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Team WISE

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Scarlet

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The Color of Passion.

The Color of Blood.

The Color of Sin.

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It was a cloudy overcast over Beacon Academy, when Glynda Goodwitch, Headmaster of Beacon Academy, gazed out pensively from the window of her office.

“I suppose it was only a matter of time before they came,” she lamented.

In the distant skies, numerous airships flaunting the Atlas banner approached. Dreadnoughts the size of the school’s largest buildings loomed forward, causing the air itself to ripple and tremor.

“Only a matter of time…”

Glynda lowered her glasses, and massaged the bridge of her brow.

She was getting tired. Too tired, too quickly to fight the world that wanted its own destruction with such longing.

Glynda remembered bearing witness to a full Atlesian Air Fleet only one other time. A time far past and far gone. The last Vytal Festival and the Fall of Beacon Academy.

It had been a decade since then. Glynda rebuilt the school from the ground up. It was no easy task, but she had the help.

But it was never the same.

Perhaps, Vale’s government knew that. Which was why they were so ready to migrate the capital of the Kingdom further southward.

It hasn’t been a month after the move, and Atlas is already at our front door, she thought.

Glynda knew this inevitability, but chose to stay regardless. Beacon had a legacy to uphold and she would be the one to uphold it—even in the face of its imminent destruction.

A second Fall of Beacon.

How disgraceful.

Even so…

“There’s nothing left, but to surrender.”

The words soured in her mouth.

“If they have any decency, they’ll spare the students. But this is Atlas,” she sighed. “There’s a chance they might turn the students into prisoners of war…”

For a moment, she thought of putting up a fight. If she asked it, the students would eagerly take up arms without hesitation. But that would be irresponsible. The young shouldn’t run so hastily to their deaths. Honorable sacrifice is a rite reserved for the older guard.

With an ironed resolve, Glynda placed her glasses back on. Her eyes burned with a fierceness—which smothered immediately in the next second.

Her sudden shock caused by a lone figure striding towards Atlas’s invading Fleet. The young woman’s cape fluttered violently against the wind, as she crossed the courtyard. A Huntress with a bright, red hood.

Glynda immediately pulled out her scroll to dial the number of the Vice Headmaster. A click sounded after a couple rings.

“What do you think you are doing?!” she exclaimed without waiting for an answer.

“I’ll buy you time,” Ruby Rose’s voice came from the other end. “You need to evacuate the students.”

“I can’t let you do that. I won’t allow you to sacrifice yourself!”

“It’s alright, Professor. I don’t plan on dying. Besides, I can hold them off better than you can.”

“Return here at once! That is a direct order, young lady!”

“Sorry. It was great while it lasted. But you must’ve been really stressed out not to see my resignation letter on your desk.”

Glynda turned, and saw a single white envelop sitting on her table. Ruby must have used her Semblance to leave it without her notice.

“I won’t accept it!” Glynda shouted into her scroll. “You can’t possibly hold off an entire fleet on your own!”

But before she could finish berating the former Vice Headmaster, the line went dead.

Underneath her hood, Ruby scowled as the lead flagship descended to lower elevation.

I don’t need to hold off an entire fleet.

From the flagship, a single figure descended like a silver meteor.

I just need to hold off one person.

The woman who landed before her was dressed in a snow-white gown. Her waist and leggings were reinforced in battle-scaled armor. A long estoc the length of a spear, drew through the air with a sharp ring.

In spite of herself, Ruby couldn’t help but form a disparaging smile.

“Hey, Weiss. Long time no see.”

Her former partner posed Myrtenaster below Ruby’s nose, but the latter showed no signs of fear.

“Surrender,” Weiss uttered the single-word command.

“What, no ‘how have you been?’, ‘what have you been up to?’”

“Surrender and tell all the professors to surrender at once, too.”

“No ‘I’m sorry for leaving without a word’. No ‘can we please talk about this?’”

“Ruby.”

“Oh, so you do remember my name.”

“This is no time for games.”

At the word, Ruby unfolded two scythes from the holsters of her back. The giant curved blades spread from each arm like wicked wings of omen.

“Who’s playing?”

“Don’t do this, Ruby,” Weiss warned.

“Too late! You already started this! I can’t believe what you’re doing! Did this school mean nothing to you?!”

“…”

“Did I…Did I mean nothing to you?” For a sliver, Ruby’s composure faltered. But realizing this, she reaffirmed her conviction. “I won’t let your bring harm to any of the students.”

“I intend to do nothing of the sort,” Weiss answered.

“I won’t let you take them prisoner.”

“I plan to make them honorary citizens of Atlas and transfer students to our academy.”

“So you can turn them into child soldiers for your war?!”

“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing?”

“We train them to be Huntsmen and Huntresses!”

“And despite you and Professor Goodwitch’s discouragements, some still choose to enlist in Vale’s military. Trust me when I say this, Ruby. My way is the only way they live without harm.”

Just then, Weiss bade a swift backstep in response to the silver glinting of Ruby’s eyes.

“Nothing you say will convince me to surrender those who put their faith in me,” Ruby snarled. “You knew that once.”

Weiss breathed a low, sorrowed sigh, before taking a fencer’s ready stance.

“I suppose this was always how it was going to be.”

“No. It wasn’t. You were my best friend! You were my partner! I…! I cared about you!”

“…!”

Ruby wiped the tears away and readied herself once more.

“Don’t hold back, Weiss… Cause I can promise you—I won’t.”

“…So be it.”

As Glynda and the other Professors shepherded the students out the back exits, Glynda pulled out her scroll. The device immediately produced a hologram of the fight ensuing in the courtyard.

Flashes of red and white darted back and forth across the stonework. The feed couldn’t keep up with the dazzling pace the two full-grown Huntresses set. It only caught glimpses of their figures when they paused to clash, and then break apart again.

At that moment, Ruby stopped her motion to dig her boots into the ground. She harnessed her Aura through her cowl, which shed rose petals in the activation of her Semblance. The cloak enlarged to envelop her form like a curtain setting the stage.

Weiss narrowed at the new situation. In response, she pierced her sword into the stone floor, casting an enlarged Glyph. It spun and rose, before the shattering sound of a glacier gave entrance to a colossal knight’s summon.

At the same time, Ruby’s cloak ripped away to reveal the woman riding atop a monstrous wolf. Like its master’s hair, the beast’s fur was a rich black coat with red highlights. Its rows of teeth gnashed viciously and hungrily, with a maw that unhinged like a crocodile’s.

Weiss charged with her knight at her side. Ruby’s wolf let out a piercing howl, before racing forward like the wind.

The moment their attacks collided, Glynda’s scroll’s projection cut out.

She took the moment to utter a few silent words.

Farewell, Ruby Rose.

And then, resumed evacuating the students.

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X  X  X  X  X

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(One week later…)

The harsh sound of uncoupling metal shook Ruby awake from her slumber.

“Had enough time to cool off, I think?” Weiss stood pompously in the bright lit doorway of her cell.

“Ghhgg!” Ruby cringed, pulling her bedsheets over her head.

She remembered the days Weiss did something similar to wake her up, when they were late for classes. But the nostalgia of the memory instantly turned bitter as reality came reeling back.

Ruby could hear the sharp clacks of Weiss’s heels making their way towards her.

“I take it you’ve read the materials?” Weiss checked, while ripping away her blanket with a violent flick.

Ruby didn’t respond. Only looking to the piles of opened folders spread out on the spartan work desk bolted to the corner of her cell.

“Well? Any thoughts?” Weiss asked her.

“…I think…” Ruby rubbed her eyes, while adjusting to the light. “—If those documents aren’t forged or faked, Remnant is in real, deep trouble.”

“The material is completely legitimate. I’ve confirmed the accuracy of the findings myself.”

“Like that counts for much.”

“As such, we must address this problem with the utmost urgency,” Weiss pressed on.

“So?”

So! …I’m assembling together a team. A special operations team to deal with the matter.”

“…”

Ruby was immediately hit with an overbearing bout of displeasure. She faced away from Weiss, towards the shadows. Her arms crossed defensively.

“This is serious, Ruby,” Weiss scolded. “I wouldn’t make this offer otherwise.”

“Well, that makes me feel better.”

“We are the only ones properly equipped to handle the situation.”

“Why? Why haven’t you reported these findings, if they’re so serious? Why is this the first time I’m hearing about it?”

“Why do you think?” Weiss walked around her, and sat on the bed so they would be sitting face to face. “Remnant is in the middle of its Second Great War. If Atlas made this announcement, who would believe it? The Board of Directors of my own Kingdom don’t even believe it.”

“You mean they don’t want to spend their resources,” Ruby pouted to the side, still refusing to meet her.

“Yes, that’s exactly right.”

“…”

“If I tried to spread these findings on a massive scale, the other Kingdoms would never see past the current war to understand the grave situation we’re all in.” Weiss paused. “But you do… and so will the rest.”

“’The rest’. Why me? I’m sure a brigadier general like yourself should have her own pick of special, elite soldiers.”

“They’re called ‘specialists’, Ruby. And no, not any of whom I can trust—and not of the caliber I need.”

“Do you really think I’m just going to go along with you?”

“I believe…” Weiss paused. “No… I know you can look past our differences and see the real problem at hand. The fate of Remnant is at stake.”

“…”

“I probably shouldn’t say this, and you might think I’m lying,” Weiss bit her bottom lip, “But I’ll be glad to be working with you again.”

With that, Weiss produced another folder, and placed it in Ruby’s hands.

“What’s this?” Ruby asked.

“Your credentials, as well as your new identity. The name ‘Ruby Rose’, the great Huntress and Vice Headmaster of Beacon Academy, is a bit too famous for the covert nature of our operations.”

“Seriously, Weiss?” Ruby uttered, as she began pouring over the details of her new persona.

Weiss was making ready to leave the cell, before stopping at the doorway.

“Oh, yes. One more thing, before I forget.” She turned with an authority and a small hint of satisfaction.

“Welcome to Team WISE—”

“Scarlet.”

 

 

Chapter Text

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Ember

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They are the remains of a dying fire.

Or the lights of a new flame.

Both, hand in hand, one and the same.

Like new and old feathers of a phoenix.

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The air whistled as a curved blade almost took her head off. Fortunately, she read it ahead of time, and ducked just below.

“Tsk!” Yang gave an annoyed click of her teeth.

Her opponent didn’t stop his motion. Instead, they rode the momentum, and repeated the strike lower. It wasn’t as much as a weapon, as it was a scorpion tail that almost cut a poisonous gash through Yang’s abdomen.

“Damn it!”

The boxer was forced to break her stance, and back away.

“Come on~” Tyrian Callows taunted. “Where did all the usual bravado go? Don’t tell me your afraid♪?”

“That’s rich, coming from the guy who’s been ducking me for weeks.”

In the gladiatorial arena, the audience around them cheered with depraved cries. Each and every one of them, wearing black and white striped clothes. A cheap fence was all that separated the ring from its spectators, who watched from multiple levels. A prison within a prison, where people were little more than caged animals tearing each other apart.

Yang was on the verge of bum rushing forward, when cooler voices counseled the move.

Come on, don’t rush it.

She watched Tyrian’s scorpion tail whip back and forth in readiness.

He wants you to make the first move. You’ve seen how he fights.

He likes to talk smack, but he’s crap at taking it.

Yang hocked a spit to the side, and braced her fists under her chin.

Easy does it. Bait him in, like the sap he is.

It felt like she exercised more patience in the last few months than she had in her entire lifetime.

The time’ll come. You already learned this. Just ball up the hate for now.

Yang remembered that fateful day, her harsh reminder that curbed her attitude.

Don’t want to lose another arm. Don’t play his game. Play yours.

Her feet began to shuffle back and forth. Slow at first, then faster in succession. She backed around the perimeter of the ring, as if provoking her opponent with her nimbleness. A daredevil’s smile trailing her façade.

“You know, for a joint that brags about keeping Mistral’s hardest criminals, you guys are actually a bunch of softies!” Yang smirked. “And you’re supposed to be the sharpest shiv in this clink? What a joke.”

“You won’t be smiling for long,” Tyrian hissed. “When I’m done with you, I’ll rip out your tongue, so you’ll never breathe another word again! And then, I’ll—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Something about intestines, and whatever other cannibal fetish fantasy. Heard worse from people who actually matter? Let’s dance, scrub!”

Tyrian’s anger reached its boiling point, as he pounced with an inhuman-like agileness. At the same time, Yang banked her body down into a forward dash.

Just as Tyrian’s tail stabbed from above like a curved dagger, the boxer swerved right. The stinger cut through a few locks of her hair, arousing her rage and her Semblance.

Don’t lose yourself, Yang reminded.

Channel it, control it, own it.

Don’t let it own you.

Her hair set ablaze and her irises dyed a bloody red, but she maintained her temper. Like sinking her emotions below the ocean’s surface, she focused her attention elsewhere.

Fake the entry.

Yang feigned a resumed dash into Tyrian’s guard.

It’s what he wants. You know what’s going to happen next.

Tyrian’s lips pulled into a wide grin. His tail flicked up instantly, like he expected the miss. A second, more deadly strike, came down. Its point drove right atop Yang’s skull.

Too easy.

The attack was deeper than the first. It struck the ground, as Yang dodged left. She finally let her rage go. Her boot stomped the tail at an angle, preventing Tyrian from pulling it back.

Yang watched the shock on her opponent’s face with grim satisfaction. Her elbow drew a wide arc, right before letting loose a sweeping downward punch.

“GRRAAAAAHHHHH!!!” Tyrian shrieked, as his tail was blown off in the middle. “YOU BITCH!”

While her opponent cursed, Yang didn’t pause for a second. She went immediately into Tyrian’s body. Short pummeled bursts crunched out from the boxer, repeatedly jamming her fists into the man’s ribs.

Should be careful, Yang reminded herself with reluctance.

As much as I’d love to induce organ failure…

…Still need him alive.

The moment Yang stopped her assault, Tyrian bent forward from the pain of having his ribs pound to dust. Right then, the knuckles of Yang’s gauntlet cracked the side of his head. His ear went completely deaf on that side.

“Man, that was really exciting. You had me worried there for a bit,” Yang breathed a long yawn down at him. And then, grasped the back of his ponytail.

Seeing the match finished, she turned her gaze to the crowd. Her fellow inmates were cheering uproariously. Unintelligible chanting and slurs cascaded the rounded walls. When they coalesced, she heard the singular word like the voice of continuous thunder.

“Death.”

“Death.”

“Death.”

“Death.”

As per the fighting arena’s tradition, the audience liked to chant the desired fate of the defeated. And it was rare, if ever, they chose mercy.

Yang glared condescendingly at Tyrian still keeled over on the ground.

“You hear them, right? With your other ear, I mean.”

“…Do it!”

“I could,” she paused. “Or maybe, you can give me something to convince me otherwise.”

“…? He..hehe…hehehehahaha! So that’s what you’re after!”

“Not so loud, dumbass, or I might just change my mind.”

“I wondered why you were down here.”

“Adam Taurus, Qrow Branwen, Raven Branwen. I want intel.”

“Hahaha! Sure! I’ll tell you whatever you want!”

In the face of Tyrian’s demented smile, Yang could only snarl in disgust.

“Great.”

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X  X  X  X  X

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Hovering about one kilometer above Mistral’s underground max security prison, was a stealth flight airship. The swordfish-like vessel tread the night sky. Its reflective coating made it blend in with its surrounds. And just aboard, its two passengers made preparations to deploy.

“Alright.”

Weiss entered a few keys into her scroll, before holding it out. Holographic layers of the prison luminated for her and her partner to see.

“Our target is located at the deepest level of the structure. Here.” A red beacon flashed at the bottom of the cylindrical facility. “According to our source, breaking into the prison won’t be difficult. It’s breaking out, which will provide the most challenge.”

“It’s a prison. Of course, they made it harder to break out.”

Ignoring her partner’s remark, Weiss proceeded. “The moment the target is brought above the floor they are assigned, her location tracker will trigger the prison’s alarms. And considering the deepest levels are reserved for their most dangerous criminals, a full lock down of the entire facility will commence.”

“Did she have to be at the bottom level?”

“…Apparently, she thought it was a necessity, but that’s beside the point. That is where the target is, and that is where we have to retrieve her from.”

“Just like any bungee jump through twenty-seven levels of high security. What goes down, must come up. Shouldn’t be all that hard,” she said sarcastically.

“The two of us are more than capable of accomplishing this feat. Are you ready, Scarlet?”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

“Are you ready?”

Ruby sighed.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

The two made their final weapons check and preparations to drop. Weiss tucked her hair into the collar of her cloak and donned a White Fang mask. Ruby threw her a sideways look, while hesitating with the mask in her own hands.

“It’s only smoke screen,” Weiss added. “There’s no reason to think too deeply about it.”

When they finished, Weiss turned to the ship’s cockpit, which had no pilot in it. There, the control console was operated by the woman’s personal AI.

“Penny. Circle the area until I signal for pick up.”

[Yes, Ma’am.]

The side-doors of the aircraft slid open, and the two Huntresses dropped into freefall. The night breeze blew them back and forth in their descent. Course corrections were made along the way by shifting their drag.

Once they neared the gate doors, they timed their entry with the arrival of a descending transport ship. With the prison practically a vertical drop pit, an aircraft was what the workers used to travel up and down the levels.

By the time Weiss and Ruby were reaching groundside, the ship was already through, with the gate shutting just behind it.

“Scarlet,” Weiss called.

No response from the girl falling beside her.

“Scarlet!” she called again.

Still, nothing.

“RUBY!”

The red Huntress’s cloak expanded to the size of a parachute, before engulfing them both. Then, like a crimson specter, the fluttering cloth spilled into the thin slit of the gate just as it closed. The width of which, could not be wider than a few inches.

In Ruby’s cloaked form, her and Weiss dropped past the prison transport ship, and into the lower levels. A bed of vine and roses spawned to cushion their fall, when they made contact with the bottom floor.

The sound of the impact surprised prisoners wandering the near vicinity. But upon looking to what caused the noise, they saw nothing—save for a thin red blur at the very corner of their eyes.

Within the shadow of her partner’s cowl, Weiss tracked their positions on her scroll. The distance from her and the target was closing.

“Right at this corridor. Left, and then, another left,” she instructed along the way.

While they traversed the labyrinth with ease, Weiss couldn’t help but be impressed with Ruby’s abilities. She had studied them, of course. Trained through multiple sessions and simulations in order to familiarize. But experiencing it in a live situation, with the sensation of being spirited away, was something else entirely.

She could only wonder what else her partner was capable of…

And also, whether their fight at Beacon was actually Ruby’s version of “serious” or not.

But that was a thought for another time.

