A/N: Still on vacation while writing this, internet isn't the best way out here. Do forgive any errors.

Angling for a double update today; this and "Misadventures in Mordor". Hopefully I can pull it off before I leave for the beach. If it gets a ton of reviews, I'd be amenable to updating it early again with the rest.

In other news, my health has been...better. Between back and breathing problems I'm feeling the pains of being old.

I still refuse to take those bloody muscle relaxers. Not a chance.

With my fifteen year anniversary on this site finally here, I find myself reflecting on the little things in life. What was once a lazy pastime meant for me and a few friends really grew and evolved over time. There are days when I look back on the last fifteen years here and I wonder if anyone will remember me; if I made an impact, despite never making a single cent on any of these stories. Some days were happier than others, and some stories I enjoyed writing WAY too much; to the point where I'd stay up all night working on them.

And of course, there are times when I look to the future and wonder what will become of things when I'm gone.

Of course, I try not to dwell on the latter overmuch; I'm still alive and still writing. In an ideal world, I'd like to keep doing so for as long as I can. But old age is catching up to me and these days, the world is filled with so much madness and death. Feels like everyone's lost their minds sometimes. Even before that, so many friends and fellow writers I once knew are gone, now. Will I still be here in twenty years? Ten? Five? Its a chilling thought. But for now, I'm still here, still writing.

No Q&A once again. Folks complained. Sorry about that.

So here we go. The fate of this story depends on you, the reader. Your feedback determines the fate of this tale, and many others.

I'm just a humble author trying to make his way in this wild world, one word at a time.

Time and feedback will determine if this remains a story. Simple as that.

There's also a reference/tribute to a VERY old movie in this chapter

If you know, you know! Someone recommended it to me...

...and well, it made a scene absolutely adorable.

I'll even drop a hint. Its the Naruto and Willow bit later in this chapter.

Now, lets see what everyone has been up to.

"Come to think of it, shortly after Winter was born, the boss surprised everyone. And it was a real shocker, lemme tell you~!

Ohhh? What's that? You wanna know, Neo? That's right, you weren't around for that particular bit, were you?

Well, I only know what I heard-alright, stop with the pout, I'll tell ya. So anyways, it went like this...

~Torcwhick (Future).

Silence is Golden

The logistics of raising a dragon were truly staggering.

It wouldn't have been possible without the vast resources of the SDC at his back, but thanks to Nicholas, Naruto effectively hard carte blanche to do as he pleased.

And he had to quite a bit to keep the newest citizen of Atlas content.

You see, it wasn't merely the matter of feeding such a beast-although that was also an obstacle-but keeping it housed, happy, and most importantly, warm. Easier said than done in a kingdom full of snow. One also had to keep the beast away from both prying eyes and those who would do it harm. The legends didn't exactly paint dragons in a favorable light to begin with, and this was a very LARGE dragon.

On the outside, caring for Syrax sounded like a logistical nightmare.

On the inside...

.

..

...well. That was another matter.

"Who's a good girl~?! You are~! Yes you aaare~!"

Syrax shoved her snout into his chest, trilling happily and lifted her head just so for him scratch the underside of her jaw. Naruto barked a laugh and did just that. Apparently dragons could be quiet affectionate once they warmed -ha!- up to someone. He'd seen her fed and taken care of for nearly a year and half now, and visited nearly every day. It stood to reason that he would be her favorite.

Cinder could give him a run for his money in that regard, but still, point to him.

"Right, that's enough of that." he gave her a pat just above the nostril. "C'mon, time for bed."

She made an annoyed noise

"No." he booped her on the snout. "We already went flying earlier. You need to rest."

With a low grumbled she rose on her mighty legs and lumbered into the corner of her abode. He couldn't help but note the nesting there.

Was she getting ready to lay eggs...?

"Don't get your hopes up. She could be making herself comfortable."

He hoped not. Syrax wanted for nothing; they'd housed her in a massive, well-lit cave heated by natural hot springs and furnished with massive generators to keep her warm. That and hoards of fish besides. High above, the ceiling held a massive mechanical hatch that could iris open at anytime to let her fly free. When closed, it acted as a well-shielded of dome to protect her from Grimm and other ne'er-do-wells. Nothing could hope to harm her in here, not even an Atlesian battleship. He had Watts' personal assurance on the matter.

Really, the man might be a robotics genius, but he could build damn good tech when he wanted to. If only everyone else could be so efficient. He'd need to check in on him and Alma tomorrow, thank them for their work...

Atlas imported most of its food from the other kingdoms on a good day; as of late most of those imports included meat. Lots of it. He expected Mistral and Vale would see a marked increase in the coming years That said, cleaning up after said dragon proved to be more boon than a bane. For all its outside troubles, he suspected Atlas would see fertilizer boom of its own.

