A/N: This is the last chapter that will be posted to FFN. It is not the last chapter of the story.
The material inappropriate for FFN is too woven into the story to be removed for this website, so if you wish to continue to read it will be continued offsite.
"What are you doing down there?" came a voice.
In the sweet dark of the silent laundry, Cinder turned her head. She had come here to hide, once the din of dinner had given her excuse to leave. Knees together on the floor, curled in half behind the washing machine, tile against her skin, she could have been only an ambivalent shape of clothes. She felt a bit like it.
He spoke again and said, "Cinder." Jaune was annoyingly insistent.
She finally replied, "What."
His shadow cast long fingers over the floor, the light pouring in from over his shoulder like he made it himself. "I thought you said you weren't—"
"I lie," she snapped, clicking fire between her fingers.
Rearing back, he almost seemed disappointed in her. He closed the door with a thud, so it was only them now. The fire in her hand went off and on, off and on, dark and light, dark and light again. She left it there as he approached her with wariness.
Her mouth twisted meanly. "How easily you forget my nature."
"You can't pretend it's a bout of bad judgement anymore," he said, with a strange edge which suggested he seemed to think he was winning.
The unspoken part was that she was not so sad to be losing.
He continued, "Trying. Being kind—"
"I've never been kind," she interrupted, and for that she felt offended.
"— you were kind to my mother," he said, "and you ate dinner with us tonight. There wasn't even an argument this time."
Screaming on the inside, she did not say. Instead she said, "I much prefer the part where I'm helping you by killing things, or making things explode."
"Grimm instead of people?"
"Well, I killed Tyrian," he said, choosing to kneel then in front of her.
She closed her hand, and let the flame trickle through the gaps between her fingers, treacle-like, slow and strong. As much as what he had done shocked her— unnerved her— fixed something inside her that had been an open, gaping wound— there had been that awful, secret feeling that what he had done stirred something even deeper in her. Not the sort of thing that made her someone belonging to the side of Good and Justice, certainly. Likely not the sort of thing he would approve of.
"You know you don't have to play nice," he said to her then.
She drew her gaze to him with lingering guilt. "It makes you happy."
"That doesn't matter." A sweet, silly laugh. "Cinder, come on, the last thing I want to see if you screaming on the inside trying to be something you're not. Sort of like—"
"Oh, don't even," she muttered, annoyed that whatever he was trying was working.
"— sort of like, you know, working for Salem and all of that."
A beat, long enough to almost be awkward, passed before she said, "That was me."
"I know," he said, "but did you actually like any of them there? Did you even enjoy it?"
"Obviously not." She considered it further, trying not to look at him as she added, "I liked Emerald and Mercury, but I couldn't…" She hoped he would understand.
It seemed that he did.
"I hated Watts," Cinder said, "and I hated Tyrian, and I hated Hazel— he liked Emerald and Mercury, not me— and I hated— Atlas— and I hated—" That was it. She just hated. Hate could only carry you so far. But then she said, because she had to, "I liked destroying things. I remember the night Beacon fell, and Atlas; it felt good. It felt like I was finally right."
As he turned away from her, hiding his face behind his long lovely hair, she distantly wondered if she might ever truly scare him away. Perhaps he had overcommitted with that characteristic heedless haste.
"And then after it, it felt no different. It was just the same. There I was, one collar swapped for another, and I kept chasing the Maiden powers. A different prison, but a prison all the same." Her lids lowered as she watched him. "Does it ever stop hurting you?"
"You should ask yourself that question," he murmured.
"I can take a little pain."
"But I'd like you to not pretend," he said. "I like you— the way you are. Whether you fit in with them or not. That stuff doesn't matter right now. And besides, wasn't the reason you stormed off the last dinner because of me?"
"I think if any of them come to accept you, well, other than Ilia, it won't be because you're doing and saying the right things. I mean, hey, Yang's got a temper, Weiss picks on Ruby's table manners… I saw Nora pick her nose once when she thought no one was looking."
"Practically irredeemable," Cinder said, mock-shaking her head.
At that, he laughed again, and it made her stomach twist in contentment. "I know, I know, I've never told her I know."
"What did you mean by Ilia?"
"She seems to like you," Jaune suggested gently, "seems you have a little relatable experience."
"Ilia is in the White Fang. I was busy bringing down the Huntsman academies. They're a little different."
"Don't tell me there isn't a bit of ideology in it."
"Wanton destruction is not quite it."
"Of people who hurt you," he said, "of people who weren't what they were supposed to be. I remember when we were on our way to Argus there were these arrogant idiots who called themselves Huntsmen, who were really just trying to intimidate people with it. I thought, there I was, thinking I was a total loser, and I mean— I sort of am—"
"You're not," she grouched.
"Alright, alright, enough with you talking me up. Anyway, we dealt with them and I think maybe they learnt their lesson, especially once I whipped out my Semblance…"
"Impressive. Do you solve everything with peace and love?"
"No, it was pretty violent, and we did tell them off."
"Ah, peace, love, and a stern telling off." She raised her free hand to her chin, pretending to think. "You fall back on that one frequently. Why, you even tried it on me."
He shrugged in that way which always made her feel fond of him. "Worked, didn't it."
"It was mostly the eyes that did it," she said, wearing the joke thin as he groaned, but she continued on anyway, "so what you're saying is that you think my issue was the Huntsmen was not so misplaced."
"Maybe pointing your finger at the wrong person, since this is Oz and Salem's trouble—"
"You had an issue with him anyway."
"I did," Jaune said tightly.
"Now look where it's got you," and as she said it, she wondered what it was like for him, making the choices he had. Sometimes, soft as he was, he seemed harder than anything, to her.
"And where do you think you're going?" he sniped back. "Don't make me carry you again."
She closed her hand shut and snuffed out the light, so she could only feel his breath on her to know him near. Quietly, she remembered how far the fire had blazed. The pyre of Evernight had been almost bright as the light of day, seared to the white flinty bone with its mistress. It had come from somewhere deep inside the folds of her mind, dreaming of it long before, dreaming of it when she knelt and kept her head low. Inside her warred every dream.
"You should have left me there," Cinder said, "to hold her back."
Only so long would the fire she left behind hold Salem. Something unknowable would rise up from the ash and come back for her, twice as eternally damned. That last, long look on Salem's face had left her puzzled. So deeply alien that Cinder wondered if she had ever seen it before.
She heard an intake of angry breath, and as her eyes adjusted, she saw an anger swell up in Jaune, through his shoulders and across what little of his face she could see. "Don't ever say that to me again," he said with a cold fury.
