The forest swallows her alive.
Not enough. She knows she is followed, and will be caught if things continue this way. The sharp echo of bark creaking open and branches splintering sends birds screeching in flocks into the sky as the trees they belong to are felled behind her.
She is desperate. She cries out, begs, implores her that she doesn't want this, doesn't want her. The deafening crash of trees behind her is closing even more quickly at her words.
"You'll be hurt."
"I can protect myself."
She learned that day that a rose will not be warned of thorns.
Ruby catches her, as expected, as always, her hand warm and unyielding as her fingers clasp her wrist and twist her around. They collapse into the thick powdery white beneath them, and Weiss arches into Ruby as she feels some of it whispering down the collar of her bolero, to melt between her shoulders and disappear as she wishes she could so easily do. The sky is so white that if Ruby weren't there, she'd never be able to know that she couldn't simply reach out and graze the sky, cloud-sky, let it swirl and settle around her fingertips like wet cotton.
But there are some things she is fine with knowing.
Her eyes close, and over the cacophony of steel and sparks licking at her insides that she hears inside her chest, slowly driving its blade into her heart and snarling for her to fight, to hurt, to kill, kill, kill, it's nothing short of a miracle that she hears Ruby's voice-come back to me, Weiss-there to deliver her from the darkness within that so contrasts her exterior, the darkness that few would look upon her and see.
Dark lashes flutter feebly, broken butterfly wings. Her tears have frosted her eyes shut, shutting her out of the world of color Ruby has brought to her life. A musical flutter of a gasp bubbles through quivering lips as her hands seek guilty purchase amongst the folds of her cloak.
Lips touch one eyelid, then the next, thawing, kissing; she scarcely waits for Weiss to open her eyes before sinking into her nude lips with her own, impatiently seeking permission that she knows Weiss can't resist giving, hums in her throat contentedly as they form to each other perfectly in a twist of uninhibited indulgence.
She had needed this more than anything and hadn't even known it. The closeness of another, the reverberations of Ruby's heartbeat spurring hers faster, aching deeply with every breath against the thick miasma that swarms and surrounds it that she fights alone night after night.
It stirs in her chest, threatened, offended by the affection and greedy for undisputed ownership of her body. Weiss is scared: she's never felt such a tourniquet on her heart as in this moment.
Kill her. You're mine.
She rebukes the command with everything inside her. The urgency peaks in her body like never before and the world blurs together before her as Ruby's lips press softly to her jaw, her throat, again and again, moving along the curve of her swan-like neck, hands shifting to her austere, delicate shoulders to still her as she presses a searing kiss right over her heart.
The response, from within and from her body, is so unilaterally violent and visceral that she fears she will lose track of what she needs to suppress. She imagines entwining her fingers into Ruby's soft, dark hair, caressing those naturally flushed, rosen cheeks, kissing and biting at her tender lips until they are bruised and swollen, but her thoughts become inexplicably interspersed with visions of Myrtenaster's noble white blade soaked in Ruby's red life, impaled to the hilt again and again through her heart, the sounds of her cloak ripping and her screams cutting short into whimpers and the gurgling of hot blood flooding her throat and pouring from between her lips, painting them crimson-
He is furious, and she feels it refer throughout her insides so wickedly that if she opened her mouth to sing, the vibrato would sustain itself without her conscious assistance.
She opens her mouth to scream instead, and to this day she is certain she will never get used to it. The idea of it is foreign to her: her duty and position demanded her obedience, her willingness to accomodate and adjust. The shameless, desperate howls sounding from her throat are so graceless and arresting that it is as though she has given herself over to yet another entity.
She confronts the empty armor, Myrtenaster drawn and poised, ready to defend her people at any cost. Her purity framed by the inky darkness of night, there existed not a soul that thought hers to be anything but that of an angel. She speaks, and her voice is obsequious and humble.
"I harbor no wish to fight you. Pray, introduce yourself and make your intentions known."
The great suit of armor does not sheathe its weapon as it speaks, voice booming loud.
"I am the Black Knight, cheated and wandering spirit of the battlefield, seeking the rest that Death emptily promised to me."
"Black Knight," She curtsies deeply and bravely stands her ground, "what would you have in exchange for the safety of my people?"
"I would have a home within the soul of a maiden. Any will do."
The words take her aback: this is surely dark magic he speaks of. Whomever bears this burden would undoubtedly suffer dearly.
She does not think to proffer the life of another. The responsibility falls squarely on her shoulders and she accepts it readily.
"You needn't look any further." She sheathes her weapon and folds her hands tamely. "In my name as Princess Weiss Schnee, I offer myself to you."
At her words, the disembodied armor dissolves into a thick, black smog that inches closer to her with every breath she draws until it disappears inside her.
At her collar forms a diminutive silver necklace, that she has never since found how to remove.
All she finds is that if Death is a cheat, the Black Knight is perhaps even worse of one.
Both souls within Weiss lust for Ruby, in completely different ways. She throws her head back, arching and struggling against the heightening feeling that she is being shorn in two.
