Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. The Consequences of Her Actions.

Title: Velveteen vs. The Consequences of Her Actions.
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 transition between the real world and the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle was usually smooth and easy, accompanied by rainbows, sparkles, and sometimes a thematic musical number. Not this time. Velveteen tumbled out of the mirror and into a forward roll, barely managing to get her elbows into place to keep herself from landing on her own head. She heard rather than saw Action Dude come through behind her; from the way his grunt cut off, he hadn’t been as good about recognizing the need for a recovery roll as she had. Oh, well. He’d probably be fine, and if he wasn’t, the Princess had an excellent in-house medical team. The fact that they were all rodents was beside the point.

“Oof,” said Action Dude. “Did you get the number of that truck?”

“There was no truck, sugar,” said a sweet Southern voice. There was an edge to it that made Velveteen uncomfortable. The Princess wasn’t supposed to sound like she was inching up on supervillain. The Princess was supposed to be the best of them.

Velveteen raised her head and found herself looking at a pair of polished black leather boots decorated with red filigrees. The stitching formed roses, not apples. That was a relief. The apple motif was absolutely a supervillain thing, and if the Princess ever crossed that line, she wasn’t going to be coming back. Some things couldn’t be forgiven by the children of the world, no matter how much they wanted to.

Slowly, Velveteen tilted her head back, following the boots to a pair of red velvet trousers under a red coat that belled out around the Princess’s legs like the skirt of a ball gown, leaving her with a wider range of motion than her norm, while still keeping her firmly within her fairy tale standards. Her bodice was sweetheart-cut, trimmed with garnets and diamonds, and her buttery blonde hair was piled on her head like she was getting ready for her own wedding. The expression on her face was torn between relief and sorrow. It was such a perfect division that it was painful to look at. That, too, was part of the fairy tale. Only in a story could someone’s expression be such a flawless summation of their story.

“Vel, honey?” said the Princess. “Is that really you?” She knelt, offering Velveteen her hand. It was gloved in velvet, but that couldn’t stop it from trembling.

“I think so.” Velveteen took the Princess’s hand, letting the other woman pull her to her feet. “The holidays bounced me around pretty hard, but I think they--oof!” She squeaked as the Princess abruptly jerked her into a hard hug, knocking the wind out of her. The Princess was always taller than she was, and with the amount of both weight and muscle tone Vel had lost in the Seasonal Lands, there was no contest.

After it became clear that the Princess wasn’t going to let go on her own, she tapped the other woman’s shoulder and wheeze, “Cara. Can’t...breathe...”

“Aw, shit, honey, I’m sorry!” The Princess thrust her out to arms’-length, keeping hold of her shoulders. “I just never thought I was going to see you again.” There were tears forming at the corners of her eyes, and somehow that was the most alarming thing of all.

“What the hell happened?” Velveteen gripped the Princess’s forearms, trying to take some comfort in the contact. There didn’t seem to be much comfort to be found. “Aaron told me some of it, but he--”

Villain!” The shriek came from the left. Velveteen turned, but not fast enough to get more than an impression of a swiftly-moving blur heading for the spot where Action Dude had fallen.

Velveteen didn’t think. She just reacted. The Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle was constructed from the dreams and beliefs of children everywhere, and children everywhere apparently thought that any fairy tale princess worth her salt would do a hell of a lot of decorating in marble statues and topiary. A dragon made out of thorny hedge lurched into motion, grabbing Victory Anna by the collar and hoisting her into the air before she could pull the trigger. She tried anyway, and her shot went wide, vaporizing a stained glass window.

The Princess sighed. Heavily. “Too damn much, that’s what,” she said, and that was the perfect answer, and it wasn’t an answer at all.

*

In the matter of controlling the world’s superhuman population, many things have been tried. Common power sources have been tracked down, documented, and, when possible, suppressed; civics classes have been expanded to include explanations as to why wishing one’s neighbors into a demonic cornfield is not good citizen behavior; laws have been passed. In the end, however, public opinion has proven to be the best mechanism for exacting this control. Despite the “super,” people with powers are still only human, and like all humans, they seek social contact and approval. Their desire to be liked is their greatest weakness.

