Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
seanan_mcguire

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Velveteen vs. Balance.

Title: Velveteen vs. Balance.
Summary: The trials of a formerly retired superheroine are destined never to be done, especially when the heroine in question was foolish enough to agree to serve the seasonal lands...

***

Though she had only been in Spring for a short time, it had already been long enough for Velveteen to learn two simple truths: that everything around her was alive, and that she hungered for that life the way a small child raised on an all-organic, all-nutritious diet yearns for sugar. Sometimes the wanting of it consumed her, filling her from her head to her toes with the need to reach out and snatch the life from everything around her, stuffing herself until she was too bloated with power to move. Her fingers itched. She stretched them out and then curled them back against her palms, forming fists that said less about violence than they did about resistance. She was better than her own instincts. She was a good person, and she was a good hero, and she was not going to give in.

And maybe if she told herself that enough times, she would start believing it, and she would stop thinking of the man--boy--whatever he was in front of her as a three-course meal with an open sundae bar to follow.

Jack floated an easy foot off the ground, one foot pointed toward the earth, the other kicked carelessly back and angled toward the sky. He was wearing a tunic made entirely of green leaves stitched together with cobwebs, and he would have been remarkably beautiful, if not for the way his features kept flickering, now those of a grown man, now those of a child. His body changed with them, but Velveteen had learned that it was best to watch his eyes, which were always a pale, cool green, and stayed stable when the rest of him did not.

“I think you could, if you wanted to,” said Jack. “You’re so much stronger than you’re supposed to be. You should have been a dandelion, brief and beautiful, and instead you’re an oak tree, all knots and gnarls and big roots like fingers clutching the ground. Dandelions can fly.”

“Uh, no, dude,” said Velveteen slowly. “Dandelion seeds can fly, because they’re trying to spread themselves and make more dandelions. You know when you get dandelion seeds? When the dandelions are dead.”

Jack’s smile was a storm in summer and a poem to the rain and a whole bunch of other metaphors that occurred to Velveteen in a terrible cascade. Spring was horrifically fond of metaphors. She pressed a hand against her temple, willing her incipient headache to retreat. It did not oblige her.

“There, you see? You’re figuring things out already.” He did a somersault in midair, flipping gravity the bird for the fifteenth time since the beginning of their conversation. “Just let me cut your heart out, and you should have no trouble at all getting your feet off the ground, your head in the clouds, and all those other fun things that the kids enjoy these days.”

Velveteen stared at him for a long moment before she took a step backward, feeling the spongy moss reshape itself to cradle her bare feet. Spring did not believe in shoes. (Most of Spring, anyway. Lady Moon had like, a million pairs of boots and stiletto heels and dancing slippers. Which she refused to share.)

“Uh, that’s great,” she said. “Sounds super-fun. So I’m really sorry that I have to go, but I think I hear Persephone calling.” Then she turned, and fled, before Jack--who was sometimes called “Peter,” as in “Pan,” as in “the scary little boy who wouldn’t grow up”--could reach for his knife.

Jack watched her go, smiling lazily. “You’ll come around,” he said. “They always do.” Crowing, he launched himself skyward. It was time for a dance among the clouds. It wouldn’t do to spend too much time being serious.

*

Spring is not the most elusive of the Seasonal Lands--that honor is reserved for Summer, which communicates little and manifests even less--but it is still considered terra incognita for most purposes. Unlike Autumn, which has interacted frequently with the last several decades, even sending two of its spiritual guardians out into what they term “the Calendar Country” to serve as members of The Super Patriots, Inc., or Winter, which plays host to Santa Claus and his well-known group of associates, Spring keeps mostly to itself. Spring is warm, and welcoming, and wild, and mercurial, and cruel. Spring plays host to Persephone, who fills the role served by Santa Claus in Winter and Scream Queen in Autumn. Spring rarely recruits from the heroes of the world, or forces itself into the consciousness of humanity. Spring simply...endures.