"You can't keep dealing with Salem in half-measures. Ruby knew that too. She would never had killed me if I'd stayed. She needs me for the Relic."
"I don't care."
Her unspoken belief gnawed at her. There was no after, and the thought of it touched at the deepest fear in her, that things were not so absolute as she had believed. She decided instead to ask him, "Why does it anger you?"
"You know why."
There was a long, sharp moment piercing her chest, until he said to her, "You really don't."
"What do you think Pyrrha did?" he whispered viciously. "When she met you at the top of Beacon Tower and she died. She'd left me down there, at the bottom, already knowing she was dead before she made it to you. I thought— I thought dying for it might've been worth it, to be like her, to make what she did worth it. That night— that night too, you hurt Weiss instead, and I realised it really wasn't worth it. I would never let it happen again."
She curled a fist, and sucked in a breath. She did not know what to say. She only knew how to fight. In a fashion, she had tried to fix something the exact same manner in which she had broken it. What else was she meant to do? She could help, but she could not change her nature, could not change the things that made her who she was. Cinder loved to go down in flame.
Where he had dragged her hurt more. It was the other half of a song she had not wanted to hear, a sight she kept an eye blind for. She realised, in the darkest chamber of her burning heart, that was why he wanted to help her, why killing Penny had broken him so.
She squeezed her eyes shut, hard as she could. That desire to protect was as rooted in him as her capacity for violence was. Then the beast inside her reared its angry head. She had wanted to be the one and only. The Maiden; Salem's right-hand woman; the one who brought Atlas down. She was none of those, only the Fall Maiden; a pawn; the piece that pushed Ironwood in the direction he figured out he wanted anyway. Every victory for her was tainted in some way; all of it begged for a hard bargain, starting with her freedom for someone else's life.
Then, in the most shameful, dark corner of her glass heart, what she had always suspected to be true was true. She was nothing special. He saved her because she broke him that way in the first place. It could have been anyone else. It was cruelly arbitrary. It felt like the thing she deserved, for wanting to be something special.
"You should go," she told him. She hated how she only thought of herself.
"Go," she told him again, "you've got what you wanted, and I'm alive. Leave."
"Are you being serious? Are you— mad you didn't—"
Every single bad, evil thing she truly was came in stark relief, and she could not run it nor hope it would go away if she died and made up for it. In that selfish rush of feeling she knew, then, that she only lived because she had killed, that she only was tolerated because he had hated her, that everything they were now was inextricably linked to what had made them enemies. That there was no running. That he was who he was— because she broke him. That she was who she was— because he helped her. That she could not have what she wanted— because she was the architect of her own punishment, the only punishment.
They sat side by side in sullen silence the next morning, where Ruby waited outside, under the fig tree. She had not wanted to wake, dreamless and cold, forcibly unwinding from where she had slept, more animal than woman. In all the time they had known each other, neither of them had been good at staying quiet. He was always talking through the bond, when he insistently appeared to her. Now, solid as anything, they did not speak.
A dragonfly whirred by, buzzing as heavy and insistent as the humid heat beading pearls on her skin. Its stained glass wings were threaded with black veins. Ruby's wolf eyes tracked it lazily, her head resting on her great big paws. Ruby must have known, when she chose to go with Salem, what would happen, and she had chosen it anyway. Cinder felt like she was finally beginning to understand her, too.
Cinder flicked at the dragonfly when it landed on her. It went on its way. She crossed her arms and tried not to sigh. In a fit that came to her, she asked Ruby, "What's it like?"
Ruby barked at her.
"I see. Regretting the heroic bargain now, are you?"
"Cinder," Jaune snapped at her, but not with the bite she expected to hear.
"What? It's not often you get saddled with the consequences of your foolish self-sacrifice." She intended it to hurt.
He said to her, "Is this about you or Ruby?"
Ruby barked again. Cinder felt pity for her, which made her want to tear her hair out, since Cinder did not feel pity, or like pity, or want pity.
"I hope you learn from it," Cinder said to Ruby instead of Jaune. "Everyone else has to deal with this now and they're all tearing their hair out with worry. Look at you. You're drooling through those big teeth of yours."
Jaune was watching her in the corner of her eye, mouth twisted and gaze hard, like he was figuring something out. Ruby got to her feet and stretched to her full height, and strode away with her tail between her legs, before she came back and settled down again, indecisive, wary of where she ought to go. Cinder wondered how much of the beast was her, and something else. The Grimm arm had been a dark cloud, a stain, not something that controlled her but she controlled it, and Salem pulled on the leash if she ran too far.
"Ruby," Cinder began steadily, "can she sense you?" It came out kinder than she meant it.
"Salem could?" Jaune asked, in place of an answer from Ruby, who sniffed the air.
"I don't know how exactly. Salem's not overly forthcoming with her relationship to the Grimm. Of course, there are so many it's somewhat hard to tell the difference."
"How do you mean?"
"Salem wouldn't be able to tell Ruby or me apart from any run of the mill, hardened Grimm. The older they are, the less they listen to her, too. It's why she made her strange creatures. They obey her more easily. It's what made Vacuo different, because— strange things grew there, too."
She watched him back, and saw the cogs turning in his head. She had shushed the dragon at the top of the school, hushed it like a child. Then the memory of Summer Rose's black cape of Grimm, overwhelming the horizon of Vacuo, a passing shadow that blotted out the light. The more she tapped into that darkness, of quieting Grimm, of making them see her to be a monster just like them, the surer she was it was harder to turn back.
She said nothing to Ruby, and only hoped she did not try it.
Ruby got up and paced again. Cinder clicked her fingers and played with dancing fire. Jaune sat back with crossed arms, seemingly as stubborn as her to not speak of the unspoken. Every now and then, when Ruby wagged her wolf tail, it hit the fig tree and unsettled its branches.
Cinder admitted defeat and tried, "What's wrong with her?"
"Oscar says she likes hearing you talk."
"Then why aren't you talking."
Jaune looked away from her sullenly. She crossed her arms and realised with a dawning sort of shame that they mirrored each other's positions, as if her body thought the same way as his.
"Tell her a story," Cinder said.
"She's been there for most of it, and what she hasn't, I'm not sure she would want to know."
Cinder tried to parse what that meant, then realised he was probably referring to the fact it was mostly their secret affair Ruby did not know as much about. She rolled her eyes, and turned to Ruby and said, "Let me tell you about the time I stole the Relics from Salem whilst she was asleep."
