The ever-green glades lining the outskirts of the Sanctuary of Spring were little more than a senseless blur around her as her would-be saviour rushed the two of them forward, but Pearl would have known the small offshoot of a bramble-hidden path anywhere. A last trifle of a gift, perhaps, that she would be allowed to return here, even for the smallest while, in her final moments.
She had displeased her one true liege and Queen, and now, favour lost, the mantle of the Winter Knight stripped from her, no ancient Court magic allowed to sustain her, she would die.
It was, of course, always going to happen. It was only ever a question of when. She was a toy at best, a tool at most, and her time in the Court of Spring had made the truth of her station much too clear.
A violent shiver tore through her, and Rose clutched her closer and ran faster in response. Her arms, where they met Pearl’s skin, were the one remaining point of warmth in the world.
She felt the bite of all the wounds she had ever taken in all her centuries of service, then magicked away by her Queen’s mercy as if they were nothing, now back with a vengeance and descending upon her in full force. From the nick of a blade on her left cheek from the most recent of endless, pointless but bloody show-duels for the pleasure of an uncaring Lady, to where blazing summer-bright arrows had once lodged in her thigh during a squabble between Courts - countless scars of countless years of countless feuds not her own. And the hunger, worst of all, the hunger-
She was laid upon something soft and fresh and green, and Rose made quick work of the clasps on her cuirass. A considerable weight was gone from Pearl’s chest along with the polished white-silver-blue armour, but drawing breath felt no less impossible.
Rose was clutching her hand in both of hers, and Pearl tried feebly to protest, to pull away, for surely they were too cold to be pleasant to hold for a creature of Spring. But Rose would not be dissuaded or deterred - and wasn’t that somehow, since their very first meeting, always at the core of it all?
“My Pearl, my dearest Pearl. The Winter Queen will have no more power over you. I won’t allow it.”
And who are you, Pearl wanted to say, who are you to deny Her? She does what she wants and she doesn’t want me anymore, I am of no use to her, she is done with me and I am done.
Forming the words proved too much effort. Her vision was fading away into dullness, into gray, and inching towards the inevitable white. White as the colour of winter, of dead things, pale and cold and rotting and quiet, and very, very final.
She struggled for another breath, and another, and-
Pearl breathed in with a pained hiss as the cool poultice touched her lacerated back. The icy-blue places where the thorns had dug in were painfully obvious on the backdrop of her forever snow-pale skin.
“Shhh, it’s alright, it’s alright,” Rose was murmuring reassurances at her, gentle fingers - always so perfectly, carefully gentle - spreading the healing moss-mixture around. “This will help.”
And help it did, as always.
“You can’t keep doing this, Rose, they’ll find out, and then you’ll- She’ll find out.”
“She won’t. Our Queen is far too busy lounging on her throne and playing cruel games with her toys to notice anything amiss. And besides - in helping you I am but helping to prolong her amusement. Until…”
The word, laden with promise and possibility, hung in the warm, humid, buzzing air between them. Pearl shook her head, and regretted doing so immediately. “You risk far, far too much for a toy, Rose. An old one, at that, and a loan.”
“Hush. Don’t talk like that.”
Perhaps Rose had done it to win favour, at first - put her Queen’s newest plaything back together and set herself apart from the other courtiers. Or perhaps she’d just been driven to pity at the miserable display of the famed Winter Knight brought low and made to beg before the assembled Court of Spring. It was a nice thought, if unlikely. None of the Fair Folk were given much to pity.
Whatever it had truly been, it had grown and changed over time like the trees Rose favoured, like the wild plants she kept in her endless flowerbeds. And it was putting her at risk.
“I know what I am!” Pearl cried. “And I know what you are. And it’s madness to think that- that we could- but… I don’t care what happens. I won’t have them touch you, ever.”
Rose heard the unspoken not on my account and smiled a wry, twisty smile. “They won’t. Here.”
The sweet juice of the strawberry coated her lips and dripped down her chin and in any other circumstances the stickiness would have driven Pearl mad. But after the exhaustion of the latest tournament - the Winter Knight alone against the best and most promising of Spring’s youngest! Come one, come all! - she couldn’t find it in her to mind, and let the false, magic-imbued nectar fill her up. Rose had woven just a little more into the fruit, as always - a word here and there as it had grown, a trick or two stolen from mortal farmers and mixed in with her magic to have it provide some measure of nourishment, unlike the empty, trick feasts the Courts preferred. It wasn’t much, but for the time being it would be enough to sustain.
Pearl stretched, her head in Rose’s lap and her languor-filled limbs resting easy in soft, young grass. A hand - familiar and well-loved - came down upon her forehead and ran through her hair in that soothing way Rose was so very proficient in.
The whole thing had been Winter’s plan all along, perhaps - She of all knew Spring’s nature. Knew enough to make a play of it - destroying a gift, even a loaned and still Winter-bound one, would cost the youngest of the Queens. Would, perhaps, incur a useful debt-
They had talked about it at length, her and Rose, in their hidden little bramble-protected alcoves, in moments much like this one. Searching for something to serve as an escape, a way out of the ever-tightening noose made of Court rules and promises and contracts so ancient they’d faded from memory.
None of the usual ways would work. There was no family left to come bargain for Pearl or to try to rescue her on the seventh anniversary of the seventh anniversary of… whenever it was she had first eaten fae food and had her fate sealed. She had never been important enough for a knight to mount a rescue, or for a monarch to offer a prize. She was alone, and bound, and abandoned to the non-existent mercy of the two Queens who so casually traded her between themselves.
Not alone, Rose promised, never alone.
