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Death and the Maiden

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This day was going down in history as one of the worst days of her life, and even then it would still be an ugly, grotesque understatement. She was definitely making a judgement call. To anyone else this might seem like a premature assumption straight from the mouth of a pessimist given that her feet had yet to touch the carpet, nestled as they were under the cozy confines of her duvet, but Winter Mawiyah Delsin had never been one for indecisiveness. Oh no, she was calling it.

This day was going to suck. Period. End of discussion.

Because today was the first day of school…

Ugh.

Winter had never enjoyed the first day of school, not once, not even when she had cherubic cheeks and a whole lot of ignorance adults passed off as innocence. Sure the first time ever way back when in preschool had been new and moderately exciting, what with all the novel experiences, unfamiliar faces, and the strange yet compelling scent of finger paint.

Well, that and the pale blue Elsa backpack with its matching lunchbox and pencil case she had gotten out of the deal—her parents had been too clever in getting her those. For there is nothing like walking into a classroom with school supplies branded with your Disney look-alike; she’d been the envy of every little girl who unfortunately didn’t resemble a Disney princess.

However, after preschool the process began to lose its appeal. The backpacks had long since lost their colorful embellishments and no one grew an ego from showing off what they had in their lunchbox. And it meant starting everything over again. And again and again! From the ground up.

Her life was like a house. Winter built the house. She made the foundation, strengthened the support beams, even decorated the walls with stucco. After all her hard work it would be beautiful and badass and hers to boot; it would be so awesome in fact that it would find its way onto that show Extreme Homes.

And as she pulled the key to the house out of her pocket, ready to enter her home, some asshole stepped in, stole her key, and handed her a SOLD sign.

All her blood, sweat, and tears would be for nothing. Her hard work cast to the dirt when she realized she was the builder and not the homeowner. She had all the skills to build a house, but it would never be hers long enough to be a home. A bunch of backbreaking work and no paycheck. A labored metaphor, definitely, but it still applied.

Moving in itself was a nightmare; she despised the sight of cardboard boxes and packing tape. Hated having to wrap her collection of blown glass figurines in bubble wrap and loathed the idiocy of professional movers who guaranteed the safety of everything they touched—in the last two moves she’d lost seven to their rough, insensitive handling. Useless assholes, the lot of them!

Plus, with each move she would inevitably have one of those stereotypical ‘blonde’ moments where she would confuse the layout of the new school with the old one, enter the wrong classroom, backpedal like an idiot, and end up lost somewhere near the boys’ bathroom. That, or the teachers’ lounge…

Winter didn’t even want to begin to understand what went on behind that particular closed door. Probably some sort of satanic ritual involving altars and sacrifices. Maybe even strip poker or Cards Against Humanity. Either way, it was decidedly mortifying.

But the fact remained that with each new move, new town, new school, she was left floundering; her world turned on its head, forever changed, forever new. It was like taking an eraser to a chalkboard and leaving it spotless. The image of before obliterated—as if it had never existed at all. The entire process was exhausting and demoralizing.

Such was the hazard of having parents in the armed forces. Life was never stable.

She was lucky to have one constant, though. One thing that never changed – was never erased – no matter what city she moved to. Her mom and dad.

Every morning before the official start of school she would wake to the scent of blueberry muffins, heave herself out of bed like a sloth, and wander down the hallway. The soft voice of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Angel Eyes” would tease at her ears as she entered the kitchen to find her parents slow dancing while the muffins cooled by an open window, just fresh from the oven.

She would offer a lazy greeting and her father, Kane Delsin, would pull her into the circle of his arms and dance the last few beats of the song with her while her mother, Willow Delsin, sashayed around them with plates and glasses of orange juice for the table.

It was a morning ritual that always made her smile, her heart filled with warmth and love for the two people who had brought her into the world.

That’s what made today the second worst day of her life. Because when she fell asleep - lured into slumber by Melatonin - the previous night, she knew that come morning there would be no “Angel Eyes” to dance to and no homemade blueberry muffins to eat.

Chapter Text

The small, forever bleeding part of Winter urged her to stay in bed and sleep away the first day of school. It was a sinful little daydream, made all the more tempting by her feather-soft sheets and warm duvet. If she gave in she wouldn’t have to start her junior year, she wouldn’t have to stress about classes or homework or tests—she could just float away on a cloud of heavenly blankets and spend the rest of her life in pleasant daydreams.

Ahh… What an awesome way t—

That nice little bubble Winter had built for herself was mercilessly popped the instant the beginning tunes of Natalia Kills’ “Problem” began playing from her treacherous phone.

Groaning at the unwanted noise, Winter managed to extricate one of her arms from under the cocoon of blankets and flailed around in the dark until her pinky finger smacked into the side of her bedside table.

A muffled growl could be heard from the bed as the fingers probed around, accidently knocking over one of her well-loved Black Dagger Brotherhood books to the floor before coming into contact with her phone.

Not bothering to look at the screen and the name emblazoned on its over bright surface, she smashed the ‘mute’ button vehemently. Sighing as the song was replaced with blissful silence, Winter grabbed hold of her glacier blue comforter and pulled it over her head, intent on ignoring the universe.

The universe, however, did not like being ignored.

Well, actually only one specific part of the universe did not like being ignored… and it had rich mahogany hair, wicked hazel-green eyes that sat under two mischievous eyebrows and had no compunction about being an overbearing, high-handed bitch. Ugh.

Only fifteen or so seconds ticked by on the clock before her phone started blaring again. Somehow the ringtone managed to sound angrier the second time around. And so was Winter.

“No, I’m rejecting reality! Go away!”

Winter rolled herself over, stuffed her face into a pillow and screamed before kicking her blankets off and sitting up in bed, the wrath of God in her ice blue eyes. She snatched up her phone and looked at the little numbers in the upper right-hand corner. 5:44 A.M.

She was going to murder someone.

Cursing irritably, Winter jabbed the ‘send’ button and held the phone to her ear, lips pursed, words like bullets sitting ready on her tongue. Before she could open her mouth to fire a scathing rebuke, a voice steamrolled through the receiver, it’s pitch and tone sounding way too chipper for this early in the morning.

Winter May Delsin!” the exuberant and slightly accusatory voice shouted. “You get that attractive, lazy ass of yours out of bed! Don’t you dare ignore me!

“My middle name is Mawiyah,” Winter muttered into the phone, left hand scrubbing the sleep from her eyes lethargically.

I’ll say your name correctly when you surrender,” the voice sing-songed into her ears smugly. “And it doesn’t change the fact that we have a fuckload of work to do before we can head to school.

Winter puffed out an annoyed breath and oozed back against her pillows, pale fingers pinching the bridge of her nose in frustration. “Guinevere, what’s my one rule?”

“Don’t touch anything glass in your room or you’ll take my Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer and torch it,” Guinevere answered blithely, her eye-roll practically audible through the airwaves.

“Good,” Winter drawled slowly, nodding. “Now… what’s my other one rule?”

Guinevere let out an overly longsuffering exhale, leaving Winter with the mental image of her making her ‘I’m-humoring-you’ face as she did her lipstick.

“Gwen,” Winter bit out in warning.

Fine, fine! Cold bitch…” Guinevere sighed reluctantly. “Your other ‘one rule’ is not to push my vastly superior choice of anime onto you even though Fairy Tail—

“Guinevere!” Winter hissed, sharp irritation bleeding into her drowsy, exasperated expression.

“—Is obviously so much better than Naruto. Wizards always trump ninja; it’s a fact of life, you really need to accept that instead of digging your heels in like some stubborn, ill-mannered mule.

“Do you want me to clip your precious manicured nails off or should I just dye your hair Atomic Tangerine again?”

A beat of contemplative silence.

Winter got the distinct feeling Guinevere was actually pondering the pros and cons of continuing her dangerous tangent of nonsense.

Her pale blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Guinevere Mc— “

Fine! I’ll leave you to drown in your sad puddle of denial; it’ll dry up soon enough. And do not mention that horrendous shade of hair dye in my presence! I still cannot believe you… you…

“Do you see where this conversation gets you?” Winter murmured ominously. “You’re risking your soft, silky, mahogany locks in your bid to convert me right now. I’d watch myself; my patience for ‘fairy fans’ only goes so far before I start eye-balling my clippers and dye… “

Enough. I get it. Now stop teasing me!” Guinevere snapped with an air of chagrin.

“No,” Winter replied like she was instructing a particularly dull child. “I’m threatening you. Can’t you tell the difference or did the dye from last time seep into that big brain of yours? I’d be careful with my words from now on, Gwen, you don’t want to lose anymore brain cells, the next IQ test might horrify you.”

You know, they say violence is never the answer,” Guinevere quipped, her voice haughty and snide.

“Oh?” Winter breathed the word quietly. “Well, whoever ‘they’ are, they need to realize that a perfect, peaceful Utopian society will never exist, not in any world; violence will always be there, it’s part of human nature. It’s not going away and it can’t be vanquished—whoever said that is an idiot.”

