Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. Global Warming.

Title: Velveteen vs. Global Warming.
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...

***

Time ran differently in the Winter. At least, Velveteen thought time ran differently: it was hard to say, because she no longer had anything to compare it to. Unlike Jack Frost and the Snow Queen (and Jackie, missing Jackie, deserter Jackie, where are you), Velveteen was still considered a trainee by the season: she never got to go back into the Calendar Country, where days followed each other in a linear progression from now to then, and didn’t look back. She had to stay in Winter until her term was over and she moved on to Spring.

Winter, where the days and nights melted together, sometimes interrupting each other in the middle of what should have been an afternoon or an evening. Winter, where Santa’s Village was always buzzing with preparations for Christmas, even when it should have been the middle of July. Winter, where it was sometimes mild and sometimes fierce, but never really warm. Maybe that was for the best. Velveteen hadn’t started melting yet—not even when she was summoned to Santa’s cottage and forced to stand near his ever-burning hearth—but she didn’t trust that to mean she would never melt at all. Being made of snow was weird.

Velveteen trudged toward the center of the Village, two snow reindeer following her, dragging a sled loaded down with logs cut from the heart of the deepest forest in the season. Everything smelled like pitch and pine. She had raised an army of snow beavers to chew through the trees, calling them out of the substance of the snowdrifts around her. That was one thing about the way Winter had twisted her powers: she no longer needed to make the things she animated. As long as she was surrounded by snow, she could convince it that it really wanted to belong to her. It would reshape itself from there, answering her command as eagerly as any doll or teddy bear.

Not that the dolls and teddy bears of the North Pole were very eager to answer when she called. She had snuck into the Workshop more than once, waving her hands and begging the toys to come to her. None of them had so much as twitched. Winter had given her new strengths, but it had stolen the old ones, and it was impossible for her not to resent that.

There was a lot to resent, here in the cold.

Frozen through, more snow than skin, Velveteen walked through Santa’s Village, and the creatures she had created followed close behind her. Elves and penguins peeked out the windows of their homes, but none of them moved to greet her, or did anything that might attract her attention. They had already learned, some of them the hard way, that the newest Spirit of the Season was not inclined to thaw.

Santa was more hopeful, or maybe he was just more powerful; sometimes the two were essentially one and the same. He was waiting outside his cottage with his hands on his hips, waiting for her to return. When she came around the curve, her reindeer behind her, he smiled, mustache twitching upward, and let loose a volley of his classic “Ho, ho, ho” laughter.

Velveteen scowled at him. Santa sighed.

“If you’re not careful, your face is going to freeze that way,” he said, letting his hands fall away from his hips. “Did you have any trouble?”

“My face already froze this way,” said Velveteen. “No trouble. There were some big scary wolves in the forest, but I made bigger, scarier ones, and they backed off. Where do you want the lumber?”

“Vel—”

“I can leave it here, or I can deliver it straight to the Workshop. Whatever works best for you.” Velveteen went still and simply looked at Santa Claus, waiting for him to tell her where to go. One advantage of her new, frozen form: she no longer seemed to need to breathe when she didn’t want to. As a consequence, she could stand motionless for hours at a time. It was like being stared at by a particularly unfriendly statue, and no one—not even Santa—found that comfortable.

The snow reindeer were just as motionless as their mistress. After bearing up under their icy stares for almost a minute, Santa sighed again, and said, “Take them to the back of the Workshop. The elves will know what to do with them.”

“As you like,” said Velveteen. She turned and began walking away. Her reindeer followed her. Santa watched them go, and said nothing.

There was nothing left for him to say. He knew she wouldn’t listen.

*

As we explore the nature and protean origins of the Seasonal Lands, it is perhaps most important that we consider their relationship to human belief—and more, to superhuman belief. Save in the cases of aliens or super-powered animals or heroes who were born in the Seasonal Lands themselves, superhumans are still humans. Their beliefs, their hopes and dreams and fantasies, all still feed into the great wellspring that shapes reality. Why are the keepers of the Seasonal Lands essentially superheroes? Maybe because everyone, even those who are responsible for protecting mankind, dreams of being protected.

