“Can she… hear me?” Winter says softly, hand gripping her forearm in anxiety. Her back is ramrod straight, but her head remains turned away. Somehow she just couldn’t bear to meet those soft green eyes full of empathy.
“Not in the same sense that you or I experience hearing...” Penny begins hesitantly, moving even closer to the nervous woman. Fresh evening snow crunches beneath her boots, step by step as she walks across the valley. “But I believe she is aware… to an extent.”
“You were right, Winter. She is a part of me… or, part of her remains in me… in a way I still cannot articulate.”
Shame curls cold and cloying in Winter’s stomach, keeping her still. Had things gone as the General intended on that fateful night, how would she ever live with Fria’s very soul entangled with her own? How could she bear knowing that she tried to take something precious - from someone who has shown her only kindness - by force?
“I’m glad she chose you,” she says softly, finally mustering the courage to meet Penny’s eyes.
Maybe Winter’s eyes are deceiving her. Maybe it’s the light of the shattered moon. But Penny’s eyes – normally a brilliant green – glow the slightest tinge blue.
The familiar warmth in them reminds her of afternoon tea time, a kind laugh, the soothing scent of bergamot.
Maybe Fria really can hear her.
The thought is too much. She closes her eyes against the answering sting of tears.
“Say what you need to say, Winter,” urges Penny. “We are already past the need to fall in line and keep our feelings locked up.”
Winter tries to swallow down the thorns suddenly in her throat. The words don’t come easy, and they’re even harder to say out loud.
Despite the shame, she forces her head up and meets Penny’s gaze, steady and true. Honor demands no less.
“I apologise for betraying her trust. For attempting to keep the choice out of her hands. Following orders or not, it wasn't right or fair for me to take that away from her. You were right. I should have known better... After I poured out my own frustrations to you and Fria for not being able to make my own choice due to my Father, I should have gone with what felt right instead of what was easy.”
Her voice shakes, but she clenches her fists, and continues, “I hope she knows that I cherish the time I had with her. On hard days, when all of it seemed so bleak and without hope, her kindness and joy gave me hope. Her art gave me relief. And her stories gave me faith that one day, the Kingdom would find true peace. I hope she’ll believe me when I say that that’s the dream I want to fight for, now that the General is ousted.”
“And… I hope wherever she is, she finds true rest. That she’s having bergamot tea with her sisters, in a garden somewhere, with the pink carnations she loves so much.”
“I’m so sorry... I’m so sorry,” she sobs and falls to her knees. Her heart feels heavy with the great burden of grief and regret. Fat tear drops roll down her cheeks – the first in years.
Between heaving sobs, Winter can’t quite express how she fought to keep her promise, made months ago on a moment of clarity. As ever, words are difficult to release from the cage of her heart.
And yet Penny sees.
Flashes of memory appear behind her eyes - of tiny, pale, burned and bloodied hands carefully replanting carnations over a freshly overturned mound of earth;
A scuffed saber, fire dust lining the edges, cutting granite from the floor of the ruins of an oddly familiar chapel in midtown Mantle, carving the name Fria Boreas in meticulous strokes;
Arms, covered in burns and scratches, carrying and placing the marker at the grave, under a great Rowan tree;
And messy waves of snow white hair, flattened under the weight of rainwater.
Suddenly, Penny’s chest feels light. A sense of quietude - personal feelings of peace and comfort - washes over her.
And she knows what to do.
Penny kneels down and envelops the sobbing woman in a hug. She rubs Winter’s back the way Weiss’ teammates do for the younger Schnee, and whispers, “You’re forgiven, Winter.”
Winter clings to Penny as her sobs break against the Maiden’s chest.
For a moment more, they kneel in the snow - one offering comfort and one seeking it.
After a while, Penny breaks the silence. “Maybe this is how it was destined. A reversal of paths, with me as the next Winter Maiden, and you as the next Protector of Mantle…”
“What?” Winter sniffs and rubs at her eyes. “I’m- I’m not… I don’t deser-”
“That the Mantle Resistance and Robyn trusted you enough to let you conduct this deal speaks well of you. Your actions in letting us go, rescuing Robyn and Qrow, and turning your back on all you’ve ever known just to make things right, shows me you’re beginning to carve your way toward the right path.”
As she stands, Penny takes Winter’s saber, still missing its other half that dropped in the fight against Cinder all those weeks ago.
Ice crystallizes so rapidly around the blade that within seconds, it looks completely sheathed. Slowly, one side glows a muted blue, before it sharpens into the deadliest edge and point, perfect for parrying, slashing and stabbing.