You and your philosophical jargon hold no basis in this conversation!” Gwen sniped caustically through the phone. “It’s the first day of school, and you have got to strut your stuff or else the masses will eat you alive. Nerds don’t survive high school unless they’re confident in their weirdness, show an ounce of weakness and the popular cliques will tear you apart.

“This again?” Winter grumbled, sounding both bored and sardonic. “Seriously? It is way too early to talk about first impressions and social hierarchies and stereotypical cliques! I’m tired and cranky, and I couldn’t care less about anything to do with school. Did you really just say that I had to ‘strut my stuff’?”

Yes. Yes, I did.”

A pause. Guinevere could hear the sound of deep, practiced inhales and exhales from the receiver and smiled deviously. Wait for it…

“I am not strutting.”

Oh, you say that now...” A snigger slithered through the connection. “But when you walk through those gates and feel all those eyes on you, scrutinizing you and your appearance, you’ll feel the pressure, then you’ll start strutting. It’ll happen; it’s Fate, you can’t fight it.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever you say,” Winter huffed, annoyed and indolent.

I do not appreciate the attitude. And speaking of appearances –  did you pick out an outfit last night like I told you?” Guinevere demanded, steely irritation coloring her voice.

Winter rolled her eyes, sighing heavily. There was a slight hint of reluctance when she said, “Nooo…  It slipped my mind.”

With the next pause, Guinevere’s level of exasperation intensified exponentially. “Winter Mel Delsin, you are not winging it today! That is unacceptable! You may not care about your place in high school but I do, and I refuse to let you sit at the bottom of the social pyramid just because you couldn’t dredge up enough emotion to beat out your apathy for one day!

“I care, Gwen. I just don’t care in the same way you do. If I’m weird, I’m weird. If I’m strange, I’m strange. Why should I let the views of others influence how I see myself? Their opinion, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really matter, so why should I peacock up for them when their thoughts amount to nothing in the end?”

That brazen retort was followed up by a tense lull of silence during which Winter imagined her face melting off from the heated glare of scandalized fury she knew was drilling into her through the phone.

You… ignorant litt— “A growl of absolute vexation came down the line. “We are not having this conversation again!! I know what you’re trying to do! Now… I will be over in twenty minutes and you had better be out of bed by then or else!

Winter leaned her head back and stared at the ceiling, baby blue eyes rolling in their sockets. “Really, Gwen? Who says ‘or else’ nowadays? Honestly, it’s not a reliable threat; quite unimaginative and boring actually. You almost made me yawn… Oh, excuse me, did you want me to say it left me shaking in my boots? Sorry to say— “

What I meant to say!” Guinevere interrupted angrily. “Is that you’d better be off your ass by the time I get there or else I’m eating the blueberry muffin my mom so graciously slaved over for you this morning!

At that, Winter floundered for a reply, mouth agape, mind reeling and repeating blueberry muffin, blueberry-muffin, blueberry-muffin like a mantra, but before she could formulate a response the abrupt sound of clicking cruelly echoed in her ears as Gwen hung up.

Just like that. End of discussion.

Chapter Text

 

She should have known it was futile to even attempt to argue with someone like Guinevere McGarden. Once that girl got it into her head to do something, any and all obstacles standing between her and said goal would then be systematically cut down without mercy or regard.

Never let it be said that Gwen was a bad friend. She was an awesome friend, to be sure. A bossy, I’ll-strut-right-into-your-life-and-rule-it friend. She was also an appallingly vicious friend with a ruthless streak a mile wide.

Groaning loudly, Winter pushed her blankets away from her legs and rolled out of bed, narrowly escaping a painful face-plant in the process thanks to her years in dance. Able to land on her feet without wobbling, she turned to click on her pretty icicle lights.

Unlike most awkward teenagers in the morning Winter did not hiss and recoil like a snake when the light hit her narrow-eyed, sleepy stare. Instead it brought a slow smile to her face; soft, slight, and tinged with sad remembrance.

The lights had been a gift from her mother for her eleventh birthday.

Meticulously hand blown and crafted to resemble falling icicles, of all different sizes and lengths, each with their own little LED bulb, each unique in design; like snowflakes every single icicle on the strand stood out as an individual.

Not only was it a gift that had utterly delighted her younger self but it had also carried with it a metaphor that had been the driving force behind her self-confidence as a teenage girl.

It had been her mother’s wisdom.

Her words.

Skillfully, lovingly blown into physical form.

It was okay to be weird. It was okay to be different.

It was okay to be herself; to be Winter.

Now six years later Willow Delsin’s metaphor had become her motto; something she lived by, stood for, and kept close to her heart… because without those empowering words, without her mother’s unique gift, she wouldn’t be the Winter she was today.

 Kind. Clever. Confident.

In her individuality. In herself as a person who chose not to conform, not to become a sheep of society. She chose to be different. To go against the grain.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

The thought sluiced into her brain on a whisper and Winter felt her lips quirk a bit as she raised her arms above her head and stretched, a groan slipping past her lips when her spine popped and cracked as she twisted – to the right, then to the left –  on her toes.

Robert Frost, she mused thoughtfully, arms lowering. If only you’d written a poem about roads leading away from the dictatorial grasp of one Guinevere McGarden…

Winter shook her head at that, chuckling and smirking wryly as she glanced around her bedroom in search of everything she would need to start the day.

If she had been anything like Gwen who was very particular about the state of her room, she would’ve seen a room ruled by organized chaos—a carelessly made bed and drapes halfway drawn, an oak vanity table overflowing with cosmetics, a walk-in closet arranged by brand, color, and style, a jewelry box filled with diamonds, emeralds, and topaz, and a line of killer shoes no sane girl could afford or wear for any length of time.

Winter’s room, however… was a whole different ballgame. And from her perspective it was hard to say what her room said about her in its current state. She had moved from South Carolina into her Uncle Kade’s house a little under two months ago.

The room used to hold a plethora of file cabinets – military-grade ones with high-tech lock systems – no doubt filled with classified documents about classified events the public would never know about. While Kane Delsin felt drawn to the Air Force his twin brother, Kade, joined the secretive world of Military Intelligence, hence all the classified stuff she wasn’t allowed to see, read, or ask about. If she did ask all she’d get for her efforts was an amused look and a one-word answer, “Classified,” or a two-word answer,” It’s classified.”

If she was lucky she’d even get a three-word answer, “Nope, it’s classified.”

But when she’d made the conscious decision to come live with him, all the secret important stuff Kade kept locked in that room had been removed. In the span of a week her uncle had laid down carpet and base-board; the windowless room even sported a gorgeous bay window now.

When she asked why he had gone through the trouble, why he didn’t just give her the guest room instead, her uncle had told her in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t a guest, she was his niece, and family didn’t get put in guest rooms, they got their own space.

If she cried like a little girl during that conversation… well, it really wasn’t anyone’s business…

Since then it had been transformed into something she could live in, find comfort in, and call hers. Her room. Her space. Hers.

It started with the walls. Winter found a pretty pale blue called Arctic Tundra to replace the horrid shade of yellow; it took her two days to paint over the disgusting color. Afterward, Kade surprised her by hiring a professional mural artist to paint a wintry forest scene on one of the walls. When it was done and dry the mural meshed perfectly with the icy blue of the other walls.

It was a spectacular sight. Even more so when she began moving in her furniture—all white stained oak pieces that were heavy and old as hell, but still in good condition. After that, because moving oak anything alone should be a sin, it was smooth sailing.

Winter unpacked her ice blue bedsheets (which matched well with the walls), hung her precious icicle lights from the ceiling, put up her wall-scrolls, posters, and framed pictures, and restocked her empty bookshelves with Geoffrey Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Eyre, Maya Angelou, Dante’s Inferno, G.A. Aiken, C.S. Friedman, and varies autobiographies of Mata Hari, Anne Frank, Malala Yousafzai, and Margaret Thatcher.

And, of course, her highly favored manga Naruto.

Winter put so much effort into this room – her room; it had all the elements, yet it still didn’t feel like it belonged to her. Her presence inside, coupled with all her things as they were, felt surreal.

Phantasmagorical.

Like she was dreaming. Like none of this was real.

Maybe it was that one box that even now remained ignored and unopened. The one she couldn’t quite bring herself to approach, to touch, to… open.

The box with her parent’s mementos.

Staring at it mutely, Winter decided quietly that she wasn’t ready or willing to open that particular floodgate yet. She needed more time.

With a strident sigh and a strong shake of the head Winter moved away from that haunted corner both physically and mentally until she stood by her desk, away from the past, away from her demons. Flicking her wrist, Winter flipped open her laptop and booted it up.