Dragon manure was surprisingly potent; not only did it help crops grow at a ludicrous pace, but it had...other uses, things he was loathe to speak about.

They sold well enough regardless.

A shame none of those "uses" could get rid of the snow. Atlas just had too much of it and not enough in the way of settlements. Pietro had come up with the idea of exporting said snow and ice to the other kingdoms, even Menagerie, and while that netted them a tidy profit lien, it still didn't dismiss the problem at hand.

Solitas was the most barren continent next to Vacuo. At least the folk there were hardy enough to live on the lands.

Atlas...just has snow. That and freezing temperatures that could kill you in less than an hour.

How did they fix that?

Greenhouses? Teraforming? Burn away the snow with dragonfire and build atop the ground beneath? A crude idea, but it had merit. He'd need to talk to Arthur. He always had the best ideas. So many plans. So many ideas. Naruto Uzumaki never would've had the clout or the influence to make them happen. Naruto Schnee on the other hand...all of Remnant bowed to his wishes.

It still made him chuckle, sometimes. If his parents could see him now, they'd be gobsmacked.

There was some quiet irony there; in that he and Willow were still technically engage and not married. He had a ring picked out and the lines rehearsed in his head, he'd just...never gotten around to asking. They'd been so busy, first with the madness in Menagerie, then getting Syrax settled, Winter's birth, it never seemed the right moment.

He'd do it today, he decided. Once things were settled here, he'd go to Willow and pop the question.

Make it official, ya know?

One last check on Syrax confirmed she was resting comfortably. The guards at the entrance hadn't made a peep, either.

All was well, then. Syrax was the future of Atlas and if she laid eggs...

His mind ran away with the idea, conjuring a wild image of his descendants riding on dragonback, roasting hordes of Grimm and searing away the snow. They might even be able to expand Mantle as a whole. Wouldn't that be nice? He had plans for Mantle, big plans, schemes that would see it made the equal of Atlas once more. Perhaps even greater. After all, Atlas could hardly be expected to expand much further than it already had, given that it was a floating isle. Mantle, on the other hand...

But those plans hinged on their winged friend here.

Syrax liked him and Cinder. He wonder if the same could be said of the next brood.

Without warning, Syrax lifted her head in her corner. She warbled a warning.

In the same instant, Naruto's sixth sense twitched.

'Really? Now?! Of all times?!'

He followed her gaze and looked upward.

"Come on out. No use in hiding up there. She can smell you."

No movement. They'd hidden themselves very well indeed up there. Camouflage, perhaps? No matter.

Naruto whistled.

Syrax reared back and inhaled, flames flickering in her jaws.

A shadow detached itself from the ceiling and landed hastily behind him.

Naruto took them in at a glance. Slim fellow, clad mostly in black wearing a massive white mask to conceal their visage from him. He considered them for a long moment, idly noting the baton at their hip. Not Hazel, then. This one wasn't quite broad enough in the chest and at least a head shorter. Hazel didn't use weapons, either. The man didn't need them. Shame. He would have enjoyed capturing him again after what he and Jacques had nearly done to Willow all those years ago. Might've been fun to break every bone in his body. Slowly.

Still, this was what, the third intruder this month? Someone was getting reckless...or desperate. He wasn't sure which.

"Which one are you?" He tilted his head, considering them. "A spy from Vale? Mistral? Vacuo?" It was possible, he supposed. They'd been fending off espionage teams ever since the madness in Menagerie. People wanted to know what he was hiding out here. "I know you're not from the island. They'd never attack me after I pulled them out the fire. Ozpin isn't stupid enough to piss me off. Lionheart is a coward, and Vacuo doesn't give a damn about anything outside of Vacuo."

"..." No answer, of course.

Quite alright. He'd expected as much. Any spy worth their salt wouldn't speak.

"Which means you're probably one of hers." he tapped his chin, considering the man before him as one might a stain on their boot. "Am I really making your mistress that nervous?" he thumbed his chin and mustered the toothiest grin he could. "She can always meet me face to face, ya know. I don't bite...

A discontent noise. Seemed he'd struck a nerve.

"Aw," he cooed. "Struck a nerve, have I?"

They lunged at him.

"Sloppy!"

A click of the tongue and then he spun; a spinning kick caught their ribs, sending them tumbling to the cavern floor. They crumpled with a low wheeze and curled inward on themselves. He'd broken all their ribs on that side.

"Alright," he cracked his neck and loped their way. "Lets get this over with. I'm entirely too busy today; I can only spare a minute to deal with you. "Never should've come here."

He took a lazy swipe at them, only for his blow to meet a wall of golden sparks. It buckled beneath his fist, but it slowed him enough for his foe to skitter away. Curious semblance. Made his arm go numb. Electrical in nature perhaps? Something to study later.

