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Cover Art: Serox

Chapter 41


"Our original plan was to sneak Neo on board Ironwood's flagship and use a virus created by a colleague of mine to take over his mechanised units," Cinder explained. She had her hands on the table and was stood up, talking to each of them sat on the various chairs around. Jaune had taken a spot by Adam, pleased to have an old friend back, and Neo had forcefully squashed her in on his other side, wedging herself half on and half against the armrest. "Unfortunately, that's not an option anymore. Ironwood has increased his security so much that even the slightest detail out of place will have his Specialists crashing down on her. Also, he's completely decommissioned his robot forces."

"Looks like someone should have stayed put and not run off half-cocked," Mercury Black said with a laugh. There was no mistaking who it was directed at, and Emerald Sustrai backed away from her partner quickly, all but expecting the bullet between his eyes. Jaune wasn't sure if he should be annoyed or amused about that. He wasn't going to murder someone for being a prat.

"It's not actually Jaune's fault in this case," Cinder said sharply, silencing him with a quick glare. "Ironwood's increase in security happened before he arrived in Vale, and according to our sources is more a result of the reveal of Chivalric Arms. As for the robots, he was hesitant of those from the start. Having Chivalric show their hand and take the orange-haired one over only sealed the deal. They won't be used in defence of Beacon."

"That's not such a bad thing," Adam remarked. "Half the reason we would have needed them neutralised is because they'd rip through my men."

"Indeed. While there will still be plenty of huntsmen and huntresses in training, their direct combat experience will be limited. Most will flee or be called away to evacuation points. The rest will be busy dealing with the Grimm you're to release."

"What of those ones?"

"You're free to deal with them as you wish. Our alliance only asks your support in the attack – I would never dictate how the White Fang conduct itself."

Polite. Surprisingly polite. Roman had more than implied Cinder was a forceful and ruthless woman unafraid to strongarm people into working with her, but she had her diplomatic face on for Adam. Or maybe it was for him. It didn't mean she was any less manipulative, but it did mean they had more power in the arrangement. Otherwise, she wouldn't feel the need.

Adam had to know that as well, but he returned her nod with one of his own. The politeness would be returned despite their differences. Jaune was relieved. It would have only made things harder if they decided to make demands and fling insults around.

"We'll let those students who don't attack us escape or fight the Grimm unmolested," he said. "I don't care about them either way, but slaughtering children won't be good for our image. The fact they're wielding deadly weapons won't matter to people who hear about it. Is that alright with you, Cinder?"

"As long as you cause enough of a ruckus that Jaune and I can reach our respective targets, yes."

"We'll be entering together?" Jaune asked, surprised.

"We no longer have the brute force to take the entire academy down. We will have the element of surprise, but Ironwood is right now fortifying the school, and he has brought with him his best and his most loyal. Even with the White Fang, we don't have the manpower – and without the robots, we can't turn public opinion against Atlas. We will strike hard and fast instead. Secure our objectives and depart."

Jaune looked to Adam and nodded. The idea was more than fine with him. If Ozpin was really willing to throw everything away to keep his sister, then he'd surely be defending her anyway. He could get his own back there. The bigger question was Adam and what he sought to gain. Blake's death? If so, he might want to stay a little longer. That's not any of my concern, is it? I'll be busy finding Amber and I won't be with Adam at all.

"That's fine with the White Fang," Adam said. "So long as you don't leave us high and dry on the retreat. Being hunted down by Ironwood's forces will leave me upset."

"Mercury and Emerald will be stationed with you," she said. "Along with Roman who will be hiding in the Emerald Forest with the mech he and Jaune acquired. He will secure your retreat with anti-air support from the Paladin, then, once you're clear, he will abandon it and escape."

Roman tipped his hat exaggeratedly. He seemed well pleased with the relative safety of his role. Adam accepted it with a grunt. Atlas wouldn't send its troops rushing into a forest full of Grimm to chase them, but they would send aircraft, their typical response and means of monitoring people. The Paladin could bring those down easily, and by the time they mobilised a force capable of taking it out, Adam, Roman and hopefully he and Cinder would be long gone.

Neo nudged his side with an elbow and Jaune spoke. "What of Neo?"

"I would prefer Neo be with us," she said. "Her Semblance will be invaluable in covering our tracks, especially if your sister isn't in any position to run for her freedom." Cinder paused to wait for their nods. "Is everyone happy with their roles?"

"Ecstatic." Roman said, smugness rolling off him in waves. "This is far better than your previous plan, Cindy."

