“SO YOU want it to be over the ears, right?”
“No,” I said, keeping very, very still. “I want it behind my ears, but only if you think you won’t accidentally take my ears off in the process.”
Fall stood behind me, hands raised high as the four winds swirled into razor edges behind his fingers. His hair had taken a decidedly burnished-copper look this month, and while it looked very good and all, his ability to change his hair with his mind didn’t really make me feel confident in his ability to cut mine.
“I’m sure it will be fine. Besides, Spring can always patch you up if it doesn’t go well—it shall be a learning experience for everyone!” I could see Fall’s grin reflected in the sheet of ice in front of me. It didn’t inspire much confidence either.
I stood up. “Okay, you know what? I think I’m gonna work the shaggy look for a while. I like my ears where they are.”
Fall shrugged and banished the winds with a wave of his hands. “Suit yourself. Five minutes and then we resume.” With that, he strode back out of the clearing and disappeared behind a tree, which I’d learned meant he could be anywhere, since Fall regarded trees as more “doors waiting to happen” than actual plants. I used to find his flightiness more than a little annoying, but it seemed to be who he was, and once I figured out he wasn’t actually trying to unsettle me, it became a lot easier to be around him.
I pushed myself to my feet and wiped all the pine needles off my jeans. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were today, beyond that it was clearly far, far away from anywhere civilized. Fall kept us moving around a lot when he was in charge of training. I asked him how he knew where to pick to go, and he waved his hand and said something about “errands.”
Still, there were worse places to be than here, wherever here was. Pine trees—and other trees I couldn’t recognize—scraped up against a sky so piercingly blue that it hurt my eyes to look at it directly. It was still chilly, but I hadn’t had to worry about temperature for a long time, and even I could tell that it was getting warmer. The ground was beginning to wake up, too—I was seeing fewer and fewer snowdrifts with every passing day, and there were a few tiny plants poking their heads out past the warming dirt. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that particular shade of green unique to new-growing life until I could see it again. Winter might have been my season, but it was still dreary as hell sometimes. Spring, in all its varying forms, was a welcome sight.
It was also, according to Fall, the perfect time for me to start working a little harder toward control over my powers. In a lot of ways, things were easier after I had, for lack of a better word, merged with Winter. I didn’t have to worry about possession or being used anymore, and my own existence wasn’t a secret to me now—the rest of the Seasons were more than happy to explain anything I asked after. But in a lot of ways, the merging had made things harder too. I hadn’t just gotten Winter’s powers—I had their awful personality as well, all wrapped up in uneasy tangles with the power I now wielded. Any time I pushed a little too far, there was a risk that I’d get carried away on a tidal wave of associations, feeling all that Winter had felt back when they did stuff like moving glaciers and summoning blizzards. And since Winter was a giant bag of dicks, that meant I felt an intensely creepy mixture of hunger, satisfaction, sadistic pleasure, and a sensation that came way too close to arousal for my comfort. There were some questions I felt comfortable asking the other Seasons about—asking if they were weirdly into doing their own forms of magic was not one of them.
Anyway, the hope was that now that winter was ending, my powers and the whole emotional trigger portion of the merging would be easier to manage. At least that was the premise Fall was operating on. Spring came by sometimes to help train me too, but she was off trying to piece together the remnants of the Dawn Civilization for… something. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, but I trusted her. Summer had disappeared almost immediately after I had left Janus University in ruins, leaving Lailah behind at her request. I wasn’t sure what she was up to, but Fall said Summer was planning to find a better host so she wouldn’t put Lailah in further danger and could free her to instead focus on her studies. Or what was left to study after Janus’s attack, anyway. I still felt bad about that, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the Seasons hadn’t let me near anyone or anything other than them for months now. Fall let me write letters to my parents and Sam and Tyler, but I was really starting to hate being alone all the time. The only reason I hadn’t tried to run away was that I knew what a risk I was right now: if I let my powers or my emotions get away from me, people around me would get hurt. I had already done enough of that for a lifetime.
Instead I let Fall take me from forgotten corner to forgotten corner of both worlds, so I could let loose with my powers somewhere nobody else would get hurt, and Fall could still rein me in. So far it seemed to be working out. Only one problem: I was really starting to lose it when my only company was a Season whose main available emotion was “flippant,” or “frustratingly vague” if he was in a mood to mess with me. Not my favorite. I sighed at nothing in particular and took a little walk around the clearing. For all Fall’s eccentricities, he did know how to find the most beautiful places.