"You know, its funny." he shook the tingles out of his arm and waded after them, inexorable. "Everyone always thinks they'll be the one to defeat me. But no one's escaped me yet. C'mon then. Lets get this over with."

They punched up at him in one last desperate attempt to stop him. He met them.

Their fist collided with his...and shattered.

Literally.

One punch at full strength was enough to blow their arm clean off at the wrist. Blood fountained forth and they screamed; an awful ghastly wail as they clutching their wrist and fell to their knees. Such a mess. You'd think they'd know better by no. Meeting him in a contest of pure strength was folly. Still there was always someone willing to try.

He tutted softly, thumbed a stray bit of scarlet from his cheek, then reached down with his metal arm to grab them by the throat.

"You never learn, do you." he sighed. "Who sent you this time...? Was it her? Or are you some common cutthroat?"

They clawed at his hand and kicked their legs, to no avail. "I'll...never...talk...!"

"Not to me, you won't." he shrugged a shoulder. "They rarely do.

"I, on the other hand," Kurama appeared behind him, towering over them both in all his golden majesty, "Am far more persuasive."

Golden claws closed around the assassin and began to squeeze.

"So let's have us a chat...friend."

The spy's screams intensified.


.0.0.0.


Raven took her tutelage seriously.

It was a matter of pride really; when Roman first asked, begged, really, to be her apprentice nearly two years ago, she'd made up her mind. If the little shit was determined to be her student -just as Sienna had become Tyrian's pupil- he would be a good one. No! Great! She wouldn't settle for anything less. He might not be of her tribe in the truest sense of the word, but he had fire, determination, and grit. She could respect that much. Any ward of Naruto's had spirit in spades.

And so she trained him. Beat him into the ground every other day, building him stronger.

Really, it almost felt like having a child; albeit she got to hand them back at the end of the day...

.

..

...tch. Almost made her want one a brat of her own, you know.

She kept dropping hints with Taiyang, but he was being so damn dense these days! That, or he simply wasn't interested in that sort of thing. She'd even tried locking him in a closet with her once, but he'd just smashed his way out. Things had been awkward between them every since.

At least Qrow had finally gotten lucky with that bunny girl of his. They'd probably have a little one on the way in a year or two. Summer...well, she knew who Summer favored. Not messing with that pecking order. If she wanted to try her luck and test her might, more power to her.

Which left her the odd bird out, as it were.

Naruto...no, no, no. Not going there. He'd made his stance very clear. Broaching that topic again was a one-way ticket to disaster. She'd need a lot more whiskey before she even considered confronting him again. Maybe some handcuffs-no, he'd probably snap those. Or worse. Use them on her.

Gods her face felt hot. Stop thinking about it!

Drawing herself up from her bed, she considered her scroll.

Half-past-seven. The little shit hadn't checked in. That wasn't like him. Roman was usually pretty punctual.

She knew he was nearby; she had a bond with him via her semblance. He ought be in Vale with Nicholas, cutting a dust deal with the old man. Perfectly safe.

So why hadn't he responded to her text...?

"Damn brat." She shook her head and pushed herself. "Making me work overtime...

Omen escaped its sheathe with a rasp of naked steel; a quick flick of her wrist conjured a portal, and from there Raven stepped through.

.

..

...and found him standing before a burning house, hat tugged down over his eyes, cane in hand. An ugly black bruise was blooming on his right cheek. He wouldn't look at her.

Nicholas sat beside him, shaking ash from his shoulders. He smelled of death. It made her shiver.

"Ah, there you are." the old Schnee looked up at her arrival, wearing a wry smile. "Would you mind cutting us a portal back to Atlas? We've run into a bit of a predicament here, and I'm afraid our scrolls were damaged in the fire."

Raven quirked a dark brow. "Looks like you had fun."

...it was an accident on my part." Nicholas tutted softly. "I underestimated Roman. He reacted...poorly to something."

Her pupil grunted once and didn't look away from the blaze. "...they got away."

Nicholas sighed. "So they did my boy, but it doesn't matter. Their lives are ruined now. There's nowhere they can go; whatever power they once had is shattered."

"They still have their lives!" He rounded on them, eyes wild, face framed by the fire. It lent him a malevolent, almost manic air. "We should hunt them down! Put their heads on a spike!"

The aging Schnee drew himself upright, clutching his side. "And whatever would your father say?"

Roman winced, his fury flickering beneath those words. "The boss would understand."

"Would he now? Arson can be explained away, but murder? I think not."

Raven's curiosity finally got the better of her. "Why's he so pissed off...?"

"Well, you see, we had a bit of a predicament...

Willow's father shifted just so, raising his cloak and allowing Raven to peer under his cape. He hadn't been clutching his side at all, but someone.