“We’re here. Past the door on your right.”

On Weiss’s instruction, Ruby’s cloak swept through the bottom slit of a locked door. The red cloth exploded in size for a brief moment. And then, like drawing a curtain, their two figures revealed on landing. A reappearance similar to the end of a magic trick.

Before them, was their target. A woman facing a bloodied-up man, tied in chains and hanging from the ceiling. Her gold gauntlets dyed in crimson from the obvious use of physical torture.

“…Yang?” Ruby muttered with a hush. “What… are you—?”

“—Ember,” Weiss called to the target and stepped forward. “The timetable for your exfil has been moved up.”

“…I know,” Yang answered, without turning around. “I got the message.”

“Then, why didn’t you respond or meet us at any of the contact points?”

“Needed more time. I wasn’t done getting our info. That IS why you sent me down here in the first place, remember?”

“I told you, we have more urgent matters for pulling you out,” Weiss huffed. “…Did you get the relevant information?”

Yang lightly shoved the near-corpse of Tyrian, like a beaten-up punching bag. Him swinging helplessly, and dripping blood all over the floor brought her a small sense of joy.

“Part of the intel,” she answered. “He lost conscious midway through. Freakin’ pillowcase.”

“We need to go, now. It won’t be long until the prison systems detect an anomaly.”

“There’s still more I can get out of him. Can Scarlet take him with us?”

Ruby stared at her sister, who she barely recognized. A Yang so cold and callous, it made her question if this was really the same person she shared her childhood with.

“—Scarlet,” Weiss prompted beside her.

“No,” Ruby shook her head. “No, we can’t take him. I can only carry two other people in my cloak.”

“Hmph, well, that’s a bummer,” Yang scoffed.

With that, she buried one more fist into the Tyrian punching bag, before turning to leave. As she passed Weiss, the woman grabbed her arm.

“Was this really warranted?”

Yang shook the woman’s hand off her prosthetic.

“He pissed me off. So, yeah. He had it coming. Now, are we going, or what?”

She then, shouldered past Ruby, and out of the room.

“Focus on the task at hand,” Weiss answered the blank look Ruby was throwing her way. “The issue with Ember we can wait until later. Right now, the priority is to leave this place before—”

Just then, alarms began to sound. All lights in the prison shut off, except for the flashing of red strobes.

“—That. Happens.”

“Huh. I heard they added new motions sensors,” Yang commented.

“And you only thought to mention this NOW?”

“I said, ‘I heard’. Didn’t know if they were true. Maybe, I should’ve mentioned it if it meant stalling you from coming.”

The three maneuvered through the maze, and arrived at the center yard. They looked up to where Weiss and Ruby made entry, and saw a number of gates closing overhead.

“So much for going out the way we came,” Ruby squinted.

“When the prison shuts down, it gates off a section every seven floors,” Yang told them. “So, we’re looking at four in total.”

Weiss projected the prison’s holographic map on her scroll.

“Scarlet’s Semblance doesn’t allow us to ascend at that steep an angle, especially with those shields in the way. Which means, this is our only route.”

She indicated on the projection, an arrow that circled the circumference of the cylinder like an upward spiral.

“Uphill fight. WAY uphill…” Yang grimaced. “It’s always the hard way with you.”

“As if you aren’t used to it, by now,” Weiss replied. “How many HEIT charges do you have?”

“Five. Didn’t have to use a single one while I was down here. Good thing I saved them.”

“Yes. Considering, I can’t rely on my Semblance openly. No one is to know I was down here.”

“Right,” Yang chuckled, and tapped Weiss’s White Fang mask. “Cause your Glyphs basically broadcast who you are every time you use them…”

“I’ll provide us backup support. Scarlet will move us to each gate. Ember will breach. Are the assignments clear?”

“Crystal clear, Winter.

The two then, turned to Ruby for a response.

“…Yeah. Alright.”

At that moment, smoke canisters were being fired all around them. The prisoners along the walls began choking and vomiting profusely.

“Oh, yeah,” Yang smirked. “Did I not mention in the intel I sent you, that in the case of a full lockdown, the prisoners in the other sections get beaten to shit by the prison guards…”

“I’m sensing a ‘but’,” Weiss rested a hand on her hip.

“BUT the prisoners on the lowest levels get teargassed THEN, get beaten to shit by prison guards.”

“Hmph. How barbaric…”

As another wave of canisters launched into their closer vicinity, Weiss drew a circle around them with her Myrtenaster. Extremely cold mist concentrated to snuff the fuse triggers within each, effectively disarming them. She then, conjured a thin layer of armor to protect her group’s skin and face.

“That should do until we escape this section.” Weiss nodded to her partner. “Scarlet.”

I wish she’d stop calling me that…

Ruby expanded her cloak once more to envelope Yang and Weiss. Following her leader’s direction, she whisked them through the labyrinthian circumference of the prison. Her wraith form weaved between the chaos of other prisoners and guards, under the cover of tear gas. She slipped through tight spaces that would stop any normal-sized person.

After flying through several floors and up some staircases, the team met their first real obstacle. They reached one of the four airtight section gates. But, as if presenting the exact solution to their problems, Yang launched from the cover of the crimson cape.

A large caliber round clicked into the firing chamber of her prosthetic. The trigger was pulled, and the afterburners lining her forearm and elbow, thrust with a piercing roar. Yang’s right punch rocketed her towards the gate.

The five guards lined up to guard the stairway hatch opened fire. Unbeknownst to them, each shot Yang absorbed fed into her Semblance, making her more powerful. Her hair ignited like a blazing sun, growing brighter and brighter with every ounce of damage converted into energy.

As soon as her fist made contact with the ceiling, a plume of hellfire erupted. The steel layer, which was several feet thick, warped through the point of impact like melted foil. And Yang’s burning gauntlet carried her through to the other side.

Where she landed, she ejected the spent shell of a bullet with a satisfying clink.

One gate down, three more to go. Plenty of HEIT to spare.

After a moment, Yang looked down the hole she created, curious to where her allies were. The fluttering of Ruby’s cloak revealed the severely singed guards caught in her wanton destruction. Her little sister glared up accusingly at her.

Yang only shrugged coolly, as if to say it couldn’t be helped.

“YAN—!”

“Scarlet!” Weiss stopped her partner, and applied a simple cold treatment to the guards’ burn wounds. “This isn’t the time nor the place. We need to keep moving.”

“Grr…!”

Again, the group proceeded to the next section gate the same way as before. There were more guards and prisoners this time. Parts in their ascension could not be slipped through without interference.

To make enough room, the three dashed out of Ruby’s cape to make quick work of those standing in their way. Yang peppered a number of vitals to crumple bodies to the ground. Weiss performed a quick succession of thrusts to disable a few limbs. And Ruby summoned a nest of thorned vines to bind and cut any who remained.

As they came to the next stairway hatch, Ruby rushed ahead of Yang to disable the guards. By the time the elder sibling was throwing her punch, the younger had drew the guards out of the blast radius. Another begrudging glare from Ruby towards her older sister followed.

“—Do you think you could use your Semblance without causing unwanted casualties?” Ruby confronted.

“—I could, but I won’t,” Yang narrowed her eyes back. “Sorry, teach.”

“—Rein it in! The both of you!” Weiss ordered. “If you have the energy to argue, save it for the rest of the climb up!”

“…”

“…”

Her two teammates gave her the silent stare for a moment, but nodded their acceptance eventually. Just as they were proceeding to the next floor, Weiss grasped Yang’s shoulder and spoke in her ear.

“Minimize the blast radius of your HEIT charges. I don’t want Scarlet wasting her Aura saving people we don’t need to.”

Yang seemed to sigh dismissively, but consented to the order all the same.

Weiss continued to navigate her team, issuing instructions as the situation changed floor by floor. Even without her Semblance, she was a force to be reckon with. In some cases, her swift movement dispatched marks before her other two teammates could react.

She kept a close eye on Ruby and Yang’s statuses. Managing their stamina and Aura reserves was vital. There were moments, when she had to take the task of clearing almost an entire floor on her own. But it was thanks to that efficiency and control, her team reached the last section gate.

The steel reinforced barrier burst like a miniature volcano, sending pieces of shrapnel everywhere.

As Yang shot through the shaft she made, she took a moment to deeply inhale the fresh night air. Her eyes scanned the open skies with a sense of wonderment. It was her first taste of freedom in a while, and she wanted to enjoy it.

Weiss and Ruby joined her shortly. Weiss immediately speaking into her scroll.

“Penny. We are ready for pickup. LZ is hot. I repeat…”

All around the three, a small army of prisoner workers painted them with laser sights from their guns.

 “LZ is hot.”

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X  X  X  X  X

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In the darkness of her government office, a woman viewed the footage of one of Mistral’s prisons recent break outs. Her eyes scrutinized the video feed, replaying key frames on her terminal.

The assailants’ faces were hidden by White Fang masks. Hoods obscured their appearances, and the skills they displayed matched nothing in the Kingdom’s data banks. Also, the prisoner who escaped was catalogued under what was obviously a cover name.

“Ember Branwen…”

The woman played with how the name sounded on her lips.

“Hm. Things might be starting to move very quickly going forward.”

She brought up enhanced screenshots of the other two, and laid the three side by side. Even if the software couldn’t identify a match, and the perpetrators did well in hiding their true fighting styles, the woman could tell.

After all, she and her team studied them very closely once upon a time.

They could mismatch their movements as much as they liked, but the core of their techniques was still there. Their abilities much more developed than she had last seen, but there was no mistake.

The woman pressed a button on her desk to summon her team to the office.

Not a minute later, two figures entered.

“Did you need something, Cinder?” Emerald asked.

“Prepare to mobilize the Third Armada,” she ordered. “Mercury, I have a special job for you.”

“Who’s getting AMFed this time, boss?”

“Strictly force reconnaissance—for now. I need you and a squadron of the best of your family to infiltrate Vacuo.”

“So, we’re keeping this hush from Adam?”

“Better he remains unaware.”

“Anything I’m looking for specifically?”

“If my intuition serves me right, you’ll know when you see it.”

Emerald and Mercury stared at each other for a moment, before turning back to their leader.

“It’s happening, isn’t it?” Emerald questioned. “The End of Remnant…”

“Hm.” Cinder knitted her hands thoughtfully. “I’m not quite sure what to make of any of this yet. But there is one thing I am sure of…”

“The White Queen is making her moves.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

It was late at night, when Team WISE returned to their covert base of operations on the island of Vytal.

Weiss was in her room, going over her notes and making future preparations for their next op, when a knock came at her door.

For a second, she thought of ignoring them.

“Don’t ignore me! I can hear you thinking about it!”

A long sigh escaped her, as she reluctantly operated the electronic panel. The entryway slid open on unlocking.

“Something I can help you with?”

“Just wanted to chat,” Yang grinned. “Can I come in?”

Weiss didn’t move, only continuing to glare up at the girl.

“You have an opinion you would like to share?”

“Hah…yeah.” Yang scratched the back of her head. “To be honest, I didn’t expect you to be the one to come get me, much less her.

“Scarlet.”

“Sure. But seriously, I expected MY team to be the ones to break me out.”

“We are your team.”

“If you say so, Winter.”

The use of her code name, outside of operations, made her twitch. Weiss was going to yell at the woman, but knew that was exactly what Yang wanted. Instead, she controlled her temper, and decided to let her teammate say her piece.

“So, why’d you have to pull me out so quick?” Yang asked.

“There have been new developments.”

“Oh, yeah? Like, what?”

“…One of the Relics has been discovered.”

Yang’s eyes grew wide at that.

“Crap.”

“Yes. My thoughts exactly. Its location and who is in possession of it are unknown. But it is in transit.”

“Isn’t that a all-hands-on-deck kind of deal? Don’t tell me we’re going in this small?”

“We cannot stand to divert more personnel or make larger movements at this juncture. The quieter, the darker, the better. At least, for the time being.”

“…Still, did it have to be—Scarlet?”

“She is an invaluable asset to this team’s operations. We need her.”

“Are you sure, you just don’t mean you?”

Weiss locked Yang in a steely gaze.

“You only told her the bare minimum, right?” the other continued. “She doesn’t know anything about what you and I have done.”

“…No. Of course, not.”

“Hmph,” Yang scoffed. “And if she’s on the team, don’t tell me…”

“The next operation will be taking place in Vacuo.”

“…To get Adam, right?”

“No.”

“Arrrggghhh!!! Come ON, WEISS! Are we really going to recuit—”

“Yes. As you so accurately surmised, we will be proceeding to Vacuo to collect the last vital member of our team.”

Yang exhaled a long, groaning sigh of exaggerated lament. After a moment, she composed herself. The girl’s irises taking on a deathly kind of glint.

“—And, Adam? You read the info I got out of Tyrian, before you and your partner so rudely interrupted my interrogation.”

“…”

“You promised me this, Weiss.” Yang leaned her hands against the edges of the door frame. “Don’t tell me I don’t get to make that prick pay for what he did to me.”

“……What do you need?”

“I need MY team—the team that puts bodies in coffins.”

Weiss closed her eyes in thought, weighing the best choice actions versus potential fallouts.

Team CFEN will be sorted for deployment,” she answered. “But only after Iris has been acquired. Just so you have your priorities in order.”

“Fine!” Yang banged her fist on the doorway. “We get Iris first. Then, I get Adam.”

“Agreed.”

The two teammates shared a tense silence. Yang still felt some blood rushing to her head, but was able to quiet the rage threatening to boil. Instead, she was struck with the urge to let out her pent-up stress.

“You know…I was in prison for a while. And a girl has needs.”

“…”

Seeing her leader stay silent, Yang could only grin in resignation. Just as she was about to make her way back to her room, Weiss stepped back from the door.

“Well? Are you coming in?”

Yang let a chuckle escape her.

“You sure? Ruby is here, after all. Bet you haven’t told her anything about our little arrangement.”

“…”

“…Get inside.”

 

Chapter Text

.

Iris (Part One)

.

They honor Graves.

They decorate the Royal.

And they reward the Faithful.

.

.

Mixed applause trickled down the chamber walls, like uneven waterfall.

Every floor was lined with theatre booths and in each booth, sat the different representatives of Vacuo’s tribes. Since the meeting was held in the North part of the continent, it only made sense most of those in attendance were from the Northern Faction.  In their opposite, the few tribe leaders of the Southern Faction put their hands together with little enthusiasm.

They had all gathered with the purpose of making a step towards peace, no matter how small. Vacuo’s civil war was taking its toll. Not only on its people, but also its land. Their land, which was already very difficult to live on.

But as the meeting came to an end, many wondered if any progress was made at all. Including one particular woman.

I wonder if there was even a point to this…

The bodyguard scanned the expressions of each attendant. Apparent animosities remained, fake smiles brandished openly, and some not even bothering to put up a front.

The representatives sent from the South weren’t even the ones who led the largest tribes. Their influence was small, and they were likely ordered to be there by the de facto leader of their Faction.

Blake Belladonna sighed once more.

“—Well, this could have gone better, wouldn’t you say?” the woman in the wheelchair beside her smiled sympathetically.

“Oh!” Blake covered her mouth embarrassingly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine. We’re all thinking the same thing, really.”

The person Blake guarded was Sienna Khan, representative leader of the North Faction’s White Fang. After Adam Taurus’s coup nearly a decade ago, the woman barely escaped with her life. The incident of the betrayal leaving her without the use of her legs.

Together with Blake and a few like-minded individuals, Sienna collected those who remained loyal to her, and combatted Adam’s White Fang at every turn.

Their fight eventually took them from the Menagerie to Vacuo, where Adam ignited a civil war. He believed the Kingdom a perfect place for the Faunus race. Following his declarations of hostile takeover, the continent split into the North and Southern Factions it is today.

The original government of Vacuo were initially apprehensive to receiving help from Sienna Khan, but necessity overrode their misgivings quickly. Adam united the fragmented people in the South at an extraordinary pace. He preyed on the intercontinental prejudices, as well as the fact that most of the Southern population was Faunus. And then, there was also the backing he received of another Kingdom, which helped equip and fund the army he built.

With such a threat in mind, the leaders of North Vacuo used Sienna and her resources, if not, more than their own. A fact that didn’t escape the White Fang leader or Blake’s notice.

“Miss Khan,” one of the robed Northern aristocrats approached. “We need more of your folk holding the Saharan Front.”

Sienna did her best to hide her anger.

“I believe we sent a number of troops to match your tribe’s warriors last month.”

“That may be so, but the reports from my officers inform me that my soldiers suffer the brunt of the casualties. Your brethren are also much more…hardy to the environment.”

“Apologies, but I don’t have the reserves to spare. It would probably be better to ask the other tribes for help, instead of relying on us.”

“I would if I could, but they insist they are busy defending their own territories. Thus, it falls onto you to provide assistance. Your White Fang emerged victorious during the conflict on the Mojave Front. Perhaps, you should allocate your people from there?”

Sienna bade Blake a brief side-glance.

“Our forces suffered significant injuries during the recent fight. I think it would be rather cruel to send them so quickly from one battlefield to another without some reprieve.”

Not taking the hint, the man continued almost like he didn’t hear her.

“The war for our Kingdom requires many sacrifices and sometimes demands our welfare as its price. My tribe will await your reinforcements with great gratitude and expectation.”

“…I will see what I can do,” Sienna almost groaned openly.

“See that you do.”

And without any more niceties, the man turned and left.

“Racism AND backhanded compliments,” Sienna snarled, once Blake wheeled her out of earshot of anyone else. “What did our platoon from the Saharan Front report again?”

“They were made vanguard as soon as they got there.”

“Lying, sack of– Remind me again, why I haven’t joined Adam’s Faction yet?”

“Because he stabbed you.”

“Right! Only thing I hate more than these Humans is that damned little bastard!”

“Leeeet’s get you home before anyone hears that.”

“…I’d love to, but first things first,” Sienna massaged her temples to smooth the impending migraine setting on. “I need to speak with the few Southern Leaders who actually attended. Adam probably sent them to collect information, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything about it.”

“You think you can convince them to switch sides?”

“No. I think I can feed them false intel that might help us a little.”

“Of course, that’s the reason.”

“So… What is the condition of our forces from the Mojave Front, Commander?”

Blake shook her head tiredly.

“It would be insane to send us out again so soon. Most of them are volunteers from Menagerie, Sienna. If it’s not the injuries, they’ll quit because of the treatment. I’m barely convincing them to stay as it is.”

“Expected as much.” Then in a deliberately quieter voice, the woman whispered, “Can you ask our other allies for help?”

Blake gave the thought a grim ponder.

“……We shouldn’t rely on them. You know that.”

“I know that better than anyone.”

