A/N: Hi. This one's a bit early, in part because I didn't quite finish writing everything I planned to write for the chapter, and in part because I didn't go through the usual editorial phase with all of the fine folk who usually help look over my work to offer suggestions. So if it looks a little rough around the edges, that's probably why.
Whitley Schnee gave himself a quick once-over in the reflection of the glass door before pushing it aside and stepping out into the manor's garden. He wanted to make sure his image was perfect before going out to see his mother. Not because he needed her validation, or anything pointless like that. No, it was because she needed to understand which of them was in charge here. Sure, the board had decided that Willow would jointly run the SDC, but honestly? Everyone knew that she would just be a figurehead while Whitley would be the one who actually had his wits about him, making the decisions.
Although… Whitley did hear a rumor that Willow was partly responsible for XCOM getting the information it needed to take down Merlot.
He didn't like his sisters, by any stretch of the imagination, but if what the world had learned about Merlot was true? That he was trying to turn them into monsters? And that his own father allowed it to happen? Whitley had his own problems with Winter and Weiss, but he wasn't a monster. And he wasn't an idiot, either. He knew how much Winter shielded him from their father's wrath when they were young.
His mother, too, as much as it annoyed him to admit it.
So maybe Willow Schnee could be redeemed. Maybe. Weiss seemed to think so. A memory bubbled up to the front of Whitley's mind as he walked among the rows of roses, one of him mocking his sister for doing the very thing he was on his way to do now.
"Good evening, Mother," he said once he reached his destination.
Willow's favorite spot. Whitley couldn't imagine sitting in the same chair, resting under the same umbrella, holding the same glass of wine, and staring out at the same scenery day after day after day. And yet here she was. As always.
"Whitley," Willow said. To his surprise, she turned her head to look at him, and she smiled. "How kind of you to visit."
Whitley had to suppress an eyeroll. Yes, because he was doing this out of pure, altruistic generosity.
"I thought you would want somebody to talk to after the board's decision to make you the new head of the SDC," he said, stepping around to stand in front of the vacant lounge chair across from Willow's.
His mother turned her gaze back to the mountains overlooking Atlas.
"Straight to the point," she said, swirling the glass in her hand. "That's good. I was going to ask you to co-lead the company with me anyway."
It took a good deal of focus for Whitley to not fall back into the chair behind him out of surprise. He'd been preparing himself to bludgeon his way through Willow's alcohol-fueled haze and get her to realize that she needed his business and political expertise, and she just… gave the power to him? Without prompting?
"You're going to need more practice with your poker face," Willow mused, taking a sip from her glass. "Then again, that wasn't exactly a strong suit of your father's, either."
That was enough for Whitley to regain his wits.
"If you don't mind, please don't ever compare me to Jacques again," he said.
"Apologies," Willow answered, though her voice sounded in no way apologetic. "A slip of the tongue."
She picked up the bottle sitting on the table to refill her glass. "I can hardly blame you for making such a request, though. I suppose the only good thing I can say about him is that he took the time to train you in the family business."
"I can't even give him that much, seeing as I wasn't his first choice for the job," Whitley answered, not bothering to stop himself from rolling his eyes this time.
Willow looked over at her son again, and he wasn't sure what expression she was wearing when she said, "And yet you're the one standing in front of me. Speaking of… you might as well take a seat. I suspect you have a few things you'd like to talk about."
Only if the rest of the conversation isn't as aggravating as this, Whitley thought, though he took the seat anyway.
Willow waited for her son to get comfortable (though it didn't escape Whitley's notice that she was happy to use the time to take another sip from her glass) before speaking again.
"So what did you want to talk about?"
You're the one that invited me to sit down!
"I… assumed we would be talking about the SDC," Whitley said.
How did Weiss not drive herself insane talking to this woman?
"Well of course," Willow answered. "I meant what about the SDC did you want to discuss?"
"All of it," Whitley answered, his voice rising ever-so-slightly out of frustration.
