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Maria lands the airship in a snowy forest clearing in east Solitas before noon, with Pietro declaring that food and shelter were of the utmost priority. 

At this point, two mountains and an enormous stretch of forest and snow separated them from Atlas, but it never hurt to be reasonably sure.

“Now, I know we all need to debrief and reassess our plans moving forward, but it’s easier to do that if we’re warm, safe, and not hungry.” 

At seeing nods of assent, Pietro continues, “Penny, darling, you can fly - see if you can find a cave or somewhere we can plan and rest in for tonight. Other huntsmen, please find food, water, and firewood for us. I’m gonna have to ask you to leave your scrolls with me while I disconnect it from the Atlas Military System, so do try not to stray too far.”

With Maria and Pietro remaining in the plane, Jaune, Nora, and Ren leave to distract themselves with the hunt for meat. Penny takes to the skies, Yang and Blake decide to gather berries and melt some snow, and Ruby and Weiss choose to gather the firewood.

Weiss kneels, rapier point buried in snow, and the soft hum of a spinning summoning glyph fills their little clearing. The Arma Gigas begins to rise, ready to swing his great sword and carry felled trees back to camp, only to fade into mist as her concentration breaks.

She tries again, and again, and again, only for her summons to join the snowy grounds they’re standing on.

“I’m sorry, Ruby. I can’t concentrate enough to summon,” Weiss reluctantly admits as she sheaths Myrtenaster in disappointment.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Ruby says as she pats Weiss’s shoulders. “Crescent Rose can handle a tree just fine, and it’s not going anywhere. We can just ask for some help carrying it back later,” she offers with a small grin.

Weiss nods, but the tension remains evident in the hard set of her shoulders and the clench of her jaw.

Ruby softens. “I know this can’t be easy, Weiss, but you can talk to me. How are you feeling?”

“I’m… I don’t know. Scared for Winter. I’ve never seen her that badly hurt before. But I’m so… angry. At her, but not really. Hurt, because of her, for her.” Weiss sighs and rubs at her eyes. “I guess… I just need to process.”

“That’s fair.” Ruby nods. “Would you prefer that I stay and listen or do you want a few minutes alone?”

“No! I mean - can you - is it okay if we just sit here for now? I don’t think I can focus enough to join in on the hunt,” Weiss admits.

They sit side-by-side underneath a snow-covered tree, backs flat against its wide trunk.

“I… I know,” Weiss begins haltingly, “that we have so many other problems right now. I know that, and it’s not that I don’t care at all. I do, right now I’m just really -” she pauses. The words she needs can’t seem to be found right now. Weiss draws her knees to her chest and shivers.

Ruby pats her knee gently. “Take your time, Weiss. I’m right here.”

“As am I. Here for you, I mean. You, our team, are my family. I would do anything for you guys,” Weiss vows and feels herself relaxing from Ruby’s reassuring smile.

“I guess the problem is… for a long while, even before Beacon, family meant just Winter. She was the one I wanted to be like. She was the one person I could count on not to hurt me. She took the brunt of Fa- Jacques’s ire, she attended my recitals and encouraged me to do what I was passionate about. Winter trained me to be strong, taught me to use my semblance, she was even the one to unlock my aura.” Weiss sighs.

"Jacques got the power and wealth he desired with my Mom, the strong-willed heir he needed with Winter, the son he wanted with Whitley. I was just... a spare. He neither needed nor wanted me.  Mom was barely there and got even more distant once she took to the bottle, Whitley was too young and close to Jacques, but I was sure... that Winter loved me."

“In all of my dreams for the future… Whether I was a singer, the head of the new SDC, or whether I was a huntress with you and our team, in absolutely no version of those dreams was Winter just... not there, not supporting me.” Weiss’s eyes brimmed with tears.

Ruby cups her cheek, gently brushing stray drops away with her thumb.

“And now we’re finally licensed huntsmen. Jacques is gone, but Winter…” she breaks into a sob.

Ruby takes Weiss into the warmth of her cloak and hugs her tight.

“S-she’s not as expressive or- or as warm as Yang is to you, but she’s still my sister. I thought she was my constant. I never thought she would ever consider me the enemy," Weiss cried.

Ruby continues rubbing her back, feeling Weiss’s sobs break against her chest. The silver-eyed huntress felt empathetic pain well-up in her own chest. Those few months after the Fall where she thought Yang was angry and disappointed at her for leaving... Ruby wouldn't wish that - the heaviness of her sorrow, the sting of perceived rejection, the burden of guilt - on anyone else, much less her beloved partner.