Comic books, graphic novels, and popular television shows have been deployed with great success to keep the superhuman population on the effectively “straight and narrow.” No one likes the villain, after all. When the world is rooting for the heroes, who would voluntarily choose the other side? But more insidious, and more effective, is rumor. Gossip and hearsay are slippery weapons, best deployed by the experts--and those with reason to attempt control of the superhuman population have had more than enough time to perfect their craft.

Take, for example, Velveteen. A relatively low-ambition superhuman, she seemed content to disappear from the public consciousness, becoming a footnote in the history of The Super Patriots, Inc. The narrative supported by the corporation, however, did not allow for this quiet exit; if she was not a hero, she needed to be a villain. Years of careful propaganda resulted in her public approval rating entering the negative numbers during a time when no one should even have remembered that she existed. As a consequence, when she did return, the general populace was primed to view her as a threat--something which made it easier for the superhuman registration and recruitment laws to pass.

Had Velveteen been left alone, had The Super Patriots, Inc. been willing to admit that she was a lost cause, would the animus regulation laws have been able to pass? The world had been prepared to see her as the bad guy in any situation she happened to become involved with...and when that situation included publicly defeating the only other person known to have her specific power set, it became easy to see that power set as somehow innately corrupt. It is the possible that, in their handling of the Velveteen matter, The Super Patriots, Inc. sowed the seeds of their own eventual downfall. Rather than entering a period of rebuilding after Supermodel’s defeat, they were thrown straight onto the defensive, and were unable to recover.

And then there is the matter of the magical heroes, of the seasonal heroes, of the ones who manifest ideas, ideals, and most of all, opinions. Jolly Roger, the living human manifestation of the concept of heroic piracy, was very different in our time than he would have been during the time of the East India Company. Fewer throats were slit; more baths were taken. So what, then, happens when the great machine of gossip and public opinion is turned against someone whose powers stem from such a well?

How much can a hero change without “hero” ceasing to be the operative word?

*

The sound of shouting attracted Yelena to the arrival garden. She stepped through the space between two decorative hedges, wearing a black ball gown trimmed with rainbows, and stopped, blinking at the edifying sight of her lover locked in unceasing battle with two topiary dragons and a large plush unicorn. The Princess was standing nearby, arms crossed, looking at the fight in disgust. Action Dude was off to one side, looking baffled. And Velveteen--

Velveteen was there, half-crouched behind the Princess, face screwed up in concentration. Yelena frowned, assessing the fight again. Torrey wasn’t being hurt by the topiary; they were doing their best to restrain her, and she was shooting them over and over again, sending leaves and twigs raining down around her. If they’d wanted to, they could have gripped her arms tight enough to make her bleed; they could have stomped on her and broken her bones. All they were doing was keeping her away from Velveteen. Vel was playing a defensive game, which was why she was going to lose.

Yelena heaved a sigh that seemed to come all the way up from her toes before walking over to stand next to the Princess, her back to Velveteen. “So,” she said. “You’re back.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Velveteen. “I am.” She paused before asking, “Why is Torrey trying to kill me?”

“She’s not trying to kill you.”

“Oh.”

“That’s one of her wounding lasers. It’s set up to cauterize flesh as it cuts. She’s probably just trying to cut off one of your arms. Maybe both of them. I mean, technically, she could use it to cut off your head, but she always says that’s not nice, and I try not to discourage her when she finds a point of morality she actually likes.”

There was an extremely long pause, during which Torrey fired six more times and one of the dragon topiary lost a wing. Finally, Velveteen said, “That’s fucking great, but I still don’t understand.”

“You know what the worst thing about this is? That makes perfect sense to me right now.” Yelena cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “We’ve talked about this, Victoria. Velma’s been in the Seasonal Lands. She had no idea what we were going through. You need to put the laser down.”

“Again she causes you harm, and again you would forgive her?” Torrey stopped firing in order to shoot a withering glare at her girlfriend. “I love you, my Pol, but your blind spots for the bunny are well-established, and no longer to be borne. This ends tonight.”

