A/N: Welcome back, everyone. I'll keep this short so that you can dive into Chapter One, and I'll have a longer A/N at the end for those interested.
I hope you enjoy.
There were several seconds of silence. Relieved silence from Ruby, upon finally realizing that she had made it back to where she belonged. Stunned silence, she assumed, from everyone else in the room, upon realizing who it was that had somehow managed to get dumped into the Avenger. A quick look around told Ruby that she was in one of the ship's conference rooms that Bradford used for staff meetings. Bunch of (currently occupied) seats formed a semi-circle around the room, with a projection board at the front with a small podium for whoever was providing the briefing. Ruby had been dumped dead center in the middle of the seating ring.
None of the room's occupants said a word, as though they were scared that Ruby was merely an apparition, and something as simple as a sound would blow her away.
Yang was the first who was willing to find out.
Ruby Rose smiled.
And just like that, the room exploded. Chairs skidded back as the members of the room leapt to their feet. Blake, Yang, Bradford, Annette, and all the others started to step around and move towards Ruby, a mixture of awe and joy on their faces.
Ruby's attention snapped to the sound of her best friend's voice, and the young huntress's eyes went wide at the sight of a pistol in Weiss's hand.
A pistol that was trained on Ruby's head.
"W-Weiss?" Ruby asked. Her voice wavering. Her partner's face was a mixture of emotions. Fatigue. Fear. Tentative relief. But the gun was telling Ruby that she was missing something.
"Did you all forget," Weiss said, and the room was quiet enough that her voice carried even though it was barely above a whisper. "Did you all really forget that we just finished dealing with a mad scientist whose work allowed him to make obedient little infiltrators that are almost impossible to detect?"
That sounded like a story that Ruby needed to catch up on after this all got resolved. But if Weiss was telling the truth…?
"C'mon, Elsa," Nicho said. "Do you really think-"
"I'm not taking chances," Weiss answered, stepping around her seat and slowly approaching Ruby without once breaking eye contact. Despite the stern look Weiss was giving her while she spoke, Ruby could see so much pain in her eyes. Feel so much pain in her thoughts...
Annette tried next. "Weiss. She's clean. I was able to confirm that almost as soon as she showed up."
Weiss shook her head, frustrated by the idea that she was the only one in this room who might be thinking things through. "We don't know if she's the same as the others. What if she isn't bugged?"
Ruby's words were enough to cut off the brewing argument. She looked at her friend and offered her best, warmest smile. Even though she was so, so tired, Ruby did her best to hold on for just a little longer. Weiss deserved it.
"If you've been dealing with undetectable spies," Ruby continued, "then I want to make sure that you know it's me."
She glanced at her sister. If Yang's face could be described with a single word, it would be "pride." Pride that, despite having no idea what Ruby had gone through to get here, her baby sister's trademark empathy was still well enough intact for Ruby to be willing to help Weiss erase any doubt that she was the real thing.
The young woman turned her attention back to Weiss and asked, "What do you want me to do?"
Weiss's cold exterior was already cracking. Just a little, but also just enough for Ruby to be confident that she could do this.
"How did we first meet?" Weiss asked.
Ah. One of these sorts of tests. Her smile grew as she recalled the more innocent times when Weiss's biggest concern was…
"... When I tripped over your suitcase filled with Dust," Ruby answered, "apologized profusely, and then sneezed out a small explosion."
Weiss raised an eyebrow.
"... Into your face," Ruby clarified.
"Correct," Weiss answered, offering a curt nod. "And what is our team attack called?"
Ruby almost asked, 'Which one?' She knew, however, that there was a specific answer that Weiss was looking for.
More of Weiss's facade was cracking.
"What," Weiss asked, lowering her pistol and holstering it, "was the first promise I made to you when we were in our first semester at Beacon?"
When she realized what answer Weiss was looking for, it took all of Ruby's self-restraint to not rush forward and throw her arms around her friend right then and there.
"That you would be the best teammate I'd ever had."
This was no longer a quiz by Weiss to make sure that Ruby really was who she claimed to be. This was Weiss reaffirming what the two of them meant to each other after they'd been apart for a painfully long time. She had made a promise to Ruby back then, back when she was still just a haughty heiress who had been stuck with the dopiest team leader at Beacon. And she had kept that promise. Throughout their schooling, throughout the Long War, throughout their travels on Earth…
Weiss delivered on her promise. In spades.
Ruby grew concerned, though, when she saw Weiss's expression take a slight downturn. It seemed that her partner had one more question.
"And what was the last promise you made me before we parted in Vale?"
Her last promise…?
"I… promised that the cavalry would come for you," Ruby answered quietly. "And that… that I was the cavalry."
It no longer mattered to Ruby if Weiss's questioning was finished. It no longer mattered that launching herself at her best friend wasn't 'proper decorum.' She needed Weiss to know how she felt. The distance between them wasn't far anymore, as Weiss had slowly advanced towards Ruby while she asked her questions, but it was still too far for what the two of them needed.
Guess it's up to me to make the first move, she thought with a wry smile. As usual.
Ruby zipped up to Weiss in a flurry of petals before her friend could even utter any kind of protest and wrapped her in a hug that almost knocked the two of them off their feet.
"I'm sorry, Weiss," Ruby said, her voice muted by having her face buried in Weiss's neck. "I should have been there, I promised that I'd be there, and you had to deal with so much, and I wasn't able to help, and it sounds like there was mind control stuff, and you had to worry about me missing, and I'm sure you guys had no idea where I was, because I honestly didn't either, and-and-and-I-"
All it took was a single action from Weiss to cut off Ruby's ramblings. The simple gesture of two arms gently wrapping themselves around Ruby's waist and back was enough to silence her as Weiss returned the hug. Ruby almost choked, and she wasn't sure if it was because more words and apologies wanted to force their way out of her throat, or because she was suffocating under the compassion that she didn't quite feel that she deserved.
"It's okay, Ruby," Weiss answered. Her voice, trained to be musical and projecting, also carried with it the ability to be like a gentle salve for Ruby's heart. When she said that it was okay, it wasn't just words. Ruby felt the empathy behind them. She allowed the healing intent to flow through Weiss's touch.
