Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
seanan_mcguire

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Velveteen vs. Going Home Again.

Title: Velveteen vs. Going Home Again.
Summary: What happens when a former child superhero returns from her travels in the seasonal lands, only to discover that things have changed, possibly forever? Velveteen is home. Home is not the same.

***

The Princess sat on her (increasingly tarnished) throne, hands gripping the armrests so tight that it felt like she was going to break a nail. The petitioners standing before her on the blood-red carpet clustered tightly together, trying not to look like she terrified them. It would be easy to raise a hand and banish them to the thorny wastes, so easy--

“Nope,” she said, and her accent was still honey and good red dirt, still Alabama all the way down to the core. She was still herself, down where it counted. “Not going to do that. Thanks for offering, though.”

“Uh, Princess?” Velveteen looked around, searching the shadows that swarmed, almost impenetrable, in the corners of the hall. They were getting deeper. They were getting darker. And they were getting closer, which was not a comfortable feeling, given that they had no obvious source. “Who are you talking to?”

“All the fairy tales the world has ever known, and let me tell you, they’ve got some teeth on them.” The Princess grimaced, leaning back in her throne. “I’ve known the Fairy Tale Girls for a long time. They’re a grim little band, and they reflect the darkest sides of our mutual stories, but they’re on the right side. They’ve always fought for good. I thought, if I ever had to channel those same aspects, that I’d be all right. Turns out I’m weaker than I guessed I was.”

“You’re not weak,” said Vel, remembering her time in Winter, when freezing all the way to the bone had been so much easier than she had wanted it to be. “You’re overwhelmed. The Fairy Tale Girls got one story each. You’re getting them all.”

“Too true. Too, too damn true.” The Princess pinched the bridge of her nose. The motif on her throne seemed to be shifting every time Vel looked away, now roses, now skulls. The skulls were winning. “It’s good that y’all have a plan that gets you out of here. I don’t think you should come back.”

“What?” Victory Anna straightened, eyes wide and alarmed. “I can’t remain in Winter’s domain. My presence is enough to call the Snowfather out of your Santa Claus, and my aspect of the giving season isn’t meant to exist in your world.”

“See, this is my life.” The Princess waved her hand vaguely at the group. “Most people hear that sentence, they’re going to assume you’re drunk. Me, I figure you’re sober and telling the truth and that you’ll explain things if I ask you about them, which is why I’m not asking. I don’t know who this ‘Snowfather’ is, and right now, I don’t actually care. It’s not safe here anymore.”

“Why not?” asked Action Dude.

The Princess turned her blue, blue eyes on him and smiled like the first frost of winter: cold and unforgiving and beautiful, in its own way. Velveteen, who had felt that frost consuming her, shivered.

“Because you’re a good man,” said the Princess. “Look at you. The all-American boy, very picture of a prince, standing there with your one true love and her faithful friends--you’re a fairy tale waiting to start, and I don’t know how long I can resist you. All of you. I’m going to be the worst enemy you’ve ever faced soon enough, and it’s killing me not to do what my story wants. I can’t let it go. It’ll find someone else if I let it go, and it’s not clean right now. It’s going to do to them what it’s tryin’ to do to me. But I’ll sure have an easier time fighting it if I don’t have to look at your stupid heroes’ faces and remember that I’m never gonna be one of you again.”

Jacqueline stepped forward, away from her friends, climbing the shallow steps in front of the Princess’s throne. The Princess watched her come with weary eyes.

“I’m sorry,” said Jack, touching her hand. “I really am. I’ll tell Papa what’s happened. I’ll get him to start the North Pole’s media counterattack. We’ll get you back. We’ll figure out how to make the children start believing in you again, and we’ll get you back.”

“I sure do wish I could believe you, sugar,” said the Princess.

Jack leaned in and kissed her on the temple, leaving a glittery smear of lip gloss behind. Then she jumped down from the dais and ran back to the others, pulling a snow globe out of a pocket concealed somewhere in the skirt of her gown. “Hold tight,” she said, grabbing Vel’s hand.

