Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
seanan_mcguire

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Velveteen vs. Spring Cleaning.

Title: Velveteen vs. Spring Cleaning.
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...

***

Velveteen walked through the green world and the green world moved through Velveteen. She hadn’t quite mastered Persephone’s trick of pulling the ambient life out of mites and chiggers and other small, biting creatures and channeling it into flowers that would burst into bloom under her feet, but she’d managed to figure out how to snack on mosquitoes. When she heard them droning nearby, she reached out with the silent, deadly hands of her power and yanked the life right out of the itchy little fuckers. They fell to fertilize the soil, and she walked on, a little more fed, a little less inclined to accidentally injure people in the search for a good meal.

Sometimes she felt bad about what she did to stay alive. It was hard not to, when she was vampiring her way through the world. But when she really thought about it, she could remember smashing a thousand mosquitoes during her lifetime. None of them had kept her fed, or served any real purpose, since they’d been wiped away with tissues and not dropped to the ground. The way she fed now might be strange and hard to adjust to, but that didn’t make it wrong. And besides, it wasn’t like she was eating squirrels.

Yet. That was the operative word: that was what made this season so terrifying, under its veil of flowers and its promise of balance. The more adept she became at turning her appetite into an arrow and aiming it at the world, the more her hunger grew. It was starting to scare her, all the more because she was a living thing, and eating came so easily to the living. One day, she would think she was reaching for mosquitoes, and she’d find herself with a mouth--or a soul, technically--full of squirrels. Or kittens. Or people.

That was the big fear. People. She could kill people to feed herself, the opposite of what she’d done with Tad, where she’d nearly killed herself in the process of feeding him. Becoming Marionette had never seemed so plausible to her before, especially since what Persephone had done to her by blocking access to her body’s natural reservoirs was exactly what had happened in the timelines where she was Marionette: dead bodies had no life to draw upon. Right now, neither did she.

“Getting good and tired of this bullshit,” she murmured, as she drained the life from a passing wasp and allowed it to fall into the loam at her feet. Back in Winter, the living heart of the season had felt justified in twisting her into a statue of ice and snow and frozen heartlessness, leaving her unable to cope with the reality of her situation, or the fact that her boyfriend--who she loved, she was almost sure of it--was currently technically deceased. When she’d arrived in Spring, with frostbite of the soul and hands that didn’t feel like hers anymore, she’d been transformed again, this time into an open channel with no reservoir of its own. People kept changing her, and they never thought to ask permission first.

“Change never does ask permission, sweetheart,” said a voice like vermouth, filled with sweet bitterness and broken glass glittering in bead-choked gutters. Like most things in Spring, it was a metaphor given flesh and unyielding reality. “Change is like the tide. It does what it wants, and screw you if you don’t feel like going along with it.”

Velveteen stopped and turned. Lady Moon was sitting on a mossy old rock in the middle of the field, filing her nails with a jeweled emery board. Her gown was made of peacock feathers and bright butterfly wings, matching the mask that covered half her face. It curved upward at an angle, forming the crescent shape of her namesake. As always, her neckline was low enough to make Velveteen feel faintly uncomfortable, like she was supposed to start flinging Mardi Gras beads to pay for the view. It wasn’t prudishness: she’d been a superheroine for most of her life, she’d seen a lot of cleavage. It was the angle, the way everything about Lady Moon seemed to combine to say “look at my tits.”

“Could you maybe not read my mind without permission?” asked Velveteen. “I ask not because I think you’ll actually stop, but because this way I’m justified in hitting you with a brick if you don’t cut it out.”

“You’re always justified,” said Lady Moon. “It’s just that you’ll have to live with the consequences of whatever it is you choose to do.”

Velveteen looked at her flatly. Lady Moon laughed.

“You are a constant delight, and I am going to miss you sorely now that you’re on your way to whatever lies beyond the merry month of May,” said Lady Moon. She stood, her stiletto heels sinking into the ground. “Walk with me.”