(It should be noted that while we know who is in charge in Spring, Autumn, and Winter, there is no record of who controls the Summer, or what the system of governance is there. Spring is controlled by a council. Autumn is a monarchy, and Winter a meritocracy. Summer is anyone’s guess, as are the identities of the Spirits of the Season who endure there.)

Which makes Spring interesting, even for a concrete manifestation of the interaction between the human psyche and the underpinnings of the universe, is the way it changes from interpretation to interpretation. What one person views as healing and rebirth, another may view as the end of everything. Spring is often held up as the season of balance, a concept embodied in its patron goddess, Persephone, whose commitment to the concept was the stuff of legends. Part of being in balance is in accepting that a thing is not for everyone. That for some people, balance was cruelty, or a lack of commitment.

The avatars of Spring have always been, for the most part, thin idols when compared to Autumn or Winter. This, too, groups Spring more firmly with Summer. Some scholars say this is because Spring and Summer, as the kinder, more temperate seasons, have never had as much need for holidays; they are accepted as they are, and do not need to put a pretty face on things. Others say this is because the things those seasons hold are older, darker, and hence harder to reduce to a greeting card icon. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The seasons endure as they always have, independent and fundamentally defined by what we think of them.

Spring will do as Spring will do. A tautology, yes, but an essential one, describing the great mystery at the heart of the year--and hence the great mystery at the center of the human experience. To grow, we have to shrink. To live, we have to acknowledge that we will one day cease to be. It is a difficult balance to strike for one who is not a goddess of the harvest. For some, it may well prove to be impossible.

*

Velveteen found Persephone sitting by a small, mirror-reflective pond, braiding a chain of asphodel flowers. It was already more than ten feet long, curling into a wide circle around the goddess. Several of Geb’s geese were roosting nearby, their black legs tucked up under their feathery bodies and their necks twisted around so that their beaks rested against their backs. None of them were sleeping; they all had their eyes open and fixed on Persephone, watching her with unblinking avian disdain.

“This ‘learn from the avatars of Spring’ routine would work a lot better if you told me what I was supposed to be learning from them,” Velveteen announced, plopping herself down next to Persephone without waiting to be invited. “I’m pretty sure Jack just told me to kill myself.”

“If he did that, he wasn’t Jack,” said Persephone. “Only Peter advocates suicide as a learning experience, because Peter doesn’t really understand what it means to die. Jack understands. Jack has died and been reborn more times than there are stars in the sky, and as a consequence, Jack never tells anyone that they should die for wisdom. He assumes someone will come along and slit your throat when you least expect it. Pass me another flower, won’t you, dear?”

“That sort of brings me to my next question: if I’m not willing to die for the sake of learning whatever it is Jack-sometimes-Peter wants to teach me, is he going to murder me? To death, I mean? Because I’m still alive, which means I can be killed.” Velveteen dutifully handed Persephone an asphodel flower.

“It’s highly unlikely,” said Persephone. “He’s much more inclined to be disappointed in you, but let you make your own decisions. Peter has very poor impulse control, so you’re right to worry about him. Jack is still in control, most of the time, and gets the deciding vote on things like murder.”

“There is so much wrong with that statement that I don’t even know where to begin.” Velveteen leaned back on her hands, looking flatly at Persephone. “What am I even doing?”

“At the moment? Sucking all the life out of the grass.” Persephone looked pointedly at Velveteen’s hands. The grass around them was turning brown and drying up, withering like it had never been watered. “Have you eaten?”

Velveteen yelped, snatching her hands away from the ground like it had suddenly become hot to the touch. “Oh my God oh fuck oh my God I am so sorry I didn’t do that on purpose you know I didn’t do it on purpose I didn’t--”

“Velveteen. Breathe.” Persephone put her flower chain down before leaning over and clasping Velveteen’s hands firmly in her own. “You’ve been starving yourself again. You know you can’t do that. You have to eat.”

Persephone’s skin was soft and warm and barely thick enough to contain the hot wellspring of life at her core. She pulsed under Velveteen’s hands. It was like clasping a sun, and promised to be twice as nourishing, if she would just reach out and take what she needed...