Action Dude grabbed Vel’s other hand. Polychrome grabbed his, and Victory Anna grabbed hers. Jack stole one last glance at the Princess’s anguished face before smashing the snow globe against the floor. A swirl of marshmallow-scented snow swirled around them, and they were gone.

*

According to scholars and historians alike, superhumans have always existed. They may seem like recent additions to the world stage, but they have, in fact, been around for millennia. Their recent prominence is attributable to two major factors: an increased willingness to celebrate one’s neighbors for being able to fly or bend steel with their bare hands, rather than having them burnt at the nearest stake, and centuries of stories talking about the exploits of ostensibly fictional individuals doing the same things for the public good.

Much as modern audiences have difficulty believing the intelligent people capable of coming up with brilliant mathematical and architectural theories could believe that disease was caused by vapors from the earth, and that handwashing was thus optional, there was a time when most chose not to believe in the existence of superhumans. They were consigned to myth, legend, and cautionary tale, and remained that way for centuries.

The rise of the superhuman in modern times is interesting in part because it has happened so swiftly and steeply, and in part because it seems as if it should have happened centuries ago. Unmasking is an inevitability, once there is a mask to remove, and while certain power classes have certainly become more common with time--a prehistoric technomancer, for example, would no doubt be indistinguishable from a modern earth manipulator--the birth rate of most superhumans seems to have been consistent throughout human history.

What changed?

Some scholars of superhuman history believe that we did, alongside the rest of humanity. They point to gaps in the historical record, to disappearances that were never solved, assassinations in locked rooms, and mysterious plagues known only from the graves they left behind, and cite them as obvious proof that history has been rewritten. Chronopaths and continuity manipulators are among the rarest of the superhuman types: most revise themselves out of existence before finishing high school, while others are known only by the holes they leave behind.

It would not be hard, they argue, for a sufficiently powerful chronopath to rewind the world every time superhumans were revealed to the public, erasing their reality from the collective consciousness. By doing this over the course of centuries, it would be possible to prevent mankind from ever realizing its full potential.

The question then becomes why? And if the answer is a good one, why has it ceased? Why has the modern age been allowed to grow ripe with heroes and villains, with superhumans of a hundred different stripes, sometimes seeming to darken the skies as they pass by overhead? If some cosmic force or secret organization has dedicated this much time to keeping the greater population ignorant of the existence of superpowers, what would make them stop?

Is our world a soap bubble, waiting for the day when the secret masters of all decide that we need to be cast back into ignorance? Most importantly of all...is there anything we can do to stop it?

*

For Polychrome and Action Dude, the transit through the swirling snow was familiar, even comforting; they had been taking this trip, through this mechanism, since they were children, and knew that only good things waited for them on the other side. For Victory Anna, it was a tooth-grindingly wrong reminder of how much she had lost when her home reality was destroyed; the world might have accepted her as a part of it, but the Seasons never would. That was only right. Something had to remember that she didn’t belong here, if only to reassure her that she was not, in fact, mad.

For Velveteen, it was all wrong. Traveling with Jackie wasn’t a swirl of warm snow and the scent of cocoa. It was a burst of freezing cold, like chewing peppermint gum with your entire body. It was mint and tingling brightness, that first slap of chill before the winter really settled any deeper than the skin. It was invigorating, it was impossible to ignore, and it was not a warm embrace and the scent of hot chocolate. This was not the way things were supposed to be. This was wrong.

When the snow fell, they were standing in a snowbank. Well. Most of them were standing in a snowbank. Yelena was hovering a foot or so above it, the air around her lit up like the Northern lights. Just the sight of them was enough to make Vel’s skin crawl. Torrey was standing primly atop the snow, her holiday-themed costume change having come with a pair of snowshoes. And Aaron...

Aaron was sitting down in the snow, his weight resting on his hands and his face turned toward the sky, laughing helplessly. Unlike the rest of them, the passage hadn’t dressed him in a variation on his normal costume (which was probably reassuring; she’d always been a little weirded-out seeing her Jewish teammate and boyfriend dressed head to toe in Christmas colors, instead of something blue and white and culturally appropriate). Instead, he was wearing dark blue ski pants and an ugly holiday sweater stitched in snowflakes, stars, and snowmen wearing ironic beanies.