Ruby's knees gave out. Her body was exhausted after everything she'd put it through, and it was only her force of will that had really kept her standing. And now? That willpower broke like a dam, and the little Captain suddenly found that the only thing she wanted was to just stay here in Weiss's arms and rest. Weiss guided the two of them to the floor, and there they sat while they held each other.
It had been so long. It felt like years since Ruby last saw Weiss. Being without her while working with XCOM was hard enough, but when Salem had her? Ruby's heart throbbed at the memory of how alone she felt. At least Weiss had the covert operatives to keep her company. She didn't want to imagine how bad it would have been if her friend was all alone under the cruel, unyielding thumb of her father.
A polite cough carried from across the room, and Ruby let out a quiet sigh.
Right. It wasn't just Weiss who was here.
Weiss helped Ruby get back up on her feet, and the Captain tried to quickly (and discretely) wipe her eyes before turning to face everyone else.
"She's clean," Weiss announced.
Bradford tried and failed to hide his amused smile while he nodded at Weiss's assessment.
"Thank you, Elsa," He said before his attention returned to Ruby. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who would love to speak with you, Captain Rose. Chief among them is me. However… I think it would be best if you had the chance to lie down and rest first."
Ruby heard a familiar (and welcome) voice pop into her head.
I won't lie, kiddo. You look awful.
Ruby answered with a weary nod, "That would be greatly appreciated, sir. Thank you."
"Very well, then. I'll have Doctor Vahlen and Weiss escort you to the medbay." He paused, then added, "It's good to see you again, Ruby. The time that you were gone was pretty agonizing for all of us."
A smile crossed Ruby's face before she mustered a quick salute. The leaden feeling that was growing in her arms, however, made the gesture more half-hearted than Ruby would have liked. "Likewise, Central. Though at the same time, it feels like it hasn't even been an hour since you gave me your last command."
As she turned on her heel to leave the room, she caught a glimpse of Nora grinning, and heard the thunderous teen speak up.
"...okay, so now can we all get up and hug her?"
Ruby did her best to brace herself as the screeching of sliding chairs and the shuffling of oncoming feet reached her tired ears.
Gods, was it good to be back.
Lily Shen ripped down the hallway, still holding the wrench she'd been using to tune her latest project down in the Skunkworks when she got the message from her father.
Our little Rose has bloomed.
It was cryptic enough to be slightly confusing if anyone else happened upon Lily's scroll, but obvious enough that she knew exactly what her dad was talking about.
It meant that they had some good news on the Avenger.
Feet pounded on the ship's floor while blood pounded in Lily's ears. The young engineer skidded to a halt when she reached an intersection before revving back up again once she'd made her hard right turn. The medical wing was in the opposite direction but Lily needed to pick someone else up first. The person who was to thank for the stamina that was allowing her to sprint through the Avenger at breakneck speed, actually.
Coming to a stop in front of one particular door that she'd come to know oh-so-well by now, Lily practically tore it off its hinges and stood there panting while a startled Pyrrha Nikos looked up from her bed.
"She's back!" Lily declared.
She was certain that if Jaune knew, then Pyrrha also knew. But just in case Jaune didn't know, Lily wanted to make sure that her third best friend wasn't similarly in the dark.
Pyrrha tried to feign ignorance, but if Lily had learned one thing during their time together it was that Pyrrha was a terrible liar. Still, she appreciated the effort in this instance.
"RUBY." Lily answered, doing her best to not scream at Pyrrha in her excitement. "Now come on, we gotta go see her!"
"Lily, she's probably getting some sleep after her ordeal…"
"We can be quiet when we get there!"
The suppressed giggle from Pyrrha made Lily briefly reflect on how absurd her words were when combined with the tone she used to say them.
"I just want her to know that we missed her…"
Pyrrha smiled and gently pulled off the bed's comforter so she could scoot over to the edge and get to her feet.
"Very well, Lily. But we really do need to make sure we aren't disturbing her once we get there."
The fact that she managed to avoid fist-pumping at Pyrrha agreeing to her plan was enough evidence for Lily that she was plenty capable of not disturbing the tired Ruby in the medbay. She stepped into the room, moved around the bed and turned away from Pyrrha once she was only a few feet apart from her friend.
She looked over her shoulder to see Pyrrha giving her a curious look. "I'm… sorry?"
"We gotta get over to the medbay before Ruby falls asleep!"
"So you want me to…"
"Get on!" Lily repeated.
Lily knew it might seem offensive to any other person who was recovering from a mobility handicap to be told that they needed to take the offer of a piggyback ride because they were too slow otherwise. However, Lily also liked to think that she knew her friend pretty well, and she knew that Pyrrha wouldn't see any ill intent behind the offer and wouldn't be insulted by it.
"It'll be good for my endurance training to run down the hall with you on my back," She added, waggling her eyebrows, "and it'll be good for your strength training to hold on."
Pyrrha pondered the offer for a moment, then grinned. "Well in that case…"
Man, everything was coming up Lily today.
It took less than a minute for Pyrrha to attach herself to Lily's back, and so the two girls were off down the hallway before the younger woman had a chance to completely catch her breath. Which, Lily reminded herself, was good for her cardio.
After a few turns, a flight of stairs, and a short elevator ride, Lily made a turn onto another hallway where Penny, Nichole (in one of her Gremlin platforms), and Gidjit were waiting for her.
"Pickup complete!" Lily declared, and Pyrrha waved from her back.
"Weiss hasn't left the medical wing," Penny reported. "So Ruby is either still awake in there, or the two of them have fallen asleep together."
"If they've fallen asleep already, we will have to wait another time to say hello," Pyrrha reminded the group.
Lily let out a quiet groan. "I know, I know. Which is why we should hurry!"
"ACCESSING SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS… SWEEP COMPLETE. HALLWAYS ARE CURRENTLY CLEAR. RECOMMEND MAXIMUM MOBILITY."
That was good enough for Lily. Her heart started to pound as she sprinted down the hallway, Pyrrha whispering words of encouragement from her back. Penny had no trouble keeping up on her left while Nichole latched herself onto Gidjit's frame as he used his impulse engines to keep pace on her right.
