A/N: And here we are. I really enjoyed this entire chapter. Got stuck in a couple of parts, but now that it's all said and done? Each scene is something I am quite proud of. I won't spend anymore time talking up here. Big A/N will be at the end.

Enjoy, and thank you for taking this ride with me.

Salem was having a bad day.

A very bad day.

Everything started off so well, too. She had the latest (perhaps the last) Silver Eyed Warrior in her possession. She also had Ozpin, which was the perfect way to gloat about her victory over him in their endless war. She had Merlot providing her with super soldiers. She had Atlas's trust in ADVENT. She had Remnant's trust in ADVENT.

And then the brat escaped with Ozpin, XCOM started a riot in Atlas, and her mad scientist (that was supposed to be safe in his secret laboratory) was now dead. Worse, her little maiden vessel just had to go and get herself maimed while playing hero in the riot, thereby jeopardizing one of Salem's most important plans that she had carefully enacted. She would be having words with her Fall (and now Winter) Maiden once Cinder healed enough to regain consciousness. Failure of this magnitude was not something that could be forgiven with a mere apology.

The PR nightmare alone was going to require an infuriating amount of finesse to handle.

Salem strode down the shadowy hallways of her castle, ignoring all of the servants and thralls that respectfully stood at attention as she passed. She was half-tempted to murder one or two of them just to vent her frustration, but Salem had already suffered enough setbacks for one day. Watching them cower slightly as she swept her gaze across them would have to suffice.

"I know," she said, sensing the presence of her brothers as their shadows materialized alongside her. "We will recover from this. We have worked far too hard and for far too long to fail now."

The spirits seemed to be satisfied with her answer (or perhaps the conviction behind her words), and Salem felt them disappear. Good. It would have been annoying if they chose to hover over her while she spoke with her subordinates. She stepped through the next door and saw that young street rat hovering over Cinder's bed. Perhaps her mentee was right in choosing someone like her to cultivate. That level of devotion was undoubtedly easy to exploit.

The girl (Emerald, if Salem wasn't mistaken) looked up at the sound of someone approaching and immediately dropped into a respectful bow.

"Lady Salem," she said.

Salem waved her hand dismissively and asked, "What of our Maiden, child?"

"She's woken up twice now," Emerald answered. "She's been asleep for… three hours at the moment. Probably won't wake up again for some time. Whenever she's awake, she's incredibly weak."

"That tends to happen when you allow yourself to get shot in the neck," Salem answered.

She noticed, with slight amusement, that Emerald bristled at the idea that Cinder had let this happen, though the girl dared not say as much to Salem's face. Even so, actions have consequences, and even something as slight as a loss of control over one's facial expressions could have dire consequences in the wrong situation.

Salem raised an eyebrow. "Do you disagree, child?"

Emerald's eyes grew wide as she realized what she'd done. "N-no! Of course not!"

"But you don't think it's fair to claim that Cinder brought this upon herself…?" Salem pressed.

"I-I…" Emerald hesitated, but when Salem made no move to drop the subject, she realized she had no choice but to explain herself. "I know that everything Cinder does is in your best interest. She was in the slums to maintain order so that ADVENT doesn't look weak in the face of adversity, and so it can continue being the face of security and safety across Remnant. That trust is important for our goals."


"And getting caught by surprise, subdued, and shot in the throat achieves that goal…?"

Emerald looked away.

"I don't think that was part of the plan, Lady Salem."

"Of course it wasn't," Salem answered, rolling her eyes. "It was the product of our Cinder getting careless. And it comes at a heavy cost to our plan. The only thing that saved us from a worse situation was my decision to withdraw your friend from Vale after the two of you finished your project with the journalist and have him investigate the activity in the slums."

The girl looked confused.

"Mercury?" She asked.

Salem nodded. "Yes. Cinder would have looked like an utter fool in front of the Winter Maiden if it weren't for Mercury taking the shot and making it look like one of those slummers tried to assassinate her. It also gave Cinder the excuse she needed to attack and extract the Maiden powers from that wretch."

The one good thing to come from that whole mess, quite honestly.

"I didn't realize that Mercury… he knows how to shoot like that?"

"He's an assassin, girl," Salem said, examining Cinder's wounds while she spoke. "Why does this confuse you?"

"It just… well, I guess I never really saw him like that," Emerald admitted. "I just know him as the guy who kicks things."

Salem noted her medics had done an admirable job of patching up the wound, but they could only do so much. As much as it pained Salem to admit it, her face of ADVENT would be out of commission for quite some time. She would need to make heavier use of her other agents to make up for it.

"You might want to better acquaint yourself with the abilities of your allies, girl. Especially if you want to succeed in life."

Salem snapped her fingers, and her attending Seer floated over.

"Connect me with Watts," she said. "There is much to be done to fix this mess."

First would be Watts in Vale. Then Hazel in Mistral. Atlas would need some time to settle after all of this, but perhaps…? Yes, Vacuo could use a touch of chaos. To remind the people that they need to rely on ADVENT to protect them.

This day had been an utter disaster, but at least Salem had ways to push on and recover. And she could take comfort in the fact that, since Cinder was able to extract the powers of the Winter Maiden before being shot, the previous maiden was almost certainly dead.

Two down, two to go.

"How's Blanche?"

Bradford looked to his left to see MacAuley following him in lockstep as they strode towards the Avenger's assembly hall.

"Alive," Bradford answered. "For now."

"I hear we didn't transfer her to the ship. Is that true?" MacAuley asked.

The Central Officer nodded. "We were able to confirm that the Downside had enough supplies and medical knowledge to stabilize her. Vahlen offered remote assistance with Lieutenant Kelly's help during the critical part. Now that she's not in immediate danger of dying…"

"No point in taking away the one thing that's uniting the slummers," Mac agreed. "Plus, we'd look like real assholes if we rolled up, used them as bait, and then fucked off with their maiden."

That was certainly one way to put it.

"Speaking of Kelly, though, are we really leaving her behind?"

"Along with Odei, yes," Bradford said, continuing down another empty hall with MacAuley. It looked like everyone else had already left for the assembly while Bradford was wrapping up his communication with Odei. "It was the Lieutenant's idea, actually. Even though our job in the Downside is technically done, we need to keep all of the popular support we've gained. That means showing the slummers that we won't simply move on and leave them to clean up the mess that we helped make."

Down a flight of stairs and along the next hall.

"Kelly's been working with them for a while," Mac agreed. "Sucks to lose a good soldier, but she's definitely the best choice to stay behind with Odei."

"No question about it."

With nothing more to say on the subject, they walked in silence. Bradford didn't need to ask him, 'How are you holding up?' He'd either get some meaningless platitude like, 'Hanging in there,' or, 'Doing my best,' or Mac would be honest and tell him that he wasn't doing alright. Bradford was there on the flight deck when the last Bullhead carrying Strike Five returned. He would never forget how haunted the Irishman looked when he stepped off of the aircraft.

Not that it came as a surprise to Bradford. Beags and Mac had been close friends for a long time, even before MacAuley made the choice to change roles from a base Engineer to an active-duty operative. Though their pranks may have been the source of many headaches for Bradford, he could not deny the infectious positivity that spread from their antics among the rest of XCOM. A lot of bonds had formed among operatives within the organization, but it could be argued that none were stronger than the one between Captain Beagle and Master Sergeant MacAuley.

And now half of that bond was gone.

Bradford didn't know how long it would take for Mac to recover, or even if he would, but he took a small amount of comfort in seeing the Irishman make the choice to pick up his friend's mantle as Bradford's adjutant. Bradford hadn't asked, though he was considering it at the time. But shortly after Strike Five had returned, Bradford had found a decoded communication from the Downside on his desk. It wasn't a priority, so he left it for after the more immediate fires had been dealt with. An hour later, MacAuley had reminded him about the comm that needed an answer. He also informed Bradford a few minutes later that the Archon was requesting a meeting with him before the day was out. It took until Mac had outlined for Bradford five other scheduling requests (in order of priority) before he realized exactly what the Master Sergeant was doing.

Bradford wasn't sure if it was Mac's way of honoring Beagle, or simply a means to keep his mind focused on something productive. Either way, Bradford wasn't going to ask, and he didn't have any intention of telling MacAuley to stop.

"You know what you're gonna say, boss?" MacAuley asked.

"More or less." Bradford cast a sideways glance at Mac and added, "Do you have anything you want to say? Of all the people that Beags would want to speak for him…"


The speed with which MacAuley answered took Bradford by surprise. It must have shown on his face, because his adjutant sighed and explained, "You know I won't be able to hold myself together. I'd start saying something, then I'd try to crack a joke and my mind would wander to…" He shook his head. "You get the idea."

Bradford nodded. "I do."

They arrived at the assembly hall moments later. As Bradford had guessed, everybody was there. He'd ordered the Avenger to be grounded so that the essential crew for the ship's operation could be in attendance. Gidjit and two Reaper teams were the only ones not present, as they were on security detail while everyone else gathered to pay their respects for the departed.

The crowd split as Bradford stepped forward, and he caught sight of faces both familiar and foreign when he scanned the crowd. The Atlesian operatives that XCOM had rescued, and who Vahlen and Tygan had worked tirelessly to disinfect, were standing towards the back. It didn't escape Bradford's notice that the Reapers in attendance were keeping an eye on them. Several of the Downsiders who had extracted with XCOM's huntsmen teams were intermingled with operatives and Valean natives who had joined up back in Patch. A small group was sticking particularly close to Ilia, almost as if they were an honor guard of some sort for the young woman.

