“No,” Ironwood whispered. He stood rooted to the spot, as though all of his metal parts had suddenly rusted, as rigid as one of his tin soldiers.
“I regret that we’re not meeting again under better circumstances,” Ozpin said, acknowledging Ironwood’s disappointment as well as his own. “But perhaps we could talk as we used to, in the comfort of your office. In private.”
Clover balked, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Sir, do you two actually know each other?” he asked, voice reedy with uncertainty. “He said you did, but I just assumed he was lying.”
Ironwood finally shook himself out of his shock. “There’s been…a misunderstanding here,” he said slowly. “Release the prisoner, Captain Ebi.”
Clover carefully pulled the keyring off his belt and began flipping through the keys one by one. “Sir, may I ask why you’re ordering me to release a known mass murderer, terrorist and war criminal?”
With Ironwood now in on their little secret, Ozpin returned control to Roman so that Clover wouldn’t catch onto the fact that there were really four people in the room, not three. “I’m not a military man,” Roman drawled, “but doesn’t there have to be a war on for someone to commit a war crime?”
Ironwood’s mouth twitched in the beginnings of a scowl. The General really looked like he’d been through the wringer since Roman had last seen him. He was now sporting a full (and poorly kept) beard. His eyes looked sunken, like he hadn’t been sleeping. And had he had quite that much grey hair at his temples before? “Any day now, Clover,” Ironwood ground out.
“Sir, you haven’t answered my question,” Clover pressed.
“I am your commander; I don’t have to answer your questions!” Ironwood snapped. But the startled look Clover shot him was enough to make him take a breath and start over. “He’s on our side. They all are. They’re…Ozpin’s agents.”
Clover stopped flipping through his keys altogether. “Even Torchwick?”
Ironwood massaged his temples. “Especially Torchwick,” he hissed.
Roman stretched and tucked his now-free hands behind his head. “Figured I’d save you the trouble.” He winked at Clover, who cursed and dropped his keys. The Ace backed away to a safer distance.
But to Roman’s surprise, Ironwood stepped forward and held out a hand to help him to his feet. And just like that, he was blindsided by another scene from Ozpin’s past.
He saw Ironwood standing before him, hand extended to help him up off the floor, but the man was much younger than he was now, barely more than a boy. Still, he wore the crisp, white uniform of an Atlesian cadet, and he held himself with the poise and self-assurance of a man twice his age. Two other boys wearing the Beacon school uniform scampered away down the hall behind him, looking back over their shoulders to see if he’d give chase before they skidded around the corner and disappeared. But Ironwood stayed right where he was, offering his hand with a smile much gentler than the sharp cut of his uniform would suggest. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Quite alright, thank you,” he said, accepting the other boy’s hand and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. He brushed himself off and smoothed down his own uniform. “I am perfectly capable of defending myself against bullies if I so choose.” But he told himself he wasn’t like them—he didn’t want to be feared. He was scrawny, soft-spoken and hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt. He hardly rose to the height of this older boy’s chest, and he had to lift his chin to make eye contact. He had never once inspired fear in his life. But he knew what it felt like to have kings fall at his feet in fear, and he knew he hated the feeling. It reminded him of much older memories still.
“I don’t doubt it,” said Ironwood, “considering you qualified to compete in the Vytal Festival and they did not, even though you’re four years their junior. At your age, you should still be in battle school, but instead, you’re a sophomore at Beacon Academy. Your accomplishments speak for themselves.”
He blinked in surprise. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You seem to know a lot about me, but I don’t believe I know you.”
“I like to know my competition,” said Ironwood. “I’m fighting in the tournament as well. Perhaps the next time we meet, it will be on the battlefield.”
He smirked. “If you value your chances, you had better hope that doesn’t happen too soon.” The battlefield was the one place he wouldn’t hold back in a fight.
Ironwood chucked. “Unlike those boys, my pride can survive a loss to a worthy opponent, regardless of his age. But I will be fighting to win.”
He was the one to hold out his hand this time. “Then I look forward to meeting again in the arena, cadet…?”
“James Ironwood.” He shook his offered hand. Ironwood’s grip was warm and firm. It felt strangely dissonant, since somewhere in his mind he knew that hand should be cold and hard as steel. But it wasn’t—not yet.
“I am Ozpin,” he said. “But you knew that already.”
Ironwood nodded. “Just Ozpin?” he asked.
He did have a surname, but he had stopped using it once… Well, once it became dangerous for his family to be too closely associated with him. “Just Ozpin,” he said.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ozpin,” Ironwood said, and turned to continue on his way.
‘There is something about that boy,’ a man’s voice murmured in the back of his mind. It was so regal and refined, it sounded almost affected. No one spoke like that these days. But alas, the antiquated manner of speech was already beginning to wear off on him. Yet another reason the other children found him unsettling. It was a good thing his early enrollment had rather precluded him from making friends his freshman year, or they would have noticed his sudden…behavioral changes.
‘You think so?’ he thought.
‘Yes. His instinct was not to attack, but to defend.’
“Hm.” He considered the implications of that. “Oh, James?”
Ironwood stopped and turned back. “Yes?”
He clasped his cane in front of him in a manner he knew made him appear taller than he was. “In a few more years, I will be running this academy.” The older boy’s eyebrows lifted, but he said nothing. “And I will need friends in the other kingdoms. I’ll be paying attention to your accomplishments from now on.”
Ironwood gave a bemused smile. “Then I’ll endeavor not to disappoint.”
And with that, suddenly it was General Ironwood standing before him again, his rigid metal hand outstretched. He wasn’t smiling. But he didn’t appear concerned or confused by Roman’s delay. He’d been waiting quietly for the moment to pass, like he’d seen it happen before.
‘I know you encountered him at his worst,’ said Ozpin. ‘But that is not who he truly is.’
‘A man at his worst is exactly who he truly is,’ Roman thought. He seized Ironwood’s hand and pulled the other man close as he rose to his feet. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost, James,” he murmured in the General’s ear.
Ironwood’s lip curled in distaste as he stepped back, putting distance between them again. But he was unwilling to continue their conversation in front of his good little soldier. Instead, the next person to speak was Qrow. Roman wondered how long he’d been leaning against the doorframe, his shirt and vest undone, a hand clutching his side as Jackrabbit watched him warily. “We were gonna break the news to you gently, Jimmy.” He gestured to Roman, but the movement made him wince, and he nearly gave up on his sentence halfway through. “But, y’know, best laid plans and all,” he muttered breathlessly.