It was a small victory, and the first of many.
"Salem had returned from Atlas exhausted, and long did she sleep. I had never seen her eat nor sleep nor drink, but even the deathless, it seems, break down eventually. She might command an imposing presence, but my master— she has weaknesses. She told me to stay. Would that I made a good guard dog, as she had said, one quite so good as you. I suppose she never thought me to have too much of a mind to myself, since she had beaten it out of me, and kept me placated. Then— I had grown— restless. Sitting still? Waiting for Tyrian to take the glory? It was absurd. And—" she wanted to censor the truth out, "— I admit, my room was not so quiet and silent."
Sometimes she thought she could hear the waves, from where he had been.
"I went down into the bottom of the keep, in the very bowels. You might know where it is, since you were kept in my old rooms, after the Fall of Beacon. Salem was yet down further, and in her easy arrogance she never thought to shield it from me. I dispatched her Seer, and as she slept, I took the Relics from right under her. Then I went back up, the way you yourself came, and I asked Ambrosius for a wish."
Ruby had stopped pacing by the time she had finished recounting.
"I tricked her once," Cinder added, "you tricked her as well. I doubt you'll stay like this forever."
Her mother, Summer Rose, down there in the bottom of the keep, may have been a different question yet. Cinder knew better than to say that, cruel as she was.
She omitted the rest of the story, with Jaune and the beach and Neo and the Gods and the middle of somewhere in Vale, and the dress she had ruined, because it had made her angry, the thing she wanted and hated. She left only the bits in that she hoped Ruby might like, the girl she had hated.
"There," she said, turning to Jaune, "now it's your turn."
Ruby whinnied in agreement.
Jaune reluctantly told the story of when Tyrian kidnapped him, which seemed to involve more of his self-sacrifice (but very justified, he hastened to add) and sticking it to Huntsman academy headmasters. Cinder could not help smiling in approval, and sheepishly ducked his head in acknowledgement at that. She was much less impressed with the part where Tyrian himself was involved, though.
"I'm glad he's dead," she bit out.
Ruby's tail thudded against in the ground. It picked up in speed when she saw a new visitor.
"You two certainly seem to have fascinating tales to share," said Ozma's shadow. Cinder turned, and covered her eyes from the sun overhead, glaring at the once-headmaster she could not manage to kill, speaking through Oscar.
"Bring Oscar back," Cinder snapped. "I like him much better than you."
"Oscar has permitted me to come speak with you, and say hello to Ruby."
"Then say hello to Ruby," she answered mulishly.
Ozma cleared the throat-that-was-not-his and said, "Hello, Ruby."
The bark in return was enough to signal hello, but it did come to Cinder that perhaps they had get started on some sort of supplemental communication. She figured wolf-bark would not be enough to see them through finding a poor silver-eyed warrior to come do their bidding. She hoped he would hurry up and apologise then go start another secret war somewhere away from Cinder.
"I'm— so sorry, for what Salem has done to you. I did not know what happened to your mother. Had I known, I would have—"
"Would have what? Why do you think she did it?" Cinder stood to her feet. "You know, Ruby can't talk. She's a dog."
"A Grimm," Jaune added helpfully.
"I thought her more a… wolf," Ozma said. He leant against his cane, and for the boy he was, he looked thousands of years old, uncomfortable in his skin.
"Summer Rose did what she did because what you were doing was insufficient. Just like you maligned the Maiden powers—" Cinder, who never stopped taking in her surroundings for prey or predator, saw Ilia emerge on the verandah. Perhaps she had not been as quiet as she thought she had.
"I have admitted to my folly against Salem, but the Maiden powers lost their purpose. We did all we could to recuperate them. You yourself knew that many sought them for the wrong ends. Not as I— intended them."
"Ah, so the old wizard wishes to teach the Maidens a lesson himself now."
"That is not as I would see it."
Cinder ground her teeth. "You made coffins for Maidens to transfer the powers as you saw fit."
"You hunted them down."
"A good clean kill is better than taking their souls out and stuffing them inside someone else. Wouldn't you be familiar with that."
She felt the air pressure shift as Jaune sat up behind her, laying a steadying hand on her arm. Ruby started to pace again.
Cinder was not sure why the righteous anger flooded through her. Perhaps because he was an easy target, and she felt malice for him, for the way his glowing golden eyes reminded her oddly of the smoking black arm. Perhaps because if he had not sent his good little soldier to do what she must do, had not guided her and picked her to be the Fall Maiden— the real one— then she would not be where she was standing, and she hated him even more for it. Perhaps Cinder just needed a target, no matter the fight.
"I'm sure you'd rather that your choice Fall Maiden stood here today," she proclaimed, which came out cruel, just the way she was. "Does it vex you to know that I stopped you? That I stopped Winter? That the Summer Maiden slew herself, rather than—"
Rather than face prison again, she thought, rather than be alone, she thought further, and sickly, thick through her, she realised how thin of a line there was between her and Carmine, looking through a funhouse mirror.
"I did not come here to fight you," said Ozma.
"That's as good an answer as any."
Ilia strode over and appeared beside her, and inserted her Summer Maiden nose, saying, "Cinder, he's not responsible for any of that now. You know that. We made our own decisions."
"You're the Maiden everybody would have wanted," Cinder snapped. "I can tell it was a relief to be rid of Carmine and have it pass to you, worthy and kind and worldly. Me? Me—?"
"Well, that's better than wanting it for yourself," Ilia said plainly.
The fight sapped out of her but she wanted it back. She wanted Ilia to be cruel back to her. "I suppose," she allowed.
Ruby trodded over and Cinder, confused at first, balked when she knocked her head against Cinder's. It was so unexpected that Cinder did not know what to say to that. Jaune laughed.
"I did come to see Ruby," the old man said, "and I came to thank you. You as well, Ilia."
"Thank me?" Cinder curled her lip, and wished she could raise a sword against him. It would hurt Oscar as much as it would hurt the old man, though, and perhaps she had a tiny bit of something like pity, or worry, for the boy.
"You were much braver than me," Ozma continued, "facing Salem." Then he nodded at Ruby, and left. As he walked off, the gait in his step changed, and his shoulders slumped. The further he went away, the more she was sure it was Oscar who had come back. She heard a long. high sigh, and then a whistle.
"He's a strange man," Ilia said. "Did he say— did he say he was the man who gave the Maidens their powers?"
"Of course. Who did you think he was?" Cinder said back.
"I didn't think it was real."
"They're all real."
