Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. Hypothermia.

Title: Velveteen vs. Hypothermia.
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 spend a year in each of three seasons, all vying for her hand...

Happy holidays!

***

The door that opened in the fabric of reality had no foundation, no wall to hold it in place or justify its existence: it simply was, a twisted thing of knotted paper roses that dripped with black type and red ink. Here and there, someone had crossed out a line of text, and slashes of whiteout ran across the entire thing, marring and warping the words that remained. Anyone who chanced to look through the door would have seen absolutely nothing, a blackness so deep and so complete that it allowed for no thoughts of anything existing, ever again.

Fortunately for the sanity of that theoretical onlooker, no one was there; no one looked through the door; no one saw.

The air blowing across the door’s face grew cold, and smelled of blood. The door swung open, hanging in its frame of braided paper brambles like a love letter to the dead. There was a long pause, as if the world held its breath, and then the body of a woman was shoved out of the nothing to collapse to the rapidly dying grass like a sack of so much wet cement. She was brown of skin and hair, too thin, like she had run very far without eating or drinking. The wind seemed, for just a moment, to be trying to carry her away, and succeeded only in ruffling the torn fabric of her uniform. It had been a brown leotard, once, before it was faded and stained by whatever trails she had been through. One tattered rabbit ear still clung to her headband, stubborn to the last.

Had our theoretical onlooker been less theory and more fact, they could not have been blamed for mistaking the woman on the grass for a corpse. She did not move as the door swung shut behind her, slamming into its frame with a sound like a thousand mirrors being broken. She did not stir as the wind gathered speed and the door dissolved into so much confetti, blowing away into nothingness. She did not react as the night grew deep and still around her, and the hours slipped by, and the grass beneath her finished dying.

Velma Martinez—better known by some as “Velveteen,” superheroine to the city of Portland, Oregon, architect of the downfall of The Super Patriots, Inc.—had come home.

But ah; we are getting ahead of ourselves. That is the difficulty, once holidays become involved. They want everything to be a fairy tale, and nothing to be true. Perhaps this would not hurt so much, except that they remember the meaning of fairy tales, before we sanded off their edges and called them suitable for children.

The holidays remember how to bleed.

So much as it hurts, we must leave the body in the grass, alone and unattended, with no one to confirm whether she will live or whether she has already died. For all things must begin at their beginnings, and the beginning of this tale is far, far behind us...

*

Three years ago...

The doorway that led to Winter stood unsupported in the middle of the small green garden belonging to the superheroine known as “the Princess.” Velveteen stood in front of it, studying it for a few precious seconds. It was made of braided candy canes and silver tinsel; through it she could see the rolling, snow-covered hills that formed the vista outside of Santa’s Village, dotted here and there with the proud sentinel spires of evergreen trees. The village itself would be just past that rise, she knew, and there would be hot cocoa waiting for her when she got there. All these things were normal, for a certain, very strange definition of the word.

But once she stepped through the door, she wouldn’t be able to come back. Not for a while: maybe not ever. The holidays would do whatever they felt they had to in order to convince her to stay, and while Velveteen trusted Santa to keep his word, she wasn’t so sure about the others. These breaths might be the last ones she ever took as a free woman.

She had promised. She had taken the gifts that the holidays were willing to offer her, and she had always known that they weren’t free; she’d always known that she would have to pay for them, in the end.

Velveteen took a deep breath, resisted the urge to cross herself, and stepped through the doorway into Winter.

*

The Seasonal Lands have always existed. They may even, some suggest, predate humanity: after all, the sun moved even before there were humans to watch it go. Water froze, leaves fell, flowers bloomed, and fruit ripened on the vine. Adding people to the mix only meant that those things were observed, remarked upon, and—in time—turned into myths and legend. Perhaps it was not always Persephone who brought the spring; her name and face may well have been human inventions, meant to explain the seemingly unexplainable. But the spring always happened, all the same.

