ring finger – almost onto the wrong one but for her pulling it back until only the correct one remained. She was smiling as she did, more amused than anything.
He didn't know who kissed first. By that point he was moving on autopilot, and it wasn't until the cheers and tolling of bells sounded that he realised he – Jaune Arc – was a married man. If only mom and dad were here to see me now. His fingers wound together with Winter's as she leaned close into him, deepening it for a moment before pulling away to smile for the audience.
Well-wishers. Gifts. Speeches. Jaune was grateful that the head table was limited so that he could just smile at most of that and otherwise ignore it. There was a speech from Jacques, one from James and more toasts than he knew what to do with. Then, the two of them opened the first dance and from there it was chaos. Jaune made sure to dance with Emerald and Vernal, with Summer, Ruby, and Yang as well as Weiss. He tried to catch Raven's eye as well but she avoided the dance floor like it was rigged to blow.
Meanwhile, Winter danced with her father, Ironwood, Taiyang and Qrow – pinching the latter's arm violently when he said something to irritate her. It felt more like they were zoo exhibits than a couple, with everyone wanting a piece of the action. He'd been warned it might be like that. Summer had taken him aside and explained that the wedding day could feel like the hardest day of your life, but that once it was over and the honeymoon began, they could forget anyone else existed.
The honeymoon. Yikes. What should have been two weeks or more of relaxation and holidaymaking wouldn't have been fair to anyone given his time left. Winter had graciously agreed to let Emerald and Vernal come and treat it more like a family holiday, a chance for them all to live together as what they might have been. He was grateful for that. It must have felt unfair to have to share him, but they were his daughters and it wasn't fair to lump them with Summer and Taiyang while the two of them spent one of his last few weeks alone.
Emerald came for another dance, then a second – until she finally let Whitley convince her to take to the floor with him. Adam had just finished dancing with Winter in what would have been a jaw-dropping occurrence in another timeline. The once-terrorist was dressed to the nines and offered Jaune a wide smile, handing Winter over with a bow and a whispered "congratulations" before stepping off the floor.
"So," Winter said as they took to the dance once more. "That's it. We're married."
"Winter Ashari-Schnee," she corrected. "Though maybe it should be Winter Arc-Schnee."
"Ashari. That's who I am here. Jaune Ashari is a very different man to whom Jaune Arc once was. I don't want to muddle my lives up like that."
"Hmmm." Smiling coyly, she slid her free hand down his chest. "You really don't like weddings, do you?"
"I don't like big public events where I'm the centre of attention." He was used to fighting his way out of problems. Even when they had been forced to speak out, it was usually Ruby or Weiss who had done the talking.
"We can slip away if you like. We've done our duty in showing and dancing." Winter's hand slid lower, down to his abdomen and then his tight belt. Jaune's body suddenly felt very rigid indeed. Her eyes seemed to darken as her lashes drew over pale blue orbs. "I think it's time you took care of your other duty for the night. Don't you?"
No one moved to stop them as Jaune drew Winter from the dance floor and to the doors leading up to the private rooms and the bridal suite. Several noticed their departure, but those that did only smiled, elbowed their partners, and politely turned their faces away as the couple of the day retired for the night.
Not much sleep was had.
Jacques had bought the resort.
That wasn't to say he'd bought out every room, space and left the resort entirely to them – no, that would have been ridiculous and over-the-top but at least somewhat sensible. Jacques Schnee had instead purchased the whole place, along with their staff, and told them they were now the private holiday home of the happy couple.
Jaune gave up complaining how ridiculous that was after the first day. The resort was a beautiful little place in Mistral with its own private beech – theirs now – and six pools. Six pools for four people. They also had more employees than they knew what to do with. Jaune and Winter had a room and considering the space Emerald and Vernal had a room each as well, but that was still only three rooms taken. There were over a hundred staff catering for them.
Eventually, Winter convinced him to stop freaking out. "It's practically a holiday for them," she told him. "Think about it, they're being paid full wages to do a hundredth of the work they normally would. They're probably thrilled."
