Summary: Sometimes the real danger of falling into an alternate timeline isn't the timeline itself. Sometimes it's trying to find your way home...
Velveteen levered herself out of the impossibly warm snowbank, eyeing the red-clad figure in front of her with wary suspicion. "What kind of game are you playing here?" she asked. "Was any of that even real?"
"It could have been," replied Santa Claus, an understanding smile on his jolly round face. He always looked jolly, except when he looked furious. It was deceptive, holiday cheer used as a mask for true emotion. "You could have decided to stay there, and then it would absolutely have been real. It's a wonderful life, Vel. You, of all people, should know that."
"You created that timeline to teach me a lesson? Did it work?" Velveteen looked down at herself. She was back to her usual weight, which was something of a relief, since she understood her body's limitations in a world where she allowed it to eat potato chips. Her costume had changed, going from the alternate universe "sexy bunny" design to a bows-and-bells trimmed holiday style, complete with short skirt. It was the grown-up version of the costume she'd worn for the old Super Patriots holiday specials. Somehow, that made it even worse.
"I think you're the only one who can know that, Vel," said Santa. "We've missed you. I kept hoping that you would come to visit."
"I decided that it was best if I stayed out of the seasonal lands, since they all kept trying to keep me," Vel countered, and eyed him suspiciously. "Did Jackie put you up to this? Was this whole 'kidnap Velveteen to an alternate timeline and see what she does' routine her idea? Because I will kick her ass."
"I would very much like to see that," said Santa gravely. "But no, this wasn't Jackie's idea. It was mine."
"Don't hog the credit," said a familiar female voice. Velveteen turned to see a teenage girl with pale blonde hair streaked in orange and green, wearing a patchwork witch's costume and holding a pumpkin-shaped trick-or-treat bucket in one hand. "I helped."
"Hailey," said Velveteen. The word fell between them like a curse.
Hailey Ween, current Halloween Princess and guardian of the Autumn Land, smiled. "It's good to see you, too, Vel. I'm with Santa. We've missed you in autumn."
"Are all the seasons in on this?" demanded Vel, turning back toward Santa. "Is the Easter Bunny going to spring out at me next?" She paused. "No pun intended."
"Summer wasn't involved, since that's the only season that has no claim on you, but yes, Spring was a part of this. I provided the wonderful life narrative thread. Hailey provided the trick and the treat of getting you into another timeline."
"And Easy was the one who made sure everything was hidden where it needed to be," said Hailey. "He bends time better than any of us. Has to, to hide all those eggs without help."
"God. Why am I the subject of a seasonal conspiracy? Did I not buy enough greeting cards last year or something?"
"Vel," said Santa chidingly. Velveteen stopped, feeling obscurely like she was eight years old and at risk of the Naughty List. That was Santa's power. He rewarded the good little boys and girls of the world, and he made even the worst of the bad little boys and girls crave his approval and fear disappointing him. It would take a hardened supervillain to stand up to Santa's disapproval, and that was something she'd never been, despite Marketing's best efforts at branding her. "The seasons are involved in your life because you need us to be, and because we need you. You're special. You know that."
"I don't want to go live in a season, okay? I'm just starting to get my life back together. If I was going to chicken out on the real world and go running to Halloween or Christmas, I would have done it years ago, when The Super Patriots, Inc. was making sure I couldn't hold a job or keep an apartment."
"But we gave you the real world, the way that you could have had it, if things had just gone a little bit differently," said Hailey. Velveteen glared at her. She shrugged. "You had it all there, Vel. You were co-leader of The Super Patriots, West Coast Division. You were married to your childhood sweetheart. All it cost you was the best friend you'd already given up, and you threw it all away. So why do you think a season would be any worse?"
"I'm a superhero. I'm not a holiday."
Santa smiled, and his smile was kind—his smiles were always kind—before asking her, quietly, "What do you think the rest of us started out as?"
Velveteen didn't have an answer for that.
The question of what creates alternate or parallel timelines is one which can drive even the most fervent devotees of alternate reality science to drink heavily, because even after years of study, experimentation, and tragic lab accidents (some of which resulted in new timelines to observe), no one really knows. Why does one missed bus connection create eight possible worlds, while a political assassination sinks into the multiverse without so much as a ripple? Why do some people live and die without once causing reality to shift, while others throw off new continuities like they were nothing to be concerned about? Theory after theory has been put forth and, thus far, none of them have managed to hold water.