Clicking the icon leading into her playlists, she selected the one dubbed “MrSuicideSheep” before switching on her speakers and cranking up the volume until she couldn’t hear herself think—once again she was grateful – and delighted – that her room had soundproof walls, no doubt for security back when it had been Kade’s super-secret file man-cave.

If they’d had neighbors the volume of her music surely would’ve brought the cops to her doorstep by now; she loved loud, pulsing music; instrumental, hard rock, trance, it didn’t matter what type, she loved it regardless. Plus, she desperately needed something to help her wake up, something jarring, something to get her moving before the Tyrant of Fashion and First Impressions showed up.

She bounced on her toes a bit, twirled in place a couple times before executing a flawless knee drop jump. From there Winter fluidly slid back to her feet, head, heart, and body bobbing to the music, lips curved in a wide grin as she submerged herself in the beat; a peace settling over her as she lost herself in dance, in something she loved, something that could, even if momentarily, take away the pain, the loss…

She gave herself to the flow and the rhythm, to the hypnotic pulsing melody, felt it slip into her soul, and let it move her, guiding her through each step, turn, and twist. Each jump, flip, and arch. From one position to another…

Winter danced all the way to her intricately carved, antique armoire, swept the doors aside, and pulled out the first items she saw—a tasteful sleeveless skater dress, a denim jacket, and a pair of grey suede ankle boots. Guinevere would surely throw a fit when she laid eyes on her choice of outfit, but that was a given no matter what she chose.

After chucking the clothes on her rumpled bed, hangers and all, Winter pranced into her bathroom (another surprise renovation from her uncle who thought all teenage girls needed their own bathroom, but she really knew it was because he didn’t want to share his) and took a quick shower.

Seven minutes of mindless scrubbing later, Winter reluctantly shut off the water, pushed the foggy glass door back, and wrapped herself in one of those heavenly, too-fluffy-to-be-real towels they always showed in movies.

Even in the tub she was still swaying, forever the dancer…

Chapter Text

Sauntering over to the mirror, she used her hand to wipe away the layer of condensation on the surface and stared at her reflection. The face staring back at her was long and oval-shaped with a straight nose, thin lips, slender eyebrows, and moon-pale skin, all framed by a tousled mess of long, ice blonde hair left two shades darker because of the water still clinging to it.

While Winter knew her features were considered very attractive, that’s not what she focused on.

She lingered on the eyes; the near deafening Trance music blaring from her speakers in her bedroom not but an afterthought in her head as she studied her own eyes. They were… rare. Rare eyes, Elizabeth Taylor eyes, blue-violet eyes. Eyes a blue so intense they, in the right light, appeared violet.

Winter just thought she had really blue eyes. True blue eyes. She had never seen an ounce of violet in her eyes, not in any light, but people, even random strangers, seemed to see it just fine.

Ever since she was little Winter could remember people approaching her because of her eyes, all with the same transfixed expression on their face and they would ask questions, give compliments, even praise her mother for her child’s unique eyes. She had so many memories…

What beautiful colored eyes!

They remind me of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes, you know, that actress? She had blue-violet eyes too.

My, what gorgeous eyes! Is she your daughter? Is she albino? I heard some albino’s can have real purple eyes, isn’t that crazy!

Do you mind if I take a picture of your daughter? Her eyes are really something! I’ve never seen eyes that blue before. It’s almost like they’re lavender or maybe purple, it’s really eye-catching.

Wow, I’ve never seen an albino before. Is she yours? Well, she has really pretty eyes. You’ll definitely have to watch out for the boys when she’s older.

The comments never changed even though she did—age never failed to give you new perspective.

As a little girl the attention had baffled her, surprised her, made her bashful, heart beaming with cautious delight. As a reckless preteen the regard for her unique eye color had been a source of constant pride and hubris.

Now, because of her mother, she was humble. She was modest; she had learned humility.

Where once upon a time an individual’s polite admiration had brought on feelings of smug gratification, nowadays Winter just felt a sense of resigned annoyance.

Not all the time. When a person came up to her to simply compliment her on her eyes and not give an interrogation, that’s when she felt joy, that childish delight bubbling back to the surface and she would smile and say “Thank you.”

But mostly she felt resigned annoyance because, no, she wasn’t albino. She had pale skin, yes, and really pale blonde hair, and really blue eyes, but that didn’t mean she had albinism.

Sigh.

People.

Yet, even with all the inconvenience they’d given her throughout the years, Winter admitted freely that her eyes were her best feature. She loved her eyes.

Loved them. Cherished them. On a deep, personal level.

Because they were her eyes. “Winter eyes,” her mother whispered on that snowy day in December when she was born, when with a wail she had opened her eyes for the first time, the newly minted mother getting a glimpse of her daughter’s miraculous azure eyes.

Thus, she had been named Winter…. because her eyes were like a winter sky after a snowstorm, all bright and sharp and clear and blue. So blue. Impossibly blue.

Though now as she stared and studied them in the mirror, Winter noted that her eyes weren’t as bright anymore nor were they overly sharp or clear. They were still blue – very blue – that would never change, but they were dull. Lost. Pained. Raw.

An open wound. Her eyes were… open wounds.

Before there used to be smile lines around the corners from where the skin would crinkle when she smiled, but those had smoothed out over the past few months. She hadn’t been inclined to smile at all since that day.

She had shed no tears either… not since it happened. Was that wrong of her? To not have shed a tear, one tear, between then and now?

No, when it came down to it the girl in the mirror didn’t look happy or sad. She didn’t look depressed or content. She looked numb. She looked lost…

Shuffling her feet awkwardly beneath her own gaze, Winter stepped away from the mirror, turning her back on the reflective surface so she could dry her hair with her towel.

She should get a new mirror. Hers was a liar. A bonafide liar. Because she was fine. She was okay. Nothing was wrong. Death was normal. Death was inevitable. There was no reason for her to be sad, none at all. Everyone died eventually, why cry over it? Why cry when it’s just a part of Life?

She was fine.

A small, whispery voice in her mind chimed that her father used to say that you were never ‘fine’ if you said you were fine, but Winter shoved the voice away stubbornly.

Because she was fine! Truly, in all sense of the word. She was fine. And she wasn’t broken, she was on the mend.

Nodding to herself briskly, Winter spared one last look to glare at her stupid mirror before marching over to the bathroom door like some hardened war veteran – all stiff and straight-backed and proud – to wrap herself in her silky baby blue bathrobe, which she was ninety-five percent sure her over-the-top uncle procured from a Victoria’s Secret catalog, specifically the one he kept hidden underneath the loose tile in the kitchen. 

Winter smirked as she chased the steam out of her bathroom, detoured to pause her playlist, and left her room for said kitchen.

Chapter Text

 

“Good morning, Snowflake!” the deep, masculine voice of her uncle rang out teasingly as she rounded the end of the hallway. “What are you doing among the living? You’re not a morning person. Go back to sleep!”

Winter scoffed, though it was ruined rather spectacularly by a yawn. Kade found this to be hilarious and cackled, actually cackled, at her, the jerk.

In retaliation she stuck her pink tongue out at him while pulling down an eyelid with a finger. He snorted while she busied herself with pulling one of the island chairs out before hopping up to sit on the cushioned seat. When she made herself comfortable Winter leaned an elbow on the counter lazily and sighed, long, low and tired.

Kade watched silently, one dark eyebrow raised expectantly.

She glared half-heartedly, lips pursing. “Ugh. Not my fault,” she moaned lethargically as she dissed her elbow for the counter, the cool tile against her forehead sending a transient shock through her system that made her jolt slightly. “Guinevere called. She’s operating under the assumption that I need help making a ‘first impression’ at school today. Now be a good uncle and put me out of my misery before she comes!”

Kade crossed his arms over his chest, leaned back against the backrest of his chair, and grinned a grin that reminded her of… Her heart seized, her throat tightened; Winter couldn’t breathe.

Father. Dad. Kane…

If her uncle noticed her reaction, he was smart enough not to mention it, instead he offered, “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” Winter murmured hoarsely, glad of the distraction or just glad that Kade didn’t press, didn’t offer comfort, but a sense of safe normality where she could quietly reassemble her composure without someone asking to see if she was ‘okay.’

Because, of course, she was okay! And… was that even a question? Of course she wanted coffee! Who in their right mind wouldn’t want coffee this early in the morning?

Winter rationalized that if you didn’t drink coffee, then you weren’t human.

There was just no way anyone could stay sane without the life giving ambrosia. It just wasn’t possible.

A few moments later a steaming mug hissed across the counter, not one drop spilling over the edge as it slid to a stop in front of Winter. The rich, heavenly scent wafted into her nostrils, giving her the energy or at the very least the motivation to lift her head off the tile.

Breathing out a sigh of relief, Winter curled her fingers around the mug possessively, shoulders hunching, inwardly moaning as the heat seeped into her cold palms.

Bringing the mug up to her face, she inhaled deeply, savoring the smell, and took a very generous sip. This was immediately followed by an excess of choking and coughing as the hot liquid scorched her tongue and the back of her throat.