Cruel, but real, she did not qualify. The girl in the tower had ended up alone. The indecisive king had hidden his crown. The silver-eyed warrior had not come back.
"The Girl in the Tower was Salem," Cinder said, sitting back down to resume her watch.
"What?" said Ilia.
Cinder would have laughed at her reaction had she not caught the expression on Jaune's face, bare to anyone who bothered to look: something like anger, maybe even sadness.
"Who takes over after us?" he asked her, even though he already knew the answer.
She mocked one of his shrugs.
"I can," Ilia offered, indifferent to whatever was passing between Jaune and Cinder.
Cinder appreciated that. She huffed and sat back down, in the green grass of the summer sun, and waited.
"Now you have to tell Ruby a story," Cinder instructed Ilia.
"Ah, I don't know if I have any good ones."
"Surely there are some from the White Fang."
"Well, getting from Menagerie to Atlas was a trip and a half. Especially when we figured out you were all in Vacuo, what by the fact Atlas and Mantle are the same city now… we got lucky that Qrow and the Ace-ops found us first." Bright recognition sparked on her face before she said, "Oh, you'll like this one about your uncle."
Cinder sat back, satisfied, and pretended to ignore Jaune, but mostly failed at it, because she had never been good at it. For a wild moment, she wished it were just the two of them, connected by a thin thread of an Aura bond, where she had no excuse not to try to rile him up. The very sight of him had filled her with something unnameable.
Once Ilia had finished her story about Qrow finding them— having scared them all soundly once he had transformed from a crow back into Qrow— she told Ruby that Yang was sleeping now, and maybe Raven might join Ilia next to watch over Ruby. Inside the rest of them milled around, and apparently Ilia had just left behind an argument over the Relics and what to do with them. Nora threatened to bury the Relic somewhere no one would ever find it.
Raven came out and exchanged a wordless greeting, and at that, Cinder had no more time to buy. She flounced back off into the house with the vague hope she might be accosted by Jaune's mother, but she was too kind and well-knowing for that. As she fled, somewhat too cowardly for who and what she was, she stomped up the stairs as if he were not trailing right behind her. She kept her mouth shut, so that the others might not hear whatever it was he had to say to her.
"What are you two stomping for?" called Jaune's mother.
"Nothing!" Jaune called back.
She heard something that distinctly sounded like Oscar's voice, yet with the intonation of the old man. No doubt he thought he had something clever to say.
She had barely made it into his room before he burst out behind her, "What was that about?"
"Which part," she said drolly.
He came up behind her, so close she could feel his breath passing down her back, making her hairs stand on end. She did not turn to look back at him, and let him stare at the back of her head, so that she might hide, at least, what she was thinking. Finally he said, "Wishing that you were someone else."
"I didn't wish for it."
"You may as well have said as much."
"I was merely commenting on Ozma's stakes in the matter. I certainly wasn't—"
"Is it about last night?"
"Confronting the consequences of my own actions? No." Perhaps a little. She stepped back from him to leave an appropriate gap between them.
His mouth went all sad, downturned and disappointed. In a way, it brought her sick satisfaction, but she wanted to take it back just as much. Sometimes she almost wished that he hated her, that it was why she had been so insistent— for so long— that it was all they were. It was easier. This was too hard.
He said, "Why are you being mean."
"I am mean," she replied lowly, "and I hate— I hate what I've done to you."
"But I forgive you—"
"That," she snapped. "That. What I don't deserve. What can never—" be mine the way I want it. She felt all twisted and wrong, half of her here, the other half of her burning in that pyre with Salem. Half-mad, half-wanting.
"I don't know what it was that Salem said to you, but whatever it was, it wasn't true."
"Salem has been right about a great many things—"
"And what would she know of what you deserve?" Jaune insisted. "When has she been right?"
Toil in the shadows, far away in her memory, redeem yourself. "I may have rearranged my priorities, but she's right in ways you don't know." No happy endings for her, but maybe for someone else.
Cinder had taken that, too.
She steeled her spine and waited for his indignance to show, and yet, so focussed on him, did she barely register the shouts coming from out the window and down the rest of the house. On instinct she summoned a black glass sword and ran for the window, expecting to see a horde of Grimm but equally hoping it would be nothing, and all she did see, indeed, was nothing.
She turned from where she crouched on the window sill and said, "Ruby's gone."
At that, Jaune did exactly as she had though with less flare, and grabbed his sword-and-shield and went downstairs the long way. Cinder floated down on gentle guiding flame and caught ahold of Blake, who was sharing stern words with Weiss, the vagaries of which Cinder did not care for.
Cinder stabbed the sword down in the fence of the verandah and said, "What are you two standing there for?"
"Ruby bit Raven and ran away," Blake said.
"She bit her," Weiss added for emphasis.
"Is that uncharacteristic behaviour?" Cinder asked drily.
Jaune said behind her, "Usually, yes."
"Very funny," Weiss said primly, "I'm glad you find this amusing."
"I don't. But I did wonder how much of her were still a beast," Cinder said back. She thought for a long moment whilst the rest of them tittered. Yang came out half-asleep yet still looking ready for a fight, bedhead belied by her shotgun gauntlets. Why did they always have to add guns to things, Cinder wondered.
Weiss had started debating whether they needed a net of some sort to catch Ruby, and how would they keep her contained once she was returned, the logistics of which bored and tired Cinder. Ruby was a wolf. She probably wanted blood and had gone hunting. She saw that this would not be what they wanted to hear, since their best friend and team leader was currently hairy, bad-tempered, and unable to voice her own concerns.
Jaune went and rounded up the rest of his team with Emerald and Nora, and started telling them how they would split up to search for her. Even as Cinder patiently waited, she had to admit that he did have a very even way of commanding them, which once again made up for the fact the other co-leader was missing-in-wolf-action.
Cinder offered, "I have but one suggestion."
"I'm all ears," said Jaune, which sounded very sensible and commanding-like but open to feedback. It made her want to do something bad on purpose.
"If you take her back in chains, she won't stay. Let her run for a bit. She won't get very far, once she's had a taste of blood."
"Do you mean her eating people?"
"Of course not," Cinder said, though she sort of did. "Perhaps you should send one of your Summons for her to hunt, Schnee."
"It's Weiss," bit back Schnee, who seemed like she was remembering when Cinder had impaled her with a spear but, only by the good conscience of her rearing and politeness, did she not mention it. "And that's all well and good, but she's still Ruby. She's not some— creature. We need to help her."