“Not in my house, it doesn’t,” said the Princess. Her words fell into the space between them like bricks into a wall, cold and implacable and terrifyingly heavy. Yelena winced. Velveteen leaned back, eyes wide, to stare at the woman in front of her. Suddenly, the Princess looked like a stranger. A dangerous one.

“Y’all are guests in my home, and I expect you to comport yourselves accordingly,” continued the Princess. “If I let you kill each other in front of me, you think that’s going to do me one poison apple piece of good? I’m holding on by a thread here, Victoria. They’re trying to make you a villain in word, but they’re not going to stop there with me. You know that. I know that. Now calm the fuck down.”

Torrey opened her mouth to reply. Then she stopped, sagging in the arms of the topiary dragon. “My apologies, Princess.”

“Damn right, your apologies. Vel?” The Princess turned, looking down at the crouching woman. There was something like pity in her eyes. There was also something like disgust. It was jarring, seeing that combination on her face. “Tell the nice hedges to put her down, and put them back where you found them.”

“Right.” Vel straightened up. The dragon holding Victory Anna lowered her to the ground before lurching back into its original position. It was badly damaged, but it still made the effort to curve its neck majestically before it froze. The other topiary followed, all of them going still as the animation left them.

Velveteen sagged, looking unsteady. Action Dude hurried to slip an arm around her waist, holding her up while she got her balance back. She offered him a wan, grateful smile.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m still getting used to having skin again.”

“Charming as that image is, how about you say your hellos, and we move on to the meat of the thing?” The Princess crossed her arms. “We’ve got a lot to talk about, and time’s not as long as it used to be.”

Victory Anna smoothed her skirt with the heels of her hands. She was no longer holding her laser gun. It didn’t appear to be clipped to her belt, either. Sometimes Vel suspected all gadgeteers of having access to some sort of extradimensional pocket. “I don’t want to talk,” she said primly. “I already know what she’s going to say.”

“Oh, really?” Action Dude angled his body slightly, keeping himself between Vel and Victory Anna. “What’s that?”

“She’s going to say it isn’t her fault.” Victory Anna crossed her arms. “She’s going to say she couldn’t possibly have known that this was going to happen, even though she should absolutely have known this was going to happen. The writing was on the wall before she walked through that door. This was inevitable. She did it anyway. She left us behind. She let us take the brunt of everything she didn’t want to deal with. Now we’re villains in name and you’re in the process of becoming one in fact, and nothing is going to take that back. Why should I forgive her? Why should anyone forgive her?”

“Because forgiveness is all we have left.” The voice was weary and almost familiar, just enough to the left of what it should have been that Velveteen straightened, turning to look in confusion at the speaker.

It was a woman. She was wearing a red and white ball gown--the Princess put everyone in ball gowns if given half a chance--and her hair was a shade of white that somehow reflected in blue and pink and purple, like she had worked an aurora into the strands. Her face would have been familiar, if not for the color of her skin: it should have been blue and glittering, like the world’s tallest, bustiest Smurf. Instead, she was pale as winter, with rosy cheeks and naturally red lips. She looked at Velveteen like her heart was breaking.

“Hello, Velveteen,” she said.

Vel blinked. “Who the fuck are you?” she asked.

*

The Princess had stepped in after Jacqueline appeared, sweeping everyone off to her council room. Like everything else in the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle, it was opulent to the point of becoming ridiculous: the floor was marble, the walls were mahogany drowning in velvet, and the table where they were all instructed to sit was solid stone, like something stolen from a production of Camelot. The chairs were leather; the chandelier was crystal; the air was cold.

That last was the hardest for Velveteen to ignore. In between stealing glances at Jacqueline and trying to avoid meeting Victory Anna’s eyes, she looked around the room and noted the shadows in the corners. The drapes closest to them were a deep pomegranate red, but the fabric seemed to darken the further it got from the table, until it was a true and unrelenting black.

“All right, sugar, let’s get down to business,” said the Princess, standing at the head of the table and leaning forward so that her weight was resting on the palms of her hands. Everyone else was seated. The difference in their heights was calculated in a way that sent a shiver down Vel’s spine. The Princess she knew liked to be one among equals. This Princess...something was wrong.

