Chapter 86: Unfair Maidens
As an Atlassian soldier, and even more as a Specialist, Winter had been trained extensively to be prepared for any situation she found herself in. The safety of herself and those around her could change at a moment's notice, even at times and places that should be the safest in the land. Her ability to acquire, analyze, and react to sudden unknown situations was second to few in the military's upper echelon.
Which is why it hurt all the more that, upon the elevator opening to reveal Raven Branwen launching herself through four holograms to pin Headmaster Ozpin to his chair, her blade pressed tightly against his neck, she froze.
"All this time!" Raven snarled as she vaulted over Ozpin's desk, her foot catching on the opened stone pyramid sitting at the desk's center, sending it clattering to the ground to snap shut and dissipating the holograms. Her eyes glowed crimson as her hands shook with rage. "For over a decade you leave me with nothing, when all this time you had the answer in your godsdamn basement!"
Ozpin stared back at her with disarming calm. "There is no guarantee-"
"There's a chance!" To Winter's shock, Raven's eyes were turning glossy by the second. "There's an actual chance for us to find her. One you haven't told us about for thirteen years!"
"It was not a feasible option until now-"
Breaking from her stupor, Winter's hand flew to her saber. Before she could draw it, a figure stepped into her line of sight. She flinched back harshly at the stern eyes of General Ironwood. The man stared grimly back at her, giving a firm shake of his head.
Baffled, Winter looked back at the disaster before her, taking everything in. Torchwick stood at Raven's back, his Tommy Gun sighted in on Ozpin as the woman made her threats. In the middle of the room, Qrow stared blankly at Ozpin, his expression uncomfortably naked with fear and denial. Taiyang stood at his side, arms crossed and deceptively calm, the marble flooring around him cracking out from his left foot. Kali and Chief Ghira stood against the windowed wall, both radiating agitation, most visibly on Kali as her cat ears twitched every few seconds. Goodwitch had apparently taken refuge with them, her expression contrite but making no moves to defend her boss.
Oh, Winter realized dimly. Ozpin told them everything.
Faced with the unyielding rage in Raven's blazing orbs, Ozpin closed his eyes in resignation. When he opened them, they held a focused glint. "Do it."
Raven tensed, stunned, before her anger flooded back two-fold. "What?" she hissed.
Ozpin just stared back patiently, a thin frown on his lips. "If killing me now will truly bring you some form of comfort, then by all means end it." He tilted his head up slightly, the skin of his neck drawing taunt against the blade. "Just be aware: not only will it set back our plans moving forward, but I will not remain gone long." His eyes narrowed. "And you will have doomed some poor child to my existence."
Raven snarled. Her katana pressed further, Ozpin's body tensing as a thin line of blood trailed down the blade. Still he held Raven's gaze. Time stretched on.
Then, with a roar of disgust, Raven ripped her blade away from Ozpin's neck. Before the Headmaster could relax, hand reaching up towards his bleeding neck, Raven's arm flew forward.
The impact sent Ozpin toppling back in his chair, the oak clattering to the ground with a heavy echo. Ozpin started to push himself up by his elbows, only to find himself being yanked up by his collar, Raven's hands trembling as they clutched at the fabric.
"I see this thing work." Raven's voice was eerily calm for the sheer amount of fury burning in her eyes. She bent at the waist, holding Ozpin barely off the ground so she could speak to him nose-to-nose. "I see your little science experiment work the way you say, I watch everyone involved walk away fine with my own eyes. Then, only then, do you get your damned hands on Spring. Understand?"
Ozpin met her gaze evenly, ignoring the river of blood gushing down his face. "Perfectly, Ms. Branwen. I swear, no one will come to harm."
Raven glared silently. Then she let out a harsh scoff. "I'll believe it when I see it." With a hard shove, she let Ozpin fall roughly to the ground, the man letting out a grunt of pain. Done with the conversation, she whirled around, marching forward a few paces with her arm wreathed in crimson clouds, before finally noticing Winter in the room. When their eyes locked, Raven froze.
The surprise in the dark woman's eyes, the recognition and sudden desperation, was the final piece Winter needed to tell what was happening. Feeling vaguely sick, Winter stood a little taller, forcing her voice to stay calm. "I will do everything in my power to bring her back to you, Ma'am. I swear it."