“I’m back,” Fall said, stepping around the side of a pine. I still hadn’t decided if he really had to appear from behind trees for his transport magic, or he just lived for the drama. I was pretty sure it was the latter. “Ready to continue?”
I glanced around. Sorry, trees. “As I’ll ever be.”
Fall frowned at me. His eyes had settled into an amber shade again, which matched his outfit of, well, fall colors. He’d separated himself from Septimus not long after our departure—I wasn’t sure where Septimus had gone, but he’d looked a lot healthier and less angry at everything when he left. Fall’s separate appearance was very fluid, but he seemed to prefer looking like a midtwenties supermodel, all high cheekbones and “I woke up like this” curling hair in waves. I was just grateful he didn’t wear unnecessary scarves all the time—I drew the line at being mentored by a spirit emulating a hipster.
“You,” Fall said and threw an apple at me, watching me scramble to catch it. “You need to cheer up.”
I grabbed the apple from off the ground. “Isn’t this out of season?”
Fall shrugged. “I’m always in season somewhere. Stop sighing and focus on the positives. You’ve been making amazing progress given your situation. These things take time.”
I stuffed the apple into my pocket for later and met Fall’s eyes. “How much time, though? I don’t even know what day it is anymore. All I know is that it’s been long enough for spring to come around.”
“Really?” Fall looked around in confusion. “She should have stopped to say hi. I had some things to ask her.” He looked back at me and blinked. “Oh, right.”
“I refuse to believe you actually thought that was what I meant,” I said flatly, folding my arms.
“I am ancient and easily confused,” Fall said serenely. “But since you’re clearly in a mood, I’ll let it go this once. Now, let’s actually look at things rationally so you stop being such a grump. First” he said, holding up one finger, “you’ve already proven you have some control—the last time we had a proper spar, you kept your storm radius to about the size of the Arena back at Janus. That’s real progress! When we started I was worried you were going to coat the whole island in ice!”
“Wait, when were we on an island?”
“First forest. I was half expecting you to find the coastline by shattering all the trees, but things went much better than I’d hoped.”
“You had to hold me to the ground with a giant air explosion thing!”
Fall shrugged again, and I tried not to throw the apple right back at him. “Yes, but nobody died. I think you need to remember that before you came along, the norm was everyone and everything in a ten-mile radius dying horribly. Have some perspective!”
“You are the worst troll in the history of the world. Fine. Things are better than they were. How much longer until they’re good enough for me to see my friends?”
“Finally.” Fall smiled. “A real question. How about you show me your control now and we figure out the answer together?” And with that he pointed a hand at me and all the trees behind him bowed toward me as a gale-force wind rushed past.
I had about two seconds to dive behind the nearest trunk as shrubs, roots, and even some head-sized rocks were promptly blasted away by the strength of the winds. The tree I was hiding behind made an ominous creaking sound as the thick, healthy trunk began to give way to the sheer power being pressed against it.
I was developing a guilt complex over all the beautiful places Fall took me to being so utterly wrecked by the time we moved on.
The winds picked up, and Fall’s voice floated past with impossible clarity. “Fight back, Fay! You know better than to dodge the whole point of this!”
Asshole. I gritted my teeth and reached out to the left, where the largest clumps of snow still clung to the ground in the shade. I pulled my hand toward me, and with a satisfying roar, the mounds of snow rose up and grew in size, rising farther and farther into the air until a massive wave of white rushed up against the wind, dense enough to clash against it. I clenched my hand and let the snow heat up just enough to properly cling, and then raised my hand higher for the wave to rush forward in one all-consuming collapse. There was a massive thudding noise that I felt as much as heard, followed by a cacophony of gunshot-loud snapping noises as dozens of branches gave way under the new pressure. The wind cut off abruptly, and I let out a breath.
“Not bad.” Fall’s voice came from about a foot above me. I yelped and promptly banged my head against the bark. “Nice avalanche wave. Is that what you plan on doing to incapacitate people?” He clapped his hands right over my head and the ground beneath me gave way to grasping roots and layers of bristling pine needles with dangerously sharp edges.
I thrust a hand downward and landed on a painfully hard layer of ice just in time to avoid getting mulched, and glared up at my attacker. “That could have killed me!”
