Summary: A long time ago, before Velveteen quit The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, things were getting started, and getting strange. This is a beginning.
It turns out that there are good things and bad things that come with being a junior superhero. The good things were a little nebulous; if pressed, Velveteen would probably have had to settle for "I don't have to live with my parents anymore" and "Yelena and I get to share a room, and since she glows 'lights out' is sort of hard to enforce," but at least they existed. The good things were there.
The bad things, on the other hand, were numerous, and easy to spot. More classes, as The Super Patriots, Inc. legally had to educate their underage "wards" to the standards of the state, while also teaching them how to control their powers and not level too many buildings. (Not a huge danger for Velveteen, unless the building was made out of Lego. Still, the theory was sound.) Sessions with Marketing, and with the company therapists who were supposed to keep them all well-adjusted and happy. As if. Still, for the most part, she was reasonably sure that she was happy. Usually. Mostly.
At the moment, "happy" wasn't even in her vocabulary. In fact, at the moment, her desired vocabulary consisted pretty much entirely of words Marketing didn't even know she knew.
They were only fifteen minutes into the filming of the eighth annual United Junior Super Patriots Christmas Extravaganza, and Velveteen already felt like screaming. Possibly with a side-order of "raining down fiery destruction from above," if she could convince somebody to lend a girl a little bit of a helping hand. Cosmo-not, maybe; he seemed to be having almost as little fun as she was, what with Marketing continually demanding he summon up another cosmic light show. Or Dotty Gale, who was probably wishing she'd tornadoed herself back to Fairyland the second the summons to TV Town arrived.
Not that the TV Town heroes seemed all that thrilled with the situation. Deus Ex Machina kept complaining about the writing, which was something of a statement on its quality right there, Leading Lady had thrown her makeup mirror at Sparkle Bright for daring to suggest that maybe she could get away with wearing a little less foundation, and as for Master Chef, well...
Velveteen really just hoped that the Claw could stay out of his way, or at least avoid winding up in a room with him, a pot of boiling water, and access to melted butter.
All this, and they were still doing their light and sound checks. She could hear the heels of the woman from Marketing clacking along the edge of the stage as she conducted her furious search, followed by her shrill, focus-group-approved voice demanding, "Has anyone seen Velveteen? She's due back on the Santa's Workshop set in fifteen minutes, and Makeup needs to approve her hair before she goes on camera."
Because I look SO GOOD in ringlets, Velveteen thought, and shrank further down into the shadows. She'd been able to tolerate the green and white version of her regular costume (still trimmed with her standard Velveteen Rabbit brown, mustn't confuse the kiddies when they're demanding their limited-edition Santa's Helper Velveteen action figures, oh no!). She'd been able to put up with them adding holly clips to her ears, and painting her nails in bright pine green. But everybody had to draw the line somewhere, and she drew the line at looking like the brunette Shirley Temple.
"It's okay," whispered a voice beside her. "She's gone."
Almost a year of part-time superhero training and full-time media spotlight had taught Velveteen that unexpected voices almost never meant anything good, and frequently meant that serious pain was about to enter the scene. She whipped around, only wincing a little as her shoulders slammed into the steel girders supporting the stage. Then she blinked.
The girl perched next to her was glowing faintly, in the off-hand sort of way that Velveteen typically associated with Sparkle Bright or Firefly, except that this glow was blue-white, instead of being rainbowed or gently gold. The color of the glow made sense, considering the girl's pastel blue skin and long white hair, assuming that someone being pastel blue could ever be said to make very much sense. The blue skin and natural nightlight look didn't exactly go with her mall rat attire or hot pink jewelry, but clearly Marketing hadn't been able to get their hands on her wardrobe coordinators yet. They would. They always did.
Say something cool, Velveteen thought, before opening her mouth and asking inanely, "Are you a supervillain?"
"I've thought about it as a career choice, just to make my parents mad, but it seems like too much work," replied the glowing girl, with an equally glowing grin. She offered a hand, displaying a clearly home-done hot pink manicure. "I'm Jackie Frost. My parents are doing some of the special effects."