“Oh, how delightful,” said Torrey dryly. “The poor man’s snapped under the strain. Well, I never liked him anyway, and our time here is inherently short, due to the strain I place upon our environs. I say we leave him for the wolves.”

“That’s not kind to the wolves,” said Yelena. Her own costume was still skin-tight, but was no longer midnight black: instead, auroras climbed from her ankles to her knees, and from her elbows to her wrists, while her normally rainbow sash was an ever-changing strip of winter sky.

“No one is getting left to the wolves,” snapped Vel, and knelt next to Aaron, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Hey. You okay?”

“I’m here,” he said, and beamed at her. “You look great. I love it when you have holly in your hair.”

Velveteen resisted the urge to reach up and feel what Winter had done to her this time. She had skin, not snow; she could feel her heart beating. That was good enough for her. “Yes, good, you know where you are. We sort of rode a magic snow globe to get here, and that sounds weird even to me. But are you okay?”

“I haven’t been here since I let them drive you away,” he said, and grabbed her, hauling her down into the snowbank with him. It was a child’s embrace, giddy and joyous and utterly platonic. Velveteen squeaked before she was sprawling in the snow. He didn’t let her go. “Santa didn’t let any of us come to visit after Marketing drove you away. We were all on the Naughty List.”

“What in the world is a ‘Naughty List’?” demanded Torrey.

“Papa keeps watch over all the children in the world, and makes records of whether they’ve been naughty or nice,” said Jack serenely. “Nice kids get a genuine collectable North Pole toy on the winter holiday most closely aligned with their personal belief systems. A lot of them wind up getting sold on eBay. There was a Jacqueline Frost doll one year. She goes for about six hundred dollars mint in box.” All four of her companions were staring at her by the time she finished speaking. She blinked. “What?”

“I do not even know where to begin,” said Torrey slowly. “Shall we begin with a Snowfather who would spy upon the world’s children, watching them at their most vulnerable? Or with the concept of tracking one’s own collectable action figures via Internet auction sites? Truly, I’m not sure which is the more disturbing.”

“How have you been living in this world for three years without at least getting the basics behind Christmas?” Vel sat up in the snowbank. Snow clung to the rabbit ears attached to her headband, giving her a comically jaunty air. “Honestly, Lena, I thought you’d have her singing carols by now.”

“We’ve been busy.” Yelena offered her hands to Vel and Aaron. “Besides, Santa is the secular side of the holiday, and I really didn’t feel like enduring another of her rants on the evils of monotheism just so she’d understand why Jack traveled by snow globe. This is Winter, Santa fills the same role as the Snowfather, and that was good enough.”

“I’m finally back at the North Pole,” said Aaron, smiling beatifically as he allowed Yelena to pull him out of the snow bank. “I’m finally back on the Nice List.”

“Yeah, well, that makes one of us,” said Vel, getting her own feet back under herself before she let go of Yelena. She dusted the snow off of her skirt. “The rest of you might want to stay here. I’m about to get myself permanently filed under ‘Naughty.’” With that, she went stalking off across the frozen field, heading for the distant lights of Santa’s Village.

The others watched her go in silence for a long moment before Yelena sighed, said, “She’s going to get her ass kicked,” and launched herself into the air. She soared after the angry animus, leaving a trail of rainbows behind her.

“On it,” said Aaron, and took off, flying after Yelena.

Jack and Torrey exchanged a look.

“Some people need more gravity,” said Jack. Torrey laughed, and the pair followed their friends, on foot, through the snow.

*

Velveteen waved her hands as she walked, almost without thinking about it. Snow animals formed out of the drifts around her, shaking themselves to life and running after her. By the time she reached the edge of the village, she was accompanied by a menagerie of frozen beasts. They ranged out behind her in ascending order of size: bunnies and squirrels at the front, wolves and bobcats in the next rank, and at the back, snow lions and snow yeti and great bears with icicles for teeth. The elves and penguins saw her coming and scattered, running for their cheerful little houses and slamming the doors behind them.

Silence fell. In Santa’s Village, normally the cheeriest place in the Seasonal Lands, nothing moved. No carols played. Everything was still except for the chest of one velvet-clad anima, which rose and fell with the force of her labored breathing.