“Um,” said Velveteen, who had had no idea that she might be leaving soon, or what the spirit of spring celebration might have to do with it. But if there was one thing she had learnt from her time in the Seasonal Lands, it was that when things made no sense at all, that was when you just had to roll with it. “Sure.”

Lady Moon--who had been a living lightshow, once, a rainbow dancing in the springtime sky, when the fireworks show of her hands had set New Orleans ablaze, a century gone and a hundred quiet bargains past--walked, and Velveteen followed, and the Spring went on.

*

Records of superhumans prior to the modern age have always been sketchy. We know that they existed: that while some origin stories may be uniquely modern, others are uniquely archaic, children somehow gaining powers from poisons, flight powered by alchemy and mixed solutions of hensbane and lead, superstrength granted by glowing rocks that fell from the sky and gradually eroded the heart. Superhumans have always walked among us, although it took a very long time for them to come out of the shadows and take to the skies.

Many of the older superhumans were canonized as gods or as metaphorical forces of nature, which may explain why so many of the reports of the Seasonal Lands read like attempts at romantic poetry. When an avatar of Spring walks in beauty like the night, it is meant literally, and sometimes terrifyingly. As there was no way to live among their original communities after they had been labeled gods, these early superhumans took refuge in whatever sub-realities or parallel realms they could find. Many took on the mantles of Spirits of the Season, and faded from the normal human world forever.

It is interesting to consider the fact that some Spirits of the Season--Trick and Treat, from Autumn; the Snow Queen and Jack Frost, from Winter--have not only performed that most human of acts, reproduction, but have passed their seasonal affiliations on to their children. Perhaps they are in the long, slow process of becoming something other than mere superhumans. Given another few generations, perhaps we will have to contend with the fact that metaphors are literal truth.

*

“Where are we going, exactly?” asked Velveteen, after they had walked long enough in silence that she was starting to wish she’d brought shoes. She went barefoot most of the time these days, enjoying the feeling of moss beneath her feet, but even she had her limits. There were jagged rocks even in the Spring, and she was getting tired of stepping on them. “I was supposed to have another flying lesson with Peter today.”

“How you’ve frustrated that poor boy,” said Lady Moon, shaking her head and clucking her tongue at the same time, like an irritated peahen. “He’s so sure that you could fly if you were just willing to put in the effort. Don’t worry about him pushing you off of a cliff. He’s hardly ever chosen to do that, and on the rare occasions where he’s been moved to get physical, it’s been reasonably easy to distract him.”

“...no one ever taught you people what the word ‘reassuring’ actually means, did they?” asked Velveteen, after a moment of staring at Lady Moon. “Here’s a tip for the future: usually it means ‘don’t talk about people getting shoved off of cliffs like it’s something totally reasonable and cool and fun to do at parties.’”

“Don’t be silly. No one ever gets shoved off of a cliff at one of my parties. Not anymore, anyway. It was all the rage for a little while, back when the mode was Gothic and the manors were always perched precariously atop the tallest cliffs.” Lady Moon’s smile turned wistful and reflective. “The gowns were thin as moonlight, and the men were strong and terrible. It was a lovely era to be nostalgic for, and a difficult one to survive.”

“You know, I have absolutely no idea how I’m supposed to respond to that, so I’m going to go with attempting to change the subject,” said Velveteen. “How old are you?”

“There are three things wrong with your question, little anima,” said Lady Moon. Her tone was suddenly cool, like that of a debutante refusing a dance with her rival’s brother. “Firstly, you should never ask a lady her age. It’s insulting to her and degrading to you. Secondly, you shouldn’t be so blunt when you redirect a conversation. Be the reed that casts its ripples through the stream, not the rock that distorts everything it touches.”

She went silent after that, still walking. Velveteen frowned and waited for her to continue. When she didn’t, Velveteen cleared her throat and said, “And...?”

“And what?” Lady Moon sounded annoyed.

It would have been smart to back off and leave it alone. Irritating a Spirit of the Season on home ground was never a good idea. Velveteen wasn’t sure she was allowed to call herself “smart” after willingly slaving herself to the seasons for her audition period, and after the last...however long it had been...she was no longer inclined to play nicely with social conventions. “You said there were three things wrong with my question. What was the third?”