Here is what we do know, more due to trial and error than any more scientific approach: some people attract alternate universes the way that probability manipulators attract luck. These people are not necessarily important, and may seem to have little influence on the worlds in which they live. They eat, sleep, go to work, fall in love, and live their lives never realizing that they have universes shifting all around them. Sometimes this "universal attraction" is a temporary thing, collecting around a series of events which have brought or will bring the person in question into contact with another reality. Sometimes it happens throughout their lives. And sometimes it happens because the worlds are jockeying to see where that person will wind up staying, whether it be their world of origin, or one of the other realities that spin around them like water circling a drain.
Once an individual has slipped between realities once, it becomes easier for them, more likely to happen over and over again, until eventually, they stop moving, or they die. Neither of these outcomes is always desirable, but no known reality seems to care very much for the desires of the people that inhabit it. Realities care even less when they're fighting for ownership of a prize, or a person.
We are rarely able to ask the people who have been put into such a position what they think of the situation. It seems likely that most of them would be unimpressed, and would be quite pleased with anyone who could offer them a way to stop skipping between worlds.
In the end, we can at least be sure of this much: no matter how much momentum a person may have when they begin the process of moving between worlds, they will eventually run out, and stop. Nothing can keep moving forever, not even in the multiverse, and given time enough, all things find their place.
Whether they like that place or not is entirely beside the point.
Seeing that Velveteen wasn't going to stop glaring without some sort of reason, Santa sighed. "Velveteen, please. We're your friends. We just want to help you be happy."
"She isn't my friend," Velveteen shot back hotly, jabbing an accusing finger at Hailey. Hailey rolled her eyes, but didn't protest. "She's kidnapped me to her stupid Halloween world three times. I barely got out the last time. I really thought better of you than this, Santa. I never thought you'd team up with her to go against me."
"And I never thought you would turn your back on your friends and your responsibilities because you were too scared to figure out what was broken," Santa replied. His tone stayed mild. Somehow, that made it worse. "You knew that the Marketing Department was lying to you. You were hurt and confused, but you knew, on some level, that what they were saying didn't make any sense. You knew for sure after Yelena attacked you in the locker room. But you did nothing to fix it. You did nothing to find out what was really going on. You just. Walked. Away."
"That isn't fair," whispered Velveteen.
But the worst was yet to come. Santa shook his head, and said: "I thought better of you."
Velveteen closed her eyes. Not fast enough; the tears escaped anyway, running hotly down her cheeks. Then Santa's arms were enfolding her, the sweet gingerbread and peppermint scent of him just as much a part of the embrace as the feeling of warm velvet pressed against her cheeks. For a moment, she considered fighting. The moment passed, and Velveteen collapsed against Father Christmas, sobbing in earnest.
"My poor Vel," said Santa, stroking her back with one huge hand. "We've all treated you hard, haven't we? Every single one of us, from the very beginning. I wish I could tell you that it was over, but you're nowhere near your ever after, yet, and not even I can tell you whether it's going to be a happy one. You have a long way to go before you get to hang your stockings by the fire, fill your cup with Christmas cheer, and leave the rest of the world to its own devices."
"Hey," said Hailey, with sudden heat. "Don't you use this to try to influence her toward Christmas, Fat Man. You don't need her like we do, and the deal was that we'd all work together to remind her that she has to stay active, not to shove her into your jolly clutches."
Velveteen pulled away from Santa, sniffling a little as she dragged her hand across her nose. It left a wet trail on her glove. Sticking her hand behind her back, she glared at Hailey. "Stop talking about me like I'm some kind of toy you get to play with," she said. "I'm right here, and there is nothing you can ever, ever do to influence me toward Halloween."
"Sorry, sweetie, but a sweet treat like you can't trick a girl like me," said Hailey, and grinned, showing all her teeth. They seemed a little pointier than they were supposed to be. "If there was nothing I could ever, ever do to influence you toward Halloween, I wouldn't be here now. But you still glow like a jack-o-lantern at dusk when I look at you, and that means you can still be ours. You just don't want to admit it to yourself."