Even those who theorize about the history and origins of the Seasonal Lands agree that humans have shaped the holidays. For proof, we need look no further than Santa Claus himself, that jolly old soul with his white beard and twinkling eyes, a true credit to the marketing genius who first designed him. He had looked very different, in the past, and might yet look different in the future. The power he had was rooted in the strength of the season, but it was shaped by the belief of the humans he so willingly served. The Snow Queen, who drew more purely upon the cold and dark of the natural world, was both less protean and less powerful. She remained her own self, unchanged by what people thought of her, and the price she paid was a narrowing of focus, a reduction of potential. She would never shake the world into winter, but neither would she be bound to come when children called her name.

All the holidays are like that, crewed by spirits both human and not, both bound to their personifications and struggling to be free of them. The Spirits of the Season are individuals, as mercurial and mulish as any superhero, and sometimes, historically, they have chosen to step down from their posts, turn away from their duties, and move on with their lives. Because of this, the Seasonal Lands have been known to recruit replacements from the human world, claiming people who are in some way connected to the holidays and keeping them in reserve against the time when a new Spirit must be formed.

No one knows quite how Spirits of the Season are made. Only that the people claimed by the Seasonal Lands very rarely make it home, and that when they do, they are never the same again.

*

Normally, stepping into Winter was like coming home. Normally, the snow was warm and smelled like peppermint, and the transition would convert any visitor’s clothing into something more appropriate for both the weather and the local theme. Not this time. Velveteen stepped through the doorway and into a snowdrift that reached all the way to her thighs, instantly chilling her to the bone. She shrieked with shock and indignation, and shrieked again as a cascade of snow fell on her from above.

WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK!” she yelled. The snow did not respond. Frustrated and freezing, Velveteen forced her legs—which were growing rapidly numb, conjuring worrisome thoughts of frostbite—to turn the rest of her around, intending to dive right back through the doorway and into the safe green warmth of the Princess’s garden.

The doorway, naturally, was gone.

Velveteen stared at the place where it had been for almost a full minute, too cold to make herself react at a reasonable pace. Finally, she opened her rapidly bluing lips and uttered the only words she could think of that would suit the situation: “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

As the doorway did not reappear, she was forced to admit that it was not, in fact, kidding her. She was alone in the middle of what felt like a blizzard. No one from Winter was appearing to get her out of the snow before she froze to death. And she could no longer feel her toes.

“I hate you all,” Velveteen muttered, and began slogging forward, first toward and then past the place where the doorway had been (and now wasn’t). Every step sent more snow cascading down the front of her costume, and the cold was continuing to creep up her legs, turning them more and more unresponsive. She wasn’t dressed for this sort of weather. No one was dressed for this sort of weather, except for maybe bears.

Velveteen put her head down, raising one arm to shield her eyes against the cold, and slogged on.

*

“This isn’t fair,” protested Jackie, her eyes remaining glued on the surface of her mother’s magic mirror. The image of Velveteen fighting through the snow was crystal clear, and made Jackie’s heart hurt more than any blade of ice ever could. “No one told her. No one warned her.”

“No one warned me either,” said the Snow Queen calmly. She moved her hand, and a flurry of snowflakes fell across the mirror’s face, matched by a sudden gust of wind in the image that blew more snow into Velveteen’s face. The heroine staggered, neatly fell, and soldiered on. “I had to find my way to the Aurora on my own, with none to aid me. So did your father. So did the Snow Queen before me, and the Jack Frost before him. We have raised you to be too soft, my daughter. You do not understand the price of staying cold.”

“She’s not coming here to become the Snow Queen,” objected Jackie. “She doesn’t have the right powers. She’s here to be an elf for Santa.” And maybe Santa herself, in another hundred years or so, when the myth changed faces again and the gentle soul who currently held its mantle in his broad, generous hands was allowed the opportunity to rest. Or maybe she would be an addition to the myth, a permanent helper, as Krampus and Black Peter were, only more gentle, and less inclined to harm. All of Winter was open to her...assuming she could make it to safety before she froze.

