A/N: Dear reader,
This is a fic crossposted from AO3. It was first posted the 18th of August, 2021.
The version on AO3 is the 'definitive edition', and will be ahead by a chapter or two at a time, and it has a special workskin to make it pretty. I'm under the same username there (onewomancitadel). It will also be explicit, but not this version here; oneshots are uploaded there which won't be uploaded here for a similar reason. However, I was directed to use this site since it seems like RWBY fandom is active over here, so hi! I haven't used this website in around a decade lol.
Fic updates weekly at weekends, roughly Aussie evening time.
Title is per Purity Ring's WOMB special track on the vinyl. Epigraph is courtesy the Gnostic Society Library.
Since this lacks the tagging system I am used to, just putting here: this story is balls-to-the-wall romance (Cinder/Jaune), involves painful character growth, unabashed redemption arcs, dragging them kicking and screaming into talking about their feelings, enemies-to-lovers, and slow burn.
It's also a complete self-indulgence, so if anybody else likes it, let me know! Otherwise, I don't request concrit (I do occasionally do so in individual conversation though).
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me.
-The Thunder, Perfect Mind
It was fitting that she be here, the blackest of omens, tar-dark with her own wet blood. Swollen and as scattered as the moon. She was breathing in broken fits, curled over on the floor in a hidden alcove, a feral animal making its nest. The night grew long, and it had fallen with a foreboding bearing. Jaune had a feeling sunrise would be hard-won. Oscar was gone. So it seemed that she had lost her way, too. Jaune should have left. He had lost his team in the labyrinthine Atlesian halls, and found himself here. He should have kept moving. But Jaune did not walk away easily, and she had taunted him once: are you gonna let her die, too? He did not like leaving people to die.
He should have left Cinder Fall to die, and her Maiden power pass on. That would have been easy arithmetic on paper. Let her breathe her last spiteful breath. Jaune was no good at arithmetic. He approached her. The dim sound of alarms whirring like angry wasps barely registered as he trod over ash marking the ground of her passage, mixing with blood into a paste. Fire surrounded her. He, then, stepped into the flame with her.
"You!" she snarled. It reverberated off the tin walls and settled in his gut.
With his sword sheathed, he held his arms out in a motion of nonviolence.
"Come to gloat?" she said. She lifted her flesh arm to strike Maiden fire at him. It passed him as warm air. Fire, fire, fire.
"No," he said.
"I'll kill you… if you come any closer."
"I'm not intending to." He crouched before her.
"If you're not here to gloat, and you're not here to kill me… do you just want… to watch me die?"
Jaune tried to explain it to her. He didn't know enough himself. He had wanted to fight her so badly he would have died for it. Now, he didn't recognise what feeling rushed through him. It was hatred, or it was pity, or it was fear. Or it was simply who he was: something quieter, and twice as insistent, urging him on.
"Your Aura is broken, and you're dying," he said flatly.
Between heaves, she said, "I'm not dying."
He raised an eyebrow.
She barked a cruel laugh out. It looked painful. "Then finish the job they started. Weak, ineffectual—" she stopped to cough out blood, "—not even good enough to kill. Atlas never bothers to deal the blow. They just let the wounds fester."
Her abdomen was dark with blood, trickling down her legs. Jaune knew the delirium which set in after blood loss. There was no other reason to explain showing her belly like that. Or perhaps she was toying with him. Most Huntsmen and Huntresses would never allow themselves to be injured this far. As he surveyed the monstrous arm growing tumourous on her shoulder, he considered that Cinder would let herself do things beyond the pale of most people.
He knelt in ash and her lifeblood. Knees blackened and marked. It felt sacramental, by the roaring heat she had left in a dying blaze. Atlas was burning. He could have killed her then on his heirloom blade, gutted her like a butcher. Jaune knew what he wasn't. He was not a killer.
Slow enough not to provoke her, he reached out to her.
"I'm going to—" he began, but she cut him off.
"I know what your Semblance is. And I want you to know that I hate you. I would crush you beneath my heel."
He pulled back slightly in surprise. He didn't know she remembered. She had barely remembered his face or his name, once. But it was by her hand, after all, that his Semblance had awakened.
Eventually he said, "You already did that once."
Jaune pursed his lips and looked to her for permission. He may have been insistent, but he would offer nevertheless. Cinder nodded weakly. Part of her was shrouded in a wake-like shadow, otherworldly, marbled with vibrance in firelight. The rest of her bled.
Jaune kept his hands steady and let the power move through him and into her. It was a clear song on the wind. He already knew the words. It was so instinctual he hardly needed to think about it anymore. Yet he was conscious of it as he felt her Aura wound throbbing down deep. He was keenly aware of where they touched, molten heated. Something hung heavy on her very soul, cold and no-faced, hidden yet open and aching as a chasm. To heal her Aura completely he had to push it out, that was certain.
Jaune's eyes fluttered back open and he caught her watching him carefully.
"Your Aura is being drained. All the time. You know that, right?" he said.
"What's it to you?" she snapped.
"I am healing you."
Cinder narrowed her eye then. Her breaths came a little more easily, though still ragged. "You're fool enough for it."
"Call it foolishness if you want. I don't care."