Cinder flit her gaze over to Oscar, who sat forlornly where Ruby had been. Raven was gone, presumably scouting ahead and catching her trail, along with Ilia. Winter and Qrow had gone back to Vacuo, which Cinder thought was a very bad idea, to send those two off together, but what did she know.
Eventually she decided on a shrug. "Whatever you say."
"She can't be that much of a monster," said Nora, from where she stood with Emerald. "She came with us, after all."
Cinder glared at her, but acquiesced. They split up to cover the directions Ruby could have run, and before they took off, Raven made her merry return through Yang and one of those portals Cinder sort of hated. It was like cheating. Raven transformed back into a human before their very eyes, and told Yang she had lost track of Ruby.
Yang went to punch a tree. Using her wise judgement, Cinder decided not to stoke the flames and ask Raven why she did not try flying higher, and perhaps not as a bird.
Cinder waited for them to all to leave, and when she made no motion to stand up, Jaune said to her, "Are you coming?"
"Of course not."
"I thought— I thought you were coming with Ren and Nora. And me. And Emerald and Mercury." Behind him, Nora called for him to hurry up.
"You said I didn't have to play house. I'm not playing house. If you're not back by sundown, I'll go search for her myself, and I'll make sure to bury the bodies."
"Did you know she would be like this?"
"I didn't know how bad," Cinder replied, only with honesty. "She seemed reasonable enough, but a beast is a beast, no matter how soft its fur."
"Maybe she didn't leave for the reason you thought she did," Jaune said, brow furrowed sweetly. "Maybe— maybe she needs us to look for her and find her."
"Then so be it."
"Alright. I'll see you when we're back," he said to her. He pressed his lips together hard, wresting something back from what he so clearly wanted to say.
She wanted to tell him that it was for the best. As much as she tried to control herself, though, she still yet slip, "You're forgetting about the bond, aren't you."
His back had been turned to her before he turned again, and said, "I didn't forget."
"It seems like you did. Remember that when you're strategising. I'm never far." It should have sounded like a threat, but it came out too softly. She could not help it.
"Yeah, you're right. I guess I don't think of it that way."
She tilted her head, and again Nora and Ren called for him. She said, "How do you mean?"
He rested a hand on the pommel of his sword, the way he did when he was thinking hard and trying to conceal it. "It's just our thing." Before she could react or reply to that, he continued, "I'll see you, then," with such an odd melancholy she almost called him back.
The five of them leaving together looked like a proper, model Huntsman team. Jaune with his blackened suit of armour, the pink, green, grey of his teammates turning to indistinct smudges as they crossed the acreage of the Arc home. Oscar had gone with what remained of Ruby's teammates, and Ilia and Raven had set out, nonplussed about navigating the Vale woods. No doubt Raven wished she were back in Mistral, rather than back in a place she had left with decided motive. Cinder thought it was funny, since if she had a choice, she would have picked Vale.
So she began her watch. Perhaps she would have made a good watchwoman after all. Her lonely watch did not last for long, though, since Jaune's mother came outside and asked what all the ruckus was, and Cinder, once again, had to navigate the smalltalk she had grown rusty in. She found it difficult speaking to someone she did not intend to kill at some point. The questioning and curiosity near reminded her of Salem. She had no idea why the woman took such interest in her, asking about her sword and her dress and her boots, and what she was doing behind whilst the others had left, and where Jaune had himself got his armour, and where had their friend gone— Cinder stipulated that she was not her friend— and for some peculiar reason it made her laugh.
Cinder flattened her mouth at that.
Mrs. Arc continued and said, "So you're waiting here to see if you're right, then."
"I suppose," Cinder allowed.
"If she eats someone, I don't want to be in trouble."
"You won't be. She's just a Grimm to anyone, and no one's to know she's been stuffed inside a monster." At least Cinder appreciated the self-concern. It was refreshing. Then she said, "Now, whether someone decides to kill her for such a condition is altogether another problem."
"Not sure there are enough Huntsmen around here now. Heard a lot of them went to Mistral since every one of them dropped dead. Huntsman flu?"
"Huntsman flu," Cinder agreed. She melted her sword down and summoned a dagger to begin playing with, twirling it idly. As she did, she nicked her skin when she thought she heard a wolf howling, lonely. The skin opened with a bead of blood and then healed over when she blinked.
"Though they said the Grimm that were at Beacon have died down," Mrs. Arc added, even though the conversation felt near enough dead. "Not sure what that's about."
"The Grimm controlling it has left."
"How do you know that?"
"I met her," Cinder responded, too pithy.
Again, Jaune's mother only laughed, but this time it came with an edge of fear Cinder knew well. "Which one is she, then?"
"I'm going inside, then," Mrs. Arc simply said, her expression nonplussed. That must have been enough for her. So at that, she did go inside, and left behind whatever outlandish things Cinder had to tell her. Cinder was thankful for it. Perhaps Cinder could appreciate Summer Rose's sacrifice after all.
The sun had passed its midday high and was wearing into the afternoon unwanted. She did not know how she suffered waiting for Salem when she was asleep. She wished that Ruby had not run off only so she did not have to try to prove her point and remain where she was. Sometimes it was a shame how stubborn she was. It even annoyed herself, at times.
Her stubbornness warred with her impatience. The great hills went on and on, blurry blue, and she made and destroyed and reforged swords in hand. They glittered in the brightness and blinded her until she melted them again, obsidian black, shifting grey, hot red.
She was waiting for him to give in first.
She wondered where Ruby was running. Perhaps it was the beast, or perhaps it was something she had said. Surely not tricking Salem. Surely not the thought of her uncle. They all accepted her for what she had become, though for her own sake, Cinder wished that Ruby would at least become capable of speech. The Hound had grown its own voicebox, so she had heard, and spoken with a half-man, half-monstrous mouth, but she doubted it had made for lively conversation. She hoped, once again, for Ruby's sake, that if they wrested the wolfskin off her body, there would be something there still, and not the skeleton of the Hound.
Ruby-the-beast must have already known that, buried somewhere deep in her subconscious, and Cinder decided that must have been why she ran. She was afraid, and it warred inside her until she had to leave, to hunt, and to run from herself, and to feel something.
Cinder knew it all too well. That kind of pain became holy.
She lost track of what she was doing. Summon, sharpen, melt. She thought of the silver-eyed warriors, and what left of them now. Salem had hunted them all down, until she had found something new to play with, the same way she had begun to play with the Grimm themselves. Before her witchcraft, though, she had only known how to kill. It seemed a better answer to Cinder, but Salem enjoyed the irony of making them the very thing they were supposed to destroy.
