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...
The sky over Santa’s Village was clear, affording the citizens a beautiful view of the Northern Lights, which painted the air in a hundred shimmering shades of orange, green, pink, and pearlescent blue. It was a spectacle quite unlike any other in the world, breathtaking in its beauty, shifting from second to second, so that any photographer alive would have killed for the chance to take just one shot. It was magical.
Naturally, the small line of figures now standing at the head of the village’s main street was ignoring it completely.
They were a motley group of archetypes, like something out of a children’s storybook. The tall, elegant Snow Queen, with her pale skin and her white hair and her gown made out of frost and silence. The shorter, more robust Jack Frost, blue skinned and hovering a foot above the ground, his knees bent to tuck his feet up out of the way. The matronly shape of Mrs. Claus, her hands tucked into her apron—and of course, as always when a threat was encroaching upon the village, the tall, unmistakable form of Santa himself.
He was a big man in every sense of the word. Broad of shoulder, long of leg, with a stomach that could shake like a bowl full of jelly or provide the world’s toughest natural protection for his internal organs. Any man looking to stab Santa in the kidney would find themselves facing a daunting barrier—and doubtless facing Santa’s fist not long after. He was a jolly old elf, yes, but he had been the face of the living Winter for centuries for many reasons, and not all of them had to do with how many toys he could deliver in a night.
“She may not come,” said the Snow Queen. “Lucia left her in the mountain. Many never leave those frozen chambers.”
“Do you forget who we’re waiting for?” asked Santa. There was no trace of laughter in his question, no hint of holiday cheer. He sounded as serious as any of them had ever heard him. “Velveteen always finds a way. She’s too stubborn to lie down and freeze.”
“She would have,” said Jack Frost softly.
It was inappropriate for any of them to question Santa Claus in the open, where the elves or penguins could hear. Under the circumstances, none of them had the heart to chastise Jack for speaking out of turn. Instead, they simply stood in their little line of four, the spirits of the living Winter, and watched the horizon, waiting for the newest of their number to arrive.
Velveteen stalked through the mountain like the unholy offspring of Frosty the Snowman and the final survivor of a horror movie. Her army of snow creatures walked with her, bears and wolves and rabbits and rough-featured golems, all of them sculpted from the very stuff of the mountain surrounding them. Every so often she would grab another handful of loose-packed snow from the wall and fling it over her shoulder, where it would solidify into another member of the frozen army. Snow stags with antlers made of reaching pine boughs. Snow unicorns with icicle horns. If she had limitations here, in the heart of Winter itself, she had yet to find them, and when she reached whatever was waiting for her at the bottom of this road, she wanted to be prepared. She wanted to rain down icy death on anyone who stood against her.
It occurred to her that sometimes her responses to conflict were somewhat disproportionate, and fueled by the sort of anger that could keep a therapist in business for years. “Who the fuck cares?” she muttered, sending echoes dancing through the hall. Winter, which had always been her safe haven and ally amongst the seasons, had tried to kill her. It had dropped her into the cold and left her to figure things out from there. If she was pissed off, who could blame her? They should have played fair.
The candle she had plucked out of the snow when she woke in her frozen cocoon was still burning steadily, sending flickers dancing across the iced-over walls. It hadn’t burned down in the slightest, even though she felt like she had been walking for hours. If it was dripping at all, the ice had managed to miraculously miss her so far. She wanted to stick a finger into the flame, to find out whether it had any heat, but she didn’t quite dare. What if her flesh melted like the snow she appeared to have been made of? That might be one thing too many for her to be expected to cope with.
In the end, she just kept walking. She didn’t know what else she could do.
It is sometimes easy to forget that the Seasonal Lands predate humanity: that human thought may shape them, may influence their landscapes and the personalities who inhabit them, but that they are neither the creation nor the servants of the human race. When Santa Claus smiles and hands toys to children, when the Snow Queen dances in the air during a Christmas snowfall in Times Square...it seems so natural, and so artificial at the same time, like they’re too perfect to be real, and hence must be things we have manufactured for our own enjoyment.