The moment shatters when, head tilted back towards the opposite horizon, she sees them, plodding across the snow on fours, crimson maws snapping greedily.
Ruby has seen them now too, and pulls Weiss to her feet.
They will fight.
No sooner had Weiss drawn Myrtenaster than the visions, the sinister encouragement to stab her deep and drink her screams and reduce her to a pretty red smear in the snow plagued her anew.
The idea of Myrtenaster, of herself being used for something so vile and irrefutably evil fills her with crippling nausea.
She watches as her fingers curl tightly around the hilt, unbidden. The Black Knight thirsts again for the blood of a virgin, and he will take what he wants by force if necessary. It gets worse the longer he is denied. Weiss pleads with him inwardly, struggling to even remain standing as Ruby tears across the field in a blur of rosen carnage.
Please, not her.
Her hands move not of their own accord to the blade's edge, but she does not resist. The message is clear.
You, or her.
She squeezes, and it hurts, less so with the knowledge that the only blood on her hands will be her own.
Her eyes catch Ruby's as she swiftly decimates the pack of wolves. The way she whirls and pinwheels through the air and dances with her foes enchants her. Shell casings litter the field in tandem with chunks of the wolves' bodies, blood splattering everywhere.
The snow is a canvas beneath the feet of an artist, a dancer, a painter. All sense of internal struggle slips away as Weiss lays eyes upon her, admires the way her body moves, the control she has over it.
She senses malevolence surrounding her, hears the snarls of the beasts, but when she turns to confront them Ruby is already there, has already shredded them to ribbons, has sent their blood fleeing from their bodies. It speckles crimson against the white of Weiss' dress, of her porcelain cheek.
It is already over.
Weiss stammers an apology quietly, eyes unfocused as Ruby touches her cheek, thumbs away the smear of blood. She couldn't move a single muscle to help the one she most wanted to. She weeps, and loses track of how many times she repeats herself before Ruby draws her close, and she finds her fragile composure fracturing into great, gulping sobs, knowing, remembering that she is understood.
"You...haven't any family?" Weiss ventures, staring thoughtfully into the surface of the lake.
If she looks hard enough, she sees all three of their reflections. Her and Ruby's eyes meet through the mirror before them.
"Not for a very long time." She keeps the pain out of her voice, but not out of herself. Weiss understands too well how a voice sounds when it is being merciful, understands that the emptiness, the distance in her tone denotes memories that are painful to her, and until this moment, Weiss might not have believed that anything, tangible or not, could hurt her.
"My dad disappeared when I was small. He must have died. Or he would have come home." The conviction and faith in her words and in her father leaves no room for doubt. Weiss nods silently, only meeting Ruby's eyes through the lake surface, only listening. She wonders how long she's wanted to tell somebody. She wonders what Ruby will say next.
She wonders what Ruby thinks.
"It was just me and mom, for a little while. The night it happened, we were chopping firewood." She looks up at the sky and Weiss looks at her. The moon appears even more brilliant than usual from within eyes that behold it with such reverence. "Mom heard the wolves first." Her fingers stroke the hem of her cloak, lovingly. "She gave this to me and told me to not move and to not speak, and as soon as I was beneath it, they-" Her gaze levels out to the horizon while she swallows. "-were upon her. There was nothing I could do but watch." She turns to Weiss-not the reflection in the water, but to the one standing beside her, and Weiss tastes salt on the corner of her lips.
"Don't cry." Her lips form a smile but her eyes are hiding something again. "I didn't."
They stare at each other for a thick moment before Ruby smoothly turns towards the lake again. Weiss does the same.
"I know why you sing here."
Weiss blinks and glances over at her, surprised by the seeming non-sequitur, but Ruby is staring at the moon once more.
"It's because it's the only place in the forest where the trees won't cover it up. And the moon..."
"...Sings back..." Her voice shakes. Her words, her breath, and perhaps more, have been stolen in that moment.
She doesn't tell Ruby that the other reason she comes here is because it's where she'll find her.
She can tell she doesn't have to.
The closeness she feels with Ruby is profound and transcending of the words she knows to express it, so she lets the silence fill the space, until a thought occurs to her.
"How...how did it keep you hidden?"
Ruby turns to her and grins like she was waiting for her to point out the incongruity with the story, but it vanishes as quickly as it appeared, and the way she looks at Weiss makes her throat tighten inexplicably: there's something very very different about the seriousness in her eyes.
"It used to be white."
The implication sends a furrowing chill throughout her body that never quite goes away. Weiss is certain she will remember those words forever.
"I won't let it happen again." Ruby's smile returns once more, "Things...are different now."
Weiss gets the distinct impression that she has left out more than she can imagine.
Her body goes limp against hers, and they sink to their knees. She trembles in Ruby's arms, grimacing as she grasps at her cowl with bleeding, sticky palms. Warm hands take hers and turn them, palm up, and Weiss tries to pull them away guiltily, but even if Ruby's grip on her faltered-could falter-it was too late: she knew she had hurt herself again.