Salem liked her irony, a great deal.
She had been remembering something from very long ago, from her childhood, when Jaune appeared to her. She snapped her mouth shut and drew herself out of her memory, and said to Jaune, "You bring news?"
He watched her for a long moment, almost shyly. "We might've found a trail. A horde of Grimm were dealt with before anybody could call a Huntsman."
"Oh, do tell."
"Apparently another Grimm attacked them all," Jaune said. "It was bigger than most. A wolf, they say."
"But you seem upset about it."
"You have your Semblance," Cinder said. "You know you can fix it."
"Do you think it was an accident?"
"Yes," Cinder lied, because it soothed him.
"You were— you were singing," he said to her, in a non-sequitur, ignoring her sweet lie.
"I wasn't," she said. He was lying now, too. "Go back to your friends."
Then, before he could answer, she got to her feet and set off. She did not want to alert anyone near Jaune to the bond, stranger, friend, or foe. She settled for flying. After all, she still had the power, and she knew how to use it now.
Up above, the world turned into a seed. From it sprang the roots of forests and homes and fields, and Cinder looked over all of it. She may have tried her patience, as waiting for Ruby was as trying as searching for her, but she decided if Weiss would not see her for the beast she was, Cinder would.
It took some time to find where they had gone, but in the hours since they had left, there was only so far they could have got. Finally, in a clear field near a small undefended town, she saw the dissolving carcasses of the Grimm, one by one spreading to the wind. This high they only looked like the smouldering remains of a fire. But everything to Cinder looked like fire, except for water. She moved on from that and tried to think as a beast, for where would she go, four-legged and hungry? To the north, where more homes were, for human flesh? To the east, for the crop? To the west, for where Grimm hatched, from the nothingness and the sharpness of cliffs and the secrets of caves?
Such a beast as her would not return to her kind, and would not care for crop. Cinder went north. Of course she went north. There was no choice. Before she could arouse suspicion of the next town over, she hit the ground running and then slowed to a determined pace. Ruby was lucky that Cinder did not like her.
She was glad that she had swapped those indecent heels for boots. It had come to her in a girlish spur of the moment, when Vacuo had not fell, and she had taken her boon for the victory. She knew better now.
Where she was going was a town unmarked by conflict. They only would have seen Grimm during the Fall of Beacon, and since then, things would have been as normal for them. Cinder considered it kind, at least, of Salem, to only attack the schools. Atlas had been messy. Cinder had liked it, though.
She stomped through dead leaves and passed through tree and tree, so old and tall they were that she felt nothing of the sun's warmth, only the dense humidity of the canopy covering her. It was a good place to be, if you were a monster hot in your skin, ready to break out, too sensitive to the touch.
It took her longer on foot to reach where Ruby had run. She knew she had come through here, because the ground bore signs of her movement now. Cinder followed the disturbed path, unafraid. The wolf howl she heard properly this time did not stop her. It howled and howled and howled. The birds went aflutter. Cinder did not falter. Monster, come to me, she thought, I am just like you.
She went deeper and further into the woods, until it cleared, and she found her way. She heard a little girl scream, and then cut out as a door slammed. Cinder stalked through the cobbled roads and searched for the wolf that had scared her so. A woman opened the door the girl had slammed, and called after Cinder, "Are you a Huntress? How much do you want for killing that Grimm?"
Cinder turned, drawled, "My services incur no such cost."
"The others all ask for pay."
The wolf howled. Cinder said, "Then tell them to stick it." She went on, and followed that howl again.
Ruby cut the figure of a Grimm of legend. The sort that scared children at night and kept them inside from playing out too late. But it was bright and sunny, and her dark fur burnt with a golden glow, revealing its secret red in the light. The long grass around her brushed at her paws, crushed beneath her feet, and the trees lining the visage were small sprouts beside the monstrous beast, a wolf nearly a house tall.
Cinder did not approach her with caution. She did not approach Ruby with a weapon, either. She came to stand at the edge of the field, where she waited, as if Ruby had been waiting for her as well. Ruby set her blank Grimm eyes on her, and then— insulting to Cinder, truly— she growled.
She wondered what madness had overtaken her. When Ruby leapt at her, Cinder held the wolf back by its big paws. The force of it nearly cracked her open, egglike. Her heels pushed back through the grass, rending it back from the earth, and the soft soil gave way without a protest. The wolf unhinged its jaw and drool dripped from its unearthly teeth and mouth, her mouth stinking of the foulest breath, miasmic. Cinder reared her own face away, to try to escape it, but the wolf opened her mouth wider until it seemed like it might rend in half.
Cinder burnt the wolf with her fireskin, and at the wolf's whine from no Aura shield to protect her, Cinder went to push her, with all her might, to her side. The wolf, heavier than the earth, took a great heft, but gave way and fell with a thud that shook the ground. She waited for Ruby to get to her feet, or rather, her paws, since such a big thing took her time to heave herself up. Her tail sashayed back and forth, hitting the ground like a grandfather clock, thud, thud, thud, thud.
The wolf howled and would have screamed, had she the mouth. There was the wolfblood in her, and Cinder was not sure what would satiate her. At Evernight, Cinder had realised that what awakened the girl in the wolf had been Cinder herself, who had been Salem's beast just like her. The trouble was, neither of them knew what to do after the fact, and so Cinder had returned to her own beastliness, no matter how she staved it off; so too did Ruby.
Ruby growled again, a guttural that rumbled through her whole body, and would have shook the trees for its sound had she not swallowed the noise inside her. She came for Cinder again, and Cinder moved with her, kicked her, and tossed her again. This time she rolled down the field from the landing. Cinder rolled her shoulders from the force still moving through her.
"Ruby," she began to scold her, "enough of this."
A pitiful bark, then the wolf came at her again, and again. Cinder began to huff and puff from the force of each assault, as each time Ruby leapt and was tossed and rolled, Cinder felt her Aura tested.
Cinder knelt down in the soil as Ruby did not get to her bearings yet. She called out to the wolf and said, "Your friends are looking for you. They want to find their friend, and all they would find before them is a beast."
Ruby came at her, as if to bite her head off for the words. Cinder wondered what sort of Grimm she would have made. She would have been unruly for sure.
"I'll fight you until you tire," Cinder said, out of breath. She could not stab or maim or burn Ruby, and so she had to keep fighting her by hand, claw to claw. She watched the shadows draw longer and longer, as the day wore on, but did not feel the fight go out of her, and the fight did not go out of Ruby, either.