“For gods’ sake, get him some bandages!” Ironwood barked at Jackrabbit. She hopped to immediately and shot off in a flash, returning moments later with a first aid kit. When she nudged Qrow’s hand aside to patch him up, Roman caught a glimpse of the bright red brand burned across his ribs, right where Roman’s was. But while Roman sported a T, for thief, Qrow had been branded a bandit, the letter B indelibly scorched into his skin. Roman wondered if he’d screamed the way Qrow had when Ironwood had done that to him, but he honestly couldn’t remember. He had a knack for blocking things out that he’d rather not dwell on. It made his life a hell of a lot easier.
Ironwood cringed at the sight. “Qrow, truly, I—“
“I said it’s fine,” Qrow growled. He pushed Jackrabbit back when she’d finished fastening the bandages, and buttoned his clothes over them with trembling fingers. Then he kicked off the doorframe to stand about as straight as usual, which wasn’t saying much. Still, he’d schooled his expression into one of perfect apathy, and with a swipe of his fingers through his hair, he looked his usual self again. “We’ll forget it ever happened. What’s a few scars between friends?”
Ironwood opened his mouth to say more, but another commotion arose from out in the lobby, and instead he hissed a sharp sigh. “The students.” He was already hurrying out into the hall before he slowed and looked back hesitantly over his shoulder.
“I’m right behind ya,” said Qrow, taking the stretch of hallway at a stroll that would have appeared leisurely if it weren’t so carefully measured. Roman followed along behind the Huntsman, highly aware of how Clover and Jackrabbit kept pace with him, effectively flanking him on either side.
Up ahead, a woman in a long, white coat with long, white hair and sharp, white teeth was shouting at the other Ace Ops. “Release my sister at once! I won’t repeat myself again!”
“Being a Schnee doesn’t set her above the law,” Fido said, baring quite a few teeth of his own as he stood, arms crossed, between the woman and the door to the holding cell. The perfect guard dog.
“I outrank you,” the woman hissed threateningly.
“My team and I answer directly to General Ironwood, so until he gives the order—“
“Release them,” Ironwood ordered as he stepped out into the lobby.
Fido stiffened. “Yes, sir.” Obediently, he turned and unlocked the door to the cell.
Ice Queen ran right into the arms of the woman who was, evidently, her big sister. And really, that woman deserved the title of Ice Queen if anyone did. He’d have to demote the girl to Princess. “I was so worried about you, Weiss,” she murmured into her sister’s hair.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye,” Ice Princess sniffled into her coat.
“What on Remnant have you gotten yourself into?”
“It’s…really hard to explain.”
Theirs wasn’t the only tender family reunion. Little Red burst out of the cell and barreled into Qrow as soon as she caught sight of him. He gasped as her arms tightened around him, but he forced his pained grimace into a smile and gingerly returned her embrace. “It’s okay, kiddo,” he huffed. “I told you I'd be fine.”
Kitty Cat slunk out of the cell after her, looking every bit like a feral cat venturing warily into uncertain territory. “You’re sure?” she asked. “I thought I heard…” Her ears swiveled around, alert. “Screams.”
Fisticuffs looked between her friend and her uncle suspiciously, but Qrow simply shrugged off their concern. “I lost my temper and shouted at one of the Aces,” he said. “That must’ve been what you heard.”
“Yeah…” Kitty Cat hesitantly agreed. “That must have been it.”
Neo returned to Roman’s side, still seemingly nonplussed by her brief stint in the slammer. But there was a clear question in her eyes, and Roman answered it with a single glance toward Qrow. They had hurt the Huntsman, not him. They hadn’t had the chance. Neo nodded. It was already a severe test of her self-restraint to expect her not to exact revenge on General Ironwood for what he’d done to Roman. Anyone else who laid a finger on him would be in serious shit.
Roman figured they might as well join in on the family fun, since the unexpected opportunity presented itself. “Well, would you look at this little family reunion,” Roman chuckled. He threw an arm around Clover’s shoulders, feeling the other man tense at the contact. “Neo, meet our cousin, Clover.”
Her eyes widened as she stared up at the Ace with sudden interest. She began to circle him appraisingly, her intense observation making him increasingly uneasy. Finally, she stopped in front of him again just as he managed to shrug off Roman’s hold. And then the light shimmered around her, and from her toes up she began to change, until the girl standing before him was the very same one from the Brunswick family photograph.
Clover stuttered a gasp and stumbled back, his face torn between horror and wonder. Roman merely shook his head. “She didn’t make it,” he said.
Neo frowned and let the illusion fall away. "Wait..." Clover almost reached out to try to hold onto it, but he forced his hand back down at his side and clenched it into a fist instead. The Aces were trained not to show weakness, and he'd slipped up badly. He was lucky he was family.
“You’re all aware that because of our enemy’s penchant for infiltration, you have been operating on a need-to-know basis,” the General was addressing the Ace Ops. “As of tonight, there is more that you need to know. I will brief you all in my office at twenty-two-hundred hours. Until then, continue with your patrol. I’ll be taking the detainees with me.”
But Ironwood had hardly finished speaking when sirens started wailing like widows—not inside the police station, but out in the streets. The General cursed and barked an order at the Ace Ops to return their weapons. The Huntsmen and Huntresses hesitated just for a moment as they looked to their captain. But one subtle nod from Clover, and they sprang into action. Lumberjane threw open the weapons lockers and the others pulled out all the blades, guns, and ridiculous hybrids of the two, and tossed them back to their owners.
“What are those sirens?” Sparky asked, even as she pumped her grenade launcher.
“Perimeter breach,” said Ice Queen, sword already drawn.
“Breach?” echoed Ice Princess. She mirrored her sister’s stance instinctively. It was clear where she’d gotten her training from.
Clover thrust Roman’s cane into his hand and held out the open blast box for Roman to take back the Lamp. Evidently, he still assumed it was a weapon, too. Ironwood looked alarmed to see the Relic in Roman’s hands, but interestingly, so did Ice Queen.
“Sir,” she hissed, but he silenced her with a raised hand.
“Not here. Not now.” He turned on his heel and headed for the door. “We have to take care of our other uninvited guests first.”
They all followed him out into the night. The General’s personal airship was parked outside, bathed in red light from the street lamps—as clear a signal of danger as the sirens. The few civilians caught out this late were scurrying for shelter, leaving a clear line of sight down to the darkened end of the street. Pops of gunfire rang out in the distance, but they were quickly cut short. Seconds later, the twisted metal carcasses of two Atlesian Knights sailed through the air from one of the side streets and crashed into the side of the opposite building. Then, the darkness at the end of the street seemed to stir.
“Sabyrs. At least thirty, closing fast.”