“Come out and face me, old man!” she yelled. The anguish in her voice was enough to crack glass, here where the happiest part of the holiday was meant to reside. “You owe me that much! You owe me...you owe me that.”

The door of Santa’s cottage opened. A vast form, clad in red and white fur, belted with a broad black band, stepped onto the porch. Santa’s cheeks were red, as always, but his eyes had lost some of their glisten; instead of merriment, they were filled with sorrow.

“Yes,” he said. “I suppose I do. Hello, Velveteen. It’s been a long time.”

“Not for me,” she snarled. “I lost all track of time while I was busy being turned to snow, severed from my own life force, and shoved into a rag doll. So it was a little surprising for me to get home and find out that three years had passed. Three years. You didn’t tell me. You didn’t warn me. You didn’t say anything about what was going to happen.”

“We told you that you would be stepping outside of normal time, out of the reach of the Calendar Country,” said Santa softly. “That should have been warning enough.”

“I trusted you,” she said, and her voice was a moan, her voice was a wail, her voice was an open wound in the world. Overhead, the Northern Lights pulsed in unconscious sympathy. She might have moved past Winter, but she was still an anima in a place that was defined by belief, and she was more powerful than she knew.

“I know,” said Santa, and his voice was nothing more nor less than a broken heart.

Polychrome and Action Dude landed on the snow to either side of Velveteen--farther from her than they would have liked, but there were snow rabbits in the way, and while that was a new and slightly unnerving development, they didn’t want to see what Vel would do if they squashed them.

“Vel?” said Action Dude, uncertainly. “Is everything okay?” He glanced toward the cottage with the open door, cheeks reddening slightly in embarrassment and awe. “Um. Hi, Santa.”

“Hello, Aaron,” said Santa, with a small smile. “I’ve missed you. I’m glad to see that you’ve been able to find your way back.”

“Eyes front, old man,” said Velveteen tightly. “We’re not done yet.”

“No,” he said, turning his attention back to her. “Do you really want to do this here? In the open, in front of your friends? I’m assuming you want something from me. You wouldn’t be so angry otherwise. Most people sit on my lap, or write me letters. They don’t call me out in the village square.”

“Most people trust you more than I do.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” Santa’s eyes went to a point beyond Velveteen, his face softening for a moment before he looked back to her and said, “And I suppose she’s one of the reasons you’ve lost faith in me.”

“Really. You suppose. Like you’re just guessing. Like you thought I was going to be all right with this. She’s not your daughter.”

“She is,” said Santa. His voice was gentle. “I took her in when she was a baby. I gave her my name, and I gave her my heart. I held her until her skin warmed under my hands, and when she fell asleep in my arms, I made the only selfish decision I have allowed myself in centuries. I didn’t give her back.”

The snow wolves began to growl, drawing their lips away from their frozen teeth. “That’s not what happened and you know it,” said Velveteen.

“But it did happen,” said Santa. “Maybe not always. Maybe there was a time when the Snow Queen came to me terrified of motherhood, and I gave her counsel, I gave her hope, and I gave her the chance to raise her own daughter, always knowing that Mrs. Claus and I would be there if she needed us. Maybe there was a time when my little girl grew up with cold hands and a cold, but earnest heart. Sadly, that time is not this one.”

Velveteen opened her mouth to object. Then she stopped herself, turning to watch Torrey and Jack trudging toward them through the snow. Jack was wading in it, the drifts extending almost to her knees. Jackie would have been walking on top of it, light and effortlessly part of her environment. Even the strongest spell, the strangest form of brainwashing, couldn’t have chased the ice from the marrow of her bones that completely. This girl, whoever she was, had never been Jackie Frost, daughter of the Snow Queen, heir to the heart of winter. It just wasn’t possible.

Santa saw Velveteen’s shoulders sag, and he mourned for her, even as he knew that there was nothing he could do.

Velveteen took a deep breath, visibly pulling herself back together, and squared her shoulders as she turned to face him. “All right,” she said. “We can go inside. Aaron? Lena? Wait for me out here.”