Ruby murmurs comfort to her and kisses them each in turn. As she chides her to not run away again, Weiss can't help but notice the way her blood forms to the outline of Ruby's lips, how brightly saccharine and tempting-
Her hands have found their way back to Ruby's collar, chest heaving with her deepened breaths, and her prolonged interest in her mouth has been noted. Arms wind around her slender waist slowly; Ruby whispers, softly, dangerously; kiss me, before pulling at the small of her back until the space between them vanishes.
The coppery, sweet taste almost drives Weiss more wild than even him, who is roaring with bloodlust and jealousy inside her.
Why is it so hard to subdue him in the presence of the one she least wants to harm?
Weiss tries to resist his influence, but her teeth close around Ruby's bottom lip hard, drawing forth a beautiful groan and a bead of blood. She gasps brokenly and pulls herself back, apologizing profusely once more.
She's suddenly not so sure she wouldn't have done it even without him inside her.
Amidst her stammerings, Ruby touches her finger to the place Weiss bit her-
-and then to Weiss' lips.
And then tells her it's time for them to go back.
She glances around, finds the bodies to have vanished in a scattering of rose petals, but she prays for them just the same, unaware that Ruby has seen her do this before.
Summer Rose, Thus Kindly I Scatter.
Ruby stares at the words that were so imbued in her mother's heart. She wonders what words her father's grave would bear.
She wonders if it matters.
Something-someone-catches her eye over the edge of the bluff that overlooks the battlefield where countless dead lay unsent from the world.
What business would the living have amongst the dead? Her curiosity piqued, she slips smoothly, silently, from foothold to foothold down the cliff, until she is close enough to recognize the someone as a young woman, and the young woman as the princess herself.
She is kneeling beside the bodies, using her own pale, beautiful hands to close the eyes that are opened and glassy in death, and closing her own with a hand over her heart, locked in prayer. She does this for each one in turn, friend and foe alike.
She is without escort, and without audience: this is no empty gesture.
It is in this moment that Ruby falls in love with her.
A day passes. Night always comes to the forest first, because the trees drink the darkness with eager branches, hold it in their leaves.
And then, through the rustling of the trees overhead, piercing the dark with its brilliance, a song so luminous and hauntingly beautiful, a voice so clear and dulcet it could shame the heavens reaches Ruby in the night.
Instantly, she knows it can only belong to her.
Her feet have already begun to follow it, her practiced ears catching onto the subtle inflections and the way they weave mournfully through the branches, drawing her to the lake, where she sees her.
She sings to her reflection in the lake as though it is lost from her, and it is then that Ruby realizes what has happened since she last laid eyes upon her, the reason behind the fragile sorrow in her voice, in her entire being.
She is a prisoner to her body's guest.
The princess draws her rapier, mechanically, the blade gleaming in the night. She trembles as though she will never again know warmth-
"...You're a long way from home, princess." She intones softly.
She draws a quick, sharp breath before turning around, and how beautiful she is, backed by moonlight, eyes wide with fear, though she must know what beasts lurk the forests, how eagerly they would tear out her throat and make a feast of her fragrant, sweet blood.
But Ruby knows that if she slaughtered every wolf in the forest, she can't keep her completely safe from something within herself.
Ruby is only too familiar in dealings with devils-
"You don't want to die."
-mirrored attempts to murder oneself in the dark.
Ruby knows Weiss is in no condition to return to the castle tonight.
She leads the princess by the hand, so tight is her grip that she isn't sure when she intends to let go, feels the warm life trickling into her palm, feels Weiss shaking with every step, struggling against the influence of the soul Ruby has been seeking, been trying to send, for a very long time now.
The soul that Ruby found in the last place she'd wanted to find it.
She doesn't know what she will do, but she knows that she will not kill Weiss.
She will not allow her death.
She will never go back to a time where she can only watch.
Weiss has stopped walking, and when Ruby turns to look at her it is just in time to see her sway precariously, fainting quietly; she is caught by Ruby's waiting arms.
She looks so tired.
Wrapping an arm around her shoulders and the other beneath her legs, Ruby holds her close, protectively, and carries her through the wood.
Her face is so peaceful, and Ruby wonders whether she is being selfish, or cruel-
She will not entertain that line of thinking to its conclusion, because she knows she will not like it.
What she likes is the moonlit song that pours from her, and no one else.
The nights where they found moments of calm by the water's edge, found the light in each other's eyes to warm them until Weiss had to return to the castle.
The feel of Weiss' hand just before she lets go, the sensation that is left in Ruby's for not long enough, but she takes what she can get.
The way her warm, humid breath bathes her neck in this moment, the weight of her head on her shoulder as she lays deep in slumber.
She doesn't know how or when or what it will be but she will find another way, before it's too late, because she has to.
Weiss shouldn't have to run.
But even she can't deny that time is something she's running out of.
Ruby's footsteps come to a halt as she realizes where she's taken Weiss.
It is a place she hasn't been in a very long time.
The cabin is still intact, albeit there's heaps of snow all the way up to the windows.