“The season chooses the trials,” said the Snow Queen. There was no mercy in her tone. Maybe there never had been; maybe the times Jackie had imagined it there were just that, imaginary, the wistful dreams of a little girl who only ever wanted her mother to love her. “You should never have become her friend, Jacqueline. I tried to warn you. You did not listen. Consider this, then, your punishment: because you could not keep your heart from thawing for this girl, you get to suffer as you watch her freeze.”

Jackie—who knew full well that her friendship had been the honey trap that lured Velveteen into trusting Christmas, and by extension, trusting all the holidays, and the seasons that housed them—said nothing. She just turned her eyes to the mirror, and prayed silently to the Northern Lights that Velveteen would make it through the storm.

*

Walking was the only thing keeping Velveteen from freezing to death, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to do it. “This is fu-fu-fu—” she stammered, before giving it up as a waste of breath. She was too cold to form a coherent sentence, and for the first time, dimly, she realized that she could very well die out here if she didn’t do something about it. Part of her wanted to object to the idea; after all, the holidays had been trying to recruit her for years. Surely they wouldn’t kill her now, not when she was finally within their grasp. But the bulk of her knew better, knew that the Spirits of the Season might look human—might even have been human, once upon a time—but that they weren’t human anymore, not even Jackie, who came closer than any of her compatriots. They were perfectly capable of leaving her to freeze to death, and while they might mourn, they wouldn’t be sorry.

Well. Jackie might be sorry. Jackie probably would be sorry, because she’d spent too much time people who were still mostly human, and she’d caught compassion from them like it was some sort of disease. Jackie would probably cry and hug the Princess and apologize to Velveteen’s corpse. As Velveteen would still be dead, she really didn’t think this was much of a consolation.

Velveteen stopped walking, and started filling her arms with snow.

Growing up in California hadn’t really taught her much about dealing with winter weather, but being friends with Jackie Frost had meant more than her fair share of trips to Santa’s Village, where building snowmen was considered an excellent way to pass the time. The snow there was warm, true, and she’d always had people to help her, but the principle seemed like it would remain the same. Velveteen rolled, stacked, sculpted, and shoved at the snow until she had managed to construct the rough outline of a man. He was on his back, not standing up like snowmen generally were, but she needed him to have arms and legs, and those were things that she wasn’t really equipped to construct on a free-standing snow homunculus. His face was set in a permanent scowl.

“Please work,” she whispered, and leaned down, and touched the snowman’s forehead with shaking, frozen fingers.

The snowman opened his eyes.

He stood up like an avalanche happening in reverse, shedding snow in all directions as his outline winnowed itself down to the hard, clean shape that she had intended. Velveteen collapsed, and the snowman was there to catch her, sweeping her into his strong, frozen arms. He was cold. Of course he was cold, snow is always cold. Velveteen didn’t care.

“Take me to where it’s warm, Frosty,” she slurred, pressing her face into the snow of his chest. Her cheeks and lips were already numb. It wasn’t like he could do her anymore harm.

The snowman nodded silently, and the last thing she knew before the cold claimed her was the sensation of being carried through the white and drifted snow, over the river, and through the woods.

*

Velveteen woke on the floor of an icy cavern, curled up next to a blazing fire. Everything hurt. She sat up slowly, wiping the snowmelt from her eyes, and blinked at the flames, which were dancing in a fireplace made entirely of ice, but which showed no signs of melting. The ice was filled with colors, blue and green and dancing gold, like someone had snatched the Northern Lights down from the sky and frozen them solid. She stared at them for a moment, trying to figure out what they could mean, before she twisted and looked around herself.

The snowman—snow golem, really, considering how he’d been made—was standing against the cavern’s far wall, well out of reach of the fire’s warmth. The fireplace was the only thing that looked manmade; everything else was blue glacial ice and hard gray stone, created by erosion and time, and not by any craftsman’s hand. There was no furniture, and outside the cavern’s narrow entrance, she could see the blizzard raging on. She was trapped.