Willow sighed. "Then we will be here for a very long time, and I don't think even I can handle that much wine. Why don't you start with the most pressing matters on your mind?"
Okay, so maybe "all of it" was a poor choice of words. So what was the most important item that they should discuss? Easy question.
"We need to do something major to rework the company's image," Whitley said, "and we need to do it quickly to take advantage of the momentum from the latest news cycle."
Whitley expected his mother to react in some way to that statement. Sure it was vague, but it was a bold declaration that they would need to rock the boat, which would surely make a good number of shareholders unhappy.
What he did not expect was for Willow to swirl her glass, continue gazing out over the mountains, and answer with a simple, "... And?"
"And… what?" Whitley asked, slightly taken aback. "That aloneThat's alone is going to be a pretty dramatic change."
"Well of course. I just assumed you would have some ideas about what your 'something major' would be," Willow answered, taking her eyes off the scenery to look over at her son. "Unless you're expecting me to offer suggestions…?"
Of course he had ideas! Who did she think he was? Just some dumb kid who didn't know how business worked?
"I was getting to that," he said, sighing. "The general idea is that the SDC needs an image shift that makes it feel more approachable. 'For the people,' if you will. It's a message that both XCOM and ADVENT try to push with their public appearances, and so it's something that the people have come to expect at this point."
With Jacques getting ousted, the company had an easy excuse to explain the sudden change. New era, new management, new ethics. Sure, operational costs would shoot up due to the whole "no longer exploiting workers" thing, but a positive public opinion would offer an invaluable social safety net.
Judging by the nod that almost escaped Whitley's notice, Willow seemed to agree.
"Things were different when your grandfather was still leading the company," she said softly. "The scale was smaller, of course, but I think it would be nice to make a shift back in that direction."
Now Whitley was getting somewhere with this conversation. Eager to keep things moving, he continued.
"It needs to be big, like I said. Something that clearly says we aren't Jacques, and we have no interest in continuing with business as usual. And if it's something that's closer to how Grandfather used to run the SDC, maybe some old-timers who still remember what things were like back then will be able to help push the public opinion."
Willow hummed thoughtfully, and Whitley decided to wait and see if she had something to say. He was leading this conversation, of course, but since he was talking about changing the company's image to come across as more cooperative and welcoming… shouldn't he start practicing?
"Weiss would talk about that Ffaunus teammate of hers the way that she would talk about a friend," Willow said.
… What did that have to do with anything?
Whitley made a point to reel his annoyance in and just let Willow speak. Maybe she was getting around to something that could be useful. After she refilled her glass, of course.
"Jacques used to rant about it sometimes. It was one thing for her to be 'forced' into a team with a faunus at that academy." She took a sip from her glass. "Quite another for her to sound like she was actually enjoying the company she kept."
Now that she mentioned it, Whitley did remember hearing about Jacques trying to convince the staff at Beacon to re-assign Weiss to a different team. He was fuming for days when that Headmaster Ozpin wasn't amenable to the idea.
And if it was something that Jacques hated…
"I was originally planning to just not exploit the workforce," Whitley mused. "However, if we're trying to put as much distance between ourselves and Jacques, then perhaps we need to go further."
"You did say you wanted to do something big," Willow said.
Was that… amusement in her voice?
"Might be a hard sell to push for equality between faunus and humans," he said, half-muttering. "Especially here in Atlas. Would also make things difficult in Mistral, and - what are you doing, Mother?"
"Calling your sister," Willow answered.
It seemed like Weiss wasn't doing anything important, since the call connected after only a few seconds.
"Hello, Mother," Weiss said. Whitley could see his sister's confused expression on the scroll from where he was sitting. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Your brother and I are trying to think of the best way to make the SDC feel more welcoming towards its faunus employees," Willow said, as lazily as if she were commenting on the garden breeze.
Weiss's surprise grew as she tried to respond. "O-oh! Well, that sounds like a good idea. Especially since now is -"
"- The perfect time to pivot, yes," Whitley said. "I'm not stupid, you know."