The Princess looked at her and said calmly, “I was the last person to see you before you took off. Did you know that? I let you leave from here. If I really think about it, I can remember that it was the right thing to do. But it’s a little harder to see that every day, because see, after you left, after the government finished painting you as public enemy number one, the bogeyman we needed to defeat if normal humans were going to be safe, that’s when they started coming after me. Did I know where you were. Did I know when you were coming back. They even sent this inept supervillain to one of my press conferences, like he could trick me into saying something I didn’t know. I guess that should have been a clue that I was in trouble.”

“It wasn’t just Vel,” said Yelena. She was sitting between Velveteen and Victory Anna, keeping them apart but keeping them close at the same time. This close, it was impossible for Vel not to see how tired she was. The past few years hadn’t been easy on any of them. “We painted a target on you when we took refuge here.”

“Oh believe me, I know, and I have to fight the impulse to wring your scrawny neck every time I look at your moon-eyed face.” The Princess shuddered. It was a bone-deep motion, seeming to originate in her spine and sweep through her entire body. “We’re approaching the point where it won’t be safe for you to stay. I don’t know what’s going to happen then.”

“My father says he can offer succor for the Nice,” said the stranger with the white hair, the one everyone but Vel seemed to think belonged. “I’m so sorry, Carabelle, but...”

“But we both know that if you have to run to get away from me, I’m going to be on the Naughty list,” said the Princess grimly. “There’s no escaping it.”

Velveteen raised her hand. “Okay. I’m exhausted and malnourished and I’m probably going to collapse soon, or start sucking the life out of everything around me like a fucking vampire, but could you please explain what the hell is going on?”

“I am the manifestation of the dreams of children,” said the Princess. Her voice was almost serene. “I was chosen because I was the best vessel in the world for the ideal of the fairy tale princess. I was the little girl that the magic looked at and said ‘yes, her, she’ll do.’ And because I helped you, because I sheltered villains, because I refused to let myself be taken or controlled, there are people out there right now manipulating the narrative. They’re using my own power against me.”

“Movies, books, comics, rumors on the Internet--they’re blanketing the world with the idea that the Princess is a bad guy,” said Yelena. Her voice was hollow. She sounded like someone who’d already lost. “It’s so easy, sometimes, to trick people into thinking the worst of someone they’ve always had questions about.”

“It’s not fair,” snapped Victory Anna. “The divinity which suffuses you should be smarter than this. Less vulnerable to manipulation. Better.”

“Maybe if your world hadn’t popped like a balloon, it would be,” said the Princess. “Too bad the multiverse decided this reality worked better. And here, if people change my story, they change me.”

“There has to be a way out of this,” said Action Dude.

The Princess fixed him with a level gaze. “Honey, I don’t suggest you start trying to tell me you had no idea, because you and I both know it would be a lie, and this ain’t the best time for lying to me. You knew I was having problems. You had problems of your own. That’s fine. When the part of me that doesn’t want to start breaking out the spindles and the shears backs off, I even understand. But that part of me is dwindling, and right now, it’s best that you don’t attempt to deflect blame.”

“That’s not what I meant,” protested Action Dude. “Couldn’t you...I don’t know, couldn’t you let go of your story? I mean, of your powers? We’d still have to go somewhere else, but at least you wouldn’t have to worry that you’d end up hurting someone.”

The Princess went very still. Then, in a strangled voice, she said, “Get out.”

“What?” Action Dude looked at her blankly. “Why do you want me to--”

Get out!” Her voice was a howl of agony, at war with itself.

Velveteen grabbed his arm, ready to drag him out of there, only to freeze as someone grabbed her shoulder. She twisted around to find that the white-haired stranger was holding onto her. She was holding what looked like a snow globe in one hand.

“Sorry,” she said, and hurled the snow globe at the ground. It shattered. Snow rose up around them, swirling and skirling, and the council room went away, taking the Princess, Yelena, and Victory Anna with it.