There wasn't much he could say to that.
Having never been on a honeymoon before, he wasn't sure what to expect – other than sex. Call it vulgar but he was fairly sure that was the main part of the honeymoon, and there was plenty of it. What there also was, that probably only married couples with children experienced, was play. Emerald and Vernal took turns being thrown bodily into the pools by him, and when Winter brought her Semblance into play, they quickly realised they could be riding around on literal Grimm-sharks, and soon they were jousting with those foamy, floppy pool sticks, charging on shark-back at one another and trading blows like knights while Jaune and Winter watched from deckchairs.
Winter made for a surprisingly good mother. He said surprising because of her age and theirs – not even ten years apart. Despite that, Emerald and Vernal had no problem with her. They didn't call her "mom" and probably weren't about to start, but they all got on and weren't awkward with her at all.
"To be fair," she said, "I was around when Emerald was still a tiny little child."
"I seem to remember you and her not getting on very well."
"I was young!" Winter defended herself staunchly. Then, as if to ruin it, she stuck her lower lip out. "And she was an impolite little brat who refused to wear shoes or be told what to do."
"Emerald was still new to being her own person back then." He watched his youngest fondly as she was knocked off her shark, came spluttering to the surface of the water and lunged up to tackle Vernal off her own. The two Semblance-created Grimm swam lazily in circles around them as they fought tooth and nail. "She's come a long way since then. They both have."
"Mostly thanks to your parenting."
Jaune took the compliment as honest and not just flattery. He liked to think Emerald had come out great – better than could have been hoped given how much they moved around how few people her age she had to interact with. She'd grown to the point where he no longer felt he had to worry about what would happen if, when, he did leave her. Obviously, she'd be crushed, but she would recover. In time. Watching her and Vernal play and argue only convinced him more of that.
"Go to them," she said, bringing out her scroll and turning on the camera.
"Making a movie?"
"They're going to want things to remember you by. As am I."
Jaune took that as the cue it was and stood up, shucked off his thin shirt and dove into the pool. Vernal and Emerald were fighting so hard they didn't notice, not until he gripped a foot of theirs each and yanked them underwater. He broke the surface, laughing as they spluttered and glared at him. As one, they howled and jumped him, trying to drag him under the water while he used his greater strength and height to keep dunking them. Winter laughed delightedly from the water's edge, the little red light on her scroll blinking. Jaune splashed at her.
"Afraid to join in? Worried I'll get your hair wet?"
Winter raised a delicate eyebrow, set the scroll balanced against a glass to keep recording the pool and then gracefully rose. She stepped to the edge and completed a perfect dive, disappearing elegantly beneath the water. Within seconds, a small army of aquatic Grimm – all suspiciously white in colour – began hurtling towards him.
"Not fair! Cheater! Blurblll!"
Their days were pretty much that. They would wake up, eat a fine breakfast and chill by the pools, then have some weird and wacky activity for the kids. One day they would jet-ski, another they would paraglide or scuba dive or do their best at staying upright on a board as a speedboat whipped them along and inevitably sent them face-first into the waves. As evening descended, they would have another privately cooked meal by the resort's chefs, then retire to the bar to drink, sing karaoke or even do simple things like play boardgames or talk about the past.
Vernal was a poor influence on Emerald, getting her drunk tonight. To be fair, Emerald was eighteen and of an age to make these kinds of choices herself, but Vernal had been egging her on with talk of competition and bravery.
"I luvv youuu…" Emerald slurred to his chest.
"I love you too," he replied with an amused laugh. "But I've a feeling you'll be more in love with headache medication tomorrow." He carried her through the door to her room and set her down on the bed, pulling off her shoes and tucking her in. "Goodnight, sweetie."
"Story!" she whined. "Bedtime story!"