“Ah. The third thing...thirdly, I suppose, for the sake of symmetry, so: thirdly, you’re assuming that I’ve always been Lady Moon. I’m as much mask as maiden.” Lady Moon reached up and tapped her own mask, as if for emphasis. “Some of us, we got to keep our names and our histories, and all the things we’d been in the calendar country. Others have roles to fill. Everyone’s Cinderella at the ball, little rabbit, and no one’s an ugly stepsister, no matter what face they wear beneath their pancake makeup and painted lips.”

“Wow,” said Velveteen, after a horrified pause. “That is the most pretentious depressing thing anyone has ever said in my presence. You should get some sort of award for being able to spread that much shit with a straight face.”

Lady Moon laughed. “I am going to miss you, little rabbit. One way or another, I’m going to miss you. Yes, I’m a bit pretentious. I’m allowed to be. It fits within the purpose I serve, and every little freedom is precious when you’ve given up so many of them. I come from a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, and when they had names for girls like me, who liked to dance until dawn and didn’t fancy any of their suitors. But I had a secret, you see. I could scatter light through the air like a prism; I could make the stars dance.”

“You were like Yelena,” said Velveteen.

“Exactly so, in some respects, and not at all, in others. I had no secret love to hide; everyone knew that the only thing I loved was the dance.” Lady Moon shrugged. “When Spring came calling, I was happy to follow. What I gave up was well worth what I gained. I talk a good game, but never let me make you think that I feel differently. I lost a name and was granted a party that’s going to last forever. It was a fair trade.”

There was something oddly wistful in Lady Moon’s tone, like she was trying desperately to convince her audience that she was telling the truth. Velveteen nodded slowly. “Okay. But you still didn’t answer the question.”

“I’m as old as the human desire for celebration and release, and as young as Cecile Warden, late of New Orleans, who vanished from the calendar country on her sixteenth birthday, back in 1882,” said Lady Moon. “I don’t really celebrate my birthday anymore.”

“Um,” said Velveteen. “No, I, uh, guess you probably wouldn’t. That’s like, a quantum number of candles on your cake.”

“Not enough paraffin in the world,” agreed Lady Moon. They were approaching a grove of willow trees, their long, fronded branches dangling down like a curtain. The foliage was thick enough to completely block whatever was on the other side. Lady Moon stopped, looking seriously at Velveteen--or at least, Velveteen thought it was a serious expression. The mask made it so hard to tell. That was generally the idea, with masks.

“None of this is personal,” said Lady Moon. “There are certain steps that must be taken, if you want to call your dance a waltz; there are certain forms that must be observed, if you want your poem to be a sonnet, and not a sestina, or a crude, arrhythmic insult to the lady you’re attempting to woo. The poet does not hate the terminal rhyme, nor the drinker detest the twist of lime.”

“Just so you know, if you don’t stop talking like Dr. Seuss, I’m leaving,” said Velveteen.

“Yes, you are,” said Lady Moon, and pulled the veil of willow branches aside with a sweep of her arm, revealing the clearing beyond. The rest of the denizens of Spring were gathered there, save for Geb, who was represented as always by a smattering of snake-necked, beady-eyed geese. “We’ll miss you.”

Velveteen stood where she was, rooted to the spot, as Lady Moon walked past her and took her seat in the circle. The rock she sat on looked like all the rocks around it, but the moment she sat down, it seemed more thronelike than the others, suited for placement atop a parade float. The rocks the others perched upon had undergone similar transformations. Jack’s rock looked like a shipwreck, wracked with moss and clinging vines. The Easter Bunny’s rock was softer, rounded, like a balloon structure masquerading as a boulder for some reason. The geese had covered their rock in geese poop, as was only right.

Persephone stood. She held a knife in each hand, one black, one green. She threw the green knife to the ground between them; there was no kindness in her eyes, only a deep, abiding sorrow, as long and ancient as the rites of spring. “Pick it up,” she said.