Velveteen snatched her hands away, already breathing hard. “No, I’m good,” she said, forcing her fingers into fists and shoving them down into her lap. Maybe if she just didn’t touch anything, she wouldn’t need to suck the life out of anything. She’d never been big on dieting, but wasn’t fasting supposed to be good for like, the soul? Spiritually, she was probably in dire need of losing a few pounds. So she’d just keep her hands to herself until this was over, and she moved on to Autumn.

Nobody in Autumn cared about her the way Persephone did. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. In her experience, it was always the people who cared about you the most who hurt you the most. The two things seemed to go hand in hand. And if she cared about Persephone, even in a slightly awed, slightly terrified way, that put her in an excellent position to hurt the older anima.

Persephone sighed. “You have to eat,” she said. “I didn’t stop up your access to your own life force so you could starve to death. If you’re worried about the damage you might do in the process of sustaining yourself, consider this: you’ve been to the Hall of Mirrors. The Snow Queen showed you what might have been. You’ve seen the worlds where you became Marionette. If you let yourself die because you can’t bear the thought of remaining in balance, what happens when your eyes open anyway? You’ll rise, and there won’t be any mercy to your hunger when that happens. You’ll be just like Peter. Innocent and heartless and starving.”

“I thought you said Jack was the one who died,” said Velveteen.

“I said Jack was the sacrifice,” said Persephone. “Jack died a thousand times to set the stars in their places. Peter only died once. Once was enough. They weren’t always the same person. Even here, we have our ways of downsizing, and they balance one another. If you became Marionette, there would be nothing to balance you. We’d have to cast you out of Spring.”

Velveteen’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t.”

“I would. I would weep for you, and for the damage that you would do to the world, but Spring cannot shelter someone who has no balance,” Persephone reached for another asphodel. “You have to eat. You have to live, and you have to learn to live with yourself when your existence comes at the expense of more than just your health.”

“Are you secretly evil?” asked Velveteen. “Just as a data point. I mean, it won’t change anything, really, since I’m sort of at your mercy here. I just want to know.”

Persephone’s smile was fleeting enough that Velveteen might have missed it, had she not been watching so intently. “You know, since Christianity became the big thing on the block, people really enjoy casting my husband as the bad guy. ‘He’s basically the devil,’ they say, and then Hades is responsible for all the world’s ills. Never mind that my Uncle Zeus and his raging infidelity caused more problems than Hades doing his accounting ever did.” She set her asphodel chains aside. “They reduce the story of our courtship and marriage to one of abduction, enslavement, and rape, and they forget that the Greeks we far, far more afraid of me than they were of him. My husband is a gentle man, and a gentleman, which aren’t always the same thing. I was, and am, his Iron Queen. So no, dear, I’m not evil, but I’m not here purely to be kind. I’m here for balance. Balance hurts.”

“I don’t want to hurt people,” said Velveteen.

“But you do, Velveteen, you do. Come with me.” Persephone put her asphodel aside and stood, beckoning for Velveteen to follow. Several of the geese also rose, honking and ruffling their feathers as they waddled after the pair.

“I am not a fan of geese,” said Velveteen, as she hurried to keep up with the taller goddess.

Persephone looked faintly, distractedly amused. “No one likes geese. I think that’s a large part of why Geb chooses them as his symbol. He appreciates the fact that he’s the God of Earth and Harvest--same job as my mother, actually, which makes me feel like I dodged a bullet when she decided to go hang out in Summer--but has avatars that everyone hates. Just ignore them. That’s what the rest of us do.”

“I’m barefoot, and geese crap everywhere.”

“Ignore them, watch your step, and be ready to wash your feet frequently,” amended Persephone. “Come on.” She waved her hand. A portal opened in the air, ringed by green vines and trumpet flowers. Persephone stepped through. Lacking any other options, Velveteen followed, and the portal closed again behind them.