Left turn… right turn… straight at the split… aaaaaaaaand….
"Here…!" Lily breathed, skidding to a halt in front of the door to the medical wing.
Just before she could reach out to grab the handle, it turned on its own. The door gently swung open, and Lily was face-to-face with Ruby's partner.
"Oh!" Weiss said, startled to see a full complement of guests standing just outside the doorway. She quickly recovered and put on a smile. "Hello, Lily."
Lily, however, couldn't hide the look of disappointment on her face. "She's…"
"Asleep?" Weiss guessed. "Yes. Didn't take very long, actually. She's been riding on an adrenaline high for who-knows-how-long, so once she finally had a chance to just rest?"
Pyrrha let herself down from Lily's back, but kept a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sure she'll be delighted to know how excited you were to see her when you found out that she made it back," Pyrrha said. "And I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to catch up with her down in Engineering after she's back on her feet."
Lily nodded. "Yeah…"
"We could set up camp outside the medical wing!" Penny suggested.
Nichole did a little flip in agreement. "That way we won't disturb Ruby while she sleeps, but we'll be ready and waiting to greet her when she finally wakes up!"
"I'll go get some of our equipment from the Skunkworks so that we can keep busy while we wait!"
"Penny wait-!" Weiss said, reaching out to grab her friend, but Penny was already halfway down the hall.
"I WILL MONITOR DECIBEL READINGS TO ENSURE THEY REMAIN ACCEPTABLE."
Lily giggled while Weiss pinched the bridge of her nose.
Even if Lily couldn't see Ruby just yet, at least she could keep watch outside and be ready at a moment's notice for when her friend was ready for visitors.
It was the thought that counted, right?
Ruby let out a steadying breath as she stood outside the briefing room. Her stomach was currently churning, and she wasn't sure if it was the result of nerves or a side effect of eating too many of the "welcome back" gifts left on her bed by her fellow operatives. She found herself torn between cursing herself for over-indulging on the sweets, candies, and cookies, and kicking herself for not bringing a few of the snacks with her to what was almost sure to be an unpleasant experience.
Not that anyone could blame her. After all, the lack of chocolate chips wasn't even the worst part about Salem's land of darkness...but it was still an affront to humanity nonetheless.
"Don't worry. I'll be right there with you."
A hand gently squeezed Ruby's, and she glanced over at Weiss with a smile. Ever since Ruby had returned, there was rarely a moment where Weiss wasn't attached to her at the hip. And given how Ruby had spent an indeterminate amount of time painfully and suffocatingly alone, the gesture was probably the best thing Weiss could have done for her.
"I know. It's just…"
"A lot?" Weiss guessed.
Ruby nodded. "Yeah… it's a lot."
Weiss let go of Ruby's hand and opened the door for the two of them.
"Well, whatever it is you're going to tell us? We'll be ready for it. We survived an alien invasion on another world, and we're dealing with the largest crisis in recent history on Remnant. I'd say we're pretty good at rolling with the punches by this point."
Ruby suppressed a chuckle. It wasn't going to be long before Weiss found out that the two worlds were one and the same. So were the two crises, actually. But neither of those details changed the fact that Ruby's partner was right about one thing: if anyone could deal with this, it was XCOM. Ruby didn't know anybody else who knew how to do the right thing quite like her family. She'd be able to tell them the truth about Remnant, and they would be able to help Ruby protect her home.
The Captain walked into the briefing room with more confidence in her step than she had a few minutes ago.
Bradford was already in there, of course. So was the rest of her team, as well as Jaune's. Seeing Pyrrha sitting next to him brought a small smile to Ruby's face as she continued to scan the people seated around the room.
It seemed like not everyone was present yet. MacAuley was here, but Beagle wasn't. Neither was the Archon. Maybe they were deployed on an op in Atlas, or something? She'd have to ask Weiss about it later. Or… maybe not Weiss. She had been embedded in the kingdom for a while, so maybe she wouldn't know.
Annette! Ruby caught the eye of her friend (grandmother? Great-great-great… something grandmother?) and realized that she could ask Annette about the missing people. She'd definitely know. And besides, there was a lot that Ruby needed to talk to her about. Preferably in private.
Weiss took a seat with Blake and Yang while Ruby moved to the chair in front of the podium at the head of the room. It would have been nice to sit next to the rest of her team, but this was a debriefing and all eyes and ears would be on her. She needed to hear everyone in the room, as well as be heard by them. Besides, she was a big girl. She could afford to be ten feet away from her best friend for a few minutes.
Ten feet away was better than ten thousand miles away, in any case.
Ruby took her seat and looked at Bradford. The other Bradford. It was going to take a while for her to get used to the fact that there were two Bradfords on Remnant. As it was, Ruby's brain still got hung up from time to time when she remembered that the two of them had already met. Now she was going to ask Bradford to help her track down Bradford.
It felt a little strange that, even though she'd met and known Ozpin before meeting Bradford, this was the one that she felt closer with. Then again, Ozpin spent many lifetimes becoming a very jaded, distant version of the man sitting in front of her. Everyone that Ozpin knew was dead.
... Or twisted into an unrecognizable shadow of who they once were.
This Bradford, however? He had his fair share of tragedy and loss, but he still carried the soul of XCOM with him. He didn't have lifetimes upon lifetimes of suffering to grind him down into a man who was simply going through the motions of what he thought he was supposed to do. This Bradford would be able to avoid that cruel fate, and maybe he could help reignite within Ozpin the fire that had once burned when he was still the Central Officer.
Just seeing him sitting there already helped Ruby feel invigorated.
The door opened again, and Ruby's heart leapt at the sight of her uncle, as well as Professor Goodwitch. Of course they'd be requested at the debrief, and it was a relief to see that they were okay.
"Alright," Bradford said, doing a quick glance around the room. "That looks like everyone, so we can begin."
Alright, so Beagle was definitely out on an op.
Bradford turned his attention to Ruby. "Captain Rose, thank you for your willingness to undergo this debrief so soon after your return. We understand that your experience has been… difficult."