Roman looked up to see Toaster hovering high above them, but her gaze was fixed dead ahead. Suddenly, out of the shadows burst dozens of dark, fast-moving forms, their eyes glowing like embers under the street lamps, their enormous fangs gleaming in the red light as though drenched in blood. She threw her arms out in front of her, sending the blades at her back shooting forward to spin like a dynamo in the air, generating a powerful surge of crackling, bright green electricity. When she discharged, the energy beam shot forth at the speed of lightning, clearing a column straight down the center of the oncoming horde.
But these Grimm were clever and agile. Those that weren’t disintegrated instantly scattered, breaking ranks so they no longer moved in a predictable mass. Some leapt up onto balconies and fire escapes to attack from above while others disappeared down the darkened side streets, no doubt to circle around behind. They were drawn to the Lamp. They would keep coming until they’d shredded Roman and everyone around him to pieces to get to it.
‘If a sabyr gets its teeth into you, you’re as good as dead,’ Ozpin said.
“You’re a fountain of wisdom,” Roman muttered as he raised his cane and lined up his sights on a pair of them charging down the street toward him. Beside him, Ironwood unholstered his pistol and took aim at another one running along the rooftops. They exchanged a glance—a tacit truce—before they turned their backs to each other and fired, destroying both their targets with one shot. The others with ranged weapons sprayed the street with a fire barrage, mowing down the next wave of Grimm on all sides. Clover and Whiplash seized ground, each dashing down the street in opposite directions to meet the monsters. But they both leapt aside at the last second, Clover whirling his fishing rod over his head and casting, catching the hook around the lamppost on the opposite side of the street and pulling the steel cord taut while Whiplash wrapped his long, glowing arms around the lamppost across from him. The charging Grimm couldn’t stop or swerve in time, and went tumbling head over heels, right into the other Ace Ops’ attacks. Lumberjane and Jackrabbit bashed in bones, the former with a massive hammer at least twice the size of Sparky’s, the latter with mechanical fists that caged her entire arms and worked with her Semblance to deliver punishing, rapid-fire punches. At the other end of the street, Fido cut down three with one fell swoop of his bladed boomerang.
But the rest of the Grimm kept coming. With catlike grace, the creatures leapt over Clover and Whiplash’s trip-ups and were on the rest of them in seconds. It became a close-quarter fight. A sabyr raced toward Roman, zig-zagging as Ironwood’s shots cracked the pavement at its feet, but Roman stood his ground. He lowered his weapon, staring the beast right in the eyes. It lunged for him with claws and fangs bared. But all it sank its teeth into was smoke—as Neo sank her sword into its heart. No sooner had the sabyr crumbled to ash than another tried to take a swipe at Neo, only to shatter her image into a thousand pieces, revealing Roman with his weapon raised at point-blank range. He fired a round clean through its skull and it burst into ash as it hit the pavement at his feet. Neo popped open her umbrella as the ash rained down around them and the Huntsmen took down one Grimm after another.
Qrow’s pained gasp from nearby drew Roman’s attention, but the Huntsman hadn’t taken a hit—not yet, anyway. One swing of his sword had sent a sabyr leaping back out of striking range to circle around him more warily, seeking an opening to attack. And Qrow had just given one. He’d nearly dropped his weapon as his hand flew to his side in pain, and the sabyr pounced. Its fangs clanged down around the shaft of Roman’s cane instead of Qrow’s throat. As the smoke cleared, he stood between the Huntsman and the beast, his cane thrust out in front of him with both hands. Before the sabyr could realize why it tasted steel rather than blood, Roman wrenched his cane around ninety degrees and broke the beast’s neck.
“Thanks,” Qrow huffed.
Roman looked back over his shoulder at the Huntsman, reduced to helplessness by human hand, not beast, and he let out a sound not unlike the sabyr had. He didn’t care that Atlas had left its mark on him, but on Qrow it felt far more personal. A claim on what was his. He may not have his city anymore, or his syndicate, but he had a team, and gods knew he would never have picked ‘em, but they were all he had. Back in Vale, people knew better than to lay hands on what was his.
‘What do you say we teach Atlas that lesson, professor?’ Roman thought as he raised his cane to fix Jackrabbit in his sights through the chaos. She was fending off three sabyrs at once. As fast as she was, she’d never make it out of there in time.
‘You know I won’t let you pull that trigger, Roman.’
‘But you want to. Just a little.’ He ran his finger over the trigger, feather-light. ‘I can tell.’
But at that moment, in a blur of speed, Jackrabbit spun and windmill kicked one of the sabyr’s heads back with a brutal snap, and the one she’d turned her back to for a mere moment lunged. Roman nudged his sights just an inch to the right and fired, obliterating the beast—and showering Jackrabbit with ash, which wasn’t as satisfying as shooting her would’ve been, but wasn’t unsatisfying either. When the ash fell, he noticed Ironwood standing there watching him from across the street, his gun raised in a stance that mirrored Roman's. They both lowered their weapons as the fray died down, the few remaining sabyrs swiftly slaughtered by the Huntsmen and baby Huntsmen.
“Aces—“ the General began, but one surviving sabyr lunged from the shadows of the alley behind him, and might’ve torn out his throat with its teeth had Maria not moved faster than a woman her age had any right to. She slid under the creature, spinning her cane to extend a hidden curved blade, and then sank it up into the beast's ribcage to redirect its momentum and throw it down on its back at her feet. The sabyr snapped and snarled at her, but with a single twist of her scythe, its body finally crumbled away to ash.
She gave the dumbstruck General a mock salute, and tapped the shaft of her scythe—now a simple cane again—on the pavement. “I’ve still got it,” she announced proudly.
“She’s still got it,” Qrow echoed in an awed whisper. But he soon shook the stars out of his eyes. His feelings about the old lady had grown more complicated of late. He still wasn’t keen on the idea of her teaching Little Red how to use that killer stare of hers. But he’d forfeited his right to put his foot down with that kid when he’d given her up to some blonde, backwoods beach bum.
The General gave Maria a bemused nod of thanks. “As I was saying, Aces, make sure all the civilians made it to shelter safely and see if anyone needs medical attention. We’re going back up to Atlas to sort all this out. I’ll see you for your briefing later.”
“Yes, sir,” said Clover, his team falling into line behind him. But his eyes never left his cousin as Roman hopped up into the General’s airship after the others.
Roman smiled and tipped his hat in farewell before moving to take his seat as the doors closed and the ship took off for the floating city. People called it the City of Dreams, but Atlas was the city of his nightmares. Surveillance from top to bottom, cops around every corner and a legal code as dense as a brick—and thrown at the unwary with the same blunt force. It was a lovely place to live for those who lived by the rules. For everyone else, it was an icy panopticon. Or so Roman had heard. He’d never visited for the aforementioned reasons, and he’d hoped he’d never have to. But now that he had the ever-so-loyal General to bend the rules for him, he was starting to think it might not be so bad here after all.