But because of the nature of the Seasonal Lands, they lack a certain...flexibility in their heroes. Truth has often been called stranger than fiction: well, reality is stranger than the holidays it dreams of. Heroes affiliated with the Summer will have powers related to sunshine and green, growing things. Thanks to the placement of the 4th of July and other such independence-related holidays, the trappings of American patriotism have also become connected with the Summer heroes, who may shoot fireworks from their hands, or be able to run a perfect barbeque.

Spring heroes celebrate Easter and newly-sprouting flowers and the healing of the world. Autumn heroes celebrate harvest and the turning of the leaves and Halloween, which spreads its skeleton fingers over all. Winter...

Winter celebrates the freeze, in all its forms. There is generosity in Winter, but only for Santa Claus. Everything else is about the cold.

*

Velveteen stopped outside the Workshop and waited. Waiting came easy to her now, even though it never had before; she rather thought that she could patrol forever in her current state, sitting on rooftops for hours or even days as she waited for a crime to be committed, without ever getting restless or bored. Of course, that was never going to happen, since Santa was never going to let her leave the Winter: she was going to be captive to the cold until her term of service was up. The small part of her that was still warm enough to worry wondered whether she would be given back her flesh and blood when her service ended, or whether he would send her to the Spring still frozen through.

When she had agreed to serve the seasons, she had promised to give each of them a fair chance at winning her over. She was starting to realize that they had never promised the same to each other. If Winter wanted to make her constitutionally incapable of giving her allegiance to someone else, she couldn’t stop it. She wouldn’t know where to begin.

She had expected this to be easier. She had expected it to be brutally hard, but she had still expected it to be easier. She had expected to be among friends, in a body that had a heartbeat, not frozen through and alone.

The Workshop door creaked open, and an elf appeared. He had the pointed green hat of a senior plaything engineer, and the anxious expression of a man who had drawn the short straw and was now being forced to walk straight into a lion’s den.

“Good afternoon, Miss Velveteen,” he said, eyeing first the woman and then the logs. “You got the wood we needed? That was very kind of you.”

“True Christmas pine, harvested from the forest of the dire wolves,” said Velveteen. “They didn’t like me being there. I don’t think they appreciate having their trees taken.”

“No, they never have,” said the elf. He searched her face for signs of amusement, or at least interest, before he added, “There are parts of Winter that can’t be tamed. It’s counter to the idea of the season. It can’t all be toys and hot cocoa and skating with your friends, now can it?”

“I suppose not,” said Velveteen, who was none of those things. “Why do we need to take their trees, though? Why can’t we just leave them in peace? There’s plenty of pine near here, without wolves protecting it.”

“True enough, true enough, but it’s not the real pine if you don’t at least risk bleeding for it. We’ll use this to make things that need spirit, to go to the places where they’ll do the most good. Getting these trees was an act of heroism, even if it wasn’t heroic as you might understand the word.”

Velveteen turned to look at the trees, trying to imagine them becoming building blocks and rocking horses and given to children like she’d been, before her powers manifested and got her “rescued” by The Super Patriots, Inc. There had always been anonymous gifts through church groups and kindly strangers. Maybe some of them had been stranger than she could have dreamt at the time. She wanted to be happy to be helping those children. She wanted to be delighted to have made their lives a little brighter.

All she felt was cold.

“Do you need me to help you get the logs inside?” she asked. The elf shook his head, expression losing the slow ease that it had been acquiring. He was remembering what she was. He was remembering that here, in Winter, she was more weather than woman. “Good,” she said, and snapped her fingers.

The snow reindeer dissolved where they stood, creating shallow snowbanks that would soon blow away. The logs, and the sled, remained.