She hears a howl in the distance that completely resurfaces the memories, and is relieved that Weiss can't see the way it chills her to her bones.
Things have changed. She can't falter when Weiss needs her.
She braces her free shoulder against the door and shoves it open, watches as the wind sprinkles powder snow across the floor.
Everything inside is coated with years and years' worth of dust, but it looks just how it did when she left. The quilt on her bed is still pulled back, unkempt, and she remembers how her mother had told her to make her bed before coming outside to help with the chores, and how she didn't listen, even the last time she'd ever asked her.
It is as if someone has just stepped away, untouched since the day Ruby had left.
The day Ruby had dug in the snow with her bare hands until they were numb and trembling, until the earth was trapped beneath her fingernails.
The day Ruby had buried what she could find of her mother in a scratched out hole in the ground.
The day she'd ceased to be a little girl.
The day everything had changed.
She closes the door, sets the bar in place. She's not sure if she means to keep the wolves out or Weiss in.
Ruby lays her atop the bed and shakes out the quilt before pulling it up to her shoulders. Her breathing is soft and quiet, but she mumbles in her sleep, fingers curling and uncurling, and she knows the nightmares will soon come. Ruby lifts the edge of the quilt and slips in beside her, wraps her arms around her and strokes her hair. Weiss curls her head close, hands grasping at Ruby's blouse before she stills again.
They can stay like this. Ruby holds her and falls into a dream of her own, the only one she's seen since that day.
"That's no way to dig a hole."
Ruby looked around, rubbing her frozen, raw hands together. She saw no one, until she turned back to the shallow grave she was digging and from the earth in front of her emerged a milky fog, taking on the shape of a great, ghostly white hound. It bore a knowing, winsome smile, tongue lolling playfully out its mouth, and appeared so friendly and amiable that Ruby reached out with wonder, until she was almost touching a silky ear-
"You're not too bright of a kid are you? Or you don't have a very good memory. Or maybe both. For all you know I could be a friend of the wolves that came and finished off your mom." Ruby retracted her hand and frowned. "Now now kid, don't give me the long face. It was her time to go, and I'm just here to take her where she belongs."
"...It'd take me years to explain why that question doesn't make any sense. But you know what, I'm feeling generous. You're not gonna last long out here alone girly, so how about doing me a favor, if I did something for you?"
Ruby scrunched her nose and folded her arms, suspicious. "Mama always told me not to talk to strangers. I just remembered."
The ethereal dog gave a wheezy, amused bray. "You're sure spunky for a kid! Before you walk away from this, think reasonably, am I a regular stranger? Now hear me out. There's this bad guy called the Black Knight. Died on the battlefield with nothing in his heart but the yearning for glory and riches. He's been giving me the slip for a long time. Won't go where he's supposed to. Causing trouble. Here's the rub: he's real good at hide and seek. He'll almost definitely be inside of a living person, or at least stuck to them real close. But my nose can only find the people who aren't alive anymore. Live people smell like too many things. But by the time I get to a body it's too late because he finds someone else to latch onto. Get it?"
She unfolded her arms. "I think so."
"Good, maybe you've got something between those ears after all. So here's what we do. I give you a present-" A long, red and black scythe appears in the air above his head, and it folds together into something Ruby has never seen before. "-It may look a little big for you, but you're a smart girl. Your power will mature. And besides, it's special. Now, I give this to you, and you'll be able to protect yourself and survive. And if you do my favor, I'll let you bring back anyone you want."
Ruby's eyes widened incredulously. "Do you mean-?!" She swallowed, not sure if she could believe what she was hearing, "I could bring back mom and dad-?"
"Hey that's not what I said. I said 'anyone'. Any. One. Okay kid? One. I'm already going out on a limb for you here. You get one person to bring back, and that's assuming you can do my little favor."
"But what's the favor?"
"You can bring back your one person if, and only if, you send me the soul of the Black Knight. But to get it, you'll have to kill whoever he's hiding in. But believe me-" He went on, noting the look of horror on the young girl's face, "-they'll want to die. Don't think too hard about it. The guy's a real killjoy. Poison. He makes people do things they don't want to do. Torment that even you couldn't begin to imagine, and last I checked, you've been through a lot today."
Ruby nodded and looked sternly into the dog's silver stare. "That's...all I have to do? Cross your heart?"
"Sure. But I'll warn you now, because I happen to like you. This will get harder. Your choice in the end will determine who you save, but also who you sacrifice. You only get one shot." He gave pause for Ruby to think. "You still wanna make the deal? I don't mean to rush you but I'm on a very tight schedule here and I don't have all-"
What choice did she have? She realized this could be her only chance.
"I knew you were a good kid. Look, sorry about your mom. Tragic. I'll leave a little epitaph for her at the highest point on the bluff. Can't miss it. See it sometime. Is that too big a word? Might be. Means 'grave'. I'll leave you to your business now."
He vanished almost as abruptly as he'd appeared.
Ruby takes the weapon, feels the weight of it in her small arms before hooking it onto her belt and digging with renewed purpose.