Jaune peeled her fingers from his shirt but did pull a chair up to sit down next to her. "Alright. Alright. Now, what should we go with? Ah, I know. Let me tell you the story of the boy who was bullie-" Emerald interrupted him with a loud snore. Jaune laughed quietly to himself. "That boring, huh? I guess I was a bit of an idiot to let Cardin of all people blackmail me." Leaning over her, he kissed Emerald's forehead and whispered, "Pleasant dreams," then crept out the room and slowly closed the door behind him.
Winter awaited him in their room, meeting him with a scorching kiss and a hand winding into his shirt to drag him to their bedroom. Their lips didn't leave one another, and her tongue plundered his mouth with raw emotion. Unusually forceful tonight, Winter manoeuvred him so that his legs bumped against the foot of the bed, then gave him a quick push with both hands to throw him back onto it. Her knees settled down on either side of his legs and she crawled up him, first meeting his lips with another kiss, then pulling off and reaching above him. Her smaller hands took his, pushed them to the headboard and then quickly began tying them with silken cloth.
The promise of what was to come made Jaune shiver. Her hands, and the cloth, certainly weren't strong enough to stop him if he wanted to break free. The knot would have come undone with a meaningful tug. But then, why would he want to? Jaune let himself be laid out helpless before and beneath her, his eyes glued to the thin white nightgown that covered so very little.
Winter caught his lustful gaze and returned it with a knowing grin. "You like this?" She rocked herself on his lower body, which gave her all the answer she needed. "I see you do. Or I feel you liking it." Another grind, another groan from him. "I hope you're feeling energetic tonight."
Jaune licked his lips and said, "When am I not?"
"Oh, you're good – but tonight is different." To his surprise and a little carnal disappointment, Winter climbed off the bed and moved away. He was left chilly and exposed atop the sheets but being made to wait could be its own pleasure and he watched her hotly as she moved to their en-suite bathroom. Tapping on the door, she said, "Are you ready?"
The door opened and Jaune's jaw dropped. She stood there in a black negligee, her long and wild hair flowing down behind her, her red eyes glaring off to the left and one hand wrapped across her front to grip her other elbow. Raven Branwen wore a snarl which didn't quite match her lingerie.
"No words," she growled. "None."
"R-Raven…?" he croaked.
"I said no words." Her eyes glared into his. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
Winter nudged her side. "You asked for this…"
Raven's glare, so firmly fixed onto him, shot to Winter and intensified. He had a feeling she hadn't been supposed to let him know that. Winter laughed and took Raven's arm, drawing her to the left side of the bed while she took the right. He wasn't sure who to look at or where, and even if he was married to Winter it was hard – as was he – to ignore Raven's body, especially when her outfit covered so little.
"Winter," he had to ask. "Are you sure…?"
"Raven saved your life. She brought you back to me. Without her, we'd have never met and you have such little time left…" Her smile lost all its lust, and she touched his cheek with a loving hand. "It's not fair on any of us, but I can make it a little fairer on her by sharing. Besides," Her impish grin returned. "isn't this every man's fantasy? Now!"
Winter took Raven and dragged her across, suddenly draping the shocked woman over Jaune's body. Red eyes met blue, misting over slowly as their hot breaths mingled. Raven's eyes darted down to his lips and back again. Her pupils dilated. Her hands toughed his shoulder and she melted into him.
"Enough embarrassment, enough hesitation," Winter went on. "This night is ours and-" She paused and tilted her head to the side as Raven dove in to smash her lips against his. "I guess you don't need to be told twice."
The last night of their honeymoon – and much of the following morning – was one Jaune wasn't sure he would be forgetting for a while. Nor Raven. Somewhere in the night the silk bindings transferred from him to Raven, and then to Winter when her teasing finally pushed Raven over the edge. By morning, the room was almost unsalvageable, and poor Vernal didn't know where to look at breakfast or what to say. But if her bloodshot eyes and dark rings were anything to go by, she hadn't been as blessedly passed out as her sister.
Nothing lasted forever.
Not kingdoms, not buildings and certainly not people.