The longer Penny holds the saber, the ice turns more opaque, until an unnatural whiteness completely obscures the silvery sheen of the old blade hidden under it.
She offers her hand to the older woman and helps her up, before returning the saber to Winter, its handle facing the new Protector. As the blade moves with her, a fine mist of wintry chill follows it.
Wordless and shocked, she accepts the weapon, feeling the glacial power humming within its perfectly balanced weight and responding to her aura.
“As Fria trusted me with her duty to protect the Maiden powers, I’m trusting you with my duty to protect the people of Mantle. It was always something I took to heart, and I hope that saber will help you.”
Winter looks absolutely floored. To be given trust so freely like this, after everything...
Then and there, in the face of Penny's trusting gaze, Winter's resolve hardens.
“Penny... Every day, I’ll choose to keep the people safe. I’m sorry that I ever lost sight of that.” Winter meets Penny’s eyes, steady and true.
Her legacy will not be the suffering caused by the Schnee greed, nor the oppression of the Atlesian might.
She’ll rightfully earn the people’s trust, slow and sure, like all things that are worth it. She'll make the path she’s committed to carve truly her own.
Only then can she take pride in it.
“I promise. I won’t let them down again.”
Penny smiles. “I know you won’t.”
A beep from her communicator interrupts them.
“Cheekbones! I’m sorry, but I need you back here!” Robyn warns her through her earpiece, low rumbles of a clash against grimm audible despite the slight static.
With a sigh, Winter puts a hand to her earpiece and quickly replies, “I’ll meet you soon.”
“I apologise, Penny. Much as I missed your company, I have to finish my part of the deal with haste. As promised, I have an untracked airship to get your team to Vacuo. It should have enough supplies to last you the entire journey, and a week more, at least.” Winter hands over the key.
“Thank you, Winter. As for our part, Cinder and her companions are out of the Kingdom. They won’t trouble the people anymore,” Penny declares.
As Winter prepares to leave, Penny gives in to the urge to give her one last hug.
“Winter, I know it was hard to turn your back on the General and leave everything you’ve built behind. But you’re doing a lot of good right now. Please be strong and know that we support you.”
“It’s what I should have been doing from the start,” she deflects, but hugs back tightly. “Thank you, Penny. May you all have a safe journey and… Please give Weiss my love.”
“You can tell friend Weiss yourself,” Penny says, voice firm but kind as she pats the former specialist's back. Meeting Winter’s eyes, she carefully moves her gaze farther and higher, to the cliffs to their east.
Green eyes flare out in a pattern: ... .- ..-.
At Penny’s signal, two small figures, around less than half a klick away, stand up. In the glow of the moon against the snow, the stark red of Ruby’s cloak and a glint of metal from putting her weapon away are visible.
Her partner must have been observing the exchange through the scope of her gun… and where her partner is, Weiss must be there too.
Sure enough, Winter can just barely see the royal blue of her sister’s bolero a few steps beside Ruby.
Eyes closed, she takes a deep breath and focuses on Weiss. As she feels the drain of her aura, Winter whispers her plea and lets her summon carry her voice to Weiss.
Deal with Penny done and message delivered, Winter summons a manticore and rides north to help defend Mantle.
From the cliffs, Weiss and Ruby were taking turns on the scope of Crescent Rose when they received Penny’s ... .- ..-. . signal.
s a f e
As Ruby puts the scope away, the hum of a white glyph activating draws their attention.
An alpha beowulf rises between them, docile in its stillness. Despite the mix of hope and wariness in Weiss' gut, she can't help but stand in awe at her sister's control of their shared skill. To materialize a full summon at this distance must take a great deal of concentration and will.
The white wolf summon opens its mouth, but in a master's display of the Schnee semblance, it’s Winter’s voice that fills the silence.
“We have to carve our own path, but that shouldn’t mean we’ll stand on opposite sides of the battle. Thank you for reminding me of that. You make me so proud, and I’m sorry I didn’t stand with you. I love you very much, Weiss, and I regret that I rarely ever told you or showed you. Please be safe.” Winter’s voice fades as the beowulf shatters into fine snow.
Knowing that Weiss must be frustrated at not being able to send a message back just yet, Ruby curls her arm around her partner and drops a soothing kiss on her temple.
“I love you, Winter. I hope you stay safe too,” the younger sister whispers futilely to the wind.
Weeks later, one evening after her patrol, Winter stands on top of an unnaturally thick ice wall. Her winter-imbued sword helped her raise it without the use of Dust to fill in the gaps and reinforce Mantle’s barriers.