We overlook the pieces that don’t fit, the skaters who fall through thin ice, the hikers who freeze, the children who go to bed full of hope and wake to empty stockings. We overlook them because they don’t fit the narrative we prefer to cultivate about the Seasonal Lands, and because the Seasonal Lands thrive on narrative. They demand that we tell stories about them. Stories are what keep us in control, to whatever degree we can be said to control those mercurial and undying countries.
So we speak of jolly men in red coats who hand out gifts to the deserving. We sing songs about tricksters who can freeze the world with a touch, and we tell fairy tales about beautiful women with cold, unyielding hearts. We reveal ourselves in the shapes we force upon the seasons, and we never stop to consider that perhaps they are forcing themselves on us in turn.
There are a lot of things we never stop to consider. Maybe we should.
Maybe we would lose fewer children to the cold.
Velveteen walked deeper, and her frozen army walked with her. Their feet made no sound on the snowy floor of the cave, and neither did hers; she was as much a creature of the snow as they were, something that still made her head spin and her breath catch in her chest when she allowed herself to think about it. But it didn’t make her heart beat hard. She hadn’t felt her heartbeat since she woke. She was starting to think that maybe she didn’t have a heart anymore.
She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Without a heart, she could never wake Tag from his enchanted sleep—giving someone “true love’s kiss” sort of assumed that you were capable of loving them, and the heart was a necessary part of that—but she wouldn’t be as devastated by leaving him there forever, either. She could finally be as cold and unfeeling as she had always tried to be, back when she was a so-called supervillain on the run from her former allies. She could honestly say that she didn’t have a care in the world.
But she wasn’t that girl anymore. She was the woman who had defeated Supermodel, who had traded her own freedom to the Seasonal Lands for the sake of a girl she’d never met when she brought Jory back to life. She was so much better than the heartless runaway she’d been, and it was hard not to feel the motionless void in her chest and view it as a step backward, toward something she’d outgrown.
“I thought Winter was supposed to be where the good guys lived,” she muttered.
“Everyone gets to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for themselves,” said a voice. It was sweet, and female, and unfamiliar, echoing back from the darkness up ahead. “It’s interesting. Ask ten people and get ten different answers. That’s how they say it out in the Calendar Country, isn’t it? Everyone has an opinion?”
Velveteen stopped dead. She had passed most of her classes while she was still with The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, and she knew that pleasant voices addressing you out of dark places were traps more often than they were anything else. Sometimes she hated being so cynical.
Most of the time she just appreciated being likely to survive. “Where is the, um, ‘Calendar Country’?” she asked. “Is that near here?”
“No, dear heart, it’s where you come from. The country that experiences all four seasons, all four temperatures of the soul, and never commits itself to any of them. You can come closer, you know. I need to see you if I’m to decide what to do with you, and hanging back like this just makes it harder on all of us.” The voice didn’t sound impatient. It was the voice of a woman with all the time in the world. She could have waited forever, if that was what it took for Velveteen to start moving again.
“You know, I was taught never to approach hidden oracles in frozen mountains.” The Super Patriots, Inc. might have been cavalier with their junior heroes, but they had at least made sure that those same junior heroes were prepared for as many of the slings and arrows the world might throw at them. From haunted houses and alternate timelines to creepy voices that tried to lure you down into the dark, if it was a danger frequently faced by the superheroic community, there was a seminar about it. Velveteen had passed “Don’t Go In There: Reaching Adulthood Without Learning Your Future” with flying colors.
The voice from the mountain chuckled. “I do love your spirit. Too many people think that Winter is only extremes. The cold of the exterior, where the wind can strip the flesh from your bones before you realize that you’re dead. The warmth of the hearth, where gifts are given and lives are reaffirmed. They forget that the in-between exists even in the stable seasons, not just in the liminal ones.”