“True. And your attack was the equivalent of a bringing a pillow to a gunfight. Stop being afraid of yourself and show me what you’ve got. Or die,” he said, and a howl filled the clearing as the winds gathered once more. Fall clapped again and the wind threw me like a doll across the clearing. I focused and skidded into a snowdrift to slow my fall instead of breaking my back on a tree, but I had only a half second to look up and see the trees across from me crack and tear free from the ground, hurtling toward me in an attack that ice and snow wouldn’t do a damn thing to deflect. Fall was done taking it easy.
I slammed my hands into the ground and summoned a massive pillar of ice from beneath my feet, rocketing into the air just in time to avoid the wall of trees crushing me. My pillar shattered almost instantly, and I held one hand out in a level position to keep the top platform of ice floating in midair. Fall rose up not twenty feet away to join me above the forest. He opened his mouth to say something, and I pointed at him, sending the thousand shards of ice from my shattered pillar straight toward him, points sharpening into a glittering array of blades as they went. Fall blinked and shot up higher as the winds picked up even more, grinding the ice into harmless little particles before they could get anywhere near him. Leaves in all the colors of autumn were beginning to rise and spiral through the air, too, pulled from who knew where to block Fall from my sight. I glared and reached up with my free hand, focused all my attention on the clear skies and the potential for more that waited there. My head pounded, and I pushed past the feeling, pulling and pulling at the sense of more until finally, with a rumble that sent shivers down my spine, clouds rolled in from every direction all at once, turning from tiny white wisps into roiling thunderheads as they came.
The sky groaned and roared as Fall’s wind wall met my oncoming cloud bank, and all of a sudden, it was very easy to see exactly where Fall was—the only point of blue left in the air as the blizzard began. Snow gave way to hailstones then gave way to impossible daggers of ice falling, rising, skidding sideways, filling every available gap of air until there seemed only to be a wall of endless white. The wind’s howling lessened as the blizzard’s rage subsumed it. There was a streak of orange, red, and yellow—I tracked the flash of Fall’s retreat with one finger as he flew back toward the forest for cover, and with a roar, the blizzard followed.
It felt like someone was trying to break open my skull with a mallet. The power was insane, but it was like trying to redirect a river with one hand—I had to give everything I had and more to keep it under control. My irritation at Fall’s impending escape mounted—it would be so easy to thicken the ice, to bring a glacier smashing down on the entire forest so he wouldn’t be able to step through a tree this time, and I wouldn’t ever have to deal with him again, and I could finally be free to let loose and—
I forced that part of myself back down and let out a long, painful breath. The winds around me began to die, and the clouds thinned and disappeared as the blades of ice turned back into snow and less than snow, falling harmlessly to cover the treetops in a shimmer of a passing season. I descended slowly back to the ground, trembling as I was exhausted beyond words.
Fall stepped out from behind what was now a snow-covered, recently broken tree trunk, giving me a wary look with eyes that flickered rapidly through all the colors of autumn. “Are you still you?”
I managed a nod and tried not to collapse on the ground right there and call it a night. It was a tough fight.
Fall grinned and stepped all the way out. “Knew you could do i—” I snapped one hand and a clump of snow conveniently fell off a wayward branch to splat against Fall’s head, sending him to a sputtering halt.
“Okay,” I said and managed a grin, “now I’m done.”
Fall stared at me for a moment and then began to laugh. It was a bright, happy noise, crisp at the edges in a way that felt a lot like the season he was named for. More than a few of the snow-covered leaves on the ground gave an interested twitch at the sound of it.
“You know what? I’m going to say that if you keep your sense of humor, that’s a win. Congrats, Feayr. You’re no longer a menace to society.” He paused. “Well, not an immediate one.”
My heart leaped into my throat in spite of all my exhaustion. “Wait, does that mean…?”
Fall walked over and patted me on the shoulder. “It does. Are you ready to see your friends again? I’ll still be sticking around in case we need some emergency control, but I think you’re ready.”
“Please, God yes,” I said with feeling. “Sam’s already told me in her letters that each month that goes by equals another free hit. We’re closing in on a fourth way faster than I would like.” That and Tyler’s letters to me—penned in handwriting that somehow managed to be unfairly pretty—had been getting more… personal, of late. He was doing fine, or at least he insisted on saying so in his letters, but it sounded like his parents were even less happy with each other than usual, and that was causing him a whole lot of stress as the unhappy mediator. I needed to get back to him and make sure he was okay in person before he felt any worse.
“Well, where would you like to go first? As I’ve been informed, Tyler remains at Tufts University and seems to follow a fairly set pattern every day.”