Parents. Parents parents parents...Velveteen quickly reviewed the list of specialists that had been brought in for the production, and guessed, "Jack Frost and the Snow Queen?"
"Uh-huh." Jackie shrugged. "They said to not get underfoot. They're trying to keep Marketing from noticing me."
Velveteen winced. "That's a good idea. I wish Marketing would stop noticing me."
"We could get out of here."
"How?" The idea was appealing. It was just that it also happened to be completely impossible.
"I can use Mom's magic mirror to teleport home. She totally lets me use it whenever I want."
Velveteen hesitated, thinking of her friends trapped in holiday-special hell. Sparkle Bright kept getting forced to play firework display, the Claw was being stalked by the world's best argument against seafood restaurants, and Action Dude...she didn't even like to think about what Marketing was doing to him.
"Can we bring my friends?" she asked hopefully.
Convincing the rest of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division to take a trip through a complete stranger's mother's magic mirror was easier than Velveteen expected it to be. It helped that—in addition to the Claw's problems with Master Chef—Firefly had been teasing Sparkle Bright again, to the point that the younger photon-manipulator was obviously fighting back tears, and Action Dude had been the target of all the other Majesty-type heroes-in-training since the filming of the special began. The West Coast Division was currently the youngest team in The Junior Super Patriots franchise, and the "upperclassmen" were more than happy to remind its members of their place in the pecking order. Any chance at an escape was worth the risk.
"Besides, what's she going to do?" muttered the Claw. "Kidnap us to the Smurf dimension?"
Sparkle Bright, whose media education began and ended with what her handlers taught her, wiped her eyes and asked him, blankly, "What's a Smurf?"
The Claw rolled his eyes. "You smeared your mascara," he said, and went stomping off to observe Jackie as she tried to activate her mother's magic mirror.
Things weren't exactly going smoothly in the magic mirror department. Jackie was waving her hands, muttering in a language that sounded like gibberish (but she swore was elvish), and occasionally blowing veils of frost across the glass. This would have seemed more mystic and impressive if the frost hadn't possessed a tendency to form itself into unrelentingly cute images. Her latest was a perfect frost etching of two ice-skating penguins. The penguins were holding hands. Velveteen couldn't decide whether to be impressed or nauseated.
"Maybe you should kick it," suggested Action Dude. "That's what my dad always does when the television doesn't work." He paused, ears reddening. "Did. What he always did."
Velveteen shot him a sympathetic look, wishing she was brave enough to hold his hand. It was always hard when things brought back memories of their parents; of the lives they'd had before The Super Patriots, Inc. stepped in and changed everything. Only the Claw still had any contact with his family, and that was just because it was his dad who mutated him. "Are you sure you know how to work this thing?" she asked.
Jackie glared. "Why don't you try it, bunny-girl?" She stepped back from the mirror, spreading her hands in disgusted invitation. "Be my guest."
The penguin-laced frost was still clinging to the glass. In the distance, Velveteen could hear the shouts of the woman from Marketing as she realized that her newest junior team was completely absent. That, alone, was what gave Velveteen the courage to step forward, touching the glass with gloved fingertips, and ask, "Please, Mr. Magic Mirror? Can you take us anywhere but here?"
The penguins were wiped away by a sudden blaze of brilliant blue-white light. Whooping with delight, Jackie—who didn't seem exactly capable of holding a grudge—grabbed the Claw with one hand and Action Dude with the other. "Christmas Village, here we come!" she hollered.
"Wait, what?" squawked Velveteen, as Action Dude grabbed her by the wrist and Sparkle Bright grabbed onto the Claw's free, well, claw. Then the light washed everything away, and they were gone.
The woman from Marketing saw the flash of light and walked briskly toward it. By the time she got there, even the mirror had disappeared, leaving nothing but an empty room.
The transit through the mirror was completely smooth, marked only by a taste like peppermint and pine needles on their lips before they were tumbling out into the cotton candy snow. Almost literally cotton candy snow; it was only a little bit cold, and when Velveteen wiped it off her face, it tasted just like spun carnival sugar. "I thought you knew how to steer," she complained, before realizing that no one else was saying anything at all. Frowning a little, she turned in the direction the others were staring. Then she froze, too, joining them in their silent awe.