“Thank you again,” said the elf.

“I do what Santa commands,” said Velveteen, and turned to walk away. Her feet left no dents in the fresh-fallen snow. She might as well never have walked there at all.

Behind the elf, the door opened again, and another elf stuck her head outside. She had a red hat, and bells on her braids. “Is she gone?”

“She’s gone,” confirmed the first elf, turning to face his colleague. “I know we’re not supposed to think ill of Santa’s choices, but I hope she doesn’t stay. She’s too cold for this Winter.”

The second elf, who had been there longer, and had lived through more Spirits of the Season than she cared to think, nodded. “She belongs to an earlier time. Now come on. Let’s get these logs inside.”

There was always work to be done, in Winter. It helped to prevent dwelling on things that weren’t as pleasant as the process of building toys.

*

Velveteen had no other chores to do: no trees to fell or snow monsters to fight. She made her way back to her little house on the outskirts of the Village, which would never feel like home, but at least felt like a place where she wouldn’t have to endure the stares of the elves or the cold regard of the Snow Queen, whose mild dislike of the anima seemed to have blossomed into full-blown hatred somewhere between Velveteen’s arrival in Winter and her attempts to serve the season properly. It would have been easier to endure if Jackie had been around, but Vel’s so-called friend was still absent, and her parents wouldn’t talk about her.

At least she still slept. She might not have a heart, and she might not be alive in the classical sense, but she still got tired, and she was still capable of sleeping. If she hadn’t been capable of sleeping, she wasn’t sure she would still have been sane. Not that she was entirely sure about it anyway. She was a woman made of snow, living in a world that bowed and danced at her command. If that wasn’t the definition of some sort of breakdown, she wasn’t sure what was.

She waved her hand over the cutting board on her table. Carrots and parsnips and turnips appeared, all of them made out of snow. She sighed as she picked up the ice-bladed vegetable knife that rested next to the board. She hated root vegetable night. The snow roots would taste the way she thought they should, but they would still be nothing more than frozen water, melting on her tongue. She missed chewing. Out of all the things she’d ever expected to miss in her life, she had never thought she would have to miss chewing.

She was dicing the snow carrots when a voice at her elbow said, “You should really cut away from yourself. Cutting toward yourself makes it more likely that you’re going to get hurt.”

Velveteen yelped, dropping the knife, and whirled to see a pale, dark haired girl in a white dress standing behind her. The girl was wearing a wreath of candles around the top of her head, and their warm, golden light filled the room with dancing shadows. She was lovely, in a fragile, porcelain angel sort of way.

Velveteen scowled at her.

“Lucy,” she said, trying to pack as much irritation and disdain as possible into that single syllable. Years of practice had made her an excellent packer. “What are you doing here? I got Santa his Christmas pine, just like he asked, and I told Mrs. Claus I wouldn’t show up for another community skating night. Once was enough.” Snubbing she could have handled. The running and screaming had been a bit much.

“Oh, no, it’s not about the trees, you did a great job with the trees,” protested Lucy. “It’s not about the skating, either, even if I do think you should give them another chance. They just didn’t expect the big snow grizzly bear, that’s all.”

“It’s not my fault that they’re short-sighted.” Velveteen knew, distantly, that she should have felt bad about frightening the elves. But regret and shame both lived in the heart, and she didn’t have one of those anymore. If Winter didn’t want her terrifying its permanent residents, then Winter shouldn’t—in its manifestation as Aurora—have taken her heart away.

“I guess,” said Lucy. Then she sobered, looking at Velveteen with eyes that were older than the face around them, and asked, “Vel, do you know what time it is?”

“Sorry, I left my watch with my other body,” said Velveteen.

“It’s about the be the Spring Equinox in the Calendar Country,” said Lucy. “Persephone is going to walk from Winter into Spring, and since you’re supposed to go there next, we figured you could go with her. It’ll be a little easier for you to grow back into yourself if you’re in the company of a harvest goddess. They tend to simplify things.”