REMCOM's base personnel was also present. The wounded had recovered enough for the medical staff to bring them out for the memorial, whether they were on crutches, in wheelchairs, or propped up on gurneys. One patient in particular caught his eye: Annette, resting in her mobile bed while Vahlen and Tygan stood next to her. Bradford also saw Dr. Shen standing with his daughter, cradling one of her hands in both of his. He saw the familiar expressions of sorrow and acceptance arrayed on his friend's face. Lily, by comparison, was much more shaken. While her father had endured enough of these memorials to last several lifetimes, Lily could still count hers on one hand.

And in front stood Strike Five, along with Blake, Weiss, and Yang.

Bradford locked eyes with Blake. It was the first time he'd seen her since the debrief for Gatecrasher. Even then, she'd stuck to the back and only spoke when absolutely necessary. He knew she wasn't psionic like Ruby, and he knew that he didn't have the ability to convey complex thoughts with a mere look. But just this once, as he saw Sabretooth's ears flatten and her eyes instinctively trying to avoid his, he hoped the expression on his face told Blake the one thing he desperately wanted her to understand.

It's not your fault.

He saw Yang reach out, grab Blake by the hand, and give her a comforting squeeze. Good. He'd have a talk with her later, but at least she had somebody offering her stability in the meantime. He was about to walk past them and head up to the podium at the front when he heard a small voice speak from his right.

"… Sir."

Bradford stopped at the sound of Blake calling to him. She still struggled to look him in the eye, but she found the courage to hold out her hand and offer its contents to Bradford. In her palm lay a set of dog tags, and the Central Officer easily picked out the name "John Teasdale" stamped into the metal.

"Thank you, Master Sergeant," Bradford said, taking the tags.

He wanted to say something else, anything to offer her words of comfort… but for once, words failed him. The tags felt heavy in his hand, heavier than he remembered them being from memorials past. He could only imagine how crushing they must have felt for Blake. After a lifetime of running away from her problems, and after learning from XCOM to stand her ground, Beagle had given her the order to leave him behind. His eye caught Yang's, and the huntress gave him a near-imperceptible nod.

Rather than stand there awkwardly while trying to find the right words, Bradford moved up to the podium and looked out at the sea of faces arrayed before him. MacAuley had joined the rest of Strike Five in the front, and he nodded slightly at Bradford when they caught each other's eye.

Alright. Here we go.

"Thank you all for being here," Bradford began. He was glad that the podium had a mic to carry his voice, because he didn't really feel like projecting it himself right now. "We teach every member of our Officer Corps the motto Fortiores Una, or 'Stronger Together.' Times like this are when that wisdom is more important than ever."

Nobody said a word. Nobody made a noise. All eyes were respectfully on Bradford as the assembly waited for him to continue.

"I'd like to start by informing you that Operations Gatecrasher and Warsaw were a success. We neutralized Merlot, recovered critical data from his lab, and used it to assist the men and women of Atlas who were infected with his heinous work." He nodded at the soldiers in the back, several of whom bowed gratefully at the acknowledgement.

"We also inspired courage in the people of the Downside, helped give them hope even as ADVENT pushed them to the edge. And when the time came to push back against Cinder's regime, we were there to help make sure it wasn't a massacre. With our help, ADVENT was pushed out of the slums, going even as far as issuing a public statement that they would be staying away for at least a few days to let hostilities calm down and to assess the situation before determining how to proceed. ADVENT is in a panic, because they know how poorly their overreaction during the riot will reflect on their organization when video and audio starts to trickle out to the world at large. And it will come out.

"I wanted to start with these facts," Bradford continued, "Because while we objectively succeeded in achieving our goals, it doesn't feel much like a victory for many of us. XCOM's losses in the Downside were minimal, but only because the citizens themselves were all-too-willing to pay the blood price for their freedom. And even then, we lost Hogarth: One of the most courageous men I've had the honor of working with. The one silver lining that I can confirm is that Hogarth's last act of heroism was not in vain. Blanche still lives, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that does not change.

"Our losses were heavier with Gatecrasher. DJ, Sledge, and Padre from Strike Three. Richter from Strike Four. Romeo and Slim from Strike Five…" Bradford closed his eyes, then finished, "… and Beagle."

Where before the silence in the room was respectful and patient, now it felt thick. Almost suffocating. Memories of all the lost operatives flashed through Bradford's mind in rapid succession. But the loudest and brightest were, of course, those of Captain Beagle.

"These men and women, just like all XCOM operatives, stepped off of the Avenger's flight deck knowing that they might never see it again. And yet they stepped off anyway. I don't need to tell you why. You all know the answer. It doesn't make it hurt any less when we lose another good soul to the machinations of evil. But it doesn't deter us from our purpose, either."

Bradford looked down at the podium. Eight names stared back at him. He'd be making a trip to the Memorial Wall after this to put up the new names. He'd gotten better at controlling his emotions during these things, but it never became any easier. Especially when there were so many at once.

"We do what we must, because we must," he continued. "I'm sure many of you have heard that said by our more veteran members of XCOM. But it's true. We have a job to do, and the world is counting on us to do it. The fallen are counting on us to finish what they helped us start. To search for comfort in their sacrifice, and find the strength and determination to push forward. For them. For Remnant."

Time to bring it home.

"Many of you have not had the pleasure to meet XCOM's Field Commander Peter van Doorn, but he always felt it was best to end these on a high note by honoring the fallen with stories of how they lived and how they affected us with their energy and spirit. To that end, I'm certain that nobody here would object to spending the evening with drinks as we relive the lives of those no longer with us. For those of you who are new to XCOM, the veterans will be more than happy to give you a glimpse into the colorful history of the lost.

"Thank you for your time," Bradford finished.

One of XCOM's first orders of business after acquiring the Avenger had been to modify it from Atlas's standards to better suit the organization's tastes. For example, Atlas seemed to really love their military pomp and circumstance, as evidenced by what appeared to be the three parade grounds on various floors of the ship. Obviously, XCOM had little need for such excess. One such assembly hall was kept intact, the second was converted into a supplementary fitness and training room, and the third? Well, the airship's original rec room was a paltry twenty feet by thirty. XCOM needed something a little more accommodating than that.

In true XCOM form, the recreational hall aboard the Avenger was loud with the sounds of laughter, clinking glasses, and music. It took the Remnant locals only a little while to adjust to the tonal whiplash between Bradford's somber service and the following jovial mood of the operatives. Not entirely surprising, given that they lived in a world where negative emotions summoned monsters from the darkness. Celebrating the lives of the departed was probably the easiest way to avert the risk of accidentally summoning a Grimm horde.

Large tables had been set out throughout the hall, all filled with a mixture of XCOM operatives, Remnant huntsmen, Valean recruits, Reaper scouts, and Atlesian soldiers. A makeshift wet bar had been assembled off to one side of the room, with an assortment of drinks available, alcoholic and otherwise. The lighting in the room was bright enough to provide an energetic atmosphere without being gaudy or distracting. Various members of XCOM's "old guard" were scattered among the tables, regaling their Remnan allies with tales of the fallen, and even teaching a new thing or two to the younger Terran members of XCOM.

Everyone was engaged, that is, except for MacAuley. The man had been working almost non-stop since the operation. First helping Bradford handle administrative work, then orchestrating the setup of the rec room for the remembrance, and finally scouring the Avenger for every last bottle of alcohol he could scare up for the wet bar. He talked with nobody unless it was related to his immediate business, he cracked no jokes and made no snarky comments while he worked, and he never gave himself a moment to breathe. Now that the evening was in full swing and there was nothing left to do, though? MacAuley found a small table (perhaps one that he'd grabbed himself for this specific purpose) off to one corner of the room and sat there with a large glass of what had to be the darkest beer XCOM had yet to find on Remnant.

None of the other operatives tried to invite him to join them at the tables. Conor MacAuley was usually the center of attention, the life of the party. If he was making a point of hiding in the corner for this thing, it was because he didn't feel like talking. Everyone seemed to possess enough tact to recognize that.

Well that won't stop me, Jaune Arc thought to himself as he approached MacAuley, My idea of tact is throwing up on a girl's shoes right when I meet her.

He caught Mac rolling his eyes when he noticed Jaune making his way over. However, the Irishman made no move to leave, which Jaune took as a good sign.

"Why aren't you with Ares?" MacAuley asked as his friend took a seat on the opposite side of the table for two. The Engineer's listless tone did not slip past the huntsman's notice.

"Because she and Lily are listening to Apollo talk about that time that Beagle had to throw his launcher at an enemy squad when the rocket got stuck inside the tube after it was lit," Jaune answered.

MacAuley hesitated, then shrugged as he reached for his beer. "Still not sure how that one happened, honestly. Stranger things have happened to Strike Five, though. Did I ever tell you about the time-"


The Engineer looked up at his friend.

"You don't have to talk if you don't want to," Jaune said. "I'm not going to ask you to talk to me about how you feel. But you're the one that taught me that anything is better than drinking alone."

MacAuley snorted. "Must've been drunk when I told you that."

The two of them sat at the table, drinking in silence. Jaune honestly didn't know if Mac was going to talk, or if they were just going to spend the rest of the night staring at each other. But it was important to Jaune that Mac knew he was there, even if the guy didn't utter another word. He'd just lost Beagle, he didn't need to feel like he was losing anything else. Jaune had heard all about Ruby's "Blue Screen" after Major Vance died, how the rest of RWBY thought that giving her space was the best way to help her, and how that backfired horribly.

He'd be damned if he let MacAuley do the same.

"Whole thing's bullshit," Mac eventually said.

How much time had passed since Jaune had sat down? It didn't matter. His friend was finally saying something.

"Beags is the one that got me into XCOM," he continued, taking another swig from his glass. "Did you know that?"

Jaune nodded. He'd heard about that once or twice during his time with Strike Five. Mac was brought in on Beagle's recommendation, and he quickly proved himself to be a competent (if loud-mouthed) base engineer. He'd always suspected that there was a reason why the two of them were so close, so it made a lot more sense when Jaune found out that they knew each other even before XCOM.