*

They emerged in the middle of a field of briars. They grew in tangled hillocks, so wound around and through themselves that they created fantastic shapes, like natural, unspeakable topiary. There were no flowers, no fruits; only the thorns, stretching out as far as the eye could see, turning the landscape dark and dangerous.

“Look.” Persephone waved her hand, indicating the thorn briars. “They serve no purpose here. They’re not guarding a sleeping princess or providing homes for rabbits. They’re just choking out everything else. They have so much life that they’ve left none for the rest of the field. This place is out of balance. So are you, Velveteen: you’re starving, and if you don’t eat soon, you’re going to become like these thorns, running riot, because you won’t have the strength left to contain yourself.”

“You know, I really, really wish I wasn’t spending all my time in the Kingdom of We’ve Got a Metaphor for That,” said Velveteen. She shivered. Her gown of rose petals and clinging vines was thin, intended for warmer places than this. “Thorns bad, comparison pointy. Okay?”

“No, not okay,” said Persephone. “I swear, you’re trying so hard to be one of the good guys that you’ve forgotten how to listen. Do you eat meat when you’re at home?”

“Yeah,” said Velveteen. Her mouth watered, involuntarily, at the thought of a juicy hamburger, or better, a steak. She hadn’t taken a mouthful of solid food since she arrived in Spring. Hunger, constant companion that it had become, was more metaphysical than real: her stomach never ached, but her soul seemed to. “The Marketing Department tried to convince me to become a vegetarian when I was a kid--they said it would fit well with my overall rabbit theme--but I just couldn’t stomach it. Literally.”

“Do you think the cow somehow survives the removal of your meal? Or that the carrot regenerates after you taste its flesh? Everything that lives kills. Maybe you only kill plants, or maybe you eat your way up the food chain, but there’s no such thing as a life lived without causing pain.” Persephone knelt, wrapped her hand around one of the briars, and pulled. The thorns broke through her skin, blood trickling from between her fingers and dripping down to the ground, but she didn’t let go. She just kept pulling. “Everything hurts.”

“And now you’re an album by a bad Goth band,” said Velveteen. “I don’t understand what you want me to do.”

“I want you to stop being so focused on being good that you forget that sometimes a refusal to be selfish is the most selfish thing of all,” said Persephone. “You’re hurting yourself. If someone were doing this to one of your friends, you would strike them down to make them stop, but because you’re the only one being hurt, you think it’s somehow right. That it’s somehow fair. You haven’t earned this suffering. Admit that you’re a living thing like every other living thing, and take what you need.” She waved her unpunctured hand at the thorn field. “I brought you here to make it easier for you to begin.”

“You brought me where, exactly?” Velveteen looked around the thorn field. “This is messy, but it has a right to exist.”

“Does it?” Persephone shook her head. “I wish you could have seen the Spring as it was when there was balance, before Supermodel did what she did to you. She made you the arbiter of right and wrong for all the anima in the world, because you are all the anima in the world. There were two, for a time--and we’ve all wondered, some aloud, some more privately, why she let the boy live; she can’t have intended to breed the two of you, even though like calls to like, and you found each other. Maybe she remembered that balance mattered, on some deep level, and wanted to be defeated.”

“What do you mean, ‘remembered’?” demanded Velveteen. The idea that she and Tag had been drawn to each other because of their powers was almost offensive. Sure, it was the fact that he was an animus that had caused Jackie to set them up on a blind date, and sure, it had given them something in common, something that they could talk about, but it wasn’t the reason they had fallen in love. Was it?

No, it couldn’t be. She had dated Action Dude first, after all, and Aaron was about as far from being an animus as you could get while still being in the realm of “is a superhero.” His powers were purely physical and purely his own, and her love for him had been just as pure and true as her love for Tag, before Aaron had gone and spoilt it all by being himself. His selfish, stupid, shallow self.