Time passed almost too quickly – lost in a haze of joy and pleasure and, toward the end, desperate efforts to spend every waking minute efficiently. To be doing something, even if that something was visiting Winter's father, drinking with Qrow and Taiyang, or going on picnics with Ruby, Yang and Summer.
All of it was joy and relaxation, but it came with a hint of fear, of grief. They all knew they were doing this because his time was limited, and as the Vytal Festival progressed peacefully in the background, they paid no attention to it. They made memories, spent time together and filled albums with photographs. The largest for Emerald, Vernal and Winter obviously, but Summer helped him make more for everyone else. It felt… raw. Emotional. Knowing he would soon be gone frightened him not for his fate, but for everyone else's.
And then, on a cold evening almost two months to the day after Salem's passing, he knew his time had come.
It was with an absolute clarity that he gasped and gripped Winter's wrist. That she looked to him first in confusion and then in fear. She screamed – screamed for Emerald and Vernal – and soon they were all with him as strength fled his body at an alarming rate. Winter leaned him against her as Vernal and Emerald cried on him, gripping his hands to their faces, smothering his body with theirs, sobbing and begging in a way that ripped his heart into pieces.
"It's not the end," he told them. "Remember, we know there is an afterlife. We know Ozma came from somewhere and he came back with all his memories. We will meet again," he promised, and unlike so many people who said that he knew it as truth. Fact. "I'm just going away for a time. A long time." He pulled their faces against his neck and kissed their foreheads. "But this isn't goodbye. This… This is see you later. A-And I want you both to live long, good lives, okay? I want you to tell me all about them."
"W-We promise!" Emerald and Vernal said between tears.
"Look after each other. Look after Winter. Look after Yang, Ruby, Summer, and the others – and especially Qrow and Raven. Those two will never admit they need help. Comfort."
Jaune's body began to fade. It didn't die because it had never been born – but Salem's magic was long gone and the fuel he existed on had run out. In its absence, he would simply cease to exist. But the marks he had left would not. The people he had saved, the bonds he had made, would live on.
"I love you all." His lips met Winter's. "You all saved me as much as I did you."
"I love you," Winter replied, face stained with tears. "Jaune Arc. I love you."
That was all he had time for. One smile, and then he was gone.
The afterlife, as it turned out, was hot and dusty. It was dull, dark, and filled with the scent of blood. The taste of it too. Jaune hacked and spat a wad out, rolled onto his front and stared down at dark-black flagstones with confusion. The backs of his hands stared up at him. One, his left, still had the faded sigil signs of Salem's mark. It also had a faint reddening around his ring finger, where the wedding band he hadn't had time to get used to had pinched his skin. It wasn't there. The ring was gone.
Then again, he shouldn't have expected it to be seeing as he was dead. In which case, why was his body still a thing? Why was he here – wherever here was? Looking around would help. Jaune closed his eyes against a sway of vertigo and pushed himself to his feet. The stench thickened, the pain echoing through his body. Forcing his eyes open, he looked down in front of him and froze.
Salem lay dead on the floor before him. Her pale skin was ashen, her eyes open but unseeing and a thin trail of blackened blood had run down her chin. She was dead on her throne, a scythe embedded through her chest.
Silently, Jaune looked backwards. The inside of Salem's tower stretched out before him, and amongst the wreckage lay bodies. Ren, Nora, Yang, Blake, Sun and more. They were all of them there, cold and unmoving, their lifeblood still spilt out across the floor as if only minutes had passed. Perhaps, for them, only minutes had. It had been years for him. A decade.
I'm back… The thought came with no joy. My body died, Salem's spell ran out of power and… and instead of simply dying, the fake body she made for me in the other time ended. And here I am, back in my old body. Back in my old time…
Back in a doomed world.
A world in which Emerald wasn't his daughter, in which his friends were dead, in which Jacques Schnee had taken over Atlas and declared himself ruler. A world had had given up on saving.
