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"No, I think we're just getting started." – Master Chief, Halo: Combat Evolved
Chapter 43: Operation Steel Arrow (3)
James Ironwood was normally a patient man.
Serving in the military and handling as many orders and cases all at once for many years now was the ultimate evidence of that, and he sure managed to go through all of this as smoothly and properly as one would expect from a man of his rank and integrity. Of course, his job was never monotone or too easy. Not when there were people like Ozpin that tried to meddle with foreign affairs without a legitimate mandate. And right now, when he received news that Beacon Headmaster had dropped all businesses he had been attending to suddenly visit Atlas, he found himself facing a big mess that he wasn't sure he was ready to headbutt just yet. Not when there were two big issues with the worldwide situation. The White Fang had been wounded, but not mortally enough to prevent a serious response to what had just happened to all bases across Remnant. The outcry was impressive, and for once the General was glad that Atlas wasn't the target of it all. The magnitude of the reaction born from the harsh message delivered by Sienna was so impressive that even the Council had to admit in the most recent emergency meeting that it was best to already pledge support for that kind of comment to avoid any unwanted repercussions on the nation for remaining too quiet about it.
The Faunus community was, of course, outraged at the circumstances. It was the first time an organization that tried to pledge itself as a 'stronger version' of the current White Fang managed to deliver such a blow, and everyone could tell the idea wasn't to display that did them any favors. It was clear something else was up, something that made him quickly appoint older Ruby to the case and have the sights in Mantle solved as quickly as possible before there was a repeat to what happened in the other kingdoms. He was even willing to take heat from other councilors if it meant preventing a tragedy for the country. So, the young woman was surprised when he called her and explained to her the situation. She was even more surprised that she was picked for the job, but James held back why he thought she was best for the case. 'You just are', he remembered saying while preventing the true reason to spill up, 'you know Salem better, and you can help Atlas through this'. She didn't inquire any further, perhaps the answer pleased her well enough to not question this decision any further. Not when there were other worries to be interested about for the time being.
The second issue, and perhaps the one that had him the most uneasy for the time being was John's current state of mind when he went to check on his oldest daughter as she was being treated for her wounds and 'development'. James didn't need to be explained much beyond the fact that Cinder had become the Summer Maiden and… the Fall Maiden had followed her entourage since she had been hunted by the predecessor. Salem had managed to recruit a Maiden, one that was not dead but that still left him concerned about the chances of this being but the first of many surprises with this sudden escalation of attempts. This was what they had prepared for some time now- an intensification of the war against the Grimm Horde. It was the moment of truth, the time where their efforts were either going to be given worth or fail to be enough to face the upcoming major assault. Atlas was going to be ready for that storm, but the best was for the other kingdoms to be ready too when things ended up crashing down on them. And as he mused over this upsetting topic, his thoughts went to the plans tied to Atlas' general defense. Mantle wasn't going to fall. It was the first line, but also symbolically and strategically important. While in recent times the walls had been reinforced, the effort had been mostly stalled by the councilmen and councilwomen that wanted to siphon most of the national budget into Atlas proper. Due to the crisis that was soon to come, he decided it was time to indict another Emergency Session, this time to calibrate the budget into setting up defensive positions in the walls' weakest spots.
The sight of new threats and the chance of an invasion should be more important to offset any opposition, but there was no way everyone was going to be fine with it. With the tournament in full swing, he could still rely on those that wanted to preserve the tradition from being tainted by any possible danger to not only Atlas but the other countries. The mobilization call for the fleet was something that James was entitled to, but he couldn't do the same about the army- not when most of it was garrisoning Amity for the duration of the tournament. Instead, he decided to rely on a little law he hadn't ever thought of being forced to put in use. In case of national emergency with due proof of danger and possible harm aimed at the people of Atlas and Mantle, the Commander in Chief of the military could call for the activation of the reserves units within both cities. And in this case, the call was way bigger than it would have been a couple of years ago. With the passing of legislation that protected Faunus' rights, there was a sudden increase of people with animal features joining the military and the reserve pool. Right now, Mantle could rely on 12.000 barely-trained soldiers to fill up the gaps and add a considerable force to the defense of the city. He felt like everything was finally getting better as he finished looking at the message he sent an hour ago to get all the new recruits set in militia groups and be aided by a couple of Atlesian officers. They needed manpower and time. Mostly time.