“You mean with the army of angry snow-monsters that you didn’t even have to sculpt?” asked Yelena. She looked at the snow bunnies standing rigidly next to her with obvious wariness. “Are they going to eat us?”

“They’re mine,” said Vel. “They would never hurt you. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She walked over to join Santa. He offered her his hand. She didn’t take it, and after a moment, it was withdrawn. Together, side by side, they walked to his house, and they shut the door behind them.

“Hey, Yelena?”

“Yeah?”

“When did Vel get fucking terrifying?”

Yelena smiled, the expression laced with worry. “She always has been. You were always too focused on her boobs to notice.”

“Oh,” said Aaron. “Right.”

*

Inside Santa’s house, the air was warm and chocolate-scented, much like the scent that accompanied Jacqueline’s snow globe transportation. Velveteen noted the similarity and filed it away for later consideration as she turned on Santa and hissed, “You should have told me.”

“I wasn’t allowed to,” he replied calmly. “Aurora still thought there was a chance you might choose to stay with us, and telling you that one of your first and truest friends was gone forever wasn’t going to endear you to our season. I hold sway over Christmas, Vel, but Winter is hers, and when she speaks, the rest of us obey.”

“Did she tell you to...kill isn’t the right word. Did she tell you to delete Jackie?”

“No,” he said. The last of the joyful twinkle faded from his eyes. “She told the Snow Queen to do it. The mirrors are hers; she always knew this was a possibility. It took less to change the world than anyone would have expected.”

“The mirrors,” said Vel, standing a little straighter. “There were other Jackie Frosts. Jackie still exists.”

“Versions of her do, yes. But not yours. Not mine. That girl is gone, and angry as you are with me right now--and with good cause, Vel, please believe me; I understand your anger better than you could possibly know--she isn’t the reason you came here. Please. Even if you’ll never leave out milk and cookies for me again, let me do this much. Let me help you.”

Velveteen was silent for a moment, looking around Santa’s living room, where she had been so happy once, before he’d broken her heart and ruined it for her forever. Finally, she turned back to him and said, “Everything is wrong now. The Super Patriots, Inc. were defeated, but then I walked away. I didn’t stay to make sure everything got put back together again. Bad people took over and twisted everything, and now half my friends are villains just because of who they are.”

“There are a lot of new names on the Naughty List,” Santa agreed gravely. “What do you think I can do about it? Coal in their stockings isn’t going to change their minds. Most of them don’t even bother with stockings anymore.”

“They’re smart enough not to invite you in,” said Vel. She looked him in the eye and said, “I want you to tell me how to fix it, Santa. That’s what I want for Christmas. That’s all I want for Christmas. I want you to tell me what I have to do to fix the mess I allowed them to make. I can’t...I can’t leave things like this. It’s all my fault, and I can’t. Please.” She was mortified to feel herself starting to cry. She pressed on anyway. “I’ve been a very good girl this year.”

“You know, my dear, most people who said that right after calling me out in the village square would be lying through their teeth. But you, ah. You are still the sweet girl you were when my Jack brought you home to us. If I have any regrets, it’s that I was not allowed to decide how you would be wooed to join us. You would have been an incredible toymaker.”

“Can you help me?” Vel looked at him, now crying openly. “Can you fix this?”

Santa sighed. “No.”

Vel made a strangled choking sound.

“But you can, if you’re willing to take the risk.”

It had been so long since she’d been truly hopeful that for a moment, she didn’t know what to do. Tense and wary, she looked at Santa Claus and asked, “What do you mean?”

“I am a Spirit of the Season. Whatever else I may have been, once, this is where I belong now. I’m a part of Winter, and like Jack--like poor, lost Jackie--I cannot act against my nature. My nature says that I should try to give good children what they ask for, and you have fought so long to be among the best of us, Velveteen, Velma, whatever name you want to wear; you’ve done everything you could. So of course I will do my best to give you what you want. But I can’t leave my season.” Santa smiled sadly. “My absences from the North Pole must fit a very narrow set of circumstances. I can show you where to go. I can’t go with you.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” asked Velveteen.

Santa sighed. “You’re never going to trust me again, are you?”

“Not planning on it.”