Raven's face changed to something indescribably broken. She took a shuddering breath. "I'll hold you to that, kid." After a moment, she turned to Winter's left and marched forward, forming a portal in her path.
Her sudden departure seemed to jolt Qrow out of his stupor. "Rae, leave the door open!"
Raven gave no response as she stepped through, but the portal remained swirling in the air.
Pushing himself to his feet, a reddening handkerchief over his nose, Ozpin turned towards Qrow, his face morphing to tired acceptance. "Say what you will, Qrow."
Qrow remained silent, staring at Ozpin with something akin to awe and dread. He opened his mouth, his words catching in his throat. His hands opened and closed as he visibly struggled to find words. Finally, he settled on asking, "There's really no way you could have done this before now?"
Ozpin blinked, having expected something much harsher. His eyes turned sympathetic as he shook his head, wiping away the blood dripping from his chin. "No, Qrow. Believe me, I wish more than anything that I could have."
Qrow stared down at him for an uncomfortable amount of time, visibly conflicted. Then he nodded jerkily. "Okay," he muttered under his breath, more to himself than anything as he turned towards the portal. He gave Winter a glance before passing through.
Once Qrow had vanished, Ozpin turned expectantly towards Taiyang.
The massive blonde just let out a hard breath and shrugged. "Don't look at me. Not much I have to say." His stance was aloof and his tone flippant, but there was a sharpness in his eyes as he approached the headmaster's desk, pressing his palms against the wood as he leaned forward. "Aside from this: you managed to hurt every single member of my family just by existing, sir. That-" He sucked in a harsh breath, his whole body going from calm to tense, then back to calm as he let it out. "This is going to take some time. And you're going to give it to us."
Ozpin nodded. "Of course. It will take time for preparations to be made anyways. Regardless, you and your family can take all the time you need to process."
Taiyang nodded back slowly. "Just so we're clear." He pushed off the desk with more force than necessary, given the crack of splintering wood that echoed throughout the room. He turned around and started towards the portal. "C'mon, Roman. Let's get out of here before Raven leaves us..."
He trailed off when he looked towards the former criminal. To Winter's mounting fear, Roman still stood stock still at the center of the room, Black Valentine raised in his trembling hands and aimed right for Ozpin's head. The look on his face was thunderous.
Taiyang took a deep breath, taking a step towards the conman. "Roman, it's not worth it."
"Thirteen years, Tai," Roman said simply, with all the gravitas of someone commenting on poor weather. "Thirteen years running 'round in circles when I didn't need to. Thirteen years away from my nieces, from my family. Thirteen years wasted. That's worth something."
"I know," Taiyang answered calmly, and Winter was growing increasingly concerned at just how little Ozpin seemed to care that an unstable man was poised to fire a dust-loaded weapon at him in his own office, just calmly watching the conversation before him. "But this won't bring those years back." When Roman didn't respond, Taiyang crossed his arms, pinning the man with a stern look. "You know what she'd say."
Roman's left eye twitched, his shoulders rising. "Low blow, Tai."
Taiyang snorted. "Yeah, well," He shrugged. "You're the one who taught me to go for them. Remember why?"
Roman's brow furrowed in frustration, his trigger finger tensing slightly. Then, after a pulse-pounding ten seconds, Roman chuckled. "'Cause they always get results." He finally lowered the Tommy Gun, holding it limp in his arms. He glowered at Ozpin. "Don't fuck this up, Oz. You do, we'll find out if the next you can do better."
"Roman…" Taiyang droned warningly.
"What? He could be!" Roman turned to Taiyang with a shrug, gesturing flippantly with his gun in a way that made all of Winter's gun safety knowledge scream in protest. The ex-criminal didn't spare anyone in the room a second glance as he strode through the portal, his confidant swagger returning in an instant.
Taiyang shook his head as he left. He looked off to the side of the room. "Want to come with, Chief, Ma'am? Have a drink, or maybe get a headstart back to your rooms?"
Ghira straightened in surprise, he and Kali sharing a startled look. "We… wouldn't want to intrude, Taiyang," Ghira said hesitantly.
Tai gave an amused huff. "Trust me, there's nothing to intrude on. And I wouldn't mind a few extra level heads to help deal with those three."