Jackie, standing off to one side—her high-top sneakers not sinking into the snow so much as a fraction of an inch—smirked. "Like I said, Mom lets me use her mirror," she said. "Welcome to Christmas Village."
"Oh, my God, Santa's really and truly real," whispered Sparkle Bright.
"Duh," said Jackie.
The scene in front of them was like something out of a fairy tale or a dream, the sort of dream you have after a day of pressing your nose to store windows and dreaming of things you know you'll never have. The buildings looked like they'd been crafted from gingerbread and icing, with sugar-candy windows and striped peppermint support beams. More of the cotton candy snow covered them in a decorative veil, and Velveteen knew that if she slept in that snow, she'd wake up more rested than she'd ever been in her life. Warm light bled through the windows, casting calliope shadows on the snowbanks. The door on the biggest house, the one right in front of them, was standing open.
Her triumph firmly established and her superiority assured, Jackie offered the four a bright smile and said, "Come on this way. You're probably gonna want to meet the Big Guy, and I know he's gonna want to meet you."
Sparkle Bright's eyes lit up, and not from her powers. "We get to meet the real Santa?"
"Duh," said Jackie again, and turned to head inside.
"Vel Vel Vel we're gonna meet Santa!" squealed Sparkle Bright, and seized Velveteen's hand, hauling her across the yard and into the welcoming hallway ahead of them. Action Dude and the Claw followed more slowly, but not by much. Once the last of them had stepped through, the door swung shut of its own accord.
The hallway in Santa's house smelled like gingerbread and cocoa, and it didn't look a thing like the Santa's Workshop set dreamed up by the designers of the Junior Super Patriots United Christmas Extravaganza. For one thing, Candyland-themed sensibilities aside, it wasn't anything near tidy enough. The set had been obviously that: a set, a place you filmed a kid-friendly adventure without allowing things to become too visually confusing. This was just as obviously nothing of the sort. Shelves lined the walls from the floor on up, all of them crammed with knick-knacks, antique toys, and things too weird for Velveteen to quite identify. The few open spots between the shelves were packed with framed pictures, paintings, and even paper-cut cameos showing the outlines of old-fashioned strangers. One of the paintings showed a little glowing blue girl who could almost have been Jackie herself, if not for the subtle differences in her features. "Your mom?" Velveteen guessed, pointing to the picture.
"My great-grandmother," Jackie replied, and grinned. "There have been Snow Queens in Christmas Village for a long, long time."
"And there will be many more to come, unless you manage to melt us all, you naughty child," boomed a jovial voice from behind them. The sound of it filled Velveteen's head with thoughts of Christmas—good thoughts, the ones that were normally drowned out by memories of empty stockings and boxes of stale generic-brand cereal wrapped in birthday paper and presented like they were all the jewels of India.
"SANTA!" Sparkle Bright let go of Velveteen in order to launch herself at the vast, red-and-white-clad figure filling the hallway door. Santa Claus, faded with a self-guided blonde cruise missile riding a blast of rainbow, did the sensible thing: he laughed and plucked her out of the air, swinging her into an embrace that looked as warm and welcoming as a mug of hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows on top. Sparkle Bright laughed in tandem, sending firework sparks dancing all over the room as she flung her arms around his neck and hugged him for all that she was worth. "I knew you were real, I just knew it, people said you were just a story, but I knew it! You had to be real, you just had to!"
"Yes, my dear, I'm very real, and I like to breathe," said Santa, laughter turning just a trifle strained.
Blushing electric green, Sparkle Bright let go of his neck. "Sorry, Santa."
"It's all right. You're very welcome here, Yelena." Looking toward the others, he said, "You are all welcome here. You are very good children, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to meet you."
Action Dude and the Claw mumbled their greetings, both of them looking overwhelmed. Velveteen, however, had encountered holiday archetypes before. Had, in fact, been relentlessly tormented by holiday archetypes, in the form of Hailey Ween and Scaredy Cat and all the rest of the insanity in the Autumn Land. She'd been perfectly willing to follow Jackie home if it got them out of the filming of the Christmas special, but the phrase "Christmas Village" hadn't come into things until they were already committed, and the chance of meeting the representatives of the holiday itself had never been mentioned. Glaring at Santa seemed wrong, somehow, so Velveteen settled for staring fixedly at her feet, refusing to look up and meet his eyes. She didn't care whether he was jolly as holly and shaking like a big bowl of jelly. He was a holiday, and holidays didn't mean anything good.