They were clutching to his right side for dear life. A little girl.

Raven blew out a breathy sigh. "What did you do?"


(.0.0.0.)


Naruto came home later that evening.

He found Cinder in the lounge perched on a recliner, rocking a weary Winter to sleep. His baby girl was barely awake at all, really, but clinging on with the stubborn tenacity of a child. They looked so peaceful together; he almost couldn't bear to disturb her. Rather than approach and risk waking her -little Winter always got energetic when he came home -he waited until she dozed off entirely.

Only then did he approach.

Cinder twitched. "I hear you."

He didn't bother to conceal his footsteps, pausing only to ruffle her hair. "Where's your mother?"

"Mama's resting in the sitting room upstairs." came the answering hum. "Winter was being fussy, so I gave her a break."

He couldn't help but smile tat that. :You're a good sister, Cinder. Winter couldn't ask for better.

She flushed but didn't deny him. "No one will hurt her. Ever. I won't let them."

Fierce, fiery, feisty child.

To think, there had been a time when she had been so deathly afraid of Winter's birth, of being replaced. Those days were long was going to be an overprotective sister. He just knew it. Not that there was anything wrong with that, of course. Winter would want for nothing. Naruto could understand Cinder's desire to protect Winter; to make sure she never lived the ugly childhood she did, never suffered as she had, never had to scrounge to survive as she was forced to. He understood it, really, he did. Downright empathized with it even. Being a proper big sister was all well and good, so long as she didn't take it too far. Hopefully she wouldn't.

"Roman's back, by the way." Cinder said suddenly apropos of nothing.

Naruto quirked a blond brow her way. "Is he, now?"

"He is."Cinder smiled that mysterious smile of hers whenever she thought she was being clever. "He brought you a gift."

There was something in her voice us tnow. "And what manner of gift is this?"

Naruto heard a door open. It was his only warning.

Then someone latched onto his leg.

Naruto looked down and blinked. He blinked so damn hard, he thought his eyes were going to bulge clear out of his head. When he'd sent Roman to Vale with Nicholas to discuss a dust deal, he'd anticipated many things. Better prices, an odd concession here and there, maybe even a decent haul. Yes, he'd expected many things. This was not one of them.

"And who are you?"

The little girl blinked up at him.

She said not a word. Not a whisper. Didn't make a sound.

Her hair was...pink. But also brown on the other side, with eyes to match. It looked like she'd tumbled off burning ice cream truck. There was soot on her cheek and her clothes were a mad mix of black and white, but also dirty. And was that the faint hint of ash he smelled? He tilted his head to regard her. She mimicked him. Matched him now, when he leaned the other way.

His lips pursed in a frown. "Who is this sassy lost child?"

He looked to Cinder for answers, only to find her scurrying up the steps to Winter's nursery, still rocking her sister. Traitor! He couldn't even call out to her for fear of waking his baby girl up.

"Okay, I'll bite." he looked back to the silent urchin, beginning to understand what Roman's so-called gift was. "Who are you and where did you come from?"

The girl touched a finger to her lips.

"Can you not understand me?"

She shook her head.

"So you can, then."

A nod.

"You understand what I'm saying." he said for clarification. "Am I right?"

Another nod. She gripped his knee tighter. He raised the limb, and balancing on the other foot, gave it a light shake. No dice. The new girl clung on like a demented spider monkey, grinning all the while. He looked at her for a long moment. She looked right back. For a moment he could've sworn he saw her lips move as she mouthed two words:

"New papa."

"New wha...?!" He chided himself for the slip a second later. No, no, heart be still. "Can I have my leg back? I need that to walk around."

She shook her head again. Sassy lost child indeed.

At his wits end, Naruto took the only recourse left to him. He reached down, plucked her up by the scruff of the neck and dangled her before his face as one might a naughty kitten. He expected more smug silence-only for her to surprise him again. This mute, nameless, wordless little girl tensed in his grasp, an awful flicker of fear flashing through her eyes. As though she expected violence.

"Boop." he bopped her on the nose. "Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you."

"Damnit, Neo!" Roman's voice hallooed somewhere near the kitchens. "I told you not to run off!" The boy himself came racing around the corner not a moment later, wasted and gasping for air. He took one look at them and his dirty face drained of what little color it had left. "I'm so sorry! I only took my eyes off her for a second, I swear! Bloody semblance...!"

Naruto dangled this "Neo" before him, brandishing her at Roman like a flail. "Who. Is. This?"

The would-be-criminal winced. "A friend...?"

"Is that your final answer." he scowled down at the boy. "Then why did she mouth the word papa at me?"

"Well, she can't speak so she kinda had to-

Naruto stomped, cracking the floor beneath his boot. Neo saw it and whistled. He let her go at the last; mercifully she didn't latch onto his leg again...for three seconds.