"My previous plan had to deal with an army of robots and mech suits, and intense security surrounding the most public event on Remnant. If anything, the distractions from Chivalric and Jaune have only made things easier. If we get the chance, and I stress if, then I think we should also make a little show of this."

At their confused expressions, Cinder produced a small chest-mounted camera, setting it down on the table.

"You want to livestream us attacking an academy?" Adam asked. "That seems like a good way to make us the most hated people on Remnant."

"Not for you, Adam. For Jaune and I. While we won't have time to take or destroy Beacon, there's no reason we can't expose to the world what they have done."

Jaune reached forward and picked it up. It was a small thing with a clip on the back that could be fitted onto clothing or armour as required. The camera was encased in a protective polymer container with a clear front. It looked like it could take a few knocks, and was the kind used by athletes and hobbyists to capture extreme sports.

Could it work to prove the truth about his family? His mouth was dry. Chivalric Arms had accepted blame quickly enough when definitive proof was offered – proof they couldn't weasel out of. What if they were so desperate to blame everything on Fields that they caved to pressure from him as well? It wouldn't stop him wanting revenge, but it might put more pressure on them and even force Atlas to pardon him.

Or it might do none of those things and only indict Ozpin, but for stealing his sister away and planning to use her, he was no better than Matthew Fields. "Why?" he asked Cinder, looking at her suspiciously over the little camera. "Why are you willing to do all this?"

"Is the generosity making you paranoid?" Her lips curled into a smile. "I can respect that. Don't worry; this isn't entirely altruistic of me. A little vengeance for Jaune and Neo, a way to validate Adam's attack as virtuous and a means to drag Ozpin and the academies through the mud for me," she said. "We all stand to benefit from revealing the truth here. To me, it's just another weapon in our arsenal. Does that alleviate your concerns?"

"Yes." Jaune set the camera down. "Thank you."

/-/

Jaune poured steaming water into the mug and mixed it with the instant coffee, handing a cup to Adam before sitting down opposite him. The man had removed his mask, leaving the grisly SDC scar on display. It might have bothered him before, but they all had their scars now.

"What do you think of her plan?" Jaune asked.

Cinder had already left, back to whatever cover she was keeping to stay out of trouble. They'd all agreed to do their part, but he still wanted Adam's opinion on it. He'd always been the one to plan their attacks before.

"It's simple," Adam said. "Vague. She wants the White Fang to keep everyone busy but hasn't given me much in the way to do that. The Grimm are a start, but this is a huntsman academy. Grimm are their bread and butter."

"Do you think she's setting you up?"

"I doubt it would bother her if we all died, but I don't think she is intentionally planning it. Maybe she thinks this is enough, or maybe she is giving me just the vaguest directions so I can decide on the specifics myself." Adam paused to take a drink. "It'll be fine. I will come up with a better plan of attack and make sure my people know it. There will be losses. That is inevitable."

"There are a lot of volunteers in Vale."

"Those will be the first to die, unfortunately. Poorly trained. Little experience. There isn't much hope for them against Grimm, huntsmen or soldiers."

"Should they be in the fight at all, then?"

"We need the numbers. Not to mention everyone who joins us knows the risks, Jaune. We don't hide what we are, what we do or what the costs of that might be."

There really was no arguing with that. Jaune sank back, wondering when Adam had ever sounded so cold and whether it had always been that way. It probably had. His view on the man would forever be coloured by the fact he saved him and Lavender from a fate worse than death, then helped him find the others and give them a safe home on Menagerie.

The attacks he'd taken part in with the White Fang had been bloody and people had died, some on their side, some on the other side. As Adam said, he'd never misled anyone as to what it was they were. Terrorists. Blake might argue they'd changed, but Adam had been killing people since the first day Jaune had met them, and Blake hadn't let it bother her then.

"What will you do in the attack?" Jaune asked. "Are you going to try and find Blake?"

Adam stilled, the cup by his lips. His eyes, one dyed pink with blood, narrowed. "Are you about to say I should not?"

"No. It's your choice. I'm just curious."

Adam watched him for a long moment before he closed his eyes and sipped at his drink, swallowing and setting the cup down. "I am going to look for her," he admitted. "I'm going to get my answers, Jaune. Ask her why she left us, why she betrayed me – us. All of us."

"What do you want her to say?"

"I don't know. There's no answer that would satisfy me but… I still want to hear it. Perhaps I'm being foolish." He chuckled. "I definitely am."

"Are you going to kill her?"