And yet someone decided it was still a good idea to barge in to make things even more complicated in the inner affairs as Ozpin had arrived just twenty minutes after his call to Mantle. James gritted his teeth, having long expected this act of disrespect to repeat, and yet he couldn't fully fault Ozpin with this decision due to the Fall Maiden having been taken here too. It was his responsibility – a responsibility which he allowed to almost die twice now – but still a responsibility of his. One that had entered 'his turf' and that he was meant to report to him. Or something of the kind from what he could remember from the earliest encounters with his group. It wasn't exactly something they could have predicted in the long run, nor could they have expected for this to be a reason to make issues about their current group. His mind went back to what John said about his own offer. It wouldn't be a group where anyone was leader beyond holding a 'perimeter' over their respective zones. Which was fine, and somewhat sensible. As old as Ozpin could be, he doubted he was savvy when it came to Atlas politics. Hence why James was meant to be sitting at this desk, keeping track of any dangerous rumors tied to Salem and making sure he could answer this on his own first and foremost.
Still James bolted from his office to try and avoid disaster to fully ensue, as John had made it clear that any 'aggressive visitor' was going to get removed from Cinder's medical room. Forcefully if it was needed. The message was quick to pick up due to the young man's natural personality, one that was decisive and tremendously attached to his family. Anyone or anything he perceived as a danger would snap harshly against, and not just verbally. And The most concerning thing was that the doctors were more than happy to give him that right as the father of the young woman. For a moment, James could only imagine the absurd situation where Ozpin couldn't actually get inside that room due to this, since John wasn't exactly on par with the Headmaster of Beacon but could still prove to be an annoyance and a delaying factor if needed to. So he arrived at the hospital bay, expecting for a particular scenario to happen and… be surprised when something else unfolded. The first thing he spotted as he turned the corner to the final hallway was someone getting flung out of the room where Cinder was being treated and then get stopped by a crash-land on the opposite wall. His surprise doubled when Glynda Goodwitch rushed out of the room to check on Ozpin as the groaning man had indeed been decked right into his face and sent flying out of the door. The sight was as absurd as… amusing. Was this the first time he saw Ozpin actually 'rejected' like this? Possibly, but this was a memory he wasn't going to forget anytime soon. Not when the rest of the entire situation was far from forgettable.
Now, how do I keep things from escalating?
Dear Diary, I think I discovered that punching jerks is a good stress-relieving method compared to just seething and plotting anything too complicated.
That I actually felt that. Like, the mere sight has me shiver at how painful that can be.
[Don't worry, dear. If John has to punch you, it will be only during training when you can punch back.]
That's not exactly pleasant-sounding.
It isn't, hehe.
Yes, what was all about?
It was definitely refreshing. It has been a while since I punched someone that deserved it and that wasn't tied to any form of training. Sure, I could 'feel' Ozma flinch at that response to Ozpin's effort to try and get not only Amber but also Cinder back to Vale and 'under his watchful eye'. He tried to put out the spiel of the Maidens and magic and how he is the only one that knows best and how we should all listen to him- which I was keen to stop as I brought up that I wasn't unaware of the situation, but I refused outright to budge from any position. Not when Amber told me explicitly how Ozzie was actually making an effort to limit social contact for the girl. Protection is fine, but the smartest thing would have been to give her the chance to talk with someone that wasn't in their thirties or older. It definitely didn't help his position of power when Raven had been in that very room to check on 'two Maidens at once' considering the unusual event. The woman was, of course, pissed at the headmaster. Something that Ozpin tried to ignore while returning to charge and bringing up how he could watch them better than he did up until now and- Bam! Punch in the face, and send him out of the room at once. I could tell this was the first time in many weeks Glynda Goodwitch had sported a shocked look when she saw her boss being sent soaring through the door.
But as I contemplated this satisfaction, I heard a fake cough from beside me, with Sienna holding me an irked look on my face while lulling a giggling toddler as Damian had seen the whole scene unfold. Emerald looked shocked at the sight, same for Amber as both girls had taken some chairs and were sitting by Cinder's bedside. Nora and Blake were with Willow as I didn't want them to see Cinder if she had been taken in any bad state. I wasn't told much about the grade of her injuries beyond the fact she was stable but still unconscious. Not in a coma, but something was definitely keeping her asleep after many hours of pure inactivity. I had already made plans to call the kids the moment I noticed that there were no visible or gruesome injuries in her body before I had to stop and face this little invasion. Still, my lovely lady was fairly pissed, and I had some trouble deducing if it was my rude rejection or something else. Regardless of that, I braved into that storm and hoped I wasn't the one at fault.
"Too much?" I asked my dear wife, with the woman scowling a tad bit harder than expected at my response.
"I would have preferred that you kept him in here. I..." She paused, seemingly catching herself from saying something awkward. Something that I really wanted to know now. It took me a solid moment to realize what she was thinking, especially with the guilty shame on her face that just started to give me hints on what was going on with her.
"You wanted to punch him?" My words seemed to strike a chord from the scoff and annoyed look on her face.
"Yes. I wanted to punch the man that was trying to take our daughter from us," She admitted a bit heatedly. Her tone had me smile in affection, almost trying to calm her down as it was clear she was as upset as I was about this matter. "But you beat me to it, jerk."