“Everything they give us has strings attached.”

“I’m aware, Blake. But how else are we supposed to compete, especially with Mistral backing Adam?”

The bodyguard didn’t have a response for that. She knew the Northern Faction was only a breath away from losing their Kingdom, and their allies were proving less than adequate of defending it. Still, even at such a disadvantage, the alternative Sienna was suggesting could make the situation that much more dire.

“This Kingdom was already a failed state, before Adam came along…”

“Are you suggesting he might make it better?” Sienna asked.

“No. Not him or Mistral’s Parliament would help.”

“Then, we use who we must. Our White Fang must be the one to take Vacuo.”

Blake closed her eyes.

“…I’ll see what I can do.”

“Oh, no.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just now, I think you sounded like me.”

“…”

“Oh, no.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

Outside the government building, which just concluded the meeting of various tribal leaders, protestors gathered from all corners of the continent. The only thing keeping them from the long steps of the entrance were the city’s policemen and private security guards.

Angry shouts and chanting filled the streets. Large picket signs flowed with the marching of hundreds of people. Food, paint, and other degrading material was chucked on the building’s front entrance. Some of it, hitting a few personnel guards—especially one in particular.

“…Don’t say a word,” Sun Wukong grumbled.

“What? I wasn’t gonna say anything,” Ilia Amitola tried to stifle her laugh. Trying, but failing.

“Uggghhh…!”

Sun wiped as much egg off his chest as possible. The goo only continued to cling to him stubbornly. And now his hands were gross, too.

“Ahhh!!!” he yelled, mostly to the sky in frustration.

“GET OUT OF OUR KINGDOM, YOU TRAITORS!!!” a group of Faunus protestors shouted. “YOU’RE ALL NOTHING BUT SCUM!!!”

“Couldn’t you guys throw bananas instead?!”

The protestors began pelting him with rotten bananas from head to toe. It was only when the police interfered, did the barrage stop. The only part of Sun that wasn’t covered in gross goo was his eyes, which were protected by sunglasses.

“…Sooo,” Ilia started. “You’re not gonna—”

“Of course, I’m not gonna eat it!”

“Okay, okay, buddy. Chill.”

“Yeah. Tell that to them.”

While Sun tried his best to clean himself, Ilia stared out into the crowd.

As chaotic as the scene was, it could’ve been worse. A lot worse, since Sun, her, and Blake only recently returned from the Mojave Front. In comparison, this potential riot was little more than noise. At least, rocks, molotovs, or anything of the like, hadn’t been thrown yet. The checkpoints were also inspecting everyone closely for weapons.

“—They’re certainly…passionate.

Sun and Ilia followed the voice to see Blake exiting the building.

“Remind you of what we used to be?” Ilia asked with a smirk.

“All too clearly…”

“Except we’re the ones on the other side of the barricade now.”

“It definitely puts things in perspective. Are you regretting that one time you put a tomato through a policeman’s visor?”

“Not really.” Ilia glanced at Sun, who was still covered in food refuse. “They do have a lot to be angry about.”

“I suppose so…”

“…Wonder if we’re on the wrong side of it?”

“…”

“—Meeting didn’t go well, I take it?” Sun asked.

“Things are getting desperate,” Blake said to them both. “I thought I knew what desperate was, but now… Unless we begin taking some equally desperate measures, we might just be fighting a lost cause. If we haven’t lost it already.”

Ilia stared at Blake, who had sunk into silence for a long moment. Then, certain picket signs came into view. News reporters were also in the mix, commentating their own views on what was happening behind them. It wasn’t a lot, most of them didn’t believe it or even know it. The loudest mostly came from conspiracy theorists.

But she and Blake knew.

“Keep Atlas out!”

“No Faunus Labor! No S.D.C.!”

A few of those sentences could be gleaned in the swarming mob.

Ilia went to her friend’s side.

“Tell me, we’re not really getting in bed with Atlas.”

“…”

To Blake’s silence, she glared at her incredulously.

“Look, I know they helped us out with transports and some Dust supplies. But you can’t seriously be considering something more…! If you do, this whole thing turns into an even worse proxy war…!”

“I don’t want to, either. But even Sienna’s pushing for it now. We might not have a choice. Not with Mistral backing Adam from the shadows.”

“So we make a deal with our own devil?!”

“…”

“And then, not just Vacuo…OUR people, the Faunus people get dragged into the Second Great War.”

“Believe me, Ilia, I know the consequences. I’m still looking for another solution,” Blake sighed. “But it’s getting harder to find. Or more like, it’s getting increasingly clear there isn’t one...”

The way her friend closed her eyes, like she was staving off a headache, made Ilia keep her next words. She knew Blake was way passed doing her best. The young woman’s limits were showing. The fatigue and stress piling up. Ilia could only give her silence as short respite to the tired, weary soul.

As if trying to take her mind off the topic, Blake’s focus went to the crowd. She sized up the mob and measured the volatility of the situation. Her eyes scrutinized protestors’ pockets, their age, appearances, race, and health. An action that became habit over the years.

It was then, her instincts caught onto a peculiarity showing up more and more frequently.

A few of those in the mob had black blotches and bone crusting their flesh. It looked something like skin necrosis eating away at their bodies. The irises of their eyes also took on a reddish hue that was definitely not their original pigment.

Corruption.

The term sent something cold in the pit of Blake’s stomach. It was a disease growing more prevalent in the Faunus population. A sickness that spared no man, woman, or child—from becoming Grimm.

The cause of Corruption wasn’t identified. Even the fact whether it was contagious or not was still unknown. Unease understandably grew as they couldn’t determine the vector, in which the condition spread. And with that unease, came more Grimm.

A few of Blake’s friends already succumbed to the disease. Even more of them, were still fighting it. But as if Vacuo’s civil war wasn’t a daunting enough battle, the Corruption never failed to rend her spirits lower.

She could barely bring herself to look at them. There would only be pity in her gaze, and she understood a long time ago, pity was the last thing most people wanted. Especially a certain former teammate.

But Blake had a job to do.

Government officials and tribal leaders were beginning to exit the building. Motorcades were being arranged for the Factions’ aristocrats. Sienna’s own protective detail called ahead to inform Blake, Ilia, and Sun that they were making their way towards the doors.

The young woman’s sense of duty steeled her emotions. If it was back in her Beacon Academy days, she might not have been able to pull it off. But the current her was a far calling from the child she once was. A coldness that gave her permission to do what was necessary took root.

And then, her paranoia highlighted something in the mob. The Corrupted she noticed earlier, they just positioned themselves in even spaces along the barricade.

It could be a coincidence. More likely, it was an attack. Who would orchestrate such a thing? Adam? But this was a peace meeting with Southern Faction representatives present.

And then, Blake remembered with a grim sickness.

There’s nothing Adam isn’t willing to do.

She wheeled on the doors opening behind her, pushing Sienna’s protective detail the way they just came through.

At the same time, the Corrupted in the crowd drew chunks of Dust from their pockets. They crunched the raw energy propellant between their teeth. The mixed natures of Grimm and Dust reacted violently until there was no room for recourse.

Several explosions detonated the perimeter of the building’s steps. Fire, ice, and lightning wrought havoc on the surroundings. And craters, which used to be people, littered the streets.

All was silent for a second…

And then, there were the sounds of running steps accompanied by a number of screams. But the figures weren’t going away from the building yet. Most of those caught in the explosion hadn’t had time to even pick themselves up. No, there were people charging the tribal leaders and what remained of the security personnel.

A second wave of explosions went off.

Now, utter chaos was ensuing. People running and crying in all directions. Blown debris falling everywhere, covering everything in thick clouds. The sounds of weapons being fired echoed with distortion. All sense of direction was practically lost in the mess of violence.

And then, came the third wave of explosions.

There was only panic, only fear for survival in everyone’s minds. Everyone—save for maybe, one.

“Ilia! Sun! Reform the perimeter!” Blake ordered into her radio.

No response.

Her first impulse was to go search for them, but cold experience kicked into her like a sharp knife. She knew it wasn’t over, it was just the beginning. The next pattern in the move was clear as day.

“Dammit!” she cursed, and then looked to the protective detail she pushed inside the building. “Call reinforcements! Leave a security element here to help reform the perimeter! The rest of you, come with me! We need to escort Sienna to the back exit!”

After staring blankly at the young woman for a moment, the orders snapped them back to reality.

““Yes, ma’am!”” a number of guards confirmed, and began moving.

Blake looked behind her, and almost stopped herself at the scene of carnage. Bodies strewn about the steps. Wounded people begging for help. Ilia and Sun, nowhere to be seen. And out of the thick smog, manic silhouettes ran towards them.

Blake didn’t think. She automatically sent her clones towards the figures, putting them in body locks. Her shadows detonated in a cloud of darkness.

The next wave came, and Blake brandished her Gambol Shroud. She flicked the strap of her blade, and severed several hands about to consume Dust. A second whip, and her weapon relieved the bombers of their heads down to their necks.

From the streets, she could barely make out vans pulling up. People with White Fang masks came out, and began unloading gunfire in their direction.

Blake turned to the group of bodyguards around Sienna.

“MOVE! MOVE!”

Bullets flew in droves on their position. Some of the security were filled with holes, while others returned fire on Blake’s orders.

The young woman hurriedly rushed the security group on their feet, and began leading them through the maze of the building’s interior. She had memorized the layout and possible escape routes beforehand. While navigating the detail through, she contacted other members of their White Fang on the premises.

“I need Second Armored standing by Exfil Point B! Beware Faunus showing signs of Corruption, subdue on sight! Report when site is secure!

She checked back on Sienna, who was no longer in her wheelchair, but carried by two bodyguards from each side. It seemed she took a heavy part of one of the blasts, despite Blake’s best efforts. Her consciousness faded in and out in random intervals.

The rest of their group watch their backs and sides, trying their best to do their due diligence. The fear was apparent in all of them. There was also the fact they were leaving comrades behind. Many of whom, were probably severely injured and required emergency medical attention.

Maybe, Ilia and Sun among them.

For a brief second, Blake wondered if what she was doing was cold. Perhaps, too cold of her.

Her friends could still be alive, there were other important figures who could be evacuated with Sienna… But her priorities were clear. Those who were injured, were already injured. Sienna was all they could manage.

Blake could only make sure to save the life in front of her first, in hopes that it would lead to more later. Even if she went back now, they would probably lose more in the process. It was a tough truth to swallow, but she learned it the hard way. And choosing lives was the worst thing she ever learned in these past ten years.

“—Site is secure, ma’am!” a voice came over the radio.

Blake pushed through the doors of the back exit to make sure things were safe. A row of armored vehicles with rumbling engines lined the street. There were also a few corpses of Corrupted bleeding on the floor.

Once Blake confirmed they were clear, she ushered her group to one of the cars in the awaiting motorcade.

“Alright. Easy does it.” She helped Sienna into the passenger seat.

“Blake…” Sienna groaned. “You’re coming…aren’t you?”

“No. My people are still back there. You’ll be safe. They won’t have planned to take out a second motorcade.”

“It’s too dangerous to go back.”

“…I can’t abandon them.”

“Idiot…”

“Take care, Sienna. I’ll check in when everything’s over.”

“Make sure you do…It’s too early for you to die…Blake.”

With her last fading words, Sienna drifted into unconsciousness.

Blake turned to the group of bodyguards.

“Make sure you get our doctors to look at her, the ones we know we can trust. Send me constant updates on her health. If anything unexpected happens, I want to know immediately.”

The security nodded promptly, and took their seats on each side of Sienna. Even before the doors were completely shut, the cars bobtailed it into the streets. More explosions could be heard from the front of the building, and even from around the corners.

Blake’s night was only just beginning.

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

It was near midnight when she finally made it home. The reclusive house buried into one of the barren mountainsides stood with its lights still on.

They’re still up?

They probably saw what happened on the news.

I didn’t call them, even though that was probably one of the first things I should’ve done.

Mom’s probably mad.

I’m glad I stopped Dad from going to the meeting.

Made the right decision on that part, I guess.

Blake slinked her way up the lodge’s porch. Her feet stopped just short of the door. A hand rested on the knob, but she wanted a little bit more time before turning it.

After the bombing attack, Blake had done her best to salvage the situation. The number of casualties was staggering. Some key North Tribal Leaders were killed, or in a hospital bed on death’s door. Countless civilians and soldiers lost their lives…

Fortunately, Ilia and Sun weren’t among them.

The two barely escaped with a few light injuries. They were actually well enough to force Blake into going home, insisting that they could manage the rest.

And throughout the whole ordeal, the young woman didn’t even realize how injured she herself was.

Taped gauze bandaged an arm and leg. She suffered cuts around her head, which she only noticed when blood dripped in one of her eyes. There was an ache in her shoulder, from whichever explosion dislocated it. Probably another popped it in again without her knowing until now.

They’re going to be mad…

Blake resigned herself to the shower of angry worry her parents were going to drown her in.

The knob turned, and she entered. From the dining room two voices beckoned over.

“Blake, honey! You’re finally here!” Kali Belladonna rushed to hug her daughter.

“We’re glad you made it out safe,” Ghira said warmly from the table.

In contrast to what Blake expected, her parents didn’t seem as upset as she thought. Sure, she was a full-grown adult already, but that never stopped them from treating her like she was still their little girl five. And considering she didn’t call them, they seemed oddly sure she was safe.

“Honestly! Would it have hurt to call us to say, you were okay?” Kali huffed.

Ah, here it is.

“If you’re friend hadn’t told us you were alright, we would’ve been worried sick!”

Blake’s heartbeat stopped.

Friend?” she couldn’t help blurting out.

Immediately, she noticed an unknown figure previously obstructed by her father’s large build. Her hand palmed Gambol Shroud on her side, ready to draw it…

And then, her insides went immediately cold.

“—Hey, Blake! Looks like things got hairy out there.”

She could only stare at the girl in silent disbelief. The girl who she thought she might never see again. The girl who was cheerfully eating something her parents probably cooked.

“From the news, it sounded pretty bad,” the house guest continued with a chipper attitude. “But, still in one piece, huh?”

Only a single despondent word escaped her lips.

“…Yang...”

Chapter Text

.

Iris (Part Two)

.

They honor Graves.

They decorate the Royal.

And they reward the Faithful.

.

.

“And then, there was this one time we were practicing a move! Blake here, messed up the swing and sling-shot me right through Professor Oobleck’s window!” Yang recounted a story, a bit drunkenly.

“Oh, my gosh!” Kali held a hand to her mouth. “Then, what happened?”

“We just ran! We didn’t know what else to do!”

The whole dining room table roared with laughter. Ghira pounded the table and Kali giggled with a high pitch. Yang continued to smile widely, as she took another gulp of her beer. The only one that didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves was the fourth person at the table.

“Hey, Blake. Remind me again what we got slapped with when they caught us?” Yang posed.

“…Two weeks detention. We had to write a ten-page essay and perform the move successfully in front of Ms. Goodwitch fifty times,” Blake answered gloomily.

“Oh, yeah! Still, did force us to learn Bumblebee right!”

“—I bet,” Kali grinned. “Do you have anymore stories? Blake rarely ever talks about her Beacon days!”

“—Mom…” Blake started.

“—Only if you show me more of Blake’s baby pictures!” Yang countered.

“—Of course!” Kali agreed.

“—MOM!” Blake stood abruptly, causing everyone to eye her.

She didn’t know whether the outburst was due to embarrassment, or the sheer confusion to the situation playing out before her. Either way, she couldn’t let things continue any longer.

“Yang and I need to talk about something.” Blake simmered down and evened her tone. “Something important.”

“Oh!” Kali’s ears twitched, like she was just reminded of something. “It is late, after all.  Please, Yang. We insist you stay the night.”

“—Aw, you sure it won’t be too much trouble Mrs. Belladonna?”

“Not at all! We have a free guestroom, and please, call me Kali.”

Yang stared at the woman, who seemed to be making strange eyes.

“—MOM! YANG!” Blake grabbed their attentions.

“Oh, right, right,” Yang chuckled. “Let’s go to your room, then.”

After they all exchanged goodnights with each other, Blake led Yang upstairs to her bedroom.

It was more professional than luxurious. A bed, work desk, and clothing drawer took up most of the space. Some assorted weapons and tools hung on a nearby wall.

As Yang stepped inside, she commented, “Huh. Kinda expected something a little more…girly. No stuffed animals, no tea sets, not even a lot of books.”

“Seriously…?” Blake replied.

“Not even drapes around your bed. Thought you’d have the whole royalty suite being the Princess of the White Fang, and all.”

Blake winced at the parodied title. Another thing she never told Yang or her teammates back in the day. Nothing about her father being the original leader of the White Fang. Just more secrets she should have been open about. She could only wonder what else Yang discovered about her in the time they were apart.

But there was one curiosity outweighing them all.

“Why…Why are you here, Yang? How did you get here?”

The woman, who was her former partner turned to her with a fury. It was like night and day. The cheerful, friendly persona Yang put on for Blake’s parents fell by the wayside. A mask that was violently torn off to reveal the angry beast within.

The red in Yang’s eyes burned with the emotional activation of her Semblance. Her brow wrinkled, and her teeth bore like she would sink them in Blake’s neck. Blonde hair blazing like molten fire. She was the picturesque depiction of a raging demon god.

There it is, Blake thought guiltily.

This is the Yang I expected to see…

After all this time…

Yang squared close to her. She could feel the heated breath on her nose.

Blake would be lying if she said she wasn’t perturbed. All the battlefields she saw, and all the hard experiences over the years, and this lone woman in front of her scared her unlike anything else.

Not death, though.

If Yang was going to kill her… she might have even welcomed it.

No, it was confronting something she had discarded, something she had broken. Things she was still trying to detach herself from. It was a wound deeper than anything physical trauma could ever inflict.

“—You wanna know why I’m here, Blake?” Yang growled.

“Because, you owe me.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

“Because, she owes you,” Weiss answered.

“Haaah?” Yang offset her brow skeptically.

The two were lying naked in bed with a thin sheet over them. Weiss was busy multitasking, going through documents on her tablet that rested on her pillow, when she answered Yang’s question. The other, not completely satisfied with the one sentence explanation tried to get more clarity.

“THAT’S why you’re sending me?”

“You’re our best option to begin talks,” Weiss replied.

“You can’t go yourself?”

“She’d turn me away the moment she saw me.”

“It’s not enough you’re helping sponsor her war?”

“Iris…isn’t sure I have the Faunus’ best interests at heart.”

“Well, she’s not wrong.”

Weiss stopped reading her tablet to throw Yang a glare.

“…Right. Noted. Don’t say that kind of stuff when I see her,” the messy-haired woman chuckled.