Velveteen’s unnecessary breath caught in her throat as she went perfectly still, trying to make herself believe what the girl was saying. “I could...you mean I get to leave? I get to move on?” I get to have skin again, real skin, the color of worn brown velvet, and not this snowy bullshit? I get to have a heart, and a heartbeat? I get to be real?

“Yes, you get to be real, just like the rabbit you were named after,” said Lucy, and for once Velveteen was so overcome with joy and terror and delight than she couldn’t even get angry about her mind possibly being read. All the feelings were muted, but they were stronger than anything she had felt since the Winter had stolen her heart away. “You just have one more task to accomplish, and then you get to go. We’ll wait here for your word, and hope that you’ll choose us.”

“What do you need me to do?” Velveteen asked.

Lucy told her.

Velveteen stared. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, you have got to be kidding,” she said.

Lucy just smiled.

*

The edges of Winter were abrupt. One minute, she was walking over frozen tundra, with an army of snow creatures behind her: the next, there was nothing but blackness, and the soft sound of melting ice dripping down into the nothingness on the other side. Santa flicked the reins of his sleigh, bringing his team of reindeer to a halt. Next to him, Mrs. Claus fidgeted with her knitting and tried not to look at the pale, silent girl who was standing so close to the edge. She wanted to call her back, to beg her to step away from the abyss. She didn’t say anything. Everything they had given up, everything they had risked, had been for this moment. She wasn’t going to ruin things now.

Jack Frost drifted down from above as Lucy stepped out of the trees. The Snow Queen did not walk, or float, or anything so common; she simply appeared, forming herself out of the elements as easily as one of Velveteen’s snow bunnies. Velveteen glanced at her, a calculating expression on her face, and then looked away.

If she could control the creatures she called out of the snow, and the Snow Queen was made out of snow, maybe she could control the Snow Queen. But only if she had to: only if the Winter refused to let her go. Some part of her still remembered what it was to have a heart, and that part of her urged caution. If she crossed that line, it said, she might not be able to find the way back.

There was a glimmer of light in the sky overhead. It intensified, and Aurora appeared, shining at the center of it all like a star. Velveteen turned her impassive gaze on the living soul of Winter. Any capacity she might have had for being impressed was long since gone; all she had now was waiting.

Velveteen waited.

“Hello, Velveteen,” said Aurora, and smiled with a thousand shifting faces, so that it was impossible to say what she had looked like when the smile ended, only that she had been beautiful in her delight. “Have you enjoyed your time with us?”

“Oh, it’s been a real treat,” said Velveteen. “Lucy says I get to move on to Spring soon.”

“Lucy is correct,” said Aurora. “You’ve been an excellent servant of the season, Velveteen. I hope you will consider that we have been kind to you, when the time comes to make your final decision about where you belong.”

Silence would have been the wiser course of action, especially here, where the world dropped away, where her term in service to the Winter was almost at an end. Velveteen struggled to keep her lips pressed together, willing them to meld like two sheets of ice. But she couldn’t. Waiting had become a skill of hers, now that she was frozen solid; silence was never going to be that easy.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” she demanded. Her voice was too big and too loud for the silence at the edge of the world. It echoed, knocking snow off the trees and sending birds scattering into the air. “You froze my heart. You turned me into snow. You refused to let me have any contact with the one person in this season who’s actually my friend, maybe because oh, hey, this is a shitty way to treat someone who came to you in good faith. Now you hope that I’ll consider coming back to work for you forever? Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“I know you’ve been tired since you came here,” said Aurora. “I know you’ve been angry, and frustrated, and thwarted in the things you wanted to accomplish. But you haven’t cried, have you? You came here wounded and heartsick from the things you witnessed, and none of those wounds have pained you, because they belonged to another world. Did we freeze you? Yes. We took your pain away. We took your weeping away.”