"Is this it?" Jaune wondered. "Is that all this was? A waste of time? Did anything I do in the other world even matter?"
"Of course it did."
That voice. Jaune whirled back to Salem, now staring wide-eyed at the woman floating in the air beside her. "Jinn?"
"Jaune Arc," the spirit of knowledge replied. "Or do you prefer Jaune Ashari-Schnee now?" Her smile remained enigmatic, but her eyes… her eyes were soft. "They live on, you know. Even now, your wife comforts your children and the friends you made gather around them all. They grieve your death, but also celebrate your life. Summer, Taiyang and Qrow hold onto them and they cry."
Jaune thought that he might. The pain mingled with relief, however. They lived – they existed. It wasn't just a dream.
"No," she agreed. "It was no dream. It was no waste. No fantasy. You entered their lives, their world, and left them the better for it. You even left life of your own behind, growing silently."
His eyes widened. "Winter?"
Her smile grew.
"Both!? Holy…" Jaune gulped. "W-Well, that's… I…" Embarrassment faded as the situation sank in. With it, came despair. Dullness. "So, I'm back. I… I'm back here. Why?"
"You ought to know the answer. They're impressed with you. It's why they've allowed me to manifest here and speak to you on their behalf."
"They-?" Jaune blinked. "The Gods…?"
"The same. When Salem was cursed and when Ozma was tasked to end her, they watched and waited. They saw everything – including you. Great was their anger when you accepted her offer and sought to change reality. They believed you had made the same mistake as her. That you, like Salem, were unable to accept that death, and loss, are a natural part of the cycle of life."
Jaune stood silent. He had done that, hadn't he? Even so, he couldn't understand why they might be happy with him now. He'd not changed his mind. "I don't regret it, Jinn. Not one bit."
"It would be a poor life lived if you did. But you accepted it at the end. You accepted your mortality, you accepted that you could not change everything, and you accepted that you must move on. You accepted what Salem could not."
"Then why am I here?"
"Because this is where Jaune Arc belongs."
The words hit hard. Jaune's hands clenched into fists and he shivered. His eyes closed. A slow and even breath escaped him. The Jaune Arc of however many years ago, back when this all began, would have raged at her. He was wiser now, though no less emotional. Wise enough to know that Jinn was speaking the technical truth. He'd been an outsider in their world, even if he'd made a name and a life there.
This was the world he had run away from. He'd run from the sacrifices of his friend, from the sacrifices of everyone – he'd run away like a coward. And now, whether he liked it or not, he was back. It's time to face the music.
"It is," Jinn said, reading his thoughts. "This world is yours. That's not to say the world you left behind will cease to exist. It will remain. You will not be forgotten. But this world should not be so easily forgotten either. It is the one you and your friends fought for." Her voice softened. "Their sacrifices, your sacrifices, should not so easily be ignored."
"It's not much of a world." Jaune said blandly. "What's to stop me killing myself?"
"Nothing. Your life is yours to live as you wish. And to end."
"You were a relic, Jaune." From the way she said it, he knew she didn't mean one of the relics. "You were a relic of a future you wanted to leave behind, that you wanted to escape, but just as I will return to my source, so must you. This is your world, your future, your people. Do they not also deserve the kindness, the courage, of Jaune Ashari?"
A world on its knees. Jacques Schnee a megalomaniac in charge; Mistral lacking huntsmen; Vacuo on the brink and Vale brought low. They were all hovering on the brink of ruin, but with Salem gone and the Grimm dealt with, they were also on the brink of a new age. It could go either way.
"You want me to guide them. They want me to…"
"The Gods love you. They may not show it well and they have not shown it well in the past. They were children once, amateurs, but they have been watching and learning for thousands of years, watching, and living the lives of humans with each and every person. Is it so hard to believe they would become attached after so much time?"
"They have a funny way of showing it. Why not come back and fix things?"