Before Ghira could respond, Kali had already walked up to Taiyang, patting his arm with a sincere smile. "Of course we'll have a drink. Thank you, brother."
Taiyang blinked as Kali kept on walking, right through the portal. Ghira came up next to him, giving him an exasperated smile, fondness in his eyes. Taiyang chuckled in response, the two passing through the portal side-by-side. A few seconds after they were gone, the portal snapped shut with a crack of thunder, leaving behind the scent of ozone.
Slightly dazed from what she'd just witnessed, Winter needed a moment to collect herself. Sucking in a shaky breath, she finally released her hold on her saber's grip. She stepped further into the room, watching Ozpin move towards the pyramid on the ground. "I take it then that you informed them about… everything?"
Ozpin lifted the pyramid from the ground, looking it over with a critical eye. Seeing no damage, he took it back to his desk and placed it gently by his computer monitor. He then looked down sharply at the sound of splashing, cursing softly at the crimson droplets covering the desk. "Indeed I did. Given all that's happened in the last few hours, it seemed prudent to bring them into the fold sooner rather than later," he said as Goodwitch shoved a fresh handkerchief into his hand. Giving her a quick thank you, he pinched his bloodied nose with it, wincing at the sensation. "I suppose I should have been more prepared for such a response after last time."
Winter cringed at the reminder. "Again, sir, I am so sorry for-"
"No, no." Ozpin shook his head. "You were more than justified, my dear."
Instantly, Winter felt a jolt of cold run down her spine. "Don't-!" She cut off her sudden yell, face tinting at how Ironwood and Goodwitch jumped at the unexpected outburst. For his part, Ozpin just appeared concerned and curious. Winter cleared her throat. "Please… don't call me that, sir. It's…"
Though she trailed off, a look of clarity came over Ozpin's face. "I understand," he said with an apologetic frown. "My apologies, Winter."
Winter nodded sharply. "Thank you, sir. But, um… while we're on the subject, I had a question about our plans moving forward."
"Oh?" Ozpin looked at her curiously as he stood his chair back up and settled into it.
Winter hesitated briefly, then said, "I was wondering… if maybe we should wait before telling my sister and her team."
Ozpin's brows rose in surprise. He leaned back in thought, pulling his pince-nez from his nose to stare up at the ceiling. "My secrets have remained so for so long," Ozpin finally said after a moment. "They can last a little longer. My only concern is that in that time I may lose my nerve."
"Your 'nerve' became a non-factor after you told us, Oz." Ironwood glowered at his friend, hands clenched. "If you change your mind now, all that will change is that I will tell your story without you."
Ozpin rose a brow at him, that insufferable look that could either mean the man was annoyed or humored. "I agree, James. I'd rather get this out of the way sooner rather than later for that very reason." He turned away from the window, meeting Winter's eyes. "So I wonder why you ask, Winter?"
Winter's brow pinched. She took a calming breath. "My… father…" Winter spat the word like a curse. "Has introduced a number of new complications for us. Putting aside what he tried to do to Weiss, the method through which he did so raises… concerns for our stability."
Ozpin nodded slowly, eying Ironwood's tense posture warily. Winter understood Weiss's shaken explanation of the knight's involvement had shocked no one more than the general. The knights made up the bulk of Atlas's military force, so the idea that Jacques, little more than a glorified civilian, held equal, possibly superior sway over Ironwood's fighting forces was a bitter pill to swallow. Though she had yet to voice it, Winter had no doubts the man was going over the numbers just as she had; how many knights were in the city? How many were on the ships? How many were in high-security areas? Had access to sensitive information?
Was his army even really his?
Winter continued, unwilling to acknowledge Ironwood's visible building anger. "We are also still in a transitional period since our assault on White Fang. The city is still coming to grips with what happened, and we have dozens of Faunus being held awaiting sentencing. And with the tournament on the horizon, things are only going to get more hectic."
"I don't disagree, Winter, but I'm not quite following your point."
"You want to involve my sister and her team. I… understand, even if I don't like it. But I just do not feel that they're currently ready. Weiss is still recovering, and the others are suffering through their own trauma. Before we weigh them down with more, I just feel like we should... allow them a break."