“So what, sarcasm is one of my superpowers now?”
“My dearest, my darling, my dark December girl, sarcasm has always been one of your superpowers. Now you say that you were taught never to walk down into the dark after an oracle. That’s not a bad lesson, I’ll agree. But if you don’t walk down into the dark after me, you’ll stand in that hall forever. The only way out is forward, and my season has already begun to have its way with you.”
Velveteen looked down at her cold white hands. There were no lines on her palms, she noted dispassionately: they were as smooth as sheets of ice. “I noticed.”
“Then hear, and understand me when I say to you again that the only way out is forward. If you want the chance to wear flesh instead of frost, you’ll come to me. You’ll let me see you. You’ll do what you promised, and you’ll serve the season. Maybe you’ll learn that there are advantages to being what you are now. Heartless creatures rarely suffer the way that warmer things do.”
Velveteen frowned into the darkness. “I didn’t volunteer to give my heart to the Winter. I have someone waiting for me back in the real world.”
“But you see, that’s why you had to give your heart. You promised us a fair try. How can you give us a fair try if all your thoughts are for the man you loved and lost and wouldn’t let go?”
It was impossible to argue with the logic of the voice from the dark, and worst of all, Velveteen realized that she didn’t care that much. It was academic, the sort of thing to be talked out over cups of cocoa, not shouted passionately under a mountain. So much passion came from the idea of the heart, and these were the Seasonal Lands, where ideas were everything.
“Now will you come to me, or shall we wait a little longer?” asked the voice, once Velveteen’s silence had stretched out long enough to be taken as agreement.
“I still don’t like this.”
“You still don’t have to. Now come.”
The darkness in the tunnel was absolute, closing in around her like black velvet curtains and blocking out everything, even the faint, glittering sparkle of her own icy skin. Velveteen gritted her teeth and kept walking. She had come too far to turn back now, and besides, where would she have gone? As the voice from the mountain was so fond of saying, the only way out was forward. Backtracking would have just meant going through this clinging darkness a second time, and she didn’t have the patience for that.
“Fucked-up times five thousand,” she muttered, and kept walking.
As if that had been some sort of profane, improbable password, the darkness began to dissipate around her, replaced by a delicate, rosy light. It was like walking into the sunrise, only colder, the sort of beauty that only came from frozen things, and never warmed them at all. Velveteen took another step forward, and the darkness broke completely, shattering into stardust and replaced by that bright, rosy glow.
The center of the mountain was empty, a vast, gem-studded cavern with diamonds and amethysts growing from the walls. They didn’t cast the light, but they refracted it, throwing it back and forth until every corner was illuminated, leaving nothing unseen. The light’s source sat on a throne that seemed to have been carved from a single garnet. Velveteen stopped, squinting and raising one hand to shield her eyes as she tried to see the figure better.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hello, Velveteen,” replied the woman, and her voice was kind but not warm: there was no warmth in her. Maybe there never had been. The glow made it impossible to pin down the details of her face. As it shifted, shading from palest pink to rosy red, her skin tone seemed to shift with it. She was all races, and no race, all at the same time. She was plump, like the hunters who thrived at the top of the world; she was thin, skeletally so, like the unprepared souls who stumbled out into the snow after starvation took its toll.
“I’ve been waiting a long, long time to meet you,” continued the woman. “My children have always thought very highly of you, and I trust them. They say that you could be one of mine, and I can see that potential in you, in the form you crafted for yourself when you were given access to my heart. You could very easily be a winter girl, my dear, and you would be happy here.”
“Currently made of snow,” said Velveteen, crossing her arms across her chest. It should have been a warming gesture, but like the woman in front of her, there was nothing about her that was warm. “Not so sure I want to be a winter girl if it means being made of snow.”
“You may change your mind before your term is done,” said the woman.