"That's one way to describe it," Ruby agreed. "However, I've had the chance to get some rest, which is really what I needed. Everything I learned is too important to hold off on telling you for any longer than necessary."
"Given the brief warning that was sent by your father, I don't doubt it."
That's right, her dad wasn't here. The last she saw of him was when he was barely alive after their run-in with the puppet of her mother. If XCOM had received a warning from him, then that must have meant he was able to recover and reconnect with someone who knew how to get a message out. That would have been Junior, right?
Ruby nodded at Bradford's question. "What was the warning?"
"Ruby Status Grey."
Ah. So they didn't have the full story from Tai, then. That made sense, though. Can't risk anything more than the barest of information over a long-range signal. All XCOM needed to know was that Ruby was missing. The rest of the details could wait until later. And now, it seemed, was that later.
"Dad and I were visiting my mother's grave, following your clearance for the trip," Ruby said. She recalled the nightmares she had about her mother's voice telling her to come home. She still wasn't sure how that had happened. How did Moira know where she was? Maybe the Ethereals could track her? But how?
… Were they using Asaru as some sort of unwitting signal booster? Annette had been the victim of something similar during the first base defense back on Earth, so it was certainly possible. Although...
"We were ambushed at the grave site, and I was captured by an agent of Salem…"
She paused for a moment and turned apologetically to Yang. "... One that was using Summer's body as a host."
To her credit, Yang did an admirable job of keeping her emotions in check. But that initial twitch of anger and revulsion did not slip past Ruby's enhanced senses, and neither did the slight squeak of straining, clenching steel.
Qrow, however, didn't bother to hide his shock. "Tell me you're joking."
"At a debrief?" MacAuley asked. "Captain's better than that."
Bradford closed his eyes and said nothing for a while. Partly to let the rest of the room settle down, and partly to keep himself from reacting poorly to the news.
"Do you have any intel on the entity that was controlling her?" He asked. "Was it Salem herself? Some sort of long range link?"
Ruby sighed. Might as well get the first crazy part over with.
"No, Central. It was an Ethereal."
MacAuley swore. "You're shitting me."
Even with the dire situation Ruby was trying to relay to XCOM, it was hard for her to not giggle at MacAuley's sudden 180. She could imagine Beagle smacking him upside the head if the Captain was here at the debrief.
"This entire debrief is going to get weird," Ruby warned. "But I have its truthfulness on good authority."
"Whose authority?" Goodwitch asked. "Because we all know that Salem would happily feed you lies to confuse and demoralize you."
"Do you trust the word of Ozpin?" Ruby asked.
The room fell silent.
Qrow took out his flask, looked at it, and put it away with a shake of his head. "Well I guess that explains why Ozpin vanished without a trace."
"We told you guys about that after we saw them fight below Beacon," Nora pointed out.
If only Nora knew that she had watched them fight in the Anthill.
"You are correct, Operative Valkyrie. However, there was the possibility that Ozpin had evaded capture," Goodwitch said. "But if Captain Rose came across Ozpin while she was captured by Salem…"
"That is what happened," Ruby confirmed. "He was Salem's prisoner when I arrived at her stronghold. I assume he's been there since the Battle of Vale."
"He didn't get out with you?" Qrow asked.
Was now the time to bring up Raven? Probably not. If Ruby told them she knew where to find Ozpin, that would probably derail the debrief. She could bring it up at the end, but the rest of the information was important enough that she wanted to get to that first.
"Oh, we escaped together," Ruby said. "However, he has some… business to take care of and had me return to the Avenger by myself."
"Through a portal," Bradford commented.
Ruby saw Qrow about to speak, so she shot him a look. Glynda picked up on it as well, and she gripped the man's shoulder to firmly remind him that this was Ruby's debrief. Yang, thankfully, said nothing.
"Through a portal," Ruby clarified. "We can talk more about Ozpin's current whereabouts in a minute, but I'd first like to cover what he told me."
Bradford nodded in agreement. Debrief first, then a plan for a way forward.
"Alright, so what else do you have to share, Captain?"
Where should she even start? That Remnant was Earth? That Ozpin was Bradford? That Annette was the original Silver-Eyed Warrior? She'd have to explain the concept of the Silver-Eyed Warriors to begin with for that one, though Qrow and Glynda probably already knew of them.
Ruby took a deep breath and chose to start with the most relevant piece of information for the war at hand. "So I mentioned that an Ethereal was puppeting my mother. The reason is because the Ethereals are effectively stranded here, and are trying to successfully conquer Remnant in order to achieve their primary goal. It is almost certainly the same goal they had when they came to conquer Earth…"
She explained the illness suffered by the Ethereals, how their bodies atrophied and decayed, and how they were in search of a suitable vessel that could properly and permanently support their psionic energies. Ruby had to take her time with the debrief to make sure she had the details correct. After all, she only heard everything once from Ozpin, and that was while she was still in a mentally fatigued state.
Looking back on the last couple of days, it was a miracle of adrenaline and stubborn determination to not die that carried her through to Raven.
"So they tried it on Earth," Bradford mused, "and all of the other planets before that. Somehow they're stranded here, though, and without their massive alien invasion force. Does Ozpin know how many different fleets the Ethereals have? Why can't the Earth fleet, for example, come to the aid of the Remnant group?"
Time for the next big bombshell. Now Ruby knew how Ozpin must have felt when he was revealing all of this to Ruby for the first time.
"That's, ah… because Earth and Remnant aren't spatially different," Ruby explained. "It's not like the fleet can travel across the galaxy from one planet to reach the other."
"They're dimensionally different," Vahlen observed.
Of course she'd be the one to figure it out immediately.
"And when you say they aren't spatially different…" She continued.
Of course she'd be the one to figure it out immediately.
Ruby nodded. "I'm saying that they are spatially the same."
"Wait," Yang cut in. "Maybe this is some science talk that I'm too punchy to understand, but it sounds like you're saying that Earth and Remnant are the same planet."
"Congratulations, Yang. It looks like you aren't too punchy to understand," Blake said.
"The Hyperwave Relay?" Vahlen asked.
"The Hyperwave Relay," Ruby confirmed.