“I might have felt the same, in your position,” he admitted. “The road you’ll need to walk...it’s been walked before, and it comes with consequences. If you succeed in turning back the hands of time, it will cost you. You’d best be sure that you’re prepared to pay.”

“It can’t be worse than this,” said Velveteen firmly.

Santa Claus, who had lived through more than his share of young idealists who wanted to right great wrongs, to change the world in ways that should have been impossible--would have been impossible, were it not for the urge that builds in any fair universe, the urge that says “give them a way to fix their mistakes,” said nothing for a long moment. He just looked at her, this woman who had been a child in his kitchen, once, her hair in curls and her eyes full of unshed tears. Some of those tears were with her even now. Some of those tears would always be there.

Finally, he said, “Go get your friends. Go to the Hall of Mirrors. The Snow Queen and I will meet you there shortly, and we’ll show you how to find the answers that you’re looking for.”

Velveteen, who had long since learned that sometimes it was better not to ask, nodded once before she turned and walked to the door, letting herself out. Santa watched her go.

When he turned, Mrs. Claus was standing in the kitchen doorway, a dishcloth in her hands. “So you’re going to help her do it,” she said.

“I have to,” he replied. “It’s what she wants for Christmas. You know I can’t refuse someone from the Nice List when they stand in front of me and tell me what they want for Christmas.”

“You can, and you have. When they ask for something that might well break the universe, you are absolutely allowed to tell them ‘no, I’m sorry, have a lollipop instead.’” She glowered at him. “You’re being a sentimental old fool, Nicholas, and for what? Because she’s had a hard life? Lots of them have had hard lives. You haven’t sent them all on this path.”

“I’ve set a few on the right road. It’s not my fault if they don’t all make it there.”

“And if she does? Are you prepared for another century in the shadows, letting other people decide what we’re going to be, before we can be part of our own stories again?”

“Oh, my sweet girl. Admit what you’re really worried about. You’re afraid she’ll find a way to take Jacqueline away from us.”

Mrs. Claus sighed deeply. “I always wanted children. I’ve always been so jealous of the versions of us who got to have her. Jealousy isn’t good for me. I’m not meant to be the jealous type. It hurts.”

“I know, love.” Santa crossed the room to press a kiss to her temple. “It will all work out. I promise you that. However it goes will be how it was meant to happen. Trust them. They’re the ones who have to live in the world they’re making.”

“Do they know that?”

Santa looked toward the door. “I certainly hope so,” he said.

*

The others were waiting on the porch when Velveteen emerged. Aaron was the first to react. “Well?” he asked.

“Santa’s going to help us,” she said. “Jack, he wants you to take us to the Hall of Mirrors.”

“Papa told you to go to the Hall of Mirrors?” Jack frowned. “That’s odd. He normally wants me to stay as far away from there as possible.”

“That’s what he said,” said Vel. “Do you know the way?” Jackie would have. Jackie had been training to become her mother’s heir for years, had walked through every mirror in that frozen Hall. Velveteen looked at the pale and anxious girl in front of her, and thought that if she shook Winter all the way down to its foundations, she wouldn’t have made them suffer enough.

But it wasn’t Jack’s fault. If anyone was blameless here, it was her. Velveteen tried to remember that, and to swallow her anger.

“I do,” said Jack. She looked uncomfortable. “What are we going to do once we get there?”

“Does it matter?” asked Torrey. The others turned to look at her. She shrugged. “When our dear Lady of the Toybox decides to do something, she rarely consults with the rest of us. She spent too much time a soloist, and no longer remembers how to play nicely with the symphony. What’s to come will come, and the rest of us will go along with it, because we are, for whatever misguided reasons, greatly inclined to follow her.”

Yelena frowned and put her arm around Torrey’s shoulders, gathering the smaller woman close. “You’re really uncomfortable here, aren’t you?”

“Ah, Pol.” Torrey smiled up at her, weary and wry. “Everything in this place is based upon the iconography of a world that is not my own. I love your world, I do, but a girl likes to pretend she’s culturally literate, and every part of my surroundings reminds me that I am not.”