“I promised service, and I promised to fairly consider the suits of all three seasons that want me when I was done,” said Velveteen. “That means you have to let me go at the end of my term, because otherwise I can’t fairly consider Spring and Autumn.”
“True enough,” said the woman, with an amiable nod. “But you chose to come to us first, and when you were the given the opportunity to reshape yourself, you chose heartlessness. That means something. That means more than you can understand, as yet. Believe me, all will be clear before you’re done here.”
“Oh, swell. That makes everything better. I mean, who cares if you’re being weird and obscure and dumping me in blizzards and turning me into snow now? Everything’s going to be clear before I get to go home. Call the fucking papers.” Velveteen scowled. “I still don’t know your name. It might be easier to trust you if I had something to call you.”
“You aren’t the most polite supplicant I’ve ever had,” said the woman. She leaned back in her throne, watching Velveteen thoughtfully. “You may call me Aurora, if you must have something to call me. Names are limitations we place upon the world to try and hold it static. Without them, things would be much freer to choose their own incarnations.”
“I’m currently made of snow,” said Velveteen. “I really like having a name to hang on myself, to remind me that I’m still the same person.”
“But that’s the rub, isn’t it? You could be a blizzard if you set your name aside. You could be a glacier, a snowfall, a glorious pattern of weather moving across the living winter. You tie yourself to the form you’re in with the name you refuse to set aside.”
“And that’s exactly why I’m not letting go of it.” Velveteen dropped her arms, gesturing helplessly to the snow creatures that clustered around her. “Not everything can be limitless and unformed. Sometimes you just want to be a person, and not a theoretical concept.”
“Theory is easier. Theory hurts less.”
“Theory loves less, too. Theory hasn’t got a heart, and never gets to risk breaking it. I’d rather be thing than theory.” Velveteen paused, suddenly realizing that she had been running her mouth at a woman who appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be the Winter. Then she shrugged. She’d run her mouth at worse. “Thing is a lot more fun.”
“We’ll see,” said Aurora. “Velveteen of the Calendar Country, do you swear yourself into my service for the duration of a season, to see what it means to be of the cold, and to be able to fairly decide who, if any, may have you when your time is done?”
The air grew heavy with intangible meaning. Velveteen’s earlier realization came back with friends. This hadn’t just been a conversation: it had been an interview, and an audition, even if she still didn’t fully understand what she was auditioning for.
The only way out was forward. “I do,” she said.
Aurora smiled. “Good,” she said. “Then we begin.”
The sky over Santa’s Village was clear. Too clear, almost: there were normally a few cotton candy clouds dotting the horizon, completing the picture book scene that the pastoral little town presented. Image and idea were everything here, and how many children who had drawn the village had given it perfectly clear, perfectly cloudless skies? The lights danced and shimmered overhead, painting everything in blue and green and purple, the colors of a great and beautiful bruise.
“She may not come,” said the Snow Queen again. There was a faint touch of sorrow in her tone. Jack Frost glanced at his wife—so beautiful and so alien, even after their centuries together; he loved her as a candle loves a flame, and knew that even if they were together until the end of time, she would never love him half so fiercely. She never could.
But that wasn’t to say she didn’t know how to love. She knew, for all that she might have wished she didn’t. She could be hurt, and hurt badly, because it was so hard for her to love at all. “She’ll come,” he said. This won’t have been for nothing.
It wouldn’t have been for nothing. It couldn’t possibly have been for enough.
The lights overhead shifted and danced, and the sound of feet on hard-packed snow drifted through the clear air. Feet; paws; hooves, sharp and slicing through the frosted crust like so many icy knives. Finally, the sound of a sleigh, skating over the snow on polished runners, like a whisper of oncoming pain. Santa Claus straightened. Beside him, Mrs. Claus did the same. The Snow Queen, who had never slumped, stood proud and tall and waiting, eyes narrowed as she watched the horizon.
Only Jack Frost allowed himself the momentary respite of closed eyes and bowed shoulders, accepting what this meant, what this had always meant. She was coming. The heart of Winter had looked at her and found her sufficient...and what had been taken would not be returned.