The doctor was already pulling up her files and notes and scanning through them even as Ruby spoke. "This does explain some of the anomalous data that my staff encountered while we were still researching the relay before the Disconnect. Hopefully they've reached the same conclusion on their own, and can start working towards how to re-establish a link between dimensions."
The doctor frowned at some detail or another on her tablet and added, "Quite the tall order, I know, but I trust that they're working towards that goal at least. And at least this confirms Volt's theory."
"Wait," Bradford said, "Volt knew that Remnant was Earth?"
"Theorized," Vahlen corrected. "But yes. Did you know he's a hobby stargazing enthusiast? Because he noticed that most of the constellations he remembered from Earth's sky were startlingly similar."
"And he didn't say anything?" Bradford asked.
Shen chuckled. "Well, he said something to Vahlen. And honestly, I don't blame him for not bringing it up, considering how ludicrous it sounds. Who wouldn't want to avoid being known as the unhinged conspiracy theorist just because they saw some stars in the sky?"
"But surely you would have said something, Doctor," Bradford said to Vahlen.
The Chief Scientist still had her eyes glued to her notes. "Not without irrefutable evidence first. The stars were certainly a compelling detail, but the fact that I could think of several other explanations for similarity told me that the possibility wasn't strong enough to bring it forward."
Annette, is it just me, or is Bradford mentally grumbling at not being told about this?
You mean you've never noticed him doing it before? The Boss internalizes his frustration all the time just so that it won't show.
That can't be healthy.
He makes it work.
"To get back to the point," Ruby said, "Both planets are the same, but exist in separate dimensions. Additionally, Remnant is much further into the future than Earth because -and here comes the next crazy bit- Remnant had its own Long War with the aliens years and years ago."
Bradford stared at Ruby.
"If it makes you feel better, Central, you're taking this a lot better than I did when Ozpin told me," Ruby said.
I can tell you're lying.
I'm trying to be nice. And I was running on fumes when Ozpin told me, so my reaction actually was muted.
She could see the gears working in Bradford's head as he tried to parse the news. The rest of the people in the room were similarly trying to take Ruby's words in stride, and it was interesting to see how they all reacted differently.
Vahlen looked almost excited. Knowledge was power, after all, and any information that Ruby could provide would help her adjust and improve her models and theories.
Shen looked passive, simply trying to learn what Ruby had to say and consider what sort of technology and equipment would be necessary to overcome the challenges they would face.
Ruby's team was in shock. Why wouldn't they be? Remnant had been their world for almost twenty years, and now Ruby was telling them the truth of its genesis? In particular, Ruby was worried about how Blake would handle the knowledge that Salem engineered the faunus specifically for the purpose of becoming vessels for the Ethereals.
Qrow and Glynda seemed to be taking things in stride, especially since Ruby told them that all of this came from Ozpin. She wasn't really familiar with the specifics of their relationship with him, but they obviously trusted him enough to accept the outlandish information that Ruby was relaying.
And the XCOM officers? This was just another Tuesday. Bradford had the job of figuring out what the hell to do, and all they needed to worry about was doing it.
"Do we know any details about Remnant's Long War?" Vahlen asked.
Ruby smirked. "Is there an answer you're hoping to hear, Doctor?"
"More professional curiosity than hope, Captain," Vahlen said. "But if you're calling it a Long War, how similar was it to ours?"
"Identical in a lot more ways than some people might be comfortable with," Ruby answered.
Should she reveal Salem's identity? It was one thing to tell everyone that Ozpin was Bradford, since he was the 'good guy,' but telling Vahlen that her alternate self became twisted into Remnant's ultimate evil? Ruby knew that the doctor already struggled with how emotionally detached and coldly methodical she was before Weiss helped her. The idea that their Vahlen, given the right (wrong?) circumstances, could have ended up in the same way as Remnant's Vahlen…
If it was Ruby, that thought would give her nightmares for the rest of her life.
But if Ruby started keeping secrets from the people she trusted just because she was afraid they wouldn't like it? The controlled shock on the faces of Glynda and Qrow told her that Ozpin had never told them any of this. How many other secrets did he keep? How much would it have helped if he didn't keep those secrets? Did Ruby really want to be like that?
A thought came to her while she chose her next words.
I've made more mistakes than any man, woman, or child on this planet.
What if keeping secrets was one of them?
She would tell Bradford and Vahlen about Salem's identity, then. Shen, too, of course. But she needed to do it privately, for Vahlen's sake. Then it would be up to them to decide if they would tell others about Salem, and who.
But it was time to reveal one identity, at least. Ruby turned to Bradford and said, "You, for example, existed on Remnant."
She paused for a moment to let the Central Officer (and the rest of the silent room) process that statement before adding, "...And still exist on Remnant."
The silence became a lot more emotionally charged after that. The expressions around the room made it clear that everyone was trying to figure out what she meant. And while they were doing so in silence, the mental assault on Ruby's ESP almost made her wince.
"Who…?" Bradford asked, but it wasn't Ruby who supplied a name.
"Ozpin," Shen said quietly.
Ruby beamed with pride. "How did you know?"
"When we first met," Shen answered, "I was taken aback by how warmly he greeted me. Almost as if I was someone he already knew. He tried to explain it away, saying that it was good to meet someone that Captain Rose spoke so highly off, but I could never shake the feeling that there was more to it."
"He's right," Glynda murmured. "Qrow and I were there for that meeting. I remember being surprised by Ozpin's reaction."
"But since Ozpin is, well… Ozpin…" Qrow said.
Glynda nodded and finished, "We didn't think anything of it."
"This debriefing," Bradford said, looking up at Ruby. "It's going to take a while, isn't it?"
"We're starting to scratch the surface, yeah," Ruby agreed.
MacAuley snorted. "Shit, kid. We're gonna need to factor in bathroom breaks at this rate."
"Bet you're regretting that coffee right about now, aren't you?" Jaune said with a chuckle.
Ruby couldn't help but smile. She had just hit the room with some seriously heavy implications about the nature of Remnant… and yet they were still capable of making crude jokes. As strange as it sounded, this was why she trusted XCOM more than anyone else to do what needed to be done.
But while the room was blowing off some steam, Ruby wanted to organize a more private meeting.