Damian giggled while pointing an amused but still accusatory finger at me. "Papa jerk."
Snorting, I could only shake my head at the scene but still I turned my attention back at the door as Ozpin was helped inside once again, behind him a fascinated James Ironwood. I could tell the military man was doing his best and putting his best mental effort to keep any mirthful reaction to appear on his face, but there were just too many signs that alluded to that amused view of the overall predicament.
Not wrongly so. I would have been stunned had someone I thought unable to fight.
"We're not having this discussion."
"This is not something you can't swat about with ease. There are forces-"
"I know about Salem. Everyone in this room does," I interrupted once again. He looked surprised, but this was far from how much he was going to be out of this situation. "I know everything about that old tale, Ozpin. I know that you don't have a legitimate plan beyond trying to rely on artifacts which are expected to summon the Gods and… then what?"
"They- They will-"
"Kill us. We failed. We have never improved from the original humanity. We evolved, yes- but we never went beyond the idea of hating each other for stupid reasons. The moment they come, the first thing they will do will be to either rest everything back to zero or kill us to start a new experiment."
There was no answer to that vicious rant, and the man looked as shocked as perplexed. The blonde beside him thought he could provide one, but there was silence. Even James, still fairly uncertain about dropping Ozpin as a leader, was shocked by the fact that the plan they had, the one that was meant to beat their common foe, wasn't a sure one. In fact, there were higher chances of that ending up badly as the Gods were the very individuals that childishly put an end and resetted the first few eras of humanity because 'we were not what they wanted'. We would face the same fate if not worse. They could be doing other things, other funnier things at that. The moment they were ripped off from their fun business, the possibility of having two pissed Gods annoyed at humans once again demanding their help would definitely end up badly for us all. Which is why it was only for the best that this scenario never came to happen.
"I believe you should leave, Headmaster," Sienna pointed out sternly. "You have overstayed this visit. And this room is warded off from people that aren't family to the patient or part of the military."
"Amber is not a patient. And she is-"
"Not going to be anywhere if you are planning to do the same as usual. Say you're going to keep her safer from the other disposition but still leave her a possible prey for any agent of Salem," The Tiger Faunus shot back. "The girl will not leave if she wishes not."
The aforementioned young woman tensed up, her gaze briefly moving to see Cinder's sleeping one and then seemingly looking down at her hands as she pondered about the situation. It wasn't exactly nice to be put in that spotlight. I would have given her a different setting to choose this rather than this highly-pressured situation. Especially when Ozpin was keen to have her back under his control.
"Amber, if you stay here… I can't protect you. Think about it."
The girl closed her eyes, seemingly thinking but… it was clear she already knew what to say back to the elder.
He paused, the two words not being among the list of answers he expected to receive out of this very predicament. "What?"
"Three times you asked me to trust you. When my mother died, when I was attacked the first few times and then when I wanted to stay by Cinder's side the first time around," The young woman elaborated. "The first time, you said that I would never be alone. That was a lie. The second time, you said that I would be the safest and that I would have to never worry about the Queen getting too close to me. That was also a lie. And… we are here, so tell me, does this mean you lied again when you said that she would have been in danger had I remained away?"
That response actually left me stumped. Sure, I knew that Amber didn't have the nicest childhood and life, but to hear that all of this was also dampened by lies over lies? I could tell Ozpin did try at a certain point, but I couldn't just understand why he didn't do more than that. He could have given her a place in Beacon. She could have been taken in as a ward due to her 'special semblance' and prevented from taking any external mission that strayed too far from safety. There were many opportunities that could have been used to reinforce that bond. He decided to not take them. And now, he was paying for it.
"General, aren't there any rules to keep unwanted visitors out of the patient's room or what? Did Atlas lose that decency too?" Raven snapped almost as fiercely as Sienna and I were.
"A fair point." Ironwood nodded in agreement.
"James!" Ozpin raised his voice. "You know better than I do that this isn't safe."
"Is it? Because, as far as you have proven with your lack of answers and honesty, you don't know what to do with Salem."
"It's not that simple," The fellow headmaster argued.
"Nothing is simple. Especially something of that magnitude. But you can't expect us to always rely on you when you have always failed to give us a hopeful look. You would always ask for trust and never give us the truth. Can we believe in a victory if we follow you, Ozpin?"
The room went quiet as the response came from a now awake Cinder. The girl blinked, turning her gaze left and right before settling to look right at me.
"Yes, dear?" I felt my chest clenching at how frail and weak Cinder's voice felt. So tired, so fragile.
"I… I don't want to go."
I nodded, a caring smile on my face. "Don't worry, you are not going anywhere you don't want to go."