“Maybe I should make a list of things you shouldn’t say, and have you study it. Discretion isn’t your strongest suit.”

“Excuse me! Who just went deep undercover in a prison for five months?”

“…”

Weiss didn’t answer, only continuing to tap away on her tablet. Yang grunted a little from the lack of attention. She began tracing little circles on the porcelain skin of the other’s back.

“You could send Ruby.”

“I need Scarlet for the hard sell,” Weiss replied.

“Sure… Always making me do the worst stuff.”

“…”

“So, I get her to see you. That’s it?”

“By whatever means necessary.”

“By guilt-tripping her into it, you mean.”

“Whatever means necessary.”

“Hmm…”

“And obviously, do NOT mention anything concerning you and I,” Weiss emphasized.

At the same time, Yang’s hand wandered down to grope the woman’s butt.

“Sorry, don’t mention what?”

“…”

“Oh, come ON! Yeah, sure. But you know, I kinda wanna see the looks on Ruby and Blake’s faces. Why is it a problem if they find out?”

“Our relationships are estranged as they are. If we are to function as a team, better less strain than more, wouldn’t you say?”

“Okay, okay. No mentioning to either how I make you scream in bed.”

“I don’t scream.”

“Sing?”

“…Get out.”

“Ahaha—”

“No, I’m serious,” Weiss glared, with a serious tone. “Get out. I have things I need to do.”

“……Fine.” Yang got out from the bedsheets and began dressing angrily. “I need to prep the target package for Adam, anyway.”

“Make sure you’re ready to make contact with Iris first.”

“I got it!”

Yang stomped across Weiss’s room, and stopped just before the open door.

“You know, one day you’re gonna tell me exactly why you’re trying to form Team WISE. Because I know you, and you didn’t do it for the nostalgia or the sentimentality. And it’s far from the best team we’ve got or can put together…”

Knowing she wasn’t going to receive a response, Yang left with that.

Once Weiss was alone, she massaged the bridge of her brow tiredly. She brought up various data on her tablet. Catastrophes and signs of the apocalypse, including the recent outbreak of Corruption effecting the Faunus.

There’s no time to get emotional…

Weiss sighed.

If Yang’s angry now,

I can only imagine how she’ll be later.

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

In the present, Yang glowered over Blake. The dark-haired woman waited patiently for her former partner to berate her endlessly. Maybe, even attack her. At the same time, Blake tried to hold herself still for the storm to come.

“You owe me, big time. So you’re gonna do what I ask,” Yang told her.

“What?” the word escaped her unexpectedly.

“You’re going to talk to Weiss.”

“…That’s what you’re here for?”

“I wouldn’t be here otherwise, believe me.”

“You’re here because—Wait, you’re working for Weiss?!”

“Strictly business. She’s been trying to see you for a while now. Since you keep dodging her calls, she had to send me.”

Blake felt something immediately boil from her stomach, an anger she usually kept a quiet lid on with ease. But something about what Yang said, and the situation they were in, broke all emotional failsafes.

“Weiss wants me to accept Atlas’s backing that much, she actually sent you to convince me?!”

“Hm. I can see how it looks like that. The North Faction’s in dead straits, huh?”

“Answer me!”

Yang grabbed Blake’s collar, and pushed her against the wall.

“That’s not how this works! You don’t make demands! I do!”

Blake shook her head in defiance. The old fear was gone. She didn’t see Yang before her. She saw one of Weiss’s soldiers, a messenger, or even a petty thug. Her immovable resolve returned, as well as her anger.

“Go back.” She grasped the prosthetic arm pushing into her. “Tell Weiss, I’ll never cut a deal.”

“This isn’t about your dumb civil war! This is something bigger than that!”

“What?! She wants to use the Faunus for the Great War? As if enough of my people aren’t dying already?!”

“This isn’t about the Faunus! This is about Remnant!”

“I don’t have anything else to say to you—or her.

Yang pulled Blake shortly from the wall, before slamming her against it again. The back of the woman’s head knocked hard on the wooden surface. Her bandages came undone. But even with a freshly opened wound, Blake continued to stare defiantly at her former partner, unfazed.

“You owe me!” Yang shouted. “Or did you forget what happened when Beacon fell? How you left me?!”

“I’m sorry… I’m sorry for what happened to you, Yang. It was my fault.” Blake’s tone softened, but still sounded firm. “If it’s for you, I’ll do anything. If it’s you asking… But I won’t do it for Weiss.”

“There’s no difference!”

“There IS a difference, and you know it!”

The two locked deathly glares for what seemed like hours. The tension was so thick, it felt as if they were underwater.

“…I knew this wouldn’t work,” Yang scoffed, and let go of Blake. “This whole thing was a waste of time.”

“I suppose… it was.”

“How about that? First mission I ever failed for Weiss. I’m glad it was this one.”

“Sure. Go back and tell her you failed.”

“How she thought you and I could ever work on the same team again is beyond me!”

“…She wanted us to work on the same team?”

“Yeah. Weiss is putting the old band back together. Would’ve just told her if she asked. There’s no way we could work with someone who cuts and runs on her teammates for her own sake.”

Blakes eyes went wide. Her thoughts went back to tonight’s bombing. Her cold decision to leave her comrades behind, in order to prioritize Sienna. But something in Yang’s words brought a strange resolution to the doubts she harbored.

“I am a lot of things, Yang…!” Blake broiled. “But I would never abandon anyone for myself!”

“HAHA!” Yang barked out a laugh. “Where do you find the nerve to say that, after what you did back at Beacon?!”

“I did what I had to! You think I wanted to leave the way I did?! As long as I was around, you were never going to be safe from Adam!”

“You think I cared about what that prick could do?!”

“I CARED!” Blake’s emotional dam burst, and tears rolled down her cheeks. “I CARED WHAT HE COULD DO TO YOU OR WORSE. AND IT WOULD’VE BEEN MY FAULT!!!”

“…”

“So, yes…! I left, so nothing else could’ve happened to you…! I threw away the most—” She choked, and stopped what she was saying. The words caught taut in her throat.

“Say it, Blake. I want to hear you say it.”

“…I threw away the happiest part of myself, when I left…” Blake admitted sadly. “You can hate me all you want. I deserve it. You lost your arm because of me.”

“You think I hate you because I lost one arm? You think I hated you for this?!” Yang held up her prosthetic. “You didn’t do this to me, Adam did.”

“And I brought us into our lives!”

“I never blamed you for that.”

Blake shook her head.

“But I did,” her voice stuttered. “I know I hurt you when I left.”

“Pft, HAH!” Yang scoffed. “You think you hurt me when you left…”

“I wish it was different. Not a day goes by I wish I had handled things differently or fix what I broke.”

“You could have! ‘Not a day goes by’? You could’ve come back any time! TEN FUCKING YEARS, BLAKE! You never said a word, never reached out, not a damn thing, until I was the one who showed up at your house! Not even by choice!”

“I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“There it is again! You think you hurt me…”

“…Yang?”

The rageful woman looked like she was building up to something. A burden she carried with her since that fateful day, when her world turned upside down. Something she never admitted to anyone or even whispered in her most private moments.

“I’m never going to see you again… So, screw it, why not.”

Yang breathed deep in her chest, resolving to release what she bottled for so long.

“You didn’t just hurt me, Blake…YOU DESTROYED ME!!!”

“Yang…?”

“You know how long I waited for you to come back?! You know how much I hated myself for not being enough for you to stay?!”

“I didn’t leave, because—”

“BUT YOU DID, AND YOU STAYED AWAY! Could’ve came back a thousand times over, but you never did!  Don’t worry, though! I got over it, and it all finally sunk in. It took a while to learn, but it was you, who taught me the most important life lesson of all.”

“…”

“There’s only ever gonna be you out there. Putting faith in someone, trusting someone else? Heh! You either wise up or get dead. The next years only taught me I was right. No one to depend on, but yourself.”

“…I’m sorry.”

“Why apologize? I should be thanking you.”

“…”

Blake wanted to speak, but when she tried, she couldn’t find the words. Nothing prepared her for it, brace her for it. In the end, she wanted to say anything at all—anything that came to mind.

“What do you want from me, Yang?” she barely eked out. “If there’s anything you want—”

Yang punched her fist close to Blake’s head and leaned close. The woman’s body pinning the other to the wall. Yang pressed her forehead down to her former partner, so the brightest red of her eyes could be seen.

“There’s nothing you can give me.”

Yang pressed her lips violently down on Blake’s.

And when she parted, she did it with a snarl.

“Not a fucking thing.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

Early next morning, Yang tried to sneak out of the guestroom as quietly as possible. But, as if predicting such a thing, Kali and Ghira were already awake in the living room.

“Good morning, Yang,” Kali greeted pleasantly. “You’re already leaving?”

“Sorry, Kali. I would stay longer, but I got an emergency phone call from my boss.”

“—Not even enough time for breakfast?” Ghira offered.

“Honestly, I’m starving, but my ride’s already here,” Yang hitched her thumb to the rumbling of an airship outside the front door. “Thanks for the offer, though. And thanks for letting me stay over.”

“Of course. You’re welcome any time.”

“—Yang!” Blake called from upstairs. “Wait for me.”

Yang tried to hide the surprise on her face, as her former partner made her way down.

Blake turned to her parents.

“Dad, is it alright if I leave some things to you today?”

“Oh, yes. Of course, you can.”

“I already let Ilia and Sun know. If you have any questions, you can ask them. Tell Sienna that I’m glad she’s okay.”

“Alright. I understand.”

“—Will you be home for dinner?” Kali asked.

“I’m not too sure, actually,” Blake glanced at Yang. “This may take a while. I’ll call if it takes longer than a day.”

Her mother seemed like she wanted to ask more questions, but decided now wasn’t the time for it.

“Alright, Blake,” Kali nodded. “Be safe.”

“I will, Mom. Thanks.”

Blake hugged both her parents, and strode past Yang to the front door. On opening it, a wave of hot air blew from the small airship landing.

Yang was about to go too, when Kali suddenly embraced her. The older woman turned her head to whisper loud enough only Yang could hear.

“If you harm one hair on my daughter’s head, I will hunt you down. Understand?”

When they parted from the embrace, Kali beamed with an oblivious smile. Apparently, Blake’s parents didn’t fall for Yang’s friendly act for a second.

“Heh!” she chuckled. “I hear you. But if you really want to keep her safe, you should just stop her right now.”

Ghira and Kali only continued to grin silently.

“…Shit.” Yang turned, and began walking to the airship. She caught up to Blake with a glare. “What the hell are you doing?”

“This is your mission, right?” Blake replied in monotone, as she stepped through the side-door. “Mission complete.”

Once Yang was onboard, the airship took off following Penny’s autopilot. They looked to be traveling to a random point in the sky, when a square tunnel suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

The aircraft carefully navigated itself through the mouth, before the landing doors closed behind them.

Hm.

So, R&D finished constructing the Nautilus

Yang commented inwardly.

Weiss must be happy.

Once they finished landing, Yang and Blake stepped out into the interior of the first Dreadnought-class warship with full optical camo capabilities.

“It’s huge,” Blake murmured. The woman’s sharp eyes scanned the hull curiously. “But it’s…empty. Where’s the crew?”

Yang only shrugged. “Penny’s AI is complex. She’s probably managing everything.”

Blake could only awe at the technological feat, as Yang led them through the interior. There was a lot to be impressed about, but there also came with it a feeling of dread. The number of things such a warship was capable of wasn’t hard to imagine. The possibilities and damage it could inflict were almost infinite.

“—Blake.”

“Hm?” she blinked, having her train of thought suddenly cut.

“What are you doing?” Yang asked, stopping right before a steel door. “You didn’t want to see, Weiss. Now, you do. What changed your mind?”

“I have my reasons.”

“It better not have anything to do with me.”

“And, if it did?”

“Nothing changes. I honestly wanna just drop you out the cargo door and never see you again.”

“…You don’t have to worry about that. I’m only seeing Weiss after thinking a few things over. It has nothing to do with you.”

“Good. Don’t take the offer to join the team.”

“I doubt I will, but I’ll make my own decision when the time comes.”

“Tch,” Yang clicked her teeth in annoyance.

She operated the security panel to the conference room. The door slid open to allow access. And inside, they could see two figures sitting at the end of a long table.

“Weiss…” Blake muttered. “Ruby…”

Ruby stood from her chair with a genuine smile on her face, while Weiss addressed her with a business-like professionalism. Her hands clasped firmly behind her back with a stout military posture.

“Blake,” Weiss greeted curtly.

“There’s a lot we need to discuss.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

It had been a long time since all the members of Team RWBY were together in one place.

An awkward atmosphere filled the small conference room. They themselves probably didn’t realize this moment would actually come to fruition. And now that it did, they were caught off guard.

But the stagnation only lasted for a second.

Before Weiss could say more, or Ruby enjoy the reunion, or Blake had a chance to settle…

“—Winter,Yang called over the table callously. “I brought Iris.”

­“—Iris?” Blake wondered. “Winter?”

“—Yes, you’ve accomplished your mission well,” Weiss nodded.

“—So? I kept my end of the bargain,” Yang rested her hands on her hips testily. “Your turn.”

“……Team CFEN(Coffin) is waiting for you in the second hangar.”

“Finally.”

Without waiting another moment, Yang turned on her foot and left.

As she made her way down to where her hit squad was, a storm of emotions raged through her insides. She thought Blake was never going to take up Weiss’s offer to meet. She wished she didn’t. And after their argument last night, she was sure that was the end of it.

Yang made peace with never having to see Blake again—never having to think about her former partner again. But in a few short hours, that freedom of alleviated burden was gone. As if Ruby wasn’t enough, more reminders shackling her to the memory of how naïve she once was kept appearing one after another. It drove her mad.

Luckily, and perhaps unluckily for someone else, Yang had an outlet for her unquenching wrath.

She turned another corner, punched in the security codes for a gate, and entered a large corridor. Gear boxes and heavy suitcases piled along the walls. Gunpowder, coffee, and the smell of burnt Dust wafted through the air. A private Swordfish-class Airship was set down in the middle of the hangar. And just below the sharp nose of the plane, sat three of the deadliest fighters on the planet.

“About time you showed up to your own party,” Coco Adel greeted, raising a coffee mug.

Yang joined them in sitting around a make-shift table covered with intel on Adam Taurus and the operational plans to take him out.

“Yeah, got held up by some errands Winter had me do. I gotta say, I missed working with you guys.”

“Guess, what they say is right. Five months in prison does make the heart grow softer,” Coco chuckled.

“That’s not even close to what the saying is,” Yang laughed, and turned to her other two teammates. “You guys miss me?”

Fox Alistair had his arms crossed, and gave the most imperceptible of most nods. While Neopolitan stared back at her blankly.

“Yeah, you missed me,” Yang practically beamed at all of them.

No matter what Weiss says, this is my team.

“Well? Let’s do what Team CFEN does best, shall we?”

“Time to put some bodies in coffins.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

Blake sifted through the papers on the conference desk with a collected mindset. Despite the dire picture the data painted for Remnant’s future, she continued to scrutinize the documents carefully.

There was a lot of material to take in, understanding the conclusions being drawn, but also spotting any suspicious signs that the findings were falsified.

“It’s all true,” Weiss said. “The findings have been verified by a number of sources, including the top analysts in Atlas.”

“As if I could trust anything an S.D.C. employee might say,” Blake replied, as she flipped to the next page without looking at her.

“Do you have any opinions so far?”

“Relics, Maidens, the War……and the Corruption. They’re all connected.”

“So, it would seem.”

“You know, if the S.D.C. had so much funding they could afford to wage a war, while conducting this research—they could have spared some relief to help the Faunus. Even a fraction would’ve made a great difference…”

“I believe in treating the disease, not the symptom.”

“…And Vacuo wouldn’t be in the state it is now.”

“If you took Atlas’s offer for a full alliance partnership, Vacuo also wouldn’t be in the state it is now.”

“—Guys!” Ruby intervened in the argument about to erupt. “We can’t fight each other, when the real fight is out there.”

“You’re actually siding with her on this?” Blake peered over the documents.

“I’m saying our enemies aren’t in this room. That’s it.”

“So, you believe in these findings? The End of Remnant?”

“I… actually saw some of it firsthand. You did, too.”

“……I’m getting some air.”

With that, Blake strode out of the conference room. Meanwhile, Ruby threw a look at Weiss, whose continuous steely demeanor didn’t help the situation.

“You are trying to convince Blake to join us, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Then, why are you making things so difficult?”

“Oh? Would you prefer I forcefully capture her, forcefully make her see the legitimacy of our impending doom, and then forcefully recruit her onto my team?”

“Ugh! I can’t believe I was okay with that…”

“I knew you could see the truth in what I was doing, regardless of the measures I took.”

“You’re the worst…”

“Blake will come around.”

“Are you sure about that?” Ruby furrowed her brow skeptically. “Her people are in the middle of a civil war. I doubt she’s going to walk away from that to join some mystery team.”

“Vacuo’s civil war will quickly transition into a civil movement in the next few days.”

“…” Ruby didn’t respond. She knew the reason why the change would happen, and it made her feel guilty not to tell Blake. “Still, she might just take these findings and tell other people, like Sienna Khan? Blake won’t want to work with us, or more specifically—you.”

The bitterness in the last word was probably meant to sting Weiss, but the silver-haired woman paid it no mind.

“That’s why I’m using a different recruitment method with Blake than I did with you,” Weiss answered coldly. “I’m depending on you and Yang to convince her to join. While Yang has done her part, it’s time you do yours.”

“…What do you mean?”

“I think Blake’s had enough time to digest what she read. Now, she needs to hear some words of encouragement from an unbiased party, from someone she trusts.”

In response, Ruby brandished a vicious glare at her team leader. Calling the woman’s methods manipulative would be an understatement.

“Go, and see Iris’s recruitment is finalized, Scarlet,” Weiss ordered, without a care. “Make her see reason. Team WISE must be completed and operational as soon as possible.”

Ruby was on the verge of leaping over the table and strangling her partner’s throat, when she checked herself. Releasing her anger on Weiss, while satisfying, would do little to dissipate all the things bothering her. No, she would wait until later to confront her “boss”, without drastic consequences clouding overhead.

The red-hooded woman left the room to find Blake outside, on the Nautilus’s top deck.

There was nothing but empty blue skies above them, while clouds below stretched in every direction like an endless ocean. The breeze was strong, but tranquil in a sense. Their airship hovered silently, decloaked and in standby mode.

And at the edge of the deck’s railing, Blake leaned into the view. Ruby slowly walked to her side to join her.

Immediately, Blake wrapped her hands around Ruby’s shoulders, catching the red-hooded woman off-guard. But after the initial surprise faded, she hugged her old teammate back.