When he opened his eyes, the first of the snow beasts was cresting over the hill and beginning its descent into the village. Great white stags with antlers of ice; hopping white rabbits with brown pinecone tails. It was a miraculous sight, enough to steal even the most hardened soul’s breath away. The procession went on for what seemed like hours, with great snow bears and towering snow moose following their smaller brethren out of the trees.
Finally, just as the wonder was beginning to wear off, four vast snow reindeer appeared. They were crowned with antlers made of evergreen boughs, and their breath left no heat trails in the air. They were pulling a sleigh made of vine-worked ice and snow, and sitting in that sleigh was a woman, as white as the snow that surrounded her, dressed in green holly and brown bark and spreading mistletoe. She was beautiful. She was terrible. She was familiar, and she was strange.
Santa stepped forward. He was their emissary, after all, and had been for centuries, ever since he had stepped up and taken the mantle of winter as his own.
“Hello, my dear,” he said. “You’re looking well. I’m glad to see you made it through the Winter unscathed, and can now begin your term of service.”
“I’m made of snow, you asshole,” Velveteen replied. “If this is what you consider ‘unscathed,’ I’m glad as fuck you never had kids. What the fuck?”
“Language, please,” chided Mrs. Claus. She fell back a step when Velveteen turned her icy glare on the older woman. Voice smaller now, she said, “We have to think of the children. They look on Winter as a place of wonder and delight.”
“Your ‘place of wonder and delight’ just tried to freeze me to death,” said Velveteen. She stood. Two of her snowmen hurried to help her down from the sleigh. When she stepped onto the surface of the snow, her feet left no impressions; it was as if she weighed as little as the wind. She stalked forward, and although she was stomping, she left no tracks behind her. Pointing her index finger at Santa Claus, she snarled, “I said I’d serve you. I didn’t say I’d die for you. You cheated.”
“No, my dear, I didn’t,” said Santa. There was genuine regret in his voice. Velveteen was just too upset to hear it. “You never asked me what service would entail.”
“Would you have told me if I’d asked?”
Santa said nothing. His silence was more than answer enough.
Velveteen shook her head, disgusted. “Great. Swell. Swell and great and dandy. Where’s Jackie?” She turned to Jack Frost and the Snow Queen. “Shouldn’t she be here to celebrate finally getting me all the way into the Winter? Maybe she can explain why I shouldn’t call the whole thing off right now.”
“Jackie isn’t here,” said Jack Frost. “She would distract you from fulfilling your duties to the season. You’re too close, and we want you to make your choice fairly. You don’t have friends in Spring or Autumn, after all.”
“So you sent away the only person I’m not seriously pissed off at, because you thought it would make the choice more fair? Wow. You’re not just assholes, you’re stupid assholes. When you talk to Jackie next, tell her it’s your fault I’m probably not going to choose you.” Velveteen turned back to Santa Claus, still glaring. “All right. I’m here. I’ve met your precious Aurora, and she’s told me that the only way out is forward. So tell me what to do. I am in your service. Put me to work.”
“I had hoped that you might resent us less for asking you to keep your word,” said Santa, slowly.
“If you wanted me to resent you less, you should have warned me,” Velveteen replied. “What do you want me to do?”
Santa sighed. “Is this how things are going to be between us?”
“Let me check and see if I’m still made of snow,” said Velveteen. She looked down at one dead white arm, and then back up at Santa Claus. “Yup. This is how things are going to be.”
“Very well then,” he said. “Follow me.” Santa turned to walk deeper into the village. Velveteen started after him, as behind her, the army of winter creatures crumbled back into the landscape, leaving nothing but branches and churned-up snow.
The Snow Queen waited until the pair was out of earshot before she said, “The girl is strong. She’ll be an asset, if she chooses to stay.”