If each teardrop was a ton of heartache, then let it out.

"I just wanted to make Winter proud, not make her hate me!” Weiss sobbed.

“I’m very sorry,” Penny interjects as she hovers closer to them, keen hearing drawn by the sounds of distress. “I couldn't help overhearing, but that is simply not true.”

Despite the firmness behind Penny’s words, her eyes are as clear and kind as ever as she meets Weiss’s questioning glance from over Ruby’s tear-stained shoulder.

“Your sister loves you so much, Weiss. To Winter, you’re the person that matters most,” Penny says earnestly.

“Clearly not as much as Ironwood’s orders matter to her,” she mutters, back to hiding in the comfort of Ruby’s cloak.

“We both know she is loyal, and why her gratitude to him overflows to the point of… well-” Penny gestures vaguely as she lands near them.

“But loyalty borne out of a debt of gratitude is not love. And these past few months, especially when you were reported missing, thoughts of you were what kept Winter moving forward. I’ve seen it ever since I woke up after Beacon.”

Penny sits next to Weiss on her other side and puts her hand gently on her shoulder. 

“On long transport flights and drives, Winter listens to your songs through her earpiece. At first, she used to claim it was her usual audiobooks on military history, or other times, she’ll say it’s just classical tunes to wind down after a long day. But she keeps her volume a little too high to be good for human ears. My senses are better than most, and I know your voice. It was clear that she missed you a lot.”

Weiss sniffles and slowly emerges from the warmth of Ruby’s embrace, a strangely light feeling in her chest beginning to emerge from hearing the anecdote.

“When she’s tired, I see her look at photos of you. She thinks of you a lot. She keeps them in her scroll, but she has a small one on her desk. I believe that one was a recital - you had a white dress on, with a blue bow at the waist.”

“My first one,” Weiss slowly confirms. “I was nine; she was fourteen, and she helped me practice singing B5 comfortably while playing the piano.”

“She’s very proud of you, too. About a month ago, after you arrived in Atlas, when the report came from Special Operative Cordovin that you fought off her Colossus and a Leviathan-class Grimm with a Queen Lancer summon, she was so happy that she shared it with Fria during afternoon tea.” Penny puts her hand over her heart and sighs. 

“The Winter Maiden… she… shows me things. Memories. Feelings. Her memory retention hasn’t been great for the last few years or so, and the glimpses she shares with me are not always so clear, but…”

“The warmth and pride for you that she felt from Winter that day, and how big her smile was while she was sharing the story, it really struck a chord with Fria. Enough for me to see and feel that clearly.”

“Then why?! Why did she push me away? If she loves me so much… why did she choose Ironwood over me?” Weiss whispers brokenly, hands gripping her thighs hard enough to leave imprints of her nails. 

Teary, crystalline blue meet empathetic emerald green, pleading to understand.

“I cannot speak for her, but I believe she simply acted out of fear. Cinder had escaped, and she was set to return to the General empty handed. I believe she did not want to involve you further, for your own safety, knowing that the General was not in the most merciful of moods, to say the least.”

“When Winter told me that the General told her to secure the power of the Winter Maiden, she was distraught and very uneasy. But she immediately went to do it anyway. She told me that, like me, she didn’t see the good in what we were doing, but that she must wrestle with her feelings and not let it change her actions. You know how headstrong she is, how strong her conviction is. She had orders to arrest us. But instead, she told you to run.”

Weiss’s heart sinks to her stomach, the fire of her anger receding in the face of cold fear for her sister.

I'm giving  you  a head start.

“And I realize it may not help to admit this to you, but...” Penny hesitates, yet forges on. “When Cinder first broke her aura during that fight, she threw Winter off her Manticore summon to fall to her death. When I chose to save her instead of following Cinder, Winter asked me why, telling me that her life didn’t matter…”

Weiss’s sharp intake of breath makes Penny pause. The new Maiden puts a hand on Weiss’s knee while Ruby’s hand rubs Weiss’s back in gentle support.

“It was not the first time that she has been quite reckless with her fighting, expecting no one to save her,” Penny continues. “But no matter the extent of her injuries, in my experience fighting by her side, she has never called for rushed medical aid for herself. She just grits her teeth and mutters to herself, ’A Schnee-’”

“‘-must be a solitary bastion of strength that others should aspire toward.’” Weiss finishes, clenching her fist. Yet another stupidly archaic family mindset she’ll have to reform.

Penny nods. 

“Yes. That is why I believe that calling for medical reinforcements - after you told her you cannot leave her because she was injured - was simply her way to reassure you, enough that you would leave willingly.”