The sound of badly restrained, raucous laughter rushed into Winter’s ears and she raised her watery gaze to glare at her uncle. How he could be so… chipper in the mornings, she would never know.

Maybe Kade was a morning person or maybe… he wasn’t human…

The clock hadn’t even chimed six times yet and there he stood, close-cropped black hair (as per military regulation), keen blue eyes that positively gleamed with intelligence, and already dressed in uniform. The only thing compromising his marine-made stoicism was the shit-eating grin on his face as he laughed at her expense.

“If you want an apology, you’ll be waiting awhile because that was hilarious,” Kade said around a chuckle, that near maniacal smile still playing on his lips. He sauntered over to another counter, ripped off a segment of paper towel, and walked back to mop up the evidence of Winter’s mishap.

“Why did you jump the gun like that, anyway? Didn’t you see the steam? If it’s steaming, Snowflake, it’s hot—didn’t they teach you that in… what? Physics? Yeah, physics. Or were you that desperate for coffee? It’s okay, you can admit it, I promise I won’t laugh. Again. Maybe.”

“Shut up,” Winter grouched, glaring at him over the rim of her cup. She pursed her lips and blew on the liquid’s surface to cool it some before taking a second, more cautious sip. Her scalded tongue could go shove it, she needed her coffee.

Kade watched her swallow before snorting, the light of mischief sparking in his dark blue gaze. “I don’t understand,” he began slyly. “You’re a kid… Aren’t kids supposed to add copious amounts of sugar and cream and milk so they don’t taste the coffee? How are you drinking it black?”

Winter felt her eyes narrow and, making sure she had his complete attention, made a show of enjoying her black coffee – swallowing deliberately slow, licking her lips, making happy noises as she gulped the precious liquid down with an exaggerated flair. Oh, she laid it on thick.

When she was done with her display, Winter picked up an unused paper towel, folded it neatly and then primly wiped her mouth with it. All while staring her uncle down, ice blue eyes twinkling with the same mischief that had shone in his. She smirked at him, lips curling up mockingly.

Kade gawked at her.

And gawked.

Then he gawked some more…

“You’re stupid,” Winter said bluntly, rolling her eyes at her uncle’s exaggerated antics. “I’m not a kid, I’m seventeen. Get it right, you ass. Honestly, anyone can drink their coffee black—age has nothing to do with it. And if anyone’s asking questions, it should be me! Say… Why don’t you drink yours black, Mr. Three Sugars and One Cream? Huh? Huh?

Winter sat back in her chair slowly, languidly, smug satisfaction in her expression. On the other side of the island, Kade floundered for a response.

He opened his mouth. “Hey now…”

But his clever niece beat him to it. “Don’t. Even. Think about it!” She stabbed a finger in his direction in warning. “You do! There’s no denying it! You use three sugars and one cream, sometimes even four sugars, every morning, without fail. Now, tell me, how old are you again? Forty-three, right? That’s a really old kid.” Winter laughed, shoulders shaking merrily.

Kade brought his hands up in surrender. “You’ve caught me,” he said, a smile lighting his blue eyes. “I confess to being a kid at heart, quite the crime! Even worse, I’m an ardent lover of sugar and a religious practitioner of dental bills. I’m also on the Tooth Fairies Rotten list—she hates me, but that’s because I threw a sugar cube at her once…” A lazy grin swept across his tanned face.

“The Tooth Fairy?” she asked conspiratorially.

Kade nodded with solemn severity. “Oh yes, the Tooth Fairy. This might be hard to believe, but she and I go way back. In fact, I seem to remember having a conversation very similar to the one we’re having now. I wonder… will they end the same too?”

“Oh? You think we’re that like-minded? So much so that any word I say in regards to anything you say will be the same exact words she said? Is that what you’re saying? Hmph. Very well then, you can tell me… Just how did your conversation with the Tooth Fairy end?” Winter questioned fiercely, then spoiled it with a giggle.

Kade watched his niece laugh thoughtfully, head tilted, the lazy grin of before transforming into an evil smile.

“Well, it went something like this,” he began, voice low and wicked. “She asked me a question, a really personal question too, so I refused to answer because you don’t ask someone something like that unless your family. Now that I think about it… she wasn’t really professional—she got really angry when I didn’t answer her question… said some pretty mean things too, so I threw a sugar cube at her.”

Winter’s smile was full of amused condescension. “And, pray tell, what sort of personal question did she ask you? Was she after your social security, perhaps? Baby pictures? Single status? What?”

At that, Kade threw back his head and chortled gaily. “Not even close! C’mon think, Snowflake! I can’t believe you’re missing it!” He guffawed into his fist. “But, fine, I’ll be a nice uncle for once and give you a hint. You did ask the same exact question, but unlike Miss Unprofessional your family, therefore you get an answer. Aw, doesn’t that make you feel special?”

Winter stared at him incredulously, lips twitching, eyebrows furrowed as she pondered, pondered… Special? Hell no! Wait, what did he mean by the same exact quest–

Recognition flooded her expression rather suddenly.

For a brief moment her eyes were a smidgen wider as she connected all the dots, then just as fast her visage darkened. “Coffee… You wouldn’t answer a simple question about why you don’t drink your coffee black? Are you serious?” Winter muttered, cool disdain in her voice as it dripped from her lips like acid.

Kade gasped, scandalized. “How can you say that! Coffee is a very sacred religion! And asking anyone about their preference is sheer blasphemy, not to mention rude! Especially when you’re not family!”

“So I get an answer because I’m family, is that it?” Winter sniffed with all the haughty contempt of a well-groomed court lady, though her eyes gleamed with sharp delight.

“Oh yes, most definitely,” Kade said with absolute confidence, the fingers of one hand sharpening his imagery handlebar mustache.

“So what’s the answer then? Why don’t you drink your coffee black, hmm?”

Her words seemed to hang portentously in the silence that followed, however, Kade seemed wholly unbothered by the expectant air as he relaxed in his chair and stretched his long legs out beside the island.

Winter shifted in her own chair impatiently, the finger of one hand tapping a listless tune against the polished granite counter-top. She only had so much patience… and the clock was ticking…

Chapter Text

“Well?” she exclaimed loudly into the quiet, her restless, spiteful gaze sweeping over her uncle’s triumphant expression. Oh… damn…

She sighed grievously at herself. That was one patience game lost… But she could still win this bout of bantering, this one-on-one verbal chess match.

Pale blue eyes narrowed with determination. “Answer the question, you beast!” she gritted out savagely. “No more playing around, no more deflection!”

Kade laughed at her, a throaty, contagious laugh, and his eyes – eyes like hers only much darker – suddenly seemed to gleam with utter daring. Laughter tapering off her uncle leaned forward over the island without warning, the wicked grin slashing across his mouth unsettling her deeply.

 In a deep voice rich with exhilaration, Kade whispered, “It’s bitter.”

Winter blinked owlishly, brows furrowed, gaze blank. “Wha—bitt— “

She reeled back with a squeal, eyes blowing wide. “Oh, you DEVIL!” she shouted, lunging forward to lay a smack against her sly uncle’s right shoulder.

“It is NOT bitter!” Winter argued sternly.

Kade guffawed at her mulish expression. “Maybe so, but it does taste like tar!”

Winter crossed her arms testily, chin jutting out with stubborn offence as she stared her only living blood relation down. Then, without warning, she wilted like a flower, her thoughts splintering as one particular memory welled up to the forefront of her mind.

And no matter what she did, she could not banish it, banish him and his words… They were ingrained in her soul.

Her tattered, heartbroken soul…

Something like melancholy settled firmly behind Winter’s eyes and she found herself mumbling, against her better judgement, and in a sad, distant tone, “Father… used to say that it builds character.”

Kade winced, broad shoulders tensing. “Yeah… he did, didn’t he? Guess that’s why you have so much, cause that’s all you drink in the morning…” He trailed off into awkwardness, the air of playful banter dispersing under the cruel return of reality. He sighed, a muscle in his jaw jumping sporadically.

Winter immediately regretted her words and cursed herself for bringing it up at all, especially when they were verbally sparring like two peas in a pod. God, she was an idiot! Why did her mind do this to her!? One minute she would be in the middle of something, having fun, the next she’s tormented by thoughts better left in the dark. Ugh!

Good going, you selfish twat! You’re not the only one suffering, you know! Kade lost someone too… Scrubbing a hand down her face, Winter let out a quiet groan.

Because in some ways this whole… thing… was a lot harder on her uncle than it was on Winter herself.

Not only had Kade lost an older brother, but he had also lost his best friend and fraternal twin. A twin who had also been a comrade-in-arms to boot. What’s more, he now had to raise and board and watch over his socially maladjusted, moody niece too.