Once, she and James had spent hours looking out of the windows of the General’s office, looking out and down towards the edge of the floating city, filled only with fear of what was to come and drafting increasingly desperate strategies to try and stave off the inevitable.
But now she looks to the inside of the wall, watches the lights along the street and through the windows of the homes of those she intended to protect. At this distance, the brightness seems fragile and easily snuffed out, the sounds of laughter and idle chatter of an active community seeming delicate.
She clenches her fist and makes a silent vow: she wants her people to thrive, not just survive.
She wants to banish the myriad of economic and social miseries, big and small, that her father and the Atlas Elite caused upon them with their greed - the miseries she used to be complicit in. Never again.
She loses herself in thought, just watching but not really seeing, until the she senses footsteps heading towards her.
“Brooding again, Cheekbones?” Playful amethyst eyes meet crystalline blue as Robyn walks closer to her and takes a seat on the edge.
A dark brow rises in mock offense. “I don’t brood; I contemplate,” Winter drawls, a smirk curling at the edge of her mouth.
“Okay, what are you contemplating?” Robyn pats the space next to her.
Winter acquiesces, sitting down next to her. The regular, after patrol conversations about everything and nothing were something she looked forward to all day, if she were honest.
“I just… wonder if I’m doing what I’m doing for the right reasons.”
“What, protecting and defending the people?”
“Easy enough for me to settle that.” Robyn makes a point of taking off her right glove with her mouth, maintaining eye contact with Winter.
“Didn’t we do this already when I first asked to join your cause?” Winter questions, but clasps hands with the taller woman anyway.
“Then let’s see if your conviction holds true. Different questions this time.” Robyn squeezes reassuringly.
“What are your intentions for the people of Mantle?”
“I want to see them thrive," Winter says firmly. "This wall, keeping the grimm out, ousting the General, it’s all survival. Necessary, but my sister taught me that there’s more to life than that.”
The involuntary little flare of her aura that comes with sensing truth runs through Robyn. But she’s silent as she keeps her gaze on Winter, watching her come alive as she speaks with more passion than she’s ever seen from the former specialist.
“Weiss told me, ‘Our kingdom isn’t supposed to be like this - fearful and withdrawn. We should be opening our borders to help the world, not closing them down.’ And that begins by making sure that the people are healthy, well-fed, that they have a roof over their heads, that they can educate themselves and work to sustain themselves without constantly worrying whether they’ll greet the next sunrise or die in the cold streets.”
Robyn smiles, feeling the low buzz of affection beneath her chest. Winter had come far in the past several weeks, and the resolve behind her words only further cements the trust Robyn had slowly but steadily been giving her.
“Do you want to rule over them, then? Take power to see that vision through to the end?”
“No. I don’t want to rule. I want… a sense of community with them, I guess. When they see me, they see a Schnee, or the General’s hand, or just… another Atlesian who will step on them without thought. And to a degree, I am all those things, but I can’t erase my past and those roles don’t define me. Not anymore, at least... And if I want people to see Winter I have to do better. Be better. I want... I need to do something purposeful. Meaningful. Helpful. Something I can take honest pride in. ”
Another chime. True.
“Did you have a crush on Robyn at the Academy!?!” May Marigold drops her cloaking and suddenly appears beside them, a shit-eating grin on her face.
Winter jerks in shock, sputtering, “That’s inappro- No!!! How did you- When did you even get here?!”
Despite the panicked expression on the former specialist’s face, the tips of her ears and her cheeks had gone entirely red with embarrassment…
And so had the glow of Winter’s hand, still enclosed in Robyn’s warm grip.
“I knew it! I knew you had a crush on her! We noticed you staring, you know,” May smirks, needling Winter further.
She shakes her head, messy white waves once again hiding her red ears as she tries to recover from being caught off-guard. “Her form was- is textbook perfect, really. Her dedication to- to consistent practice has always been something admirable and as a fellow student I-”
“Oh?” Robyn grins at her in delight, and the sight shouldn’t be making Winter feel so weak. “Is my form something to be admired?"
"I-it's, well- It's ideal- in a purely objective way, of course, I-"
May snorts in amusement. Who would’ve ever thought that the hotheaded former heiress who set fire to her Father’s desk at the SDC head office, the aloof military officer who was famous among cadets for the stick up her admittedly very fine ass, would blush and stutter and ramble like this?
May stifles a giggle and cloaks, taking advantage of their flirty distraction to observe unseen once again.