"I don't know." He sighed. "Ask me again after. I won't let it get in the way of saving your sister or the White Fang's goals. I just want closure. Though knowing her, she's already planning to run away…"

"Do you ever regret it?"

"Are you?" Adam asked, looking his way. His eyes were piercing but not cruel. "You can talk to me, Jaune. You're not beholden to the White Fang, not after all you've done with us."

"I…" His voice trailed off. It was a complicated feeling he had; he wasn't sure he could put it to words. "I enjoyed killing Fields. I was in a ridiculously good mood leading up to it as well. One of the girls on Blake's team, I made her kill someone. At the time, I did it to make her prove her mettle, or at least that's what I told her…"

"And the real reason?"

"I'm not sure. I think I wanted to prove her wrong. They were looking at me like I was a monster, so I thought if I proved their hypocrisy by making them kill someone like I did, it would shatter that illusion. Make me feel better, or at least make them feel worse."

"Did it?"

"She killed the soldier. No… well, some hesitation but no more or less than my first time. Even after saving her sister though, she didn't enjoy it or keep going. I thought we could be the same. Both of us had our sisters kidnapped, experimented on and then nearly slaughtered for parts. And she… she just goes back to a normal life. That's it…" He stared down into his coffee, watching the dark whirlpool form as he shifted it from side to side. "It made me wonder if I'm not making excuses. If there isn't something wrong with me."

"There probably is."

Jaune's eyes closed. He felt the nausea well up in his stomach – that wasn't what he'd wanted to hear.

"But," Adam said, "I think it's to be expected. She lost her sister for days. You were ripped apart from your family, tortured for weeks and then abandoned by the authorities who should have protected your family. You shouldn't compare her and you, Jaune. The circumstances are very different."

"I won't say killing is right," he continued. "I know it's not when I do it. You know it yourself as well, or you wouldn't be feeling this way. I don't think it is pure evil, either."

"My father always said there's a line you should never cross…"

"Lines are just that, Jaune. Lines. You can walk over them and you can walk back. I kill now to try and bring some degree of freedom to the faunus. Once that is achieved, I will hang up my sword and retire. Or maybe I'll become a huntsman. Either way, I don't intent to keep killing. As long as you're doing it for a purpose you feel is good, you shouldn't let the weight crush you. Once you have your family safe in Menagerie, you're free to retire. Live with them. Find a girlfriend. Raise a family. Grow old and spend your life fishing if you wish." Adam smiled and reached over to slap a hand against his shoulder. "Don't let the now consume you. Think on the future instead. That'll keep you going."

On the future, huh? That sounded nice…

/-/

"It doesn't feel right for us to just up and leave…"

Qrow laughed. It wasn't the first time Ruby had said that, nor Yang or their two teammates. For all that the white-haired one was sister to the Ice Queen herself, she was fiery. His nieces had chosen a good team to get involved in. An exciting team with just as many issues and ridiculous escapades as his own.

"This isn't your battle, little rose. Nor is it yours, firecracker." He ruffled Ruby's hair and winked at Yang. "You guys are taking time off in Patch. Enjoy yourselves. Take some time off. Decide if you want to go to Shade. You know Tai and I will support you either way."

"What about Beacon?" Weiss asked. "If Jaune Arc is going to attack-"

"Leave that to us." Winter said, interrupting her sister before she could begin. "General Ironwood is here, as am I, and we know more of dealing with him than you do. As Qrow says, this isn't your fight."

"Then whose is it?" Yang asked.

"Ozpin's."

Yang looked around. "I don't see him here."

"The headmaster was busy and couldn't see you off-" Glynda tried.

"Save it, teach. We all know why he isn't here." Yang sighed and shook her head. As disappointed as she looked, Glynda looked far worse. "Maybe it's best this way. You weren't bad. You could have done to smile more-"

"Don't push it, Miss Xiao-Long."

"Hah. That's more like it."

Glynda Goodwitch sighed. "For all the lack of wit you inherited from your father, you were not a bad student. None of you were. Beacon is lessened with your absence," she told them. "And while Ozpin could not – chose not – to be here, I wish to express my heartfelt apologies for what you went through. And… And for how we failed you." The teacher bowed her head. "I am sorry."

"It's okay, Miss Goodwitch," Ruby said. "You couldn't have done anything."

"I could have. And I didn't. Qrow is right; don't worry about us. Knowing of the attack lets us prepare, and we won't be caught by surprise."

"If anything, your presence will only make it worse," Winter agreed. "Jaune Arc has reason to become… unpredictable if he sees you. Especially Belladonna. It's better for everyone you be out of the picture."