Beneath them, the streets of Mantle were still bathed in the bloodred glow of the emergency lights. “Is the city under attack?” Qrow asked. Are we too late? was the underlying question.
“No,” Ironwood sighed. “But the breaches are becoming more frequent.”
“Breaches, plural? Since when are there breaches?” Qrow demanded. But the answer became evident as they gained altitude. Mantle’s defenses weren’t just falling into disrepair—they had fallen, at least in one sector. There was a gaping hole in the perimeter wall where it had rusted away to rubble out on the harsh Solitas tundra.
“With the embargo, our resources are stretched thin,” the General explained. “I’m…doing what I can.”
“I really hope you’ve got a better explanation than that,” Qrow growled. “People could get killed.”
“I hope you have an extremely good explanation for dragging children—my sister—into…whatever-this-is,” Ice Queen hissed over her shoulder. She’d taken the helm of the ship while Ironwood sat rigidly in the copilot’s seat. Toaster sat across from Roman on the opposite bench, watching him unblinkingly. “Do you have any idea how much danger you were in?”
“He does,” Ironwood said, before Qrow could say something more pointed.
Ice Queen turned to her commander. “So, what? Qrow’s in bed with the mafia now?”
Roman snorted. “You could say that.”
Qrow shot him an absolutely murderous look, and Roman drank it in like wine. With all that the world had thrown at him, even just in these past few months, Qrow still had such fire in his blood. It was his most attractive quality, in Roman’s eyes. And it was oh so fun to stoke the flames. “I will fucking stab you,” Qrow growled at him under his breath.
Roman reached out and patted the Huntsman on the cheek affectionately. “Not if I stab you first, dear,” he cooed.
Qrow looked like he wished the bottom of the airship would drop out beneath him. Most of the others were studiously ignoring their interaction. But the creepy little robot was still staring at Roman. What with him being Atlas’ Most Wanted and her no doubt plugged into all the military’s threat monitoring systems, she probably had about a dozen alarm bells going off in her head. But that didn’t make her studying his every move any less unnerving. So he showed her his middle finger for her to study all she wanted.
He didn’t expect her to mimic the gesture. “No, don’t do that!” Little Red squeaked, grabbing her friend’s hand and pushing it back down into her lap.
The robot cocked her head curiously. “Why not? Is it not a form of greeting, like the fist-bump you showed me?”
“It absolutely is,” Roman interjected before Red could answer. He kept a completely straight face as he continued, “You should use it with all your Atlesian friends. They’ll be very impressed with your grasp of human behavior.”
“No it isn’t, Penny, he’s lying,” Red hissed.
“Why would I lie about something like that?” Roman asked innocently.
Toaster looked to her friend for an answer. “Because it’s rude and he’s mean and he just wants to mess with you,” said Little Red.
“I see,” said the robo-girl ponderously. She turned back to Roman. “Then…” She lifted her hand again and carefully raised her middle finger. “Is this the appropriate response?”
Roman laughed, tickled by the girl's moxie. “Touché, Toaster.”
Red buried her face in her hands in resignation, but her metal friend simply frowned. “My name is Penny.”
Blondie heaved a dramatic sigh. “That’s a losing battle with him.”
“You know,” said Moody, “refusing to refer to people or animals by their real names is often a tactic to avoid becoming emotionally attached.”
“Fascinating,” Roman drawled, casually curling his fingers into a fist. “And how emotionally attached would you say you are to your teeth?”
Moody, wisely, shut his mouth. And soon, Ice Queen was bringing the airship down onto a private landing pad atop the Atlas Academy tower. When he stepped out, Roman felt like he was standing at the top of the world. The entire city glimmered and gleamed below, not the slightest crack in its flawless façade to hint that anything was amiss. But far beneath and out of sight, Mantle still lurked in Atlas’ shadow like so much dirt swept under the rug. Something was very wrong down there, and it was only a matter of time before their problems bubbled up to the surface and became the problems of these upstanding Atlesian citizens. They might’ve thought they were above it all, but the two cities were quite literally chained together, their fates inescapably intertwined. And suddenly, Roman didn’t want to think about Atlas and Mantle anymore.
It was a short elevator ride down to a stately room of white marble, steel and glass. A solid, black desk and chair were the only fixtures, resting atop a dais and backed by sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows with a commanding view of the city. The vaulted ceiling and cold, hard materials gave the place a cavernous feeling, despite its lofty place among the stars. Even though it was the first time Roman had set foot in the room, it felt like the hundredth.
Ironwood crossed to stand behind his desk, and Ice Queen and Toaster took up places on either side of him. “My office is secure. We can speak freely here.”
Qrow leaned languidly against the wall and crossed his arms, offering no outward show of respect for the office of Atlas’ highest authority. It was the sort of irreverent attitude everyone expected from him. But Roman and Ironwood knew better. Qrow was trying not to strain his injury. “What about them?” Qrow jerked his chin to indicate the General’s retinue.
“They know everything,” said Ironwood, glancing at Roman uneasily. “With all communications with the other headmasters cut off, I needed people of my own I could rely on. Winter is my most trusted lieutenant and has demonstrated unwavering devotion to duty since the day I recruited her. And Penny is our kingdom’s most advanced fighter whose loyalty is without question. She was built here—we are her family and Atlas is her home. She will do everything in her power to protect her people.”
Roman wouldn’t have thought the pair of them could stand any straighter, but they did, puffed up with pride in their great kingdom and their place as cogs in the mighty machine. It was pathetic. Neither had the slightest desire to carve out a piece of the world for themselves. No wonder they fell right in line.
“I deeply regret how all of you were treated by the Ace Ops,” Ironwood continued. “They know only what I judged was necessary—that the attacks on the kingdoms are being coordinated by a single terrorist group, that hostile agents are operating within our midst, and that the academies share a secret mission to counter their plots. Given the circumstances, my team came to the conclusion that you were here to launch an attack on Atlas. I came as soon as Penny informed me of your capture.”
“I was certain it was all a big misunderstanding,” she piped up with a bright, porcelain-white smile.
Qrow scoffed. “Well, we weren’t expecting a warm, Atlesian welcome.”
“Honestly, Qrow, what were you expecting showing up here with him?” Ice Queen sneered at Roman, showing her teeth like an attack dog testing its chain.
“Qrow has been through enough today, Schnee,” Ironwood snapped. “Leave off him for once.” Ice Queen obediently stood down, but made no attempt to conceal her displeasure doing so. “That said, your timing was…unfortunate. Thanks to your intelligence, Qrow, the Ace Ops were able to apprehend Dr. Arthur Watts just last week.”
“No kidding, you got the bastard?” said Qrow.