Santa greeted each of the others by name—real name, not code name—and while neither of the boys was quite as enthusiastic as Yelena (sometimes explosions weren't as enthusiastic as Yelena), they both snapped out of their shyness pretty quickly, answering his questions like they'd known him for their entire lives. In a way, they had. He was Santa, after all. It wasn't until Jackie's voice rejoined the discussion that she realized what he was asking them; whether they'd like to have some gingerbread and cocoa in the kitchen. Before she could get her bearings back, she was alone in the cluttered living room with Santa Claus. She could feel him watching her. She didn't know what to do.
"Hello, Velveteen," said Santa, his voice lowered several notches from his previous jovial boom. Why was he using her code name? She felt unsure of her place in the world, like there was nothing holding her to who she'd been but the memories of too many bad Christmas mornings, too many missed meals and parent-teacher conferences where her parents never came.
She said nothing.
"I've been hoping I'd get the chance to meet you properly," said Santa, and Velveteen raised her head, ready to face the music at last. Whatever that music might be.
Santa didn't say anything. He just looked at her, expression solemn and compassionate and, yes, very, very kind. She understood why Yelena had loved him at once, and why he'd been able to win the boys over so quickly when nothing really won Aaron over before he'd had a chance to consider every angle. She also understood why he terrified her. With someone who looked that kind, it would be so easy to overlook a little betrayal.
"I don't want to go back," said Velveteen. "Please don't make me."
"Ah," said Santa. "But where is it that you don't want to go back to? I'm not trying to send you anywhere. I'm a little surprised that you think I might be."
"Halloween," said Velveteen immediately. "I don't want to go back to Halloween."
"Why did you think I'd do something like that?"
She looked at him, dark eyes wide and grave, and answered, "You called me 'Velveteen.' Not 'Velma.' You called everybody else by their real names. So why not me?"
"Ah," said Santa, understanding washing over his face. "I think I understand. Come over here, Vel. Sit down with me a little bit." He walked to a large red velvet couch only a few shades darker than his suit—how was it that she hadn't noticed it before? Was the house changing when she wasn't watching it? The idea seemed likely and upsetting, all at the same time—and sat, patting the cushion next to him. Entirely unsure of what else she could do, Velveteen walked over and sat down, still looking gravely up at him. At least he hadn't asked her to sit in his lap. There was that, anyway.
"Now, my dear, there are a few things you should know. The first is that you are always welcome here." Seeing her expression turn to surprise, Santa smiled. "For you, we've just met, but for me, I've known you for your entire life. Velveteen Sofia Martinez, that's who you are, at least for right now. I've been watching you since you were a baby. Worrying about you, sometimes, but watching all the same. Holidays can't touch you unless you're particularly attuned to them, and unless there's a need. Christmas is happy to have you visit. Would even be happy if you wanted to settle here. But we don't need you the way that Halloween did, and so there's no reason for me to attempt to keep you here—nor, I promise, is there reason for me to send you back there."
Still confused, Velveteen said, carefully, "But why am I not Velma anymore?"
Santa's smile faded, replaced by a look of sorrow so deep it verged on anger. "Because your parents never taught you who Velma was, and the they gave her away without a second thought. Oh, don't worry—you'll be Velma again someday, when you figure out precisely who Velma needs to be. Right now is the time for you to be Velveteen. Enjoy it."
Velveteen eyed him warily. In her experience, when adults said something like that, there was a silent "while it lasts" tacked onto the end. "If you already knew me, and already know all of this, why were you hoping you'd get to meet me 'properly'? Did you send Jackie to the filming just to bring us back here? 'Cause I just thought she was being nice." More quietly, she added, "Guess I should've known better."