“Uh, why?” asked Velveteen warily. Years of experience had taught her that when people started throwing knives at her, it was time to dig in her heels and get more information. Preferably before someone got stabbed. Especially her.

“Because never it’ll be said in fair England that she slew an unarmed man,” said Jack, and burst into laughter. Lady Moon hit him with her fan. He stopped laughing and pouted at her, with the petulance of someone much younger than he appeared to be.

Persephone ignored them both. Her eyes remained on Velveteen. “Pick it up,” she said again.

“You have to,” said the Easter Bunny. He sounded apologetic, like this was the last thing he’d been planning to do with his day. “It’s the only way you get to leave.”

“You guys are starting to creep me out, so how about you just stop, okay?” Velveteen looked nervously around the circle. “I don’t want to pick up the knife. Leave the knife alone.”

“Beware the Ides of March,” said Persephone. “I really am sorry, but this is genuinely the only way.”

What is genuinely the only way? I thought I was here to learn balance and all that tree-hugging, world-saving crap, not to have knife fights in the middle of a weird willow forest,” said Velveteen. A butterfly fluttered past. She reached out, unthinkingly, and snatched the life away from it, leaving it to fall motionless to the ground. “Come on. If it’s time for me to leave Spring for Autumn, can’t you just say so?” Was it time for her to go already? It didn’t feel like she’d been in the Spring that long, especially when compared to the endless, frozen days of Winter--but wasn’t that always the way? Spring was always too short. Winter was always too long. Even when they were exactly the same length.

“We are saying so,” said Persephone. “I’ve taught you how to reach into the world for what you need. Once you leave here, if you leave here, you won’t have to do that anymore, but because you’ll understand it, you’ll be better prepared to resist the temptation. I’ve made you stronger through adversity. Now there’s just one more obstacle to overcome.”

“What’s that?” asked Velveteen, who was direly afraid that she already knew.

“Me,” said Persephone, and lunged.

*

It was easy to forget, with the Easter Bunny as the pervading symbol of the season in the calendar country--where symbols were more important than reality, most of the time--that Spring was a land as blood-drenched and brutal as any other. The season brought with it vicious rains and the slaughter of the lambs, floods and mudslides and similar quiet disasters, as the world shook itself alive again after its long hibernation. Spring was the season of rebirth. It was also the season of mothers eating their own young, of eggs that didn’t hatch and hunters in the wood.

Persephone swung the knife she held in a practiced arc toward Velveteen’s throat. Velveteen yelped and fell backward, dodging as much through luck as through skill.

“What the fucking fuck is fucking wrong with you?!” she demanded. The geese honked and flapped their wings in punctuation.

“Pick up the knife!” shouted Persephone. “Don’t let me do this!” She swung again, this time in a downward swipe that should have impaled Velveteen where she lay.

Velveteen rolled away, barely getting out of the way in time. “If you don’t want to do this, don’t do it!”

“I don’t have a choice!”

The green knife was right next to Velveteen’s hand. She grabbed it without really thinking the action through, scrambling to her feet and backing away. “There’s always a choice. You--you have to have a choice, or that whole ‘balance’ thing is bullshit. Nothing that doesn’t choose can serve the balance.”

“But you want to leave,” said Lady Moon.

“What?” Velveteen looked over her shoulder at the flawlessly coiffed spirit, who was studying her nails, rather than watching the fight. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Cesare didn’t mean to chart the path out of Spring when he was killed, but he did; beware the Ides of March.” Lady Moon’s eyes flicked upward, away from her nails, to the spot right behind Velveteen. “They’ll cut you dead.”