*

When the snow settled, Velveteen, Action Dude, and the stranger were standing on one of the castle battlements. The sky was dark, and filled with fireworks. The sky was always dark and filled with fireworks from this particular battlement. They somehow cast enough light for everyone to see clearly. The Princess’s domain might be changing, but its essential laws were, for the moment, still the same.

The white-haired woman let go of Velveteen’s shoulder like it was hot, dancing back, out of easy hitting range. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to touch you without your permission, but after he said that--”

“After I said what?” asked Action Dude blankly.

Velveteen sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand. “The Princess owes too much to her story. She can’t just give her powers up. It doesn’t work that way for her. Maybe you could walk away if you thought it was the right thing to do, but she can’t. She doesn’t have that option.”

Action Dude opened his mouth. Then he paused, and closed it again. After a long, silent moment, he said, “Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t think.”

“I know. And I know you didn’t mean anything by it, and hopefully she does too, because if she’s about to make the switch from Princess to Evil Queen, I’d rather not be her first target.” Velveteen lowered her hand and turned to the white-haired woman. “Next order of business: who the hell are you?”

“You know who I am,” said the white-haired woman. She sounded almost apologetic. Somehow that was worse than the way she wore her face, which looked so wrong cast in pink, when it should have been glittering blue. “I know she took you through the Hall of Mirrors. You saw me there.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Action Dude looked between the two, visibly confused. “Vel, you’re the one who introduced me to Jack. When we were filming our first holiday special, remember? She took us home to meet her parents.”

“That happened,” said the white-haired woman. “But it also didn’t happen.”

“Damn right it didn’t happen,” said Velveteen. “Who are you, and what have you done with Jackie?”

The white-haired woman visibly flinched, closing her eyes for a moment as she composed herself. Finally, she opened them and said, “My name is Jacqueline Claus, and I didn’t do anything with Jackie. Jackie did it to herself. Jackie acted against her nature.”

It was Velveteen’s turn to stop dead. She became a statue, so still that she might as well have been one of the gargoyles that littered the battlements around them. Action Dude took a step backward, suddenly aware of just how sharp the claws on those gargoyles were. Sure, he had super strength, flight, and virtual inevitability, but that didn’t mean he wanted to get his ass kicked by a piece of statuary. It was embarrassing.

“What do you mean, exactly?” asked Velveteen. Her voice was low and tight: a danger sign if there’d ever been one.

“You know what I mean,” said Jacqueline. Her voice was as low as Velveteen’s, but it was far from tight: it was filled, top to bottom, with the deepest sorrow.

“No. I don’t.” Velveteen glared at her, stubborn suspicion written in every line of her too-thin face. “Jackie is my friend. If you’re trying to take her place, you’re in for a shock, lady.”

“You guys are giving me a headache,” said Action Dude. “What are you talking about? We’ve known Jack since we were kids. I mean, hell, when Marketing was trying to convince the world that you were the worst, the fact that you spent half your time with Santa’s daughter was one of the things your allies used to argue. Santa’s daughter wouldn’t have been one of your best friends if you were bad.”

“I’m Santa’s daughter, but I’m not his child,” said Jacqueline. Action Dude frowned, and she continued, “He adopted me when I was just a few days old. When my skin was blue and my hands were freezing. My biological parents--if it’s really biology when they craft you like a living snowman, Frosty taken to a new extreme--are Jack Frost and the Snow Queen.”

“Stop lying,” said Velveteen.

“My mother made me because she wanted an heir, and then she looked at me, my father’s magic turning snow to skin, blizzard to breath, and she realized that she didn’t love me. She was never going to love me. I was less of the living Winter than she was, than her husband was; they both rose from the seasonal subconscious, while I was a choice. I was a handicraft, like a stocking stitched and stuffed with care.” Jacqueline’s voice turned bitter. “She made me because she wanted me, and then she realized I wasn’t perfect by her standards, and she didn’t want me anymore. And in some realities she kept me anyway, because even if I wasn’t perfect, I was hers, and the Snow Queen doesn’t share. In those worlds, the cold never left my hands. I grew up slinging ice and snow and racing through the world, trying to stop the freeze from spreading all the way to my heart.”