"I'm back in the field, I'm back behind a mask—what more do you people want from me?" Velveteen turned her glare on Santa. "I've done more in the last six months than I have in the last six years."
"Yes, you have, and I'm very proud of you, Vel. You'll never understand how proud I am. But you have so much more to do, and so much less time than you think."
"What are you—"
"It's time for trick or treat," said Hailey. There was a sharp edge in her voice, a razor in her American-girl caramel apple sweetness. "Our trick, our treat. If you come out the other end without being tempted, we put you back. If you don't, we bargain."
"Santa?" Velveteen's voice came out as a whisper, even though she hadn't intended for it to be.
"Halloween has the right to test and trick you, Vel; I'm here because I wouldn't let you go through it alone." He offered her one massive, red-gloved hand. Instinct made her reach out and take it without thinking about the possible consequences. He was Santa Claus; he was, and had always been, her friend. "You've already passed the first trick."
That first trick had nearly been enough to break her heart. Velveteen looked uncertainly up at Santa, and asked, "So what comes next?"
It was Hailey who answered, grinning ear to ear all the while. "The Hall of Mirrors, silly rabbit. Let's see if you're so wedded to the real world after that."
The Hall of Mirrors, Santa explained as they walked, was a place where the various possible realities reflected on each other, becoming visible from the right angles. "It's where we found the world we sent you into."
"So it was real," said Velveteen, seizing on the idea of a world where Yelena might not be happy, but at least had someone she could genuinely love; a world where Marketing had never managed to interfere with their lives the way they had in this timeline...
"No," said Santa, a sad note in his voice. "It was a potential, not a reality. That's how we were able to insert you without removing someone else."
"Oh," said Velveteen, in a very small voice.
"Look at it this way: the bad stuff wasn't real. Isn't the good stuff a small price to pay for that?" Hailey ran ahead of them, through the ever-warm snow, to the door of the great gingerbread palace that waited, with bakery patience, for them to arrive. She grabbed the handle and tugged. It remained stubbornly closed. "Hey, Santa, I can't get in."
"That's because you have no possible futures left," said Santa wearily. "Once, it would have opened for you easily. But only one of you became the Halloween Princess, because all Autumn Countries are the same Autumn Country, and now every other you that might have been is dead and gone and in her grave. The House of Mirrors is not for you."
Hailey turned and pouted at him, petulant as the teenage girl she was always going to be. Velveteen remembered a time when Hailey had seemed grown-up and exciting, so much older and wiser and stranger than anyone else she knew. That time had passed, and now Hailey was just another kid who needed to be told "no" a little more often.
"This place sucks," said Hailey, confirming Velveteen's impression of her even more.
"Not too fond of you, either, witchy-bitchy," said Jackie's sharp, familiar voice. Velveteen turned to see the blue-skinned girl materialize in a swirl of snow, a trick she could only pull off at the North Pole. The smile she turned Velveteen's way was almost apologetic. "Hi, Vel. Sorry about all this. It wasn't my idea."
"Hey, Jackie," Velveteen replied, raising the hand that wasn't clasped in Santa's in a vague wave. "I know it's not your fault." Jackie's mother was the Snow Queen; her father was Jack Frost. Both of them worked for Santa Claus. Out of the four winter heroes Velveteen knew, Jackie was the one with the most personal freedom outside the North Pole, and the least freedom inside it. As long as her mother was Snow Queen, when she was at home, Jackie did as she was told. "Are you going to let us in?"
"Yeah. You need me or Mom here if you want the mirrors to reflect the right way. Otherwise, you just get lots of dopey-looking images of yourself as you are, not yourself as you might have been." Jackie casually flipped Hailey off as she walked up the steps of the gingerbread palace. They froze under her feet, turning into slabs of blue-white ice. When she put her hand on the door, it froze as well. Bit by bit, the sweet cookie facade fell away, replaced by hard angles and cold, unyielding snow. The door swung open. Jackie turned to face the others, and spread her arms. "Enter, wanderers, and let the cold consume you."
"And you people say Halloween is creepy," complained Hailey, and flounced past Jackie into the snow palace.