The warning wasn’t enough. Velveteen dodged; not fast enough. Persephone’s black knife caught her in the shoulder, and she screamed, first with surprise as much as pain, and then with genuine agony as swirls of blackened decay began appearing on her own blade--

(Nine years old, and her powers are still largely quiescent, beginning to stir in her dreams without gaining traction in the waking world. It’s Easter Sunday, and the kids at school have been talking about painted eggs and chocolate rabbits for weeks. She’ll have none of those things, she knows. Those things cost money; those things are the sort of luxuries that no one brings to the food pantry or puts on discounts deep enough to tempt her mother to waste part of the food budget. Still, she yearns. That’s why she’s up so early, hoping to catch the Easter Bunny in the act. Maybe he’s susceptible to blackmail. And even with that thought in mind, it’s a shock when she opens the door and there he is, hopping across her yard, basket clutched in vast white paws--)

Velveteen wrenched herself back into the present and fell forward, the knife leaving her shoulder. The black swirls on her own blade remained, and when she turned, it wasn’t a surprise that Persephone’s knife now had swirls of green.

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“There were so many, many times you could have come to us,” said Persephone, advancing on Velveteen like an invading army advancing on an unguarded shore. Still off-balance, Velveteen continued to retreat. “By the time you finally came, I was the only one who wanted you, but that didn’t always have to be the case. You could have been Jack’s, or the Bunny’s, or even Lady Moon’s. If I cut away enough of your past, you will be.”

“Wait-wait-wait,” chittered Velveteen. She took another hop backward. It came horribly naturally, and she realized what was going on. She was being sliced into the Easter Bunny’s apprentice, someone who had grown up here, from the age of nine. “Are you changing the world? Or just changing me?”

“Is there a difference?” asked Persephone. She feinted right. Velveteen dodged straight into Persephone’s blade. It sliced a long cut along her ribs, and she felt time bleed--

(Nine years old, and there’s the Easter Bunny, he’s standing right there in front of her, with his nose twitching and his whiskers bristling in surprise. There’s something almost dreamlike about the scene, like a voice she can’t quite hear is shouting at her that no, this isn’t how it happened, but that doesn’t matter, because he’s really here, he’s really real, and he really came for her, Velma Martinez, the girl nobody ever comes for. She starts to reach out. She just wants to touch that soft brown fur--)

It was harder, this time, to wrench herself away; Velveteen was breathing hard, and not just from shock and pain. She took her eyes off of Persephone long enough to glance down at her hands, which were no longer bare; brown velvet half-gloves covered them, like the gloves she’d worn with the earliest incarnations of her costume, back when they’d still believed that manual dexterity was somehow connected to her powers. She looked back up. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” asked Persephone. “How long have you lived in Spring, Velveteen?”

“Most of my life,” she replied automatically. Then she snarled, lips pulling back from enlarged front teeth, and charged toward Persephone with her knife held low and ready to cut. It felt like something inside of her had snapped. None of this made sense. Persephone was her friend--all her memories agreed on that, both the ones she was reasonably sure were true and the ones that insisted she had first come here when she was nine years old, student of the Easter Bunny, and grown up in Spring’s loving embrace--but friends didn’t try to kill each other. Not without good reason.

Persephone danced to the side, but not quickly enough; Velveteen’s knife caught the side of her arm. The green vanished from her blade in an instant. Velveteen glanced down at her own knife as she kept running. The black swirls were gone. So were the brown gloves. Velveteen ran her tongue quickly over her front teeth. They were back to normal.

“That’s a start,” said Persephone, and attacked.

*

They had been fighting for what felt like years. Sometimes Velveteen found herself with abnormally strong legs, and had to resist the urge to look down and see if her feet had been replaced by paws. Other times she stumbled, hampered by her dancing slippers and swirling skirts. None of the transformations had gone far enough to become the bulk of what she was; so far, she had always been able to claw her way back into the frustrated twenty-something who had grown up in the calendar country, tormented by Autumn, befriended by Winter, and passively coddled by Spring. But it was getting harder to resist, and tracks of black were starting to remain in her blade, even after she struck back.

“Why are you doing this?” she wailed. It hurt, everything hurt, every cut and bruise and new memory that overwrote the woman she’d always been, like she was just a character in someone else’s story, being inexorably revised. If it went too far, if the balance shifted...she might not understand what was happening, or why, but she understood the ways of metaphors, and the sort of stories that were told about the Spring. She understood that to grow, you had to bleed. If the balance shifted in favor of one of the women she’d never been, then the woman she was now would become the fiction, and they would become the reality.