That’s not even counting the factors involving his military career as an MAGTF Intelligence Officer in the Marine Corps. She could handle the secrecy, though at times it was down-right frustrating for her curiosity when she (very rarely) caught wind of something she wasn’t supposed to.

But the danger…

Well, there was a reason Kade was still single and lived alone on the outskirts of town…

Not to say that she was unsafe or in danger, but Kade always liked to err on the side of caution. And that meant a high-tech alarm system, hard-to-find surveillance cameras, and contingency plans if things ever went south. Not to mention hours upon hours of special defense training in hand-to-hand combat, knife-throwing and wielding, and the handling and shooting of firearms.

All of which Winter had basic training in because of her parents.

Now, however, Winter was pretty sure she could hit a target from fifty paces away with Kade’s Barrett M98B sniper rifle. Shoot a target dead center at 20 paces with his Beretta M9 and take down, if push came to shove, two grown men using every style of fighting Kade knew, which was a lot since he just so happened to be one of those marines with a 3rd Degree Black Belt.

 

Chapter Text

 

Over the course of two months Kade had made damn sure that his only niece knew how to defend herself. For two grueling hours every day, seven days a week, he drilled her in how to survive a fight, to live long enough to escape a fight she couldn’t win, to know when to run, to turn her opponent’s own strength and momentum against them, and every dirty trick in between.

“You good for today?”

Winter exhaled through her nose in mild annoyance, her uncle’s voice jogging her from her mental rumination. She offered him a dry, disgruntled stare from across the island countertop, lips pursed miserably.

“I had my sleep interrupted by the Tyrant of First Impressions at the ass-crack of dawn. I couldn’t get to sleep last night for obvious reasons and…” Here she let out a groan of discontent and gestured to her face. “Do you see these? I look like a panda… or a thief. I’m going to send the school into lockdown the moment they see me!”

“You look fine. A little tired, yeah, but once you get back into the swing of things, you’ll be up like clockwork in no time.”

“Says the marine who gets up at 4:30 sharp every morning without the use of an alarm clock. Honestly, do you even know the meaning of sleeping in?” Winter shot back derisively.

“Winter,” Kade said, fixing her with a serious stare. “We’re talking about you here, not me. I just want to make sure that you’re hanging in there—I know this transition has been hard on you, but my brother didn’t raise a wimp or a slacker for that matter. You’re a strong, young woman, Snowflake.”

Kade grinned at her proudly and continued, “Even better, you were a Snowflake with straight A’s back in South Carolina. Now, let’s see if you can match those grades here in Illinois.”

Winter returned her uncle’s gaze with grave severity. “I am quite comfortable with my 4.2 gpa, thank you very much,” she replied huffily. “And you don’t have to worry, I’m one of those rare academically aware kids who actually care about their grades. Now get off my case already! You’re weirding me out with all this parental keep-your-grade-up-or-else crap! Ugh! Kade, never become a parent, okay? Okay. Good.”

Kade’s mask of parental worry cracked like glass, the air of stern regard dissipating like vapor under a hot sun. He chortled loudly at Winter’s disturbed, pouty expression.

“Good to know, Snowflake! Pfft, I’d make an awesome parent! See, I’m already getting in some practice! I told you in a very calm, assertive tone to keep bringing home those A’s, didn’t I? While we’re on the subject of parenting, don’t parents usually feed their kids? Do you want me to fry you up an egg or something? Maybe some bacon too? Pancakes?”

Winter shook her head, strands of damp hair smacking her neck and cheeks with a wet squelch. “No, thank you,” she replied, while brushing the sticky tresses back over her shoulders mindlessly. “The Tyrant bribed me with homemade blueberry muffins to get me out of bed, so I’m waiting for those.”

“She… bribed you out of bed?” the facetious, good-natured skepticism in the question was unsubtle, meant to poke and prod and ruffle feathers.

“Threatened,” she grumbled bitingly, gaze averted in annoyance when her uncle smugly arched a brow. “It’s threatened, okay! She threatened to eat my blueberry muffin if I didn’t get up! What sort of friend does that? Honestly! God!”

Winter scowled down at the counter. “It’s cruel and unusual punishment, Kade. Which is illegal in the States! Gwen crossed the line in our friendship, I’m telling you now, no one eats my blueberry muffin and gets away with it!”

Her uncle snorted, warmth and humor dancing in his dark blue eyes. His niece was too adorable in the morning, all growly and winky-eyed from sleep, her only motivation to get up being coffee (taken black, of course) and a warm, buttery blueberry muffin.

“Hey, Gwen is a good friend— “

“She is a CRUEL friend!” Winter butted in stubbornly, a hand smacking the counter with a resounding thwack!

Kade guffawed, lips peeled back over his white teeth in a sunny smile.  “At least you have a friend, Snowflake,” he said honestly, his pearly whites standing out from his tanned face. “Be glad of that; I know I am. And she may be ‘cruel’ but she’s exactly what you need right now. Even better, she can help you settle here in Erie, not that she hasn’t already been doing that…”

He chuckled and smirked, eyebrows wiggling at her obnoxiously.

Winter thumbed her nose at him with a contemptuous sniff.

“I’m also especially glad that you’ll have someone there with you at school today. The first day can be scary. I remember mine well; I was terrified.” Kade sported a rueful look on his face as he said that and Winter wondered idly what crazy, traumatizing event transpired to put that particular half-grimace, half-grin on her uncle’s ugly mug.

She wasn’t insane enough, or awake enough for that matter, to ask.

Winter rolled her eyes heavenward, then proceeded to chug the rest of her cold black coffee in three big gulps. She set the mug down gently on the countertop, her tongue sweeping every last drop from her lips as she folded her arms and sat back.

“You know this is nothing new to me, right?” Winter sighed, a glint of poignant reminiscence flickering across her pale eyes as she stared, unseeing, through one of the kitchen windows.

“I’ve been switching schools since I was eleven. That’s six years of experience, Kade. I’ll be fine. Yeah, it can be… maddening at times, and frustrating, but all the memories I’ve made and all the places I’ve seen… I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. I wouldn’t trade… them for the world.”

And Winter meant that.

Moving so often with her parents had been an exercise in patience and perseverance. She could remember so many memories – angry memories – of herself being recalcitrant towards the idea of moving again when only a few months had passed.

And yet, moving from place to place, school to school, base to base had taught her so much and for that she was forever grateful.

Never. She could never regret the life she’d lived with her parents. Her family. She cherished every waking moment, even when it involved fighting and a sharp, razor-blade tongue.

Not for the world would she trade the love she held for her mom and dad.

The world sucked, anyway.

Kade’s distinct, resonating baritone drew her out of her heartfelt rumination. “You’re right, but this is it. This is the high school you’ll be graduating from; no more moving. Not until college,” her uncle said with an air of finality. “And I think it’s good that you’ve made a friend who will stick with you through the two hardest years of high school. It’s definitively better than being alone, eh?”

Winter conceded the point and nodded, gazing pensively out one of the windows and into the surrounding forest. Huh… she really needed to go hiking soon, her wanderlust would need to be assuaged before the urge became too distracting. Maybe this time she could drag Guinevere along, she would just love that. Oh, she could see it now…

Her best friend who, in the seventeen years she’d been alive, had never once stepped off a slab of concrete. Whose version of camping involved a five-star hotel and spa. Who viewed a walk in the park like a cop viewed a bloody homicide scene.

Mainly because she loathed dirtying her precious Sergio Rossi.

But, oh, what fun she would be on a hike, deep in the wilderness of Illinois, without a ready mirror to check her make up or a roof to shelter her from the elements.

It would be hilarious.

It would be sweet revenge.

Winter couldn’t stop the diabolical smirk that curled her lips as her imagination ran away from her, playing scenario after scenario with a hysterically bedraggled Gwen as the star, the devious glint in her pale eyes stark and ominous.

“I know that look…” Kade leaned forward in his seat and seemed to study her face intently, humming thoughtfully every so often. With an innocuous nod he sat back, the motion casual and calm, but in the shadow of his peaked cap his eyes gleamed devilishly. The set of his mouth hinted at mischief, shenanigans, and secret schemes.

It was an exact replica of Winter’s wicked expression.

Then again, they were family.

“I feel like I should pity her but Gwen asked for it when she befriended you,” Kade chuckled, head tilted, no doubt lost in a plethora of Machiavellian memories.

Winter could only grin at that, a bubble of laughter welling up her throat to dance on her tongue.

Besides his niece who he so obviously lived with, Guinevere McGarden was really the only other civilian he interacted with outside of his job. Kade didn’t go out of his way to socialize on a daily basis, not to say that he was anti-social, far from it actually (the man was a goofball and a prankster), but given his vocation in life and the possible risks made it hard to form lasting friendships with people who would only ever want to know what he did when he disappeared off the radar every so often.

Gwen, however, respected his need for silence on the matter. She didn’t pry like most teenagers were wont to do when curiosity become too compelling, didn’t even ask, therefore she was forever welcome in his house for that show of maturity.