"The tournament." Winter took a moment to center herself. "While we have a plan, we won't be able to execute it for weeks. Even the earliest date we could move won't be until after the festival. I ask that we hold off on bringing them in until then. It will give us more time for preparations, and Team RWBY will have the opportunity to experience some normalcy for a little while."
Ozpin hummed in thought. "Not a bad thought, but I see a rather glaring flaw. As we've experienced, Team RWBY is developing a habit of taking matters into their own hands. If they catch wind that we're keeping secrets from them, I have every belief that they will endeavor to figure it out themselves."
Winter let out a long-suffering sigh. "I'm… aware, sir. I… I won't claim it makes sense. I just feel that… I wish that-"
"You're worried about your sister," Ozpin supplied, a warm smile hidden behind his hand.
Winter grimaced at his summation. "Yes, sir."
Ozpin let out a small chuckle. "I understand, Winter, believe me. I'd like nothing more than to let them live a little longer without the truth of the world weighing them down." He sighed, letting his hand fall from his face, revealing his upper lip stained red, but the blood drip stopped. "Unfortunately, that is a desire I have indulged in far too much in recent years. You can see how the end results are currently playing out. Much as it may pain you, Winter, Weiss is involved, as are her significant others. To keep them out of the loop now would be only to their detriment."
Indeed, Winter's winced at the thought. She put a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes with a sigh. "I know, sir. I apologize."
Ozpin rose a brow. "For wishing to protect family?" He huffed a laugh. "There's no need, Specialist. As it stands, we can give them a brief reprieve. Let them rest today, go through their week's classes, enjoy the dance next weekend. Then that Sunday… we bring them into the fold."
Winter's face pinched, but she nodded, her eyes determined. "Understood, sir. Thank you."
Ozpin gave her a smile, which quickly faded. "Now, to the matter at hand." He placed his pince-nez on the bridge of his nose, turning to face Ironwood. "James, how goes progress with the Winter Maiden?"
Ironwood gave Ozpin a long look, then placed his hands behind his back, standing at attention. "We're prepping Fria for transport, but it will take some time. We're worried the sudden activity may put her under undue stress." He frowned at the headmaster. "I still don't approve of moving her across the kingdoms, Oz. It's a great risk."
Ozpin's eyes narrowed. "And I don't quite approve of the conditions you've kept her in all these years, James. Yet here we are."
Ironwood visibly restrained himself from rolling his eyes. "Yes, Oz, you've made your opinion of her 'gilded cage' very clear. May we please move on?" At Ozpin's hand wave, Ironwood relaxed. "We're preparing a series of stealthcraft to move her, and we're doing a deep-dive into the history of every officer who will be involved with moving her. At best, we should have her here by week's end."
Ozpin gave a firm nod. "Understandable. Feel free to ask anything of us you require for security. We can take no chances. Now, what of Cinder's status?"
At that, Ironwood's shoulder's tensed. "We've retrieved all the information we could about her history. I'll have it sent over as soon as I return to my ship." He gave Goodwitch a nod, the Deputy headmistress answering with her own as she made a note on her tablet. "The suppressants are still working, but she's growing more irritable by the day. We think she's building a tolerance. At this rate, we won't be able to hold her for more than a few days, not without taking more… extreme measures."
Ozpin slumped slightly in his seat. "Has she… said anything?"
Ironwood snorted lightly. "Not much worth repeating. She won't answer any questions regarding Salem, save for the horrors we will suffer for defying her. I took most of it as bluster, but given the Grimm Miss' Rose and Schnee uncovered tonight…"
"It does no good underestimating claims about Salam, James." Ozpin leaned forward on his elbows, looking into the middle distance. "However horrible the things Fall has said, its best to assume she's underselling it."
Ironwood grimaced. "I was afraid you'd say that." He reached into his pocket, retrieving his scroll. "There was one thing, though. During her last interrogation, I had them try some of your suggestions to gauge her… memory."
In an instant, Ozpin's demeanor changed. His head shot up, his eyes seeming to gain more life as he sat fully up in his chair. "She… did say something?"
Ironwood hesitated at his friend's change of voice. He wasn't used to seeing so much naked hope on the man's face. "Not quite. It was her lack of a response to what the interrogator said that caught my attention."
