It’s a long road to Haven, especially if you’re on foot.
Ruby and her new team, the remnants of JNPR, walked through the forest, along a beaten path. This was an old trade route in the days of yore, and the land was still stomped flat by the travelers and traders that had come along these ways.
They were fortunate in the regard that there weren’t many Grimm on these roads, but the weather carried a sense of foreboding. Heavy, soft-looking clouds hung in the sky, and the wind carried an unwelcome chill.
“It’s probably going to snow tonight,” Ren mused, “It would be wise for us to get to the next town.”
Nora pulled her jacket a little bit tighter around her and nodded in agreement, Manghild propped against one shoulder. Ruby tried to keep her hood up, but they were walking against the wind, so it was an act of futility. One gust pushed it away from her head, causing her to scowl in frustration. “I agree,” she said, “A hot cup of tea or some soup would do some good.”
Jaune still remained silent, instead focusing on the path that lay ahead. He pulled out the map of the area, nicked from one of the archives and copied as best as he could, and hummed to himself.
“What are you thinking, Jaune?” Ren asked, causing Nora and Ruby to tilt their heads towards him in confusion.
“There’s a town not too far ahead. We can get extra supplies and stay the night if the weather goes bad. He looked up to the sky and wrinkled his nose in mild frustration, “If my guess is right, we’ll be staying the night.”
Ruby looked ahead and frowned slightly. He’d grown up. Just not in the way she hoped he would. He was still an excellent leader, but he was a broken bird. He was not only a commander, but someone that lost a friend, a loved one, while under his command.
Ruby was glad that if it was her or Jaune that saw Pyrrha’s final moment, it was her. She wouldn’t want Jaune to be burdened with the sight of Pyrrha kneeling before Cinder, an arrow sticking out of her breast as she crumbled away into ash.
Nobody should have had to see that.
It never should have happened.
Jaune tucked the map back away and walked ahead a little ways. “I’ll scout,” he said, “I’ll be back in a little while.”
With that, he moved off at a slight trot, moving further and further away from his friends.
The second he was out of earshot, Ruby looked over to Ren and Nora. They shared her expression: Worried, saddened. “Do you think he’s going to be okay?” Ruby asked.
“I don’t know,” Ren said, his brow creased in concern. “He’s been like this ever since the attack on Beacon.”
“I miss him,” Nora said quietly. “I mean, he’s here, but he’s not HERE. It’s not the same Jaune as before. I can’t joke around him anymore. He doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t smile.”
“Do you blame him?” Ren’s question cut deep, carved to the heart of the matter. “Aside from Ruby, he was the last one to see her alive. Them and Cinder.”
Ruby remained silent for a moment, listening to see how it would play out. Ren continued, “Did he tell you what she did before she sent him away? He talks about it in his sleep if you listen.”
Nora stared at Ren, horrified, scared of what Ren would say.
“She kissed him and shoved him into a locker, programmed the locker to fly away. Her last act to him was to say that she loved him.” He stared down the path at the quickly-dwindling form of Jaune. “Any man would be shattered over that.”
That rendered everyone silent for a moment. They were still reeling. Pyrrha dead, Ozpin missing, Cinder carrying powers that allowed her to do who knows what.
It was almost too much to handle.
Scratch that. It was too much to handle. It resulted in a diminished personality from each of them. Everyone was more subdued than usual. That meant something special in Ren’s case. He hardly talked unless something needed saying in the first place, and now… now he was just a man of even fewer words.
“What do we do about him?” Ruby asked, still concerned.
“I don’t know,” Nora responded as they walked on, remaining silent until their leader and scout returned.
“What’s the word?” Nora asked, trying to appear cheerful.
The cheer didn’t go over well. Jaune just stared at her with a note of cold, and said, “The town is about an hour away, if we’re walking. We should get there before dark. But snow’s started to fall. We should hurry.”
Nora bowed her head and Ren nodded, trying to maintain a sense of professionalism even though he wanted to knock Jaune’s teeth in for hurting Nora. “Lead the way, then.”
“If we double-time,” Jaune said, turning around and starting to jog, “We can make it sooner. I don’t think we want to be caught in the cold.”
Ruby started to follow, thinking to herself that the cold had already come with his presence. He was a good man and a good leader before, but now, he was frozen on the inside.
If an auramancer could see within him, they would know that his aura was cold, black, and stagnant. A dangerous thing indeed. Yet since no auramancers travelled with him, his teammates knew not the extent of his spiritual damage.
Ren and Nora jogged to keep up with the other two, and they reached the town in a bit less than a half an hour. The town in question was carved in a manmade clearing, with a road passing through the center. The houses and buildings were crafted from strong wood, presumably from the section of forest they had cleared out around them, and a tall palisade wall stretched up around the area, as was custom of the towns outside the city-states that ruled Remnant.
As the young huntsmen and huntresses approached the town, a number of men and women above the gate cocked rifles and nocked arrows to bows, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. “Who goes there!” a heavy, booming voice called out.
Jaune held up his hands in surrender and kept moving forward, though he did not run. “Travelers from Vale, making our way to Haven. We would like to take shelter within your walls to buy supplies and avoid the weather.”