Who’s to say that hasn’t happened already? It was a terrible question. She didn’t want to ask it, not even in silence, not even to herself. But... Which of these makes the most sense? Little girl stumbles over Easter Bunny; eleven-year-old jumps off roof; teenager passes out at the wrong party and attracts the spirit of the dance floor; twenty-something washed-up superheroine somehow magically catches the attention of the goddess of spring and becomes her student and gets a pretty dress and everything is wonderful? Her own life looked like a bad self-insert fantasy when she looked at it critically.

But it was her life, and if it looked less believable than the other options, that was because it was real. Experience and consequence and circumstance had embroidered every day into something rich and radiant, something too complex to be faked by a simple overlay of false memories. All the lives Persephone was trying to force on her were shallow. She was sure they would deepen if they became real, until they were just as bright and varied as the one she’d actually led. She wasn’t going to give them the chance.

Persephone lunged again. Velveteen barely dodged.

“You’re supposed to be teaching me balance!” she shouted. None of the others would look at her. A spray of blood had splashed across Lady Moon’s bodice, gleaming bright against the sequins. “You’re supposed to be teaching me how not to hurt people!”

“This isn’t about hurting you, Velveteen,” said Persephone. She wasn’t even winded, which was so unfair. “I offered you the chance to do this peacefully. You chose this path.”

“I--what?” Velveteen stumbled backward, far enough that Persephone wouldn’t be able to hit her without a running start, and stopped. “This is about the graveyard. This is about you asking if I would stay. You said Spring didn’t want me. You said I got to choose.”

“It is, it doesn’t, and I did,” said Persephone. She began stalking forward, moving as fluidly as the wind across a meadow. “Spring never wanted you. I wanted you, because you had so much to learn, and because of your power. You’re the last. You shouldn’t exist outside this season, not anymore, and I’m sorry, I truly am, but I have to make sure you don’t throw things even further off by going back. If you can’t stay as the woman you are, then I’ll cut her away, and make you into somebody new. Think of it as a fresh beginning. Any of us would be glad to be your mentor, your family and home. We’ll give you a past that hurts less than the one you’re giving up.”

One of Geb’s geese honked loudly. Persephone looked at it and sighed before looking back to Velveteen.

“Geb wishes to remind me that you asked a question I didn’t answer, and that I’m compelled to answer while we’re here, in the planting ground. Yes, I am rewriting the world. That’s what happens when a season changes one of our own. We change everything. Whatever you did in the calendar country will be credited to someone else. Whatever you changed will have been changed by another hand. We won’t leave a hole in the world--we’re more skilled than that--but we won’t leave an empty space for you to tumble back into, either. We’ll cut you away, and no one will ever remember your name.”

“You said you wouldn’t force me,” said Velveteen quickly. “You said you wanted to teach me, not break me and force me into a shape I didn’t want to hold. You’re going back on your word.”

“I’m not, though,” Persephone protested. “I said I wouldn’t force you. I’m not. You are the sum of your experiences, the culmination of every bruise and every scrape and every victorious smile. If I take all those things away from you, if I make you into someone who can stay, willingly, and lend your strength to Spring, instead of taking it back into the calendar country, where no one stands ready to counter you, I’m not forcing you to do anything. I’m just opening the appropriate doors.”

For a moment, all Velveteen could do was stare in horrified silence. Then she screamed and charged, knife held out in front of her like a lance.

Persephone didn’t dodge. The knife sank into her belly just below the sheltering frame of her ribcage, continuing its passage through her flesh until its hilt rammed up against her flesh and could go no further. Her own blade flashed white before it fell from her hand and hit the ground. She had time to smile, to whisper, “There you go,” and to press her lips against Velveteen’s forehead before she was falling backward, gravity pulling her away from the knife. She crumpled without another sound.

Velveteen hit her knees a split second later, gathering Persephone close and looking frantically around at the others, none of whom had moved. “Well?” she demanded. “What is wrong with you? Help her!”