Things had changed.
Weiss wakes, but does not see. She feels color inside of her head, pulsing, throbbing, it hurts-
Her eyes open, she finds her ear pressed against Ruby's chest. The rhythm sounds so clear, so fluid, unhindered. Smooth, unerring-
The sound does not cease even when Weiss lifts her head away, sits up.
The sound of Ruby's heartbeat has been ingrained in her mind, echoing and rebounding within her inexorably.
Weiss lifts her hands and covers her ears-something's wrong. She tries to hear something, anything else, but there is only the steady beat of Ruby's heart.
From within, she hears his wicked, sardonic voice.
A heart can't make a sound if it stops beating...
She tries to will it away but it is all around, suffocating.
She trembles and tries to think of something, anything. The pressure inside is mounting and she is desperately afraid, she can't breathe fast enough, can't think clearly enough, she's panicked and she's scared of what she could have to watch herself do like this-
Her eyes fall on Ruby's sleeping form beside her and from within her there is a surge of something dark and terrible, in direct counterpoint to what she knows she feels for Ruby.
Her hand nears Ruby's cheek, shaking: she doesn't know what to do. She knows what she wants to do but she doesn't know what will happen. She sets her hand beside her face and clutches the quilt in her fingers. Ruby does not stir. Her breath, her heartbeat, are all Weiss can hear.
Weiss seizes and doubles over under the mounting strain on her body, the sudden visions of her fingers wrapping around that small, pale throat, wringing the life from her-
The disgust within her is devastating, and the thoughts persist; she feels she might be sick. The ruinous hunger from inside demands Ruby's blood, Ruby's life, Ruby, and it will accept nothing else.
Weiss will not see him win, so long as she draws breath.
He will not win.
He must not win.
There's still time.
But she can't stay. The desire to touch her is too great, too dangerous, when she harbors a phantom that wants her death so ardently.
She hobbles miserably to the door, every step a bitter struggle.
There's only one thing she can do, and that is to bury him with her, he who would wish harm upon Ruby.
She hears her stir and she's running through the door, Myrtenaster drawn, the glyphs flying off her fingers like water as she propels herself through the forest.
Ruby will chase her, and she won't, can't look back.
The last she will have seen of Ruby is the peace in her face while she slept.
She will succeed.
The space in the bed beside Ruby is still warm when she wakes, but her blood has run cold.
Weiss will really try to do it, and this time, Ruby's not sure if she can be stopped.
Or rather, whether the Black Knight will be stopped.
Ruby leaps out of bed and stops as she sees, through the window, the pinions of white and green and every color illuminating the forest, disappearing and reappearing further and further away each time.
Brandishing her weapon, Ruby quickly reaches into the pouch with the different ammuntion, poises it behind her and fires, letting the recoil fling her through the air. Her cloak is snagged on the door as she does so, and it is pulled from her body with the force.
It is the first time Ruby has been without it since receiving it.
She ignores it.
She will not be without Weiss.
She follows the tonal trills of the light fluttering throughout the sky, when suddenly, they stop-this is Ruby's chance-she is firing so quickly that her feet can no longer keep up with the propelling force. A crimson streak through the sky, and then she lands with a halting slide as she shouts out the name of her princess.
She refuses to believe she's lost her.
And then, it is there, like it was a long time ago, when it first lead Ruby to her.
Her voice, her song.
She hears Weiss sing, and there's only one place she could be, for it to resonate so purely.
Ruby listens for the sound of the water, but it is fainter than before: perhaps it has frozen over in the deepening winter.
The song cuts short and she hears an unmistakable, strangled cry before it resumes, but there's something very, very wrong with it. It is strained and discordant with the pain that emanates through every note, a pain that warns.
This is not Weiss. She is being used to bait a trap, and she is fighting and resisting every moment of it.
But she'd sooner die than leave Weiss to do so.
Moving quickly, she closes in on the clearing, finds her standing, waiting, at the center of the frozen lake, and walks cautiously towards the center, treading the ice carefully. It felt thick enough to safely support at least this much.
Weiss looks at Ruby with eyes that lack the moonlight she so loved, and as she drew Myrtenaster, and began walking towards Ruby, her movement held none of her characteristic grace.
She is a pale shell of who Weiss truly is.
A marionette with tangled strings.
The silver necklace at her throat flickers from the touch of a beam of moonlight as she approaches, and Ruby realizes that it has cinched so tightly around her throat that it is cutting skin.
She braces her weapon defensively and weighs her options: her mentality of kill-or-be-killed won't work this time. Enraged, she shouts for him to let go of Weiss, but is met only with a callous chuckle.
It is not Weiss' voice, but that of a man she thought she'd known.
Ruby is so taken aback that she lowers her weapon, hanging at her fingertips that have gone numb with shock.
"My daughter. It has been too long. Come now." Weiss' arms lift limply, offering embrace, and Ruby stares incredulously.
She'd trusted him. Hatred churns in her gut and she shakes her head.
She will not be so easily tricked, not when she can still see the blade in his hand.