“You will persist in thinking that you’re the only one ever to be courted by a season, won’t you?” Persephone shook her head. “We tried to woo Supermodel when she was still Heather York of Beaverton, Oregon. She was a beautiful little girl, and when she raised her hands, flowers danced. I would have made her a demigoddess, if she’d allowed me to do it. Lady Moon would have taken her dancing every night. But she wanted more than we could give her. She wanted the world. I told her that if she took it, she would be no friend of ours, and she laughed at me. She asked why she should settle for a season when she could have the entire calendar, and she walked away from us.”

“That’s...seriously? She just walked away?”

“She woke up the next morning thinking this had all been a dream, and we never spoke to her again,” said Persephone. “But we had touched her, and what’s been touched can’t help being changed, in some small way. I like to think that your survival was her trying to answer to the balance she’d broken. This place,” she indicated the thorns again, more sharply this time, like she was tired of explaining herself, “used to belong to all your kin and kind, because Spring is our country, as Summer is the country of the physical, and Winter the country of the elemental. She took it from you. She took it from all of you. I’m offering you the chance to feed yourself and take it back at the same time.”

“What would I have to do?” Velveteen’s voice was small.

Persephone smiled. “Just feed yourself. The rest will come naturally.”

Velveteen looked down at her hands and sighed. “Some days I really miss beating the crap out of petty thugs,” she said. Kneeling, she pressed her palms to the ground, between the thorns, and breathed in deep.

Nothing happened.

“You have to actually let it happen,” said Persephone. “Trust yourself not to go too far. You’re allowed to exist. You’re allowed to eat. Let that permission sink in.”

“Lady, you sure do talk a lot for somebody who wants me to find inner peace or whatever,” said Velveteen. She took a deep breath, and pulled--

*

For most people, eating is a physical thing. It involves the mouth, the teeth, the tongue; the acts of swallowing and digestion. For most people, nutrition comes from the food they ingest, calories entering their bodies and being transformed into potential.

For an anima who can’t access her own life force to sustain herself, things are slightly different.

Velveteen’s hands sunk into the soil and her mind sunk into the thorns, instincts she was barely aware of having seeking out and ripping away the things that sustained their roots and fed their questing tendrils. She was an anima: she was the perfect predator, needing nothing but the barest of contacts to allow her to feed. Her mind raced, moving independent of her intellect, which was slow and steady and burdened with unnecessary morality. The body was hungry. The soul was starving. The power she was host to had the ability to fix both these things, and so fix them it would, regardless of what the mind wanted.

Persephone watched, a strange, sad smile on her face, as the thorn briars withered and withdrew. They dried up from the inside out, collapsing in on themselves, before turning to dust and crumbling where they twined. It was a swift, unnatural process, a denuding of everything, and when it was done--when not a single briar rose from the blackened, blasted ground--they had revealed a wasteland. Tombstones and stone angels dotted the earth. Cobweb-encrusted tombs loomed in the distance.

Velveteen opened her eyes and blanched, the new color running from her face as she beheld what she had unveiled. “Holy crap I conjured a graveyard.”

“It was always here,” said Persephone. “Look.” She raised her hands, and the waste exploded into growth. Green grass blanketed the graves, and wildflowers ran riot. Roses bloomed in glorious abandon, climbing the stone angels and softening the tombs. Trees shot up out of nothing, breaking first into flower, and then into full fruit as they reached their maturity in a matter of seconds.

When Persephone lowered her hand again, the field of briars had become a pastoral graveyard. Still a place of mourning, yes, but one where the beloved dead could rest easily, and where those who missed and mourned them could walk without fear of the thorns. Natural paths had formed amidst the green grass and the riotous wildflowers. Persephone started down the nearest of them. Velveteen, lacking any better idea of what to do, followed her.

“How do you feel?” asked the goddess.

“Good.” It was an understatement, but that didn’t make it any less true. She felt like someone who had recovered in one miraculous moment from a long and debilitating illness, surging back to health and then to some glorious point beyond simple recovery. The small aches and pains that had begun to haunt her were gone, replaced by a feeling of absolute, unquestionable wellness. She could run a marathon. She could lift a mountain. She had never felt so completely, utterly whole in her life, and it terrified her. If she could feel this good by drinking the life of the world around her, what was to stop her from taking it all?