Winter knew this too to some extent. It was easy to see that Kade was thrilled down to his bones that she had found a friend in someone like Guinevere, someone to be there when he couldn’t, someone who, like her uncle, was utterly mad (her maturity was simply a bonus.)

She was pretty sure that was one of the main reasons Kade liked her so much.

Because Guinevere McGarden was clearly off her rocker. For one, she was bossy; she led conversations like a warlord led an army. Two, she could argue like nobody’s business; if arguing was an Olympic sport Gwen would be the reigning champion, she was that good.

Or just that argumentative…

Which probably explained why they were always at each other’s throats all the time. They were two strong, opinionated women who refused to budge or compromise. Was it their fault that they loved butting heads over anything and everything?

Nothing normal could be said about their friendship; it definitely wasn’t typical… for several reasons, but that was neither here nor there.

At least they amused and entertained each other and the witty, silver-tongued banter kept them one their toes, their keen minds exercised and ready for the next time they drew battle lines over this or that. Such was their bond; they bickered, browbeat, hauled insults, but they always had each other’s back in the end. For that reason, Winter loved her like a sister.

Not that she would ever know that. The vicious cow…

Chapter Text

Thinking back on their first meeting and the resulting argument that started it all brought a small, whimsical smile to her lips, overshadowing the earlier smirk. Winter liked to call it the start of their on-going fandom war, however, between the both of them it had been lovingly – and nostalgically – dubbed ‘The Confrontation.’

Now ‘The Confrontation’ was a staple of all moves. The concept was simple—she would leave her new home for a newer home in some other state, be plunged into a new environment with new people who, when they learned about her circumstances, would ask a plethora of questions that would proverbially raise her hackles (because who enjoyed moving? Who enjoyed being interrogated about moving?) before ending the irritating questionnaire with some version of, “I’ll let you finish settling in, and don’t worry, you’ll love it here!

The people who’ve been there and done it before, who have moved and experienced a friendly neighbor’s warm welcome might see it as a nice gesture; on her first move Winter did, in fact, see it as nice gesture…

Until she moved again and again and again. Heard the same salutations over and over… except each time it was for a different town in a different state. By the fifth move it was no longer welcoming, no longer nice. By the seventh move it took every bit of her restraint just to keep the smile on her face when all she wanted to do was snarl something vulgar and storm off.

In those days Winter learned quickly that it was better to leave the ‘meet and greet’ to her parents, especially when she was feeling particularly moody and cantankerous. So while they shook hands and exchanged names and general background information she would inevitably skulk off to explore the local hotspots—malls, shopping centers, secret anime stores, places to eat and socialize among her own ‘kind’ as her father would say.

If she was feeling really, really snappish she wouldn’t explore at all; she would sniff out the nearest niche that sold manga and bury herself in a Japanese created fantasy world far away from her own. Mostly it was Naruto she picked up and read; she was a die-hard Narutard.

And she wasn’t afraid to show that fact to the world.

Which is why on the day of ‘The Confrontation’ Winter wore her indigo blue, high-collared T-shirt, the back sporting the Uchiha clan symbol proudly for all to see.

Thinking back, she knew without a doubt that it had been Sasuke’s shirt that had drawn the gaze and the ire of one Guinevere McGarden.

On that day Winter had curled herself against a bookcase with her nose lovingly stuffed between the pages of Naruto Vol. 47— she’d been minding her own business at the back of Erie Anime, every drop of her focus fixated on the little book held in her hands when all of a sudden someone dropped another manga book – Fairy Tail – right into her lap, shocking the shit out of her in the process.

The abrupt scare spooked her into looking up with a shrill curse on her lips, only to find herself staring at a perfectly manicured brunette, green-hazel eyes gleaming dangerously under the fluorescent lights and red lips spread in a wide smile.

The smile itself came off as cold and calculating, although there was something about the set of her jaw that made Winter think of angry, temperamental things like road rages and screaming rednecks and riots. All teeth, all bite, all barely restrained aggression hidden behind those sparkling pearly whites; she remembered wondering if there weren’t rows upon rows of serrated teeth hiding behind that jagged, carnivorous grin, like a shark.

It widened and tightened into something mean when the girl drew her penetrating gaze over Winter from top to bottom. The ripped, white washed jeans, the blue Uchiha shirt, lack of makeup, unpainted toenails, and un-styled blonde hair clearly failed to meet some unknown, preordained standard…

Winter had narrowed irked blue eyes at the blatant scrutiny, the calm tranquility of before twisting into a ball of tension that threatened to explode into fury the longer she stared at the rude brunette.

“Can I help you with something?” Winter remembered spitting those words out through clenched teeth, her hands closing the manga with a violent, definitive snap!

The girl didn’t bat an eyelash at her show of hostility, instead she leaned back against the opposite bookcase, ankles crossed casually as she studied Winter with the same intensity and pitying disapproval she might give to a pair of gaudy, overly flamboyant D&G heels.

“Help me? Oh, certainly. You can help me by throwing that,”—she tilted her haughty chin toward the Naruto manga clutched between her palms— “into the nearest trashcan.”

Then with a flourish she’d jabbed a neatly trimmed nail (read: claw) at the Fairy Tail Vol. 1 book still laying haphazardly on her lap (the glossy artwork glaring up at her in colors that seemed too loud and overt for her liking) and said with utmost condescension, “You can help me more by reading Fairy Tail from start to finish. After all, it’s much easier to discuss an anime when all those involved are familiar with the material, right? Right.”

The offensive interloper nodded to herself smartly before boring those conniving hazel-green eyes into her expectantly.

She had met that piercing verdant stare with wide, incredulous baby-blue eyes, mouth gaping in disbelief.

The shock, however, did not forestall Winter’s pricked temper for long. The ball of tension in her gut exploded and words like drops of acid fell eagerly on her tongue, ready to singe and burn.

E-excuse you, but why the hell would I discuss anything with someone as rude as you? I don’t even know you and I’m not interested in Fairy Tail— “

“Yet.”

 “What!” She snarled, teeth bared like a beast, eyes narrowed into slits at the brunette’s sheer audacity.

Winter flashed the insolent stranger an infuriated scowl, the expression on her face one of open dislike. Didn’t she know it was impolite to interrupt someone when they were speaking!?

Her angry glower intensified.

Unfortunately, the glacial glare seemed to roll right off her unwelcome visitors back, leaving her largely (and annoyingly) unfazed.

This apathy – or was it just obliviousness? – was further compounded when the brunette airily waved away her vicious knee-jerk retort. “I’m sure you heard me… Oh well, I guess I can elucidate,” the girl then sighed as if bored, her voice officious and judgmental.

“Yet,” the interloper said again, enunciating the one syllable word in such a way that left Winter silently gritting her teeth, “You’re not into Fairy Tail yet, but you will be. Soon. It’s only a matter of time really. Plus, you’re not the first to be converted and like the others, you’ll eventually see the err of your ways when all the facts are laid out.”

Winter remembered being torn between feeling more incredulity (she still had trouble believing something like this had actually happened in real life!) and feeling a dangerous mixture of simmering frustration and severe umbrage.

As a person she was calm with a side of sardonic humor and a generous helping of irritation when she was in a mood. As a nerd she was rather like a mule – stubbornly kicking at anyone who dared tread insults on her beloved anime, uncompromising on her opinion of Masashi Kishimoto’s genius, and a stalwart defender of all things Naruto.

Put simply, it wasn’t smart to disparage a nerd’s favorite anime… lest you invite that particular nerd’s wrath…

Winter let out a loud scoff of derision and raised her eyebrows; metaphorically digging her heels in. “You sound so sure of yourself. Pray tell, what sort of facts will push me to want to instantly denounce myself as a fan of Naruto? I’m actually really curious to see what you have to say.” Not.

The rude brunette stood there a moment, still casually leaning against the bookcase, still with that perfect, red lipstick smile, sharp green-hazel eyes staring at her appraisingly. Held under that pointed gaze, it had felt like she was being analyzed for weaknesses by some ancient, bloodthirsty warlord instead of a bossy nameless girl. To say it had been unsettling and hair-rising was a gross understatement.

“Hm, where to begin… Ah! I know,” she began thoughtfully, a pensive finger under her chin, the very picture of studious contemplation. “The Naruto fan-base is barbaric and childish. The writing is long-winded—don’t even get me started on the pace! It’s horrendous. All characters not including Naruto and Sasuke are either killed off, side-paneled into obscurity, or used as pairing fodder with no significant impact on the overall story besides being a love interest. It’s disgusting.”

She peered down her slim nose at a dumbstruck Winter and mistaking her angry silence as rapt attention continued on her tirade.

“The pairing wars are just atrocious! If your OTP doesn’t fall in line with NH-SN-SS, then you might as well not even be a ‘Narutard’ at all. Mention a different pairing and the fanatics will tell you to go die in a ditch somewhere. That is NOT how you treat someone with a different opinion! You do not slander them and their characters! Honestly, the Naruto fan-base needs to grow up!”