"Out, but not far away." Qrow said, pushing Ruby gently into the Bullhead. "You're only on Patch. I'll give you a call tonight once you've settled in, then pop down to spar with you all once this mess is dealt with. Make sure to go easy on your old man until then. He ain't getting any younger."

Ruby giggled. "Neither are you!"

"Brat!"

The team laughed and shared last farewells, for those that it would be a farewell to. Qrow imagined they'd already had the tough talks with their friends in Beacon, but it was a digital age and distance didn't have to mean end to friendship. He waved as the door closed and continued to do so as it took off, watching Ruby wave out the window with a sad expression on her face.

He knew she didn't want to leave, but it really was for the best. It just wasn't fair on any of them to have to stay after what happened. They'd realise that soon. It hurt to leave somewhere you called home, but just like him leaving the tribe and coming to Beacon, they'd make new friends, new memories and new reasons to fall in love with Shade Academy. Home was where the heart was, and at least their team was sticking together.

"It really is painful to see them go." Glynda said. "And so much more painful to have to do this alone. I can't believe Ozpin. I've never questioned his judgment as much as I do now."

"I have questions of my own," Winter said, "But they can wait. We have work to deal with."

"Yeah." Qrow turned away and stuck his hands in his pockets. "So, your boss found out anything about when we'll come under attack?"

"No information, but we can make assumptions. It will be soon. Time is not on their side when General Ironwood can continuously reinforce Beacon. If I were in their shoes, I would attack as soon as humanly possible. Today, tonight or even tomorrow."

That soon? Well, he couldn't fault Winter's logic on this one. The Arc kid had never been one for wasting time, either. You'd weep at what your kid has become, Nicholas. Or maybe you'd blame yourself. Fucking Atlas. They really screwed the sheep on this one.

A sudden attack on the school wasn't even as stupid as it sounded with his Semblance. Every student relied on aura and their Semblances to fight, with armour being so out of fashion most people wore it as a fashion accessory more than for protection. Armoured skirts, singular pauldrons and armguards – useless shit that only existed to make you stand out.

"Is Ozpin even bothering to plan for this?"

"I'm sure he is," Glynda said, "But his plans are more with regard to defending his latest… acquisition. I don't think he's wilfully throwing lives away, he just… isn't thinking straight. He's distracted and seems to think everyone will just look after themselves. I've warned Peter and Bart," she said. "We've devised evacuation plans that will see the students corralled to a safe zone outside the school building. We can better defend them there."

"You've informed General Ironwood of this plan of yours, I assume," Winter said.

"I have. James agreed it was for the best as his battleship can keep watch over that area, preventing the enemy from approaching."

Winter nodded and let the matter go. It sounded more like a fire drill to Qrow than anything, but then the kids would be so damn useless that this was the best they could do. "That leaves us to challenge him, doesn't it? We're not much better than targets for him."

Heavy footfalls thudded in the grass. "You will not be fighting him, Branwen."

General James Ironwood marched forward with a steely gaze, taking in Qrow, Winter and Glynda with slow and measured nods. He looked up toward the departing aircraft, his thoughts a mystery. Closing his eyes, he nodded once at it and then spoke again.

"Null's Semblance makes any huntsman intervention a doomed exercise. Though we have ranged options, our primary skills are in melee – right within his sphere of influence. From what I've seen, he's only gotten better and better at using it, switching it on and off in a fraction of a second."

"He nearly killed Raven," Qrow said. "Raven!"

"Precisely. He also had a chance to kill Winter as well, though he forfeited it to face me." Ironwood's face became hard as rock. "There's no point putting more of us against him. I will face him instead, along with my soldiers."

Qrow whistled. He was impressed – he'd admit. He wasn't a coward at any time, but Arc scared him. How couldn't he with a Semblance like that? For a huntsman like him, nothing was more terrifying than the idea of all his years of hard work and experience being ripped away from him. Ironwood looked like he didn't share that fear.

"Is that wise? I mean, what will soldiers do…?"

"They won't cross into melee for a start."

Qrow snorted. "Good point."

"Arc is a perfect counter to huntsmen, but he is vulnerable to well-trained and led soldiers, as shown by Chivalric's efforts to use them against him. Every time he has attacked an armed force, he has done it with allies. Huntsmen-level allies. Their job is to engage the soldiers so that he can approach safely."

"You're saying he's helpless against them?"

"I'm saying he is vulnerable. There is a difference. If soldiers flank him on every side and maintain distance, he won't ever have a chance to use his Semblance. At that point, he's just a young man with limited training. That is the perfect time for a single huntsman to engage him. One who does not rely so heavily on aura or Semblances."