"Literally cannot recall a point in my life where that Aussie doofus wasn't in it. Except now, of course," MacAuley said, correcting himself. He leaned back in his seat and let out a barely-audible, "Fuck."

"It would be pretty shitty of me to say I know how you feel," Jaune answered, doing his best to choose his words carefully. "Especially since I only knew him for less than… two years? But those two years feel like they were five."

"Beags has a way of injecting his presence into your life like that, yeah," Mac agreed.

The two of them fell silent again, allowing the general chatter and ambiance of the room to fill in the emptiness. There seemed to be a limitless supply of laughter, chatter, and clinking of glasses in the rec hall. It was the XCOM way, after all.

"I don't care what he said, Jaune. It wasn't his time yet, and he damn well knew it."

Oh right. That. Jaune had almost forgotten about that. It was the part of the audio logs of Beagle's final minutes that stood out to him the most. His talk about how it was time, and how 'she' was waiting for him. Who was he talking about?

"You're gonna need to explain to me this whole 'it was time' thing when you get the chance," Jaune admitted. "I don't think I remember Beags ever talking about that, even though it sounds kinda important."

"That's because he didn't talk to anyone about it except for me," Mac sighed. "Brad probably knew, since he has ways of knowing everything. But Strike Five didn't know. Captain Rose didn't know. Van Doorn probably didn't know. And… well, okay. He probably told the on-base psych doc about it."

Doc V. That made sense. It always amused Jaune that there were two doctors on base whose names started with a V. Good thing that everyone referred to Vahlen as just 'Vahlen.'

"So what was it about, then?"

Mac took another drink from his glass and stared at Jaune.

"Did you know that Beags had a wife?"


"Jamball," MacAuley continued, getting the answer to his question from Jaune's expression. "I met her once, actually. Really sweet woman."

For the first time since he'd sat down with Mac, Jaune saw a smile cross the Irishman's face. "It… it was really something to see how over-the-moon Beags was about her, too. From the moment they became a thing, it was always Beags and Jam this, Beags and Jam that. Dude could not shut up about her, even if he tried. It was why he joined XCOM in the first place. 'Somebody's gotta keep her safe,' he said, 'and I don't trust anybody else to do it.'"

When MacAuley's expression fell, Jaune had a sinking feeling that he knew where this story was headed.

"Of course, it didn't matter how amazing XCOM was at doing its job. We only had so many Strike Teams and Skyrangers, and the aliens weren't exactly willing to limit their abductions to help us out."

"… Oh."

How could Jaune possibly respond to that? How could anyone respond to something like that?

"Beags… well, obviously he changed after that. He held out hope for a long time that Jamball was alright, that he'd be able to find her after the war was over. But… well… you saw what was going on in those alien bases."

Mac sighed. "It took a long time before Beags pulled himself out of the darker corners of his mind. Had to work my ass off trying to be there for him and make sure he didn't do anything stupid."

Seemed like the two of them had that in common at least, since Pyrrha's darkest hours were pretty stressful for Jaune. Not that he would ever tell that to Pyrrha.

"You know that thing we say, at XCOM?" Mac asked. "The thing about why we do what we do?"

There were a couple of answers that Jaune could think of, but contrary to what some might think of him, he could be perceptive when the situation called for it.

"So that others may live," Jaune answered.

Mac nodded. "Why then, Beags asked, was he doing what he did, if not so that Jamball could live? What was even the fuckin' point? It took him a long time to finally find an answer to that."

Suddenly, it all clicked for Jaune. 'She' was obviously Jamball, and now he knew why she was waiting for Beagle. A sick feeling lurched in his stomach, and while he knew the question was uncomfortable, he had to know.

"Beagle wasn't… suicidal, was he?"

"I was afraid of the same thing, but no. He wasn't. The two of us agreed that that was the coward's way out, and did Jamball marry a coward?" Mac shook his head. "Fuck no, she didn't."

He drained the last of his glass and asked, "Anybody ever tell you what a Reunion Round is, Jaune?"

A Reunion Round?


A cheer rose up in the hall, and Jaune turned around to see one of the Strike Five operatives standing up, a mic in his hands.

"So y'all want to hear some stories about Beags, do you? Well, then you've come to the right place…"

Mac chuckled. "He woulda' got a kick out of this."

"Reunion Round," Jaune pressed. The operative had already launched into one of his tales about Beagle, but Jaune had a specific story he needed to hear from Mac.

"Right. Reunion Round," MacAuley said, taking a deep breath. "It was an agreement Beags and I had. An understanding. We fight so that others may live, right?"


"Well, we figured out that it doesn't just mean so that other civilians may live. Beags learned that the hard way, obviously.

"So he agreed to fight. Not just fight, but to put everything he had into the fight. To make sure those under his command would come back safely and have the chance to see their families after the war was over."

"The mission was supposed to be simple. A milk run, just to help the rooks get some experience under their belt. But The Curse had other ideas, as usual…"

Mac snorted. "We used to joke that The Curse was Jamball's idea of a game. To make him work even harder to keep his end of the bargain. You ever wonder why you never heard Beags seriously complain about The Curse?"

"I always assumed because it was just a joke," Jaune admitted.

"No," Mac said, shaking his head. "Because The Curse strengthened his resolve."

"It didn't matter how big a run of bad luck we had, though. Nobody was going to die that day. Not on Beags's watch."

"He was going to do everything he could to make Jam proud, Jaune. And when the day came that somebody needed to take one for the team? Well, that would be the Reunion Round that he spent his life waiting for."

The members of Strike Five passed the mic around, taking turns telling their favorite moments with Beagle. And Jaune could see a twitch growing in Mac's eye as the event continued. Not because he thought they were dishonoring Beagle's memory, he realized, but because he knew that he had the best stories.

And he was fighting with the part of himself that wanted to wallow in his own misery, that didn't want to let those stories out.

"There was a man, an Aussie, that was literally too angry to die."

"You just knew that every op was going to be a new adventure in the tales of 'How Beags Managed To Bring The Gang Home.'"

"Keep in mind, the first time that XCOM came across the Grimm? Yeah, you bet your ass that was a Strike Five mission."

"You should have seen the look on Beags's face when that bullshit came up."

Mac's suffering was written all over his face as he listened to his squadmates, his brothers and sisters, tell their stories about Strike Five's patriarch.

"He wouldn't want you to keep yourself bottled up like this," Jaune said quietly.

"Everyone here has been telling stories about Beagle's heroics in battle. I'd like to tell a story about a different side of the Captain."

Jaune whipped his head around at the sound of Pyrrha's voice, and his eyes grew wide at the sight of his partner standing up with a mic in one hand while the other held her steady against her chair.

"When I was bedridden, Beagle paid me a visit once. He didn't have anything funny to say, which is what I was expecting when he first walked through the door. He didn't have any goofy antics to cheer me up. Instead, he spent some time talking with me about Jaune."

This… this was a story Jaune didn't know about.

"The Captain let me know how much joy it gave him to see the two of us together. The two of us happy. He told me that what Jaune and I had was valuable, that it would be criminal for us to waste even a single day that could be spent in each others' company. He told me he was speaking from experience," Pyrrha said, chuckling, "I wasn't sure if I could believe him at first, but the sincerity he had in his eyes was not something you could fake. He didn't go into details about how he knew, but that wasn't important. The compassion in his words… it helped me in a way that I didn't expect from the Captain."

Slowly, Pyrrha made her way over to the other members of Strike five. One step at a time. Jaune could not take his eyes off of her.

"Beagle was a strange fellow, as my fellow squadmates have been all-too-happy to tell you, but he had a beautiful soul. The world may be lesser in his passing, but… I'd like to think that the essence of who he was achieved immortality through his actions, and through his words. And through what he believed in."

The room fell silent. Jaune could see more than a few heads turned down as people took a moment to digest what Pyrrha had just told them. MacAuley, however, looked tortured.

"Omaha…" he whispered.

"… Omaha?" Jaune asked. He wasn't sure what that meant.

"OMAHA," MacAuley roared. All eyes in the room turned towards the man as he got up from his seat.

He continued to speak, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear. "Operation Fading Omaha. My first op with Captain Beagle. Terror mission. Berlin."

Several operatives nodded at MacAuley's words. The looks of reverence on their faces told Jaune that there was some serious weight behind the op that Mac was now invoking.

"I knew about The Curse. Saw it plenty of times from the safety of the Anthill. But I'd never felt it before that day. Pinned down in those god-forsaken streets. Floaters on our right. Mutons to the front. Suppressing fire out the fuckin' wazoo. Felt like half of our squad was trying to get the other half patched up after we got ambushed by those damn aliens."

The Irishman needed no mic to project his words throughout the rec hall. The conviction in his voice, the need to let the world know of Captain Beagle, was more than enough to carry him.

"I was laying there, knowing that if I tried to run that overwatch, I'd maybe die. But for those civilians caught in the crosshairs of those goddamn aliens? There was no maybe about it. We all felt it. That sense of hopelessness, that creeping sensation that the op was about to go sideways.

"Except for him."

Mac glanced at the members of Strike Five, and Jaune could see them smiling back. "You said he was an Aussie that was too angry to die, and you know what? I probably wouldn't have believed you until I saw it with my own eyes. The sheer rage he had at the audacity of the aliens to dare step foot in that city, to try and kill those innocents… it was infectious. The rocket he fired to break the deadlock carried with it all of our emotions. Hate. Hope. Fear. Determination. That damn Rebel Yell he unleashed ignited the humanity, the determination inside each of us, that I'm not sure those bastards knew what hit them. Even The Curse was too scared to come out and try to ruin our charge. We may have come back from that fight battered, bruised, and bloody, but we all came back. None of us died in that hellhole of a warzone, because of one man.