“Oh, isn’t this dandy,” muttered Velveteen, staggering shakily to her feet. Her legs were still numb, but she could feel them, and they responded when she asked them to; there didn’t seem to have been any nerve damage. “I get to skip freezing in favor of starving to death. Lucky fucking me. Why did I think Winter was the nice season again?”

The snowman didn’t answer her. He just kept watching her reproachfully, like it was somehow her fault that he was now trapped in pseudo-human form and standing within spitting distance of a fire, rather than enjoying a thoughtless existence as part of a snow bank. Well. Technically, it was her fault, since she was the one who’d made him, but that didn’t make it appropriate for him to blame her. It wasn’t like she’d volunteered to be dropped into the middle of a blizzard.

A blizzard... “Yo, Jackie!” Velveteen braced her hands on her hips and scowled up at the distant, frozen ceiling. “You’re magic mirroring me right now, aren’t you? I know you, you little voyeur. Tell your mom to stop trying to kill me! I didn’t sign up for this!”

“It’s rude to start an acquaintance with a correction, but actually, you did,” said a voice from the doorway. Velveteen whipped around, nearly overbalancing on her frozen feet, and frowned at the young girl now standing there. She was dark haired and pale skinned, dressed in a long white dress with a red sash that left her arms bare. Her feet were bare as well; Velveteen could see the toes of one small foot poking out from under her hem. There was a wreath of candles on her head, and she couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. “You said you’d come to winter. This is part of winter. The cold that seems like it won’t ever end, the freeze that has no thaw. The Snow Queen may send the snow, but she’s only doing what the season demands of her.”

“Who are you?” Velveteen demanded.

The girl smiled. “They call me Lucy, mostly. I’m a light in a dark place. That’s part of winter, too. The candle that guides you home.”

“Home” was a word with a lot of meanings, and none of them really seemed to suit Velveteen. Not here, not now, with the world freezing all around her, and her lover lying in a poisoned sleep in the Princess’s castle, and the people she’d loved moving on with their lives while she paid the price of taking favors from the seasons. She shivered, drawing her arms tight around herself, and said, “Okay. Let’s go. I could use some hot cocoa and a good, warm coat.”

“It’s not that easy.” Lucy sounded sorry. That was something, anyway.

Velveteen snorted. “Of course it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy. Fine, they-call-me-Lucy, what do I have to do next? Build a team of snow huskies and use them to win the Iditarod?”

“Not quite.” Lucy reached up and removed a candle from her crown, holding it out in offering. “You have to go deeper into the cold. You have to go to the heart of the season, and let it see you, and let it judge you worthy. If it decides you are, then your time here can begin. If it decides you’re not, then winter will trouble you no more.”

“As in ‘it lets me go,’ or as in ‘I freeze to death and it doesn’t matter anymore’?”

Lucy didn’t answer.

Velveteen sighed. “Naturally. This is always how it goes, isn’t it? In for a penny, in for a pounding.” She walked across the cavern to take the candle Lucy was offering. “Can you at least tell me which way I have to go?”

“Let the lights guide you,” said Lucy, and stepped backward, into the snow. She was gone in an instant, wiped away like she had never been there at all.

“Oh, fuck this noise,” said Velveteen, fighting the strong and understandable urge to punch something. Punching the snowman wouldn’t do her any good, and punching the walls would just damage her knuckles. “Follow the lights, my ass—” She turned to go back to the fire, and stopped dead, cocking her head hard to the side as she attempted to process the change in the room.

The fire was gone, as was the fireplace, although the flickering, color-changing bricks remained. They had simply stretched up into a high arch, filigreed with frost and crowned with snowflakes. There was a tunnel on the other side, winding deep into the glacier. Flickers of light danced here and there in the darkness, clearly marking the way she was expected to go.