“We have him,” Ironwood assured them. “He hasn't exactly been forthcoming thus far, but he almost certainly wasn’t working alone. The appearance in Atlas of one of his known co-conspirators—“ the General glared gloomily in Roman’s direction ”—naturally raised…red flags.”
“But since I’m obviously not the one he’s waiting on, you have to wonder…” Roman spread his arms to encompass their surroundings. “What if he’s right where he wants to be? Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve made that mistake.”
The General clasped his hands firmly behind his back—probably to keep from clenching them into fists. “Unlike you, Watts was exceedingly difficult to capture. He was using his old backdoors into Mantle’s security and surveillance grid to exploit its blindspots. But Penny noticed a pattern to the blackouts and equipment failures, which are otherwise to be expected in a city with infrastructure as old as Mantle's. That’s how the Ace Ops were finally able to track him down. And he did not come quietly. This is the most secure facility in the world. No one is coming to rescue him.”
Roman wasn’t entirely convinced, but he knew very little about the shadowy Dr. Watts and the role Salem intended him to play in her plans. “Well, I trust you’ll arrange a visit,” he said. “Maybe I can persuade him to be more…forthcoming.”
Ironwood studied Roman intently, turning each of his words and actions over like stones in his mind lest he find a viper coiled beneath. “I’ll take you to him tomorrow,” he assented. “Tonight, why don’t you tell us…why you’ve come?”
“Mmm,” Roman hummed noncommittally. “I think you owe us a bit of exhibition first, General Pornstar. I know how much you love a captive audience—”
Ironwood slammed his metal fist down on his desk so hard he cracked the screen in a shower of sparks. “Why do you allow him to continue to speak?” he snarled.
No one else dared cast a word into the pool of ensuing silence, but Roman hadn't been intimidated by the big, bad General when he'd been at the other man's mercy, and he certainly wasn't now that the tables were turned. “Well, I could be wrong,” he drawled, “but I just have a feeling it’s because he’s pretty pissed at you right now, and he doesn’t want to say something he’ll regret.” Ironwood was taken aback by that, so Roman painted the picture for him as he approached the General at his desk. “When you put it all together, the SNAFU with your forces in Vale was as much your fault as mine. You’ve got Watts and you’ve got nothing out of him. And from what we’ve seen in our first hour on Atlesian soil, things have only gotten worse on your watch. After Lionheart’s betrayal, your shortcomings could start to look a little less like incompetence, and a little more like sabotage.”
Ironwood’s eyes widened. “He knows I would never…” He clenched his jaw. “I know the situation looks dire,” he ground out. “But I have a plan. If I can discuss it with him…”
“Sir, who are you two talking about?” Ice Queen interjected.
The General put Roman in mind of a teakettle letting off steam as he released his breath in a hiss. “Ozpin.” He gestured to Roman. “By virtue of some divine disaster.”
At least she was sharp. It didn’t take her long to put the pieces together. “But that...that can’t be...”
“It does make much more sense, though,” said Toaster, thoughtfully.
Roman leaned up against the General’s desk and said with a smirk, “It also kinda makes me your boss, doesn’t it?”
As expected, Ironwood didn’t back down. He leaned in closer across the desk, practically nose-to-nose with Roman, and growled, “You are an enemy of the kingdom, and were it not for him, you would be treated accordingly. I do not answer to you.”
Maria cleared her throat pointedly. “Do you two need the room? Because if you’re going to whip your dicks out to establish dominance, I should probably take the kids outside.”
Ironwood looked properly scandalized at the prospect, gaping speechlessly at the old woman. Roman had some words for her, on the other hand, but he never got to voice them. “That won’t be necessary,” Ozpin sighed, standing up straight. And just like that, all eyes were on him. “I apologize for Roman’s conduct—“ he pinched the bridge of his nose “—for the umpteenth time. I was…composing my thoughts. However, they run more or less along the lines that he already articulated. So tell us, James, what is your plan here?” His voice dipped dangerously low. “And why does it evidently take precedence over the safety of your own citizens?”
Ironwood picked his jaw up off the floor and straightened out his uniform in an attempt to recover his dignity. “Please, allow me to show you.” He tapped a button on the still-functioning side of his desk, and then the crest of the Kingdom of Atlas in the center of his office floor began to rise. Red and Blondie hurriedly stepped off of it before what looked like a full wargaming table had taken over the middle of the room where they’d been standing. Everyone gathered around it as holographic schematics flickered to life above its surface.
“That’s Amity Colosseum,” said Blondie. Sure enough, a perfect scale render of the structure was spinning slowly in the air above them.
“Indeed,” said Ironwood. He picked up a remote off his desk and moved to join them at the table. “It sustained severe damage during the Battle of Beacon, but not as much as I have led the public to believe. When Beacon fell and everyone on Remnant lost contact with one another, I knew our current system was outdated. Amity was built to bring the kingdoms together, and it will serve that purpose again.” He pressed a button on the remote, and an antenna appeared atop the colosseum.
“Building a new tower on top of Amity Colosseum will reestablish global communications!” Toaster chimed in excitedly.
With a wary glance Ozpin's way, Ice Queen added, “By launching the tower high into the atmosphere with enough gravity dust, our scientists believe we can create a sort of…satellite out of reach of the Grimm and capable of maintaining global communications even if we were to lose another tower.”
“That’s…amazing,” said Little Red.
“It might actually work,” said Qrow.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as Ozpin imagined the potential of such a thing. “It is certainly a worthy undertaking, James,” he said gently. “But your people are your first priority. Especially now, when Atlas may well become the next battlefront. Fear and instability are an open invitation to our enemies. You must fortify Mantle before taking on an experimental project of this scale, or you could lose both cities before you complete it.”
“But what if…?” Ironwood began, but he trailed off and glanced away. “I’m sorry. I can’t look at you and not see him.”
‘Funny. I can’t look at him and not see a massive tool.’
Ozpin sighed. “I thought that might be the case. Neo, would you be so kind?” he asked, holding out his hand to her.
She glared at his hand, and then at him. I won’t do this again. When he nodded his understanding, she took his hand, and her delicate illusion glass glimmered across his body. Qrow’s breath caught. Roman didn’t need to see himself to know who he looked like, and hate it with every fiber of his being.
“Wow, it’s almost like being back at Beacon!” Sparky exclaimed. “Hey Ozpin, tell Jaune the movie Hippopotasaur wasn’t about a real Grimm and he’ll have to re-write his essay!”
Blondie pulled the folds of his hoodie up around his face to hide his burning blush. “I’d rather not relive that moment of my life.”
“It was a good essay, in Mr. Arc’s defense.” Ozpin chuckled. “I found the part about the beast’s taste for whole human heads particularly gripping.”