Weiss sighed. "Hello, brother. I wasn't trying to imply anything, I just…" She shook her head and turned her attention back to Willow. "So… SDC and the faunus."
In the same, nonchalant tone as she used before, Willow asked, "What would your friend think if the SDC moved its Head of Operations so that it was located in Kuo Kuana?"
"What?!" both siblings yelled in near-unison.
It was bold, and bold was what Whitley said they needed. But that was a little too bold, wasn't it? And dangerous. The locals would certainly not be all that willing to take the new management at its word that they were turning over a new leaf.
"I… I can check with Blake," Weiss said. "Her parents would probably be suspicious of the move, though."
Why would Weiss care about her friend's parents? Wait…
Whitley thought back to the tournament that his sister participated in. Not that he was interested in watching Weiss compete. He was still trying to be in Jacques's good graces at the time, and so Whitley tried to be aware of events that might draw the man's attention. But when Weiss had said the name "Blake" just now, it reminded Whitley of something he noticed during the tournament.
"Blake Belladonna…" he muttered.
"Hmm?" Weiss said. "Did you say something?"
"Your friend is Blake Belladonna," Whitley said, louder this time. "So her parents are…"
Weiss nodded. "Yes, exactly. So if we can get her parents onboard with the proposal, that would make things a lot simpler."
This idea was starting to feel more workable. No doubt Whitley would have to deal with a lot of pushback, but maybe Willow could use her, ah… odd mannerisms to deflect some of the pushback. He'd have to ask her about that later. After figuring out how to broach the subject. And after confirming that moving to Menagerie would even be possible.
Was it something that Whitley even wanted, though? It would be a drastic change for him as well as the SDC. He'd lived his entire life in Atlas -
No. That wasn't quite right. His life wasn't spent in Atlas as much as it was in this house. This isolated, stifling, gilded cage where every single thing he did was watched by his manipulative puppeteer of a father.
Suddenly, moving to Menagerie sounded a lot more appealing.
"How soon can we arrange that call?" hHe asked.
"I… can ask Blake shortly after I get off this one," Weiss answered, apparently surprised by Whitley's eagerness to move forward with this plan. "Just… don't forget that they're going to be suspicious, since… you know…"
Whitley rolled his eyes. "I'm well aware, dear sister. But perhaps they will realize sooner rather than later that my name isn't Jacques Schnee."
This was stupid.
This whole mission was really stupid.
The Ace Ops were Ironwood's top team. The squad that he turned to when something absolutely needed to be done. The huntsmen and huntresses who made all the rest in the kingdom and beyond look like amateurs.
And Ironwood was sending her on a babysitting mission?
Harriet was seething. On the inside, of course. Because, and this could not be stressed enough, she was one of Atlas's top operatives.
What was Ironwood thinking?
Oh wait. Harriet knew the answer to that. Winter was apparently staying onboard the Avenger. And so of course Ironwood would want someone competent to make sure that his pet operative was safe. And Harriet drew the short straw when it came to deciding who that "someone competent" would be.
And what kind of person gives their ship a name like the "Avenger," anyway?
People gave the stormy huntress a wide berth as she trudged towards the docking bay where the ship was parked. Good. She didn't feel like dealing with any bumbling idiots getting in her way. The last thing Harriet needed was her temper causing a scene before she even took one step onboard the ship for her stupid mission.
Travel bag slung over her shoulder, Harriet rounded the last corner of the airport before the Avenger came into view. She gritted her teeth at the sight of the external modifications XCOM had made to the ship. She knew they "salvaged" it after the ship had gotten wrecked during the Vytal engagement, but it still aggravated her to see Atlesian tech perverted like this. Not only that, but it was a reminder that Ironwood had decided to let XCOM keep the ship.
