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Here is what they tell you: you are small. You are weak. You will never amount to anything. You will never be anything more than what we make you. You must be beautiful, be polite, be perfect, or you are worthless.

Here is what they mean: You frighten us. You, with your warmth and your love and your giving; you, who holds life and death in your hands like precious, fragile things; you, who stands tall with a strength your spine shouldn't have. You frighten us. We look at you, beautiful and necessary and so far away from everything we know, and we are afraid.

(Here is what they do not realize: being afraid of the unknown and being controlled by your fear are two very different things.)

*

This is what it is to be a genius:

You smile. You strut. You rule the school with nothing but high heels and confidence and you wear makeup like battle armor.

There was a time, once, when you didn't know how to tug at strings until people come undone. You remember it, sort of--remember the wide eyes and wide hands, chubby fingers spread in all directions, remember asking why why why and never knowing enough. You remember learning, so slow and painful it was like the lesson carved itself a pinprick at a time into the gasping muscle of your heart; it was your own tattoo sitting heavy under your skin, etched with thorns and patience like so many ancient Druids. You learned that you could not be smart and liked, and that one of those things far outweighed the other.

So you sneer. You blink long, dark lashes and casually rip those around you into shreds and you hide your tears of boredom in your AP classes because when choosing between being smart and being liked, you always, always choose the same one.

And then: enter sophomore year. You make friends with a pretty, dark-haired girl, because she smiles so softly that even you almost miss the steel glint in her eyes. You watch as everything crumbles around you, as everything keeps decaying, on and on and the body count keeps growing.

(You watch that pretty girl die and you don't even have time to mourn, because you're already screaming for everyone else you love.)

This is what it is to be Lydia Martin: you keep going.

*

This is what it is to be a leader:

You are kneeling. Your knees are dusted in soil as dark as your hair, your eyes; as dark as this small temple where you pray. There is a spear in the ground, moisture bubbling up around it, and you are praying to your mother because you are seventeen and you are about to lead your troops into battle. You are all alone. You are terrified. You cannot call for help.

You remember a time when you could, of course. You remember your sister, her matching cocoa eyes locked with yours, the salt-air spray of the ocean around you, your fingers locked together because there was nothing else to cling to, only destruction and danger for miles around.

You miss it, in a way. You are a leader and you are in love with a boy who does not see you and neither of these things will ever change. (You are so lonely it aches, a hollow, brittle pang scraping with every pulse of your beaten, bloodied heart.)

You shove all that away. You stand. You face your army, all kids just as scared as you, and you do not tell them--cannot tell them--that some of them will die. That there will be pain and grief and a mother's wail, echoing up into the void between the stars; that blood will haunt their dreams.

You give them everything. You give them your heart and soul in speeches, you give them your every thought, you give them every ounce of strength in your too-small body. You give and give and give until there is nothing left inside you and then you give some more.

It hasn't happened yet, but it will--you will see this in flames. You will stand on a hill and taste hope on the breeze and then you will watch as everything you have sacrificed for goes up in flames and it will nearly break you.

Nearly.

This is what it is to be Reyna: you rebuild.

*

This is what it is to be sisters:

You hate each other. Not in a light, joking, 'she stole the remote when it was my turn to pick' kind of way; in the drawn-out battles and scars and blood and tears kind of way. In the way that you both watch as the galaxy is bathed in blood, in the way that you are both so afraid of your father's wrath that you flinch away and leave him mould you into weapons, let him use you on each other.

You scream, a bit. You yell and shout and cry and throw the mother of all fits. You crash a ship, fight a planet, the usual.

Afterwards, in the quiet, you talk. It's... awkward, you suppose. Neither of you was ever very good at talking, and especially not to each other. She has her own family now, a misfit one but one she picked, and that means something. You... Well, you could have the Ravagers, you suppose, but it doesn't feel quite right. Doesn't fit.

So you move on. This time, though, you leave a way to get in touch. You leave, but it's with a smile and a hug and a spaceship you didn't even have to steal. You leave, but it's with backup.

This is what it is to be Nebula: you grow.

*

This is what it is to be a mother:

You raise too many little ones, see too much bloodshed and hate and fear, and regret nothing.

You are terrified, always, of losing one.

You see one in danger and scream, "not my daughter, you bitch!"