“We’re going to fix things,” said Velveteen. The others turned back to her. She was focused on Jack. “That’s what you want to know, right? What we’re going to do? We’re going to fix things. I don’t know how, and I don’t know what the world is going to look like afterward, but we’re going to fix things.”

“Everything?” asked Jack.

Velveteen hesitated before saying, “If there’s any way to make this all have just...not happened, that’s what I’m going to do. That would mean Jackie would never have needed to save me, and if she didn’t need to save me, she didn’t get erased. Will you still help us?”

“Why did you tell me if you thought I wouldn’t?” asked Jack.

Velveteen shrugged. “I figured you should have a choice, if there’s a chance you’re about to be wiped from existence.”

Jack smiled a little. “I wouldn’t be the selfless spirit of Christmas if I tried to tell you ‘no,’ but I’m not just saying ‘yes’ because of my nature,” she said. “I don’t want to take someone else’s life. There will always be Jacquelines. This world is supposed to have a Jackie.”

“Then lead the way,” said Velveteen.

Jack nodded and stepped off the porch, starting deeper into the village. Torrey followed. As before, Yelena hovered above the snow rather than trying to walk through it, but this time she floated next to her girlfriend, lighting up the air around them.

When Vel stepped off the porch, Aaron was by her side, his feet as firmly on the ground as her own.

She took his hand as they walked, and neither one of them said a word, and neither of them needed to.

*

Santa and the Snow Queen were waiting on the steps of the Hall of Mirrors. No one commented on the fact that Santa couldn’t possibly have beaten them there: this was his place, and he was capable of virtually anything.

Looking at the Snow Queen, Velveteen thought she looked even colder than usual. Her aristocratic features were set into a frozen mask of disdain, her chin raised as she looked down her nose at the warm-blooded heroes in front of her. Jack reddened and turned her face away, not meeting the Snow Queen’s eyes.

“Well?” Velveteen held fast to Aaron’s hand as she looked at Santa. “Now what?”

“Now you go inside,” he said. “There is a door. It’s not large, or flashy; it’s not easy to find, when you’re surrounded by so many more interesting things. But it’s there. Find it. Open it. Go through. What you’re looking for is on the other side.”

Velveteen stared. “Seriously? That’s it? ‘Go in there and find a door, and we won’t tell you what’s on the other side, but hey, good luck’? That’s bullshit. What are we looking for?”

“We don’t know,” said the Snow Queen. Her voice was a blizzard, and all of them shivered, even Jack, who was no longer cold enough to withstand her mother’s words. “We are Spirits of the Season, bound to this time, this place, and the door you seek is not available to us. We are not allowed to know such things.”

“What about Jack?” asked Yelena.

“The daughter of the Toymaker is not yet an archetype; she is idea as much as she is flesh, but she exists in your world alongside ours,” said the Snow Queen. “She may go where she will, and the consequences will be upon her.”

Jack laughed unsteadily. “Aren’t they always?” she asked, and looked to Velveteen. “Well? You’re the one leading this parade.”

“So let’s go,” said Velveteen.

The Snow Queen waved her hand. The doors of the Hall of Mirrors swung slowly open, revealing the glittering maze beyond. Aaron bore down harder on Vel’s hand. She paused, realizing that he had never been here before.

“It’s all right,” she murmured. “It’s just the versions of us that we might have been. They can’t hurt you if you don’t touch the mirrors.”

“Because that’s reassuring,” muttered Aaron. He didn’t let go of her hand, and she didn’t try to pull away. They seemed to be taking comfort from each other.

Yelena, watching this, smiled to herself. It had been too long since she’d seen them like this. Some things were always meant to be, even if they only happened at the end of the world.

Velveteen took a deep breath. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”

She walked into the Hall of Mirrors with Aaron by her side. Yelena landed lightly next to Torrey, and they followed their friends through the door. Jack brought up the rear, glancing at her father’s face long enough to see his reassuring nod. She didn’t look at her mother at all.

The doors slammed shut behind her, blocking the group from view. Santa and the Snow Queen stayed where they were, silent, looking at anything but each other, while around them, the wind howled. A blizzard was kicking up. For once, it wasn’t clear which one of them was to blame. For once, it didn’t really matter.
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