As she allowed the airport security to scan her scroll to prove that she was, in fact, supposed to be walking this way, Harriet reminded herself that Ironwood had made his stance on the matter perfectly clear. He had very strong reasons to believe, he'd said, that XCOM did not have any ill intent towards Atlas (or any other kingdom) as they carried on with their activities. And okay sure, eliminating Merlot was certainly evidence that supported the General's opinion. But that didn't mean Harriet trusted them. And it certainly didn't mean that she would let her guard down around them. Not even for a minute.
And so since Ironwood was apparently not going to change his mind, impound the ship, and let Harriet get back to more important work, it was up to her to keep an eye out at all times while she was onboard. The moment she found something —anything— that smelled funny, she could report it back to Ironwood and get this assignment closed out and done with.
When her foot hit the walkway leading up to the Avenger, Harriet forced herself out of her thoughts so she could focus on getting settled.
A man that Harriet recognized to be Central Officer Bradford was waiting for her at the top of the gangway.
Harriet made her way up the walkway while making a pointed effort to avoid eye contact with her welcoming party.
"Harriet Bree," Bradford said. It wasn't a question.
"That's me," Harriet answered with a sigh. She still wasn't looking at her host, so she couldn't see how he reacted to her tone.
Which was fine, because she didn't really care.
"We appreciate your time and presence aboard our ship-"
"We both know that's false," Harriet snorted.
She stepped past Bradford and peered into the loading bay sitting behind him. Minor changes aside, it looked more or less like what she was expecting.
"A nanny?" She continued. "Breathing down your neck and judging your every move? Please."
"If said nanny gives Ironwood, the Council, and Atlas as a whole peace of mind, then yes," Bradford answered. "We do appreciate your presence."
Whatever. Harriet rolled her eyes and showed herself into the loading bay. If her presence was appreciated like Bradford claimed, then surely he wouldn't mind if she entered the ship without his formal invitation.
"Would you like to have somebody show you around?" Bradford asked, jogging after his retreating guest.
"I'm an Atlesian Ace Op. This is an Atlesian ship."
Despite your best efforts to twist it into something else.
"No thanks," she finished.
"Fair enough," Bradford answered, still attempting to keep pace with her despite the obvious signals that his presence was not wanted. "The offer was more of a courtesy than anything. You are of course free to move about the ship as you so choose. My people have been briefed on your arrival, and so I can assure you that anyone you run into is both capable and willing to assist with any question or request that you might have."
Man, this guy really wasn't taking a hint.
"Thanks, but no thanks," Harriet said. "I'm good."
Harriet's keen hearing picked up Bradford's sigh.
"Of course you are. You're an Atlesian Ace Op."
Damn right she was.
A lack of footsteps alongside hers told Harriet that Bradford had finally given up on trying to follow her. Good. Maybe she could get started on scouting out the ship, now that she'd lost her persistent tour guide.
"Oh!" he called out, much to her annoyance. "Before I forget: do be mindful of the-"
"Never mind. I'm sure you'll figure it out soon enough."
Okay. Wow. So this guy wanted to play games, did he? Whatever. Harriet had zero interest in taking the bait. He was probably lying just to try and draw her interest, and he would have made something up if she asked him to clarify.
So Harriet continued walking further into the ship. She looked around and saw that there were other people in the loading bay. No doubt they had heard her testy exchange with their commanding officer, and she was happy to see that they were all minding their own business instead of gawking at her.
Good. At least these people valued work. That was something.
Harriet continued on to her walk through the ship, keeping an eye out for anything amiss.
One thing she had to admit was that XCOM ran a tighter ship than she expected. It didn't look as clean as a standard Atlesian vessel, but Harriet doubted that anyone could clear that bar. Supplies and equipment weren't tucked neatly away out of sight, but they were secured to the walls with sturdy netting so that it didn't clutter up the hallways. Nothing was left loose.
"Interesting…" Harriet muttered.
Obviously the group had some level of competency, or they wouldn't have lasted this long. But even so, she couldn't deny the importance of first impressions. While Bradford's attempted greeting was annoying, the state of the ship itself said quite a bit all on its own.
