Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen Presents The Princess vs. Public Relations.

Title: Velveteen Presents The Princess vs. Public Relations.
Summary: And now for something completely different. Velveteen is gone, and the Princess still has a job to do. No matter how much she doesn’t want to do it.

***

The Princess scowled at her reflection. Her reflection scowled back. The brightly colored birds that were in the process of arranging her hair in a complicated chignon--she thought they might be lorikeets, which made sense; lorikeets were the best at really elaborate braids--didn’t scowl. Their beaks weren’t made for it, and besides, they had other things on their minds, like making her presentable before she had to face her public.

“I know y’all have only my best interests at heart, and I know you’d never do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with, which is how I know that those are rhinestones you’re tucking into my curls, and not actual diamonds,” she said, her voice as sweet and deadly as rhododendron honey. “I have to look humble and like I appreciate my station, and that means not accessorizing with more money than some families see in a year.”

One of the birds stopped braiding long enough to chirp something apologetic, before it returned to hairdressing. The Princess sighed.

“I know rhinestones never look as good in the photographs; that isn’t the point,” she said. But she didn’t tell the birds to stop, because really, looking good in the photographs was the point. Even if it meant wearing so many jewels that she felt like she was about to be the target of a complicated heist. Even if it meant putting on the sort of undergarments that pushed her boobs up until they became a virtual shelf.

Even if it meant spending a perfectly good afternoon--one that could have been spent on visiting children who needed a moment of her attention, or fighting crime, or hell, just watching television away from the public eye--answering questions for a bunch of vultures who wanted nothing more than to see her fail. The media conglomerate that paid for her insurance and kept her away from organizations like The Super Patriots, Inc. was generally happy to let her do whatever she liked with her time, especially since her powers came with their very own innate morality clause. But occasionally they asked her to step up and face the press, and when that happened, she didn’t really have any other options.

A raccoon slunk shyly forward, holding a tube of lipstick in each paw. The Princess looked thoughtfully between them before picking the slightly darker shade. It was still more “rose petals at dawn” than “blood of my enemies,” but every little bit helped.

“All right, darlings: thank you for all your efforts. I’m as pretty as I’m going to get.” Pretty enough to stop a heart, if she used it right. The Princess gave her reflection one last lingering look before she stood and turned away from her mirror. This was the life she had always wanted, the life she had dreamed about and wished for on every star. If she had to pay the piper every once in a while, well.

There were worse prices to be paid. Carrabelle Miller took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and marched off to face her public.

*

Since its founding, The Super Patriots, Inc. has managed to control a dominant share of the world’s superhumans, largely through control of the legislature and active recruitment of individuals too young to be licensed heroes without a corporate sponsor. Those individuals not under the control of The Super Patriots, Inc. have traditionally been branded as supervillains, save in the rare cases where doing so would have been too difficult to be profitable.

Consider the case of Michael “Flying Good Guy Man” Ward of Columbus, Ohio. Exposed at a young age to the same radioactive maple syrup as was responsible for such heroes as Majesty and Action Dude, and such committed villains as Property Damage and Boom Boom Pow, Michael was exactly the same sort of individual who was usually sought out by the company as an asset. Michael had also been born with Down’s syndrome. The company neither extended an offer of support for his parents, or an offer of employment for Michael, who went on to become a beloved hero in his local community, receiving his license directly from the state at the age of sixteen. He flew, fought, and served the public good, all without The Super Patriots, Inc. guiding his steps. While the company never admitted their mistake, they did become more flexible regarding disability among their recruits.

Consider also the case of Sandy “Maid on the Shore” O’Neil, whose powers activated while she was sailing off the coast of Florida with the rest of her graduating class. There were no fatalities, but the entire vessel was swamped, and Sandy herself was marooned on a small island of her own creation. Such powerful local area manipulation should have made her a perfect candidate for recruitment, had it not been for the fact that Sandy’s powers had been discovered when she saw the boy who had assaulted her the week before prom come up onto the deck. He had been allowed on the trip by teachers who thought he deserved to enjoy graduation as much as anyone else--as much as the girl he had hurt. The Super Patriots, Inc. looked at Sandy’s case and decided that she was too “controversial.” She has been on that island ever since. Any boat which comes too close is gently nudged away. She seems happy enough; there is really no way for us to know.

And finally, there is the Princess.

Born Scott Miller, the child who would become the Princess showed no signs of super powers until the day when the Miller family visited a popular theme park designed around a series of beloved fairy tales. The afternoon parade began as normal before transforming into the greatest spectacle of magic, wonder, and glitter the world had ever known. Scott--who had been going by the name “Carrabelle” since her eighth birthday, when she had finally gathered the courage to explain her true gender to her parents--was lifted by birds onto a float that had materialized out of confetti and pieces of the neighboring gardens. There was a large song and dance routine, which everyone in the park seemed to instinctively know by heart. Several animatronics came briefly to life and explained their positions on topics ranging from climate change to the state of social media today. It was an eye-catching spectacle.