“We can’t,” said Jack. He sounded genuinely apologetic, for whatever that was worth: at the moment, Velveteen felt like it wasn’t worth a hell of a lot. “I’m the only one of us who’s any good at dying, and I don’t come back all the way. Not for a long time, anyway. Persephone is a different sort of resurrection than I am. I can’t show her the path.”

“I’m more fertility than renewal,” said the Easter Bunny. “Sorry.”

“I’m all about the joy of living, not the cessation of dying,” said Lady Moon. “I dance while the plague rages outside the gates. I don’t see to the wounded.”

“So you’re all fucking useless, is that what you’re saying? Fuck you all.” Velveteen turned back to Persephone. Was the goddess still breathing? It was hard to say. She thought so. She hoped so. Closing her eyes, she reached.

All living things had life to offer her. She had learnt that when she fought Supermodel, and had been reminded when Persephone had dammed up her own inner reservoir. Persephone had also told her that an anima in the Spring couldn’t feed themselves; they had to use the world around them. So when she hit the small, flickering thing that was Persephone’s life, she kept reaching, down into the soil, down into the bones of the world. She filled her hands, tightened them until they could hold no more, and then she pulled.

It was like sticking her tongue into a live light socket. Life flooded into her and through her, burning and lighting up the world. There was so much of it that she couldn’t have kept it if she’d wanted to; all she could do was channel it, forcing it through herself into Persephone.

It was no real wonder, under the circumstances, that she didn’t feel the seal on her own life force when it shattered and let her access her own power again. All she knew was that there was a little more life to give, and so she gave it, and gave more, until there was nothing else that she could hold. She collapsed, barely breathing, across Persephone’s body.

There was a moment of silence, broken only by the disinterested hissing of Geb’s geese. Then, with no preamble or warning, Persephone opened her eyes, and smiled.

*

The flowers making up Velveteen’s dress had died when she channeled most of the power of Spring through herself. Lady Moon was a master costumer; she could whip up a ball gown with a wave of her hand, suitable for any occasion. Conjuring a simple superheroine’s unitard and tights was almost an insult to her skills.

“I’m just saying, don’t you think the girl would like to wake up and find herself wearing something that was a little less, I don’t know, common?” Lady Moon looked at the uniform and sniffed. “It’s so bland. And already damaged. How is it already damaged? I made the damn thing, I should at least be allowed to decide whether it goes out into the world looking like crap.”

“It’s her uniform,” said Persephone gently. There was no weakness in her voice, no sign that she had suffered any trauma from her near-death. “It’s going to appear the way she believes it should. The poor girl’s been through hell and back again. Of course she’s going to show a few bruises.”

“Yeah, about that,” drawled the girl who was sitting, impatiently, on the other side of the room. She rose as fluidly as a cat and slunk over to Velveteen’s side. “Did you break her? Because you weren’t supposed to break her. We’re supposed to get the same shake as everybody else.”

“We didn’t break her,” said Persephone. She looked calmly at Hailey Ween until the girl--the spirit of Halloween incarnate, if her words were to be believed, and a low-grade magical heroine who would have been a matter manipulator if a holiday hadn’t decided to put its strength behind her and push--looked away. “We showed her that there were other options. We opened our doors to her. Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing?”

And if she had tried to give Velveteen the tools to understand what had really happened in Winter, if she had tried to frighten the girl into limiting her own power, could she be blamed for that? She had kept to the bargain that the seasons had made. Each of them was allowed to push their claim, however they saw fit.

“Well, you had your chance,” said Hailey. Her smile was cold. “Now it’s Halloween’s turn.”

Persephone looked at Velveteen for a moment before she turned away. She had done everything that she could. Velveteen might not remember Spring as the kindest season, but it had been. Oh, yes; it had been.

“I suppose it is,” she said, and there was nothing else to say. Hailey lifted the sleeping girl as effortlessly as if she were a feather, and tucked her into the voluminous pillowcase that was slung over the Halloween girl’s shoulder. Then they were both gone, leaving the smell of autumn leaves and sticky toffee hanging in the air.

Persephone put her hands over her face. No one saw her weeping but the geese.
Tags: velveteen vs.
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