She tried to wrestle the beast for an age. She did not expect to reason with her, because what reason would there be for a beast? Everything Jaune said to her went in one ear and came out the other. He did not know how blackened her soul was with her misdeeds, how deep her wounds went, how she refused to let him see; how his wound was her wound, and whatever she wrought on him, she wrought on twice herself, to make up for it, because what hurt him hurt her. Ruby had found the sweet memory of her mother a lie; the fight impossible; lonely and likely to bargain. No doubt Salem had Ruby to herself and filled her with the darkest thoughts: there was no coming back; her mother would never rescue her; no one was coming; no one would come for her; the world could not be saved; there was no going home; let me ease the pain for you and show you the truth.
Cinder could not give her a rousing speech. She could not inspire her. She could not tell her that Salem was wrong, because she knew everything Salem said to her had been true. But Cinder expected better of Ruby. Even when they had known that Salem could not be killed, that the path before them was impossible, they did not stop. Cinder had almost envied it, the madness, until she joined them in it.
She could only fight Ruby until she grew tired of it. Cinder was good at that. She could fight, and as they went on and on, as the townspeople came to watch the spectacle, she wondered when it would stop.
"Kill it!" shouted one. "Go on, do it!"
"Yeah kill it!"
An indistinct cacophony of agreeing shouts rang out, and Cinder wanted to beat them bloody, too. Ruby may have had the terrible luck of being a big bad wolf, but she was not a thing to kill anymore. When Ruby was in the middle of heaving herself up again, she went over to the gathering crowd and told them all to go back inside.
When they protested, she snapped and said, "It's too dangerous. I'm not cleaning up meat paste once this wolf decides to eat you all." That scared off but a few, some who insisted that maybe they could chain the Grimm and harvest its limbs to sell as a trophy, but she threatened to scalp them and sell that instead. All but one of them then remained, who was an insistent little girl— not the one who ran off earlier, but possibly related. Cinder could not estimate her age, since she did not spend very much time around children, but she was small and looked like Grimm food.
She asked in a flat tone, "Why hasn't the wolf eaten you yet."
"Because it's a good wolf."
"But it's a Grimm."
Behind her, she heard Ruby heave herself up properly. "I'm trying to tame it."
"But it's a big hairy Grimm."
"Go inside," she bit out at the child, and the girl pretended to walk away until she found a dead tree stump further away, and settled down, continuing to watch.
She would have yelled but she was preoccupied with Ruby.
"Ruby," she finally said, "you're not a wolf. You're a girl inside a wolf. There's a difference. Wake up."
Ruby had been running towards her again, but she stopped. She sniffed the air, as out of breath as Cinder was. Cinder rested her hands on her knees. The little girl who remained in audience started cheering. Ruby cocked an ear towards her, then raised her snout in the same direction. There was a long moment where Cinder wondered what was going to happen, as Ruby trod over to the girl, with her straw hair and messy clothes. The girl held out a hand with an apple. Ruby leant down and low and ate the apple out of her hand. Ruby had been hungry after all. When she was finished, she bumping the girl's outstretched head in thanks, making the little girl giggle.
Cinder furrowed her brow in surprise. Ruby barked happily and reared back, and rested her head on her paws. The girl stood up on the stump and patted Ruby on the head. Cinder approached cautiously, not knowing what to do, more unfamiliar with the little girl than she was with Ruby.
"I didn't know Grimm had soft fur," said the girl.
Cinder, too confused to respond, only waited. The sun bowed its head as Ruby did, and as she had said, when the sun set, she would go searching for Ruby and find the body count. As it stood, she was not sure how to count the little girl, petting Ruby like a dog.
"Don't try to pet Grimm," Cinder told the girl eventually.
"But you said this one is nice."
"Just don't," she answered, with an edge of frustration. "Not all of them are nice."
"What if they just need doggy pets."
She wished Jaune were here. He would know what to say to a girl insisting that Grimm could be petted. As if clicking her feet and wishing had summoned him, over the crest of the hill far from the field, she saw a team of five Huntsmen and Huntresses make their way through the silent town. She put her hands on her hips and tried to look scary, and not at all excited to see him. Had push come to shove, she was going to use the Aura bond, but that, too, would have meant giving in.
"Cinder?" Jaune called. "Is that you?"
"No," she called back, to be difficult. "It's different thorn in your side."
He met her first, shaking his head as he did so, laughing to himself as he walked past Ruby. The little girl was giggling to herself and telling Ruby about a bow she had for her to wear. Cinder did not know how a red bow and a great wolf exactly went together, but she did like the mental sight of it.
Where she expected him to stop, though, Jaune only went further, drawing her close to him and pressing a chaste kiss to the crown of her head. "You're trouble," he told her, but it came with a sweet edge to it.
Her moment of hesitation was brief, as she thought they were not talking, and if they were not talking, that meant he was not supposed to be nice to her. "Not trouble at all," she said, "I helped fix your wolf problem, though I admit my job may have been outdone by our outstanding citizen here."
Said outstanding citizen was playing with Ruby's fur and making it stand on end, smoothing it over and beginning again. She was singing a song about a hungry wolf, but Cinder thought she had to be making it up, because she kept starting over and changing bits, and the rhythm was not quite right. But she was only little.
"Me and my big big wolf are best friends," she sang, "and she likes apples and running. Me and my big big wolf are best friends and I have a bow just for her. Me and my big big wolf go running and eat Grimm. Me and my big big—" it went on and on.
Ren scratched his head as he surveyed the sight, Nora with him just as at a loss, Emerald and Mercury both trading glances. Cinder supposed that there was no training guide to dealing with children befriending Grimm monsters.
"I thought she'd kill someone by the time we found her," Mercury said helpfully.
"Don't be mean!" said the little girl, this time paying attention to what they were saying. "My big wolfy would never do that!"
"Where are your parents?" Emerald asked her instead, before Mercury could begin arguing with a child. He seemed close to it, and put out when Emerald spoke over him instead.
"They went inside," the girl replied plainly.
"Then maybe you should go be with them?"
The girl hummed and told her no, shaking her head.
Nora and Ren both tried with different suggestions, varying from a bribe of performing a trick (not interested) to an attempt at playing a racing game back to her house (don't feel like running). Cinder crossed her arms impatiently. She wanted to go back to fighting Ruby, because it would have been more fun.