It was at this point that Winter Delsin had had enough. Enough of this twit bashing Naruto, enough of the overly obnoxious idiot telling her what she should and shouldn’t read.

Enough. She’d had enough!

“Gods, but do you ever shut up!” Winter snapped, coming to a stand in one sudden, violent motion. “My anime may not be perfect and neither is its fan-base – it is comprised of humans after all, and humans aren’t perfect; we say and do stupid shit all the time – but it isn’t the only one! No anime is written perfection, not even Fairy Tail! And all fandoms have their fanatics, it’s NOT just Naruto!”

The fingers of her left hand curled over the face of a grinning pink-haired boy, the cover of Fairy Tail Vol 1 squeaking under her tight grip.

In her right hand Winter held Naruto Vol 47 in a loose (loving) grip.

With three angry steps she approached the rude, oddly quiet brunette and shoved the supremely unwanted manga book back into her arms, sneering, baby-blue eyes dark and flinty with ire.

“Here,” she spat, and for one dizzying moment imagined her fist soaring forward to knock the light out of one of those haughty green-hazel eyes, but the moment passed quickly, and all she really wanted was to stalk away. “You can have your book back! I don’t want— “

“It’s not my book. I gave it to you earlier if you recall. Consider it a gift… I did buy it for you, you know, and isn’t it bad manners to reject a gift once it’s been given? Keep it.”

Winter blinked confused blue eyes, taken aback by this unexpected development.

 “W-what? You…! Why wou-? I… don’t even… know… you!!?” she sputtered, bewildered voice just a tad high-pitched.

The brown-haired stranger had watched her like an indulgent parent, calmly enjoying the sight of her floundering emotions and when they locked gazes—blue ice and mossy jade—the pushy brunette’s face had split in a genuine, dazzling smile.

“You know what?” she had said, while gently poking one of Winter’s cheeks with a trim fingernail. “I kind of like you. I think we’re going to be awesome friends, that is, once you admit that Fairy Tail is far superior to Naruto, of course.”

“F-friends!?” Winter gaped in disbelief, well and truly flummoxed by this odd turn of events. “Friends!? Are you daft? We just had a row about anime and you… you want to be friends!? I don’t even know your name! Hell, you don’t even know my name!”

That genuine, dazzling smile widened. Above it, a pair of hazel-green eyes twinkled mischievously.

“Oh, that’s right, names,” the brunette laughed, the sound reminding Winter of freshly fallen snow and the light tinkling of church bells. Ugh. “Well, mine is Guinevere McGarden; and before you ask, yes, just like Levy McGarden!”

Who the hell is— “

“She’s a script mage from Fairy Tail and, like me, she’s also the smartest mage in the guild. I know, right! We share the same last name, it’s the most amazing thing!” Guinevere tittered, hearts in her eyes, and Winter entertained the idea of just bolting without warning and not looking back.

She had no idea what was going on, the situation was beyond her comprehension at this point. Confusion didn’t even cut it. All she could think was…

This bitch be crazy!

A sigh. “You would understand the depths of my joy if you were a fan of Fairy Tail, but don’t worry, we have the whole of our friendship to bring you up to speed.” An (evil, demented) giggle slithered into Winter’s horrified ears.

She swallowed thickly, suddenly feeling trapped, cornered… Like prey. She didn’t like the feeling much.

Winter scowled. “I’m pretty sure I get a say when deciding if we’re going to be friends or not!”

She was met with a merry (malicious) sounding laugh, and then, without another glance, turned on her heel and slinked (like the ambush predator she was) down the hallway.

Mere seconds later a reply came from the front of the store, and because it was so quiet, Winter heard the words perfectly.

“It’s adorable that you think that.”

And the rest was history.

Chapter Text

 

Not really.

Shortly after their queer first meeting/fight/argument Guinevere (the stalker) managed to track her all the way to her uncle’s remote country house, dragging her out for sushi and another round of Pros and Cons: Anime Edition. It had become the brunette’s mission to convert Winter into a respectable ‘fairy fan’, or at the very least harangue her ears off on the subject.

Several horrifying realizations came to light during that second meeting/kidnapping. One: she would find no allies in her new home town. Two: apparently a good portion of the student body were ‘fairy fans’ and proud of it. Three: her new friend hadn’t been lying when she claimed Winter wasn’t her first victim. Four: she was stuck in a town ruled by obnoxious, overbearing fairy lovers!

Then there were the introductions.

Winter had honestly felt like an inanimate object - something with a price tag, being totted around and presented to half the rugby team like she was on auction. Gwen definitely had the vibe of an auctioneer, talking so fast that Winter’s brain blew a fuse every time she tried to follow the conversation.

And the rugby players?

Had names, she was sure – everyone had a name – she just didn’t care enough to remember any of them. Other than… Shane—Gwen’s boyfriend—and his brother Silas. Then again, most of the team seemed more interested in beating the shit out of each other than meeting her, really only standing around long enough for Guinevere to point out names and positions before shooting off across the field like a herd of stampeding wildebeest.

To be honest, Winter was glad to have met Guinevere McGarden. At first glance, especially during that first meeting, she had categorized Gwen as another run-of-the-mill rich girl – pretty, shallow, entitled, with a cookie-cutter personality and no brain cells.

In many ways that first assessment was accurate.

Her best friend was both pretty and rich; an indisputable fact, one that was well-known in the town of Erie, Illinois. That she was entitled was a byproduct of those two characteristics. The turning point, however, was in the assessment of how shallow she was. Because in many ways she was shallow and it showed in her preoccupation with fashion trends and shoe brands, as well as her fixation over social status.

But if you paid close enough attention, looked underneath the underneath (Hehe! Naruto reference for the win! Take that Gwen!) you would realize that Guinevere wasn’t just a pretty face and a loaded credit card. There was a brain behind the supercilious attitude. A brain that possessed one of the keenest intelligences Winter had ever seen.

Not that Gwen wanted anyone to notice how high her IQ was.

Fortunately, most didn’t. In this day and age, it was rare to find someone who could see and comprehend anything beyond their own nose. Which, in Winter’s opinion, was just plain sad.

Out of the blue, a new sound came and gently, slowly drew her attention outward. The muffled tunes of her playlist escaping through her ajar door were suddenly intermingled with the urgent beeping of Skype.

Crap! Was it that time already?

Snatching up her empty coffee cup Winter quickly deposited it in the sink, whirled on her heel and bolted out of the kitchen, her uncles shout of “Nice spin, Snowflake!” following her down the hallway.

Her bare feet slapped out a rapid staccato beat as she ran over the shiny hardwood floors, the threshold around her door a nice hand-hold to redirect her momentum. Winter very nearly flew into her room, her body changing direction fluidly, her swift footwork flawless.

Chest heaving with adrenaline and a growing sense of anticipation niggling in her gut, Winter slid into her comfy office chair and thumped the mouse pad with a finger.

Sure enough, there was a familiar face in the uppermost right-hand corner of her screen—wide, snarky grin, sharp, mischievous grey eyes, long, dusty blond hair, and a light olive skin tone that alluded to his German/Norwegian heritage.

Pausing her playlist, Winter settled in her seat and clicked the little green phone icon to accept the incoming call.

“Why is everyone calling me so damn early today?”

The face that filled the screen was pixelated and choppy and the lighting was too bright to make out much detail, but the sight was familiar all the same. And for many enviable reasons it was in front of a backdrop of paradise: mesmerizing blue sky, immaculate sandy beach, and water so clear and piercing it looked like glass. Hono-freaking-lulu, Hawaii.

Ugh! As if she needed that shoved into her face right before she had to hit the books…

So, so, so unfair.

And she damn well told him so, too.

“It’s Monday, it’s my first day, and… and you’re lounging on a beach in Hawaii!! Y-you… cruel, insensitive, evil bastard! I hate you!”

The face leaned in, blocking the view of crystal waters and picturesque waves, and one of those impish grey eyes winked at her. “Aww, Winnie,” he drawled, low tenor voice rich with play and confidence. “You know you loooove me! And, hey, nice robe! I give you an A for effort, but, Win, you gotta know that Soul Reapers wear black robes, right?”

“Yes, yes, they wear black robes! I get it! Now why are you calling?” Winter bit out waspishly, baby blue eyes narrowed in the obligatory glare that did very little to hide the relieved and altogether happy lilt that had edged itself into her voice the moment she’d laid eyes on him.

The blond boy – who seemed to be reclining on a sinful looking lounge chair - let out an offended gasp, eyebrows raised in a parody of wide-eyed disbelief. “I can’t believe you just asked me that, Winnie!” he exclaimed loudly. “I’m not going to neglect my bestie just because we’ve been separated by an ocean and half the country! She would miss me too much. Plus, we of the Nomadic Narleach Truce of 2008 have to stick together!”