Annette? Before we get too deep into things, could you get a message to Bradford, Vahlen, and Shen that I'd like to have a meeting after this one with just you guys? There's more that I need to talk about, but… not to the whole room.
There was a pause, then…
No questions. No coy remarks. Just recognition that the request was important, and acknowledgement that it was carried out.
The rest of the debrief played out in a fashion similar to the first part. The bombshells were met with less and less shock each time they were dropped, thankfully, but surprise still splashed across everyone's faces at almost every other sentence out of Ruby's mouth.
The destruction of Earth after the war… Annette and Asaru's sacrifice… the Maidens… Salem's plot to work with the Ethereals to shape Remnant…
Ruby was careful on that last one to not associate Salem with Vahlen, instead leaving the explanation at, "the Ethereals found a willing assistant, and they began to work together. That assistant became the person everyone knew as Salem."
There were questions about everything, jokes cracked often enough to avoid the tension from getting too heavy, but more than anything else? There was patience. Everyone wanted Ruby to tell her story, and they were willing to wait for her to tell it the way she needed to. The support and encouragement was a breath of fresh air.
"That's… everything, I think," Ruby said.
Jaune cleared his throat. "So just to summarize, and to make sure I caught everything… Earth is an alternate universe Remnant. But when the Ethereals lost the Long War on Remnant, they triggered a cataclysmic event that effectively reset the planet. The Ethereals survived, and they used the Grimm to shape the planet into something that would allow the survivors of the event to grow into people strong enough to become human vessels for the psionic spirits of the Ethereals. And now they are engaged in a shadow war to either capture all four maidens to re-create Asaru and find out how he was able to bond with Annette, or to capture our Annette to study her and figure out what makes her different enough to be bond compatible."
"You forgot all the stuff about Bradford becoming nearly-immortal and the Ethereals discovering Salem as a useful puppet," Ruby answered with a weary smirk, "But yes, your summary explains the motives of our enemy. They're becoming more aggressive now because Salem's plan to trap an alternate-universe Annette worked, and because their pawn has been successful in stealing first one, now two fragments of Asaru's soul. So they are making progress on both of their perceived tracks to victory."
The room grew quiet at Ruby's reminder that the Ethereals were currently winning this new war.
"So Salem will be turning her attention to Mistral and Vacuo, then," MacAuley noted. "She's already picked up the Maiden souls from Vale and Atlas, so they aren't really important to her anymore, right?"
"She knows XCOM is still in Atlas, and therefore so is Annette," Blake remarked.
That… was a concerning point. If capturing Annette was indeed Salem's contingency plan, she wouldn't just ignore the fact that she knew exactly where her target was at this moment.
"Do you think a direct attack on the ship is possible?" Bradford asked.
Qrow shoved himself off of the back wall and stepped forward.
"Anything's possible at this point, but probable? I don't think so. Ruby's intel about Salem sticking to the shadows matches my experience when I worked with Oz. If nobody knows she's even there, the witch has a much easier time of getting what she wants without resistance. An attack on us to kidnap Durand would draw attention. Raise questions. No, she'd rather steal away the Major when nobody is looking…"
"Such as from the Atlas prison system if we're found guilty in the upcoming trial…" Ren said.
Oh, right. That was the other Goliath in the room. Well, one of many at least.
XCOM was about to be publicly tried by the Atlesian government.
Weiss had given Ruby a quick summary on their latest operation, so she generally knew why Atlas was upset about XCOM blowing up the lab belonging to one of their scientists. However, they just needed to be informed about how unconscionably evil Merlot was, and XCOM would be golden, right?
At least… that would be the case in a perfect world. Ruby wasn't naive enough anymore to believe that Remnant fell into that category.
It was a good thing XCOM had other people who specialized in subterfuge, because Ruby hadn't even considered Ren's point. But it made sense. Make XCOM look bad, have them arrested and locked away, then capture the target using Salem's network of agents. It would be easy to do a switch in the system to just make her disappear, and then the Ethereals would have what they wanted.
Should they hide Annette away? Send her to Vale to lay low or something? No, she'd never agree to that. And if they could ensure her safety by keeping her out in the public eye, at least while they were docked in Atlas, that should be enough… right?
People were talking amongst themselves in the room, and Bradford seemed content to let the sidebar conversations run their course before calling everyone back to order. After all, if any of those discussions raised an interesting point, they would surely make their way back to him sooner or later.
Once the chatter died down, Bradford raised his hand to restore order and return the group's attention back to Ruby.
"You said you know Ozpin's whereabouts?" He asked.
Ruby nodded. "I escaped with him, and we were both rescued as we tried to fight our way through the Grimm hordes hunting us down so that Salem could recapture us."
"You were rescued?"
Ruby was about to answer when Qrow interjected. "Still surprised she stuck her neck out for you."
"Why?" Yang asked. "She did the same for me once."
"Yeah," Qrow answered. "That was your one and only."
"It sounds like you all know who the rescuer is," Bradford said, though he looked concerned by the way Qrow described Ruby's savior.
After meeting the woman herself, though, Ruby couldn't exactly blame her uncle.
"Raven," Qrow, Ruby, and Yang said in near-perfect unison.
"Raven Branwen," Glynda clarified.
Bradford didn't look surprised, and Ruby wondered if he already knew about Qrow's sister, or it was his business to act like he already knew and then to find out for real later.
"Do you know where to find her?" He asked.
"Unfortunately," Qrow said, pulling out his flask again and uncorking it this time, "yes."
Ruby would want to talk with Yang after this. Surely she was conflicted between the opportunity to finally meet her mother and the reaction her uncle had to the prospect. Hopefully the eventual conversation between Yang and Raven wouldn't be soul-crushing. Given how Ruby's turned out, though…
"We have two reasons to seek her out, actually," Ruby continued. "First, to locate Ozpin. Second… to locate the Spring Maiden."
Yang's eyes widened, though Qrow looked unfazed. It made sense, given that he was a spymaster for Ozpin. If the maidens were four of the most important pieces on the chessboard between Ozpin and Salem, it made sense that Qrow needed to know their identities.