It was a promise oft-repeated, perfect and eternally binding, as such things were. Pearl had protested, the first time, though it had already been too late to undo much.
I am never going to leave you alone.
And so Rose was still with her, at the end of everything. Fleeing and deliberately spiting powers far beyond either of them, stealing the last few moments Pearl would ever have. Filling them with-
“To give a thing a name is to give it power, and to call a thing by its name is to wield power over it.”
Thoughts were coming in and out of focus, and Pearl grabbed at the trailing wisps of them as well as she could. But the clearer they seemed to be, the less sense they seemed to make. What was Rose doing? She sounded strained, with an undercurrent of what could only be called desperation in her deliberate, precise recitations.
“Unnamed and cast aside, I who have found you would name you.”
Something in Pearl’s chest snapped into place. There was a dampness on her forehead and running down her face, she could tell amidst the jumble of sensations. Tears, they had to be, Rose’s precious tears, mixing with the all but dried remnants of her own, and she couldn’t possibly be worth all this…
“I name you the Knight of the Roses. Brought from the very brink of eternal winter, forever free of its clutches. Bound to my service and no-one else’s until I consider the tenets of our exchange satisfied.”
With the words like a constant murmur in Pearl’s ears, heavy with meaning and power, the world seemed to reorient itself again. She could breathe once more, and strength was slowly seeping into her still-chilled limbs. Rose helped her sit up, but kept her held against her side, head resting against a bare shoulder, soft and pink-blushed and warm. Warm in a way Pearl had long given up on ever feeling again.
The green under her now-feeling fingers was the softest, youngest grass - Rose did so love to call it to her favourite resting places, so many of which she’d shared with Pearl. She could pretend, almost, this was still one of their stolen little moments. She could, if she struggled through a slowly-fading barrier of unforgiving cold, recall the taste of the strawberries and the oddest mixture of worried and teasing Rose had been during those times.
There were roses, too, of course. Of course. Winding around them, protecting or containing - it was hard to tell which. As if half-asleep, Pearl allowed a thorn to prick her finger, and gazed with fascination at the droplet of blood, hot and red as she hadn’t seen it in- perhaps ever-
-when she fell and scraped her knee and there were others calling to her, a shock of yellow, a quiet glimpse of blue, and a-
Pearl shuddered, and wiped her hand. She had been truly - merely - human once, and that had never been a secret, but all that was long lost to ice and Winter. The thaw could only reach so far, and even then could only have it all melt into nothing, leaving a gaping emptiness behind, but Rose…
Rose had a way of filling everything to overflowing.
“I answer, as commanded. What would you have of me?” Pearl responded quietly, letting the blades of grass tickle her palm. She was but exchanging one mistress for another, perhaps, but this one she knew, she knew, was kind, and surely she wouldn’t-
There was a seriousness to Rose, suddenly, a kind Pearl had rarely seen her take on. Rose was playful and whimsical in ways utterly different from the cruel, spoiled Queen of her Court. Rose was the whirling and dancing of petals in true spring and the thought of floating, being carried away on warm yet still refreshing breezes - and being bound in servitude to someone like that was hard to even imagine.
“I ask you to call me by my true name and bind me.”
“W-what?” Pearl could do nothing but splutter, eyes wide and uncomprehending. What was Rose playing at? Was it a game to her, too, after all?
But Rose refused to relent. “An exchange. I know yours. It’s only fair that you also know mine. I refuse to have this power over you.”
She didn’t wait for Pearl to make another futile attempt at an argument she couldn’t possibly win over a wish she was bound to grant, but merely leaned over and whispered in her ear. A name.
“The Rose Whose Beauty Enraptures Even As Her Thorns Pierce,” Pearl recited, reverence dripping from every syllable. “I call you and bind you to my service.”
Rose let her forehead rest against Pearl’s for a moment, and smiled. “I answer to the name, as I must. What would you ask of me?”
“Rose, that isn’t what-”
Rose’s smirk turned light, playful, and Pearl felt her head spinning again.
“Shush. Ask a boon.”
“A… I ask a…” Pearl’s mouth was dry and her voice still a feeble croak, quiet enough that Rose had to draw even closer to hear. She had seen hundreds of mortals beg and plead and bargain, foolishly, always so, so very foolishly, their wishes always granted, never to their benefit. But Rose was- Rose-
“A kiss?” she finished meekly.
Rose beamed her sunbeam smile and leaned over, curtaining them both in sweet-scented pink. The press of her lips was thawing, like a final binding seal snapping into place, and like the sudden spring of long-lost and long-forgotten freedom.
They were even now, somehow - Rose claimed they were, all exchanges completed, all dues paid - but Pearl’s head still felt cotton-filled and spinning and she’d lost all count - but she trusted Rose, she trusted her with so much, with everything, and trust had never been a currency the Courts dealt in.
There was a stream close to their small sanctuary, flowing into a mirror-pond. Rose brought the both of them over, and Pearl let the pleasant coolness of the water wash over her, so unlike the arresting cold that had been the one thing coursing through her mere moments ago. She caught sight of her own reflection, and stared, a storm of feelings welling up inside her.
Her skin was still bleached pure white, like snow - some things could never be undone, and should never be forgotten. But her hair was pink like a fresh rosebud, as new as she could ever hope to be. And, in all her newfound lack of bonds save for those of gratitude and love, quite lost.
“What… what do I do now?”
It was a question for herself just as much as for Rose - again running gentle, soothing fingers through her hair - just as much as for the world. They remained as they were for a long while, holding each other close, until Rose finally broke the silence.
“Whatever you want.”