People nodded at Harriet as she walked past them, but didn't make any further attempt to engage her. Most of them seemed like they were busy, walking on their way to do something somewhere. A few looked like they were bored and just wandering around to stretch their legs during some off time, but on the whole? The people of XCOM seemed to have things to do.
Harriet made a point to do a sweep of the entire ship, partly to see what else XCOM had changed and partly to test if there was anywhere that was "off-limits" for her. Engineering, Medical, Training… she even made her way up to the bridge, and was pleased to discover that she had no issue being let in by the guards on duty. Everyone seemed to genuinely believe that they had nothing to hide from Ironwood's representative eyes and ears.
"They know we're coming, right?"
"Of course. We first got a message out two days ago, and we re-established a direct line of contact with our counterpart on the ship two hours ago to confirm our arrival in Atlas."
"Well that's good. Would be a bit awkward if we showed up and found out that your boss-"
"Whatever. If your ex-boss had already skipped town."
"Can we focus?"
The group of five people walked through the brisk air of Atlas's evening, striding with a purpose towards the docks. Their assortment of plain clothes meant that nobody really gave them a second glance as they walked. Just another group of people going about their business in one of the busiest kingdoms in the world.
One of the five flashed a scroll for security to inspect before they were waved along.
"Did we really have to leave our dresses in the bag?"
"You've worked with us for how long now? That's not a serious question, right?"
"Come on. We're almost there."
Indeed, their destination loomed ahead of them. The ship's gangplank was down, which seemed to cause one of the five to walk faster than before, forcing the others to jog slightly in an effort to keep up.
It took Taiyang Xaio Long all of five seconds to dash up the length of the loading ramp and reach the trio waiting for him at the top. Bradford had just enough time to process the mixed look of hope and fear on the man's face before the single-word, all-important question was blurted out.
"Safe and with us," Bradford answered.
He didn't have a chance to get another word in before Taiyang ran forward and pulled him into a crushing hug while the huntsman's four traveling companions finally caught up with him. After the disastrous welcome that was Harriet Bree's arrival onboard the Avenger, this was a nice change of pace.
"So good news, then?" Omerta asked, reaching the top of the ramp with her three other companions.
Dr. Shen nodded.
"That's a relief," Melanie said.
"No kidding," her sister added. "I don't know if Blondie would've survived another day with that stress eating away at him."
Curious. From the intel Bradford had on the twins, he wasn't expecting them to care about the worries and woes of someone they'd only recently met. Had Taiyang made that much of an impression in such a short amount of time?
Speaking of. The pressure on Bradford's ribcage vanished, and Taiyang stepped back while giving a sheepish laugh.
"Ah… right. Sorry, forgot my manners. These are-"
"Operatives Omerta and Ochoa," Dr. Vahlen said, "and Melanie and Miltia Malachite. The former being prior operatives of ours, while the later are very much persons of interest for us."
Bradford nodded in agreement, then addressed the twins, "We were pleasantly surprised to learn you would be coming."
He noticed Taiyang's eyes widen at the sound of Dr. Vahlen's voice. Was he really so focused on Bradford and news about Ruby that he hadn't noticed the other two people waiting to greet him?
The Malachites gave a slight curtsy at Vahlen's introduction.
"We managed to convince Junior that it would be in his best interest to let us join Omerta and Ochoa as representatives of his business," Miltia explained. "Though while you clearly don't need us to introduce ourselves, perhaps you could…?"
Taiyang groaned. "I swear I'm usually better than this."
"You're still processing your relief about your daughter," Dr. Vahlen said, echoing Bradford's thoughts. "I don't think anyone can fault you for that."
She turned to the twins and offered them a slight bow. "I am Doctor Vahlen, Chief Scientist and Medical Officer for XCOM. This is my associate and XCOM's Chief Engineer, Doctor Shen."
"A pleasure to meet you," Shen greeted.