"Because it was their presence that led to ruin in the first place. It was not Salem or Ozma who brought this calamity, but the Gods themselves. They accept this. It is their belief, and I believe it is yours as well, that humanity is better off without gods and their powers…" Her eyes met his. "Do you disagree?"
No. No, he didn't. People wanted that which they couldn't have and they feared that which they could not control. The Brother Gods had cursed Salem and Ozma both, and thus everything that came from that could be attributed back to them. Perhaps it was better if they stayed away. For the sake of everyone.
"What would I get for this?" he asked. "If I accepted this, what would be my reward?"
Jinn smiled and laughed. "Nothing."
"Nothing," she agreed. "No rewards, no power, no interference. They have learned their mistakes there. You will not be tasked, you will not be cursed, you will not find the afterlife withheld from you even should you refuse us now. You have suffered enough. Whatever you decide, you will be welcomed. Your family will be waiting for you. Or, more likely, you will die before them and have the chance to welcome them when their time comes. This, they promise. But…" Jinn said, "If I may say it, there are those yet here who suffer. There are those that live in this world, that do not have the option of running away to live in another, that cry out for someone to save them. They, with no power but their own hands, are desperately trying to protect the people that matter to them."
"I'm one man."
"You were always ever one man, and you have seen how much `one man` can do."
Jaune chuckled. He couldn't help it. Here he was, finally having killed Salem and saved the world, and they were asking him to do it again. Another world. No, his world. He'd saved another Jaune Arc's world and now he had to face the fact that it had been at the expense of his own.
But it didn't have to be. Not much time had passed if things were to go by. Mere minutes, maybe even just seconds. He was here again, back where he started, but he wasn't the same man he'd been. He was Jaune Ashari- Schnee, father, husband, and hero of Remnant.
And, at the end of the day, this was just another Remnant.
"I see you've made up your mind." Jinn looked pleased. Proud, even. He could feel the pride of two other entities bleeding through her. "Yet again, your kind impress us."
Us. Not her. Jinn was a piece of a God, and he knew he was speaking to them.
"Answer me one thing. One question."
Jinn nodded. "Ask it."
"Will I see them again? Will I go to them when my life ends?"
Jinn's smile stretched wide, her eyes closing in joy. "You will," she said, and her voice echoed with an odd, masculine tint. "Your worlds run in parallel, but all roads lead to the same destination. When your time comes, and when theirs does as well, you shall all of you be reunited. This, we promise, no matter what decision you make now."
Jaune's breath escaped him in a long, shuddering sound. His eyes closed, tears prickling behind, but a smile taking over him. He would see them. He would be with them. When they died. Which, he supposed, wouldn't be for a long, long time in a peaceful world like theirs. They were going to live long and fulfilling lives.
Not much point him going there to wait on his own, was there? Sure, he could meet Pyrrha and his team again. He could be with them. But they'd only be angry he let himself die. They'd be disappointed in him.
"You guys," he grumbled. "Not even dead for an hour and expecting me to finish what we all started. Bastards." No grief, only a good-natured laugh. His eyes opened and he stared at Jinn, the God of Light or both – whomever and whichever they were right now. "You already know my answer, don't you?"
"Your kind have ever the ability to surprise us. To amaze us. We have learned never to assume when it comes to you. Only to watch, admire and to love."
"Even Salem? Even Ozma?"
"They have been welcomed back. We have apologised. They are together now. Blessed and beloved."
Good. Jaune Ar- Jaune Ashari took a deep breath. "Then I'll do it. I'll save this world as well.
"In that case, and before I depart forever, allow me to grant one last boon – one last piece of information, in memory of the Spirit of Knowledge I once was." Jinn was back, herself, and her eyes sparkled with joy. "I'll even give you this one for free." Slowly, her hand moved, her index and middle finger pointing to the floor behind Jaune. "You judged too quickly. In fairness, you were distraught. Mistakes were made."
Jaune looked back, confused, at Ruby's body. "What-?"
"It is faint… but it is there. Her pulse."