“Tag needs me,” said Velveteen, voice unsteady. She didn’t want to believe what Aurora was saying. Sadly, even though she didn’t have a heart anymore, she remembered having one. She remembered how much pain she’d been in when she stepped through the wall between the worlds and landed in Winter’s eternal cold. She remembered funerals, and tears, and believing that nothing would ever be all right again.

She hadn’t had a single nightmare since she’d walked through the heart of Winter. There was something to be said for a life lived under a sheet of ice. It was a cold, cruel something, but still. It was there. She couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t.

“You would have woken him before you came here if you’d be certain that you had it in you,” said Aurora calmly. “The fact that you didn’t tells me that you were unsure of your own heart, even before we had to take it away. All that uncertainty will return, when you step into Spring. All that pain. All that grief. It was never destroyed, you know. It was only deferred.”

Velveteen was silent for a moment, considering Aurora’s words. Then she shook her head, and said, “Damn. I mean, I knew you were manipulative and willing to do whatever you needed to do in order to protect your season, and maybe I even respected that a little bit, but damn. You literally blocked off my ability to process grief, and now you’re going to dump me on Spring? Are you warning them? Do they at least get some sort of ‘how to handle your emotionally damaged superheroine’ pamphlet?”

“You chose who you would come to first,” said Aurora calmly. “It’s not Winter’s fault that we needed you to be capable of doing your job.”

“Right,” said Velveteen. “The part where it makes you emotional heroin is just a fun side effect. Let’s get down to it, okay? I don’t feel like listening to you anymore. Lucy said you had one last job for me to do. You want to tell me what you think I’m going to do for you?”

“You’re going to do what you were made to do, Velveteen, anima, most powerful life-bender of her generation, even if you never choose to embrace it the way you could. You’re going to save us all.”

“Swell,” said Velveteen. “That’s just what I always wanted to do.”

“No, it’s not,” said Aurora. “Isn’t it lucky for us that you don’t have a choice in the matter?”

*

Aurora led her to the very edge of the world, the place where the snowy landscape crumbled down into nothingness. The footing there was uncertain: Velveteen could feel the ground shifting and sinking beneath her feet, threatening to dump her into the abyss. Unlike Aurora, she couldn’t fly—she sometimes felt as if hers was the only power set in the world that hadn’t come up with some crappy excuse to let her take to the skies. She watched the snow falling into nothing with a wary eye, and wondered whether the last thing she was supposed to do for Winter was die.

“People used to think of Winter as an endless palace of snow, where the black mountains broke against the twilight sky, and the sun never fully rose,” said Aurora, as calmly as if they weren’t standing at the edge of everything. “They dreamt snowmen and ice bridges and cold. The Snow Queen and I both come from that era, you know. We’re older than anything else that remains in this world.”

“Uh, congratulations?” said Velveteen. “I’d really rather not plummet, if it’s all the same to you. Gravity and I have a sort of tumultuous relationship. I think it sucks.”

“Isn’t it convenient for you that the anthropomorphic ideas about emotions and the heart didn’t put sarcasm there?” asked Aurora. She was starting to look annoyed. Velveteen could only see that as a good thing. She found the living incarnation of Winter to be plenty annoying, and it was finally time to return the favor. “Winter has changed. Everything changes.”

“And now you’re a Hallmark card,” said Velveteen.

Aurora, who had not maintained her position as the living incarnation of Winter by being easily thrown off track, ground her perfect, ever-changing teeth together before she said, “Jack Frost came before your beloved Santa Claus. He was the beginning of a sea change, of people learning to love the cold, to see it as something other than an excuse for blood on the snow. The Industrial Revolution didn’t put an end to people freezing to death, but it certainly slowed it down. ‘Wintering in Hawaii’ became something people talked about doing.”