Naruto looked down and resigned his right limb to its fate.

"You said her name was Neo...

"Well, her name is Trivia technically," Roman supplied hastily. "Trivia Vanille, but we can't use that after the, ah..incident.

His brow furrowed. "What did you do?"

Roman tried to whistle. "Nothin'!"

"Roman!"

"Okaaaay," his adopted son made a show of tenting his fingers. "I'll tell you. But you can't be mad at me."

He was all of an isntant from spanking him. "What. Did you. Do?

Roman coughed into a fist. "I was minding my own business-

Five firm fingers descended in a stern chop straight to Roman's noggin. His words cut off with a startled squawk.

"Ow!" The young boy whined a little, rubbing his skull. "I waaaas, old man! Nicholas was tryin' to expand his contacts in Vale, strike better dust deals, you know? New money, old money, that sort of thing. So we met with this one family; they said they wanted to invest in the SDC and you know how gramps gets about that sort of thing...

He trailed off.

Neo clung on ever tighter.

"So we go to meet them, and the meeting was going well. Then this one," he jerked a thumb at Neo, did something that pissed him off. "Not sure what, but whatever it was it made her old man hit her. I took exception to that. And his existence."

"Tell me you didn't kill him."

"Nope." Roman smacked his lips audibly. "Didn't kill 'em...

Thank the sage for small mercies. That wasn't something he could explain away.

"...just burned down his house and stole all his lien! Also got Neo out of that shithole right quick."

Naruto found himself simultaneously proud and disappointed in the boy all at once. Such a strange feeling.

"And where is Nicholas now?"

"Spinning a cover story for the press." Roman answered promptly.

At least someone had their priorities straight. It would've been a pain breaking Roman out of the slammer.

"Well, its not as though we can send her back to Vale now." he looked to Trivia. "Do you have any other living relatives in the other kingdoms?"

She shook her head fiercely and clung tight to him.

"I told her she could stay with us." Roman put in.

Naruto rounded on him. "Did you, now?"

...yes?"

Try as he might, he couldn't fault the boy for being a good samaritan. He probably would've done the same in his shoes.

"Fine." he relented with a sigh, raising his voice to speak over the subsequent whoop of joy that followed. "She can stay here awhile until she gets back on her feet. But next time warn me before you pull a stung like that. I'm sure Willow was worried sick."

"Naw, she'll be cool with it."

"Cool with what now?" a voice called from the stairwell. "...?"

All three of them looked up.

Willow glided down the stairs, one arm resting against the railing. She looked tired, but awake enough to be up and about. Her piercing gaze swept over each of them in turn before finally fixating on Neo, who immediately let go of him to stare at her in return. Well, at least she listened to someone...

"Ah." a small smile bloomed across her face. "So this is the one Raven warned me about...

Raven?! She'd been here?! Damn sneaky birdie with her portals...

Neo looked to Willow with wide eyes. Then she held out her arms. Hopped once in place for good measure.

Roman coughed into a fist. "She wants a hug."

Naruto tutted. "And you speak Neo-ese, how, exactly?"

"No," his ward countered, "I'm damn good at reading body language."

Willow's face softened as they quarreled. In the end. She did far more than give the tiny girl a hug. In a single seamless movement the Winter Maiden swept down, dropped to a knee, and seized Neo, practically dragging the startled girl forward into her chest. Neo tensed in surprise but didn't fight. When it became clear Willo wasn't about to release her, she snuggled in happily, all but burying her face in ehr bosom.

Lucky little lass.

"Oh, please. You get to experience that heaven every other night. Let the kid have her moment."

Neo certainly looked like she was having one; she'd latched onto Willow even harder than him, and she didn't look keen on letting go anytime soon. Her shoulders quivered once, but she didn't cry. She lacked the sound for it, if not the tears.

"There, there, little one." Willow cooed. "The past is in the past. You're safe here, you have my word. The Schness keep their promises...and pay their debts." This she said with a brief look his way. "Don't we, dear?"

Another one? Where they honestly contemplating adopting another runt this late in the game?

Neo turned teary eyes on him.

Urk.

His resolved folded like a house of cards. "...she can stay."

Roman slammed a fist into the air. "Yes! Victory!"

Willow was the one to release her first. Roman.

The redhead stiffened. "Yeah?"

"That makes her your responsibility. See to it that this girl gets a bath and a proper change of clothes." she considered her hair a moment longer. I'm told you're skilled with illusions. Have you given thought to disguising yourself...?" She was still speaking when Neo's long locks shimmered into white, those mismatching eyes becoming a wintry blue. "Well! she cooed. "That certainly works!"

Naruto whistled. "Neat trick. Its certainly striking."

The disguise lasted as long as the girl's concentration, then faltered.