Jackie smirked. "Never said it had a monopoly," she said. Her smirk faded, replaced by a look of concern, as Velveteen and Santa mounted the steps. She didn't say anything. She didn't even meet Velveteen's eyes. And somehow that wasn't a surprise at all; somehow, that was just the next logical step in this insane fairy tale merry-go-round of seasons and parallel selves.
Velveteen and Santa walked past her. Jackie stayed outside on the frozen steps until they were safely past the threshold and down the hall. Then she stepped into the Hall of Mirrors, and closed the door behind herself.
Inside the Hall of Mirrors was nothing but darkness. Velveteen felt Santa's hand slip out of hers, and groped for it, but there was nothing there to catch. "I'm sorry," he said, from somewhere that was very close and very far away at the same time. "This may not be the right way. It's the only one."
Then the lights came on, and she was standing by herself in a twisting maze of mirrors, the sort you could find in any carnival fun house. But the reflection directly in front of her wasn't shorter or taller or fatter or thinner or any of the other things a normal mirror would do; it was just her, in street clothes, with her hair worn long and tied in a high ponytail. There was something off about her expression, and it took Velveteen a moment to realize that it was the absence of pain. This was a Velma who had never known regret.
Almost without meaning to, Velveteen reached for the mirror. Her reflection did the same. Their fingertips met, and merged—
—and her name is Velma Martinez, but her friends call her "Vel." They make jokes about her teaming up with some meddling kids and their stupid dog to fight crime, and she just smiles, and fights crime in the way she went to law school for: one case at a time. She never developed superpowers, although the mandatory screening she underwent during her first year of law school showed that she had the potential, if she'd been exposed to the right set of conditions when she was a kid. It's genetic, apparently. She'll have to think about that before she has children of her own—
Velveteen yanked her hand free with a gasp, staggering backward. She didn't notice the next mirror until her back hit it, and she fell, with a lurch, into—
—they called her "Velveteen" when she was with The Junior Super Patriots, made up a bunch of crap about how she animated toys with love, and then when she left, they told the world that she was a supervillain. Fine. If that was how they wanted to play things, fine. It's Roadkill now, and the things she brings to life aren't exactly thrilled about the way that they died. She has a lot of pretty little zombie pets just itching for the chance to bring a world of hurt to the people who snapped their spines and left them on the road. If Marketing wants a bad guy, they're going to get a—
"Whoa, Vel, whoa!" Jackie's hands grabbed Velveteen's arms and yanked her forward, away from the mirror that had her captive. "You gotta be careful in here. You can get lost."
"What..." Velveteen looked over her shoulder at the mirror. This reflection had short-cropped, spiky hair and a costume that was modeled on her original bunny design, but with an undead reinterpretation that she really didn't want to think about too hard. The reflection stuck her tongue out. Velveteen turned away. "What is this place?"
"Potential. People you might have been, people you might be anyway. Some of them never existed, most of them never will. But all of them are you."
Velveteen looked back toward the mirror where Velma Martinez, lawyer, was looking calmly out at her. She was alone. But the Velveteens to either side of her—one in a white bunny costume with a pink bow on her left rabbit ear, one in a black leather bustier with a rabbit-shaped necklace—were accompanied by their own glowing blue girls. She raised a shaky hand and pointed at Velma. "She's alone because I would never have met you if I weren't a superhero."
"Exactly." Jackie let her go. "Only touch the ones you're sure of. Most of them won't know you're here, but there are some heads you don't want to look inside, even when they're versions of your own. Maybe especially when they're versions of your own. We're our own worst enemies."
"Have you been through here before?" asked Velveteen.
"The day I became my mother's heir. I had to walk this hall and touch every reflection, and let me tell you, you do not want to do that. It was worth it for me. It's not something that you need to do." Jackie began to walk. Velveteen fell in beside her, unsure of what else she was supposed to be doing. "You need to look at your reflections. Find the ones that feel like they could fit, and look inside them."
"But you just told me not to."
"No, I told you to be careful, and not look at all of them. Like, the ones where you're an obvious supervillain? Not necessary to your mental health. There are about eighteen versions of you where you're Roadkill, another ten or so where you're the Puppeteer, and a couple of really nasty ones where you go by Marionette. If you see a you with strings hanging from her wrists, don't touch that one."
