A new bruise had formed on her left shoulder.
Winter was no stranger to injury; even before she had chosen such a high-impact profession she had been prone to such things, as a child. Her increased pain tolerance, however, did not overwrite the fact that she—quite literally—had thin skin. There was no better testament to that than now, with half her body covered in sprawling, mottled masses of blacks and blues.
Most of those were beginning to yellow, thanks to her recovering Aura and the best care the Atlesian military could provide. It was how Winter could tell that this one was new—it hadn’t started to heal yet, despite its smaller surface area.
“Here,” one of the doctors said as Winter fought the urge to prod at it, “This will need to stay on.”
She held up the—ah.
It was a common misconception that Atlesian supremacy only extended to military technologies and prostheses, when in reality their assistive devices were similarly top-of-the-line—lightweight but strong, and expediently manufactured. Still, there was little to be done about the inevitable friction that occurred when metal met flesh—the pull, the chafe, of two incommensurate materials first attempting symbiosis. She had thought she felt a pinch during the fitting, but it had gotten lost in the throbbing agony emanating everywhere else.
Winter steeled herself. She’d had to assist the General in performing some field maintenance a few years back, and this pain was nothing compared to the scars and welts that littered his person. It wasn’t worth mentioning, especially given how reluctant they were to discharge her in the first place.
A penlight seared into her eyes, right on cue. “I’m still worried about your concussion.”
“So you’ve said,” Winter replied, “But it’s no longer a concern.”
And it wasn’t, she thought privately to herself. Any lingering discomfort in her eyes could just as easily be explained by the hospital’s harsh lighting, and the slight ringing in her ears—well. The day hadn’t exactly been short on explosive noise.
“Remember to avoid flexing your right hand,” the doctor said, in lieu of further contesting the issue. “The stiffness in your fingers will make you want to, but that will only aggravate the damage. If you have to grip something with it, try to use your palm as a base—”
“You’ve told me all this already,” Winter interrupted, unsuccessfully fighting back an impatient scowl. Her hand would—it would heal. It was useless to belabor the issue.
“It bears repeating,” came the snappish response. “Specialist Schnee, I have to again advise against returning to duty so soon. You have—”
“We are under siege, Doctor,” Winter said, cutting off what likely would have been another litany of all her injuries. It wasn’t like she had forgotten—she was the one feeling them, after all. She just had no intention of spending the apocalypse being fussed over like an infant. “General Ironwood authorized my discharge—”
“He also authorized whatever landed you here in the first place. Are we really going to pretend—”
The doctor stuttered to an abrupt halt.
Winter stared at the woman as her face filled with terror. “I-I’m sorry,” she began to babble, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—please don’t—”
“It’s fine,” Winter said mechanically, because—right. It was natural to feel…precarious, right now, right on the heels of watching a man’s execution just down the hall. It was natural to be unsettled when the General clearly felt the same—and justifiably so, Winter forcefully reminded herself. We’re in the middle of the largest Grimm invasion known to man. Prior to all this General Ironwood had had a well-established reputation for being reasonable, generous even; so to see even him act in this manner meant it was natural to conclude—
Well. Winter, she had no such reputation.
What had she said, on the night Weiss returned to Atlas? You have ten seconds to take those off before I start hurting you.
Councilman Sleet had received no warning at all.
Her ears were ringing painfully again, as if reacting to some phantom gunshot—but that was absurd. Her concussion would fade. She would return to duty, and then—
Winter refused to balk at the emptiness that appeared as she tried to ponder what would come next. Such things should not matter to her at present. War was on their doorstep; she could fight, and so she would. There was no point in dwelling.
“It’s fine,” she said again, meeting the doctor’s still terrified gaze. “It’s…we’re all on edge right now.”
The reassurance coated like rust on her tongue.
The doctor excused herself soon afterward to sign more interminable paperwork; her absence left Winter unchaperoned for the first time in so many hours, which meant it was time to test how much she could actually get around.
There really wasn’t anything else as uniquely humiliating as shuffling around with a rollator, wearing nothing but a hospital gown (she’d left the brace behind; that was a project for later), but she was at least—moving. Painfully and without grace, but she could bear that. She could survive it.
She had survived, which was more than what could be said for some.
Unbidden, her hobbling steps took her across the hall. There, Winter lingered only briefly over where Clover lay before moving on, toward the other casualty in their brush with the enemy.