Blondie only shrank down further inside his hood. The other kids seemed to be enjoying the little blast from the past. Their relationship with their headmaster had been over the rocks recently, but he was also a reminder of happier times before everything they knew had fallen apart. Qrow wouldn’t stop staring.
“It’s so good to see you again, Ozpin,” Ironwood said. The man actually sounded a little choked up. Roman might’ve laughed if he weren’t simmering with suppressed rage.
“This is only temporary,” said Ozpin, at once assuring Roman and warning Ironwood. “If my students whom he terrorized can get used to him, then you can, too.”
‘I was minding my own business,’ Roman grumbled. ‘They terrorized me.’
“Of course,” the General agreed, with the decency to look somewhat ashamed of himself.
“You were saying, about Amity?” Ozpin prompted.
Ironwood gestured to the schematics. “What if it could end the war?”
The smile fell from Ozpin’s face. “And how could it do that?”
“We could tell the world about Salem.”
“You’re right,” said Ozpin. “That would end the war. Swiftly.”
“There would be panic, and panic would bring the Grimm,” Ironwood conceded. “But if we tell the people of Atlas first, my soldiers could keep the panic from boiling over into chaos. And once the people here have come to terms with the truth, the Atlesian military would be prepared to come to the aid of the other kingdoms when they learn the truth for themselves.”
Ozpin stared silently through the glowing hologram at the General for a long moment. “There would not just be panic,” he said, finally. “There was a time, long ago, when humanity knew about Salem. And they fell to their knees and worshipped her. We live in a world without gods. Anyone still searching would need look no further than her.”
‘You're conveniently leaving yourself out of that story,’ Roman remarked.
‘My role is not relevant to my point.’
Ironwood’s brow furrowed in frustration. “You just said that was a long time ago. People change.”
“Not that much,” Ozpin said, sadly. "Why do you follow me? Is it not out of a desire to place your faith in a higher power?"
“What of your faith, Ozpin?” Ironwood challenged. “You told me you had faith in humanity.”
“Even in the best case scenario, where humanity does not succumb to chaos and fanaticism, what then?” Ozpin countered. “All the world’s armies and all the world’s weapons cannot destroy her. She will always keep coming back, as I do. I could have had the forces of all four kingdoms at my command after the Great War. I could have brought the greatest army this world had ever seen down on her, but I didn’t. Because they all would have died for nothing.”
Roman hadn't missed the way Ozpin had dodged the question, and he doubted Ironwood had, either. But the General pressed on. “Then why does she always strike from the shadows, recruiting others to do her dirty work, concocting these elaborate plots to turn us against each other? What is she afraid of, if not the possibility of humanity uniting against her if they ever learned of her existence?”
Ozpin gave the plain and simple answer. “She fears nothing. Not an army, not me, not even the gods. It is not fear that motivates her. She knows I’ve been tasked to spend my lives trying to bring humanity together. I think she wants to prove to me, or to the gods, or perhaps only to herself, that humanity will sooner tear itself apart.”
“So there really is no way to defeat her decisively, once and for all?” Ironwood asked the question like he already knew the answer, and had for a long time. But he finally had to voice it aloud.
“Not by conventional means,” said Ozpin. “That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.” He glanced briefly at Little Red before returning his gaze to the General. “But as of yet, we do not have the ability to do so.”
“I see,” Ironwood said flatly.
“So you’ll focus on repairing the wall?” Ozpin pressed.
“Yes,” Ironwood agreed. “I—“ He shut his eyes and massaged his brow above the metal strip of his neurotransmitter that controlled his cybernetics. “In order to ramp up construction, I’ll first need to deal with the group of thieves down in Mantle stealing supply shipments. They’ve managed to elude capture thus far.”
“Hm,” said Ozpin. “Perhaps you need a thief to catch a thief.”
Ironwood reopened his eyes only to favor Ozpin with a skeptical look. “Surely you’re not talking about Torchwick.”
“Think of him as a turncoat, if you prefer," Ozpin proposed. "He was Salem's asset and now he is mine. He's proven surprisingly helpful in certain situations, when properly incentivized. Where do you think Qrow got the information that he passed along to you?”
Ice Queen sniffed. “And what does he get out of being helpful?”
“As much freedom as I can give him, for as long as I can give it,” Ozpin answered.
She raised a perfect brow sharp enough to cut. “That’s it?”
“It must be frightening, not being in control of your own body,” said Toaster, flexing her fingers in front of her. “Like what he did to our Knights.”
Ironwood shut off the holographic display and laid his hands on the table with a heavy sigh. “I am in no position to refuse assistance where I can get it. But a wall won’t protect the city from another attack like the one on Beacon.”
“And what about the rest of Mantle?” Fisticuffs added. “They’re obviously struggling, and with all your soldiers and propaganda down there, it looks like the whole city’s under an occupying force. How is that helping, making your own people afraid of you? Isn’t that exactly what Salem wants?”
Ironwood curled his hands into fists. “I have to keep order. With the chaos in the other kingdoms, the Grimm, the embargo and the election, tensions here are higher than they’ve been in a long time, but they are nothing new. No other kingdom has a fractured capital. I deployed my soldiers in Mantle and Atlas to keep our citizens safe from the Grimm and from people like Watts. But the resentment between our twin cities runs deep and, potentially, dangerous. I have no doubt Salem will seek to exploit it. It is a powder keg that could explode into civil war, and I have to stop whoever would light the match. If my people label me a tyrant, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to protect them.”
“You sure sound the part,” Kitty Cat said.
Ironwood regarded her with a cool, analytical eye. “I received a report from Argus that the Belladonnas helped put down the White Fang uprising at Haven. It must have been hard, but it was the right thing to do. Sometimes the threats that leaders must face come from within.”
Kitty Cat’s ears flattened defensively, but she had no rebuttal. Instead, it was Ozpin who offered one. “That may be true, but remember, James, that absolute order is as dangerous as absolute chaos. We need a bit of both, or we lose our humanity.”
“More wisdom gained from experience?” said Ironwood.
He may have meant it as a sleight, but Ozpin accepted the simple spoken truth. “If the only good to come of my mistakes is that no one else need repeat them, perhaps someday it will all be worth the cost.”
Ironwood straightened and unballed his fists, folding his hands behind his back instead. “It’s getting late. And I take it we have a more urgent matter to discuss.” He looked pointedly at the Lamp hanging at Ozpin’s hip.
Ozpin unhooked the Lamp and placed it atop the table in front of them, where it hung ethereally on the air. “The Relic of Knowledge was no longer safe at Haven,” he said. “I was hoping to seal it in the vault here until the situation in Mistral can be remedied.”
“That won’t be possible, with the Winter Maiden’s current condition,” said Ice Queen.