Just as she knew would work, though, Jaune crouched down beside the girl and Ruby, and told the girl that the wolf was actually his friend who had got into trouble with a witch and her mother, and she had been turned into a Grimm. "We have to take her home," he said, "or else she'll never go back to normal. But thank you for looking after her, because she's getting better since you helped her. We'll walk back with you, okay?"
It was a while before she agreed, watching Jaune with suspicion, until she began to walk and Ruby trailed behind her, fat paw after fat paw dully hitting the ground. They then trailed behind Ruby, letting her lead the way with the girl, arriving at the home of the girl, with a red door. She petted Ruby and told her to come back when she was better, but started crying, and so Cinder had to lead Ruby away as Jaune tried to soothe her. It was a while before she went inside, her mother coming out to see what the commotion was, accosted by five unruly Huntsmen and Huntresses. Cinder waited way off with Ruby, hiding her behind a building, whilst they handled the matter.
After all, they were beasts not meant for human sight. But, soon came Jaune, behind him the mother listening to her daughter recount the afternoon disbelievingly. Jaune had told her the truth, but to anyone with common sense, it sounded like something a child would make up. She felt a little sad for the girl at that, but turned away, knowing it was for the best.
"You came looking for her," Jaune said.
"I came to fight her," Cinder corrected, and let him digest that as they made their way back.
Ruby trotted beside them, returned from her fit of madness. She seemed to lead the group back this time, as if she already knew the way, but perhaps her wolf senses smelt the way they had come.
"How did you help her?" drifted Nora's voice behind her. They marched nearly in a line, loosely paired except for Ruby.
"I fought her," Cinder said.
"You fought her?" Ren repeated.
"Yes. She had the beast in her. Clearly she needed to get it out."
"See," Cinder added easily. "None of you would have done it. You like her too much. Me, I took the opportunity."
Jaune laughed at her. At her. It was almost mean.
She went to chastise him, glaring at the back of his blond pretty head, and said, "What's so funny?"
"Nothing," he said very seriously.
"Share with the class. Come on."
"You keep insisting you don't like Ruby, and the more you do it, the less you sound like you believe it."
"She's a dog who can't talk," Cinder sniped.
"Here I thought you'd think she's better that way," Emerald needlessly added.
"She smells like wet dog."
Ruby barked, this time sounding offended, were she to read into it.
"Cinder, you sound like you're coping," Mercury said from behind her. "Just embrace it."
"I'm not coping."
"Now, I know you have no problem with Jaune—"
"He's an ongoing problem," she interrupted. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"— and he's your sugar pie—"
"I am going to wring your neck."
"— but even I've gotta admit that Ruby's nice, and she tortured me in my hospital bed."
Once again, Ruby whinnied at that.
"Sugar pie? Seriously?" Emerald protested, as if that were the most offensive thing Mercury had said or implied. "You could've picked anything, and you went with sugar pie?"
"What? I don't know what they call each other. Could be something really weird for all I know."
"Schnookum," Nora added.
"Honeybunch," Ren suggested.
Cinder knew it would be too far if she threatened them any further, because the threat itself might be serious. She walked quickly ahead of Ruby, ignoring Jaune very steadily, since, after all, the source of her ire that day had been the very fact he may in fact have called her any such names. Though she hoped he never would. Not those, at any rate. They seemed to find his sweetness funny.
As it went on, she reached her limit, turned and bit out, "I like whatever he calls me. You can come up with any ridiculous names and it WON'T. BOTHER ME. BECAUSE I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. AND HE'S SWEET." Then she stomped off, much further ahead this time, and Ruby began a wolfy gallop to keep up with her.
She growled to Ruby, "They're so annoying."
Ruby barked, and she hoped it was in agreement.
"Don't run off again and leave me with them," she told Ruby. "I beg you."
For some reason, that made Jaune laugh again. She tuned out their talk on the way back, which was quite a trek, such that it was well past dark when they finally came to the clearing of Jaune's childhood home. She could see the pinpricks of candles dotting the veranda, what seemed to be his parents and the others who had got back before them, their conversation unclear but the murmur of it carrying towards them, almost homely. They and their wolf were noticed, and with it came a gasp of glee. Ruby was greeted by her teammates and Oscar halfway. Cinder watched lazily, waiting for the ceremonies to be over with— they hugged an awful lot, Oscar wound around one of Ruby's big legs, Weiss and Yang the other— until Ruby herself slumped down on the ground right beside the house, and promptly fell asleep.
She snored, a loud, rattling thing, nearly shaking the old frame of the house with it. Cinder left the resulting commotion and group hugs behind, skulked off towards the door, took off her muddy boots, and went inside. The Ruby-wolf-problem raged as quietly as it could, whilst she slept, but Cinder considered the matter resolved whilst she did, indeed, sleep, and had come back with at least a few of her senses intact. She plundered the kitchen, stealing food whilst no one was looking. By the time she had finished, cleared up the crime scene, and passed through to the hallway, Jaune was there half-lit in the dark by an old Dust lamp. It was just the two of them.
"Hi," he said, stupidly handsome, still in his armour. It would have to stop being arresting at some point, surely.
That was for a Cinder less tired and disturbed.
"Thank you for helping Ruby," he added earnestly.
She understood, then, what must have taken him when he had kissed her. Just one little kiss. Just one little kiss she could steal. She thought that would be it, all he would give her, a press of her lips to his, perhaps in recognition, but then he got the bright idea of picking her up and pushing her against the wall, breaking away from her only to steady her against him. Her dress rode up so her legs bared skin, the summer air inside still yet hot and hotter. He pressed harder and closer, and she did not how to take it. He was giving her too much. He moved against her as easy as the sea. She opened her mouth further and let him in. Kissing had seemed to her only sweat and spit and foolish sentiment, and it was all that and more, like she could tell him that she loved him without having to say it, or even ever letting him know, only pressing in close as skin could touch, or where his hard armour would get in the way. He held her up and she found that she could not let go.
A foolish sound came out of her when he pulled back. It was greedy. He cleared his throat, said, "I just remembered that I still have something to give you."
In the blood that had rushed to her head, she found no response coming to her. She only wanted to ask why he had stopped. With one hard gloved hand holding her, supporting her, wrapped around her back and fingers digged into the other hip— only one, she considered in a fugue, only one— he used the other to unpin the brooch she had set upon him, and clumsily pinned it just a little to the left of her heart.
"Your favour," he explained, "I had to give it back when I returned to you safely."
REMINDER: A/N: You can read the rest of the story on AO3 (Archive of Our Own). It can't be posted here. Sorry.