"The Captain was a juggernaut of will, but only because he had something worth fighting for. Because his squad had something worth fighting for."

MacAuley paused for a moment to take a breath.

"XCOM," he said. "We do what we must. Why?"

There was no hesitation before the room shouted back at him, "BECAUSE WE MUST."

"XCOM," he said again. "Why do we die?"


"Goddamn right," the Irishman said. "Beagle knew that. Perhaps more than any of us. When he took that long walk to Merlot, he knew what he was doing. And he wouldn't have it any other way. He died-"

Mac cut himself off and shut his eyes tight. The open wound still hurt, but it was plain to everyone in the room that he had no intention of leaving his memorial unfinished.

"... He died on his terms," Mac said, his voice almost a hiss. "He died making sure that Remnant gets to see the light at the end of this nightmarish tunnel. It's up to us to make sure that day comes, and I'll be God damned before I let down my best friend."

The roar in the room was deafening as each and every operative leapt to their feet. Jaune joined in, grinning from ear to ear at the sound of every whoop and holler that echoed in appreciation of MacAuley. His words rang true for every member of XCOM in that room, yes, but there was something else that was worth celebrating, too.

Beagle's Herald had finally come back to them.

One step. Then another.

Even though she still had to focus and put effort into walking, Pyrrha couldn't deny that it was getting easier with every passing day. Her physical training gave her a goal, a path towards regaining the skills she once had. Towards achieving the destiny that she believed she must follow.

But it wasn't happening fast enough.

Stairs appeared before her, and Pyrrha steeled herself for the most difficult part of her journey. Every night, she used it as a test of sorts to see how far she'd come.

One upward step. Another upward step. The dim light of the hallway beyond shined before Pyrrha, pulling her towards the top.

She kept her breath steady, and dared not use the wall for support. If Pyrrha couldn't even make it up a single flight of stairs under her own power, then what was even the point of all this?

Shortly after she crested the stairs, the sound of footsteps echoed down the corridor before her. Pyrrha took cover behind some crates at the landing and waited for the soldier to pass. Part of the problem with deciding to secretly train in the middle of the night without telling anyone was that she had to worry about being found out. At least it gave Pyrrha a moment to rest.

The night guard rounded a corner and moved on without suspecting anything, and the huntress resumed her journey to the training room. The cool steel on her bare feet felt like little pin pricks, but they helped Pyrrha maintain her focus. She used the discomfort from each step to drive her forward to the next one. Each was an obstacle, a limit for Pyrrha to overcome. Limits that she firmly believed held no power over her any longer.

The door to her destination silently opened, and Pyrrha padded into the room and looked around.

Nobody else was in the mood for a midnight workout, given that all the lights were turned off. Good. Pyrrha could train in peace, with nothing but the comfort of her own thoughts to keep her company.

She hesitated for a moment on her way to one of the mats. The last time she was left completely to her own thoughts, Pyrrha had gone to a very dark place. What would stop her from going down that road again?

"My purpose," she whispered to no one.

Pyrrha was once a beacon of strength. While she never liked being idolized, it was still an honor being a source of hope for people. A source of happiness. She wanted to be that source again.

A wince and a hiss followed a sharp pain in her leg as Pyrrha pushed herself a little too hard while she stretched. She remembered all the times she told Jaune to be patient, to give his body time to adapt while he trained it to become a warrior. "These things don't happen overnight," she'd said. At least now she knew how he felt now that the shoe was on the other foot.

Helpless and frustrated.

The rational part of her mind was screaming at her that there was nothing she could have done to keep Beagle alive. He had Blake, a fully-functioning huntress, with him during the op, and that didn't make a difference when Merlot released his stupid toxin. She knew that getting stronger faster wouldn't have saved him. She knew that her contribution to Gatecrasher was significant, and that she and Jaune kept a lot of good people alive during the topside fight.

So why did she still have this burning feeling in her heart that she wasn't strong enough?

Because all her life, she had equated her ability to be a huntress, a hero, with her physical prowess. She was the four-time Mistrali champion because of her skill in the arena. She was one of Beacon's top students because of her incredible flow in battle. She was one of XCOM's top operatives because of her aim with a rifle in a combat zone.

But now?

Now instead of being able to effortlessly trounce a full team of huntsmen students, she was breaking a sweat trying to maintain a basic combat stance and practice the simplest of sword swings. Her legs shook as she tried to crouch, and her arms felt stiff as her brain screamed while trying to will them through the motions it knew so well.

What use was she to anyone now? Mac was suffering because Captain Beagle died, and the most Pyrrha could say for herself in that battle was that she was stuck playing taxi driver in a fucking-

Another hiss escaped her lips, followed by a squeak of surprise when she heard another voice in the darkness.


The huntress cast her eyes around the room wildly, panicked that somebody knew her secret. How did she not notice that she'd been followed? Was she really that deep in her own thoughts that someone was able to sneak up on her like this? Dammit, she told herself that she wouldn't get wrapped up in dark thoughts, and she couldn't even stick to that promise for more than five minutes.

"It's okay to ask for help," the voice said, and Lily stepped out into the room where Pyrrha could see her.

Lily, dressed in a tank top, athletic shorts, and a pair of trainers, quietly closed the gap with a shocked Pyrrha before coming to a stop in front of her friend. The two women stared at each other, with Pyrrha still trying to make sense out of what was going on. She wasn't given much time to process, however, before Lily pulled her into a hug.

"Don't do this alone," she said.

Pyrrha sighed, "Lily, you can't convince me to not train-"

"Alone," Lily repeated, stepping back just enough to give Pyrrha a stern look. "You have me. You have Jaune. You have Nichole. You have XCOM. We are all here to help you, Pyrrha. If only you ask us."

Pyrrha stared at her. Lily was right. She knew Lily was right. She knew that any of them would drop everything to help if she asked. But did she deserve it? They all had things they needed to do to keep themselves in peak form. Would it not be selfish of her to take them away from their own marathons they were running just to ask them to help her crawl?

"Pyrrha," Lily scolded, and the huntress realized that she must have let her thoughts show on her face. "Do you remember when I watched you train with Annette?"

Pyrrha nodded.

"It was one of the most magical experiences of my life," Lily said. "All of the wildest dreams and fantasies of my younger self come to life."

That seemed like an exaggeration. All she did was spar with Annette…

"You have inspired me to become a better version of myself, to apply my talents so I can inspire others."

Lily dropped into a combat stance, mimicking the one that Pyrrha had been trying to attempt earlier. A small part of Pyrrha's mind was instantly impressed with the technical quality of Lily's form. She'd been practicing.

"Now come on, let's start from the top."

Pyrrha followed Lily's lead and eased herself back into the stance. It was still difficult, but also a little easier than before. Perhaps the mere addition of a workout partner to compare herself against was enough motivation for Pyrrha to push herself beyond her limits? But it was more than that. Her body wasn't crying out at Pyrrha for pushing too far, too fast. As the two of them attacked, blocked, and countered in turn, Pyrrha tried to figure out what it was about Lily that made this easier.

"Good," Lily said, a smile on her face. "This is really good, Pyrrha. You're already looking better than you did a few nights ago."

Pyrrha froze mid-strike and stared at her sparring partner.

"What do you mean by that?"

"You really didn't notice me before, did you?" Lily asked, a wistful smile on her face.

Wait. How many of these sessions did Lily know about?

"It hurt watching you push yourself, thinking you were alone," Lily said, slowly resuming the motions of their martial dance. Pyrrha followed suit as her partner continued, "I didn't want to interrupt, because I trusted you knew what you were doing. But…"

A chill ran down Pyrrha's spine when she figured out the unspoken part of Lily's words. All of the frustrated groans, the moments where she'd punch the floor in anger, the endless minutes when she would lie still after taking a tumble… the moments of weakness.

"I…" Pyrrha started, faltering in her motions while she struggled with what to say. "I… don't want to be like this."

Lily gently pushed back against Pyrrha's forearm with her own, a comforting smile on her face. "You won't be. That's why I'm here."

"I want to be someone that Jaune can be proud of."

"If only you could hear him talk…"

"I don't want anyone else to have to make the choice that Captain Beagle did."

"That's something we all strive for, Pyrrha."

"I want to be able to help again!"

Pyrrha's eyes grew wide the moment her palm connected with Lily's chest and sent the young Shen sprawling to the floor. The two of them were still, frozen in this moment. Pyrrha stared at her palm, wondering how she was able to do that. And Lily?

Lily was beaming.

"Trust me when I say that you already have," she answered.

Wait. Hold on. Lily was supposed to be the student, and Pyrrha was supposed to be her mentor. When did they reverse roles?

When did Lily become Pyrrha's inspiration?

"Come on," Lily said, pulling herself to her feet and dropping back into the combat stance once more. "Shall we take it from the top?"

Pyrrha didn't feel as tired as she expected. She didn't feel frustrated, or defeated by her own disability. One look at the fire in Lily's eyes was enough to stir something deep in Pyrrha's soul. She followed Lily's lead and resumed her stance. And she smiled.

"We shall."

Winter's eyes fluttered open, and she found herself staring at the ceiling of a sterile room. She recognized this room immediately, having spent enough time in her career to know what an Atlas medical ward looked like. A quick glance around showed the room to be as pristine and well-kept as any other Atlesian medical facility she'd ever been in. The woman doing paperwork in the corner was definitely not Atlesian, though.