This is what it is to be Molly Weasley: you don't hesitate, not for a millisecond, because someone is threatening your family, your baby girl , and that will not be tolerated.

*

This is what it is to be a survivor:

It is running. It is running until your feet bleed, until every gasping breath is jagged, crystalline air caught in your lungs, until you're falling falling falling and hitting water so cold you black out. It is feeling blood ( your parents oh your parents mother father why won't you wake up ) drying under your fingernails. It is knowing you should be dead.

It is breathing anyway.

You spend years locking away everything you know about yourself, training hard and fast, a brutal, copper taste spilling onto your tongue, and hurting others before anyone has a chance to hurt you. You train until the magic in your bones is nothing more than a whisper, until you stop searching the night sky for the stars that stand guard over you, until your palms are calloused and your flesh is smothered with scars, until you can almost forget the taste of clear mountain water on your tongue.

You fall in love. You shouldn't, but you do, and it is strong and fierce and bright, all the best parts of fighting with none of the killing cold. It is beautiful. It is terrible.

(It ends so suddenly, blood and an empty grave and you in chains, rattled and fading to a shadow in the salt mines.)

You should know better, after that. Should know that heartbreak will always find you, that you are godsdamned and you only bring suffering to everything around you, but--

But there's a boy. There's a prince and a guard and this fucking palace, a monstrosity of glass and stone that feels more like prison than your shackles ever did, and no one ever accused you of being smart enough to stay away from pretty things.

It's fast. Brutal and bloody, tainted with secrets, with magic that shouldn't be possible. The second one is brighter, more precious. It's like a cord that weaves itself through your body and holds you together, like something sacred to be cherished and loved forever, like the only unbreakable thing you have left. (Except: it's not unbreakable because he knew he fucking knew and he didn't stop it and now your soul-twin is dead and gone and cold in the ground, like so many others.)

It shatters. You do too, a little.

And then--and then--suddenly you're an ocean away and scowling at this towering Fae male and--

Well, it doesn't matter, really. All that matters is this: you fall again. You think it should rip your heart into fragments, that it shouldn't be possible for one who has killed so many to love so often, so fiercely, but you do and you can't change it. So instead you plan. You plot and scheme and smirk and do your level best to make sure that no one will ever hurt those you hold dear again. (It works, kind of. Except for the part where you get captured.)

It turns out... Not alright, exactly. There is too much blood and grief to be alright. It will be a long time before these wounds heal, before you stop seeing it all every time you close your eyes. But someday... someday, you think, it will be better. Safer. Happier. Until then, though, you'll just be grateful for the ones left standing at your side.

This is what it is to be Aelin Galathynius: you fall in love. You love so brightly, all fire and passion, that it scorches your bones and leaves you a spine of molten steel, that it hardens your muscles and your mind and makes you strong enough to stand with gods. You love, and it changes the world.

*

This is what is it to be afraid:

You wield fire in one hand and cruelty in the other. You break your friends into fragments because you are terrified they would have done it to you and you use lightning in the dusty remnants of a town, watch your uncle topple and fall and listen to your brother's scream. You watch your father's descent into madness and you hate your mother, for not loving you, for leaving you with this monster, for shaping all your broken parts. You watch everyone turn away from you and it shatters you.

This is what it is to be Azula: you are broken, and it will be a long, long time before you are fixed.

*

This is what it is to be a warrior:

You are raised in beauty, in peace. You grow up on fairytales and quiet days and watching the other women training and you fall in love with the art of fighting, of what the human body can do when properly conditioned.

(They do not want you to train, but you are a god-killer and that is not something that can be snuffed out with bedtime stories, not when every part of you is screaming that you should be in battle.)

You train. For years, in secret, in dark woods and cold nights and you pick splinters out of your calloused fingers by candlelight when you crawl back in before dawn. You are strong, stronger than you should be, but having strength and fighting are not the same thing. (You think you remember this, faintly, remember rough dreams of a sandy-haired boy whose mouth was full of blood and bruises long before he was strong enough to fight, but--but--that feels like a universe away).

Anyway. Eventually, they find out. Even when you are practicing with the other warriors, they give you space. They test your limits and scurry away ( godkiller yes I am godkiller hear my scream taste the blood between my teeth , your bones whisper), dodging out of range. It's like a dance. Like a battle. Like a lifetime stretching out before you, endless sunny days of these whirling movements as everyone rushes to stay out of your reach.