"You can work on it later." Wllow shooed them away. "Off you go, now. I need to have a word with your father."

The children didn't need to be told twice; they all but scampered up the steps.

Willow stared at him for a long moment, then shook her head. "I swear, if Cinder and Sienna adopt a pack of misfits in the future, I'm blaming you."

He almost laughed at her words. "That...is strangely specific."

"I mean it. We're going to be overrun at this rate." Laughing, she took him by the hand and led him away from the commotion upstairs. "Speaking of which, where is our resident kitten?

Now it was his turn to smile. "Probably out with Tyrian in the yard. She likes to train at night."

A distant explosion echoed from said yard, peppered by the spray of gunfire.

"Of course she does."

Willow guided him down to one of the longer couches by the hearth. The moment he sat, she snuggled up next to him. He laid an arm around her shoulder and she cuddled closer still, laying her head on his shoulder. It felt good. Right. Like he'd found his other half. A moment of blissful silence followed, broken only by the pitter-patter of feet and the occasional yelp from upstairs.

His fiance piped up without warning, pivoting to sit in his lap. "Now that the children are busy, I was hoping we could talk.

In that instant, he was keenly aware of the ring in his pocket. Was this it? Was this his moment?

Naruto feigned indifference and closed his eyes with a shrug. "Fine by me."

Talk she did.

Naruto was neither fine nor happy by the end of it. So much for shut-eye. "You want the kids to attend an academy?!

"Shhh!" Willow shushed him frantically, one hand over his mouth. "Not so loud!" He bit her fingers and she recoiled with a growl. "Nice try, but you're not distracting me from this. Cinder and the others are getting older, dear. They're still too young to attend a proper school for now, but they need a place to burn off all that excess energy. And besides, wouldn't it be nice to have some time to ourselves? Winter will be taking up enough of our time as it is. She tried to walk today, you know...

His heart twitched. He'd nearly missed her first steps...?

It WAS tempting, but he didn't like the idea of just sending them off against their will. "It has to be their choice. I won't force them to do something they don't want to.

"You won't have to." She patted his cheek. "I heard Cinder muttering something about team names before you came home."

He very nearly smiled despite himself. "She certainly doesn't lack for ambition or energy."

"No, she does not." Willow agreed wholheartedly. "She even said something about forming a team of her own. Team CRSN I believe it was.

Which implied she'd known Neo -the N in that little formation- was on her way. Sneaky, sneaky girl.

"Thought she didn't want to be a huntress."

"She doesn't." Willow reassured him. "But she's not above a bit of training or forming her own unit. Tyrian's also been offered a teaching position at Atlas next year.

"He has?" Professor Tyrian had a ludicrous ring to it. "He'll probably turn it down.

"Not if you say otherwise."

"Willow, no. Think of his poor students."

He'd probably try to convince Atlas to worship him. Half did already!

"Willow, yes!" she gripped his hands in her own, diverting his attention once more. "The man may be mad, but he's one of the best fighters this side of Remnant. Think of what he could impart to others, the skills he could teach. And besides, aren't you on better terms with James these days?"

He shrugged a shoulder. "James can be a bit reckless, but I like that. He sees a threat and he goes after it. No plotting or scheming."

"From one knucklehead to another, eh? You like him."

"More than I do Ozpin...

The old coot had been sniffing around Atlas of late, trying to sound him out for a favor of some sort. Whatever it was, he wasn't interested in that. He had a life here; no time to go haring off on missions or requests. The madness in Menagerie had been bad enough. The last thing he wanted was to run around playing peacekeeper four the other nations.

Willow saw the look in his eyes and heaved a fresh sigh. "You don't trust anyone you haven't fought these days."

"Its the best way to get the measure of someone."

"Hmm." She laid a hand on his chest, fingers trailing over his jacket, eyes half-lidded. "So you must know me very well."

"More than you think."

She kissed him deeply and strengthened such thoughts. His hands tightened around her waist, gripping her rear.

"Now who's distracting whom?"

Willow began to unbutton her blouse. "I'm not hearing a no in there...

"I'll think about it, alright?" He groused a little as she exclaimed happily and delivered a swift peck to his cheek. "Can we stop talking about the kids for a few minutes?"

"Happily~! Isn't this nice?" she laughed between kisses. "Romance doesn't always have to be, well...romantic." she waved a hand, flailing for the words. "You don't need sunsets or snow. It can really be...something, you know?"

This was it. The mood was right.

"You're right." he steeled himself. "I've been meaning to ask you something."

She laughed and slapped his chest. "Is this where you finally ask me to marry you properly?"

...damnit.

His silence must've spoken for itself, because her eyes widened. He'd surprised her; she'd not expected this, not from him. They'd been engaged for so long now in principle if not practice, and neither had felt the need to take that next step. He'd always thought it would be her; she'd certainly become bold enough.