And yet, how much of the truth about the maidens did Qrow know? He knew that Salem wanted them, but if he knew why… surely he would have told his sister the truth at some point? Or was his relationship with her so strained that he never thought it was worth risking it?
Perhaps Ruby should speak with Ozpin some more while Yang was catching up with her mother during the reunion. Now that her supply of answers was running out from Ozpin's first information dump, she was realizing that there were still a lot of things that were still shrouded in uncertainty.
"Alright, then," Bradford said, bringing the room back into focus. "We deal with our affairs here in Atlas, then Qrow will help us locate Raven Branwen and Ozpin."
MacAuley raised his hand. "Should we start calling him Bradpin? You know… just to make sure we don't forget who he actually is."
Bradford sighed. Loudly.
"Alright, alright," Mac said, throwing his arms up defensively. "It was just a suggestion."
"Dealing with our affairs in Atlas won't be that easy, Central," Glynda said. "As Operative Lie previously noted, we are facing a trial for our actions at Merlot's lab."
"We'll tackle that issue in a bit," Bradford answered, his face impassive despite the gravity of Goodwitch's reminder. "One thing at a time."
Glynda nodded and fell silent.
Bradford turned his attention back to the room at large. "So the plan remains the same: settle our affairs in Atlas, then seek out Ozpin and the Spring Maiden now that we have a lead on their location. Is there anything else, Captain?"
"No sir," Ruby said.
"Good. Everyone is dismissed."
Ruby remained seated, as did Annette, Bradford, Vahlen, and Shen. If anybody else in the room noticed, they didn't bother to point it out or ask if the five were coming. They knew better than to question Bradford after he dismissed them.
Once the last stragglers filed out of the room and their footsteps echoed down the hallway, the five occupants took a moment to sit in comfortable silence.
"Should I get some tea brewing, Captain?" Shen asked. "It's no Jasmine, but I think I've found a blend that's close enough to scratch the itch."
It was only a half-serious comment, but it still hit Ruby like a sack of bricks. The sheer normalcy of being able to talk with her favorite Chief Engineer about a pot of tea caused her breath to hitch in her throat.
"I…" She started, trying to keep her voice from cracking, "I would like that very much, Shen."
The old man smiled, stood from his seat, and moved to the back of the room where a small table of amenities sat, including (of course) a tea set.
"Feel free to start with whatever it is you wished to tell us," Shen called out, taking a moment to close and lock the door before attending to the tea. "I can hear perfectly well from back here, I promise you."
Ruby looked from Annette, to Bradford, to Vahlen. She knew why she asked them to stay behind and speak with her, and yet… her brain was still trying to just savor the moment.
"I missed you," She said. "All of you."
A small tendril of warmth wove its way into Ruby's mind. She sighed softly and allowed herself to be wrapped up by Annette's psionic embrace. Amid the stress of the traumatizing memories borne from Ruby's time as Salem's prisoner and the existential revelations that she had to shoulder so she could deliver them to Bradford and XCOM, being able to find solace in Annette's confident warmth was almost intoxicating.
"We moved Heaven and Earth to try and find you," Annette answered, her voice more soothing and motherly than Ruby had ever remembered it being.
Was that just because…?
RIght, she really needed to get on with what she asked them to wait for.
"So I have some more Remnant history that I wanted to share with you four," Ruby said. "Privately, because it's… well, personal."
"Can't be much more personal than me finding out that I am your old headmaster," Bradford said, a slight smile crossing his face.
Ruby knew that he was trying to lighten the mood because it was obvious from her hesitance that this was stressing her out. It was something she'd seen from him on a few occasions before, and she was grateful whenever this humanizing side of Bradford came out. He was XCOM's core, both its anchor and the wind in its sails. But at the same time, he was also its harbor when he needed to be.
Like right now.
Ruby smiled. "Don't tell him I said this, but I think you pull off the green look with your sweater better than he does with his… well, everything."
Shen took his seat next to Vahlen, his warm face matching Ruby's expression. "The tea will be ready in about ten minutes, so perhaps we'll have that to look forward to after you've said what you wanted to say."
"That… sounds good," Ruby agreed. She took a deep breath, then marshalled her thoughts. With the exception of her team, she couldn't think of anyone she trusted more than the four who were sitting here with her.
"There are two things I wanted to say," She started. "One is good, and one is bad. Which… which would you like to hear first?"
"The good," Shen said without missing a beat.
It was easy to see the logic in his choice: if Ruby's news was personal, somebody was going to be feeling awful after the bad news. Why make them feel worse by following up with some good news about somebody else?
The other three nodded in agreement. Alright. Good news it was.
"So I spoke in my debrief about Annette and Asaru, and how Ozpin believes that they sacrificed themselves to create the Maidens and protect four pockets of humanity during the Moonfall," Ruby said.
Ruby looked straight at Annette. "You… you were also the 'first' Silver-Eyed Warrior."
She watched the cogs whirring inside her ancestor's head as Annette recalled what Ruby had said previously about Silver-Eyed Warriors. How the Ethereals used them as vessels, and hunted them to sustain their psionic energy. How Salem had kidnapped Ruby to do the same.
How the warriors had a lineage.
For the first time since Ruby had known the Major, Annette Durand appeared to be tongue-tied. "I… then that… you… we… you're…?"
Annette's eyes, her silver eyes, grew wide as they looked into Ruby's. For a second, she didn't do anything except look at her descendant from another world, another universe, in stunned silence. But then…
Ruby had not expected Annette to rush forward and sweep her up into a bone-crushing hug.
We are absolutely going to be having a conversation later, kiddo.
Wouldn't miss it for the world, granny.
Fuck you, too.
Ruby had to remind herself not to laugh out loud, since the others in the room weren't privy to the exchange happening between the two psions.
The two of them broke their embrace, remembering that the happy, familial news wasn't the only thing Ruby needed to share. Annette took her seat, and the expression on the faces of Ruby's friends -her family- tensed slightly. A selfish part of Ruby wished that the happy reunion with Annette could have lasted a little longer, but…
Vahlen deserved to know.
And she deserved to not be left in suspense while Ruby worked her way towards the ugly truth.
"Doctor Vahlen," The Captain said, a sad smile on her face. "This next part… it's about you."