“I- I mean-” Winter’s cheeks burn brightly, and she finally huffs in defeat. “You know it is, or else you wouldn’t be strutting around like that, all confidence and swagger.”
Robyn Hill was unfairly beautiful, and Winter was hopeless to even try denying it.
Winter turns her head away and closes her eyes, violent blush not subsiding, but her hand remains tense in Robyn’s, even as it glows green.
Winter moves to let go of Robyn's hand, but a gentle squeeze and tug from the taller woman succeeds in coaxing her to stay.
Robyn shifts and moves closer, hand loosely and slowly moving to intertwine their fingers.
She's giving her an out, Winter realizes, hand still.
With a shaky breath - and why is she so nervous? She's a grown woman for goodness' sake! - she slides her palm across Robyn's and holds her hand.
Fingers finally intertwined, Winter squeezes back, oddly elated at the warmth Robyn's bare skin shares.
Happy as she was to see this rare show of trust and vulnerability from Winter, Robyn can't help but be enraptured by her side profile. In the glow of the moon and its bright reflection on the ice they're standing upon, Winter looks positively ethereal.
Long, dark eyelashes brush the redness of her cheeks, which only highlights the refined arch of her prominent cheekbones and the elegant bridge of her nose. The slightly faded cut from Cinder's blade did nothing to detract from such delicate features framed by snowy waves that fell just past her shoulders.
Robyn's gaze finally drops to Winter's lips...
Meanwhile, May looks between the two, impatient and expectant, but still unseen.
How many more fucking pushes do these idiots need?
She sighs, and with a pulse of aura, drops her stealth semblance.
“Just kiss already!” May rolls her eyes and literally pushes Robyn’s shoulder with minimal force.
The two snap out of it and stand as if to chastise her, embarrassed glares focusing entirely on May.
In a bid of mild self-preservation and the spirit of chaotic good, May leaps off and cloaks immediately. Even as she disappears from sight, May’s cackle could still be heard, albeit moving farther away from their spot on the wall.
“Absolutely insufferable,” Winter’s lips twitch into a smile that she tries to repress but fails, words lacking any bite.
Heart hammering inside her chest, her eyes nevertheless lock onto Robyn’s lips. Now that May has put the thought out into the world, the idea does have its appeal...
Instinct tells her that the burn of Robyn’s gaze is on her lips, too.
Before she loses courage, she finally lets herself fall into the impulse to hold Robyn’s waist and lean closer.
Robyn eagerly meets her halfway in a gentle kiss, a hand cupping Winter’s warm cheek. Their lips meet - testing, teasing, tasting the promise of more.
Winter loses her sense of time and gains an intimate appreciation for the tenderness with which Robyn kisses her, for the way the calluses on her thumb brushes softly against her cheek, as if she’s something precious and cherished.
One of Robyn’s hands cups the back of Winter’s neck, pulls her ever so gently closer until there’s practically no more space between them, and runs down to support her back as she lifts herself up on her toes to press impossibly closer.
When the kiss ends - a bit too soon, a part of her thinks, already wanting more - Winter’s eyes remain closed. She can’t help but shiver, chest still close to bursting.
Robyn beams, giddy and exhilarated, carding her fingers through Winter’s hair. Her gaze roams over Winter’s face, greedily memorizing the peaceful, pleased expression and the sight of her lips, swollen and slightly parted.
Winter’s eyes finally open, slightly glassy with unshed tears, but she’s smiling.
Winter Schnee is smiling at her, true and beautiful and happy.
And Robyn feels her heart skip a beat.
Cupping Winter’s face, Robyn wipes a stray tear with her thumb.
“You okay, Cheekbones?” she asks softly, amethyst eyes warm and searching.
Winter nods, relishing in the warmth of Robyn’s palm and covering her hand with her own. “Yes, just… feeling very... Seen. Vulnerable. A little scared.” She laughs lightly. “And dare I say it, happy.”
Robyn embraces her, inexplicably pleased that she fits so well in her arms and brushes a soft kiss against the top of her head.
“I’m happy too.”
They don’t need the chime of her semblance to know this truth.
Winter feels it ringing in the drumbeat of Robyn’s heart, her ear pressed to her chest; Robyn feels it in the tenderness of Winter’s embrace - guard completely lowered and living in the moment.
“I know you’re scared, Winter. But we’ll take things at your pace. I’m right here. In whatever capacity you’ll have me, whenever, if ever you’re ready… That’s a promise I wholeheartedly intend to keep.”