“Her condition?” Blondie asked. “Was she attacked, like the Fall Maiden?”
“No. She’s just…very old,” said Ice Queen. “She’s become bedridden, and most days, she doesn’t even remember she is the Winter Maiden anymore. She won’t be able to open the vault.”
Ozpin sighed in dismay. “I was afraid of that.”
“You brought it all this way,” Toaster mused. “Maybe it’s safest with you for now.”
Ozpin looked at her sadly. “I couldn’t keep you safe, Penny. Nor my own students, Amber, my academy… I fear it isn’t safe with me at all.”
“With respect, professor, I meant all of you.” She spread her arms to encompass everyone at the table. “That is, if you’re planning to stay,” she said hopefully.
“I can arrange for you students to resume your training here at Atlas Academy so that you can assist on missions,” Ironwood offered. “We could certainly use more Huntresses and Huntsmen like you who have faced the enemy before and know what we’re truly up against.”
“Well,” Red ventured tentatively, “we did come here to help.”
“It figures that after all that, I’d still end up back at Atlas Academy,” Ice Princess pouted.
“You’ve already gone above and beyond the call of duty. If any of you wish to return home to your families, we would understand,” Ironwood said. “You can all sleep on it and give me your answers in the morning.”
“What are you going to tell the Ace Ops?” Moody asked.
Ironwood tried hopelessly to rub some of the tension from his brow with his thumb and forefinger. “I’ll tell them that Ozpin was grooming you for covert operations, and that Qrow took charge of your training after his death. Torchwick was a deep cover agent tasked with infiltrating the terrorist faction. I had to, very publicly,” he hissed, “declare him Public Enemy Number One in Atlas so Salem wouldn’t realize her network had been compromised. Which reminds me, Ozpin, you shouldn’t go out in public without her.” He gestured to Neo. “I made certain everyone in Atlas knows his face.”
Neo rolled her eyes, but gave a resigned shrug. “We’ve hardly left each other's side these past few months,” Ozpin translated.
Fisticuffs crossed her arms and fixed the General with a hard stare. “So you’re just going to keep lying to your team?”
“They’re soldiers,” said Ironwood. “They expect to be told what they need to know, when they need to know it. No less, and no more. As of now, the only people we can trust with the truth are in this room. Lives are more important than lies. My team understands that.”
“Yeah, we’ve heard that before, too,” Sparky grumbled. “We get it.”
“Good,” he said. “You all must be tired. You've had quite a day. Winter and Penny will show you to the student dorms. The adults can use the rooms for visiting professors, since I sent them all home. Ozpin and Qrow know where they are.”
“I’m going to hitch a ride back down to Mantle,” said Maria. She tapped at her goggles again in a vain attempt to refocus them. “I really need to get my eyes checked. I’m seeing two of everyone, and there were already too many of you to keep track of.”
“Your prosthetics are Dr. Polendina’s work,” Toaster observed. “So am I! He’s my father. I’ll escort you to him. I need to get my eyes checked, too, in a way. I think there may be a bug in my facial recognition software after my reconstruction. I should have recognized my friends much sooner.”
With a permissive gesture from the General, Toaster bid farewell to her friends again, promising to be back by morning to show them all around Atlas Academy, which she assured them they were going to absolutely love. Then she whisked Maria away by the hand, already chattering a mile a minute about how brilliant this Dr. Polendina was, and all the advancements he’d made in cybernetics over the past few years.
Ice Queen gave Ironwood a curt nod and ushered for the kids to follow her out of the headmaster’s office. Once the doors closed behind the last of them, Ironwood spoke again. “I’m sure Winter will want to be the one to tell her sister this herself, so I didn’t mention it earlier. But the other reason I brought her into my confidence was to offer her the choice of becoming the Winter Maiden’s successor. And she accepted.”
Ozpin frowned. “Successor? But the power transfers—”
“To the last person in the Maiden’s thoughts when she passes, yes. That's why I have her in an isolated ward, with Winter visiting her regularly and administering all of her care under the guidance of her doctors. Winter is the only person she sees, and with her deteriorating memory, it is more than likely that Winter will be the one in her thoughts at the end.”
“I suppose it’s worth the attempt,” said Ozpin doubtfully. “Fria was a remarkable woman. I would have liked to have seen her one last time.”
“I wish I could have met her at her prime, as you did,” Ironwood said. “I’ve tried to keep her comfortable. She seems...content.”
Ozpin glanced regretfully back at the doors the kids had disappeared through moments ago. “Weiss will be upset.”
“It was Winter’s choice. She’s ready.”
“They are never ready,” said Ozpin.
“I suppose you have some idea of what they go through.” Ironwood looked down at the Lamp, turning weightlessly above the table between them. “When we first met, you were...frequently distracted. Often of two minds on a matter. Volatile, in a word. I can only imagine what it must be like this time, with him. If you aren’t sure the Relic is safe with you, I could safeguard it myself.”
Ozpin reached out and plucked the Lamp out of the air. “That is not what I was referring to.” He hitched it back to his belt and returned Ironwood’s gaze. “You and Glynda are my oldest friends. You're the only ones who knew me before I was truly...me. But I am not that boy anymore. I can handle myself. And I can handle Torchwick. We’re beginning to understand each other.”
“That’s what worries me.” Ironwood sighed. “The Ace Ops will be here soon. You should go.”
Ozpin nodded and turned to do just that. “I’ll see you tomorrow, James.”
“We may not always agree,” Ironwood said softly behind him. “But I’m glad you came. I felt…lost, without you.”
“I know the feeling all too well,” Ozpin murmured before he left the General alone in his imposing office.
Neo stuck close to his side, and Qrow slunk along in his wake like a second shadow. But as soon as they made it out into the antechamber and Neo was about to dispel her illusion on Ozpin, Qrow’s hand shot out to grab her wrist. “Don’t,” he said, half warning, half pleading. “Not yet.” They were the first words he’d uttered since she’d cast the illusion.
Neo shot him a look that even he could understand unambiguously. Take your hand off me or I’ll make you regret you didn’t.
Qrow made the wise decision and let go of her. “I’ll be nicer to your brother,” he blurted. “For a day.” When she just kept staring, he quickly upped the ante. “A week.” Her eyes narrowed. “Listen, any longer and I’ll snap and kill him myself.”
Neo huffed and turned on her heel, marching toward the elevator. But she left the illusion in place. She jabbed the call button with the tip of her umbrella and tapped her foot while she waited. Qrow pulled himself together in time to share a fragile smile with Ozpin before they hurried to join her in the elevator before she decided to let the doors close in their faces. Ozpin pushed the button for the fifth floor, and they descended together in silence.