"And I believe you're already familiar with our Central Officer, Bradford?"
"Heard the name plenty of times," Melanie said, taking a moment to make a show of studying Bradford, though he was certain that she'd already done that discreetly when she first arrived. "Never formally met, though."
Bradford smiled and gestured towards the inside of the Avenger. "No time like the present. Would you like a tour of our facilities?"
"That sounds lovely," Miltia said. She glanced at Omerta and Ochoa, adding, "You two coming along? Or do you need to do some spook work with your friend Odei first?"
The two operatives exchanged looks before Ochoa shrugged and answered, "No harm in joining you along the way. This is our first time on the Avenger since they finished repairing it, remember."
Taiyang raised a hand.
"I, uh… I'd like to see my daughter," he said quietly.
"As well you should," Dr. Shen replied. There was a brief pause where Shen flashed a knowing look that only Bradford could recognize before continuing. "While our Central Officer is busy with our other guests, either Vahlen or I can take you to Captain Rose."
He jumped slightly, checked his watch, and put on an excellent performance of making a face before finishing, "I'd love to, but it appears that there is an issue down in the Skunkworks that needs my immediate attention. If it's not too much trouble, Vahlen…?"
Vahlen nodded. "Of course. I believe introductions have been taken care of, so we could leave now if you'd like while Bradford talks more with the others."
"I would like to, yes," Taiyang said.
"Then follow me."
It had been a while since the last time Taiyang had talked with Vahlen. Was he supposed to make small talk while she led him to Ruby? He got this feeling that staying silent would have been rude, but…
"So, uh… the ship looks the same since I was gone."
… he quickly realized that he had no idea what he should talk about.
Vahlen gave him a sideways glance, and Tai had to stop himself from wincing.
"Were you expecting it to look different?"
"No!" he quickly answered. Then, "I don't think so? You, Shen, and Tygan are so good with the tech stuff that I wouldn't have been surprised if… umm…"
The Chief Scientist stopped walking, and Tai wondered how he was going to recover from this.
"You're trying to force a conversation," she observed, leading him down a flight of stairs as they walked.
Taiyang sighed. "I guess, yeah."
Wait… was she smiling?
"Believe me when I say that I've been there before," Vahlen said, starting to walk again.
Taiyang jogged to catch up to the doctor and pulled up alongside her.
"So how do you do it?" he asked.
Seriously, she seemed so calm and collected. Meanwhile, he'd done nothing but make a fool of himself over and over since he first stepped aboard this ship.
Vahlen smiled. "I've had a lot of opportunities to practice."
"Oh right," Taiyang said. "Ruby mentioned something about that. It's… Weiss, right? She's the one who helped you out?"
The doctor nodded.
Another flight of stairs lay before them, and Taiyang silently wondered how huge this ship was. It looked pretty big on the outside, but he hadn't really thought about how long it would take from one end of it to the other.
Every now and then, they passed by an operative or two who recognized Taiyang and offered a warm greeting or a "Welcome back."
"Maybe I can ask Ruby to put in a good word for me and see if I can get the same help," Taiyang mused. He was pleased to see that his (half) joke elicited a chuckle.
"Or maybe I can ask," Vahlen suggested. "I am her friend, after all."
"Or you could help," Taiyang said, the idea suddenly popping into his head.
After all, he didn't know Weiss very well, but Vahlen? Actually no, he didn't know her very well either. But he'd like to. She helped save his daughter, after all. Both of them, if he remembered right. On several occasions.
Vahlen, however, didn't seem to be quite so confident that the idea was a good one.
"Maybe you already forgot what you said a minute ago about me needing help to learn how to socialize," she noted. "I don't think I'd be the best instructor, given that I'm still trying to get a handle on social skills myself."
Taiyang wasn't planning on giving up so easily, though.
"So it'll be good practice for both of us! I used to be pretty outgoing years ago, but I only really have Qrow for company these days, especially with Yang and Ruby away at school."