“I get that you’re being all mystic and ‘this is the folk process of reality’ here, but I’m pretty sure the people who lived in Hawaii had always wintered in Hawaii. Colonialism and having better boats doesn’t rewrite the world.”

“No, but it changes the stories people tell about the world—and while there were always Hawaiians, there were fewer of them than there were people who lived where the Winter had always been frozen to the core,” said Aurora. “The more people tell a story, the more sincerely true that story will become. So when the people who had previously lived in the cold began viewing snow as optional, the story changed.”

“Uh-huh,” said Velveteen.

“Winter began to get smaller. The country, not the season itself: we lost land as the concept of our eternal snowfall lost minds,” said Aurora. “More people were being born all the time, of course, so there were more people to believe in us, which kept us from melting away completely. It’s been a delicate balance for quite some time.”

“Uh-huh,” said Velveteen.

“Global climate change, on the other hand, has been an unanticipated problem.”

Velveteen blinked. “Wait, what? Global climate change? You mean the thing the scientists argue about, and then the weather manipulators roll their eyes and go fix the latest drought because who the hell lets people go without fresh water just because it stopped raining?”

“How often do your weather manipulators change the weather to start a blizzard?” asked Aurora. “No one complains when the sleet stops falling, or when the rain is one warm shower intended to kick start a harvest. No one objects to the snow going away a little sooner. Maybe if we lived in a world without superheroes people would take it more seriously, and stop counting on some savior swooping in at the last moment to set the weather right again. But we don’t live in that world, and the system gets a little more broken every day.”

“Pretty sure that if we lived in a world without superheroes, there would be no Winter to complain about not getting as many snow days,” said Velveteen. “What are you intending to do about it? I mean, what is my part in all this supposed to be?”

“You’re the most powerful anima of your generation. You heard me say that before, didn’t you? There’s no one currently living who can hold a candle to what you do with the beating heart of the world. You’re the strongest life-bender there is.”

“I don’t know if you caught this, or if you were too busy chilling in your mountain and fucking with people who thought they were among friends and hence would not be transformed into living snow golems while they weren’t looking, but if I’m the most powerful, it’s because Supermodel spent decades having animuses killed as soon as they started to manifest,” said Velveteen. “I only got away with existing because I had that whole ‘must have a face’ limitation going for me, and she thought it would be interesting to see what I turned into.”

“Have you ever heard the theory that energy is neither created nor destroyed, merely transmuted into something new? She killed uncounted anima and animus, striking them down before they could mature into their powers. All that energy had to go somewhere. If she’d left them alone, you would have been the pretty little puppeteer they tried to convince you to become. But she didn’t do that. She killed them, and some of their strength flowed to you, as the next loch on the line. You’re not the only one to benefit from her wholesale slaughter of your kind. You’re the strongest we currently have.”

Velveteen stared at her, too sickened and surprised to speak. When she finally found her voice, it was to demand, “Does it work that way for all the power sets? Does everyone get stronger through killing children?” I have to kill her if she says yes. I have to kill her and then I have to kill myself, because no one can know this, ever. No one can ever, ever know. Most supervillains were good about leaving children out of their schemes. If they found out that killing child heroes might make their creations and clones stronger, that would change.

Everything would change.

“No, just for you,” said Aurora. “Most of the energy goes where it will. But life likes to cleave to life, which means it passes one to the other, for as long as it possibly can. Right now, you are the strongest. More, right now, the world knows your story: the brave, maligned heroine who rose from retirement to topple a corrupt regime before vanishing from the face of the world. You’re still a tragic figure to tell stories about. That won’t last much longer. The narrative is changing, and you’ll be a villain again soon enough. So we need to act now, while the story is on your side.”

“Wait, what?” asked Velveteen. “How long have I been here?” Time ran differently in the Winter. She knew that, she knew that, but she hadn’t really been thinking about it being longer than the span of a season.