“Got it,” said Velveteen grudgingly. She beckoned to the snowman, which stepped away from the wall and moved to stand beside her. “Come on, Frosty. Let’s go where the light tells us to go. Maybe we’ll be lucky, and there’ll be something we can hit.”

Together, girl and snowman walked through the archway into the dark. Outside the cavern, the snow stopped falling. It wasn’t needed anymore.

*

“Santa, please.” Jackie looked pleadingly at the red-suited man who was currently the most powerful figure in the Winter, thanks to his dominion over Christmas, and the holiday’s dominion over the season as a whole. “No one warned her. We let her choose to come here first because she thought that we were her friends. She didn’t know.”

“All of us went through this, Jackie,” said the big man, a sorrowful expression on his normally jolly face. “We had to be tried before we could be transformed. Not many people are born to thrive in this kind of cold. Velveteen’s a strong girl. She’ll come through the winter’s heart.”

“And if she doesn’t?” demanded Jackie. “What happens then? We spent years trying to convince her to come to us. This is just...this is wasteful. We need her.”

“We need someone,” Santa corrected gently. “It doesn’t have to be her, and it doesn’t have to be today. If it takes a hundred years, we’ll still be just fine, as long as we find the right person in the end. Patience is a virtue, my dear. Once you get to my age, you’ll understand.”

Jackie stared at him. Finally, in a very small voice, she said, “I thought I was supposed to be the selfish one here.”

“And you are, my darling, you are,” said Santa, in what was probably meant to be a reassuring tone. “You’re worried about your friend. You want her to live because she matters to you. You’re not the only one who loves her, but you’re the only one willing to endanger us all for her sake. That’s selfishness wearing its Sunday clothes, all dressed up and ready to win. I will grieve for decades if she dies out there. I will carry her body to the graveyard in my own arms, and I will never forgive myself. But I won’t save her. Because I am not selfish enough to risk us all for the sake of a single girl, just because I love her.”

Jackie stared at him, not sure of what to say, or how to say it, or what good words could do. Finally, she whispered, “All I want for Christmas is for my friend to live.”

“I’m sorry, Jackie,” said Santa. “There are some things it is beyond my power to give.”

*

The tunnel wound deeper and deeper into the glacier’s heart, twisting and bending until it seemed like they were walking in a circle, at least until Velveteen’s feet slipped on the gently sloping floor and she realized that the situation was both simpler and more complicated than that: they were following a spiral, winding slowly down into the dark. Velveteen swallowed hard and clutched her candle tighter. At least it didn’t seem to be burning down. Whatever purpose that Lucy girl served in the Winter, she was good with candles.

A flashlight might have been better, given that Velveteen’s only backup was made of snow, but hey. Beggars can’t be choosers, and in that moment, Velveteen would have happily begged if it meant getting out of her current situation. The Super Patriots, Inc. hadn’t provided any training courses on what to do if a previously friendly holiday starts trying to kill you; even for their highly specialized schooling program, that may have seemed a little overly specific. All she knew to do was keep on walking, down into the dark, and hoping for the best.

Something ahead of her growled. Velveteen stopped, the snowman shuffling to a halt behind her. The growl came again. She took a step backward. Something else growled, this time from behind her. Velveteen groaned.

“Of course there’s an ambush,” she said. “Of course something down here in the dark creepy ice cave wants to kill me. Because that is just the kind of goddamn day I’m having. Well? If you’re going to attack me, get out here and fucking do it already! I don’t have forever!”

Unfortunately for Velveteen, the creatures in the walls decided to listen.

They were something like wolves, and something like bears, and something like nothing she had ever seen before, with their thick white fur, and their taloned paws, and their mouths bristling with icicle teeth long and sharp enough to seem like frozen daggers. They poured out of the walls from all sides, growling and snarling, and Velveteen suddenly found herself missing the blizzard. At least it had been impersonal, a force of nature. These things felt very, very personal—and as the first of them drew close enough to slash at her thigh with one daggered paw, she learned that they also felt very, very sharp.