“I was so worried,” Blake muttered into her shoulder. “I heard Weiss took Beacon. There were so many rumors she killed you.”

“I bet…”

“I didn’t believe them, that she would be capable of that. I figured she captured you. But…”

“It’s okay, Blake.”

“Deep down, I was really afraid she actually did it.”

“Sorry.”

“I’m just glad you’re alive.”

“Hehe! Me, too.”

The time to bask in each other’s healthy well-beings, which was postponed earlier in the conference room, took place then. And the two young women showed their legitimate relief in the presence of the other. Unfortunately, the more they wanted to spend time casually catching each other up on what they had been doing since their disbandment, the seriousness of their situation took root.

“So…Weiss sent you up here to finish recruiting me, I take it?” Blake asked, after a time.

“Yup!” Ruby chirped.

“Are you actually going to do it?”

“Nope!”

Blake chuckled at that. The change in Weiss and Yang over the years was disturbing to say the least, but Ruby was still very much how she remembered. It did a lot to calm the noise of misgivings she harbored.

“I don’t know if I can go along with a lot of what Weiss is proposing.”

“No, me neither,” Ruby agreed.

“I can understand the reasoning. And as much as I hate to admit it, what Yang said before was right. What’s happening right now is bigger than the Faunus. Or rather, it includes what’s happening to us.”

“But you don’t want to abandon the small fight for the big one.”

“Yes! Exactly! My people need me…”

“There’s nothing wrong with that, Blake,” Ruby smiled understandably. “I have the convenience of leaving my students with Ms. Goodwitch and the other Professors. You don’t have that luxury.”

“…I just—it feels like I’m fighting a losing battle down there. And then, Weiss and Yang appear out of nowhere, making it plainly obvious that THIS situation with Remnant is the battle I’m supposed to be fighting.”

“It feels like the easy way out?”

“…Like I’m running away. Like I’m leaving the problem in someone else’s hands to join a situation that’s less harrowing.”

“Well, to be fair, I think the End of Remnant is pretty harrowing, too.”

“True,” Blake grinned wryly and sighed. “What do you think I should do?”

“I can’t make your decisions, Blake. The only one in charge of your own destiny is you.”

“Wow. I guess it hadn’t really sunk in, but you really are the Vice Headmaster of Beacon now.”

Former Vice Headmaster, but I did learn a thing or two about giving lectures than getting them. Although, Professor Goodwitch is always quick to remind me I still have a lot to learn.”

“…Ruby. Are you really going through with this? The things Team WISE is going to do, they cross lines a Huntress would never entertain.”

“…I don’t think I have a choice. My mind was already made up the moment I learned what was coming. Huntress or not.”

“And, Weiss? Yang?”

Ruby’s expression darkened, but only briefly.

“They’re not the same people, who they used to be. I know that. Then, again, neither is anyone.”

“They’re almost completely different people,” Blake commented.

“…I wonder about that. Maybe, they just grew up into who they really are.”

“Ruby?”

“Ahaha! Sorry, more of my Professor side coming through again,” Ruby smiled uneasily. “But when it comes down to it, if it’s to save the people of this world, it doesn’t matter who I have to work with. That’s my reasoning, at least.”

“……I’ll ask you again. Maybe, not as a Professor, not as my former team leader or Weiss’s partner…”

“…”

“As my friend, what do you think I should do?”

The two stared out into the blue sky for a long while. More clouds drifted by, giving a sense that all worries slowly, but eventually, were carried into the winds and ceased to matter in the grand scheme of things. A solemn and sobering content.

“You shouldn’t join the team,” Ruby answered. “Weiss, Yang, and I will find another way. It doesn’t have to be you, Blake.”

“…”

“And…it might be too much for me to say this, but if you join—I think you’ll be doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Blake pondered on the response. There was a sincerity in the other’s voice she didn’t remember it having when they were younger. A wisdom of someone with miles traveled on their soul. Another testament to how much they’d grown.

“Thank you, Ruby. It meant a lot to hear you say that.”

“I hope it helped.”

“It did,” Blake smiled. “It helped me confirm my decision.”

“…Alright.”

Blake returned to the conference room alone.

On entering, she saw Weiss at the end of the table, just like before. As if waiting exactly for this moment to pass.

“Have you made your decision?” Weiss asked.

“Yes. And you already know it, don’t you?”

“…”

“Good. Then, this is goodbye—”

“Ruby needs you on this team,” Weiss interrupted. “I think you noticed that, but she wants to push you away, regardless.”

“…”

“And you’re still in love with Yang.”

“…!”

Blake’s temper rose dramatically, and her ears stood on end.

“This team needs you,” Weiss continued. “And you need this team.”

Blake could only scowl at the other, almost letting out a hiss. But she found it in herself to turn away coldly.

“Goodbye, Weiss,” the woman said over her shoulder.

Throughout the short conversation, Weiss’s demeanor remained unchanged. As if it was all going according to plan.

“See you soon, Iris.”

Chapter Text

.

Iris (Part Three)

.

They honor Graves.

They decorate the Royal.

And they reward the Faithful.

.

.

It was approaching night on the Saharan Front of Vacuo.

The sun was setting, and the sky dimmed a darker hue. Waving hills of sand lost their fluorescent gold, and faded to purple. And as the last rays of daylight retreated over the horizon, so too did the forces of Vacuo’s Southern Faction withdraw from the battlefield.

The Northern Tribes suffered a surprise attack during the afternoon. It was an unforgivable mistake, and their defenses paid dearly for it. To make matters worse, when they finally recovered enough to launch a counterassault, night was falling and the Southern Faction’s White Fang kited back. The Northern Tribes were at a disadvantage due to their lack of night vision. And, of course, there was the possibility the Southern Faction, which listed many Faunus in their ranks, set up an ambush should they recklessly pursue.

In the end, the Northern Tribes could only watch as their enemies retreated safely and leisurely over the hills. Defenses would have to be rebuilt, draining on what limited resources they had. There was also the body count, which received a huge blow. Their numbers, growing more and more difficult to replenish with each hit and run by the opposition.

From atop the ridge of a tall dune, a heavily cloaked figure monitored the progression of the entire battle. He purposely took caution in hiding his appearance, very few being privy to his actual whereabouts. But it was him, who commanded his forces to exhaust their enemy than fight the fair fight.

The leader of the Southern Faction’s White Fang.

Adam Taurus.

As he watched his forces retreat and glanced at the still burning remnants in the enemy settlement, a sadistic smile curled his lips.

“Have our forces rest four hours on returning to base,” he relayed his orders to his comms officer. “We’ll attack them again at night.”

The White Fang soldier nodded, and began speaking to the corresponding leaders of each division.

On their way back to their outpost, Adam continued to evaluate the strategy and the condition of the civil war as a whole.

The assassination attempt on the Northern Tribes leadership went comparatively well yesterday. They were able to eliminate some key threats with only the sacrifice of a few minor chieftains. It was a shame Sienna Khan survived. They could not have accounted for Blake and her lieutenants acting as bodyguards incognito.

Adam’s forces were performing well on the Saharan Front. They wounded the enemy and bled their enemy’s resources, while his army remained relatively unscathed. If they were lucky and their adversaries were incompetent enough, which was the case most of the time, the enemy might draw upon their exhausted forces from the Mojave Front to reinforce this position. Maybe then, he would reveal himself to Blake—and kill her once and for all.

While the idea brought some joy in its anticipation, a foreboding lingering stalked the back of his thoughts.

The current tactic was cruel and efficient, but his projections for the war were falling behind. The main reason for that was…

“Have we received new provisions from Mistral yet?” Adam asked his Logistics Officer.

The White Fang member checked his clipboard, then shook his head.

“No, sir. No shipments today either. Should I send another request?”

“This will be the fifth time already…! Remind them that if they want Vacuo as an ally, they have to make sure I win it first.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Hmmm…” Adam grunted.

What is Cinder Fall doing?

He realized thinking about it wouldn’t do much at this juncture. The man could make a big deal out of it if his requests were delayed this time. Until then, he had to maintain his army’s harassment.

“What’s the status of our forces?” he asked the returning comms officer.

“Tired, sir. Some are wounded, but most are exhausted. Especially with the surprise attack this morning and afternoon.”

“…You have something more to say?”

“They could…use more rest.”

“…Have them ready for the night raid. Four hours rest on making camp,” Adam ignored the consultation.

“I understand,” the officer nodded uneasily.

After some time passed, Adam’s army returned safely to base. Their usual small village of tents were erected on the spot around an oasis.

Tired soldiers tried to finish their remaining duties, so they could collapse onto their sleeping bags as quickly as possible. Bleary-eyed sentries took positions for first watch. Some seemed to choose to forego eating altogether, and postpone it until they woke.

And above the encampment, a certain cloaked airship treaded the sky.

“How are they looking, Fox?” Coco asked an update from her teammate.

The man sharpening his forearm blades replied,

“—Tired.”

It was vague, but after having worked with him so long, his teammates were able to interpret his meaning. The Aura levels of the army below them was low. Incredibly low, in fact.

Fox was Team CFEN’s radar, in a simple sense of the word. Due to his blindness, he was forced to develop a particularly high level of Aura Sense, in which he used Aura to discern his surroundings. It also allowed him to track the energy levels of others, even letting him evaluate their health conditions to a fine degree. And it was this skill, which he applied to the countless soldiers below them, that told him one other thing…

“Soft.”

The second word assessment by Fox came like the word of a hunter—or maybe, a predator.

His other teammates reacted to it with a knowing smirk.

“—Alright, brain trust,” Coco snapped, before tossing a digital map tablet to Neo and Fox. “Get to mapping their positions. I want us hitting them the same time their precious heads hit the pillows.”

She turned to Yang, who was taking apart her prosthetic to clean it. Then, putting it back together.

“The ice queen really sign off on this gig? We’re gonna leave a pretty big footprint on this one.”

“Well, if we don’t leave anyone alive, no one will ever know we were here,” Yang answered coldly.

“…”

“…Full operational impunity, Coco. Even if they did ID us, our team doesn’t work directly under Atlas anyway. Not officially.”

“True. Not like we can take the HVT without the mayhem. So, no blowback on our people?”

“Small blessings,” Yang grinned.

“That’s what I like to hear.”

At that moment, Neo handed Coco the digital map tablet. On it, an accurate layout of the camp with marked soldiers displayed on its surface. And in the center of the formation, was their main objective signed with a red skull.

“Alright, then,” Coco called her team’s attention, while mentally making custom small changes to their plan. “No major discrepancies from the drawing board. We run it like rehearsal. Get ready, get evil.”

“We drop in five.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

In the main officer’s tent, Adam had barely closed his eyes for a second. Then, all of a sudden, chaos sounded all around him.

He exited the door flap to see what was going on, only to find soldiers rushing in every direction.

The night sky was full of high sparkling flares, which lit up their encampment like it was day. There were fires and explosions all around the perimeter. And as if the surprise attack wasn’t causing enough disorder, there was also a high frequency ring that caused consternation to their Faunus soldiers. Also, a foul-smelling gas permeated the air, which did a number on those with keen noses.

Adam coughed with tears in his eyes. His heightened senses were assaulted on every front.

What the hell is going on?!

He tried to get a hold of one of his officers in charge, but found their communications jammed.

Damn it!

They know what they’re doing, whoever the hell this is!

Adam began shouting to his soldiers nearby, trying to bring order to his subordinates’ panic.

From a distance away, laying prone in the sand, a dark group of individuals peeked just over a sand dune. Their binoculars focused on the settlement ripe with chaos.

The leader of the pack went quickly to identifying the perpetrators of the attack. A certain woman seemed to blink in and out of the air, driving an icepick thin blade through key officers. A man made quick work of some figures, spilling their intestines on the ground or opening their esophagus. Another woman switched between several heavy weapons to fill bodies with bullet holes. And a particular individual, smashed through several armored stations with nothing but her fists, leaving a swath of destruction in her wake.

There were only four in all, and an impressive amount of damage caused between. They joined together, executed combos interchangeably, then split apart with perfect precision. It was a hybrid performance of both solo and coordinated movements. A deadly flow only few teams in the world could probably pull off.

Mercury Black hailed his allies through a relay of secure communication lines.

“—Mercury, report,” Cinder Fall’s voice came from the other end.

“They’re here. The White Queen’s favorite pipe-hitters, including the one-arm wonder,” Mercury said.

“I see. So, the one called Ember is finally getting here revenge after all these years. I knew Tyrian would break.”

“What should we do, boss?”

“……The status of Blake Belladonna?”

“She disappeared for a day, came back around the afternoon. No other changes.”

“Hm.”

Mercury could hear Cinder tapping on her desk in thought.

“…It seems our joint enterprise with Adam Taurus has reached a most disappointing conclusion.”

He understood what the statement meant.

“Copy that,” Mercury shrugged indifferently. “And the surveillance on Belladonna?”

“She returned, you said… Resume recon. In the instance she disappears again, do try to keep track of her this time.”

“Easier said than done without being seen.”

“That will be all. Keep monitoring the situation, and report the aftermath.”

“Roger that.”

The line went dead, and Mercury gave a tired sigh.

“Hahhh, what a slave driver.”

The man continued to peer through his binoculars, once in a while gnawing on a food ration snack. He watched the massacre, like he was watching one of his favorite shows. And then, a depraved smile appeared on his lips.

“Sucks, buddy. But sometimes, when you gotta go—”

“—You gotta go.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

On Adam’s right, the soldier had his chest cavity opened with a cross-slash. On his left, a woman’s head was blown clean off with a single shot.

One White Fang lieutenant moved in front of the leader, probably trying to shield him from what came next. His body was large and the chainsaw in his hands was massive.

“—Hollow Point.”

On Coco’s order, a blazing yellow figure dashed in front of the giant Faunus. Neo laced Yang’s fist with pointed glass, while she entered the man’s guard.

The lieutenant swung his rippling chainsaw across, but Yang dipped her head below it. Then, with her crystal encrusted fist, snapped a vicious liver blow to the body. On piercing the skin, the glass shattered, sending countless shards tearing through inner organs. Some of the shrapnel cut so sharp, blades popped out the other sides of the body.

The White Fang lieutenant collapsed to his knees first, then his face hit the dirt.

The flares in the sky gave out. Nothing but the fiery remains of the army and their tents gave visibility to the four figures before Adam.

The man stepped inadvertently back.

“—Hey, asshole,” Yang greeted casually. “Long time no see.”

“You…!” Adam gritted his teeth with recognition.

“Yeah, me. Shoulda killed me when you had the chance~

“……Coward. This is the only way you Humans can fight. Always underhanded, without a speck of honor!”

To the insult, Team CFEN only stared as if to say, “Like you have any right to talk”. They glanced to each other, before focusing on the one whose vendetta this belonged to.

“Well, I guess that’s true. We did kinda do him dirty,” Yang brandished an easygoing smirk. “So, let’s do this nice and fair. Mano-e-mano. No help, no handicaps.”

Adam had to fight down the smile from showing in his face. His opponent took his bait. But then, there were also the woman’s teammates to watch out for.

Fortunately for him, the rest of Team CFEN took some steps back. Even Neo postured herself on the dead corpse of the White Fang Lieutenant. The other three all but communicated their intention to simply let the duel proceed without interruption. Something Yang probably requested beforehand.

Adam lowered his body into his signature iaido stance. A menacing bloodlust leaked from the stillness of his sword-drawing form.

He recalled Yang’s data and Semblance. Adam’s technique was its perfect opposite when applied correctly. He wouldn’t give Yang the chance to build her energy from his attacks. The swordsman would end it with a single move, one fatal swing of his blade.

Yang cracked her knuckles challengingly. The previous glow of her hair was nonexistent, giving muteness to her Semblance. But the red of her eyes seemed to glint something hungry.

The woman lowered into her own fighting stance. Her boots ground into the rough sand and dirt. The right of her armed prosthetic drew back, while the left stretched out to lead.

All was still in the tense atmosphere. Every crackle of fire was like thunder in a brewing storm. The contest of wills built until its pinnacle moment.

Then, a burning tent collapsed under the strain, giving signal to their duel.

Simultaneous explosions occurred as both combatants kicked off the ground. They pulled the triggers on their respective weapons, which propelled them with a shock and a bang. The space between them was a mere ten paces, but it served as enough momentum for their clash.

Despite the great force produced by both, only one side would bear the suffering of catastrophic ruin.

The moment Adam drew his sword barely out from its sheathe, a few trace flames licked up and down Yang’s arm. The woman’s gold mane burned a scorching crimson.

At the same time Adam was caught off-guard by the surprise appearance of Yang’s Semblance, the boxer bypassed the man’s sword range. Her arm pitched forth like a howling star, connecting her knuckles with Adam’s own.

Caught between burning steel and the hilt of his blade, the swordsman’s hand was crushed. The impact of the clash sent him crumpling to the ground. His katana flew through the air with some parts of his crushed fingers.

“GRAAAGGHHH!!!” Adam painfully sprawled in anguish, grasping his twisted appendage to his body. “How…?! How did you—”

“My Semblance hasn’t worked that way for a loooong time,” Yang gloated, swaggering towards him with a triumphant strut.

With an uncanny movement, Adam picked his sword off the ground with his remaining hand, and swung it…

But Yang caught it with ease. And with a violent motion, ripped it from his grasp like taking it from a child.

“Okay, this is getting pathetic.”

“I’LL KILL YOU!!!” Adam frothed. “I SWEAR, I’LL KILL YOU!!!”

“Huh, no wonder you lost. Should’ve known you never had it in you—not the real stuff anyway.”

“I WILL DESTROY YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE! My rage will never stop! You’ll never escape me!!!”

“HAHAHA!” Yang cackled. “Your Rage?”

She used Adam’s sword to peel off the man’s White Fang mask. The scar of “S.D.C.” branded on his eye was revealed.

“Your cause, your beliefs?” Yang continued. “They’re nothing but an excuse for you to throw your tantrum,” she growled low. “You think you own Rage? Adam… Your hate doesn’t even burn.”

The woman strode to him with ominous steps. Adam felt his soul culled, as he struggled to crawl away. But an unforgiving hand clasped hard around his throat, forcing him to turn around.

“Look at me…!”

Above him, was the crimson inferno of hate personified. Yang bore down on him with eyes of accursed stars. Her hair stoked with unfettering embers.

“My Rage is my Semblance. It lets me run cold, and it also burns me from the inside out,” she breathed, with plumes of flame. “And I saved a lot of it, just for today…”

Adam tried to look away again, but Yang smacked him across the face one way, then back the other. She hoisted him up, single-handed like a dangling ragdoll.

“Any last words?” she asked.