And then: The crash. The spy. The city, choking on smog; the secretary, so odd with her restricting skirts and hesitance with a weapon. The secretary, so similar with her eyes that flicker like sparks when she talks about the vote. The secretary, who reminds you of a warrior more than most of the boy soldiers you see stumbling back home.

You find Ares. He's in Belgium, creeping under the thin guise of a British minister praising peace, and he is cowardly. Cowardly, because he speaks of peace and quietly fosters war. Cowardly, because he hides in a room behind these big wooden doors (" where I come from generals fight by their men ") instead of watching all the death on the front lines. Cowardly, because he can't even say that he knows whose blood is on his hands. Cowardly and foolish, because none of this bothers him.

You only remember bits and pieces of the fight. There's a light, blinding and searing, and the unearthly shrieks of metal being ripped in pieces, and then the sky, swallowed up in an explosion, swallowed up like the clouds that gulped down your lover whole (there will not even be enough left bury, when it's all said and done). There's fury, bright and hot and it rockets down to the marrow in your bones. There's a scream--a wail--a shriek--of agony and grief as everything good about humanity is stripped bare before your eyes. You see them fighting, see them destroying everything. You see how they are so proud of their ugly deeds, how they stamp their fingerprints on everything in sight, how they trample each other.

You see how, when the last seconds were ticking by and everything was crumbling, they kept fighting.

(Fighting, you remember for the first time since coming to this gods-forsaken war. Fighting is painful. It is harsh. It is, you realize once more, beautiful. You look at everyone charging around you and you see that even though it ends this way, all fire and tears and grim-smeared corpses cooling in the night, they are still fighting. Fighting each other, yes, but at least they are fighting for something.)

You look at Ares, this child-god mad with power, with the blood lapping around his neck and crusted under his fingernails. You look at him and feel... not pity, exactly, you are too angry for that. Despair, maybe? He is your brother and he is misguided and all you want is to save him but he needs to die ( godkiller you are godkiller embrace your power child rip him apart like the wild savage thing you are ) so maybe despair isn't right, either. You don't really know what it is, just that it's big and powerful, the pain of a daughter and a sister and a lover rolled in one, the fury of a warrior tacked on, the strength of a woman holding it all together.

You kill him, and it feels like mercy.

Later, you will go back to London. There will be a secretary who won the war but lost too many battles and crowds of people cheering their joy. There will be sad, solemn tears because this was is over but that doesn't bring so many dead back to life. There will be empty graves for the ones who never make it home, dead or alive. You will think of Irish singing and your first snowfall and you will smile, a bittersweet, aching thing, because it hurts it hurts so godsdammed much but it didn't break you.

It didn't break you.

You know this because you are here, standing, the weight of a shield on your back and battle scars on your heart. You know this because you are strong enough to honor his memory and keep going. You know this because you are godkiller and island girl and foreigner and all these things weave around you, holding you tight and keeping you safe. This is who you are, you come to understand: you are a warrior who fights for others. You are a goddess who stands for love. You are a girl who watches the snow with sad eyes and a soft smile and a full heart.

This is what it is to be Diana: you are a woman. You fight. You love. You endure.

*

Here is what you know to be true: you are human. You are imperfect and insecure and afraid. You are, against all odds, doing pretty damn well.

Here is what you have seen: people making choices. Every day, in every office and streetcorner and government. Some choices are good, some bad. Some change the world and some hardly even shift a jogger's daily routine. But still--choices. Not excuses or alternatives or second guesses. Just choices, and the people who make them, and the ripples they cause. (You have seen, most of all, what happens when people choose not to take responsibility for their actions.) You watch everyone you know writhe under the consequences of their choices or someone else's and you think that perhaps this--not owning up to our own actions--is the worst thing humans do.

Here is what they have told you: you are weak. You will cry for your family, for your friends. You will not do anything to change the world. You will not be able to.

Here is where they are wrong: you are strong. You are strong enough to carry their burdens on your back and keep going, strong enough to own up to your choices and your mistakes, strong enough to stand alone when you must, to ask for help where you need it. You can change the way things are. You will change the world.

Here is where they are wrong: you will not weep for those around you. You are woman, and you will roar.