Fria’s face was relaxed in death. It caught Winter by surprise; she hadn’t been able to attend to the fallen Maiden herself after Penny’s departure, and in dazed snatches between her retrieval, initial treatment, and the new flurry of activity that had come with Clover she had dreamt of Fria’s dying expression a half dozen ways—terrified, furious, blurring into Penny’s face, accusatory with a blade through her chest, Winter’s own saber—
She had always known it was a possibility. The General had shown her the Aura transfer machine on the same day she had been introduced to Fria, and there had never been any sugarcoating of what it would likely do to the woman. That had been one thing—something that Fria might one day forgive, after she became a part of Winter; something Winter might bear, survive, for Atlas.
But in the moment, when Cinder had sent her hurtling through the air that first time, when she still had her Aura, when she’d still thought they could salvage the situation, when she hadn’t yet realized how woefully unprepared and outclassed she was, to fight a Maiden—the thought had struck her in that delirious moment, a bright shining line from one point to the next…
She could do it herself. She could fly back to Fria while Penny kept Cinder at bay, bought her time. The Aura transfer machine required an external operator, but she was the only person Fria had seen in more than a year. It would be Fria’s life, and likely Penny’s, but—then she would be Maiden.
And she still had her weapon. Was one death so different from another? Winter might even be able to make Fria’s passing easier, quicker, if she simply—for Atlas—
Then Penny had screamed overhead, and her Summon was returning her to the battle, and in the end Fria had died not by Winter’s hand or intent, but by her incompetence.
And Penny had become the Maiden. Penny, who had never asked or trained for the burden; Penny, whom Fria had never even met, much less known—
But what had Fria known of Winter, in the end? She had only come into Fria’s life near its end, and the woman couldn’t recognize her during most of their visits. It was—naïve, Winter realized, to expect to have weighed on Fria’s mind at all during the moment of her passing.
There was a thin cord of pain wrapping around her midsection. Absently, Winter pressed her fingers into her side, rooting out the hurt. Presumptuous, really, to think she meant any more than absolutely nothing to Fria, when the very premise of their relationship—such as it was—had been professional, transactional, exploitative.
Her fingers dug deeper into her skin. What right did she have to imagine that Fria felt any kind of warmth for her, when she had been little more than Fria’s would-be supplanter? What right did she have to delude herself that Fria saw her as more than the vulture she was, that Fria approved of her as a successor, that Fria was kind and present to her, for her, that Fria…
The pain would not cease.
Winter let her aching hand fall limply back onto the walker. “Thank you,” she said to Fria, feeling the words warp wetly on their way out of her throat. “For—thank you. For your service.”
It was the only respect she had any right to give.
Less than an hour later, Winter was forced to grudgingly admit that perhaps the brace was more of a project than she’d anticipated.
The problem was, again, at her shoulder. She had managed to slip on her work shirt with some creative maneuvers and a not-inconsiderable amount of swearing, but the padded cast that the doctors insisted were absolutely non-negotiable to her recovery had to be secured in several places, and with the bandages she simply lacked the range of motion to reach some of the clasps.
This was ridiculous. The General had requested her presence at a briefing—had even sent Harriet along to escort her, like she was an invalid—yet she couldn’t even make it out of the bathroom of this hospital suite.
Not without help, anyway. Winter cast her eyes about the room, hoping to find some escape from having to swallow her pride. Instead, her gaze fell onto the mirror over the sink, at her own reflection.
She looked like Mother, Winter realized with a start. It was in the exhausted, hollow look in her eyes, the shadows underneath; it was in the haphazard ponytail she’d had to make do with instead of her usual bun, the sloppy way she’d buttoned her shirt. All she needed was a whiskey stain and the look would be complete: the worst of her mother, perversely translated: vacant and vulnerable and weak.
Some hair slipped out of her ponytail and landed in front of her eyes, and Winter could not repress an audible snarl as she whipped it away. This was ridiculous. It didn’t matter, she wanted it gone—
She wrenched her gaze away from the mirror and toward the electric razor someone had left by the sink. In a quick decisive movement she grabbed it, switched on the power—
The razor clattered into the basin as the nerves in her hand seized in protest at the vibration. Winter jumped at the sound, and then jumped again as someone outside knocked on the door. “What’s the holdup?” Harriet called.
“I’m—” Winter looked wildly from the razor, still on and buzzing, to the brace she’d discarded on the floor, and fought the urge to laugh. Of all the flights of fancy to choose from, it had to be some childish cliché of rebellion through changing her hair. As if she wouldn’t have regretted it immediately afterward. As if she were fifteen again, feeling the burn of cheaply made bleach on her fingers.