“………Please…!”

“Nope.”

Yang sank a fiery fist through Adam’s heart, and rested it there. With a violent twist of her wrist, she unloaded a special thermite charge, which sparked a conflagration in the man’s chest. His insides began to melt like lava, while Yang’s Semblance burned, slow but sure.

“I owned my scars, but you tried to hide yours behind a mask,” she muttered disappointedly. “My anger could never lose to yours.”

As the lights dimmed in Adam’s sight, he remembered something told to him long ago.

“I pity you,” the voice said. “One day, your so-called Rage will fail you. Because you don’t have it. The fire that comes from a pain so hard and so deep, it defines you.”

Adam tried to reach out to that person. The only one who could possibly save him.

“Pray the day never comes,” Raven Branwen said, over her shoulder. “This is farewell, my old apprentice.”

The remnants of Adam’s body collapsed. Nothing but ash and dying embers at the end of Yang’s outstretched hand. And with a violent swipe of her foot, scattered the remains of his existence into the desert winds.

“A coffin’s too good for you, Adam. I already forgot who you were,” Yang spat.

Suddenly, a voice came over her in-ear radio.

“—That was certainly dramatic.”

“You were watching? That’s naughty.”

“…We’re on a private channel,” Weiss cautioned. “Tell me how the others are reacting.”

“Hm?” Yang wasn’t sure the reason, but did as she was told. “They look the same as ever,” she whispered, while glancing at her teammates. “Why…was someone supposed to stop me?”

The line went quiet for a second.

“……I’ll explain later. Keep a close eye on them, report any changes. Withdraw immediately.”

“Alright,” Yang grunted. “On our way back.”

After the line cut, the woman could only imagine what that private conversation was about. But for now, she wanted to take a little peace in what she just finished. It’s not everyday someone gets to settle a decade-old grudge after all.

“—You done savoring the moment, hot rod?” Coco asked, with a roguish grin.

Yang inhaled and nodded.

“Moment, savored. Let’s bug out, and get plastered.”

Coco tapped her radio.

“Penny, we are ready for pickup. I repeat,”

“Get us out of this sandbox.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

It was early morning the next day, when a small party was held in Team CFEN’s private hangar. The members drank, talked, and played a few games. It was a tradition they enjoyed after completing missions, especially satisfying ones. And the successful assassination of Adam Taurus counted among that.

“Oh!” Coco responded to the vibrating scroll in her pocket. “It’s a message from Vel.”

Fox and Yang perked up at that.

“How is she today?” Yang asked.

“She’s doin’ alright. Rehabs still a bitch. Wondering where I am and what I’m doing, always worrying.”

“Aw, cute.”

“Shut up.”

“Winter said we’re doing a cycle in Atlas. Good time for us to pay a visit?”

Coco smiled wryly, appreciating the sentiment itself.

“Thanks, guys.” She instinctively included Fox, who was giving her the same look as Yang. “I…just don’t know if she’s ready for it yet.”

“No problem,” Yang nodded with understanding.

“Hey! Speaking of babes, Neo! You gonna show us some pictures of yours, or what?”

The silent woman took out her scroll, and began showing a number of pictures proudly to her team. Laughter and awe sounds cascaded the walls of the hangar.

Meanwhile, watching the gathering below, two figures leaned on the railing of the second-floor walkway.

“—They’re impressive. Team CFEN,” Ruby commented, with her own drink in hand.

“They’ve been trained to manage much bigger threats and combat more formidable enemies than Adam Taurus,” Weiss replied.

“Like the Maidens and Salem…”

“Yes.”

“And Relics, and tougher swordsmen, like Raven Branwen.”

“Yes…”

Ruby stared at her partner a little.

“So why do you need Team WISE?”

“…”

“Weiss?”

Weiss suddenly took out her scroll, which notified her of something.

“…It looks like Iris has arrived. I wonder what might have brought this on so soon after she left,” she feigned amusement.

The doors to the hangar opened, and a dark figure came stalking through the room. Her shoes falling hard on the metal surface, making everyone known of her arrival.

“WEISS! YANG!” Blake shouted with anger.

“Oh, geez. Party pooper’s here,” Yang drunkenly chuckled with her nth beer in hand.

As Blake was about to run at her, a scarlet cape fluttered between them. Ruby started holding her friend back as much as she could.

“It was you, wasn’t it?!” Blake accused, while trying to get through. “Your team was responsible for the attack last night! You were the ones who killed Adam!”

“—Uh, you’re welcome?” Coco tilted her head quizzically.

“Am I supposed to be grateful?!”

“Kinda expected it, yeah, to be honest. Also, long time no see, kitty cat.”

“YANG!”

“—Mmm… Am I drunk enough to do this?” Yang eyed her beer bottle, and chugged what remained. “Yup. I’m game.”

As the woman was about to engage from the other side, it was Weiss who dropped in her way.

“I won’t allow any fighting like this,” she stopped coolly.

“Serious? Come ON, it’ll be fun—”

“No. That’s an order. Stand down.”

Yang traded death stares for a second, before casually knitting her hands around the back of her head.

“Boooo~!”

“—Damn it!” Blake still struggled to free herself from Ruby. “You can’t just come here, doing whatever you want, taking things into your own hands!!! There are consequences!!!”

“Yeah, like getting a loud complaint from the fun police…”

“If you just solve everything this way, you’re no better than Adam!”

“I don’t even know who that is.”

“YANG!!!”

“—Enough!” Weiss’s voice pierced them both.

Her calm and frosty demeanor enforced her stance.

“This is what we do, Blake. We see the wisdom in the moves to be made, and we take the measures which need taking. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“That can’t justify everything…!”

“It justifies enough.”

“You know the long-term problems you’ve caused! The Southern Tribes aren’t going to give up just because Adam is dead! You turned him into a martyr!”

“Vacuo’s civil war will end.”

“The Kingdom is more divided than ever! More Faunus from the North are converting to the South by the second!”

“And with enough unrest, Vacuo will have no choice but to split into two separate states.”

“…!” Blake shook her head in disbelief. “You planned for that, too…”

“Somewhat.”

“You left the Kingdom worse than it was! It’ll take years to recover, maybe even centuries before they’re willing to unite again!!!”

“We stopped them from self-destructing, and from you dying with them.”

“You’re still trying to recruit me…! After EVERYTHING you’ve done?!”

“Join and add your counsel.”

“What?!”

“If you hate what we do so much, help us do better. Join the team. Otherwise, there’s no grounds for your opinion to be heard.”

“…I don’t have a choice, do I…?!” Blake growled with displeasure. “You’ll keep interfering with Vacuo.”

“With or without you. But with you, we can intervene only as you deem fit.”

Blake finally stopped trying to push Ruby out of the way. The rising and falling of her shoulders slowed. Her glare still fixed on the silver-haired woman, the target of her righteous ire.

“Congratulations, Weiss,” Blake seethed with her forging pact.

“…”

“You’ve become everything you ever hated—but at least, you have your team.”

“…”

“Your sister would be ashamed of you.”

Immediately, Team CFEN tensed and moved from their passive spectating. Ruby shoved Blake back, upsettingly shaking her head, like the woman had gone too far. And Yang particularly, burned with the fierce Aura of her Semblance, readying to throw a punch.

But all hostilities ceased, when Weiss raised a hand to stop them.

“I see,” she gave a short reply. “Welcome to Team WISE—”

“Iris.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

In Weiss’s private chambers, an angry Yang pinned her against the wall.

“What the hell are you thinking…?!” she snarled.

“I’m thinking, I successfully recruited the last member of our team,” Weiss simply answered.

“Blake is the last person we need! And again, I find myself wondering: Why do we need Team WISE? CFEN just kicked ass, if you weren’t paying attention—except you were, ‘cause I heard you in my ear after I turned Adam into grey mist. So, what the shit?!”

“…Team WISE is essential to our operations going forward. Blake is essential to Team WISE; thus, the logic follows.”

“Bullshit!” Yang punched the wall. “You don’t keep me on the outs! Tell me the real reason NOW!”

“…”

“I deserve to know. I was there for everything. Suddenly, you’re going to start keeping secrets from me?”

“I was planning to tell you tomorrow, when you were more sober, but I can tell you today if you like.”

“Now’s good.”

For a moment, Weiss closed her eyes in thought. Her chest expanded and shrunk with her exhale. Yang’s gaze dropped slightly, before righting again.

“I intercepted a coded message from someone with access to the team’s private network,” Weiss explained. “It was being sent to Cinder Fall.”

“……Someone on the team is a spy?”

“Yes. Now, you know.”

“That’s why you had me read the others, after I dusted Adam.”

“It was a test of sorts.”

“You had me bait a trap.”

“I knew whatever happened, you would survive.”

Yang made an amused expression, while Weiss returned a heavily diluted version of it.

Hahhh, that is a reason not to lean on Team CFEN, I guess,” the woman admitted. “But how sure, are you?”

“I’m sure,” Weiss flatly confirmed.

“Any ideas on who it is?”

“I have my suspicions.”

“…Don’t we already know? It’s kind of obvious, right?”

“Things aren’t always what they seem. It could be any of them. The only one I’m sure it isn’t, is you.”

“Aw.”

“Shut it.”

They both went silent. Weiss planned to let Yang take as much time as she needed to process. A few times, a hissed word of “shit” escaped her.

“Okay…” Yang worded slowly. “But even if Team CFEN is compromised, you and I could always take up the work. We’re more than enough.”

“We are not. That is why I am recruiting,” Weiss disapproved.

“Right! Because we’re going to be SO much more effective with Blake Dysfunctionallona on our team.”

“…That wasn’t your best pun.”

“I’m still a little drunk. Sue me.”

“Blake Belladonna is a commander of the White Fang and has led her armies to victory against impossible odds.”

“I read the file…”

“Ruby Rose is the youngest Vice Headmaster Beacon Academy has ever had, and is a veteran Huntress, who’s slain some of the deadliest Grimm to roam Remnant.”

“That’s up for debate.”

“Inform me, Yang. Who else can we trust, recruit readily, and who possess the same pedigree as those two?”

“………Fuuuuuuuuck~”

“I’m relieved you see my point,” Weiss crossed her arms, signaling her victory in the argument.

“Everything’s gonna really suck now, isn’t it?”

“The most trying times are to come. Building this team took long enough. We must start operating as soon as possible.”

“After our shore leave in Atlas, right?”

“…”

In response to Weiss’s dead stare, Yang covered her face in her hand.

“We have work in Atlas?! Ahhh! Well, my buzz is killed.”

“I’m so sorry that’s the case,” Weiss replied in monotone.

As Yang’s mood worsened, she pressed her head into Weiss’s shoulder. From there, she began nibbling the other woman’s exposed neck and collar.

“No.” Weiss’s cold fingers went to block Yang’s lips from going any further. “This isn’t the time.”

“How? We’re on autopilot for what’s supposed to be a two-day flight, at least. How is there not time?”

“Despite what your assumptions may be, fulfilling the roles of brigadier general for the Atlesian Fleet and running our teams’ operations is a time-consuming effort.”

“Aren’t you just afraid of Ruby finding out?”

“About, what? Our fling?”

“A fling? Is that what you wanna call this?” Yang questioned.

“We took comfort in each other during a vulnerable moment. It’s hardly more than a one-night stand.”

“Yeah, except one-night stands don’t last more than one night.”

“…”

“Or a few years.”

“…”

“Or semi-current until you shipped me off for that undercover prison op.”

“…Do you have a point to make?”

“…”

Yang slid her arms down and held Weiss close.

“You really mean that?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t have said it, if I didn’t mean it.”

“………Okay.”

Yang let go abruptly, and left the room. A few seconds later, Weiss heard a loud bang come from outside the halls.

Alone in her chambers, Weiss felt sadness seep in. No matter what walls she tried to erect to keep them at bay, the sorrow and regret seeped through. Weiss had half a mind to go after her.

“Yang…”

Then, pain wracked her thoughts. Memories which didn’t belong to her threatened to drive her mad. Countless screams and a collapsing world harassed every shred of consciousness. Her Aura fluctuated as if to consume her from the inside.

Remember…

Remember…!

Don’t forget!

WINTER!

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

It was a day since the Nautilus docked at one of Atlas’s secret hangars.

While many of the team members went their different ways, spending their shore leave however they liked, one did not do so easily.

She descended the spiraling staircase on her floating Glyph. A place deeper than anywhere in Remnant swallowed her up. Down and down she went, like falling slowly into the endless abyss.

When she reached the bottom, Weiss could sense a presence in the pitch-black darkness.

“—Adam Taurus’s passing was rather untimely,” a voice called to her from the shadows.

Weiss knew this person heard echoes from the outside world, despite their isolation. Regardless, it was still a disturbing feat.

“…His death was a necessary one.”

“Hm. A wise course of action,” the old woman commented. “Though I can’t imagine you did Vacuo any favors by ending him so prematurely.”

“Time is of the essence.”

“It always is, isn’t it?”

“Where is the Spring Maiden?”

“Wouldn’t we like to know?”

“Where is the Spring Maiden?!” Weiss pressed harder. “Where is her Relic?!”

“Follow the bread crumbs… But what bread crumbs, when they’ve all been eaten away?”

Weiss lost her temper, and cast light from her Myrtenaster. The sword’s shine illuminated the chained figure, as she grasped the prisoner’s hair.

“Where is the Raven Branwen?! Answer me, Salem!!”

The decrepit Witch only laughed hysterically in response. The oversized chains binding her neck and limbs jangled unpleasantly loud. Madness only grew, as she reeled her body back and forth.

“Where is the Relic?!” Weiss bared her emotions.

“Where is Famine?!”

Chapter Text

.

Winter (Part One)

.

It brings the Cold.

It ushers everlasting Sleep.

When it falls, the world becomes Silent.

So we may better hear the ghosts of our Memories.

.

.

Yang dug her mouth between the young woman’s legs, rounding her lips around the most sensitive parts. The bed bucked and creaked harder with every passing second. She gripped Neo’s thighs as they quivered, working them as the other grew closer and closer to climax.

Yang felt hands twining through her hair. Strong fingers trading off from forcing her away from too much stimulation, and pulling her closer because they wanted more. Neo didn’t moan or scream, or was any sort of vocal. But Yang could hear the short, desperate breaths escaping her petite body.

She could tell Neo was close. And right before Yang was about to top her off, the sound of a scroll ringing came from the nearby nightstand.

Suddenly, the legs wrapped around Yang’s neck loosened. Tensions and heat of the moment evaporated instantly.

Did she seriously just answer her scroll right now?

Neo uncoiled her legs and callously pushed Yang’s head away. She then, practically leapt out of bed and began dressing.

While Neo was buttoning the front of her jacket, Yang came from behind to grasp her still naked and horny.

“Where are you off to in a hurry~?”

The smaller woman smacked her on the forehead with a palm in protest. With rapid hand movements, Neo signed she just received a call from Atlas Academy.

“Hm? Something happen?” Yang asked.

“… … …”

“Oof, alright. Hey, I’ll drive you.”

Neo immediately started picking Yang’s clothes off the floor and throwing them at her. The blonde woman hastily dressed herself at the incessant urging of the other. And once the two were fully clothed, they took Yang’s motorcycle to the school.

The tall buildings of Atlas’s metropolis flew past them. The bike zipped down the crowded cityscape like a swift breeze. Some police cars and security droids tried to pull them over for traffic violations, but Yang easily outstripped them. There were a few close brushes with other cars and some red lights run along the way. No doubt there would be a mountain of citations awaiting the motorcycle rider captured on camera, but working for Weiss did come with a few perks—which the two readily abused without deference.

They arrived at Atlas Academy in record time. Neo led the way to the Headmaster’s office. Judging by how fast she navigated the giant campus, it likely wasn’t the first time the school called her over.

The two entered the waiting partition before the Headmaster’s office. There, they saw a familiar eight-year-old boy sitting alone on a row of chairs. For some reason, the administration staff gave him a wide breadth, almost walking on eggshells in his vicinity.

The boy in question wore a black bowler hat with matching trench coat, and had long, carrot-colored hair down his back. He seemed to be pouting and hostile to those around him. But on seeing his mother arrive, his lips tightened into a guilty, if not slightly fearful smile.

“—Hey, Molly,” Yang waved.

“Hey, Aunt Yang,” Molotov greeted back.

“Did you win the fight?”

“It wasn’t much of a fight, but yeah,” he grinned victoriously.

Neo strode over, snatched off his bowler hat, and thumped him on the head violently.

“Ow!” he whined. “But, Mom! It wasn’t that bad—OW!”

Neo thumped him again with a huff. With her cheeks puffed, she began signing with extra exclamation.

“…! …! …!”

“Well first, it wasn’t entirely my fault. And second, the kid was an asshole!”

“… … …”

“He…said some stuff about—"

While the mother and son were conversing, one of the teaching staff came over to interrupt.

“Mrs. Neopolitan? The Headmaster will see you now.”

“… … …”

“Um?”

““She’s asking if the other kid’s parents are here.”” Yang and Molotov answered.

“Oh. No, they’re not here. They’re down at the hospital.”

Neo scowled, then threw a wild glare at her son. With a stiff stride, she walked into the Headmaster’s office, practically ordering the boy and Yang to march in there with her. It was a clear enough message without her having to sign it.

“Mom’s really mad this time, isn’t she?” Molotov groaned.

“Well, you did cut into the middle of our play time,” Yang chuckled.

“Mid-coitus?”

“Mid-climax.”

“Ah. That explains the horny murder lust.”

“How old are you again?”

“How old are you?”

“How bad off is the other kid?”

“It’s honestly not THAT bad!”

“—It’s that bad,” the Headmaster told them.

General James Ironwood had his hands folded in front, gazing over his desk at the three sitting opposite. Initially, he was surprised Yang was there for some reason. But inevitably, he chose to ignore the fact and focus on addressing Neo.

“It is my understanding Molotov and the other student got into an argument earlier this morning.”

“He talked shit about me not having a dad,” Molotov added.

“And in response, Molotov stabbed him and threw him out a window.”

“To be fair, I thought if I did it fast enough no one would notice. Or at least, not the teacher.”

“How in the world would you think your teacher would fail to notice?”

“She already took attendance?”

“You also shouted, ‘get fu’—Well, it’s not important what he said, but he shouted an explicit.”

“Sometimes I get wrapped in the moment.”

“—Probably should’ve tried to kill the kid’s dad instead of him,” Yang commented. “More ironic.”

“…” Molotov’s eyes widened in hindsight. “I’m a freakin’ idiot!”

Ironwood groaned at the disastrous “family” in front of him.

“Did I also mention, he shows little to no remorse for his actions.”