‘It sure is some spell you’ve got over him, Oz.’
‘Figure of speech.’
The elevator let them out into a vaulted hallway lined with white marble pillars and a row of dark, identical doors on either side. It was beautiful, cold and unwelcoming, like everything else in Atlas. “James said we could use any of these rooms,” Oz said, trying the glowing touchpad beside one of the doors and finding it unlocked. The steel panels slid back into the frame, permitting access to the darkened domicile.
Before Qrow could follow him inside, Neo caught his wrist with the handle of her umbrella. She held out her hand and spread her fingers. Five minutes. Then she spun around and disappeared into the room across the hall. Qrow turned back to Oz with a desperate look in his eyes. He shoved him the rest of the way into the room, and no sooner had the door slid shut behind them, than Qrow was pulling Oz against him with startling strength. They stumbled back against the wall, their lips colliding as Qrow clung to him like a drowning man.
Ozpin struggled to catch up at first, but he stopped altogether and pulled back when he tasted blood. The only light in the room was filtering in through the high, arching windows from the city below, but when he cupped Qrow’s face in both hands and tilted it toward the soft neon glow, he saw the Huntsman’s lips shine red. “Qrow, this illusion is like fine glass. I'll cut you if you’re not careful,” he admonished.
“I don’t care,” Qrow hissed through bloody teeth. His eyes were beginning to glisten with tears, but he hardly seemed to notice. His full attention was fixated on Ozpin, as though if he didn’t memorize every minute detail of the man’s form by sight and touch in these moments, the memory of them might fade forever.
“Qrow…” Ozpin began, but his voice failed him. Instead, he carefully encircled his lover in his arms and held him as close as he could without causing him further harm. Qrow collapsed against him with a breathless sob. Only then did Ozpin catch sight of the mirror on the wall behind Qrow, and his reflection in its silvery surface. It was the first time he had seen his own reflection look back at him since the day he’d died. For a second, it felt as though time had taken mercy on him just this once, and turned backward, returning all that he’d lost that night. Roman, on the other hand, saw his worst nightmare in that mirror—all that he had left to lose.
But no one, not even Ozpin, could turn back time. Soon, the contours of his former self began to shimmer and fade. Qrow whimpered and clutched him tighter, but he couldn’t hold onto the illusion any more than Ozpin could hold onto the past. All that was left to hold onto was each other. So Ozpin held Qrow close with one hand while reaching up to slip Roman’s kerchief from around his neck with the other. “Close your eyes,” he whispered.
Qrow squeezed his eyes shut, the tears finally rolling down his cheeks. Ozpin brushed them away and then tied the black fabric over his eyes. He pressed a tender kiss to each one over the makeshift blindfold. “I’m still here,” he murmured.
Qrow swayed toward him blindly, and Ozpin met him halfway in a slow, searching kiss. Qrow’s fingers fumbled with the buttons of Roman’s coat as Oz pulled off his gloves, and then Oz helped him shove the coat down over his shoulders. It hit the floor with a heavy, metallic clank, and they both paused. “I almost forgot.” Oz bent down to fish around in the coat’s pockets until he found the source of the sound. “Roman really did take these,” he said, jangling the handcuffs as he stood so Qrow could hear.
Qrow bit his much-abused lip. “Well, if we’ve already got ‘em…”
“Are you sure?” Ozpin asked, unbuttoning Qrow’s vest and slipping his fingers under Qrow’s shirt to run them gingerly over the bandages there. “After what you’ve just been through—“
“I’ve been through worse,” Qrow growled, pulling at Roman’s belt. “All I want to think about now is you.”
Ozpin released a shuddering breath. “Tell me if it hurts more than you want it to.” With that, he made short work of stripping Qrow of his shirt and vest, and then took Qrow’s hands in his and led him over to the bed. He pushed Qrow gently down onto it, and the Huntsman stretched himself out across the sheets like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Roman’s mouth started to water. He wanted to be the one to chain Qrow down and take what was on offer, but he was as much at Ozpin’s mercy as Qrow.
Oz swallowed and crawled on top of Qrow, being careful not to put any weight on his injured side. He reached up and threaded the cuffs through the headboard’s metal slats, then latched the strong steel bracelets around both of Qrow’s wrists. Qrow strained against them instinctively, but they were the real deal, not toys. The Huntsman was well and truly trapped. He’d more than likely have bruises around his wrists in the morning, but nothing his Aura wouldn’t be able to heal. Not tonight, though. Jackrabbit would have broken his Aura before branding him to make sure it would leave a lasting mark. It was standard Atlas procedure for criminals with active Auras. Roman hadn’t had an active Aura when he’d been taken into custody back in Vale, but Ironwood hadn't known that. The General had been quite surprised when one punch to the gut with his metal fist had had Roman spitting up blood. That wasn’t what Roman was thinking about now, though. Now, all he could think about was how much he wanted to leave lasting marks of his own on Qrow’s skin.
‘Come on, the cuffs were my idea,’ he complained.
‘I’m not letting you touch him tonight,’ Ozpin thought as he laced his fingers through Qrow’s and squeezed reassuringly, before trailing his hands down the Huntsman’s sides and pressing open-mouthed kisses to his throat, his clavicle, his sternum, his stomach, his navel. ‘He’s injured and you’ll be too rough with him.’
‘I can play nice.’
Ozpin actually laughed, the arogant bastard. ‘I’d sooner believe those words from the mouth of a beowolf.’
Qrow’s stomach clenched under the fanning of Ozpin’s breath. “Somethin’ funny?” he groaned.
Ozpin sat back on his knees to shuck Roman’s vest and shirt. “Perhaps the irony that you let me give you wings, and then put you in shackles,” he mused. The man by no means checked his habit of waxing poetic at the door to the bedroom.
Qrow still looked up toward the sound of his voice, even though he couldn’t see him. “I…” Qrow writhed, fighting the instinct to grind his hips up into Oz’s. He wanted Ozpin to be the one in control. Which made one of them. “I trust you,” he breathed.
That was all it took. Ozpin fell like he'd been cut down, catching himself bare inches above his lover with one hand beside Qrow’s head and the other dipping down to fumble with Qrow’s belt while he lowered himself the rest of the way to capture Qrow’s lips once more. It wasn’t often that words failed him, but he knew he had no hope of articulating just how much Qrow’s trust meant to him, after he thought he’d lost it forever.
Qrow keened into the kiss, pulling at his restraints so he could rise to meet it, but Ozpin gently yet firmly pushed him back down. “Just relax,” he whispered once he’d kissed Qrow quiet and breathless. “I’ll take care of everything tonight.”
Roman, meanwhile, was left with the strangest feeling that Ozpin’s words were meant for him as much as Qrow.