Willow's mind fizzled.

"Oh gods." Both hands flew to her mouth. "Is this where you marry me?"

Naruto blew out an aggravated sigh. "Well I'm not going to ask you now; you've spoiled the moment. I'll have to pick another."

Her forehead smashed against his, eyes blazing blue maiden fire. "Is it will you marry me?!

"Willow, the moment-

"No, no, no! Wait, wait, wait!" she all but leaped off his lap and surged to her feet, took several deep breaths, clutching at her chest, face flushed. "I...just wait, please. Start again!"

He nearly laughed despite himself. "You can't just-

"Again! I'v waited years to hear you say this!" She stomped a foot. "START AGAIN!" When he didn't answer, her poor face turned positively pink. "We just sat down, had a perfectly lovely moment, and you say, I've got a question to ask you. And I don't say anything. And you say...?

It wasn't the moment he'd hoped for...but it would do. Looking at her now, listening to her lively spirit, he remembered why he'd fallen for her in the first place.

Right.

Okay, then.

He could do this...couldn't he?

He'd fought down demons and disasters; surely a little proposal couldn't be so hard. Blast it all, just move! He forced himself to stand before he lost his nerve. Just as quickly he dipped a hand into his pocket and got down on one knee. Willow made a noise caught somewhere between a happy sob and a squeal.

"Willow Schnee," he forced himself to swallow lest the words get stuck in his throat. "You've made the happiest man alive, ya know. Will you marry meeeeeeeack?!"

His words trailed off into a strangled laugh She jumped him, all but welding her lips to his as she drove him to the floor. There was a high, wild light in her eyes as she leaned back. He thought she might mount him then and there, tear his clothes off and have her way with him all night.

"Yes," she purred between kisses. "I'm yours. Always. Now and forever." Abruptly she paused. "Gods be good. I nearly forgot...

Naruto blinked hopelessly. "Forgot what now?"

"Come with me!" She bolted upright, grabbed grabbed his hand and all but dragged him from the room, hauling him across the hall to another door. "Hurry!"

She paused before it, took a moment to make herself presentable, then pushed the door open with her free hand and ushered him inside.

Dragged in after her, Naruto didn't realize Willow's intentions until it was too late.

"Hey..." Summer Rose waited them within, sitting on the bed.

Naruto stiffened. "Wha-

"I asked her here." the Schnee nudged him forward before he could think to flee. "I thought it high time we had a talk. Just the three of us."

Naruto tilted his head. "About...?

"You know what."

He had an inkling now, come to think of it, but that was...absurd, wasn't it? "I swear if you have Raven and Kali hiding under that bed...

"Please!" Willow hid a giggle behind one hand. "It was difficult enough convincing Summer to even have this conversation. I haven't even begun to work on those two. Frankly, I'm not sure I want to. They're not my best friend. She is."

"She's after my arm, not me!" A poignant pause followed as Summer flushed. "...isn't she?

Summer buried her face in her hands and spouted gibberish.

Oh. Oh, dear.

"I'm not asking you to marry her." his wife-to-be smiled impishly. "That would be a little ridiculous, don't you think? Even for you."

Summer groaned into her palms. "Willow, why...

"One night." the Schnee matriarch held up a finger. "That's all she wants. It doesn't even have to be tonight. She wants get it out of her system, and maybe, just maybe...

Naruto knew what she was implying. How could he not? Even he wasn't that dense. His face went red, and for a wild moment, he imagined a tiny silver-eyed warrior grinning up at him with whiskered cheeks, the spitting image of him and Summer. A pure, innocent little life, full of hope and bravery. He could even imagine a name for her. Ruby. He could feel his ears burning a deep, embarrassed pink. Summer might not be a maiden, but she was a dear friend, even if she drove him up the wall sometimes. But to give her a child...

"I can't believe I'm even considering this...

Summer laid a hand on his.

Their eyes met.

A/N: Timeskip next chapter~!

Orrr we can stay in the moment awhile longer. Perhaps the best of both worlds? Your choice. Do let me know.

As ever the Embers rule persists, reviews are my fuel, my fire, my life. Without them, I lose all inspiration, all hope, all ability to write. That's no joke. I have so little time to write these days with two jobs, and silence hurts. So by all means, speak up! Make yourselves heard! Every bit of feedback, no matter how small or large, matters! Really, it helps a lot. Its a joy to talk with you all and bandy ideas back and forth; it really is. Sorry if this seems shorter than usual, working on a tight schedule here.

Reviews are the fuel that keeps me writing. That's no joke. I really am sorry that the chapters are shorter these days, and the updates slower, but I'm trying my best. Silence hurts more than any flame...without feedback, I can't write a single world. Seriously! So speak up! Every word -and every review!- really does matter!