Qrow caught the drift. "You?"

"My cybernetics run on dust, which he can't influence. They can withstand bullets and my Semblance is purely non-combat related."

"Sir, with all due respect, this is a reckless decision-"

"I will not be facing him alone, Winter. My `soldiers` in this little exercise will be the Ace-Ops."

"I see." The Ice Queen relaxed quickly, standing firm. "I retract my objection. What of myself, sir? Shall I be accompanying you?"

"No. I need someone to lead the defence against whatever allies he brings, likely White Fang, potentially more. You are the best I have to lead, and your presence will likely bait the White Fang into attack anyway."

Winter saluted. "Yes sir. I won't let you down."

"Thank you. Qrow. A word?"

Curious, Qrow nodded and followed the man away a small distance, just to some nearby trees, but enough that they could talk privately and without being overheard.

"Qrow," he began. "I need to know where your loyalty lays at this moment."

"My loyalty? With Beacon, obviously…"

"That is fine. But is it with Ozpin? Or the school and its inhabitants?"

Ah. Qrow winced, sucking in a sharp breath. Straight to the heavy questions. Ones he hadn't figured the answer out to himself. "Let's say I'm undecided. I've lost a lot of faith in the old man. Don't get me wrong, I get what he's doing. I understand it. If that girl can kill Salem, it makes sense he does this. But… he was willing to throw my niece's life away. I can't accept that. Talk, tinman. I won't rat you out."

General Ironwood considered him for a long moment before nodding. "Any battle between Arc and I is bound to be a dangerous one, to say nothing of the allies he brings. Defending the school is going to be difficult with so little information on what I'm to expect. I need to have some certainties, or I can't plan for it. So far, there is only one thing I know for sure. He will be going straight for his sister."

"You plan to use Ozpin as bait…"

"I plan to let him reach his sister," Ironwood admitted. "Because that vault far beneath the school is the safest place to face him. It runs the least risk of his Semblance affecting anyone else." That was true. Qrow nodded. "I don't specifically intend to use Ozpin as bait," Ironwood went on, "But I expect he will rush to defend his new weapon once the attack begins."

So, he wasn't using Ozpin as bait but the sister, but they both knew Oz would be there – so it was the same thing in the end. Ironwood wanted to let Arc reach Ozpin. The better to know where he would be and to keep everyone else safe, he would throw Ozpin under the bus.

"He'll come back if he dies anyway," Qrow said, shrugging. "And that's assuming he can't kill Arc himself. Ozpin uses magic, doesn't he? He should be able to fight even if he's caught in Null."

"There is a chance Ozpin can defeat him, yes."

"Then what's the issue? Why act like I'd be against this?"

"It's not so much being for or against as it is me briefing you. I'm going to let Arc into the school. He's going to go unchallenged. I don't want you or anyone else panicking and rushing to intercept him."

Qrow made an understanding sound. "Right. Got you. And you can't have Oz finding out because he'll move Amber, and that'll send Arc into a freaking murder frenzy."

Ironwood inclined his head. "Precisely."

Which means he'll get the drop on Oz. Qrow ran a hand through his hair. Angry as he was – and he was livid – he still didn't want to let the old man die. Then again, it's not death. He'll get a new body. And maybe Beacon could do with a new head, someone who isn't going to ignore the kids like Ozpin did. Glynda could fill that role easily.

It should have been horrific to plot the death of a friend, but it wasn't, probably because they both knew it would have happened eventually anyway. "Alright. I'll keep quiet and make sure everyone is out the way. Is that all you need me for?"

"Sadly, it's not. I doubt Jaune knows where he can find his sister. We don't need him rampaging through the school." Ironwood looked apologetic, and Qrow's stomach was already flip-flopping. "Someone is going to have to approach him on peaceful terms and guide him to her."

"Why do I have a feeling that someone isn't going to be you…?"

"I have to prepare the ambush."

"Of course you do. Fuck." Qrow reached for his hip flask and took a long, necessary drink. "And now I'm regretting not climbing on that Bullhead with the girls and flying back to Patch."

Ironwood chuckled. "You still can, bird. I can ask someone else to do it."

"Oh sod off." He finished his drink off and wiped his mouth clean. "I'll do it. But I tell you now, if I die a gruesome death, I am haunting the ever loving crap out of you."

"Duly noted. I think you'll find him more co-operative than you expect, however. I'm confident he will follow you."


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