Oh, right. XCOM. A look to her left showed Winter another bed that was occupied by the sleeping form of that woman who absolutely refused to surrender during their duel. Then she was taken to this ship where she had to deal with an exhausting struggle between the demon in her head and a voice that was trying to help-

Wait, did she just wake up? The thought occurred to Winter, and it took her by surprise. That ordeal with the two voices and the doctors felt like forever ago, so she had to have fallen asleep. But what about the nightmares? The heavy dread, the inexorable doom, the…

For the last… well, she didn't know how many weeks it had been, but it seemed like forever ago was the last time she was able to sleep without nightmares. They happened every night without fail until nightmares eventually became the norm for Winter. It got to the point where she was still able to get enough sleep to remain functional despite waking up several times each night after being impaled, eaten, torn apart...

But her dreams were empty before just now. The back of her eyelids were filled with blissful nothingness. In an instant, it made her realize that the sharpened teeth, the steamy breath against her neck were not normal, and that she should have never grown accustomed to them. People were capable of dreaming good things, or nothing at all, and getting sliced, crushed… broken each and every night wasn't something that people normally had to deal with.

What else would she be learning about herself that wasn't normal?

"Oh good, you're awake."

Winter turned back to the medical attendant, who was now walking towards her. Wait, she knew that voice, didn't she? That was one of the people involved in the struggle she had before losing consciousness.

Before falling asleep, she reminded herself.

The woman came to a stop next to Winter's bed and wasted no time before conducting a visual assessment. The attendant, Winter noticed, was very careful about not making any physical contact during her inspection.

"How are you feeling?" the woman asked, making notes on a clipboard. "You've been asleep for quite some time. Your vitals have been very healthy during your recovery, but if you are suffering any side effects from-"

From having a voice of hatred ripped out of my-

"-the extraction of the Grimm parasite," the woman continued, "then it is in your best interest to let me know."

… What?

The woman must have noticed the shock on Winter's face. Her clinical expression softened, and she took a seat next to Winter's bed.

"You had a Grimm entity implanted inside your neck, Miss Schnee," she said gently. "It was how the mad doctor was pulling your strings. Making you do things that are not in your nature."

Of course they are, Winter recalled the man saying during the struggle, these parasites don't take kindly to being removed.

"That… that voice…" Winter said, not caring about her quivering tone.

The woman nodded.

"And you… pulled it out of me."

The woman nodded again.

"With no small amount of help," she added, gesturing to the sleeping figure on the other medical bed in the room."

Winter was stunned.

"… Thank you, miss…?"

"Doctor Vahlen," the woman said, standing up once more. "And you are more than welcome. I don't know if this comes as a surprise to you, but you are a very important person to quite a few people, Miss Schnee. Two of whom will want to know that you're awake, actually. If you'll excuse me."

People waiting to see her? Who could possibly want to see her? She murdered several people who lived on this ship, and tried her hardest to do the same for the woman sleeping next to her. Who would want to see a puppet like her?


Time froze for Winter Schnee when she looked up and saw her sister standing in the doorway to the room.

The expression on Weiss's face the moment she locked eyes on her sister was something the elder Schnee hoped she would remember for the rest of her life. The two of them always tried to maintain some degree of decorum and professionalism in their relationship with one another. Winter felt it was important, given the sort of life they were born into and the devil of a father they shared.

The unfiltered joy and relief on Weiss's face as she dashed into the room, though? That was the sort of thing that made living worthwhile. Just as the Voice had been a calming salve to combat the hatred from the parasite, the picture before her was the perfect antidote for the memory of Winter's nightmares.

"Be careful, please!" Doctor Vahlen called out from the doorway.

That didn't stop Weiss from throwing her arms around Winter and (carefully) burying her face in her sister's neck.

"I'm so glad you're okay," Weiss said, stepping back to take in the sight of Winter, alive and well, once more.

"Me too," Winter answered, still taking in the sight of her sister. "I'm still not sure how that was possible, though."

"Sheer determination and force of will," Weiss said, the pride on her face plain as day. "Welcome to how XCOM does things."

That got a laugh out of Winter. She immediately winced when the movement shot pain through her chest. Weiss didn't insult her by getting concerned and asking if she was okay. Instead, she merely commented, "That's probably the bruising from your fight. You and the Major nearly fought to death out there, so you'll probably be feeling a bit tender for a couple of days."

Winter nodded.

The two of them fell silent, and Weiss seemed perfectly happy to just be sitting in a room with her very-much-alive sister. She didn't feel the need to fill the time with idle chatter, or try to comfort Winter about her ordeal, or anything else that Winter didn't really care about at the moment. All that mattered was that they were together, and that Winter knew her sister was there for her if she needed it.

That alone was enough.

"Doctor Vahlen said there were two people who wanted to know about my condition," Winter commented, remembering the doctor's words. "Should I be expecting another visitor?"

The split-second nervous twitch of Weiss's eye did not escape Winter's notice.

"O-oh," Weiss said, caught off-guard by the question. "Well… Qrow was waiting outside with me. But he didn't follow me in after Vahlen told us you woke up."

She grew quiet before adding, "I don't think he wanted to upset you by coming in. He just wanted to make sure you were okay."

That was… surprising. Winter never told her sister about her history with Qrow. It wasn't something she liked to discuss with anyone, really. So it made sense that Weiss didn't really grasp how hard it was for Winter to believe that Qrow Branwen wanted to make sure that she was okay.

It didn't matter whose fault it was originally, nor did it matter that Winter barely even remembered what had transpired to start everything . Only one thing mattered: they hated each other. Every single time they were in the same place at the same time, it was never a question of if sparks would fly, but a question of when.

The man was infuriating, and he seemed to take great pleasure in it. There was simply no other explanation. For whatever reason, he didn't like her life choices. Didn't like how much she respected Ironwood. Didn't like her family (that one, at least, was understandable). Didn't like… didn't like her.

And so to hear that he was waiting outside to make sure that she was okay?

"He kept me company," Weiss said. "I… I didn't want to leave the medical wing until I knew one way or another whether you…"

She cut off her train of thought, sighed, and started again. "A lot of people would stop by and ask how you were doing, but things are pretty busy for XCOM right now, and they all have things they need to do. The only person who stayed so that I wasn't alone was Qrow."

That didn't make a lot of sense. Or any sense, really. All Winter could think of is that his own guilt about being an asshole would make him feel bad. But did he really have a conscience?

Weiss still had things to say, apparently.

"He's really nice, Winter. He loves his nieces, and he shows it in the most heartwarming ways. He's been nothing but kind to me, despite the Schnee name. When I was waiting outside, and I started to stress about whether you'd be okay or not… he talked me through it."

Winter said nothing. She didn't want to acknowledge what Weiss was saying, didn't want to have any part of her sympathizing with this man. But at the same time…

She only survived her ordeal by listening to the advice of the Voice to let go of her hatred, didn't she? And if she couldn't remember why she hated Qrow to begin with, what purpose did it serve? She'd just escaped the hatred. Why be so eager to fall back into it?

"Weiss," Winter started with a quiet sigh, "would you… do me a favor and ask Qrow to come in? I'd like to speak with him."

Weiss got up and nodded. "I'll give you two some time alone to talk. I'll be in the other room with Vahlen, so just have Qrow come get me if you need anything."

She paused at the door, looked back at Winter, and smiled.

"You should let your hair down more often, Winter. It looks really good on you."

With that, Weiss vanished through the door, leaving Winter to wait for her next guest. It didn't take long before Qrow poked his head in. The creases on his face made Winter wonder if he was actually nervous that she requested his presence.

"Yes, I asked for you," she said, rolling her eyes. "You're allowed to come in."

Qrow nodded and slipped into the room. He had none of his usual swagger or cockiness that she'd grown to expect anytime they set eyes on each other. He looked… small. Subdued. Like he was afraid that if he spoke too loud or made too grand of a gesture, she might disappear.

He stood awkwardly at the foot of Winter's bed, rubbing the back of his neck as he asked, "So what, uh… what can I do for you?"

"You can start by taking a seat so that this feels less weird than it already is," Winter deadpanned.

Qrow dropped into the chair at Winter's bedside without a word. She had to suppress a sigh when she watched him struggle to maintain eye contact with her, opting instead to steal quick glances at her before returning his attention back to the wall on the other side of the room.

Nope. Couldn't do it.

"Qrow," Winter sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose in frustration, "we're having a conversation. You're allowed to look at someone when you're talking with them."

"It would probably help if I knew what you wanted to talk about," Qrow answered, though he was at least looking at her now. "I almost choked when Weiss came out and said you were asking for me."

Winter rolled her eyes. "Contrary to what our history may indicate, I'd like to think that we are capable of having a simple conversation."

"Yeah. I guess a near-death experience also helps to put things in perspective." Qrow paused, then looked away and added, "Sorry. I probably shouldn't have said that."

"No, no. You're right. It's… why I wanted to talk to you, actually."

Qrow glanced over at Winter. "You have your sister here, and you want to talk to me about your near-death experience?"


"Right. Civility and all that." He sighed. "Sorry."

The two of them fell silent, with Winter trying to figure out what she wanted to say while Qrow waited for her to start.

"I… woke up about twenty minutes ago, and discovered that I've spent the last month with a Grimm parasite living in my head," Winter said. "So even though almost dying was pretty sobering, that put a lot of things into perspective for me. Especially since I wasn't myself at times while it was in there."

"Weiss talked to me about that," Qrow noted.

Winter glanced at him. "Qrow, you witnessed it firsthand when we met at Avitus. My team was getting torn apart by the Grimm, quite literally when the Wendigo arrived, and the only reason it wasn't worse was because XCOM arrived.

"And yet, when it was all over," she continued, "the only emotion that filled my head was rage. How dare XCOM come in like a bunch of glory hounds to take credit for Atlas's hard work? How dare they stick their noses into business that wasn't theirs? How dare they let the Wendigo escape?"

Qrow shrugged. "To be fair, I wouldn't blame you for that last one."

Winter shook her head. "I pride myself on valuing the lives of those under my command, Qrow. I should have been thanking this organization for making sure the casualties weren't higher."