"She needs to-"
"Be left alone from someone that has already lost any face value today," I interrupted Ozpin one last time, cracking my knuckles. "And I don't think I stressed well enough that the first punch was on the house, but the next one will have you pay some more for it."
He gave me an incredibly unpleasant glare, but I knew from the get go he wasn't planning to do anything stupid. Not with James already tensing up and looking ready to act to stop any fight. He didn't remain for too long, not when it became clear this was a losing battle for him. Ozpin left with Glynda, and I was left to think about what to do now. Cinder was going to get back to menagerie for a while to recover from the recent ordeal. She couldn't do her work properly in these conditions and I wasn't going to leave Amber in Atlas. We had the rooms to accommodate one or two guests if we wanted, so that wasn't a real problem. What really turned out to be a problem was an interesting discovery I made while Sienna was out with the rest to check on the others while I remained behind to keep watch over Cinder. The young woman had been awfully quiet despite her current condition, so I was concerned that she got told something bad from the Summer Maiden. Yet, I would soon learn that the reason she remained this quiet wasn't due to something upsetting on itself, but rather… it was kind of awkward to ask and incredibly embarrassing if wrong for her to make an assumption about.
"Dad, can I ask you something really… important?"
I blinked, looking up from my newspaper. "What about, dear?"
"Do you have… voices in your head? As in real people?"
I put down the paper, frowning at her. "...How do you know that?"
This is unexpected. Do you think that-
[It has to be that. How come she would know of this if not for her to-]
"Summer told me. Not Aunt Summer- the first Maiden."
Slowly nodding, I tried to think properly about what to say in that predicament. Sure, I was going to say the truth, but the dilemma was how to relay that without being too abrupt or too restrained with my answer. So I ultimately picked a curt answer, just for the sake of not being too extensive about it too soon. She was still recovering, and I couldn't make her stress too much after waking up just recently.
"Since when?" Cinder inquired, now intrigued by this performance.
"I first woke up in Remnant. I got that first voice there, and the second one woke up when I was visiting Atlas the first time."
"Sallie. How much did the Summer Maiden tell you about this topic?"
"Not much. She doesn't know about your full situation which is why I wanted to ask," Cinder admitted. "And… I had my doubts. You know, voice in my head, another soul and-"
"You're worried she could replace you."
"Or mix with my own soul. Am I stupid or-"
"No. It's a good worry to have without any info on the situation you are in," I argued kindly, reaching out and cupping her right cheek with my hand. "And trust me when I say that you will not change. You will not end up mashed up."
"Are you sure?"
"Nothing happened despite having them for years now. And trust me when I say I would notice any changes."
The girl nodded slowly, turning her gaze back to her hands.
"Also, I didn't exactly ask for this kind of 'gift'. Years ago I would have jumped happily at having more power but… I can tell I will have to train my body back to shape due to the increase in power I just received. I can tell my Semblance isn't exactly as easy to use as usual," Cinder pointed out and I snorted. "And that's not a fun thing to laugh at."
"Not when I am the one that will have to couch you once again."
"Y-you don't have to."
"That's true, but you are my daughter and I have a responsibility and duty to help your recovery," I flatly remarked. "Plus, it will be like old times… plus Nora teasing you a bit about going back to the basics. And Amber would definitely cheer you up~"
Cinder groaned at those mirthful jabs but she was definitely happier to not have a sword pending over her about her worries tied to this new addition to her mind. This was definitely going to be a mess to unwrap in the near future, but it also opened a rather curious question that neither Ozma and Sallie had any clue about.
If Cinder could hear the original Summer Maiden, then why doesn't Amber and Raven hear their own counterparts too?
I think that RWBY is one of the rare cases where I started strong by liking the show and slowly started to hate it to the point it becomes quite weird to write this story. And yes, it's going to end by the chapter I said it was going to end, but I would like to admit that the reason why I put a deadline was mostly because I don't feel confident in writing a story with a series that is going through some strange retcons for the sake of nerfing characters, making some villains 'more human', making allies go evil because they politically bad. I just don't like to trifle with a show which is growing with each episodes into a dumpster fire. I will always respect the original drive and the initial plan, but I just don't like how the writers crashed and burned so many times that they now have to take delays with some of the volumes (and mid-volumes) to check if something will work. RT just got too toxic with its own ideas, too radical to even realize how any fictional story shouldn't be made political. Not when the main purpose of these stories are to get a moment away from the crapshow that is RL. And that's my rant/explanation as to why it will take a while for me to consider picking back up any of my on hiatus RWBY works once this one is completed. I will probably do another series, like Helltaker or even One Piece (This last one has a bit of a spicy idea with a strong emphasis on cuddles, but I can't say who, why and 'when'.)
Fuyuki365: They would. The bond within their souls might not have them mix up, but they are still connected tight enough to perceive that 'checkpoint reset'.