“I sincerely do not know what remorse means. Is it some sort of dessert?”

“The student’s parents are already threatening to sue and press charges.”

“He wasn’t even hurt that bad!”

“YOU STABBED HIM IN FRONT OF ALL YOUR CLASSMATES! YOU SENT HIM TO THE HOSPITAL! HE COULD HAVE DIED!”

“I made sure to miss his vitals. I’m not an amateur,” the boy folded his arms, like he was just insulted.

Ironwood cupped his face in his hands for a long groaning moment.

“There is a limit to what I am willing to tolerate in my school,” the Headmaster resumed. “Just because your team possesses special privileges does not mean you have free reign to do whatever you like. Nor your son by extension.”

Neo threw him a crooked gaze, and began signing.

“… … …”

“The other boy? I think he’s suffered enough, wouldn’t you say?”

“… … …”

“Yes… I agree he shouldn’t have said those things about Torchwick, but—”

“…! …! …!”

“I am NOT about to take disciplinary actions against a child, who was stabbed and thrown out a building!”

“—It was only the second floor, by the way,” Molotov added.

“Not the point!” Ironwood turned back to Neo. “Your son openly threatens the welfare of our other students. Fortunately, this is a combat school and Molotov is young, so his actions will be accounted for to a certain extent. But in the case he commits even the slightest infraction this point on, he will face expulsion from this academy!”

“… … …”

“I’m glad you understand. This is his last warning.”

“… … …”

“No. I will not divulge the address of the other student.”

“…! …! …!”

“Enough! Your son is suspended for two weeks!”

“… … …  …! …! …!”

Ironwood tilted his head.

“I didn’t catch that one,” he told Yang, while Molotov was trying to stifle his laughter.

“You don’t wanna know,” Yang replied. “Something ‘explicit’, and about how you’re close to the window, and it being the sixth floor.”

“…Talk to them. Make them understand the gravity of the situation, Ember.”

“Hey, I don’t answer to you.”

“You answer to Weiss. Weiss answers to me. Ergo…”

“We don’t technically work for Weiss—officially.”

Ironwood sighed heavily, trying his best to keep his composure.

“Just…go,” he motioned with a hand. “Curb Molly’s behavior for everyone’s sake. I would expound on this issue further, but I have a meeting with the Board of Directors and the ceremony to prepare for.”

“… … …”

“Do NOT do anything to the other student’s parents! You may leave now!”

Neo stood from her chair with a huff. She grabbed Molotov by the scruff of his neck, and began walking him out the office. Yang was following after them, when…

“Ember,” Ironwood called. “Are you planning to visit her today?”

“…Was thinking about it,” Yang answered. “Probably really late so we can avoid meeting anyone.”

“I see.”

“Yup.”

With that, Yang and company left the Headmaster’s office. The general rested back in his chair. His eyes drifted to a photo sitting on his desk, and to a certain person standing at attention next to him. A silver-haired woman, brimming with strength and pride.

“So, it’s been three years already…”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

“How are they now?” Coco whispered softly.

“Better,” Velvet replied. “It’s gotten a lot better, since the last time you visited.”

Coco broke into a smile of relief when she heard that. She pulled up a chair, and sat at the patient bedside of her partner. Her hands cupped around the other’s with tender care. Velvet gazed back with the same look of affection.

Her partner seemed to regain a lot of the strength she lost. Coco feared the worse when Velvet fell into a coma. And when the woman finally woke, a part of her was afraid she would never be the same. Then again, she supposed none of them were the same after that fateful day.

As if reading her thoughts, Velvet pulled her chin up to face her. Coco’s glasses were removed, so she could see the kindest and most beautiful woman she knew.

Her partner’s formerly atrophied body was now healthier from the rehab she was going through. There was more color in her gentle smile. But Coco couldn’t help feeling a pang in her heart, when she heard the slight whirring of her partner’s prosthetics.

Atop Velvet’s head were a pair of devices that looked almost like wings, where her ears used to be. They stood up and twitched slightly to every little sound. Sometimes, they blinked rapidly when there was a loud noise outside her room. For that reason, Coco made a habit of whispering quietly, which could still be picked up by the oversensitive prosthesis.

“How’s the tuning coming along?”

“It’s going fine. Doesn’t hurt nearly as much as it did before.”

“Still…?!” Coco grunted softly. “You’d think they’d figure out how to calibrate it already…! I’m gonna talk to Weiss about this.”

“No, Coco,” Velvet smoothed her partner’s arm. “They’ve never had to fit implants for anyone with hearing like mine after all. And I’m sure Weiss has more than her hands full.”

Coco sighed, chewing over her partner’s words.

“I dunno, Vel. Sometimes, it feels like our snow princess is losing sight of what’s really important these days. I get angry when I think she might have forgotten about you, or pushed you somewhere in the background. You sacrificed so much for us.”

“She has, too.”

“Yeah… Yeah, you’re right. But I still think I should talk to her about it. Might be the last time I get a serious word in for a while. What with her new team and all.”

“New team?”

“Oh, right. Weiss is put her old team back together. Ruby, Blake, and of course, Yang.”

“Why did she do that?”

“Who knows,” Coco shrugged. “Team CFEN’s being relegated to back-up/support for now, minus Ember.”

“Hm,” Velvet looked at her unsurely.

“Hey, it’s not like I mind. Pay grade’s still the same. And if anything, I’m less likely to bite it, so I can make it back to you. Might miss some of the action, though.”

Her partner chuckled cutely and patted her hand.

“I’m sure wherever you go, Coco, you’ll see plenty of action.”

“……Like, right here?”

“Coco!”

“What? It’s like, rehab exercise, right? It’ll help speed up your recovery.”

“Oh, is it? And who told you that?”

“…Yang.”

“Mhmm. Sounded like one of Yang’s patented pick-up lines.”

Coco scratched the back of her neck sheepishly and Velvet continued to giggle.

“How is she?” her partner, then asked. “How’s Fox and Neo?”

“They’re doing alright. Punchy’s going through the temper swings; old team, bad blood, all that. Fox is still ninja. Neo’s still a killer, and her boy’s raising hell at the Academy from what I heard.”

“……I want to see them. All of them.

“Vel?” Coco blinked. “Are you sure you’re up for that?”

“I’ve been avoiding them for too long. And especially given what today is, it would be a good time to meet.”

Velvet’s ears flicked violently in the direction of the door, causing her to flinch. Despite the room being supposedly soundproof, her prosthetics picked up the metal tray being dropped on the floor outside. The timing of that couldn’t have been worse.

“Are you sure, Vel?” Coco was prompted to ask again. “There’s nothing wrong with taking it slow.”

“I’m sure. And I can remind Weiss I still exist,” Velvet added lightheartedly.

“…”

“I want to go see them… I also want to see her.”

Coco recognized the determination Velvet had. The way her partner was, there was no point in arguing.

“Alright,” Coco surrendered. “We’ll go.”

“Nice sad reunion for everybody.”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

Back in one of Atlas’s secret hangars, the Nautilus was undergoing maintenance and hardware upgrades. While many of its passengers enjoyed their shore leave out in the city, some had to stay behind on the ship. Mostly because their whereabouts were to remain unknown. Therefore, they were prohibited from moving freely in public.

One such person was Blake, who was seated before a ship’s private communication terminal.

“I’m sorry for suddenly taking off,” she apologized.

“It’s fine,” Ilia replied. “We know you wouldn’t do something like this on a whim. But you really can’t say what you’re up to?”

“No. Sorry, Ilia. It’s a strict need-to-know basis.”

“Of course, it is... So, some good news first. Things won’t be as bad here, as we initially thought.”

“Really?” Blake blinked. “Why?”

“Turns out, more of the Southern Tribes hated Adam’s guts than we realized. So when news hit the fan that he got dusted, a lot of them were almost as happy as we were.”

“…”

“That being said, Sienna’s making strides with the other White Fang. Some are even willing to join under the same fold again.”

“That’s good.”

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fucking shitshow here. But honestly, you couldn’t have picked a better time to cash in some vacae.”

“This isn’t a vacation, Ilia.”

“I know, Belladonna. It was a joke.”

“Right. How are my parents?”

“Doing okay. Your mom seemed to know something like this was going to happen. Your dad’s working the pacifist angle for both tribal factions in coordination with Sienna. The civil war might transition to a civil protest for Faunus rights, if this keeps going along.”

Just as Weiss predicted… Blake thought miserably.

“Still a lot of violence in the streets and the deserts,” Ilia continued. “Probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

The woman sighed deeply.

“I need you to tell Sienna and my dad something. They should start drawing up plans to divide the Kingdom into separate states, just in case.”

“Split sovereignty? You think that’s where we’re headed?”

“It’s just in case, Ilia. Anything else I need to know?”

“…”

“Ilia?”

“Well~… Define, ‘need to know.’”

“Oh, god. What is it?”

“Nothing. Nothing as super bad as you might be thinking.”

It was hard not to notice the unease in the other. Ilia continued to face away from the camera, like trying to avoid meeting Blake’s expression.

“—There’s a lot of rumors going on about your sudden leave,” Sun entered view from the side. “Like, A LOT of rumors.”

“Do I even want to know?”

““No.”” Sun and Ilia answered immediately and simultaneously.

“…Alright. What are they saying about me?”

“They…uh, well, you see…” Ilia stalled her words.

“—They think you killed Adam,” Sun answered.

“Oh…” Blake murmured. “I thought it would be something like—”

“They think you did it out of like, tragic love.”

“………Excuse me?”

“You know. It’s a famous story that you guys were an item. Then, teenage break up. And then, you meet again but you’re enemies.”

“What.”

“Some people straight up don’t believe you’re on leave.”

“What?”

“They think you killed yourself after you killed Adam.”

“What?!”

“Like that one really crappy romance movie.”

“WHAT?!”

“THEY THINK YOU KILLED YOURSELF, AFTER YOU KILLED ADAM! LIKE THAT ONE CRAPPY ROMANCE MOVIE!”

“—Uh, Sun,” Ilia tapped the man’s shoulder. “I think she heard you. She just can’t believe what you’re saying.”

“Hm? Oh! Right. Yeah…So. There’s that...”

While the two on the monitor did something of a comedy skit, Blake was trying to make herself disappear into the palms of her hands. Her ears folded forward, trembling with embarrassment. She was silent, but her lieutenants could practically hear her internal screaming an ocean and a continent over.

“Aaanywho~! Just leave the rest to us,” Sun tried to gloss over the whole thing. “You just play spy hero, or whatever. Don’t worry about the rumors. People will forget soon.”

“…You think so?”

“Weeeellll…”

“WHAT.”

Blake could see Ilia jabbing Sun’s side repeatedly, like he should shut up.

“There’s a book,” he said.

“About?”

“It’s a…tragic romance novel being-written-about-you-and-Adam-also-it-might-possiblybeeroticfiction.”

“…………….”

“I think it’s titled fifty somethings of something. People are into some weird stuff…”

“……………………..”

“Blake—?”

“Report if anything unexpected happens. Don’t use this line too often. I was guaranteed it’s secure, but I don’t want to test it. That’s all. Good luck.”

“Wha, Blake?”

“—Don’t worry, Blake!” Ilia tried to get a word in. “I’m sure it’ll all blow over soo—”

Before hearing the rest of the message, Blake ended the transmission. Her feet kicked the bottom of the terminal repeatedly and she banged the desk, trying to vent the mental anguish she was experiencing. After a while, she released a pathetic whine, as she rested her head on the table.

“—Might wanna be careful,” a voice came from behind. “I heard these terminals are expensive.”

Blake turned to see Ruby watching her.

“How long have you been there?” she asked.

“Kukuku!” Ruby laughed and snorted with her hand covering her mouth. “Totally, not thinking about reserving a copy of an erotic novel about you.”

“RUBY!”

“You only have yourself to blame, Blake. You’re the one who introduced me to smut back at Beacon.”

“You took them from under my bed!”

“Tomato, potato.”

“Ughhh!!! Kill me now~!”

“Maybe, you could have your death faked like I did? Sounds halfway there already.”

“Is it terrible that I’m seriously considering that?”

“…”

Ruby was in the midst of swiping through her scroll.

“Are you looking it up right now?”

“Nope!”

“Don’t reserve it!”

“Nope!!”

Blake tackled Ruby, and they went tumbling across the floor. For the better part of an hour, the two engaged in a sort of wrestling match, with the prize being Ruby’s scroll. It was an epic battle of wills, on which rested the fate of one’s dignity. A dishonorable contest that pitted the forces of embarrassment against those of pride. In either case, Blake would most likely lose in one way or another.

“—What. Are the two of you doing?” A voice echoed over the tangled couple.

They could practically feel the cool gaze of their team leader drowning them in liquid nitrogen.

“Um, twister?” Ruby answered crookedly.

“Right…” Weiss narrowed. “I was wondering if the two of you were beginning to get stir crazy, being forced to stay on the Nautilus. It appears I had nothing to worry about.

“Weiss! Wait~”

“……If you would like to go outside for a moment, it can be arranged.”

Ruby and Blake understood what the other was eluding to inherently. They were serious when they requested permission to meet a certain someone today. Weiss acted to fulfill that request.

“Get ready, then,” the team leader ordered. “Make sure to wear something to hide your appearances.”

And with that, the woman left.

Blake watched the back of Weiss, before it disappeared behind an automatic door. The words she wanted to say, she held back. A sense of shamefulness took root in her throat.

“—Hey,” Ruby clasped her shoulder. “Just tell her you’re sorry later.”

“…”

“And if you want her forgiveness, you could give her a copy of—”

“Ruby!”

“Okay! Last time I mention it, promise! Pft!”

Blake rolled her eyes at the silly snorting of her teammate. And again, thought about the ice-cold woman, whom she leveled severe words at the day before.

Just say you’re sorry…

“It’s that simple, isn’t it?”

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

From afar, they could see the grand ceremony being held in a vast garden. The frosted grass combined with heavy snowfall painted the world around them in an ambient white and green. But, as if acting in contrast to the tranquil environment, something of a noisy spectacle was being held.

Paparazzi snapped pictures like incessant birds chirping. A flock of officials and some Atlas Board Directors trampled the ground, complaining about having to be outside in this weather under their breaths. A small company of soldiers were in attendance, and fired their weapons as part of the ritual.

And in the middle of it all, a young man stood on a podium. His neatly cut hair and thinly grown mustache was a reminder to many of his predecessor. His tailored-professional suit was an attempt to depict him as a business titan, despite his young age.

“We are here to honor the heroics of those who participated in the Spriggan Campaign three years ago,” Whitley Schnee started his speech.

His words seemed to drone on and on. Weiss, Ruby, and Blake understood the sentiment, as they watched the ceremony from a distance. But the message could only seem disingenuous—especially coming from those who weren’t there.

“We also wish to pay homage to my sister,” Whitley continued. “The Great Hero of Spriggan and Slayer of the Wicked Witch. Atlas’s Guardian and Winter Maiden. Winter Schnee.”

Weiss’s expression stiffened.

The Hero of Spriggan.

Those words circled her thoughts. She looked to the sides of her, where Ruby and Blake stood. Her thoughts drifted back to that day.

The Spriggan Campaign.

The day that would define Weiss, not only changing who she was, but what she was for all eternity. It would be no exaggeration to say the actions she took now were due to the transforming events of that fateful moment.

Salem.

Winter.

Three years ago…

Countless airships dotted the sky and along the seas. They flew the flags of the different Kingdoms. An invasion like no other, a force that would likely be never seen again. A collected, united front of all those who opposed the Grimm. They were an army, who answered and gathered for one single purpose...

The taking of Spriggan and the defeat of Salem. 

Weiss found herself standing on the command bridge of the Atlesian Fleet’s flagship. Standing to her right, was General Ironwood and her sister, Winter. Their stoic indifference as they gazed ahead was something Weiss wanted to display in herself. And while her outside appearance may well portrayed that, her insides were fighting down the swirl of emotions in her chest.

Outside, through the dreadnought’s panoramic window, they could see the continent of Spriggan.

At the mere sight of it, one could tell something wicked inhabited these lands. Blood red skies stained the ceiling above. The ground was as black as soot, devoid of all life. Endless crags webbed and warped the environment with broiling lava. And in the distance, stood a palace of dark spires. Their mountaintops sharpened like syringes trying to pierce the heavens.

On focusing their ship’s cameras, enhanced images popped up on the bridge’s terminals and projectors. Movement was detected leaving the structure. They could see countless Grimm rushing towards them from the ground and the air. Monstrosities of all sizes and power pressed forth towards their would-be invaders making landfall. There were so many in number, it looked like the continent itself was moving to attack.

Weiss could hear several frightened gasps sound along the staff. Hushed words of disbelief accompanied by widened eyes. She would be lying if she didn’t feel something similar at the sight. There were more Grimm than she could possibly imagine.

But, just before any sense of fear could take root, a firm hand clasped Weiss’s shoulder.

“—We are not alone, Weiss.”

She turned to see Winter brandishing her with a confident smile. Weiss wondered how she could do it, and just as her sister released her grip, she bade a small glance to the General.

Ah. That’s how she does it.

Like how Winter was the rock for Weiss, Weiss could see that Ironwood was the rock for Winter. They were the anchors for each other to hold against the storm calling for their imminent destruction. Weiss learned again how important it was to have people with her.

When she turned to her left, she saw Team CFVYEN there. The members of her elite task force smirked with cocky grins. And in the distance, to the far right and left of their fleet’s flanks, Weiss could almost sense them.

The ceasefire between Kingdoms was only temporary. They united for the sole purpose of defeating a mutual foe, most likely so they could continue with the Second Great War uninterrupted. And their armies were given a large space in-between so the rival Kingdoms wouldn’t clash.

But Weiss knew they were out there.

Ruby was among the fleet of airships flying Vale’s banners. On the other side, Blake was amidst the forces of Vacuo raising the flags of their Kingdom’s emblem and the White Fang.

When Weiss glanced to Yang nearby, she could tell the woman was thinking the same thing, but tried to hide it. Team RWBY was gathered once more. Perhaps, not in the form they would have imagined, but for that day, they would at least be fighting on the same battlefield again—for the same cause.

Their ultimate enemy asserted her claim to the world, and for this one time, the Four Kingdoms bared their fangs together in open defiance. Even Cinder, who was Mistral’s Lord of Arms, sought her opportunity to betray the Witch.

There was no doubt in any of their minds they would suffer losses. Their souls, practically wagered on a gambit. Many would never return home.

And the living would bear scars that would never heal.

.

.

(Double Chapter Release)

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.

Winter (Part Two)

.

It brings the Cold.

It ushers everlasting Sleep.

When it falls, the world becomes more Silent.

So we may better hear the ghosts of our Memories.