It was understandable when The Super Patriots, Inc. showed up at the Miller house the next morning, offering a contract, offering pleasant threats coached as promises. It was perhaps even more understandable that young Carrabelle was already gone, taking refuge in the safe castles and safer lawyers of the corporation that owned the park where she had awakened. She understood fairy tales well enough to become their living embodiment: she had been watching for an evil queen or a wicked vizier since the first bird said her name.

Most of those who were not acquired by The Super Patriots, Inc. were passed over, for whatever reason. Carrabelle Miller was the one who had the sense to run away.

*

The doorway appeared first. Vines grew out of the seemingly solid floor, climbing up the wall until they formed an arch and burst into large, bell-shaped flowers in every color of the rainbow. The flowers began to trumpet, and more vines burst forth, lacing quickly together until the arch contained a door. For a crowning touch, a red-capped mushroom sprouted where the doorknob should have been. The flowers stopped trumpeting. The mushroom turned, and the Princess stepped through into the courtyard that had been reserved for the press corp.

For a moment, no one spoke. That was understandable. The Princess would have been a beautiful woman in jeans and a sweatshirt--in fact, she frequently was a beautiful woman in jeans and a sweatshirt, since she didn’t see any point in dressing up for the birds. But this was one of her contractually obligated press conferences, and she had pulled out all the stops. She liked her corporate sponsors, she genuinely did. That didn’t mean she wanted to be summoned to a meeting about how she was disappointing them by not keeping up her side of the bargain.

When you make a wish, you pay the price. Carrabelle Miller had known that at a far younger age than most children. She was happy to keep paying all her life, as long as she never had to give her wish away.

Her dress was platinum and dark blue, technically, with a scattering of what looked like diamonds but were probably rhinestones, no really, across the bodice and the long, sheer cape that descended from her shoulders to trail behind her. And that was all well and good; that was what would come through in the pictures. It was a beautiful dress. A smaller version was probably already in production for the company’s official Superheroine Princess doll line. But in person, it was nothing so simple. It was the color of midnight and moonlight, the color of running down the palace steps barefoot, with all the weight of the story crashing down behind you. It was the color of wishes made from high towers, and of wishing stars glittering in a cloudless sky. It was perfect, and as she walked across the small courtyard to the podium, it genuinely stole the breath from the assembled reporters.

The Princess rested her gloved hands gently atop the podium, turning her head so that the sunlight filtering down through the evergreens planted around the courtyard would glitter off the diamonds in her hair. Her tiara didn’t need the help: it always caught the light, no matter where she was standing. Some of the reporters remembered that they had jobs to do and began snapping pictures. The Princess held her position. She knew what she looked like. This courtyard was mostly used for perfect “fairy tale weddings,” surrounded as it was by trees and elegant hotel architecture. In the distance, the spires of the park’s central castle rose, centered behind her, like a reminder of who she was and what she could do.

Finally, the Princess judged that they had been taking her picture long enough. She smiled, leaning very slightly forward so that the podium’s in-built microphone would pick her up, and asked, in a conversational tone, “How y’all doing? I haven’t seen most of you since the last time we had this little get-together.”

A few of the reporters replied with “fine,” or with inquiries about her own health. Most just shouted for her attention, already getting down to the meat of the thing.

The Princess swallowed the urge to sigh. This was what she liked the least about this little ritual. No one wanted to talk to her: they just wanted to get her to slip up and admit to something titillating, something that would sell their papers and tarnish her image. As if she didn’t understand that for her, image was everything; as if she would risk it all for a drunken tryst or a stolen cigarette. She didn’t care what the reporters thought of her. Most of them were sure that she had a whole secret second life that they could profit from, if they could just uncover it. It was what the children thought that mattered. She was never going to do anything to endanger what those children thought.

“Yes, in the front row,” she said, pointing to a reporter who had at least been polite enough to raise his hand, rather than just shouting.

“Miss Miller, what do you have to say about the recent directorial changes at The Super Patriots, Inc.? The corporation has tried repeatedly to recruit you. Do you feel that the new leadership may change your answer?”

“Not in the slightest.” It was a softball question: he had probably been planted, or at least encouraged by management, and she was grateful for that. It was best if she could start with something that didn’t hurt to answer. “I believe that the Claw and Lake Pontchartrain will make excellent CEOs for The Super Patriots. They have a good vision for the team, and they understand how to work with others. At the same time, I am very happy where I am. I’m in a team with the children of the world, and they don’t need me taking on another boss.”

“Miss Miller, do you feel as if the independent heroes of the world have a responsibility to come together to monitor the new Super Patriots, to avoid further abuses of their power?”

The question had come from one of the newer reporters. She hadn’t called on him. The Princess turned in his direction and smiled sweetly. There was nothing about her expression that could be called anything but pleasant, and yet it still somehow managed to be full of knives. “What paper are you with, sugar?”

“I’m with The Powers Gazette,” said the reporter. He was starting to look nervous. Good. A little nervousness would serve him well.

“New to the beat?” The Princess kept smiling. “I guess you haven’t been to one of these press conferences before. I’ll answer anything I’m asked, but manners are important here. You raise your hand if you want to ask me a question. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said the reporter, shrinking down in his seat.