“That sounds awful,” said Action Dude, sounding bemused and a little horrified.

Velveteen didn’t say anything at all.

“It was, and it wasn’t,” said Jacqueline. “Some of those versions of me let themselves freeze, either because it was easier, or because they didn’t find any friends worth thawing for. They call themselves ‘Frostbite’ or ‘Glacier,’ and they don’t care that they’re cold, and they’ll all be Jack Frost’s replacement someday. Others thawed too much, and they live in heavy coats and never take off their gloves for fear of the cold, and they’re going to be our mother’s heir, and they hate it. They call themselves ‘Snow Princess,’ usually. They try so hard. That’s probably the worst outcome, because no matter what they do, our mother won’t love them, and they won’t stop trying.”

“And then there’s you,” said Velveteen.

“And then there’s me,” agreed Jacqueline. “My mother--the version of the Snow Queen who made me--realized she was never going to love me, and told my father to get rid of me. She said she couldn’t stand the sight of my face. So he took me to Santa, because he’s not cruel. Jack Frost is the playful side of the season. He’s killed his fair share of people who didn’t come in out of the cold. He’s never done it without a good reason.”

“Santa and his wife adopted you,” said Velveteen. “They thawed you. All the way down to the bone.”

“Hence the snow globes,” said Jacqueline. “I’m still enough Jack Frost that I can travel through a swirl of snow, but I can’t make it for myself. Santa has them made for me, to get me out of trouble.”

Velveteen looked at her steadily for several seconds. Jacqueline didn’t look away. Finally, in a voice gone dead and dull from exhaustion, Velveteen asked, “Where’s Jackie?”

“Everyone who serves a season is an archetype as much as they’re an individual. You know that. You know what each season would have asked you to become. Because I was born there, I had choices. Different ways for me to be. I could be Frostbite, the cruel edge of winter, not caring who I froze, as long as I never had to thaw. I could be the Snow Princess, guiding travelers home, risking myself against an uncaring cold to make sure that there was safety in the storm. I could be Jacqueline Claus, a girl who existed because of kindness, spreading and magnifying that same kindness through the holiday season. Or I could be Jackie Frost, always hungry, always reaching for more. Selfishness without malice. Self-protection without persecution.”

“What happens to a seasonal archetype who acts against their nature?” Memory was starting to slither into the forefront of Velveteen’s mind, slow and implacable and undeniable. A frozen world; a challenge unanswered; a transformative shell of ice and snow that had been somehow warm, like it wanted her to be safe more than it wanted her to be possessed. She hadn’t seen Jackie craft the dome that had kept her from the cold long enough for Winter to remake her, but she hadn’t really needed to see Jackie. She’d known that the other girl had been there.

“It depends on what they did,” said Jacqueline. She looked at Velveteen, and while she didn’t nod, she didn’t have to: her expression of resigned acknowledgment was enough. “For someone who was the selfish side of Christmas, it would seem like acting to save a friend was within their archetype, right? Selfishness endangering the world. Unless that person knew that saving their friend would come with consequences. Unless they put someone else’s good ahead of their own. That would be an act of selflessness. That would be enough to cost.”

“How much?”

“Everything.” Jacqueline shook her head. “It cost her the world, and it cost me my world, and now everyone acts like this is where I’ve always been. Even Papa. He says I’ve always been his daughter, and I want to believe him, because it would be easier, but I can’t.”

“Wait.” Action Dude put up his hand. They both turned to face him. “Are you saying someone revised reality, and rewrote all our memories, because this Jackie person kept Vel from dying?”

“I never said she saved Velma’s life,” said Jacqueline.

“You didn’t have to,” said Action Dude. “I mean, we studied you in class, after it became clear that the holidays weren’t going to leave Vel alone. You’re the charitable spirit of the season. The kid who gives all her presents away, who skips lunch so her classmates can eat. You don’t have a selfish bone in your body. Now you’re telling me that you used to be this Jackie girl?”