Qrow didn't have an immediate response to that. Silence ensued once more while Winter waited for the man to chew on her words.

"You think it was the Grimm that was making you irrational."

"No, Qrow. I know it was. Even when it was just in the back of my mind and not turning me into a murderous monster, it made me hate."

Again, it seemed like Qrow didn't know what to say to that. And honestly, could Winter really blame him? Her hands balled into fists in her lap as she let herself remember what it felt like. The subtle undercurrent in her psyche that made her on edge, magnifying her annoyance at any little thing, no matter how small.

"I already have a low tolerance for failure, for things I perceive as problems," she said. "I wonder if that made it easier for the parasite to just… give a push to the feelings that were already there."


Winter was about to admonish Qrow again and remind him how they were supposed to be staying civil, but the anger in his eyes caught her off-guard. He took her hesitation as permission to continue.

"I know I have no moral high ground in this, and I know that I have very little experience with your better qualities," Qrow said. "But do you know who does? Weiss. I don't think you realize just how much time she and I had to talk. And since we were both worried about you, I'll give you three guesses to figure out who we talked about."

Wait. We were both worried about you?

Qrow wasn't done. "The amount of respect she has for you is incredible, Winter. And you damn well better believe that respect isn't borne out of fear. She is well aware of everything you did to protect her. To prepare her. She knows you didn't have to do it, and she knows that you did it anyway, because that's what family does."

"Qrow, you're missing the point," Winter said.

"No, I'm not," he answered. "You think that because you act like a hardass, there's a part of you that is capable of doing the things that the parasite made you do. I'm going to tell you that, again, your idea is bullshit. You are a good person. You've had your fair share of mistakes, but so have I. So has Weiss, Ruby, and everyone who was ever born. But that doesn't mean you are willing to commit evil. Don't do that to yourself."

It took Winter a moment to realize that her mouth was hanging open. This was a side of Qrow she had never seen. She wanted to argue, to push back and say that she'd be capable of doing awful things if her mind managed to rationalize them as necessary, but the earnest look on Qrow's face told her that this was not a battle she'd be winning. Besides, didn't she ask to talk with him because she wanted to let go of her hate? She meant to let go of her hate for Qrow, but after he'd said his piece…

Shouldn't she be letting go of her hate for herself?

Weiss looked up to her. She knew that much even before Qrow said it. That had to mean she was doing something right. Even if she was still struggling to respect herself after her time as Merlot's puppet, she could at least strive to be better for Weiss's sake.

"You're right," she said with a sigh. "I'm… not in a good state right now-"

"Obviously," Qrow snorted.

Winter rolled her eyes, but a smirk crossed her face. In the past, that comment would have pissed her off, but after what he'd said in the last five minutes?

Well, Winter would need to have several more conversations with Qrow before she could figure out where the two of them stood with each other. But now that she was the one in control of her own emotions? The one who got to choose who she would hate?

Winter didn't think she would mind the prospect of talking with Qrow a little more.

Velvet silently padded down the hallways of the Avenger in the nascent hours of the morning. Barefoot, and wearing little more than loose clothing and a jacket scrounged from the Downside, the young woman made hardly a sound. As a light sleeper who developed an affinity for going on walks when sleep wouldn't take her, Velvet had to learn very quickly how to keep quiet when she lived in a household of twenty-plus family members who were also light sleepers. And with the somber mood on the ship right now, she was glad that she could get in her off-hour walk without disturbing anyone.

The operations were a success. Objectively, she knew that. Objectively, everyone at XCOM knew that. But with cost they paid for that success, especially the loss of XCOM's beloved, larger-than-life Captain Beagle… Would XCOM have launched the operations if they knew beforehand the price to be paid?

"Of course they would," she mumbled to herself. That was the essence of XCOM, after all.

Finish the job, because failure is not an option. When nobody else has the willpower to stand up and do what needs to be done, XCOM will. They find a way to fight back, even when all hope seems lost. Do the impossible, stop the unstoppable-

Wait, no. That was from that show that Captain Beagle and MacAuley had introduced her to. Velvet found herself repressing a chuckle at the thought of how apt the comparison was between XCOM and Team Dai Gurren. Maybe she'd ask MacAuley if he'd re-watch the show with her sometime soon. She was fairly certain he could use the excuse to spend time with friends.

Velvet's ears twitched at the faint sound of… something a few decks above. She could only hear it because of how still the Avenger was at this hour, and even then she couldn't quite make out what it was. Should she go investigate? Or leave it alone in case it was something deserving of privacy?

… If she was alone at a time like this, Velvet liked to think that she would welcome the company of another who was willing to share in her sorrow.

That was also the core of XCOM wasn't it? They were only able to achieve their impossible feats by banding together, by becoming something greater than the sum of their parts. The camaraderie is what made XCOM… well… XCOM. Now that she was part of that family, she had a responsibility to help someone who might be in need.

After all, Velvet thought, she knew all-too-well what it was like to feel isolated. Living in a household with not just her family of two parents and five siblings, but also the families of her father's three brothers, and two sisters, Velvet knew how easy it was to become effectively invisible. And she knew how utterly isolating that felt. Brunetus Scarletina loved his daughter dearly, but the fact that Velvet had learned to become self-sufficient and not reliant on him for her day-to-day needs meant that his attention was almost always forced elsewhere. She didn't resent him for it. She knew that he was the rock for their (very large) family, and that his job as the patriarch was a never-ending task.

The day that he realized what he'd done was perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching of Velvet's life. When she told him that she'd been accepted into the Signal combat school, it dawned on him that he couldn't even remember Velvet being interested in becoming a huntress in the first place. How many other things about his own daughter had he missed? What successes and failures was he not there to share with her? For a week following that day, Brunetus focused all of his time on Velvet and helping her get ready for Signal.

What if this operative, making noise at four in the morning, was just like she had been?

With one foot in front of the other, Velvet made her way towards the sound. It was easy, because whoever was making that noise hadn't stopped. All she had to do was keep her ears open, and the person (a man, by the sound of it) was effectively doing her job for her.

Up one deck. Then up another. Was this person up on the flight deck? It had to be freezing up there. What could he possibly be doing that was important enough that it couldn't wait until the sun?

And was he yelling up there?

Velvet reached the flight deck level, and could confidently say that this person was definitely yelling.

"Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!

Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!"

Good thing the sleeping quarters were lower in the ship. Otherwise the other faunus onboard would be complaining in the morning about all the racket.

As she rounded the last corner leading to the doorway out to the flight deck proper, Velvet was greeted with her second surprise of the morning in the form of Conor MacAuley. There he stood, leaning against the steel doorframe, looking out at whoever it was screaming on the flight deck.

"Tenei te tangata puhuru huru

Nana nei I tiki mai

Whakawhiti te ra."

Velvet padded up next to him, and MacAuley looked over at her with an expression that the (normally emotionally-adept) huntress struggled to read. Was Mac angry at this guy for all of the noise he was making? Was he sad? Well obviously he was still sad, but was he sad about this, specifically? Or was there something else on Mac's face that Velvet wasn't recognizing?

"Surprised you're the only one to come see what's going on, honestly," Mac said.

"It's four in the morning," Velvet answered. "Everyone else is still asleep, and unless the night shift has big ears like mine…"

Well, at least that got a smile out of him.

"Fair enough," he answered before returning his attention to the man out on the deck-

Wait, was he shirtless out there?!

"A upa … ne! ka upa …ne!

A upane ka upane whiti te ra! Hi!"

"So…. What's going on? Is he, uh… alright?" Velvet asked cautiously.

Mac looked back at her again, and this time Velvet definitely recognized a little embarrassment on his face.

"Ah, right. Suppose you've never heard of the Haka," he answered.

Definitely not. Velvet was pretty sure she'd remember something that involved a man slapping his chest, stamping his feet, and making wild-eyed expressions while yelling at the top of his lungs. It was both jarring and frightening. At the same time, though, the hairs standing up on the back of Velvet's neck weren't there just because she was taken aback by the screaming man.

The energy and ferocity as he yelled into the void was almost infectious. A small part of her own emotions were drawn out, a slight tug at her heart that asked to join him in his ritual. The raw fury that he put into every syllable, every slap… what could it be that drove him so?

The man on the deck stopped for a moment, perhaps to recompose himself, before starting again. Velvet recognized the words (well… sounds. She had no idea what the words were) from earlier, so he must have been repeating himself.

"Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!

Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!"

"It's an old tradition where Aika's from," Mac explained. "You know how Beags was from Australia?"

"Of course," Velvet answered. She'd heard the callsign 'Aika' during ops a few times since joining XCOM, but she never learned who the name belonged to, or its significance.

Mac nodded at the soldier on the flight deck. "He's from nearby. New Zealand. The people who've lived there for hundreds of years have had a lot of time to develop a cultural identity. This is part of it."

That explained a bit of the what, but not the why.

"And he's doing this at four in the morning because…?"

Mac's expression grew somber again, and he answered, "Because it's a promise he made to Beags."

A promise…?



"Tenei te tangata puhuru huru

Nana nei I tiki mai

Whakawhiti te ra

A upa … ne! ka upa …ne!

A upane ka upane whiti te ra!"

Velvet still didn't know the significance of this Haka, but with the context of it having to do with Captain Beagle, she was fairly certain Aika was doing his own personal send-off for the departed in a way that resonated with his soul. This man had a rivalry with Beagle that was well-known even to Velvet, and he was determined to drive himself to the brink of exhaustion in an effort to call out to the spirit of his friend. To say, "I shall not forget you."


"And he's doing it alone…" she muttered.


"Nothing," Velvet said. She continued to study Aika as he danced and yelled. He was definitely repeating himself, no doubt about it.

"Do you know what it means?" she asked.

MacAuley hummed at the question.