Fear. The fear emanating from Vahlen's mind almost caused Ruby to lean back in surprise as it assaulted her mind. At the same time, it also made her want to pull Vahlen into a comforting hug, one just as big and crushing as the one Annette had given to Ruby.
Vahlen was a brilliant woman. She was surely entertaining multiple hypotheses as to what news Ruby had for her. She knew her own history, her own vices. She also knew that Ruby's news for both Bradford and Annette had been tied to Remnant's history, so she could guess that hers was, too. And if it was bad news...
"Just tell me," The doctor said, her voice small.
Ruby sighed. "Salem is…"
Her heart broke the instant Vahlen said it. There was no shock, no hesitation. Without even knowing the specifics of how her alternate self had become Remnant's greatest evil. Vahlen knew enough about herself to put two and two together and assume the worst.
Dr. Shen, bless his gentle soul, did what Ruby so badly wanted to do and moved his arm to gingerly wrap it around Vahlen's shoulders. Ruby and Annette both poured out psionic energy and worked in tandem to weave it around their friend like a comforting blanket against the horrific truth that had just been thrown at Vahlen. The only thing Bradford could do was bow his head in silence and let Vahlen digest Ruby's words.
"The Ethereals didn't find me years later, did they?" Vahlen asked, looking up at Ruby.
The stony expression stabbed at her like a knife, but Ruby willed herself to nod once more.
"You spent your time after the war conducting research within the wreckage of the Temple Ship. The Ethereals… some of them survived. They kept themselves hidden and whispered to you. Promised you knowledge without letting you know who you were listening to.
"And so, they corrupted you," Ruby finished.
"And I was too absorbed by the technology to realize it."
Vahlen knew herself. She looked at Salem, and she saw enough of herself to recognize that the monster truly was her from a different life. One where she didn't have a bond with someone like Weiss to stop herself from being swallowed by a lust for knowledge.
Dr. Shen broke the silence that hung in the air after Ruby's words.
"I think this goes without saying, Moira, but the Doctor Vahlen that we all have come to know, respect, and love?" He paused for a moment, seemingly waiting for Vahlen to look up and meet the smile in his eyes. "You are nothing like the one that was swayed by Remnant's Ethereals. There may have been a point at which the two of you shared some common ground, but you have become something far greater, my dear. Ask Ruby. Ask Weiss."
"I know," Dr. Vahlen said. "I know. But I can't shake the feeling that there is still a little Salem in me. That I still-"
Vahlen's attention turned to Ruby, who was frowning.
"You might have the same desire to learn, Doctor, but it is not fair -not accurate- to say that you have some Salem in you."
Ruby got up from her seat and approached the wilted scientist. She wasn't speaking just because she wanted to comfort Vahlen. She was speaking because Vahlen needed to hear the truth.
"I had the misfortune of spending an afternoon as Salem's toy," She said. "It's wrong to say that you have some Salem in you because the fact of the matter is that she has no Vahlen left in her. She is completely devoid of empathy, and relishes the thrill of calculated cruelty. She is singularly focused on what she sees as her one and only goal."
XCOM's youngest Captain pulled herself into a seat in front of the Chief Scientist and asked, "Tell me Doctor… how is something like that in any way related to the woman that cared for Pyrrha, day in and day out, for weeks upon weeks when she was unable to take care of herself? To the woman who Weiss sees as a second mother, one who is in many ways better than her first? To the woman that my great, great, great… something-grandfather gave his life to protect, because she is a beautiful soul worthy of that sacrifice?"
Ruby leaned forward and pulled Vahlen's hands into hers. "Salem might have been you, once upon a time…" she finished in a tight whisper, "...but you will never become her."
Vahlen said nothing, but the scarcest hint of a smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. With Shen on her left, Ruby in front of her, and Bradford and Annette just a few feet away, the scientist let out a quiet sigh.
"I am blessed to have you all in my life," She whispered.
Shen stood up, though his hand lingered on Vahlen's shoulder. "The tea should be about finished. Why don't you wait here while I get some poured out, and we can enjoy it with good company?"
"I… think I would like that," Vahlen said.
Shen made his way to the back of the room while Bradford and Annette joined Ruby next to Vahlen. If Shen had his usual 'tea time' in mind, the five of them would be here for some time together.
And Ruby was determined to make the most of every minute.
A/N: Right then, here we go. Guess it's been a year since I finished RU, and... uh... seems like I picked a pretty interesting year to take off. Like, damn.
Either way, it's time to get back to the third (and final, if my wife has anything to say about it) installment of the REMCOM story and hope that I can land this thing like Captain Sully. I've got all the support I could possibly ask for in both my wife and my Discord server, so I'm excited to finally get this story out of my head and finished once and for all on paper.
Couple of book-keeping things I want to bring up before I forget them.
First, I love that people are still leaving reviews for my stories. Please say what you want to say about the chapters as you go through them, and know that I read them when I get the little notification on my phone. However, while I used to take the time to respond to as many reviews as possible when I first started RW and while I was writing RU... I just don't have the ability to anymore. I tried to keep it up towards the end of RU, and felt bad when I couldn't for the people who were maintaining PM conversations with me, but I'm just going to up and admit at the start of this one that reviews or PM's aren't the way to get in contact with me anymore. I am, however, quite active on the Discord server, so if you have some thoughts you'd like to share with me and everyone else? I strongly suggest popping in and saying hi. You can also get sneak previews of the next chapter before it gets posted, because I use the server as a sort of communal proofreading and feedback system before I go live with my posts.
Second, and this one is kind of more important than the first one, but I'm expecting a baby in... pretty much almost exactly a month from today. April 24th 20201. First (probably only) baby who is not going to be named Geralt if I value my life, and she's obviously going to be my number one priority. The challenge set before me is to find a way to structure my time so that I am still able to keep up a steady pace for this story while taking care of my family. I have a fair bit of content already written to help act as a buffer while I figure out how I'm going to balance my life, but I wanted to let you all know so that you have a heads up in case chapters come out slower than they used to.
So, yeah. That's it, I think. Once again, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has taken this journey with me. I'm excited to see it through with you all. :)