“She’ll be a problem until she chooses to go,” said Mrs. Claus. She shook her head. “I’ve always liked that child, but I have a bad feeling about this. She isn’t choosing Winter the right way. She’s forcing Winter to choose her. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
“We’ve already paid enough,” said Jack, and there was a bleak viciousness in his voice that spoke to all the winds of all the world. “She had best choose us.”
Silence fell after that. It seemed that there was nothing else to say.
Santa and Velveteen stalked through the village without exchanging a word. His feet left tracks; hers did not. Otherwise, there might as well have been no difference between them. The elves and penguins who peeked out of their little houses to watch them pass made no effort to show themselves. They had lived in Winter long enough to recognize a blizzard when they saw one coming.
At the edge of the village was a little house that hadn’t been there the day before. It was made of pine branches and snow, and seemed rough-hewn, despite the smoothness of the walls and the way it fit into the landscape. It looked old. Old as mountains; old as snowfall. Santa stopped just outside the fence, which was made of piled-up stones held together by vines of frost.
“This is yours,” he said, looking to Velveteen. “Winter will keep it here for as long as you need it. Whatever you require will be found inside. We take care of our own.”
“And when I’m done here?” she asked.
“Then it goes back to the snow that made it, and is forgotten before the next turning of the Northern Lights.” He reached out and touched the fence. “There have been other houses here, before yours. Jack Frost had a similar one when he first took his post. It’s a little isolated, true, but it should serve you well, if you allow it.”
“It’s not my home.”
“It could be.” Santa looked at Velveteen, making no effort to conceal the pleading in his eyes. She glared back, defiant and cold, until he sighed, and shook his head, and said, “I’m sorry. This is how it’s always been done. I didn’t think that it would be so hard for you to face the trials.”
“I’ve been here a hundred times. You’ve never dumped me in the middle of a blizzard or allowed monsters to come out of the walls and try to kill me before.” Velveteen held up one gleaming white hand. “You’ve never turned me into snow. Of course this has been hard on me. There’d have to be something seriously wrong with me if it had been easy.”
“You were our friend before you became a supplicant here. I should have considered how that would impact you.”
“Would you have done things any differently if you had?”
“Yes,” said Santa Claus. He looked at her solemnly, all traces of his usual jolliness gone, and said, “I would have forbidden Jackie to befriend you. It was always going to be like this. Winter is not a tame country. It doesn’t exist solely for the joy of children, and that isn’t the role that you’re best suited to. You were always going to find yourself alone in the cold. The only thing I did wrong was allow you to see that Winter could be warm. If I had managed your expectations better, we wouldn’t be standing here now.”
Velveteen stared at him. “You’re not serious. You can’t be...you said I was always welcome here. You said you loved me.”
“I do love you, my dear; I do. It’s simply that I love Winter more. I’m sorry.” Santa offered her a small bow. “You’re one of us now, at least for a time. Try to rest up. Your service will begin in the morning.”
Then he turned and walked away, leaving Velveteen standing, staring, in front of her little pine bough house.
There was no furniture, but there was snow. Velveteen waved a hand, and the snow formed itself into a bed, a chair, a table, even a knife and cutting board. Did snow women eat? She didn’t know. She supposed she was going to find out sooner or later. She had to still be alive: she wouldn’t have done the Winter any good as a dead thing like Marionette, who had never intended to become a villain, but who had killed a lot of people in her reality anyway, because an animus with no life force of their own couldn’t help it. So she probably ate something.
She found that she wasn’t looking forward to the idea of finding out what it was, exactly, that she ate, or how it was that her new body dealt with things like going to the bathroom. There was probably some messed-up winter magic involved. “If I shit frost, I’m going to kill everyone in this stinking excuse for a metaphor,” she grumbled, and threw herself onto the bed, sending a soft powder of snow drifting up into the air.