“Long enough,” said Aurora. “Longer than you think. So here is the thing you need to do for Winter, before we can allow you to leave. There’s snow in your veins. There’s ice in your heart. They were put there with the very best intentions, and you’ve nurtured them all this time, feeding them on your own freeze. Now I want you to let them out.”

“I don’t—”

“Winter has given you life. Now give it back, and give us another hundred years of cold.” Aurora looked at Velveteen, and there was no love in her eyes: not now. The time for kindness and making nice had passed. Velveteen thought she preferred it this way. At least they weren’t pretending anymore. “Freeze the sky, and I will hand you to Persephone myself.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Yes, you do,” said Aurora. She stepped back, leaving Velveteen on the unsteady ground alone. “You always do.”

Velveteen looked over her shoulder to where the heroes of Winter waited. Jackie wasn’t with them. It would have been nice to have at least one person she could trust to catch her if she fell. Then, slowly, she turned back to the nothingness.

She knew from meeting Marionette, and from her own experiences with Tag and Supermodel, that the animating force she used to control her toys was less limited than she wanted it to be. It was too big. She needed to draw borders around it and clamp them down, lest she start breaking things she didn’t want to break. She also knew that here, in Winter, the snow was hers to command—at least while it was running through her veins. So she gathered her strength, pulling it in until it felt like her entire body had become one thrumming nerve, vibrating with the effort of keeping it all inside.

She closed her eyes, and stopped trying to hold on.

The cold burst out of her like a door slamming open, the snow that had been gathering in her veins for a full year—as the Calendar Country measured time—breaking free and swirling into the nothingness. Still, she kept forcing it out, and still, it kept flowing, filling up the world. Velveteen dropped to her knees, and for the first time in all those long and lonely months, the cold bit into her knees, chilling the flesh beneath her tights. And the cold kept coming.

The assembled heroes of Winter watched as the explosion of ice and snow and infinite cold splashed itself across the void, recreating, inch by inch and mile by snowcapped mile, the landscape that had been erased by time and the slow march of human narratives. All she was putting forth was cold, but that was all that was required for mountains, glaciers, even evergreen forests to unspool.

“She’s doing it,” whispered the Snow Queen, voice heavy with awe and wonder.

“Yes,” said Santa Claus, as he wondered—and not for the first time—whether Aurora’s insistence that they follow the old, painful ways had been born partially out of fear. She had insisted from the start that she wanted Velveteen for Winter, but sometimes what a person said and what they meant were two very different things. With that much cold inside her, the girl could have challenged Aurora for her position eventually...and she could have won. “Yes, she is.”

I am going to miss her, thought Santa, as Velveteen drove her hands down into the snow and held on for dear life. She was gasping now, and the white was bleeding out of her skin into the ground, replaced by a healthy brown. But even that was paler than it should have been, like she was pouring more than just the cold into the Winter.

“Aurora, maybe that’s enough,” said Jack Frost. “She’s rebuilt half a sky.”

“She can give us more,” said Aurora. “She has it in her, and I want it.”

“I don’t want anything from you,” whispered Velveteen, and she pushed as hard as she could.

The last thing she heard, before she slipped into unconsciousness, was the beating of her own heart.

*

Persephone came from out the forest, and her footsteps left trails of snowdrops and crocuses behind her. The snow would cover them quickly, but their mere presence showed how close she was to the tipping point. Spring was calling her, and she had to answer, whether she wanted to or not.

“Is she ready?” she asked, when she was close enough to the group to speak without raising her voice. Persephone had never been one for shouting, outside of her own home.

“Here,” said Santa Claus, gesturing toward the sleigh where Velveteen, exhausted and human, lay curled in a bed of furs. The reindeer attached to the sleigh’s reins pawed at the ground and snorted, sending warm clouds of breath into the air. “We wore her out, I’m afraid.”

“Spring will be kinder,” said Persephone. She climbed onto the driver’s seat, flicked the reins once, and was away.

Velveteen never woke.
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