She unplugged the razor. “I’m…having some trouble. Mind lending a hand?”
There was a small pause before Harriet entered the room. “Sure thing.”
With her assistance putting on the brace was mortifyingly easy. “Should it be this tight?” Harriet asked as she worked through the buckles at Winter’s back.
“It’s to stabilize the healing fractures,” Winter replied, parroting what she’d been told. “If it’s looser it—”
Something jostled, and her vision went white with pain. When the world came back into focus a few seconds later Harriet was standing in front of her, frowning in apologetic concern. “You’re still feeling it this much? I thought they’d give you the good stuff.”
“I’m allergic,” Winter replied, the lie so automatic at this point that it might as well be truth. Additional comfort was not worth addling her senses and the risk of dependency.
Harriet made a noncommittal noise. “Tough luck. Here, let me do the front.”
“I can probably…” she trailed off as Harriet raised one unimpressed eyebrow. “Fine.”
They lapsed into not quite comfortable silence. Unwilling to slip back into irresponsible wallowing, Winter instead focused on the other woman, who, in an uncharacteristically thoughtful move, was straightening Winter’s shirt and necktie before moving onto the brace itself. Harriet’s face was, as always, that even balance between laser focus and barely simmering impatience; were it not for their uniforms, Winter could easily think they were back at the Academy.
Though the two of them would never have been in this close proximity during the Academy years. Their cohort had been one of the most competitive in recent memory, and Harriet was particularly talented at nursing trenchant rivalries with everyone in sight. Winter was no exception to that outlook; she’d had to defend her position as the top seed in individual sparring against Harriet in numerous occasions. It made her wonder, now: if all that had separated the two of them in the end had been a few percentage points in aptitude scores, a marginally better win-loss record—
and her name, of course; hard to forget when Harriet herself had been so fond of reminding her
—then Harriet might have become the General’s candidate for Maidenhood, instead. Could she have succeeded where Winter hadn’t? Had Winter acquiesced to her father’s demands to return home, had the General not been kind enough to shelter her from Jacque’s ire, had circumstances been even minutely different, then…
Circumstances were what they were.
Winter cleared away the tightness in her throat. “How is the team doing?”
Harriet did not respond immediately, busying herself with the strap just below Winter’s ribs. “With what, exactly?” she finally said, her tone deceptively light, “Horde of Grimm in the sky? The one down below? Or the pack of traitors we have on top of all that, just because lil’ sis and her friends—”
“I meant with Clover,” Winter interrupted, exasperated already. This was typical; of course Harriet would attempt to hit her below the belt as soon as she left an opening.
“We’re fine,” Harriet all-but-barked, but in the space between words Winter caught something uncertain on her face, nestled tightly within the usual combativeness. “We’re a team and we’ll follow orders. If you’re trying to sniff out malcontents, Schnee, try a little closer to home—”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” she snapped back. “Harriet—”
“What.” Harriet finally looked up to meet Winter’s gaze as the last part of her brace clicked shut.
She was waiting for Winter to ask, Winter realized. Or at least—talk about it. Councilman Sleet, the execution not twenty paces away from where they were now, the look they shared across the hall as the General marched unconcernedly away from the carnage he’d left, the web of complicity they had all been a part of, since Beacon’s fall. A part of her might have even wanted Winter to ask, to talk about it, so that they could…
Could what, exactly? They had chosen their path long ago, she and Harriet: an officer commission over a Huntress license. They had been the only two to accept Ironwood’s offer, to remain while their other classmates scattered to the distant corners of the world, or simply went down to Mantle. They had been chosen for their excellence, but they also chose, knowing even then that one day they’d be called to fight and kill for Atlas. That Winter had assumed at the time that fighting for Atlas would never conflict with fighting for Remnant only spoke to her own blindness. Circumstances were what they were; sitting around commiserating over that fact or trying to run from it would do nothing in the end.
Besides, Winter thought as a sudden cold plunged into her gut, she had no guarantee that Harriet would keep Winter’s misgivings—her malcontent—a secret, that she wouldn’t use them to secure her own place at the General’s side.
They were rivals first. They were never anything more.
“Nothing,” she said finally, flatly. “Let’s go.”
“It’s not a demotion,” the General told her, after the meeting.
The crook of her elbow itched, and Winter had to resist the urge to pick at it through her sleeve. “No, sir,” she said automatically.