She didn’t mean to fall asleep. She didn’t want to fall asleep. Sleeping felt too much like accepting the idea of her new reality, admitting that this was the way things were now, and that she couldn’t change them. But she was tired, and her eyelids were heavy, and she found herself closing them for just a moment.
Everything went away. Maybe it was better that way.
Santa Claus walked through the village, shoulders slumped, eyes trained toward the dancing lights overhead. Those lights had always seemed endless to him before, an invitation to a thousand nights of wonder, a thousand days of endless, childlike joy. Now they looked like bleached streaks across a bitter sky, and he wondered if he had done things poorly. Perhaps sending Jackie to recruit Velveteen had been a poor move, manipulative, unworthy of him—but he had been thinking of Winter. The Snow Queen and Jack Frost would want to stand aside eventually, and while the Snow Queen had had her heir, Jack had never had his own. Velveteen had been intended to stand for him. And now...
Now even if they won, the victory would be ashes and coal dust in his mouth. Nothing ever came without a price. He, who was the generosity of the world, should have known that better than anyone. But somehow, he had allowed himself to forget, to fall prey to the lie of his own omniscience, and now Winter was going to pay the price. Velveteen hated him. Whether she could come back from that, could learn to love him again, was anyone’s guess. As for the rest, well. All choices have consequences. Even the ones that were forced upon the people who made them.
He just hoped that one day, all of those who followed him could find it in themselves to forgive him.
Lucy stepped nimbly out of the trees, following the tracks of Velveteen’s snow army—and hadn’t that been clever of the little animus, to turn the flesh of Winter itself to her cause! Why, Lucy had seen supplicants come and go, each of them bending their powers toward the cold, but she’d never seen anyone try that little trick before. No matter how short Velveteen’s stay turned out to be, it was certainly going to be interesting.
The Northern Lights were splashed wildly across the sky, blue and green and gold and purple. Lucy tilted her head to the side, watching them dance for a moment before she said, “All right: everything’s in place. If there’s any chance she’ll stay, she’ll stay because she’s grown too cold to dream of leaving. Not sure that’s how I would have chosen to recruit a powerful animus, but it’s not my problem. What do you want me to do next?”
“She feels she has no friends here,” said a voice from the trees behind her. Lucy turned to find Aurora standing there, in her gown of ever-shifting light. “Don’t encourage her to thaw, but encourage her to trust you. Be the friend she needs in Winter.”
“But also the friend that Winter wants me to be,” said Lucy. She had been with the season longer than almost anyone: longer even than the current incarnation of Santa Claus. She had seen Snow Queens and spirits of plenty come and go, and while she did her best not to be jaded, she knew what was expected of her. Lucy had been able to thrive in Winter for as long as she had because she did not fight it.
“Yes,” said Aurora. “Even if she doesn’t choose to stay, we’ll benefit from having her for the time we have. It should be long enough to shore up a few walls, repair a few defenses. But mark me: I want her. I want her strength, and I want her anger. If you love me, do what you can to acquire them.”
Lucy nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, and watched as Aurora dissolved into light. Then, smiling, she turned and started down the hill into Santa’s Village. She had work to do.
The Snow Queen walked in the House of Mirrors, and she walked there all alone.
Frost followed her footsteps—not her husband, but the cold that shared his name. It drew delicate designs across the floor, filigree and ferns and beautiful patterns that dissolved unseen. The Snow Queen never looked back. Her eyes were all for the mirrors around her, filled with pictures of lives she had never lived, choices she had never made. In some of them, another woman wore the mantle of Snow Queen, a woman who had taken the position when she had melted, or made the choice to thaw. In others, she walked with her son at her side, a son who had never been born in this reality. In most, as in the present moment, she walked alone.
She stopped in front of a dead mirror, its surface clouded over so that it cast no reflection. Placing her fingertips gently against the surface of the glass (which immediately began to freeze, for she was the Snow Queen, after all), she bowed her head, and wept until her tears were done. Then she straightened, turned, and walked away.
She never looked back. There was nothing there for her to see.