"I asked him once, a while back. Thought it would be funny to rub it in Beags's face every now and then." He sighed as he tried to remember. "They're not all the same, as I understand it. But the one that he told me about…"

"Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!

Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!"

"I die, I die," MacAuley recalled, "I live, I live. I die, I die. I live, I live."

That. Just that alone pulled even further on Velvet's heart. Knowing what the man was saying made the force behind the words feel powerful.

"Tenei te tangata puhuru huru

Nana nei I tiki mai.

Whakawhiti te ra"

Mac continued to translate. "This is the hairy man who fetched the sun and caused it to shine again."

Velvet felt her throat tighten. She didn't understand why Beagle had to be hairy in this tribute, but if XCOM was able to expose Merlot's experiments and show the world who ADVENT was working with? Beagle's last act of defiance would certainly cast light where there was previously none.

Her vision blurred ever-so-slightly as she continued to listen to Aika's tribute to Captain Beagle.

"A upa … ne! ka upa …ne!

A upane ka upane whiti te ra!


"One upward step. Another upward step. An upward step, another… the sun shines," Mac finished.

That was all Velvet needed to hear. She knew what she had to do. Watching and listening to the Haka twice now was more than enough for her. And now that she knew who it was for? What it meant? She would be able to energize her voice with the same emotion as the man standing alone on the flight deck.

"Hey wait, where are you going?" MacAuley hissed as Velvet walked out onto the deck. The New Zealander was still catching his breath after his latest repeat of the ritual.

Velvet ripped off the jacket she had donned to keep herself warm during her early-morning stroll. If the motions of the Haka were as intensive as they looked, she was fairly certain she wouldn't need it.

"Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!" Velvet screamed, perfectly mimicking the arm and leg movements she'd watched Aika make. The man looked up in surprise at the sound of someone who was not only interrupting his ritual, but doing so in the correct language and intonation.

The surprise didn't last long, and Aika recovered enough to resume his motions and answer, "Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!"

The two of them locked on each other, eyes wide and tongues out, as they stomped, slapped, and wailed into the dawn. Now that Velvet was yelling and dancing, she could feel the power of the Haka flowing through her in a way that almost felt like Aura.

Aika, she realized, was now sharing his soul with her.

"Tenei te tangata puhuru huru

Nana nei I tiki mai

Whakawhiti te ra"

They were face-to-face now. Velvet could feel her chest burning with the exertion of her movements as she matched Aika's motions with her own. She'd been worried at first that he would take offense to someone who was clearly not of his culture partaking in something so sacred, but the look on his face put that to rest. Because between the shocking visages and the wild-eyes expressions that were part of the Haka, Aika showed Velvet something else that told her she'd done the right thing.


In this moment, they were one and the same. Two souls coming together to honor the memory of a man who had given so much for so many. A central strand of XCOM's fabric. Lost, perhaps, but certainly one that would never be forgotten. They were here on this flight deck to make sure of that.

It only further ignited Velvet's drive to give Aika everything she had for this one moment. And it seemed that Aika was returning the favor.

"A upa … ne! ka upa …ne!

A upane ka upane whiti te ra!"

Exhaustion started to show on the man's face, and Velvet wondered if this would be his last performance. The two of them hesitated for a split-second, wound up their final stomp, and sang out the last syllable with enough force to shatter the heavens.


The flight deck fell silent. The two dancers stood facing each other, chests rising and falling as they fought to catch their breath. Aika's neutral expression made Velvet a little anxious, since she worried what he was thinking now that they were no longer in the heat of the moment. Did he regret letting someone else butt in on his homage to the Captain? What if-?

Sweaty arms wrapped themselves around Velvet, and the surprised faunus had just enough sense to return the embrace.

"Thank you, Aroha," Aika whispered.

Velvet nodded, but said nothing. Her actions, she thought, told him everything that needed to be said.

The people of XCOM were suffering in the wake of Captain Beagle's loss. But they didn't have to suffer alone.

"Ruby. Get in."

Mysterious, spooky portal? Or unending hordes of Grimm? Ruby didn't need to think twice about her choices before diving through the arcane maw of… she didn't even know what.

The sensation she felt immediately reminded Ruby of a Hyperwave Jump. Before she had time to process what was happening, before she even had time to blink, the hazy, stifling atmosphere of the Grimmlands were replaced with the bright, refreshing air of a forest. The shrill cries of the Beowolves and Nevermore descending upon her were replaced with silence. The-

Ruby's grip on her improvised staff/scythe tightened when she realized that she was in the presence of an armored, masked woman wielding a very sharp sword.

"Easy, child," the woman growled. "Wouldn't want to hurt you after I just saved your life."

"Sorry if your Unlimited Blade Works is making me uneasy," Ruby shot back.


Ruby was about to say something when Ozpin cleared his throat.

"Raven…" he chided.



"Raven?" Ruby asked. "Raven Xiao-"

"Branwen," Raven cut in.

It might not have been much. Just a simple correction. But that one little remark from Raven answered so many unspoken questions. Like why she left. Why she never came back. Why she never even lifted a finger to help Summer before Salem corrupted her. And why she never even came to see her daughter, even when she disappeared from Remnant for three weeks and came back with metal arms and legs.

Now that they were out of Salem's domain and didn't need to worry about calling down creatures drawn to negativity, Ruby felt she had earned the right to be a little angry.

Ozpin didn't notice the change in Ruby's emotion, and seemed relieved that his intercession seemed to serve its intended purpose. The tense moment between the two women de-escalated. Raven put her sword back in its cyclical sheath, and Ruby withdrew her Auric energy from her tree branch. The two of them stared at each other in silence, waiting to see what the other would do.

"I'll be honest, Raven," Ozpin said, clearly still trying to ease tensions, "I wasn't sure if you were going to step in."

Raven snorted. "If it was just you? Not a chance. It's been fun watching you suffer at the hands of the Witch, honestly."

She jerked a thumb in Ruby's direction. "It was the kid that I had issues with."

"Seriously?" Ruby asked. "I mean… thanks, but… why?"

"I'm not heartless."

Ruby nodded her head in agreement. "Of course not. That's why you abandoned your only daughter and left your husband to raise two girls on his own."

"Don't make me regret saving you."

"Sorry for not dropping everything and immediately groveling at your feet."

"Ruby…" Ozpin sighed.

"Is this how Taiyang raised you?" Raven asked. "Teaching you to give thanks by spitting in the face of kindness?"

"No, he was too busy becoming an empty shell of the father Yang once knew because, again, you left him."

"Just as I should have left you to die in that forest, apparently."


"While you apparently watched from afar? Because I guess that's what you've been doing with Yang all these years, isn't it?" Ruby asked. "You can see how she's doing whenever you want, wherever she is, and you apparently have the ability to visit her at any time. And yet, in all her years of searching for you, desperately wanting to talk to you, you never did. Why?"

"To make her stronger!" Raven shouted.

Ozpin sighed.

"I knew I couldn't be there for her, child," Raven continued, "and I knew that this world is unforgiving. Better that my daughter learns early on that the only person she can truly trust is herself."

Ruby's eyes flashed dangerously.

"How dare you…"

"You are a child," Raven laughed. "Don't try and pass off your naivete for wisdom to me."

"I don't know why Yang spent so long looking for you, but I'm glad she never succeeded," Ruby growled. "Your daughter has spent the last year learning that her team, her family, is stronger together. You, apparently, are content to hide away and pretend that you are stronger on your own. Yang sacrificed her limbs, and very nearly her life for the sake of her partner, while you ran away from yours. She and I saved an entire world by working with and trusting others, and asking them to trust in us. What have you done with your life?"

Raven clenched her fist around the hilt of her sword, then hesitated. Even with her ESP as rudimentary as it was, Ruby could sense some degree of turmoil in the woman's mind.

The hand unclenched, and Raven sighed.

"You sound just like your mother," she said.

Ruby wanted to say something vicious, something to really hurt Raven, and make her feel the anguish that Yang had felt all these years. Raven absolutely deserved it. But the way she'd spoken just now, the genuine softness in her voice… it wouldn't help anyone if Ruby continued to be angry, regardless of how justified she may be.

Instead, she nodded at the woman before her. "Even though I barely remember her, I still have dad's stories of the woman she was. She is the inspiration for who I am, and who I aspire to be."

"She… tried to see the best in me," Raven sighed. "I often disappointed her… but that didn't deter your mother."

Ruby watched as Raven reached up and took off her mask. Red eyes avoided her gaze, though out of embarrassment or annoyance, Ruby wasn't sure.

"She and I grew up differently. We were raised with different worldviews. I thought she was a fool for believing that she could change the world just because she wanted to. I still think she was a fool. But her conviction was admirable."

"Changing the world takes more than just wanting to," Ruby answered. "It takes making the hard choices, and not giving up no matter how bad things seem. The darkness doesn't just give up, so somebody has to fight it. If I try to hide away from evil, who am I to judge others for doing the same thing?"

"That's how you get yourself killed, child."

"Then so be it."

Ozpin had been quiet throughout this whole part of the exchange, but he cleared his throat to get the attention of both women.

"Thankfully, nobody has died yet. Thank you, Raven, for making sure it stayed that way. Don't worry," he added, "I don't expect you to make a habit out of it."

Raven rolled her eyes, but said nothing.

Ozpin took that as permission to continue.

"I've never tried to pressure you into any responsibilities, Raven, perceived or otherwise. You are your own person, and despite any life events that may have shaped who you are today? I've always tried to respect that."

"Oz. Please make your point without any more comments that we both know are bullshit."

Ruby bristled at the woman's snark, but didn't speak. Ozpin was trying to keep things diplomatic here, and Raven had just calmed down after Ruby's prior outburst. No point in backsliding into a shouting match.