"Jackie does what she does entirely on her own, and no one can control her. Not me, and not her parents. She'll be a fantastic Snow Queen when her time comes. Assuming she doesn't manage to slaughter us all by mistake between then and now. No, my dear, this meeting was one of those things that had the potential to occur, but had an equal chance of never happening at all. I'm truly glad that it did. Especially now. This is a wonderful time for you."
"What do you..." Velveteen paused, understanding washing over her. "You're a time-traveler. That's how you do it. How you can be everywhere on Christmas. You travel through time."
"Something like that, and nowhere near so dramatically as your hero-types tend to do. I don't zip about solving mysteries and preventing crimes. I simply give gifts to children, and watch them as they grow up."
Velveteen's expression darkened. "So where were my Christmas presents?"
Santa chuckled. The sound was like the Northern Lights somehow, all color and wonder and proof that magic lives in even the most modern world. "Oh, child. The world is your Christmas present. You only need to decide the time has come to unwrap it."
Velveteen was quiet and a little thoughtful-looking when she walked into the kitchen, just a few steps ahead of a smiling Santa Claus. The rest of the Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, were seated around a weathered old cherry-wood table, munching their way through a plate of gingerbread cookies. Each of them had an enormous mug of cocoa in front of them, and somehow it made perfect sense, given the sensibilities of the place, that the Claw's mug was actually shaped to fit easily into his massive claws. Jackie was sitting at one end of the table, and a smiling, white-haired woman who looked suspiciously like a "Mrs. Claus"-type was seated at the other. Yelena and Aaron looked around as Velveteen and Santa entered, both of them smiling brightly at the sight of her.
"Vel!" called Aaron, waving a cookie in her direction. "Come on, have some cookies. They're amazing."
"The cocoa's better," said Yelena firmly, and stuck her tongue out at him. He stuck his tongue out right back. And Velveteen, unexpectedly, giggled.
"Whoa," said Jackie, after the silence had managed to get a little bit too long for her to tolerate—so once it was more than a few seconds—"you can actually laugh. I was starting to think you were, like, morally opposed to it or something."
"Vel's just a little shy," said Aaron staunchly. "Don't tease her."
"It's okay," said Velveteen, moving to sit down between him and Yelena. "I don't mind. Can I have some cocoa?"
The woman from Marketing had just about run out of patience for the antics of junior heroes who didn't understand how lucky they were to be in the good graces of The Super Patriots, Inc. She turned on one three-inch heel, intending to storm back to the director's office and inform him that the West Coast Division was being cut, and would be punished for their absence. There, standing in front of her, were the four missing heroes—and more, they were finally properly dressed. Velveteen's hair was in perfect Christmas corkscrew curls. Sparkle Bright looked like a literal angel, floating a foot above the floor on a tide of sparkling glitter. Action Dude had donned his fur-trimmed holiday cape (the one he'd been steadfastly refusing to wear all week), and even the Claw had finally embraced the holiday spirit, wearing reindeer antlers in front of his waving antennae. The woman from Marketing stopped dead, staring. Finally, carefully, she said, "Children...?"
"We're sorry we were missing," said Sparkle Bright, with deep and chastised-looking gravity. "I was worried I wouldn't be able to remember my lines, so Vel was helping me with them, and we just sort of lost track of time."
"We went to find the girls," said Action Dude. "Teammates in trouble, be there on the double."
Faced with one of the primary rules of every Super Patriots team, all the woman from Marketing could really do was blink. The four were better groomed and better prepared-looking than she'd ever seen them, and to a certain degree, she was afraid to look a gift horse in the mouth. There was too much of a chance that it might bite. "Well, I should hope you're sorry," she said, almost automatically. "Every minute that you're not on that set costs the company money. I just want you to think about that the next time you complain about needing to pose for new posters."
"We're sorry," chorused the junior heroes, in perfect unison.
Something about that made the woman from Marketing uncomfortable...but there just wasn't time to worry about it. They were already far too late for such piddly concerns. "This way," she said, and led the four back toward the set where filming was about to resume.