She huffed. "What would your friends say? Helping your mortal enemy? What good is my life, for the Relic? We all know you want the Maiden powers on your side just as desperately as my master does."
"I don't know how to explain it. This is my Semblance. This is what I do."
He didn't know what she was searching for, as her gaze flit across him. A bluff, perhaps. A weakness. It was only the bare truth. This was who he was.
"It's a rare Semblance. It's a pity it's wasted on you."
"Oh, yeah? What would you do with it?" he said, defensive.
She looked surprised. Then it turned to sarcasm, eyelid lowered. "Certainly not use it on my nemesis."
He rolled his eyes. Then he focussed. He was annoyed by the drain. He didn't like the feeling at all, antithetical to his very purpose, the one thing he was good at. If the emptiness had been hers, he would have left it. So be her darkness. As he slipped past the cloak of death hanging to her, he could feel her all around him, and for a moment he thought she could too. He felt the roundness of her, the bright angry burn, burning brighter and brighter until he couldn't see or hear or feel anything except her.
Over her body the watery refraction of her Aura transformed from his gold into her warm orange, like the memory of autumn. Her gaze met his. It was lucid and untainted by blood loss. Her one eye was strangely luminescent, scorched honey. He didn't know how long to hold on for, but he kept on anyway, watching her. He would never be this close to her again, not unless they tried to kill each other once more.
"You've got this all backwards, you know. You're supposed to kill me," she said.
"I don't intend to kill you. Not like this."
"Ah, fair and noble. Delusions of chivalry."
"It would be like murder," he said. He drew his attention back to his hands, hovering over her, close enough to touch but not quite.
"Maybe you would give me a better death, a clean execution. Only fair for everything I've done. Everything I have to pay for. Isn't that right?"
"That doesn't— why are you trying to convince me to stop?"
Her stare was baleful and unamused. She looked queenly. Resplendent in soot. "Who would you choose as your Fall Maiden? If you killed me?"
"But you will have to. Eventually. Either we win, or your foolhardy attempts to save a dying world will. If you do, you have to be prepared for it. Killing isn't easy, and no simple butcher is enough. You have to be committed."
Cinder must have been talking only to unnerve him. He didn't take the bait. He was nearly done. Such was the irony that he would heal her. That he would find her now when he had already put his anger somewhere sleepy and silent.
"Of course, if you kill me, the power won't go to you. I suppose that's your problem, isn't it? These inherited powers… barred only to you, here and now missing the opportunity to slay me for purposes beyond revenge. But you have your Semblance. That's enough to content yourself with."
He tried not to respond. He did. He said anyway, "Why are you so determined to die?"
"My passing is in the interest of your team and the arrogant old man. You'll have to choose your Maiden, should it come to it. I'm surprised you haven't already considered it. What of your Spring maiden, your Summer? Don't you think of these things?" Then she smirked a sort of deathless smirk. "I'd like to know who she is anyway."
"They're not just vessels."
"That's all they are," she said.
"Then you don't understand—"
"Don't lecture me— I'm the Fall Maiden—"
"And I'm not killing you for the sake of it! Let me finish healing you!"
She quieted at that. Her mouth twisted, sour. Unbidden, she then said, "The Winter Maiden is yours, for now. Of course, she won't be for long. But you should plan your next move."
"I take it that's how this happened," he said. He had not questioned her presence. He somehow knew she hadn't died in the Vault. She haunted him, a glassy shadow at every turn, a trick of the light, a face in the flame.
"It's only a short setback," she half-muttered, half-growled.
Her Aura had filled, and it was as warm and thick as treacle. That Grimm arm of hers was still yet smoking, and when he looked through the blackened mist he saw nothing at all, like a reverse mirror.
Jaune released his hold on her and eased his stiff knees. She rose. There was a second where they stood facing each other unmoving where they were not enemies, and the fire simply danced lazily as if it were a bonfire and not trying to burn down Atlas for the laugh of it. She was just a woman in front of him, with bloodstained clothes. Then it righted itself and he saw who she was again. He thought she would be angry, but instead something shuttered itself secretly away in her. She gripped her Grimm arm.
It was strangely vulnerable. He knew that it must have hurt. He had felt it. But she was still who she was, and so was he.
"Don't think I'll go easy on you the next time we meet," she said.
He backed away to follow the blood trail out. "I wasn't expecting it."
"Nobody does something like this expecting nothing in return. Do you want mercy? For me to bother sparing you?"
"I want—" he tried, but he found that he wanted nothing for himself, nothing at all. "I want nothing."
Cinder narrowed her eyes. He had just saved, quite likely, the most dangerous woman in Remnant, after Salem herself. He had gone mad. But she had been dying. Madness or compassion, it was all the same.
"Since you can't decide for yourself, I'll let you go. Considering how little you value your life, I'll even throw in something extra: a shortcut." She measured him up, one-eyed stare hard and calculating. She didn't look like she had just nearly died.
He backed away. Then she grinned, madly or perhaps even excitedly, and in one swift motion took off, flame in hand. It was thunderous as she broke through the wall: in her violent wake, she left a direct line to where his team might be. He made to leave but kept sight of her one-woman comet tearing through the night sky, the deepest blue, lit alight.