"While you have no interest in helping XCOM, Miss Rose certainly does," Ozpin said. "And I believe it's safe to assume that Yang Xiao Long's current location is precisely where Ruby needs to be."

Huh. Ruby hadn't considered that.


Ruby had considered that.

"I just saved your lives," Raven said, glaring at Ozpin. "Contrary to what you might think, that wasn't on the house. You're going to have to do something for me before I even think of doing another thing for you."

"You just hide yourself away from everything that's going on, don't you?" Ruby asked. "What could you possibly want?"

Raven glared at her. "I just stuck my neck out for you. That crazy bitch probably thought I got myself killed a long time ago, and now there's a target on my back. Because of you."

"You never stopped having a target on your back," Ozpin said softly. "Ever since you inherited the essence of the Spring Maiden."

Raven's eyes flashed dangerously, and Ruby wondered if that detail was something that Raven didn't want Ozpin to reveal to Ruby. But now that she did know, Ozpin's comment made perfect sense.

She doesn't know why Salem hunts the Maidens, does she?

No. She never gave me the chance to tell her.

Well now would be a good time.

Ruby nodded in agreement. "Makes sense. If Salem doesn't find signs of a new Spring Maiden, she can guess pretty easily that the old one is still alive."

"You don't know that's how it works," Raven gritted.

"Preeeeeetty sure Ozpin knows how it works," Ruby answered, barely suppressing an eye roll.

Silence fell between the trio as Raven grappled with Ruby's claim, perhaps trying to convince herself that her guests didn't know what they were talking about. She held her hand open, and a small fire sparked to life in her palm.

"I've hid myself away out here in the woods for years, Ozpin," she said, staring into the flame. "Built a gang of bandits, living away from the machinations of your shadow war. Nobody's ever bothered me before. Why would that change now?"

"Because Salem is making her move," Ozpin answered. "Surely you've seen the news about Cinder Fall, and how she's openly asking her 'sisters' to join her under the banner of ADVENT?"

"And that fight in the slums…" Raven mused.

What was she talking about?

"What fight in the slums?"

Raven doused the fire and glanced at Ruby. "Right. You've been cut off from the rest of the world, haven't you? There was an uprising in the slums of Atlas. Ended with a big fight between Cinder and the Winter Maiden."

Concern radiated from Ozpin.

"Is Blanche okay?" he asked.

Raven shrugged. "Nobody really knows right now. Both of them looked like they were almost killed during the fight, and we haven't seen either of them since then."

"That says all you need to know, doesn't it?" Ruby commented. "First was the Fall Maiden. Then the Winter Maiden. Next is either you, or the Summer Maiden."

Raven snorted.

"First, Salem came for the Fall Maiden," Ozpin said softly. "But you did nothing, for you are not the Fall Maiden."

Ruby's eyes widened, and she shot a glance at the headmaster.

"Then, she came for the Winter Maiden. But you did nothing, for you are not the Winter Maiden."

Ruby expected Raven to roll her eyes or make a dismissive motion, but she simply stared at Ozpin.

"When Salem comes for you," Ruby asked, taking a step to her right so that she was standing next to Ozpin, "who will be left to fight for you?"

"I don't need anybody to fight for me," Raven gritted.

"And I wonder if Amber felt the same way."

Raven didn't answer.

"I don't know how much you were watching while I was Salem's prisoner," Ruby said. "If you were listening at all, though, you'd know that she is completely driven. She will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, and right now? A very important part of that goal is sitting inside you."

Ozpin nodded. "You've always been in danger, Raven. But Salem was biding her time until conditions were in her favor. And now, they are."

Ruby watched Raven's face, trying to gauge her reaction. The woman wasn't openly hostile, which was a good sign. But her guard was still up. She was still defensive. In a matter of minutes, Ozpin had rocked her worldview, just as he'd done for Ruby when they had their talk. And while the core of who Ruby was allowed her to take the news and strengthen her resolve to help, she didn't know how a selfish person like Raven would react.

"I am not joining XCOM," Raven said, putting her mask back on. "Allow me to make that perfectly clear right now. The bandit life has worked for me just fine, and I don't plan on changing that just because a madwoman is maybe planning on hunting me."

"Then allow me to make a proposal," Ozpin said.

What was he planning? Ruby didn't know what Ozpin could offer in exchange for the two of them taking a one-way trip to the Avenger. It would mean they got exactly what they wanted, but Raven? What would she get out of it?

"Allow Miss Rose passage to Yang Xiao Long," he said, "and keep me here with you in exchange."

What? No, no no no. XCOM needed Ozpin. His knowledge of Salem and her machinations. He couldn't let himself be held hostage by Raven just to get Ruby back.

Ruby wanted to say something. She was almost about to. But Ozpin glanced sharply at her. And maybe it was the angle of the sunlight, or maybe it was the particular expression on his face, but Ruby didn't see Headmaster Ozpin in that moment. She saw Central Officer Bradford.

Her Commanding Officer was making an executive decision. As Captain Rose, it was her job to not question Bradford's authority. Especially in front of someone else.

So she said nothing while Ozpin presented his offer to Raven, and the woman considered it.

"You have no use for Miss Rose," Ozpin continued. "Me, however? You can stay here with your bandits, and I will do the best I can to prepare you for the inevitable. Perhaps you are well acquainted with the combat advantages offered to you by Maidenhood, but there is much more to it than that. Even if you have no intention to join XCOM in the fight against Salem, your survival is in their best interest. Let me help you survive while Ruby helps XCOM do what they do best."

The masked woman stared at them, as she had done for much of their discussion. There was nothing left for Ozpin to say, however. Now, all they could do is wait for Raven to make her decision, and hope she made the right one.

The woman gripped the handle of her sword and slowly unsheathed it. Ruby's hand twitched as she fought the urge to ready her tree branch.

"In twenty seconds," Raven said, "I will open a link to my daughter. You will have two seconds to pass through before I sever it. The link will not be opened a second time."

Ruby nodded. She had a lot of questions she wanted to ask. Most important was how long Raven planned to keep Ozpin. But she knew that she needed to trust the Headmaster, the Central Officer, to handle that issue. Right now, she'd been assigned an order. One that she intended to carry out.

Ozpin didn't say anything, either. It seemed that both he and Ruby had the same idea: Raven had made up her mind to let Ruby through, and it was best to not say anything that might accidentally change that until after Ruby was on the other side.

Raven raised her sword and flicked it in one swift motion. Black and red energy swirled to life, and Ruby didn't think twice before hurling herself through it.

Just like before, the sensation reminded her of a Hyperwave jump with how quickly it happened. One moment, she was in the middle of a forest with Ozpin and Raven. And the next?

Well, the shocked glances from everyone in the (very full) command room of the Avenger told Ruby that Raven had held up her end of the deal.

Vahlen. Shen. Bradford.

Mac. Annette. Nicho.

Jaune. Blake. Weiss.


Nobody said a word, which worked just fine for Ruby. Her throat was struggling to function at the moment.

Yang was the first one to remember how speaking worked. And even then, her voice was so small.

"... Ruby?"

And all at once, reality hit Ruby.

She was home.

A/N: I had the distinct fortune of witnessing a Haka firsthand about three and a half years ago. The raw, emotional power is something that I hoped I conveyed in Velvet's scene, which was probably the part of this chapter that I've had planned for the longest. I know at least one astute reader remembered Aika's promise during the chapter in Avitus, and correctly guessed that there would be a tribute in this chapter. I did my best to research the Haka and try to present it in a respectful manner in this chapter. If there are any Kiwi readers who aren't happy with any details in my description of the Haka, please let me know. It is important to me that I have made that scene as genuine as possible.

A couple of other things to discuss before I sign off here. First, thank you all for sticking with this story. It always floors me how much interest and support this story has gathered over the years, and it means a lot to hear how much you enjoyed my work. For that, I am incredibly grateful. Thank you.

Second, as I've mentioned before, this is the end of RU, but very obviously not the end for the REMCOM Project. I'm stepping away for a year to take a break, but also to plan ahead for how to finish this story. There are things that I know need to happen, but there are also a lot of things that I need to hash out to get the gang from Point A to Point B to Point C. I want to do my best to do it right, to equip myself to round out this journey with a plan that I know will provide an engaging story from start to finish. As (I believe) I've mentioned before, the Discord server is a great place to stop by if you wish to share your thoughts and ideas about how to help create that story. I can't promise that all ideas will be accepted and incorporated, but they WILL be listened to and considered.

Third, I do think it's important that I continue to write in some capacity during this break to keep improving my craft. This will most likely be in the form of TFTA chapters about things/characters/ideas that I want to explore or expand upon. I don't want to start any other major projects during this break, so TFTA seems like the best way to keep things simple while still letting the writing feel meaningful. However, I have written quite a few Striped Sweater drabbles for the enjoyment of the denizens of the Discord server (and enjoyed the Striped Sweater drabbles written by some of the other denizens of the server), so I may or may not decide to formalize the bits and pieces into an actual story on here. That story would obviously be put on hold when RU 2: Electric Boogaloo goes live, but Striped Sweater is definitely an amusing thing to write.

Fourth, now that I'm not focusing on getting RU all written up, I'll have time to get around to getting RW and RU posted to AO3. I imagine this isn't important for many (most?) of you, but for anyone who finds that news valuable... just giving you a heads up, I guess.

Fifth, this seems like a really good time to have one final QnA for RU on the Discord server. As usual, I'll be waiting a week before the QnA goes live, so I'll have it start on February 29th (a Saturday) so that people have a chance to read this last chapter and maybe (hopefully?) have some questions that they'd like answered. Since y'all know about the Big Secret at this point, I shouldn't be saying, "Sorry, spoilers!" ever other question.

Lastly, again... thank you for enjoying this story with me. I really can't say it enough.