His knees struck stone. His nails scraped along it as he forced his hands under Ruby's body. Heart hammering, eyes watering, he flooded her body with aura – not even bothering to check if Jinn had told the truth or not.
Something faint and flickering pushed back against him. An aura, not his own, touching against his. Firmly, gently, he wrapped his around it, feeding and bolstering the flickering flame until it had stopped threatening to go out. A faint, fragile, wheeze came from between pale lips, and Ruby's eyelashes flickered lightly.
Jaune looked back but Jinn was gone. As were the Relics.
"Ruby." Tears ran down his cheeks and he pulled her in against him. "Fuck, Ruby, I thought-"
"P-Please," she murmured. "P-Please don't go…"
He looked down at her. Her eyes weren't open, still fluttering, and he realised that alive as she was, she wasn't all there. She was delirious.
"D-Don't accept," she pleaded. "D-Don't go back…"
His breath caught. Had she been cognisant enough to hear the offer Salem made him? Had Ruby been listening, there on the cold floor, her life slipping away, as he made a deal with their enemy to undo all the work they'd done? Cold ice gripped his heart, wrapping him in frost. "Ruby. I… I'm sorry I-"
"Don't leave me," she begged. "I don't want to be alone."
Oh Ruby. She wasn't afraid of him changing things, she wasn't angry at him listening to Salem, only afraid that he would go and leave her behind. That she would be the only one left of all of them, cursed to live on while everyone else perished. The very same thing I refused to accept, he realised. I would have put Ruby through that. I did put her through it. No, he thought, eyes hardening. I'm back here now and no time has passed. I'm back, and I'm going to make things right.
Gently, he picked her up, cradling her against his chest as he once had Emerald. She was bigger than Emerald – and he was smaller – all the way back to twenty-one years of age, even if you couldn't tell by the lines on his face.
"It's alright, crater face," he told her, smiling as she curled into his chest. "I'm not going anywhere this time and I'm not leaving you here alone. Whatever comes, I'm going to be there right beside you."
Barely conscious, Ruby still managed to grip onto him. Her face eased out, her fear fading as she surrendered herself to sleep, sure in the knowledge her best friend wouldn't hang her out to dry, nor leave her behind.
Jaune moved away from Salem's body, past his fallen friends, and out into the battleground that had once been Salem's tower. Atlas ships still moved, those loyal to Winter and who had chosen to disobey Jacques and come with them to put a stop to Salem once and for all.
They lived, too. Those brave men and women who had joined them in the final push, who had risked their lives and who he'd been prepared to abandon. No longer. A spotlight shone down on him, and voices shouted. A ship landed and soldiers raced forward, escorting two paramedics. They'd face treason for this, for disobeying Jacques. Their lives might well be forfeit.
Not while I'm here they won't.
A different world, different faces and different circumstances, but he'd done it once and he could do it again. He would do it again. And, when his time did come, he'd have one hell of a story to tell Emerald, Vernal and Winter.
He wondered if they'd even be surprised to learn he'd gone from one battlefield to another, or if they wouldn't think it the most typical thing in the world. He supposed he would find out eventually, when he and they died of old age and met again.
Not now, though. There are still people here who need me.
Ruby clutched at his chest.
"C-Can I hold her…?"
Winter smiled beautifully and beckoned Emerald closer. It was hard to find space, what with Weiss and Whitley hogging it and Jacques hovering in the corner with a watery smile on his face. Vernal wanted in too, but she was too proud to say it and kept trying to sneak peaks from above their heads.
Emerald had no such compunctions and gave in to her curiosity. As Whitley made space for her, she gently, and gingerly, took the tiny bundle swaddled in white cloth, leaning back so she could balance the baby against her chest with both arms wrapped around her. It – she – was so small, and Emerald couldn't help but stare down at her in wonder and awe.
Her skin was pinkish and flushed and there wasn't much hair on her head, but what little there was shone a bright yellow. Her eyes, half-closed, were the brightest shade of blue she'd ever seen. "She has dad's eyes," she said.