Safe in Santa's kitchen, well-plied with cocoa, cookies, and gooey fireplace s'mores, the Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, watched through the magic mirror as the four dolls (courtesy of Santa's workshop) obediently followed the woman from Marketing off to be filmed. The toys were certainly believable, if you hadn't spent any real amount of time with the four, who might be well-trained, but were still just kids. "And they're really going to believe this all night?" asked Velveteen.
"They always have before," said Jackie brightly, and grabbed another cookie. Santa shot her a chiding look, and she smiled brilliantly before shoving the cookie into her mouth. "'sides," she said, around a mouthful of crumbs, "toys 'have better."
"She means that my toys behave better," translated Santa. "They don't have actual superpowers, just the illusion of them, but with Jack and the Snow Queen on hand to make sure nothing gets out of control, they'll be fine. They'll play your parts perfectly, and you can go back after they finish with makeup removal."
"This is really nice of you, Santa," said Yelena. She was almost literally starry-eyed, bursts of silver and rainbow glitter appearing around her at random. If she were any happier, she might be in danger of having her head pop right off and go flying around the room under its own power.
Velveteen was a little warier. Santa had been good to them so far, and his toys were wonderful, but... "It seems a little too easy," she said.
Santa looked at her solemnly. "Nothing is ever easy, my dear, but that doesn't mean that everything has to be hard. Be children tonight. Just for one night, be children. You deserve that much out of life, and it's a luxury you won't encounter very often in this life."
"What do you mean?" asked the Claw, voice going anxious.
"Just that time is short, and childhood passes faster than we ever think it will." Santa leaned over to ruffle the Claw's hair, which was still brown and straight, just like it had been when he was a human boy. "Now run and play, all five of you. I'll make sure the exchange goes smoothly when it's time to send you home."
"Last one to the skating pond is a rotten egg!" shouted Jackie, and took off running. The other four, lacking any better ideas, followed her, and only Velveteen looked back.
In a matter of seconds, Santa and Mrs. Claus were alone in the kitchen. Reaching over to take her husband's hand, Mrs. Claus asked, "Well? What do you see for them?"
"Darkness. So much darkness. It'll take at least one of them, and maybe more, if they're not careful. There's love between them, and that may be the most dangerous thing of all, because love is what opens the cracks that let the darkness in." Santa stroked his wife's fingers, still looking after the Junior Super Patriots—still looking after the children. "They're going to be hurt more than they'd think possible if you asked them now, and they've all been hurt before, so damn badly. It's inhuman what some people do to children. It's just inhuman."
"But they'll make it through? They'll make it out the other side?"
Santa pulled his hand away from hers, shaking his head. "I don't know, Anna, I honestly don't. It's murky, like even they haven't figured that out just yet. The future can always change, but for at least one of those four, there isn't much of a future as things stand now."
"You don't mean..."
"I'm afraid I do." Santa sighed heavily. "Maybe we'll be lucky. Maybe the little animus will choose Halloween, and that will be enough to put paid to what's hanging over them. If not..."
"The future be what it's going to be. Isn't that what you always say?"
"Yes. But that doesn't mean I can't wish that I could change it." Santa took her hand again, and they sat quietly, listening to the distant sound of children's laughter.
After that night was over, none of them would ever quite agree on what the best part had been. Yelena loved the Northern Lights, which she was able to grab and twirl around her like gauzy scarves. Aaron liked playing snowball baseball with the elves, who didn't care if he occasionally blasted into a snowbank or lost control and went tumbling off into the sky. The Claw liked the icy water beneath the frozen ponds, where his lobster's skin kept him from getting cold. He could dance through the water like Yelena danced through the sky, and he didn't feel like a freak at all. Velveteen...
Velma liked the toys in Santa's Workshop. But most of all, she liked watching Yelena dance in the sky and the Claw dance in the water, and she liked the sound of Aaron laughing. She liked knowing that her friends, for once in their lives, were really happy. As she watched Yelena changing for bed, her own pajamas warm and comforting, she tried not to think too hard about what it meant that they had so little laughter in their lives. Maybe that was just part of being a hero. One more thing they didn't put in the brochure.
"Merry Christmas, Vel," said Yelena, sliding into her bed.
Velma smiled as best she could, lying down with her own head on her pillow. "Merry Christmas, Yelena," she said.
And to all a good night.