Immediately, Winter let her head fall into her hands, a long drawn out groan of pained annoyance leaking through her fingers. “Zephyr!” she whined. “Why can’t you just let it die already! It’s been three years!”

“Why should I?” he demanded. “I won, partially, but I still won. I got you to like Bleach—!”

“I don’t like Bleach,” Winter muttered grumpily.

“—Okay, fine! I got you to like Bleach characters, but it’s the same thing!”

Winter rolled her eyes. “No. No, it’s not.”

Zephyr scoffed and waved away her denial airily. “Being stubborn changes nothing, you know, and I have the evidence to prove it! Video evidence! Raw footage! So deny all you want, Win, but I caught you on video and video doesn’t lie! You were so into that episode and you know it!!”

Winter sat back in her chair and crossed her arms petulantly, chin tilted in such a way that communicated the highest level of defiance, eyes flinty, lips thin. She said nothing.

 Zephyr smirked, eyes closing as he shrugged in the telltale silence. He couldn’t help it. Winter was hilarious! He chuckled.

“Fight it all you want, Winnie! But we are what we are and that hasn’t changed! You’re still obsessed with Naruto and I’m forever loyal to Bleach! Together we are the Nomadic Narleach Truce!”

“No,” Winter snapped vehemently, head shaking firmly in the negative. “No, we are not… that. It only happened once; it’ll never happen again. So I like some of the characters, it doesn’t mean I like the show or the plot.”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“Zephyr!”

“Ah, c’mon, Winnie! Stop being a mule, it’s not attractive.”

Zephyr!!

“Say it, Win! Say it! Just once and I’ll stop. Maybe.”

“Damn you, Zephyr! Shut up!”

“You know you want to say it!” he continued, voice high-pitched and sing-song. Winter felt an eyebrow twitch.

She growled, “No!”

“I’m not going to stop! You know I’m not going to stop! Even if you hang up on me right now I still won’t stop; there’s always the next call,” Zephyr persisted, that dastardly smirk of his growing both in size and mischief. “If you stall any longer I might be tempted to start actually singing.”

Winter sneered contemptuously at the smug face grinning at her from her computer screen, though there was no real malice in the expression, just a lot of annoyance and perhaps a bit of fondness.

Perhaps.

Pale blue eyes slimmed, sparked, darkened. But Zephyr just tilted his head to the side and raised his eyebrows expectantly, something like triumph in his expression. Like he knew she was close to caving and he knew she knew she was close to caving. Ugh.

It was so infuriating! He was so infuriating!

And not for the first time did it make her wonder how, of all the states she’s lived in and all the people she’s met and befriended, Zephyr Von Eiken was the one who refused to be forgotten, who clung to her side like a bur through thick and thin. The two of them hadn’t seen the other in the flesh since they were both twelve years’ old, not since her parents were stationed in Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.

Who was she kidding, of course, she knew the reason.

They were two of a kind.

From one military brat to another—they were alike in their lifestyles, could understand and empathize with each other because of their similar situations. Down to the bare bones, it was a hard, shitty life.

The life of a nomad basically.

And the two of them? Well, they were the Nomadic Narleach Nerds or in other words the Nomadic Narleach Truce of 2008.

Now how would she go about describing their friendship? Hmm…

Much like her friendship with Guinevere, it began with an argument. From there it snowballed into two people intentionally being nuisances to each other which then morphed into mutual heckling and harassing about anything and everything, though mostly about their respective fandoms.

They were nerds, after all.

Military nerds.

“Fine!” Winter caved with a thin-lipped snarl, back thudding loudly (and angrily) against the backrest of her office chair. She made her displeasure known even more by honoring his antics with a one finger salute. “I’m part of the Narleach Truce.”

Zephyr was already shaking his head even before she finished. “No, no, no, no! That’s not right,” he chided, wagging an overly judgmental finger at her. “You have to say the whole thing, Winnie! And you have to mean it! Put some passion and sexiness into it!”

Winter threw her head back and groaned, eyes rolling in exasperation. Irked, she kicked her feet hard enough to send the wheels on her chair rolling; with a mere shifting of weight she went spinning too.

“We are the Nomadic Narleach Truce of 2008!” she crooned to the ceiling, still spinning in her chair, voice low, slow, and breathy.

Zephyr sat up on his comfy lounge chair and hooted, “See! Was that so hard?” He grinned happily, pearly white teeth glittering in the Hawaiian sun.

“And members of the Truce, as I’m sure you know, are supposed to check in on each other before having their sanity replaced by essays, math tests, and pop quizzes. I was feeling utterly bereft and abandoned last week; I don’t know how I survived!”

With a very put-upon sigh, Winter reached over and snatched the wet brush sitting innocently on her nightstand, dragging it through her tangled tresses quickly in a bid to distract herself from the idiot sitting on the other side of the screen.

“That tradition is only viable when we’re in the same time zone!” Winter retorted sharply, right hand still guiding the brush through her blonde hair. With a shake of her head, she rolled the chair back over to her desk and continued, tone longsuffering, “You’re in Hawaii – fucking Hawaii – and I’m in Illinois!  I don’t know the time difference – I’m not awake enough for that shit – but five in the morning for you is probably one in the morning for me! I am not a night owl, Zephyr; I can’t ignore the call of Morpheus.”

“You lack commitment—I’m sure the doctors can prescribe something to help you out with that, since, you know, doctors have pills for everything nowadays,” Zephyr deadpanned sardonically.

Winter paused in her brushing to glare at her cheeky friend. “I called you as soon as I could!” she protested. “And you failed to answer! So tell me who between us has commitment problems, hmm? Not me, I assure you; I tried, but you didn’t even pick up! Tch!”

“Yeah, well, I was busy stuffing my face,” Zephyr shrugged. “You wouldn’t believe the food they have here! It’s not regurgitated prison slop! They have real, wholesome linguiça here! And it tastes amazing!! You should be happy, Winne, your bestie isn’t going to starve!”

Winter put her brush down beside her laptop and sighed. “At least, I tried,” she mumbled, a tad downcast.

“None of that, Win! We’re talking now, and that’s all that matters.”

“Wanna tell me exactly how you managed that?” Winter demanded, reclining in her chair after angling the laptop toward her, the better to see Zephyr’s grinning face and twinkling grey eyes.

“I don’t know what time it is over there, but I know for a fact that you should probably be in a classroom right now—why are you sitting – lounging, more like – on a beach!? What, don’t tell me they have classes outside in Hawaii!?”

“Sadly, no, but that would be awesome! To answer your question, I’m enjoying my free period aka study hall. And before you ask, yes, my fantastic school allows its students to walk a whopping twenty-six feet off campus! And, yes, that is the distance between my amazing school and this glorious beach. Cool, right?”

To put more salt in a very envious wound, Zephyr reached off screen for something, something that appeared to be a very aesthetically pleasing drink resembling a margarita. It even had the stereotypical little umbrella – a yellow one – and a slice of lime wedged on the side.

Winter watched him slide the tip of a bendy straw between his lips and snapped, “I hate you!

Zephyr glanced at her slyly, dark eyes gleaming devilishly in the bright sunlight, before sucking noisily on his straw, an exaggerated expression of satisfaction on his face.

“Zephyr… do you want to die?” Winter growled in warning.

“Nope!”

“Then knock it off, you teasing bastard!”

The irritating sound of suction continued.

A muscle along her jaw jumped erratically. That’s it!!

Baring her teeth angrily, Winter hissed like a snake, and immediately lashed out a hand to slap the top of her laptop down, thus ending the call.

However, Zephyr knew her too well and knew that once he stopped so would she. So the second he stopped being a nuisance was the same second Winter froze, the fingers of one hand poised to slam the top of her computer down.

She scowled at him furiously.

“You’re an asshole!”

“Why, thank you! You are too kind! I love it when beautiful girls give me compliments,” he said cheerfully, lips spread in his widest grin yet.

Winter sat back and silently seethed, arms crossed tightly in front of her chest. Zephyr thought she resembled a little Chinese woman with how narrow her eyes were.

He laughed.

Cackled, really.

“You know you loooove me,” he crooned.

Winter replied to this by deliberately looking away, scowl still in place, glare unwavering.

Zephyr rolled his eyes, paused a moment as something occurred to him, then started talking when he wasn’t able to pin the odd feeling down. “Aww, why so stubborn, Winnie, don’t you know that silen—Wait, okaaay, are you getting a sense of Deja-vu too? Cause it hit me really hard just now, like really hard. What the hell…”

Winter glanced back just for a brief moment and promptly burst into laughter. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t hold onto her anger when her bestie wore that expression.

He looked like a kicked puppy. Or maybe just a confused puppy. Or perhaps it was a drowned puppy… Adorable and pathetic.

She chortled, bouncing in her seat at the mental image, crossed arms now cradling her stomach.