"Why did you...? You left me...you left us!" Her voice cracks, cheeks bright red with indignation, "...How could you leave us when we needed you?! I...I'll never forgive you!"
Weiss' arms drop limply before the one with Myrtenaster raises, shaking.
"I was meant for far more than such a simple life."
It is as Ruby feared, and she has heard enough, understands, as much as she'd rather not believe it, that her own father would use Weiss' body, her status as the beloved princess, to vicariously fulfill his selfish, empty needs. "Let her go." Her voice is thick with disgust, fury. "You're a coward. Don't run from death-" She readies her weapon, steadying her legs on the ice, "-when you're no longer alive."
"You would raise your hand against your father?"
"I would." Ruby knows if she points out his hypocrisy, it will fall on deaf ears. There's no making sense of anything and she will not lose Weiss trying to seek the reasoning that could never satisfy her.
She couldn't forgive this.
There is a brilliant flash, and Weiss is right before her: Ruby can't even decide whether to defend herself or push back, let alone swing or fire her weapon, in the astonishingly short time the distance between them is closed and the wind is knocked from her lungs, the hilt of the blade hitting her stomach with bruising, cruel force. She doubles over with a gasp and is quickly met with Weiss' knee, thrust once against her chin, and she can taste the warm red trickling out her mouth as she falls to the ice hard with a broken cry.
"Still a foolish, headstrong child-" A heavy boot rams against her side, again and again. Ruby yelps and tries to will herself to move, but her ribs ache and-again and again-she's scared and has never felt so vulnerable-she'd scarcely sustained a scratch fighting anything before, and this-so quickly, so painful. She is rolled to her back with one more savage kick before the boot is planted firmly into her chest. "-even to the end. Had I known you'd come for me like this, I would've dealt with you years ago."
Ruby's mouth opens in a hoarse scream that fades as the pressure on her chest increases. Her hands reach desperately for Weiss, closing around her boot and trying to free herself. She sees Myrtenaster raised overhead menacingly, coughs Weiss' name imploringly, looking up dazedly into her eyes, and-
The ugly, callous sneer on Weiss' face disappears, her hands trembling, as she chokes Ruby's name back to her, pulling her foot off her chest and staggering back.
Even now, she fights for Ruby.
Her knees are buckling and she has never seen her so miserable. Ruby stands, clutching her stomach, panting,
"R...Ruby-" Weiss looks to her, so afraid, so hurt- "-please."
She knows what Weiss means, but she wishes she didn't. Then she thinks of Weiss, the princess who left the comforts of her own castle each night to cloister herself in the forest, to protect her people. She, who felt so keenly the burden of her responsibilities and would sacrifice herself for another without question or wavering thought.
It is exactly why Ruby never told her about the deal she herself had made, all those years ago.
Weiss was worth far more than the Black Knight, and she would not have her martyr herself for Ruby, too.
Ruby could protect herself, and she would protect Weiss, from any beast that would cause her harm-
Weiss should not have to carry out this burden alone. She raises her gun and aims it straight at her.
-inside, or out.
The echo of the bullet that takes Weiss' life is deafening: it splinters the necklace at her throat into glittering dust and the princess coughs red that soaks into the front of her dress, frighteningly vivid against the white of it, of her skin-
Her eyes catch Ruby's once more as she falls back, hitting a weak patch of ice and disappearing under the freezing black water.
Ruby runs to the edge of the break in the ice and looks into the water frantically. It is completely dark and the bottom is undiscernable, but a familiar white fog appears before her and takes the form of the spectral hound she'd met so many years ago.
"Well look at that! You actually did it, kid. Looks like I owe you one."
Ruby's heart pounds in her chest. She could still save Weiss. She knew it. She wouldn't have pulled the trigger if she'd thought otherwise. "Please-!" Her voice cracks, "-I need to bring Weiss back-" Hot tears are cutting down her cheeks ceaselessly. It was hard to accept, but in this moment, Weiss really was gone, and when she says her name she feels more keenly the distance between the living and the dead, "-I can't lose her! Please-!"
The hound tilts his head at her inquisitively. "What about your mother? Changed your mind?" Ruby nods vigorously. "Or your father? I can bring him back to how he was before, you know. You can both go back. It'd be a world where he never left you. Never went and robbed the courier that was carrying the peace treaty between kingdoms-" He pauses and Ruby's lips part with shock as the gravity of what he's telling her sinks in. "-A world where that war never happened. Are you still sure?"
Ruby's chest heaves with great, heavy sobs. "I...I..." She thinks of how Weiss had walked amongst the dead, how she'd so lovingly prayed for each and every one of them, the unmistakeable heartrending sorrow in her eyes.
How Weiss would have given anything for them.
Ruby swallows hard, trembling.
"...I...I don't care!" She howls, "I just want to save Weiss! Please, bring her back!" She sinks to her knees and sobs over the edge of the ice with unfiltered, heartbroken abandon. There's one final flash of light and she looks around, glances back at the ghostly dog.