“That would be called classes. Remember how you took those as Septimus?”
He made a face. “I would rather not. Structural education throws individuals who function better with independent research and self-guided study to the side. Standardized testing is the bane of curiosity and will eventually cause the downfall of civilization.”
I blinked. “I had no idea you felt that strongly about it.”
“I don’t, but Septimus had some very strong feelings he made clear to me before we parted ways. I’m inclined to agree with those of which I can comfortably understand. On that note, do you know what a ‘Monster’ is? I thought they were beasts to be slain, but apparently one can consume them in liquid form for an educational blessing in the short term, and serious health issues thereafter.”
“I have no idea how to respond to that, so I’m not going to. How is Sam doing? What about my parents? Is Lexie still refusing to go out in the snow, or is she getting her paws all dirty again now that it’s spring?” I missed having to shovel paths for my spoiled old dog—kind of.
Fall tilted his head. “The bluebirds tell me that your parents are worried, but well, and travel frequently. Your hound remains in good health, and—” He made a humming sound. “Yes, and the birds tell me she has returned to chasing squirrels and instilling terror into nearby wildlife. Sam is….”
I waited. “Sam is….”
“She is at Janus University,” Fall said finally. “At least at the moment. Headmaster Alferon has been gracious enough to leave our eyes undisturbed, however, and it seems that Sam does not stay put for long. She is often gone to places I cannot immediately locate.”
“What? She hasn’t mentioned anything about that to me in her letters. Does she go with anyone?”
“The shadow boy, at times. Other times, the storm girl is the one to take her wandering. They go to places of powerful weather and steep cliffs—her people are friends to the skies.”
I jolted at the mention of Aria and instantly felt a little guilty. I hadn’t really thought about her as much after everything had happened. I’d done what I could to start fixing my mistakes—I couldn’t help but think there was more I should have done. “Is Aria—the storm girl—is she all right?”
Fall’s expression softened. “You are too hard on yourself for Winter’s actions. They were the one responsible for Aria’s hurt. Not you.”
“Winter sure couldn’t have done anything without my being there, though.”
Fall shook his head but didn’t say anything more on that point. “She is well, and continues to relearn the ownership of her wings. Spring’s gift is strong, however—it is only a matter of time before the girl is soaring in the skies as often as she once did. Your friend Sam is her constant….” Fall trailed off and then smirked. “Companion.”
“You can say they’re dating, you know. I’m not exactly clueless.” Sam’s letter hadn’t mentioned whatever she was doing with Aiden, but she had told me that she was getting along very well with Aria. I could read between the lines easily enough, and Sam had never been subtle in her life. I wasn’t sure she knew what the word even meant. “I’m just glad she’s doing all right. I think I need to give about ten billion more apologies in person when she’s actually awake enough to hear them. And I know,” I said, cutting Fall off with a wave of my hand. “I know it’s not my fault directly. But I still feel responsible, and I want to make sure she’s all right and has nothing more I can help her with. That’s my choice to make.”
Fall hummed again at that. “You are a constant surprise to be around, Feayr. As opposite from my sibling as it is possible to be.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t gotten used to me yet. It’s been three months.”
“Winter was before the concept of time had ever occurred to us.”
“…Right. Anyway, it sounds like Sam is already involved in her own stuff, but she wouldn’t be Sam if she wasn’t dealing with it in a dangerous but competent way. Can you take me to Tyler, please?”
Fall grinned. “No.”
“But you just said—”
Fall wagged a finger. “I said you were ready. I’m not your personal taxi, as much as I may have been acting as such this past season. Let’s see if you can’t manage one of our more elemental tricks.” He gestured around at the wreckage our fight had left behind. “Pick somewhere snowy. You’ve certainly made more than enough potential locations for that.”
I walked over to one of the many piles of snow surrounding us and stepped into the middle of it. The cold around my ankles as the snow made its way past the bottom of my very ragged jeans was welcome and familiar. “Now what?”
Fall stretched his arms out to both sides. “Now, imagine where you want to go. Who you want to be near, if you must, and… stretch.”
I stared at him. “You’re going to need to be a little less vague about that.”
“You are everywhere your season is. Every pile of snow, patch of ice on the stream, cool cloud in the sky… those are all connected to you, however weakly. I make doorways out of trees, as you so often like to complain about. Winter is able to do the same with ice and snow. The only thing stopping you from doing so is your own lingering disbelief.”