Velveteen flailed about with her candle, singeing the creatures as she kicked and shoved them away. Her snowman punched and grappled, reforming whenever one of them ripped off a chunk of his snow. Velveteen, who hadn’t realized he could do that, resolved to make a dozen more of him at the first opportunity.

Then one of the white-furred creatures landed a blow solidly across her stomach, ripping through the skin and fat and revealing the layer of muscle underneath. Velveteen screamed, rage and pain and misery all blending together into a single agonized cry.

The creatures stopped attacking. Instantly: there was no moment of transition. One second they were trying to kill her, and the next they were frozen, looking to her for whatever she wanted to command. Velveteen pressed her hand flat against her stomach, trying to hold back the gush of warm blood, and slowly looked around at the pack. There were a dozen of the things. None of them were moving.

“You’re not alive, are you?” she asked dully. “You’re made of snow. Everything here is made of snow.” Everything but her, as the red seeping through her fingers would attest. “That means you belong to me now. You have to do as I say.”

The snow beasts made no sound, but continued to watch her carefully. She would have to choose her next words carefully. The blood was coming faster all the time, and she didn’t know how long she could keep it contained. She also didn’t know what resources were available to her.

But the snow beasts had been animate before she claimed them. They had to know at least a little bit about their surroundings. Velveteen leaned back, trusting her snowman to be there to catch her, and he was; of course he was, he was an extension of her will.

“I think I’m bleeding to death,” she said, clearly and calmly. “I need help. I need you to go and find something that can help me. Go as quickly as you can. Don’t come back unless you have something that can help.”

Still silent, the snow beasts backed away from her, melding with the walls, and disappeared. Velveteen watched them go. Then she looked at the candle flickering in her free hand, and shook her head.

“What good is a light in the darkness if you die there anyway?” she asked. “Can you tell me that?”

Lucy didn’t answer, if she even heard. Velveteen closed her eyes and let her head lull back against the snowman. Eventually, her hand fell away from her middle, and the blood flowed a little freer, although it was sluggish now, like it knew how much she needed it.

Eventually, the candle fell from her numb fingers, landing in the blood pooling on the floor around her feet. It guttered, but did not go out.

Lucy did her work well. The candle wouldn’t die until its keeper did.

*

The Snow Queen wouldn’t help her. Jack Frost wouldn’t help her. Even Santa wouldn’t help her. There was no point in asking Mrs. Claus; she never agreed to anything Santa wouldn’t do. That wasn’t her place in the story.

Somewhere out there in the cold, Velveteen was freezing and frightened and alone, and all Jackie could do about it was prowl in her safe, warm halls, forbidden to help her, forbidden to save her, forbidden to do anything but be the spoiled, useless brat she’d always been. She’d only befriended Velveteen (and the other members of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, but they were irrelevant, weren’t they? They were necessary burdens from the start, because it was the animus that Winter wanted) because she’d been told to. She’d only been a heroine because she was bored. Now Tag was dead and Velveteen was dying, and Jackie was still useless. Just like always.

Jackie looked down at her pale blue hands and wished, not for the first time, that she was braver. Someone braver would have already defied her parents and gone to do what was right—but did she really know what that was? Santa said she was being selfish. He was the spirit of generosity, and she was...well, she wasn’t that. Maybe he was right. Maybe the right thing to do was allow Velveteen to freeze, if that was what the Winter intended for her, rather than risk an entire season just because little Jackie Frost didn’t want to lose a friend.

She slowly balled her hands into fists, straightening. No. If that was selfishness, then let her be selfish; let her be the most selfish person who had ever lived. Let them sing cautionary carols about her for the rest of time. She could do a lot of things for the season that had borne and raised her, but she had her limits. She couldn’t leave a friend to die.