“No,” said Jacqueline. “I was never her. I could have been. I wasn’t. And I honestly don’t know if...if I was pulled out of my own reality and into hers, or if I’m her, rewritten. Either way, I don’t remember being her. I just know that I’m not supposed to be here.”

Action Dude looked from Jacqueline to Velveteen and back again before he said conversationally, “You know, I figured that when I ran away from home to join the fight, shit would get weird. I just didn’t think it would happen this fast.”

“It’s happened faster,” said Jacqueline. “Not often, but I mean, it’s possible.”

“You’re joining the fight?” asked Velveteen. There was a tremulous note of hope in her voice, something that would have sounded more natural coming from the girl she’d been back when she’d still believed the world was good, and that a boy named Aaron Frank would always be her hero. “Really?”

“You were always what it took to make him take a stand,” said Yelena. She sounded amused. She sounded tired. These two things were far from contradictory. They were conjoined, entwined like the brambles that surrounded the castle.

Velveteen turned. Yelena was standing on the edge of the castle wall, leaning against one of the gargoyles. She was still wearing the top of her black ball gown, but the skirt was gone, replaced by black leggings.

She smirked at Velveteen’s expression. “Can’t really fly quietly in six layers of satin. Torrey thinks it’s great--this isn’t her era, but at least people aren’t running around half-naked all the time. I think it’s a little confining.”

“When you spend your whole adult life in spandex, I guess it would be,” said Velveteen. “You going to attack me too?”

“Nah.” Yelena’s smirk melted into a weary smile. “I missed you too much for that. You scared the hell out of us, Velma. We didn’t think you were ever coming back. And then the spin machine started up, and by the time we realized what was happening, it was too late.”

“How long have you been standing there?” asked Jacqueline uneasily.

“Long enough to hear you say that this isn’t your world, and that you’re supposed to be some girl that none of us remembers, except for apparently Vel, who was there when she disappeared.” Yelena shook her head. “You should talk to Torrey. She can tell you a few things about living in a world that’s not your own. I just wish you’d said something.”

“The world’s healed up around me. It’s patched the holes where Jackie should have been. Like I told Vel, I honestly don’t know whether I was pulled here from another reflection, or whether I was her and got remade into me. Either way, I know I know I shouldn’t be here because I’m being punished for her sins. I just don’t know if it’s Aurora punishing Jackie by making her me, or the Snow Queen punishing me for not being her.”

“I think this is giving me a headache,” said Action Dude.

“Welcome to the club,” said Yelena. She sounded faintly amused. “See, if you’d just broken your corporate programming sooner, you could have been over the initial culture shock by now, and have joined the rest of us in dull acceptance of the fact that this the way the world works now.”

“Brat,” said Action Dude.

“Privileged jerk,” said Yelena.

“Now it really feels like old home week,” said Velveteen. “Has the Princess calmed down?”

“She’s getting there,” said Yelena. “Torrey’s talking her back to normal. She does fairy tale logic really, really well, when she needs to. But it’s bad, Vel. You got that, right? The Princess is hanging on by a thread, and it’s not up to her. Every time a child decides that she’s the bad guy, she shifts a little further from who she’s always been. Once she passes a certain point, I don’t think she’s going to be able to come back.”

“One friend gone, another going...” Velveteen glanced at Jacqueline. “Nobody told me this could be the cost of going to the Seasonal Lands.”

“Not even Santa can see the future,” said Jacqueline. “If he could, I like to think he would have tried harder to keep things from happening the way that they have.”

“All right.” Velveteen took a deep breath. She was still so damn tired. The Seasonal Lands had all but used her up: she had nothing left to spare. She needed a month of soft beds and hot showers and heavy meals, things that would put the meat back on her bones. Somehow it was no surprise that she wasn’t going to get any of those things. She never did, when she really needed them. “We have to fix this. We’ve come too far, and we’ve fought too hard, for things to end this way.”

“If you’ve got any suggestions, I’m ready to hear them,” said Yelena.

Velveteen looked at her, shrugged, and said calmly, “We need to go see Santa.”

None of them had an answer for that. Overhead, the fireworks continued to explode.
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