This is how Supermodel felt, she thought, and the idea sickened her, both with its reality and with its accuracy. Supermodel had been obsessed with her own beauty, and with the life she gained from the adoration of those around her. She had wanted to become a goddess. All she had succeeded in doing was destroying herself. She was an icon now, an idol to be worshipped and feared, not a person. “No one ever calls her Heather,” she said softly. “I didn’t even know that was her name.”

“She was a beautiful child,” said Persephone, following the change of topics without missing a beat. “So sweet. So kind. She was always a little self-centered. I blame her parents. They made their love dependent on her accomplishments. ‘Shine bright and we’ll adore you, glow quietly and we’ll ignore you.’ They taught her that the only way to be valued for anything was to be the best at everything, and she did her best to please them, until the day she realized that there were easier hearts to win.”

The path wound gently between the graves, now circling a group of them, now bending away from a copse of trees. Persephone stepped off it, looking down at a headstone. Velveteen moved to stand next to her.

HEATHER YORK, it read. STILL BELOVED.

“She’s buried here?” The words escaped before Velveteen could stop them. She decided that she hadn’t wanted to. Some questions needed to be asked. “How can she be buried here, after what she did?”

“She’s buried here because of what she did, and what she was,” said Persephone. “Don’t you understand yet? Balance.”

“I understand that I am not Anakin Skywalker, and I am not going to bring Balance to the Force.”

Persephone looked at her blankly. Velveteen sighed.

“You know, there is popular culture more recent than that whole thing with the Argonauts,” she said. “Maybe you should check it out sometime.”

“If you say so,” said Persephone politely. A goose waddled past, honking about whatever it was that kept geese occupied when they weren’t biting ankles and stealing bread from small children. “Balance isn’t about bringing something. It’s about taking what you already have and making it self-sustaining. Making it last. Heather threw the balance off when she started killing the people she believed would be her rivals. She was so hungry. She wanted the world to be her banquet. All the strength that should have belonged to them went to you, and they came here. To rest.”

Velveteen stared at her, eyes going wide with horror as she realized what Persephone was saying. “So when you said this place belonged to people like me...”

“I meant that this was where their spirits were laid to rest. All of them. Come with me.” Persephone struck out across the grass, leaving Velveteen no choice but to follow as the living goddess of Spring stalked between the graves, pointing. “Michael Wittenberg. He brought clay figures to life. There was a gas leak when he was three years old, less than a month after he started tapping into his powers. Fawn Clarkson. She was a resurrectionist. Given time to learn her own strength, she could have called anyone back from the verge of death. She brought back her pet goldfish. Her apartment building burned down the next day.”

The litany of names went on and on, each accompanied by a snapshot of their powers: what they had been, what they might have become. It made Velveteen want to cover her ears and scream. She had never asked to be the one to carry the gifts and burdens of an entire generation; she had just wanted to be a good member of her team, to take care of the people she loved, and maybe to be left alone to be happy for a little while. That was all. When had it become so unreasonably much?

They reached the last grave, at the edge of the meadow. The land continued from there, but it seemed somehow hazy, unreal, like it didn’t really count as part of the scene. Velveteen knew without being told that it was because Spring didn’t care enough, as a season, to bring that place into focus. If she kept walking, it would be forced to decide what lay beyond the thin veil of disregard. It might resent her for that. She stayed where she was, joining Persephone in looking at the blank tombstone.

“Let me guess,” she said. “This is where I’m going to be, when I finally die, unless I decide that I want to stay here in the Spring, in which case the grave will go away and I’ll live forever, frolicking in meadows and not worrying about supervillains or grocery bills or turning evil and sucking the life out of all my friends in the middle of the night.”

“Yes,” said Persephone serenely. “That’s putting it a bit more...viscerally than I would have chosen, but yes. You don’t have to die. You don’t have to change. You can be young and strong and healthy forever, if you stay here with us. And there will be no more anima in the world, and things will be in balance.”