Almost without realizing it, Jackie Frost began to run, heading for the nearest door to the outside. Velveteen had to be very nearly frozen by now.

Time was running out.

*

Velveteen was unconscious when the snow beasts oozed back out of the walls, holding loops of ivy and boughs of holly and mistletoe in their icy jaws. They piled the vegetation at Velveteen’s feet, careful to avoid the still-burning candle, but doing nothing to avoid the blood. One of them, mouth now hanging open and empty, nudged Velveteen’s knee with its head. She didn’t move. It nudged her again.

“Wha’?” Velveteen opened her eyes, blinking bemusedly at the snow beasts, and then at the piled greenery. “What are you doing? I said I needed help. Not a garden supply department. Get me help.”

The snow beast whined. Velveteen stood up a little straighter, wobbling with the effort. Her head felt light. Spinny. She looked down at the tangle of branches and leaves. All the plants were green and healthy-looking, the sort of things that grew throughout the winter. They were alive. She wobbled again, and then collapsed into the center of the makeshift bier, releasing her hold on the snow beasts and her snowman at the same time. The snowman crumbled into powder. The snow beasts stayed where they were, but did not attack. Instead, they turned the eyes toward the darkness, and waited.

They didn’t have to wait for very long. Jackie Frost came walking down the tunnel, her skin glowing a faint blue in the enclosed space. She stopped at the edge of the bier, looking silently down at the figure lying huddled amongst the leaves and berries. For a moment, all was still. Then, slowly, Jackie smiled.

“Should’ve known you wouldn’t let me get off easy,” she said, and knelt, touching the nearest holly leaf gently with the tip of her pointer finger. A filigree of frost etched itself across the glossy green surface of the leaf, before spreading—slowly at first, but with growing speed, until it literally raced from point to point—to cover the rest of the bier. Once the frost had covered all the vegetation, it stretched upward, creating a dome that sealed Velveteen away completely.

“You’re gonna be fine, bunny-girl,” said Jackie. “Just rest a little while. Winter can wait.”

That was it: that was all she could do, and more than she should have done. Jackie Frost, daughter of the Snow Queen, selfish spirit of Christmas, turned to begin trudging back up into the light. Maybe she could catch a ride home from Lucy. Maybe no one would have noticed that she was gone. Maybe she was going to get away with it. Maybe.

Jackie would have been stunned if she could have seen her mother in that moment; stunned, and a little bit afraid. For while she had seen the Snow Queen angry, and disappointed, and even laughing, on the rare occasions when the Snow Queen considered something to be worth laughing over. But she had never, in all the long, slow years of her life, seen her mother, the coldest woman in the Winter, cry.

*

Velveteen woke up warm.

She sat up and stretched, shedding dry, dead leaves in all directions, and paused when she saw her hands. They were white. Not “suddenly I am a white girl, how the fuck did this happen, is there a racist reality manipulator in the house” white; white, the color of arctic hares and fresh-fallen snow. There was a loop of ivy wrapped around her wrist. She blinked at it, and followed it up the length of her arm, to where it joined with her new-made leotard of holly and mistletoe.

“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more fucked-up, it finds a way,” she muttered, and stood. At this point, it wasn’t really a surprise when standing revealed that her entire costume was now made of winter vegetation, all the way down to her bark-and-ivy boots. She touched her face. Her skin felt slick, like snow.

A small part of her advised panic. The rest reminded her that she turned into a patchwork scarecrow rabbit when she was in Halloween; becoming a living sculpture of winter greenery and snow while in service to Winter was really not that far out of the question. At least she could still walk, and breathe, and talk. She stooped to pick up her candle, which was miraculously still burning. If this was how Winter wanted her, this was how Winter would have her. She’d get her flesh and blood back when it was time to leave.

She had damn well better.

Velveteen walked down into the dark, following the flickers of light still dancing in the walls. If this was how the Winter wanted to play things, then let them play. She was going to play to win.
Tags: short fiction, velveteen vs.
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