Ruby's heartbeat roars to life in her ears. "Where is she?!"
"Down there." The dog wheezes in that self-amused way. "I said I'd bring her back to life. Didn't say I'd play fetch. You'd better hurry, kid."
Before she has time to scream her dismay at him, he's vanished once more.
There is no choice now but to believe in his words. She has to get to her.
Ruby grabs her weapon instinctively and an idea strikes her right then. She takes a great leap, firing at the surface of the lake to further augment her jump with the recoil, and she is high in the air above the snow-tipped trees. As she begins to fall, hurtling towards the frosty waters, she takes a deep breath, knowing how badly she'll need it, just before guiding her fall into the break in the ice, plunging into the freezing depths.
The water shocks her body-it's so intense she almost gasps on reflex and loses her breath, but she needs it-
Weiss is there, pale and soft in the cruel dark, faded bubbles floating from her lips soundlessly. Ruby grabs her hand and pulls her close, pressing her lips to Weiss' and sharing her breath.
Even if it is the last one she takes, she will die giving it to Weiss.
It is not her time to go.
She tries to pull her up, sees the rays of moonlight filtering in through the lake and how far up the exit looks, feels the weight of the water making her ears ache, and the cold is taking her, suffocating her-
Beneath them, a prismatic glyph appears and glows bright enough to illuminate the entire lake. Before Ruby can realize what's going on, there's a colossal explosion and the two of them are propelled towards the surface at such an incredible speed that they break the surface of the water altogether and land on the ice.
She is relieved for the air in her lungs, gasping and coughing like never before, but she is even more so for the shuddery breaths Weiss has taken.
Ruby whimpers her name, gathering her in her arms, shaking her gently. Weiss can barely part her blue lips to speak, or even lift her eyelids to look at Ruby, and she is shivering so violently that she's afraid she'll lose her again.
She holds her close and runs.
They are back at the cabin, the door closed firmly behind them, Ruby having struck a fire into the hearth with trembling, clumsy hands. Weiss was lain out on Ruby's cloak before it, pale skin glowing from the warmth of the blaze, her hair fanned out to the side, still asleep, but breathing, alive-that's all that mattered.
Ruby had thought nothing of modesty when she had removed every stitch of freezing, clinging clothing from her body and blanketed her with the free edge of the cloak, and she had done the same, sitting naked before the fire and ridding the miserable cold from her bones.
She thought of her father, how she'd been too young to know who he was, who he'd be. How naïvely she'd trusted in him, and in herself-
She looks at Weiss' sleeping form, feels the tears burning fresh again. She had almost lost her, even with how sure she was that she could protect her.
Ruby draws her knees to her chest and rests her forehead on them, exhausted. Her heart twinges uncomfortably when she thinks of the decision she'd faced, how Weiss would feel if she knew that she'd been chosen over the countless lives that were lost in the war.
She can't know.
There's movement behind her and when she turns to look, Weiss is sitting up, the deep red of the cloak slipping from her shoulders, down her stomach, and she is still for a moment, eyes wide, before slowly, cautiously running her fingertips over her body, examining herself as if for the first time. She gasps as she touches her throat, where the necklace used to be, where it had cut a line of angry red into her neck. Her eyes grow huge and replete with tears, and Ruby knows, too-
-that she is free.
"R-Ruby...?" She then realizes their state of undress and hastily covers herself with the edge of the cloak once more, cheeks pink with embarrassment.
"Weiss..." Ruby breathes her name softly, scarcely believing all that had happened, how quickly she had gone and come back to her. Her breath catches in her throat and she throws her arms around her, drawing her into an embrace, feels their hearts beating as one again. Weiss melts into her, rests her forehead on her shoulder and wraps her arms under Ruby's, holding her shoulders, the edge of the cloak slipping away forgotten to her lap.
It is only the two of them together, for the first time.
"I...I heard your voice." Weiss murmurs dreamily into Ruby's neck. Ruby listens. "When...when I died." She sounds calm, even with the weight of such words, knowing what had happened to her. "It...was dark, and painful...and then I heard you, calling out to me, and..." Her arms squeeze Ruby's shoulders tighter, "...you...saved me."
Ruby feels moisture fluttering against her neck, feels Weiss exhale deeply in a silent shudder, and she knows that she knows all.
"It was my choice to make," Ruby holds her even tighter, wants her to feel her worth in her arms, feel that it is beyond measure, "And I'd make it again."
"I know." Weiss whispers, her breath uneven as she whimpers, "It's...terrible to say, but...I...I was..." Her chest heaves in a broken shudder, "...I was so happy. I...was happy-" She sniffles bitterly, "That...that you chose me, even when...even..." She trails off as Ruby's hand catches the side of her face and pulls her into a brief, soulful kiss. A drop of water from Ruby's hair rolls down her nose and onto Weiss', just enough to fill the bead of silence. "...I missed you-" Weiss breathes as Ruby embraces her, close and deep, breathing her in and pressing her lips against her throat-there's no holding back now. Perhaps Weiss realizes how scared she was, how much she means to her, because she feels the same way: she can tell in the way Weiss' hands flutter curiously along Ruby's waist and draw forth a warm sigh, and they share a look before Ruby presses completely into her, feels the shape of Weiss against her, lain out on the bright red cloak beneath them, the heat spreading between them, body to body. They are kissing-it simply happens, saturated and intense, because it is warm, and they've been cold for a long, long time.