Velveteen didn’t say anything. She couldn’t think of anything to say. She would have been lying if she had claimed she wasn’t tempted. Yes, Spring was strange, and its customs were still difficult for her to understand, but so what? Everything was unfamiliar at first. If she stayed, she could learn whatever she needed to know. She could even learn to be happy, and her friends would finally be freed from the need to worry about her all the time. She could be free. She could be...

“Wait,” she said, frowning as she turned to Persephone. “No more anima. You said no more anima. What do you mean?”

“Supermodel killed all the anima and animus of her generation, and all but two of your generation, and now only you remain,” said Persephone. “If you stay here, there will be none. Absence is an innate balance. The world will adjust.”

Slowly, Velveteen frowned, puzzling her way through all the things that statement could mean. Then--cautiously, more than half afraid of the answer, but needing to hear it all the same--she asked, “What about Tag?”

“He sleeps the sleep of the lost,” said Persephone. “If you stay here, if you don’t go back for him, no one will ever wake him. Don’t mourn for him. He died well, and he lived a long, healthy, fruitful life. His balance has been served.”

“Um, what?” Velveteen turned to stare at Persephone. “He’s my boyfriend. I love him. It’s not his fault that he got hurt, and I’m not going to stop mourning him, or loving him, just because you say his ‘balance’ has been ‘served.’ What does that even mean, anyway? He died. He misjudged a situation, and he died. There’s no balance in that. It was a senseless tragedy.”

“All death is balance, for the life that came before it.” Persephone waved a hand. “This is balance. The only thing that stops it from being perfect is you, little anima, who still walks in the world and doesn’t lie down in fields of flowers. Stay here with us and there will be balance.”

“And if I don’t? If I say ‘golly, this has been a lot of fun, except for the part where it really hasn’t been, I’ll be going now’? Are you going to stop me for the sake of your balance?”

“No,” said Persephone. “I already told you, if you leave here with a better grasp of what you’re capable of, that’s going to be enough for me. I want balance. I want the world to be better than it is. That doesn’t mean forcing people to do things they don’t want to do.”

“Oh.” Velveteen looked back to the blank tombstone for a long moment before she asked, “If I stay here, there won’t be anyone else with my power set? Like, ever?”

“For a generation. Maybe more. Eventually, I’m sure, someone will find their way to Spring, and eat the fruit of these trees.” Persephone reached out her hand. A nearby branch bent, and a pomegranate smacked into the curve of her fingers. The skin had already split, revealing the ruby seeds inside. She turned to offer it to Velveteen. “That person will have children one day. Twins, most likely. And they’ll be born with the ability to animate the inanimate, or to heal flesh, or to summon pictures from the page. They’ll bring it all back with them. Anima and animus will be born again.”

“You know, I think the thing that sucks most about this is that it’s actually sort of tempting,” said Velveteen. She took the pomegranate, turning it over in her hands. “I don’t like it here. I don’t like what you’ve done to me, no matter how necessary you think it is. But I don’t like being--what was it you called me? I don’t like being a ‘weapon that walks like a woman,’ either. I don’t want to be Supermodel.” And it was Spring that had opened that door, wasn’t it? She had never known why anyone would choose to drain the life from the world until Persephone had stopped her ability to feed herself. Sometimes efforts to help could hurt, even when they weren’t trying to.

“I don’t think there’s any risk of that,” said Persephone. “You care too much about people to ever go her route. It’s just that without finesse, you can...break things.”

Velveteen--who had once resurrected her boyfriend unintentionally, and was all too aware of her ability to “break things”--nodded. She shook a few seeds out of the pomegranate, popped them into her mouth, and swallowed, before she said, “I’m going back.”

“I thought you might say that,” said Persephone, and smiled. “Well, then, it looks like we need to speed up your lessons, don’t you think?”

“Bring it,” said Velveteen, and oh, the Spring was warm.
Tags: velveteen vs.
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