"My condolences," Vahlen deadpanned, pulling out her scroll and making a few keystrokes.
"Right?" Taiyang said. "So I need someone else to talk to."
"And you're asking me to be that someone."
"Even though we're both really busy."
"And we have to worry about an eldritch monstrosity trying to end life as we know it."
Vahlen's scroll dinged. She studied it for a moment, then looked back at Taiyang.
"Well, Weiss is telling me that she's going to change the lock on my lab and not tell me the new password if I don't agree," she said, "so I suppose you have yourself a deal."
Taiyang raised an eyebrow. "You were asking Weiss for advice just now?"
"You're messing with me."
Vahlen cracked a slight grin. "Perhaps. We can save that for later, though. Captain Rose is up ahead."
And just like that, Taiyang's mind was back on the same track it started with when he stormed up that ramp into the Avenger.
Bradford looked around the conference room and performed a quick mental headcount to figure out who was missing.
Harriet, predictably, was nowhere to be found. Bradford had made sure that she was formally invited to the intelligence briefing, and he had no doubt that she would be there if for no other reason than in the hopes of witnessing something damning that she could take back to Ironwood. However, Bradford found it entirely unsurprising that Harriet would make a show of acting as disinterested as possible, and she would be arriving 'fashionably' late.
Well, she was going to learn the hard way that XCOM wasn't here to wait on her, hand and foot.
Omerta, Ochoa, Melanie, and Miltia were already present and waiting for the briefing to start, seated at the table next to Odei. Bradford was already hearing rumors about nicknames for each duo. "Oreos" for the ex-operatives, and "Slim Shady" for the Malachite twins. Bradford valued his life enough to know not to ask which one was supposed to be Slim and which one was Shady.
A noise at the door caused Bradford to look up and see Taiyang filing in with his younger daughter in tow. Out of the corner of his eye, the Central Officer saw Lily Shen waving emphatically at Ruby from where she sat next to her own father. He watched as Ruby led her father around the table so that they could sit next to the Shens and Dr. Vahlen.
With the arrival of Ruby and Tai, that meant everyone except for Harriet had arrived. Muted chatter floated around the room as the various parties passed the time with casual conversation. When the scheduled start time for the meeting arrived and Harriet was nowhere to be seen, Bradford got up from his seat at the table and waited for the conversations to stop.
He only needed to stand there for a few seconds before he was able to speak to an attentive audience.
"As you all may have heard, Atlas has chosen not to hold us here while they conduct their investigation into Merlot's lab and the Downside riots."
He moved to the front of the room where a map of Remnant flickered into existence on the projector wall behind him.
"The council chose the opposite, in fact. And now that we have boarded the last of our passengers…"
He glanced over at Ruby, who answered with a thumbs up.
"... We are now faced with the decision of figuring out what our next move is, because we are not allowed to stay here."
"Thought we were going to Mistral," Qrow said. "We have some-"
The door opened, and Bradford looked up to see Harriet amble in. Nobody else turned around to acknowledge her arrival.
"Welcome, Operative Bree."
Without a word, Harriet took an empty seat at the back of the room and looked expectantly at Bradford to speak.
After a few seconds of waiting for another interruption, Qrow resumed.
"... We have some solid leads in Mistral that we need to follow up on ASAP."
"Agreed," Bradford said. "And given that you are the most knowledgeable about where our first lead is, where in Mistral should we be heading?"
Qrow got up and joined Bradford at the front. He gestured to a part of the map and explained, "West side of Anima. I can't tell you exactly where we'll find who we're looking for, but she'll be somewhere over there. It's been her stomping grounds for years."
"Whose?" Harriet asked.
"Need To Know, kid," Qrow said without looking back, "and until we find her? You don't need to know."
"Then what's the point of me being here?!" she asked angrily.
Qrow shrugged. "Dunno. Thought you would have covered that with Ironwood before coming here. Anyway-"
"Hey! We're not done here!"
Okay. Enough was enough.