Weiss is shaking again, but it is for a much different reason than the cold. She brings her hands between them as Ruby clenches the fabric of the cloak on either side of Weiss' face to support herself, slides her palms over Ruby's cheeks, tugs her chin closer, watches her swallow thickly. Her lips are full with color and they part with a whimper at Weiss' touch. She has never seen Ruby look so vulnerable, and the dazed rapture in her eyes tells her that it's all for her.
Their lips meet again and again and Ruby is completely lost in her. She feels Weiss' fingers curl in her hair and hold her to her, and she's seeking whatever comes next: Ruby obliges her by running her tongue along her bottom lip in one smooth stroke, and Weiss reciprocates eagerly, opening her mouth and mewling helplessly into Ruby's as the wet velvet of her tongue probes around her own. Without breaking their kiss, Ruby pulls her body up so she has room to run her hands down to cup her breasts and tease the tender, pink peaks with her fingertips. She whines softly and arches, so responsive, and Ruby can't help but take one hand and trace the backs of her fingertips down her waist, feeling the goosebumps rise as she goes along. Her fingers brush against the part of the cloak draped just below her navel, and Weiss' legs quiver with anticipation, but Ruby skips over the cloak's edge, her fingers instead finding the edge of her hip and following the outline to the inside of her smooth, milky-white thigh.
Ruby catches Weiss' eyes with hers: she is biting anxiously at her bottom lip, her fingers grasping into Ruby's shoulders, and the display only makes her want to see it all the more, see her body writhing beneath her, see her florid cheeks, hear her sing her name-
-see her let go.
She follows the curve of her thigh to her center, gently probing through the cloak that covers her, and Weiss makes sounds Ruby would never have thought she could make. Ruby twists a hand quickly into Weiss' hair, smoothly turning her mouth against hers to deepen the kiss, to better feel the way Weiss purrs with complete need as she slips the cloak out of the way and parts her tender folds with her fingers.
Weiss sings Ruby's name aloud as the waves of pleasure rush along her spine, and she feels like she could be drowning all over again. She clings to Ruby for dear life, and Ruby kisses her, touches her like she'll never do so again, makes her head swim with sensation. She loses track of everything but the dull, deep ache between her legs, and Ruby's presence there. There is nothing to keep her from the joy of her touch anymore.
The uninhibited cries pouring from inside of Weiss are truly musical, a broken song of soft moans and pleas for more, for Ruby. Her body is sweet and pink and soft around Ruby's fingers, her breath skipping with every hungry, wet twitch of her insides. She's never had it like this, being a princess, being expected to save herself only for her betrothed's eyes and hands.
Her nails dig deeper into her shoulders as she tenses with a sharp, disjointed gasp, and Ruby's fingers have her filled so neatly, stroking her warm insides until Weiss's hips twitch and endure each layer of ecstasy. They slip from her easily, and Ruby brings her taste to her mouth right before Weiss' eyes, lapping at the musky sweetness with her eager tongue and letting it linger on her lips, shares it with the princess.
A hand stroking up the inside of her own thigh takes Ruby by surprise: it cautiously traces a sticky, cooling trail to its origin, stirring it anew. She knows it won't be long, the space there primed and hot with her arousal, and the moment her long, slender fingers part her, find warmth within her, she squeals into their kiss and lets herself be pulled flush against her, chest to chest, stomach to stomach, hips to hips. The fingers move within her experimentally, playing with her, teasing her, and everything works, because it's Weiss and there's no helping it-Ruby's body clenches so tightly, insides shaping to her fingers in endless pulses of euphoria.
She groans through her teeth, restless, the heat pooling at her center so quickly it makes her world spin and she has to lay panting for breath when it's over, the warm afterglow amplifying the sensation of Weiss' lips, cool and wet on her throat, shaping into a ghost of a smile.
They lay there, partially wrapped in Ruby's cloak, and from behind Weiss, Ruby's fingers follow the soft curvatures of her body, from her austere shoulders, the delicate dip of her waist, the subtle rise of her hips.
"You're beautiful..." Ruby murmurs into her neck, drawing the cloak closer around their bodies, Weiss, closer to her. They fit to each other so easily, tangled legs and soft skin.
"It's...strange." Weiss hums pensively, settling further into Ruby's embrace, "Even though I'm free, and...no one owns me any longer, I-" When Ruby's hand touches her cheek to catch her tears, she takes it in her own and presses her lips to it, "-I find that...I...want to belong to you."
Ruby pulls Weiss around to her and pours her every feeling for her into the kiss they share. She kisses her for giving her someone to love in the present, for giving her their future together-
"Then you're mine, and I'm yours."
-for saving her.