So in the Immortal Words of Atlas... ...Review, Would You Kindly?

Here, have some previews. Lemme know what you think!

And as ever: Possible spoilers! Seriously!

Mostly the same previews here.

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

SPOILERS AWAIT AHEAD!

YOU WERE WARNED~!

(Previews)

"Report."

A single word was all she needed.

Salem appreciated simplicity. No need for complex commands here.

They've fortified their position remarkably quickly. Atlas is nigh-on-impregnable now. To attack from the outside, even with all our Grimm, would be beyond foolish."

"And...?"

"My queen, an empire toppled by its enemies can rise again." a finger tapped the table, further emphasizing his point. "But one which crumbles from within? That's dead...forever."

Dark red eyes considered him for a long moment. "What do you propose, Merlot?

"That we destroy the Schnee from within."

Hazel rumbled his agreement.

She looked to the remaining seats, and the silent figures within. "And what say you two...?

"Again."

Winter climbed to her feet. Cinder waited her, golden eyes shining with flame. Roman knelt to retrieve his hat, dusted it off, and brandished his cane at her.

"Pick up your sword. We're not done yet, little sister...


"What's gotten into you, Winter?"

She wouldn't look at him. She mustn't. She refused.

"I heard what you said to mother." Father arched an eyebrow at her, and in the absence of his words, child though she was, she found the strength to continue. "You think I'm weak because I'm not like you and mother, like Cinder and Sienna, or even Roman." she stomped a foot and looked down, unwilling to meet his eyes. "I know I was never what you wanted, but I thought after all this time, maybe things were different.

His stoic gaze drilled into her. "When did you get the impression I didn't want you? You don't know everything kiddo...

"No, she sniffled, "but at least now I know the truth.

"The truth, eh?" he thumbed his chin. "Alright." a quick shove pushed his chair out from behind his desk. "You want the truth? C'mere." A metal hand patted his knee. "I'd wanted to wait another three years, but I suppose now's as good a time as any."

Her legs betrayed her and she found herself climbing into his lap. At the end of the day he was still her father and she was only five.

She tilted her head up to get a better look at him. As such she saw the moment his sapphire eyes snapped into scarlet.

Winter gasped despite her best efforts. "What did you do?! Is that a semblance or...?

"Nope. I'm a jinchuuriki, girl." she watched golden light dance across his face as he spoke, burning bright. "From another world, far from here. When I first met your mother I chose to be who I am now. To be more than a fight, but a leader as well. But the truth is, I'm far from perfect." he held up his false arm from her to see. "I killed my best friend. It wasn't something I wanted to do-that's how I got this arm. Even after that, I destroyed many who were deserving...and many who were not."

"That still doesn't explain why you think I'm weak-

"You think you're weak, Winter? No, no, no." he shook his head, setting his pale hair swaying. "You're strong; the only other person on this planet with chakra besides me. Hell, you're probably going to be even stronger than me, once you grow up. Which is why you must be BETTER. I didn't want to tell you any of this until you were ready."

"Why not tell me all this before?"

"Because it could go to your head. Because strength without experience can create a lifetime of tragedy if you're not careful. I also wanted you to have a normal childhood."

She scowled at him. "How is anything about my life even remotely normal?"

He granted her a small smile.

"Fair enough...


Winter wasn't cut out to be a big sister. Truly, she felt she wasn't. She'd been born broken. She only knew how to fight and kill. That was why she seldom spoke. Why she shunned others.

It was precisely why she was hesitating now, as the mewls of a newborn infant filled the hospital room.

"Oh, stop that. Come here and hold your baby sister. Weiss won't bite."


"Ah, sweet training! What fun, what fun!"

"Don't break them, Tyrian...


Qrow was really starting to hate Mistral.

Bad enough that they had their crime syndicates, but this drug...no one had paid attention to it for the longest time. They'd known about it, even seen hints down in Menagerie, but this...

A drug that boosted semblances. Sounded great on paper, right?

It wasn't.

Using the damn thing killed you eventually. Semblances were meant to grow and evolve naturally. This...whatever it was, forced that evolution.

"Well, shit. Oz ain't gonna like this...


"We still haven't tracked down that semblance booster yet?

Evidently its cropped up in Mistral now.

"Lovely."


...you have no idea what you've unleashed. There are things far worse than death.


"I do not take sass from insects.

Insect?! I'm the strongest Hunteress in a generation!

A beetle is still an insect, no matter how loud it might scream.


"Naruto, stop! This isn't you! This isn't who you want to be! They need to face justice!

Rationally, yes. But he wasn't feeling very rational right now.

"They came for my family. This is justice."

He squeezed their neck harder.

CRACK.

R&R~!