"What's wrong with those versions of me?"
Velveteen didn't have an answer for that.
After an hour of walking through a maze filled with people she might have been, Velveteen was tired, frustrated, and increasingly unsure of exactly what this was supposed to prove. Then they turned a corner, and faced a corridor filled with mirrors that held no reflections at all. "What the..."
"This is part of the maze," Jackie said. "Try a mirror."
Velveteen stepped cautiously toward the first empty mirror. Reaching out her hand, she touched the glass, and—
—it wasn't a good death. No death is a good death, exactly, but some are better than others, and this wasn't a good death. She'd gone up against Marketing one time too many, without anyone to support her, and this time, they'd decided to hit back. The last thing that went through her head before she crumpled to the pavement was Oh, Aaron, oh, God, not you, too... and then she was gone, and it didn't matter anymore—
Velveteen gasped as she jerked herself loose. Wheeling on Jackie, she demanded, "What the fuck? You have to make me live through my own death?! I know this wasn't your idea, Jackie, but this is insane!"
"It's a possibility." Jackie gestured with both hands, indicating the full length of the hall. "It's a common possibility. I won't make you live through more than one of those; I'm just going to tell you what they all have in common. In every one of them, you went up against The Super Patriots, and you did it without a team. There's not a single empty mirror where you went up against them with someone to support you. Maybe someday those mirrors will exist. They're not here now."
"So what are you saying? Don't go up against The Super Patriots with nothing but a box of Barbies to support me? I think I got that part."
"I'm saying that if you don't want to team up with people, and team up with them long term, you need to get away from the idea of ever challenging The Super Patriots."
Velveteen frowned at her. "I wasn't thinking about challenging them."
Jackie sighed. "Weren't you? Come on." She turned to head down another corridor. "I'll show you your teams."
There were fewer mirrors in this corridor, maybe because she had fewer people she trusted than she had ways to die at the hands of the Marketing Department. In one mirror, all four members of her junior class stood together in tattered, obviously homemade uniforms, their hands clenched and their jaws set against an enemy she couldn't see, but could easily imagine. In another, she stood next to Tag, the Princess, the Claw, and Dr. Darwin, of all people, the four of them wearing matching matte black costumes and lab coats.
The third mirror showed her standing next to Polychrome, Victory Anna, and Action Dude, all four of them wearing their uniforms from the timeline she had just abandoned. Velveteen stopped there, a lump in her throat, and reached for the glass without allowing her fingers to quite touch it. "He would have joined us," she whispered. "If I'd stayed, he would have joined us."
"That man has always loved you more than he loved America, apple pie, or common sense," said Jackie. "That didn't make staying there the right thing to do. Those weren't your versions of the people you loved. They were close, but close is no cigar."
"He would have joined us," Velveteen whispered. She turned to the next mirror, where she was standing between Tag and a woman she didn't recognize, a woman in a green and brown uniform, with a bi-color domino mask covering her eyes. "Who's that?"
"Her? That's Jory. Her sister's the Governor of Oregon in our timeline. She took the position to keep The Super Patriots out of her state after they got Jory killed. She never forgave them. In a world where Jory didn't die, Celia wouldn't have been in a position to offer you sanctuary. You would have kept running, and eventually stopped in Vancouver. Jory wouldn't have stayed with The Super Patriots after her eighteenth birthday. Her powers made her partially immune to their conditioning, and they hate that."
"Jory," said Velveteen, thoughtfully. "What happened to her?"
"What happens to any of the kids who die on Marketing's watch? She was asked to do too much, too soon, and she didn't dodge fast enough. She was twelve years old when she died. Her real name was Jennifer Morgan."
"So I could be a supervillain or a casualty or a holiday or part of a team, and you had to bring me here to make me understand that?"
"No, silly," said Hailey, from the mirror behind her. Velveteen turned. The Halloween Princess was grinning at her from behind the glass, her arm around an uncomfortable-looking version of Velveteen herself. "We had to bring you here to make you see that you didn't have any good options. Most of them you've already cut yourself off from. You're just treading water, waiting to give up and come to the seasons. We want you to come now, before you're too tired to be much good."