One of the rifles lowered, and a grizzled old man with a series of raking scars crossing over his face answered. “You bring trade to our small town?”
“We have coin to spare, yes,” Jaune said. It was true, to an extent. They had enough to last them the journey, provided no unnecessary price hikes.
The old man furrowed his brow, and his scars appeared that much uglier as a result. Four long scratches carved their path across from the course of his face, down and right. One of the scratches had crossed over one of his eyes, presumably rendering it blind. He wore an eyepatch over that eye, and he was missing a chunk of his nose, his lips were split and shoddily patched back together, but the smile that came shortly thereafter was earnest. “Then come on in. Let me show you around. We don’t have much, but what we have, we’d like you to see, ‘specially since there’s heavy snow coming in.”
The gates swung open, and the four entered the town. The old man replaced a small fur cap on his head and gestured for them to follow. “Most of what you need is right on the main street. Most of what’s off is homes, so we’ll get more than a tad suspicious if you stray off the beaten path, understand?”
Various sounds of assent emanated from the group and they kept walking. The old man introduced him as Lucius, and pointed out the stables (not that the group in question would be needing them), the general store, the greengrocer, the butcher, and the inn. As they meandered down the main street, Jaune thought he spotted something out of the corner of his eye.
A flicker of red hair, brilliant red like the brightest flame passed in his periphery as they passed by an alley. His step faltered and he stared down the way, his brow furrowed as he stared down the alley, between two sturdy oaken buildings.
“Something amiss?” Lucius asked, turning back to Jaune. He must have heard the faltering in steps. One trains their senses if they live this far out in the wilderness.
Jaune snapped himself out of his reverie and shook his head. “No. I just thought I saw something.”
“You’re huntsmen and huntresses, hm?” Lucius asked, shifting his gaze forward.
“In training,” Ren said in confirmation.
“But we’re the best of the best,” Nora continued, flexing to show off her muscles.
“Well you have nothing to fear here. We have a few folk that are better than most huntsmen. Every member of Tantalus Village is a trained warrior. Kind of have to be, out here.”
Lucius paused, a single finger extending over to a broad, two-story building. “That’s the inn. It’s where most of us retire for the evening. Gronacer handles things relatively well. Any questions?”
The group shook their head and Lucius looked skyward, thinking for a moment. “Eh. If the sun’s position is any indication, then I’m almost done with my shift. Come on. Let’s see if you scrubs can hold your beer.”
“Beer?” Ruby muttered, a little concerned. “I don’t think we should.”
Ren spoke as the voice of a lack of reason for a change. “When in Vacuo, do as the Faunus do, Ruby. It would be out of place for us to not drink with them.”
Nora concurred in a quiet cheer, excited that they were finally going to cut loose for a change. Jaune remained silent and was the first one to follow after Lucius. The rest of the group followed in a sense of somber silence, his mood affecting them all.
Julius pulled open the doors to the inn, a sign just outside reading “The Towering Goliath”, and stepped in. “We got a couple weary travelers here, Gronacer. Five pints of your best, on me. They’ve got their own the rest of the night,” he said with a laugh. Despite his scary appearance, he was rather genial and jovial with regards to the burly, stout ram Faunus behind the bar. As Julius spoke, the bartender poured out bordering on black beer into five tankards before he set them on the counter rather deftly, casting them down the bar to coast to just in front of five stools.
As appropriate, the group sat at their stools, with Julius sitting on the far left, swapping stories with Nora. Ren, Ruby, and Jaune sat in succession, from left to right if you walked into the inn. Jaune politely informed Gronacer that they would need rooms for the night, to which the Faunus was happy to oblige. Gronacer gave the young folk a pair of rooms, each with two beds. Ren and Nora agreed to take one room while Ruby and Jaune shared the other. It was fitting. This way, they could have the most empathetic looking over the one that needed the most help.
Jaune drained his first drink in no time at all and set his scroll on the counter, sliding it across to Gronacer and telling him to keep the tab open.
This worried Ruby. She sipped at her pint of the bitter black ale. It was tasty, but she never really liked beer or any alcohol for that matter. Jaune drained a second mug and gestured for Gronacer to keep them coming. The bartender was happy to oblige, though Ruby felt like she should have said something.
“Jaune, are you okay?” she asked cautiously as Jaune started dipping into his third pint in ten minutes.
“Fine. Just fine, Ruby. There’s absolutely no reason to worry about me.”
So there was reason to worry.
“Jaune, I know you’re still hurting, but this is hardly the way to get over it. What would-” Jaune cut her off with a raised hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a form moving fluidly to the back kitchens, capped with a massive mane of scarlet hair pulled back into a ponytail, spinning to dodge another one of the people in the pub. In that moment, Jaune had locked eyes with her, his own sapphires catching contact with a pair of emeralds and a set of unmistakable features.
“Jaune!” Ruby chided, her brow starting to furrow in worry.
“No… I think…” He said with a sigh, wondering if he should continue.
“You think what? That you’re being a little bit dangerous with all of this?” Ruby said, an accusatory note in her voice.
“I think I just saw Pyrrha.”