At Ozpin's intrigued look, Ironwood placed his scroll on the headmaster's table, mindful of the splintered wood Taiyang's exit had produced. As he pulled up the correct file and searched for the correct timestamp, Winter came up to his side, clearly apprehensive as she stared at the scroll. Goodwitch came to Ozpin's side, asking if Ironwood could send her a copy of the file. He quickly did so, then hit play.
The words audio-only flashed across the screen as Cinder's voice exploded from the scroll mid-sentence. "-many times are you fools going to ask me these pointless questions? I will never speak of our plans."
"Ma'am, I don't think you fully understand your situation." Replied an unknown male voice, the interrogator if Winter had to guess. "We have Adam Taurus and his White Fang in custody. Most of them have already told us what they know in exchange for lighter sentences."
Cinder scoffed. "Those fools know nothing of value."
"Well, what they don't know has mostly been supplemented by Huntsmen Roman Rose."
"Torchwick…" Cinder hissed dangerously.
"Simply put, Miss Fall, we know everything about your efforts here in Vale. What we don't know is any future plans you may have, or those of your employer Salem. With the evidence we have against you, unless you give us something, you are going to be tried to the full extent of the law. Do you understand what that means?"
"You think death worries me?" Cinder parked a mad laugh. "You don't get it, do you? I failed. Salem is the most powerful being in this world. It's not a matter of if she'll conquer it. It's when. And her world has no need for the weak, or the failed. Compared to what she will do to me, death would be a kindness."
Winter frowned as she watched Ozpin close his eyes, shaking his head sadly at Cinder's words.
The interrogator seemed unaffected by Cinder's decree, asking, "If Salem is that cruel, I fail to see why you refuse to tell us anything about her."
"Here it comes," Ironwood said to the table as they listened, enraptured.
"Ha! Because she gave me everything. It's her right to take it all back if she chooses."
"Ma'am, you must tell us about Salem, or-."
"I must tell you nothing! I will not betray her like that!"
"Ma'am, what is the last known location of Salem's base?"
"I will not tell you."
"Ma'am, tell us where your mother's base is!"
Winter felt her breath catch.
"I will not! What part of 'I will not betray her' do you moronic imbeciles not get! I will not tell you anything about Mother, not now, not ever!"
Winter's stomach dropped.
Ironwood stopped the playback, looking up to meet Ozpin's eyes. "The conversation devolved from there until Cinder had to be sedated."
Ozpin didn't meet his look, eyes trained on the scroll. "She remembers."
"We don't know for certain," Ironwood said firmly. "It may have just been a subliminal slip of the tongue. Every time after that, she referred to Salem only by name. We'd have to be able to repeat it, then question her on the subject."
Ozpin's lips thinned in thought. "Possibly. It's also possible I was correct, and this was a result of her only having half of the Fall Maidan's power." He sucked in a deep breath. "I suppose there is a quicker way to find out which."
Ironwood rose a brow. "Which is?"
"To see if, in addition to her mother-" Ozpin finally looked up, and Winter felt her heart jolt at the glint in his eyes, his olive eyes practically burning with determination. "How much she remembers of her father."
Updated A/n: Putting this here because I'm seeing a lot of people confused, and while that's partly intentional, I apparently did it too well because people are thinking I uploaded the wrong chapter. To clarify, this chapter leads right off of the last one. It was actually supposed to be at the end of the last chapter, but the tones between the two halves were so clearly different I made the choice to split them up. The reason it's vague and unclear what Ozpin, Raven and everyone is talking about... It's because I'm making it vague and unclear what they're talking about. I've only given half the conversation here. You find out the rest when RWBY finds out the rest, because I'm kind of a bastard like that ;)
Seriously though folks, please just have a little faith in me. I do have a plan here. It's crazy and completely batshit, but it is a plan nonetheless. Here's hoping you all enjoy it.
A/n: And now for the complete F*****g opposite!
So here's the trade-off for getting a super fluffy chapter last time: Uber-plot dump! I'm not all that sorry about it, truth-be-told. This stuff is pretty fun to write if I'm perfectly honest. And this is the last big 'plotty' chapter for a while, so might as well go big or go home. Expect more team RWBY for the foreseeable future.
Also congrats on the folks who have already figured out where I'm going with this mess. I saw a few comments that hit the situation on the head so hard I half-thought someone hacked my computer and got into my notes.
See you at the next one, hopefully not too long from now.