"Operative Bree," the Central Officer said sharply, throwing his best 'Annoyed Dadford' look her way. "At General Ironwood's request, you are an esteemed guest of this vessel, but that does not mean you are the ranking officer."
Harriet glared at Bradford as he continued. "You also seem to be under the impression that you can throw your weight around to have things done your way. While my people are willing to help you to a degree, I can assure you that your impression is wrong."
There was a pregnant silence while the two parties stared each other down. Bradford had no intention of flinching, and everyone in that room knew it.
Eventually, Harriet scoffed and got to her feet.
"Whatever," she said, and left the room without another word.
"Well that was easy," Ochoa chuckled after a few moments.
Goodwitch, however, did not look amused. "Is she going to be a problem?"
"No," Bradford answered. "And if she is, it's my responsibility to deal with her. Now let's continue."
Qrow was happy to oblige.
"Finding her is going to be a little tricky, but you can leave that to me. Convincing her to let the rest of us stop by for a house visit is…"
"The hard part," Bradford guessed. "We should probably plan out a second operation so that we aren't wasting time while we negotiate."
Miltia politely coughed to draw Bradford's attention.
"You could drop us off in Mistral proper," she suggested. "We've got some people we'd like to reconnect with while we're in the area."
That sounded like there was more to that comment than Miltia was letting on.
"Who?" Bradford asked.
"Family," her sister added. "Might even be a good idea to lend us Roman for the operation, if you want to get him off your hands for a while."
"Thaaaaat sounds like a bad idea," Qrow said. "We're trying to work Torchwick and figure out an arrangement with him, but letting him out of our control with only the four of you to keep an eye on him? Way too risky."
The Malachites didn't seem too bothered by having that request shot down. Perhaps Bradford could bring it up with Roman the next time they had a chat, and see if it could get some kind of reaction out of him. In any case, it was another possible angle. It might open up an opportunity between the two of them.
"Even without Torchwick, I like the idea of sending you four ahead into Mistral," Bradford said. "Aside from your family reunion, we should have some operatives embedded in the kingdom, and it would be nice if you could get some of the legwork done to reconnect with them before we arrive."
"Unless they had the same bad luck that we did," Odei clipped.
"Mistral doesn't have a Jacques Schnee," Miltia said.
"That you know of."
"We can drop you off outside of Argus," Qrow interrupted, deftly cutting off the brewing argument. "It's on our way down to where we're headed, and it's the second largest city in the kingdom. You can sweep the city for anything interesting, then take the train to Mistral after you're finished."
"Don't take too long with your negotiations," Melanie said with a smirk, "Wouldn't want us to have all the fun before you even show up."
All of the XCOM personnel in the room stared incredulously at her, and Melanie started to look worried as if she had something on her face.
A/N: Now comes the hard A/N where I have to deliver some bad news. I'm hanging up WotM. Permanently? Temporarily? I have no idea, to be honest. What I do know is that writing has come to feel like a job rather than something I enjoy. Part of that is almost certainly because the amount of time I have to do it has been drastically reduced, which means I am often stressing about how little progress I'm making week by week on a story that has only just barely made it out of Atlas after a whole year has gone by since I first started it.
But the other part is just that it feels forced. The assault on Merlot's base was my magnum opus. The last few chapters have, to me, felt stiff and almost soulless by comparison. With a few recent exceptions (like Watts), I feel like I'm just going through the motions of writing scenes because I know I need to, not because I'm excited about how the scene is going.
Am I letting some people down with this news? Almost certainly, and that fact weighs heavily on my mind. But the mental stress and anxiety that I've been putting on myself as I've struggled and failed to balance writing and raising a child has started to affect me physically, and it has affected my time with my daughter. I can't continue like that.
Thank you for following my story of REMCOM's journey up to this point. If the idea of not knowing how it ends is going to bother you, then know this: the plan was always to have XCOM win in the end. It would be difficult, and there would certainly be loss, but Bradford and his merry crew would prevail.