.

.

The darkness of night was taking the day.

As the snow began to fall in greater sheets and increasing volume, those who attended the ceremony grew less inclined to endure the weather. Despite their cold-resistant wear, the temperature drop was simply uncanny. With every minute gone by, another dense layer of frost accumulated on any exposed surface.

Finally, it got to the point where many of the paparazzi decided they had taken enough pictures. News reporters retreated to their vans. The disgruntled members of the Board seemed to have had enough of the event as well.

Whitley still had more of his speech remaining, and there was the rest of the ceremony planned. But in light of seeing the disappearing crowd, the young man had no choice but to cut the event short. Not that it mattered to most, in any case.

And so, the official commemoration ended in abrupt fashion. The expression on Whitley’s face was practically wrinkling like crumpled paper underneath.

Weiss, Ruby, and Blake couldn’t help but feel gladdened by the timely parting of the Board and its fanfare.

“—That was rather juvenile of you,” Ironwood commented on his approach.

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” Weiss replied innocently.

“Of course.”

The General smiled, seemingly grateful for the commemoration’s premature end. His gaze then, went from Weiss to the other two, whose hats and hoods hid their faces. But there was little doubt in his mind who they were. He turned to the Brigadier General before him for explanation, but was only met with an icy stare.

“…More secrets?” he asked worriedly.

“…”

“I suppose you can’t tell me why they are here, or what it has to do with what you’ve been up to recently?”

“…It’s better you have plausible deniability, sir.”

“Please, Weiss. I can help you. I promised I would—”

“Thank you… But it’s better this way.”

Ironwood opened his mouth briefly to retort but closed it, deciding this wasn’t the time or place. After a time, he simply nodded.

“If there’s anything you need,” he said softly, “Anything at all, just ask.”

“Thank you, sir,” Weiss revealed a genuine and consoling smile. “I’ll be depending on you in the future.”

“…I see.”

After paying one more glance to Ruby and Blake, Ironwood walked back to pay his last respects to those lost during the Spriggan Campaign.

In spite of the sudden temperature drop, and the prompt departure of government officials, there were many who stayed behind. As if the heavy snow had fallen only to deter those insincere away, it lightened in lieu of those more honest. Families and friends of the deceased gathered quietly. They lit candles and laid flowers. Hushed words and gentle sobbing were swallowed in the cold wonderland that gifted both isolation but also communion.

Weiss was about to make her own way down, when a voice called from behind her.

“I’m sorry,” Blake said.

Weiss was surprised for a moment, but it faded on understanding what the other was referring to. Ruby smiled knowingly, and went ahead to give them privacy.

“The things I said before,” Blake continued with her apology. “About your sister and—”

“You were angry, and it was warranted,” Weiss replied.

“That doesn’t forgive what I—"

“I forgive you.”

“…”

“You were angry, and you had every right to be. I understand that. I expected it. I’m also sorry it had to be done that way.”

“…Are you really?”

“Yes…Blake. I really am.”

The two were silent for a moment, which seemed even quieter in the frosty atmosphere. Their issues were still far from resolved, but at least for the time being, a mutual agreement was reached.

“I’ll still be watching you, Weiss.”

“It’s what I’m counting on, Iris.”

After a short nod, the two went down to join Ruby. On reaching her, Weiss saw a trio of familiar figures, who almost looked to be intimidating her partner.

“—Um, hi,” Ruby greeted uncertainly. “You must be Molly. Heard great things about you…”

“Sure,” Molotov furrowed back. “I heard a lot about you, too.”

“Oh. Like…what?”

“Like you were the one who killed my dad.”

Ruby gulped painfully. She noticed the look in Neo’s glare was also particularly murderous.

“…” Molotov tipped his bowler hat over his eyes. “You would be dead too, if Aunt Yang and great Uncle Tai didn’t tell me and Mom not to kill you.”

“…I see.”

“Count yourself lucky, little red.”

“Eeeeokay…”

Totally not creepy he’s a mini Torchwick.

”—Hey, if it isn’t the little hellraiser?” Coco joined. Fox followed behind, while pushing Velvet’s wheelchair.

The woman in sunglasses picked up the stubborn child, who fought her as much as he could. At the same time, the rest began to mingle and exchange old greetings.

After Yang finished speaking with Velvet, she found Weiss some ways away.

“Mind telling me what you’re thinking, Ember?”

 “Hm? About, what?”

“You know what,” Weiss glared. “Neo.”

Yang threw her a narrow look in return.

“Well, it’s not really any business who I sleep with, right? You were the one who broke off whatever we had going on.”

“This isn’t about that, and you know it.”

“…You said Cinder has a spy in Team CFEN. The obvious suspect is Neo. So, I’m going to see if it is.”

“By sleeping with her.”

“It’s one of the best ways.”

“Are you going to sleep with Coco and Fox, too?”

“Only if it makes you jealous.”

“…”

“…I’ll be careful.”

“Be discreet,” Weiss jabbed Yang’s chest with her finger of emphasis.

The rest gathered before a certain monument.

Weiss looked on the decorated grave with a sense of serenity and sorrow. It was the place her sister’s body rested. She often thought one of these days, she would simply burst into tears before her. The sense of loss was something Weiss carried with her to this day.

In spite of that, the expression never surfaced. The sadness she felt for her sibling never so much as cracked her mask. Even when she felt like she was dying inside.

Or maybe…

I already cried all my tears that day.

.

X  X  X  X  X

.

My name is Weiss Schnee.

And I am burdened with Wisdom.

It starts at the tip of my fingers. Always the tip of my fingers. It’s the sensation I remember the most.

I can see the life fading from her. The blood pooling from her back and down my knees. But more than that, I can feel her dying. Winter’s last vestiges coursing through my hands, while I’m trying to keep her alive.

“Don’t be afraid.”

She tells me that, but how can I not be?

How can I not be afraid when I’m losing her?

“It’s okay, Weiss.”

She puts a hand to my face.

“I’ll always be with you.”

Her hand falls to the side. She’s drifting off to sleep, and all I can do is shake her. All I can do is scream her name, asking her to stay with me.

“You’re not alone.”

…And she’s gone.

Winter dies in my arms.

Destiny makes sure I know my sister is dead.

Because with her last breath, I feel the Winter Maiden’s Inheritance merge with my soul.

I was the one my sister held in her last thoughts.

I am Weiss Schnee.

I am also, Winter.

And I am burdened with a power that never should have been mine.

And I have taken a name that does not belong to me.

I can hear her laughing. In this dark corridor of the Witch’s castle, I can hear her. Salem, cackling like some lunatic beast.

The rest of the world comes back to me, and we’re in the ruins of her throne room. Ironwood is unconscious on the floor. My team, or what’s left of them is in the same severe shape.

Velvet might be dead.

Yatsuhashi is gone.

There are still Huntsmen and Huntresses fighting Grimm outside.

I can hear the Witch laughing.

Again, it starts at the fingertips. My fingertips caked in Winter’s blood, and all I have to do is reach out.

A Glyph that normally takes me thirty seconds to cast, is constructed in the blink of an eye. My knight answers my fury and towers over Salem. And I watch as she laughs, while my summon drives a massive blade through her body.

She was already defeated. Winter made sure of that.

And delivered a decisive blow that cost her life.

By the time I’m standing over Salem, her mind and body are already broken. Her regenerative abilities are stunted and overtaxed. I’m ready to kill her. I’m ready to kill this filthy bitch who took my sister away.

She’s still laughing, but she won’t be for long. I’ll silence her once and for all.

…And I will never stop wishing I had.

The Witch plays one last trick.

She’s studied countless Maidens since the first were gifted. In order to Inherit their ancient powers, it requires the merging of the soul. So during that time, and a little after, the spirit of the Inheritor is vulnerable.

And that is when Salem embeds a fragment of her soul in mine. A trick she was used to utilizing, after switching between numerous vessels throughout the ages.

The Witch’s memories become mine. A cruel gift and a worse curse.

“What are you doing?!”

I can hear Yang calling to me.

“DO IT!! KILL HER!!!”

She’s confused. I can understand why.

Salem’s screeching laughter feels like glass clawing across my skull.

“What are you waiting for, Weiss?!” Yang tries to limp over. “KILL HER ALREADY!”

“She can’t!” the Wicked Witch screams. “She can’t kill me! Can you?!”

I have Myrtenaster lodged right on her throat. I can end it. I can kill her.

“You can kill me, but it won’t change what you’ve learned! You’re too smart for your own good! Hahaha!!!”

“What the hell are you doing, Weiss?! She killed Yatsuhashi! SHE KILLED WINTER!!!”

But I can’t do it.

Even though my heart breaks, even though my heart begs for it, I can’t kill her.

“HAHAHA!!! HahHAhAHha!!!”

All I can do is punch her with the hilt of my sword. I’ll capture her. I’ll torture her into telling me everything she knows. I’ll use her to stop the Four Grimm from bringing the Apocalypse onto Remnant.

Through her bloody mouth, she spits with broken teeth.

“How does it feel to be blessed with knowledge, Weiss Schnee~?”

I hate her. There is nothing in this world I could hate more.

“I knew the moment I saw you, there was a will that would not let me die, if they knew the Truth.”

Just hearing her voice sickens me to my soul.

“Tell me, Weiss Schnee…”

“How does it feel to be burdened with such Wisdom?”

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X  X  X  X  X

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“—So, did the cuckoo bird say anything interesting?” Yang asked.

“Three days of visits, and nothing fruitful,” Weiss gritted her teeth. “A few insights into unrelated matters, but nothing pertaining to our team’s main objectives.”

In the present, everyone was making their way home after visiting Winter’s grave. For Weiss and her team, they would be convening back on the Nautilus. While walking the halls of their secret hangar, Yang spoke to her leader in private.

“You plan on letting the others in on this little secret?”

“Only if the time comes. Currently, there’s no need for Ruby or Blake to know that Salem is alive.”

“Or that you’re waterboarding her on a daily basis.”

“…”

“…Do we have to keep Salem alive to find the Relics? I thought the Maidens were in tune with them.”

“And how are we supposed to find the rest, when I can only track Pestilence? Or is there something you’re neglecting to tell me?”

“Well, we know where War is. Famine is safe with my mom—for now. And Death is… okay. Maybe, Death we could use some help with.”

Weiss gave a sympathetic sigh.

“You think I don’t want to dispose of Salem as quickly as possible?”

“…I just don’t like keeping her around,” Yang grunted her dissatisfaction. “Coco and Fox would trip, if they knew we were letting her breathe. Ironwood, too.”

“She’s a means to an end, Ember. Once she’s outlasted her usefulness, I’ll gladly hand her over to Coco for execution by firing squad, or whatever she wants.”

“I don’t like keeping secrets from our friends.”

“As it so happens, that might have been a good thing considering there’s a spy among them.”

“Are you still keeping secrets from me?”

“…Don’t ask me that.”

“I can’t help, if I don’t know what else you’ve got in play.”

“Wisdom is a burden, Ember…”

“I thought you would understand that by now.”

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X  X  X  X  X

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Parked along an extensive airstrip, a number of Galleon-class warbirds were being prepped for deployment. Soldiers and commissioned Huntsmen and Huntresses boarded the aircrafts. Various equipment and supplies were loaded into cargo bays. And from an adjacent building, looking on high at the bustling scene, was a particular government office.

Cinder Fall surveyed the fleet with a discerning eye. While she did so, an encoded message was being played on her earpiece, loud enough only for her to hear. Once she finished listening to its contents, she removed the device and clasped her hands behind her back.

“According to our little bird, the White Queen has tasked her with gathering intel on the Board of Directors. This confirms our other information stating her new team will operate in Atlas for the foreseeable future.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Emerald Sustrai stepped forward. “I mean, if she’s busy working an angle back home, her hands will be too full to deal with our campaign.”

“Yes…on the surface, it does seem that way.”

Cinder continued to ponder the situation.

“She did well in throwing Vacuo into complete chaos, ensuring we could not take over while the Kingdom is in such a divisive state. The White Queen must know there are only two options left to us.”

“Do you think she expects a direct invasion?”

“At this stage of the game, we both stand to lose more than we would to gain in a head-on conflict. No, she must know what we’re planning. Preparation of our fleet has surely reached her ears by now. So, why focus on Atlas? Why focus on home?”

“Maybe, her brother’s making more trouble than she thought. The White Queen’s always hated the Board of Directors, and now with her brother being the president…”

“…No. The next theater of conflict is obvious. There’s also little doubt of Famine’s location. So, there must be something integral in Atlas she must obtain. Something that supersedes interfering with our campaign immediately.”

“Or she’s just preparing for it,” Emerald suggested. “She could be trying to strengthen the Atlesian Fleet, before coming to face us.”

Cinder scowled slightly. That theory didn’t sound right to her either.

“I suppose in any case, interfering in Atlas affairs is no longer as simple as it once was. Especially with the formation of this new team… She’s taking measures to insulate her core operations from our spies. A slim possibility exists she knows who they are.”

“What do you think we should do? Cut off communications or book them for exfil—or maybe, eliminate them altogether?”

“…They probably haven’t been exposed yet. The intel they gather continues to be valuable. Hm… How is the Third Armada?”

“They are ready to deploy at 23:00, ma’am. Shall I confirm the order?”

“…Do it.”

“By authorization of Mistral’s Lord of Arms, the Third Armada will deploy at 23:00.”

“Also, prepare the Second and Fourth.”

“Ma’am?!”

“Mercury?”

From the shadows, Cinder’s personal assassin stepped into the light of the office.

“Sortie your family with the Third Armada,” she ordered.

“Whoa, we’re really going all out on this?” he chuckled.

“Do you know the light people talk about at the end of the tunnel?”

“Are we talking the good one or the finally sweet embrace of death one?”

“Either or,” Cinder smoldered. “I take pride in my ability to take that light in my hand and snuffing it out. Move up the timeframe for the Third’s departure. Use my authorization to accelerate the deployment of the Second and Fourth.”

“—Yes, ma’am!” Emerald confirmed.

“We’ll place the White Queen in checkmate before she finishes settling her affairs in Atlas. The time has come for War to ravage the land once more.”

At the Fall Maiden’s words, she materialized an ancient Relic of a warrior’s helm. The steel work was elegantly smelted, and some ancient being seemed to whisper from the slit of its mouth and eyes. The bright red plume extending out its back caught fire, burning with an unquenching furor.

Cinder raised War aloft in her out-stretched hand, like reciting a poetic vow to the gods or maybe destiny itself.

“The world will start over again from the ashes of my War.”

“And it begins with Vale.”

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X  X  X  X  X

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Deep in the forests of Vale, the sounds of clashing steel echoed through the trees.

A small black-hooded figure danced through the air, like a swallow in flight. Her nimble body swerved to avoid the slashes of her opponent’s long katana by a thin, but calculated margin. When she saw a slight break in the swordswoman’s attack pattern, she swooped in.

“—Naïve.”

Raven Branwen adjusted the grip of her weapon, aiming the pummel of her sword downward on the other’s head.

A sudden flash of silver light stopped the blow from following through. Raven could feel a familiar sensation binding her arms.

A good move, but not enough.

It’s time to up the difficulty in her training.

Raven’s Aura bolstered, and the invisible wires that were supposed to keep her body in check were cut like fragile string. The girl in the black cowl conjured a short blade in response. Raven’s downward strike and her opponent’s defensive posture collided.

The result ended with the little warrior’s body being knocked into the dirt.

“—Peh!” she spat and coughed. “That’s no fair, Raven! You’ve never done that before!”

“I’ve never seen you try that brand of tact before, either. So, how is that not fair?”

“But, but!”

“Adapt to the fluidity of your opponent, Roi. The moment you think you’ve got your enemy figured out, that’s when you’re most vulnerable.”

“But! That doesn’t even make any sense!”

“No more buts.”

Right as the little girl was about to protest more, the two heard a bird cawing overhead. Then, a shadow swooped down to drop a folded piece of paper in Raven’s hand. The crow fluttered its wings, as it perched on the small Roisin’s shoulder.

“Hi, birdy!” the child greeted.

*Caw!*

The crow began nuzzling its head against the child’s neck, tickling her.

“Heehee!” Roisin giggled. “What’s that, Raven? Another letter from the secret pen pal in Atlas?”

“Looks like it…”

“What’s it say?”

“Nothing good,” Raven sighed.

“When are we ever going to meet the secret friend?!”

“Not soon, by what they’re saying,” Raven grinned wryly, as she continued reading the letter’s contents. “Someday, though.”

“Awww! I wanna meet them soon!”

Watching the black cowled girl hop up and down energetically brought the briefest of laughters out of the swordswoman. It made her think of a baby bird trying its best to fly. Speaking of birds, the crow on Roisin’s shoulder was cawing in a panic loss of balance.

Raven wrote down a response to their spy, folded the parchment, and held it out.

“What?! He’s going already?!” the little girl cried.

“He’ll be back faster than he leaves, Roi. Believe me, I know.”

If the crow could scowl, it would probably be doing it at this moment. Eventually, the bird bumped its forehead against the child’s once more in affection. Then, it flew, snatching up Raven’s letter before soaring into the sky.

The swordswoman watched the black speck until it disappeared from sight. For all the technological innovations Atlas had and high-level security is possessed, sometimes the simplest nodes of communications worked best. No digital trace or trail to speak of. No expensive equipment or complicated encryption software. Just good old-fashion messenger birds.

Raven breathed a mixed breath on remembering her spy’s report.

Things sure are getting complicated.

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X  X  X  X  X

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In the private war room aboard the Nautilus, Weiss observed the members of her team around the table. There was still an estranged vibe in the air, not to mention the doubt and suspicions harbored.

Yang crossed her arms defensively, her finger tapping her bicep in rhythm with her bad mood. Blake kept an eye on everything and everyone, as if suspecting something to go wrong. On the other hand, Ruby seemed detached and was merely spectating how the events would play out.

Her partner caught sight of her gaze, and revealed an unreadable smile.

Must be something she learned as a Professor, Weiss thought.

But even with all that in mind, she couldn’t help but express some joy at those gathered in this moment.

They were all here, in one room, for one purpose, under her command. It took some time to recruit them, but her ideal team was assembled and ready.

“Well then, everyone…”

“It’s time for our first mission as Team WISE.”

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X  X  X  X  X

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AUTHOR’S NOTES

Happy Holidays, everybody!

This ends the “Prologue Arc” of Team WISE. I hope you guys enjoyed it!

Anybody who liked this series, please consider giving Team ENMY a read. It’s a lot longer, but I dunno. If you liked this, maybe you’ll like that. Or if you’re just looking for something else to read, there you go.

Otherwise,

I’ll see you in the next chapter~