"She does," Winter agreed, stroking Emerald's hair. "And his nose. I'm calling her Jeanne. Jeanne Ashari-Schnee."
"It…" Emerald swallowed. "It's a good name…"
"She's your sister now," Winter told her. "Yours and Vernal's both."
"I'll look after her." Emerald promised. "Until the day I die."
"We both will." Vernal said gruffly. "I'll teach her to kick the ass of anyone that insults her. Ain't no one gonna bully her. She's going to kick ass and take names!"
"With Jaune's genes, I don't doubt it," Winter said. She laughed and poked Jeanne's nose, making the baby gurgle happily. "Your father would have loved to be here to see you, little princess, but he can't be. He's off having his own adventures, saving people and protecting the innocent."
Emerald thought that odd. "You don't think he's at rest?" she asked. "In peace?"
Winter snorted. "Your father? Jaune? What do you think?"
She put her mind to it and tried to picture it. Against her will, she giggled, unable to put it together. Yeah, Winter was probably right. It wasn't in her dad's ability to chill out. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he was probably out saving the world again. Unable to stop them, she let Winter wipe away the few tears that trickled down her cheeks and continued to cuddle onto her little sister.
I'll see you again one day, dad. Until then, I'll look after everyone for you.
Emerald would make sure this world and all the people within it remained safe.
I've never been good with goodbyes or endings. Not the ones I don't end sharply and immediately. I'm sure a few people will be upset at the fact Jaune got sent back to his world, snapped back as it were, but that was always to be the theme of this story. You might argue it invalidates everything he achieved but I disagree. Those things remain, they persist, and they'll never forget him.
But Jaune DID leave his world behind, he ran away, and I've always thought time travel stories end up a little bit weaker for the fact that the fact is rarely addressed. In those fics you often have someone unhappy about the way things went, they go back and they just forget about the world they left behind. Forget the people there, never address their ending and just live a new life as if they've wiped a slate and ignored what happened.
I didn't want that. I wanted Jaune to have a new life, yes, but also to grow and become strong enough – both in character and emotional strength – to face the fact that he has unfinished business. That the world he left behind still exists, and that his friends gave their all for it. With that in mind, when faced with one last choice, Jaune finally has the strength to stand on his own two feet and live in that world. To take his pain, wear it, and try to make THAT WORLD a better place as well as the one he left behind. To face his fears head on instead of run from them.
Do Ruby and Jaune fix the world as a dynamic duo? I'll leave that up to you. I'd say yes because Jaune has all the experience and skill of the Ashari now, and there is no Salem left. Him and Ruby will be a power duo that overthrows Jacques and ushers in an age of peace and prosperity where the kingdoms can expand without fear of Grimm.
And with that, a perfect circle, Relic of the Future comes to an end. I've enjoyed it – honestly, I've enjoyed Emerald more than anything. Adorable little munchkin grew on me more than she had any right to. And this is from someone who doesn't even really like Emerald in the show. I don't dislike her either, but she always felt like more of a side-character to Cinder. A tagalong.
Anyway, the story replacing this one is already running on Tuesdays – it's called Arc Royale and, to my delight, it's going to feature Relic Jaune, and yes, he's going to have interactions with his darling girl, so I can't wait to write that. Normally I have a week off, but because a Tuesday fic is going to Saturday what I am going to do is update Arc Royale this Tuesday coming and again on Saturday, and instead have an empty week in three weeks in the Tuesday slot. It'll all make sense as and when it happens. Trust me.
Until then, thank you for reading and I hope you have enjoyed the ride. There are places where I know I could have done better, things I'd love to go back and change or re-write entirely, but that's always the way things are. If this were a novel, I could do that, but when you're writing a fic chapter by chapter you can't suddenly change things without taking the fic on hiatus for months – and that is why, in my opinion, so many stories go on hiatus and never come back.
Next Story: Arc Royale - already released on my profile
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