"Winter... she let us all run. Even though I was given what was supposed to be hers..." Penny looks away.

"Hey, the Winter Maiden made her choice, Penny. We'll all respect that and we trust you with that responsibility." Ruby reassures her.

Weiss nods. "Hurtful decisions aside, I still trust her not to hold that against you. Winter respects choice because for so long she never got to make any for herself, and she'll respect Fria's because I saw how she cared for her, in her own way."

"Wait..." says Ruby. "The General's plans had the Maiden powers as a keystone. Without the powers, they can't access the Staff; and without the Staff, they can't lift Atlas and abandon Mantle!"

"And Winter let us all run..."

The trio ruminate on the last point, one more hopeful than the others.

“Perhaps it wasn't the best choice, and I might not understand human emotions in the same way you do, but... We make good choices or choose to be good because of our bonds with other people. Because we care for them, for their happiness. I know that should Winter be given the chance to be free from the General’s long shadow and the fear that grips them both, she will cling wholeheartedly to the love that tethers her to you.”

With Penny's resolve, Weiss can't help but have a little more faith.

And it might just be her, or maybe it's the light, but Weiss thinks Penny’s eyes look just a tad blue.

“Thank you, Penny,” Weiss says with a hug. “You’ve set my heart at ease. I feel lighter.”

“This is what friends do, yes?” Penny beams as she hugs back just as warmly.

After a moment, Penny stands. “I think I need to get back to searching for shelter. The others are back and they brought venison. See you later!” 

The remaining pair are content to sit in silence, hands linked in silent support. In the soft morning light, Ruby marvels at how Weiss’s hands feel in her own.

“Thank you, Ruby.” Weiss smiles and squeezes her hand.

“I didn’t do anything,” Ruby deflects gently. “That was all Penny.”

She shakes her head. “Thank you for listening, for caring, for never making me feel alone, for being here with me.” 

Weiss leans against Ruby’s side, inexplicably shy. “Thank you for being you, Ruby Rose.”

“Thank you for trusting me enough to be vulnerable with me.” Ruby tilts her head to the side so her silver eyes can meet Weiss’s own. She punctuates her promise with a squeeze of her hand: “Team RWBY will always be by your side.”

Weiss’s lips twitch into the perfect little half-smile that she reserves only for Ruby before she deflects with a sniffly laugh. “Only the Brother Gods know why you guys stick with me. I’m a mess,” she says lightly, wiping her eyes with a gloved hand.

“Well, you are clearly the most well-adjusted of your family,” says Blake, still walking with Yang down the path toward them, feline ears titled in their direction.

“Processing your feelings and communicating your needs? The Weiss I met on that first fateful day at Beacon couldn’t, wouldn’t have done this.”

Reaching them, Blake takes Weiss’s other hand and squeezes in support. “And it’s only partly our fault,” she winks with a smile.

Still sitting tiredly against the tree, Weiss is only able to hug Blake’s leg, but they make it work. Blake tucks stray white strands behind Weiss’s ear.

“Y’know, Weissy, sometimes a big sis shows her love through secret, light treason against a dictator and letting her enemy-of-the-state little sister get away safely.” Yang shrugs with a grin, hands behind her back.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Despite herself, Weiss can’t help but laugh at the ridiculous way she phrased it.

“And sometiiiimes,” Yang offers her hands with a flourish, “a big sis shows her love by sneaking you a handful of the berries you like so much,” she winks.

“Yaaaang, you’re two months younger than I am!” Weiss giggles as she reaches for the berries, popping one in her mouth.

From beside the two, Ruby and Blake look at them with fondness, hearts full.

Yang ruffles Weiss’s bangs with her other arm before poking her forehead gently. “Well, you’re my little sister in the literal sense. Absolutely tiny!”

Weiss rolls her eyes fondly and jumps up to hug Yang. “Hmph. You’re lucky you’re very warm, or I wouldn’t be hugging you at all right now,” she teases. 

Yang laughs in delight, clutching the former heiress tighter and keeping her feet off the ground. “Love you too, Weissicle.”

“Mhmm. Even though you’re quite infuriating,” Weiss says into the cloth of Yang’s jacket without any bite at all. 

“Team hug!” Ruby yells as she uses her semblance to join them, with Blake only a second behind.

Their journey isn’t anywhere close to done. A lot of challenges, great and nigh insurmountable, remain.

But as she basks in the warmth of her family’s embrace, knowing that mutual trust and love are in their hearts, Weiss knows that she’ll have the courage to face it all and defend those she loves.

And now, she has hope that when the right time comes, Winter will choose to stand by her side as well.