Fall had mentioned stuff like this before, and he wasn’t wrong. Even after a lifetime of having some small bit of power, and more recently a lot of it, there was still…. It was still really weird for me to think of myself as a literal season. I didn’t feel like I was stretching out across the world and in charge of keeping Gaia safe. I only felt like me, with even more of my life out of control than normal. How was I supposed to go from thinking of myself as me to “stretching” across the whole world?
Fall must have seen my epic frown, because he called out to me. “You’re thinking too hard about this, you know. Start simple. One patch of snow tends to look a lot like another patch of snow, right?”
“Then it makes sense that there’d be some sort of connection between the two, right?”
I blinked. “If you suspend a lot of how the world works, maybe.”
Fall gave me an irritated look. “You’re a magical snow god talking to the personification of Fall. Leave the semantics behind where they belong.”
I squared my shoulders. “Fine. Snow is connected. What next?”
“Well, if snow is all connected, and you have power over snow, why wouldn’t it be possible to step from one bit of it to another? You can move snow around with your will, right? Is it really so different to move yourself through snow, when you think of it like that?”
Yes, a large part of my mind promptly said, and I shushed it. I could control ice and snow, that much was true. I didn’t think it was impossible for me to someday travel through the snow around my feet; I just didn’t think I could manage it now. Not without something a little more tangible to help me picture what I was after. Though, actually…. “I think I’m going to try something a little different,” I said, and stepped out of the snowbank. Fall watched me curiously as I moved across the clearing to where there was still a thick sheet of ice stretching across the ground, right where I’d left it during the brief attempt at a haircut. I waved my hand over the ice, watching as the fractured sheet smoothed out and the cracks from where errant branches had hit it during the fight sealing up in seconds. The ice stretched out wider and thinner until it was a perfect circle upon the ground, reflective and gleaming. I stood over the circle, looking back at my reflection, and focused. There was a river not too far from Tufts—I remembered that much. Tyler and I had gone on a walk down by it once before, and I still remembered what part of the bank looked like. I knew what the ground looked like, where there was a scattering of trees at the side, where the water lapped up at the edges….
In front of me, the ice rippled and the image it reflected disappeared and formed into something new. My reflection was still there, but the forest wasn’t. Instead there was the sound of water rushing past, and a much clearer skyline and the sounds of nearby suburban life.
“Well,” Fall said from somewhere behind me, “that’s certainly one way of visualizing the concept.” He gave the ice an approving look. “And that’s quite the gateway you’ve made there. I’d hurry through, though—that river doesn’t look like it’s naturally frozen over right now. Someone’s bound to notice.”
I nodded and prepared to step through. “Wait, hold on—what should I do about seeing you and the other Seasons again?”
“I have more reconnaissance to do on Hell’s Colonies. They will be our first target, once we’re certain it’s a challenge we’re up for. It will be a little while before I’ve gotten everything into place, however—we need to act fast enough to avoid drawing too much attention from the other power players as we’re advancing. Having multiple threats ganging up on us wouldn’t be good.”
I nodded. The other Seasons had all taken the time to explain to me what our purpose was: to keep Gaia safe, mostly by removing those outside powers that would seek to control the world. It wasn’t exactly difficult to sell me on the task, after Janus University and Didas. Anyone interested in taking over by controlling the minds of others was someone I didn’t mind standing firmly against. And after what Fall had told me about Hell’s Colonies and what I’d pieced together on my own from the brief time I’d known Septimus, it wasn’t hard to see why they were an enemy. This was part of what I had to do now. I’d do my best to fight without permanently hurting anyone, but I would do what I had to do.
Right now, though, I was so ready to take advantage of this time away from training. I glanced at Fall—what was the social status with Seasons, exactly? I thought of Fall as a friend, as weird as he was, but could you really hug what was basically a god? Was that like a faux pas or something? I decided to risk it and stepped toward a startled Fall to give him what might have been the most awkward back-pat-hug attempt of my life.
“I’ll see you soon,” I said to the satisfyingly off-balance Season in front of me. “Seriously, Fall, thank you for everything you’ve done to help me. I couldn’t have managed this alone.”
A smile crept over Fall’s face, and he patted me on the shoulder, a gesture made awkward by his slightly shorter height. “Happy to help, Feayr. I mean that. Now go say hi to your boyfriend, brother.”
Brother, huh, I thought as I stepped into the ice mirror and disappeared. I’ve never had a brother before.