That could not be disputed. He had sent her from his side before; her unique talents made her indispensable as a field agent. That she would not be accompanied by a contingent of Knights but by fellow Operatives this time was a trifling detail—the AceOps needed a leader, and one could hardly blame the General for streamlining in the middle of an invasion. Whatever Winter felt about being sent away, about being looked to and watched by the AceOps (had Harriet said something? But she couldn’t have, not when Winter revealed nothing herself)—it was all trifling.
And even if they weren’t, he was here to reassure her. He’d made the time to see them off at the hangar after issuing his orders, had pulled her aside to show concern, when he had every right to fault her for what she’d failed to do.
He cared. It was one of the things that had drawn her to him in the first place: the kindness for his men that came so naturally to him, the way sacrifices and mistakes weighed heavily on his mind even as he fought to move forward. It made a fine distinction from her own father, who took what he wanted without a single care for the damage it would wrought, whose every affection was a hook, a play, a test—
This was not a test, Winter reminded herself. It was not a demotion, or a punishment, and for all his faults the General was human, not a beast driven by base cruelties and petty wants.
Not like her father at all.
“I read the specifications for your new hand while awaiting discharge,” she said aloud.
A corner of the General’s mouth quirked up. “Of course you did.”
“The improved dexterity should allow you to fire your revolver more quickly, but I’m concerned about its durability in melee encounters,” she continued, “You’ll have to watch yourself at close quarters without me, sir.”
“Don’t I always?” he asked, but his smile widened by a hard-won inch. “I have managed before, you know.”
I don’t know what I would do without you, he’d told her, mere hours ago. She pushed that memory aside to aim a pointed look at the brand new prosthesis in question.
That earned her a chuckle. “Touché. Winter…” His smile faded as gave her a long, searching look. “To be honest, I’m hoping you can find some closure out there.”
“The Maiden powers were always supposed to be yours. That they went to Penny was…an unfortunate development. One that I don’t blame you for,” he hastened to add, misreading her stricken expression, “But you can correct it. It may be that Watts has given you an opportunity.”
An opportunity. He was showing her the Aura transfer machine again. If the situation necessitates it, he’d said then, before trailing off, unwilling to name what he was asking of her. “I thought,” Winter said, wincing as her voice cracked, “I thought that the reason we conscripted Watts was to make sure that Penny returned to us. Not just the Maiden powers. Sir.”
Atlas would not destroy what it could still use. Penny was not Fria; she was not well past her prime. Penny’s death could not be the capstone of a long life in service. Penny was the Protector of Mantle, and had performed the task admirably, wonderfully; Penny could—and would—defend Atlas with every ounce of power she had; Penny had already died once, for Atlas; Penny was young, and had so much life ahead of her.
“The situation has changed,” the General replied, “Whatever glitch that left her unresponsive…it means that she’s still an unknown. If she continues to resist—if it comes to that…”
Maybe it would be a mercy, Winter thought frantically. Maybe, between the choice of having her autonomy taken or her life, Penny would choose her life. Would want Winter to choose that for her. Maybe she’d even forgive Winter, after she became a part of her, so that Winter could survive it, the guilt and the grief, could one day bear it, for Atlas—
She remembered hurtling through the air again. The second time: sharp cold biting into her skin as her Aura dissipated into dust, air whistling in her ears as she fell, the odd serene finality she’d felt. But then—a sudden crushing agony on her left side, the feeling of already tender ribs cracking apart with desperate, lifesaving impact. The look in Penny’s eyes.
Winter opened her mouth, but no words escaped.
The General seemed to have noticed her discomfort. “Whatever happens, I trust your judgment in the field.”
It was a mercy, but Winter could barely hear it over the sound of her own pulse. “Thank you, sir.”
Another smile. He made to leave, but then turned back. “Almost forgot. The reason I came down…”
Winter stared. He was holding out her parrying dagger.
“You told me where you dropped it, so I told the troops in the area to be on the lookout,” he said over her silence. “It was sheer luck that they found it so quickly, but—I’m glad. I know how important it is to you to head into battle with the complete set.”
He placed it into Winter’s open palm, and even as she began to tighten her hold on the hilt she knew that she would not be able to use it, that even if she were able to maintain an adequate grip her hand did not have the dexterity necessary to wield it as she had.
She would not be able to raise her weapon. It should not bring her such relief. “General. I…”
The General smiled at her, caring and kind and steadfastly, resolutely human. “You won’t let me down, Winter. You never have.”