"Subtle, Hailey," snapped Jackie.
"Stuff it, you frigid bitch," replied Hailey.
"I am putting you both on the Naughty List if you don't stop it right now," said Santa. Velveteen looked toward his voice. He was standing in the hall next to her, not crowding a reflection. "Velveteen. We didn't bring you here to make you choose us. I wouldn't have been a party to that."
"Then what?" she asked.
"We brought you here to make you choose something." Hailey stepped out of her mirror, sliding out of it as easily as a knife sliding through a pumpkin's skin. "You're moving again, but you're treading water. If we can't have you, we want it to be because you're doing something more important than sustaining the reality of our seasons."
"What can I choose?" asked Vel bitterly. "Stay here, go to Halloween, or go home?"
"You can choose any of the reflections you've seen," Santa said.
Velveteen paused. For a moment, everything was still. Then she asked, carefully, "Can you change the reflection you took me from? You're Santa Claus. You're magic. And you, you're the Spirit of Halloween. If it's a big enough trick...can you do it?"
"There would be a price," said Santa, carefully.
"Yeah, I figured." Velveteen took a deep breath. "Give me what I want, and give me a year to fix things with The Super Patriots. Then I'll give you each a season, and give you my final decision at the end of that time. Willingly. I'll come willingly, and I'll let you show me why your time of the year should win."
"And if you choose none of us?" asked Hailey warily.
"If I choose none of you, and you all agree that I didn't give you a fair chance, you decide what to do with me." Velveteen looked challengingly toward Santa. "Fair?"
"Fair," he agreed, sounding almost reluctant. "What is it you want for Christmas, little girl?"
And Velveteen told them.
"Governor Morgan? Velveteen is here to see you. She says it's urgent."
Governor Celia Morgan of Oregon looked up from the report she'd been reading. "Send her in," she snapped at the intercom.
She had barely started to look down again when the office door opened and Velveteen stepped inside. She was wearing her costume—of course she was, superheros always wore their costumes when they went out on business—and she wasn't alone. Another woman in spandex followed her, this one wearing a green and brown patterned leotard over brown tights, with green boots and a bicolored mask. Her hair was long and brown and loose, curling madly around her cheeks.
She looked familiar. Celia would have sworn that she'd never seen her before in her life.
"Velveteen." Celia removed her glasses. "And...Velveteen's friend. Hello, and welcome. Are you here to request authorization for a team up? As long as you're not with The Super Patriots, I'm happy to let our resident superheroine make her own tactical plans."
"Cece..." The stranger reached up and carefully removed her mask, revealing wide hazel eyes. Celia's heart seemed to seize up in her chest. Jennifer Morgan, now an adult, now alive, smiled uncertainly at her sister. "It's me."
"Merry Christmas," said Velveteen, the words lost in the din of two sisters who had been lost—one in a world where a hero died too young, one in a world where a little sister fell victim to a fight that should never have followed a junior heroine home—fell into each others' arms, shouting and crying and demanding answers, all at the same time. It might have been harder for them if they'd live in a world where this sort of thing didn't happen. Luckily for everyone, they lived in a world where this sort of thing happened all the time.
Once it was clear that she had been well and truly forgotten, Velveteen let herself out.
Velveteen made it all the way home before she broke down crying, collapsing onto her living room couch and clutching her stuffed bunny rabbit, the one she'd picked up in Isley, and sobbing into the plush. Eventually, even the tears dried up, and she had nothing left. That was when she pulled out her phone and dialed the one number she had for the person she most needed to speak to.
There was no answer on the other end. Just a beep as the voice mail picked up, no name, no message. If you needed those things, you didn't need to be calling her.
"Blacklight? It's Velveteen." Vel sniffled, wiping her nose with her hand for the second time in a day. She was so tired. "I need you to come to Portland when you get the chance. I think it's time for us to have another team up." She hesitated before adding, more quietly, "Please come. I need you." Then she hung up and dropped the phone, sinking deeper into the couch.
She was still there when the sun went down. This time, she remained where she was all through the night, and while she didn't sleep much, at least she slept in the same reality until dawn.