“Thank you. Now, as to your question, no, I don’t believe the independent heroes should be providing oversight for The Super Patriots, Inc. They’re a good company that got led astray. They have government watchdogs keeping that from happening again. As to the rest of us, we all have cities or states or theme parks,” she paused to allow for laughter, “that we’re tasked to protect. If we spent all our time watching our peers to be sure that they wouldn’t do anything wrong, we’d be neglecting the people who count on us.”

The reporter raised his hand. The Princess’s heart sank. She did her best not to let it show on her face. Follow-up questions about things other than her wardrobe were almost always bad. Still, she nodded, giving him permission to continue. Anything else would have been taken as cowardice, and she couldn’t have that. Fairy tale princesses weren’t cowards. Neither were superheroes.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“You mentioned the new government regulations controlling superhumans and their powers,” said the reporter. “What do you think of the restrictions that are being placed on the animus power class? Do you feel as if this is a proportionate response to the situation with Supermodel?”

The Princess took a sharp breath, feeling her smile die. She didn’t try to summon it back. It would have been inappropriate, under the circumstances, and she was glad of that. Sometimes, smiling was the worst part. “You know, there’s been a lot of focus on Supermodel. How she went bad, how she dragged the company down with her, and I don’t think it’s wrong to look there for answers. She was a good woman once, and if she lost sight of that, it was at least in part because there was no one to teach her about her own powers. I’m not seeing that much focus on Velveteen. She was an animus too, and she brought Supermodel down. No power is inherently good or bad. It’s all in how people choose to use it.”

“It’s interesting that you should mention Velveteen,” said the reporter. He didn’t raise his hand this time. This was what he had been angling toward all along. “No one has seen her since the battle at The Super Patriots, Inc. We have only your word, and the word of the other heroes involved, as to what happened. She has never come forth to give a statement. It’s been a year. Do you know the whereabouts of Velma ‘Velveteen’ Martinez, and are you concealing her from the authorities?”

Damn you, thought the Princess. Aloud, she said, “I do not. She came to the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle after the fight, to recover from her injuries and rest. Then she left. I don’t know where she went, and I haven’t heard from her. I wish I would. She is a very good friend of mine, and I love her dearly. I worry about her.”

“Miss Miller--” began the reporter.

The Princess held up her hand, stopping him. “No more,” she said. “I told you we raised our hands here, and you ignored it, because you wanted to use me to score points against my friend. Velveteen never did anything wrong. She gave up her childhood because people she thought were on her side weren’t, and then they harried her through her adulthood, until she finally became the hero they’d never really wanted her to be. Now she’s gone, and I’m worried about her, and you want to use me to hurt her more. It’s not going to happen, and I’ll thank you to leave her alone. She deserves better than the treatment she’s received.”

It was rare for the Princess to lose her temper during one of these sessions, although it wasn’t entirely unheard of. Everyone was quiet for a moment, scribbling notes or simply staring. Finally, cautiously, another hand went up.

“Yes?” said the Princess.

“Princess, who made the dress you’re wearing today?”

“Do you like it?” The Princess stepped out from behind the podium and did a little twirl, winding her train around her legs, before returning to her original position. “The dress was made by my usual tailors, which is to say, several skilled raccoons, pine martens, and squirrel monkeys. They’ve been paid for their labor, before you ask, although none of them wanted money. Most woodland creatures operate on what’s considered an alternate revenue stream. The base design was by Grace Yant of Southern California, who submitted it through our spring portal for my wardrobe. She won annual passes to the park for herself and her family, and a dinner with me at the Castle. She’s a very talented little girl.” Her original drawing had been more scribble and less sketch, but it had been clear enough for the raccoons, who were accustomed to working from less.

The next several questions were in the same vein, softballs about her wardrobe, her work in the parks, and her volunteer duties. The Princess answered them with dutiful enthusiasm, trying not to sound like she was utterly bored and would rather have been virtually anywhere else on the planet. The hour was winding down when the new reporter, the one who’d asked about Velveteen, put his hand up again.

The Princess gritted her teeth. She wanted to tell the man where he could shove his questions, and suggest that he follow them with his notebook and recorder. But she knew better. This little display was to prove that she was still the sweet Southern girl she’d been since she went to work for the company. It made the shareholders happy, and it kept things going smoothly. If she wanted the world to stay the way it was, she had to play along. No matter how much she hated it.

“Yes, sugar?” she said, through gritted teeth.

“Mr. Miller, can you please explain to our readers how it is that you feel comfortable taking up the role of ‘fairy tale princess’ when you’re biologically more suited to the role of fairy tale prince? Do you feel as if lying to the children of the world is justified by the bottom line of the corporation you work for? Have they forced you into this role against your will?” The reporter leaned forward, expression suddenly predatory. He thought he had found a weak spot, and he was going in for the kill. “My readers are very interested in your answer.”

“Not that interested, if they couldn’t be bothered to look up every other interview that’s ever asked me the same question,” said the Princess coolly. There had been a time, when she was still young and terrified of having her new life taken away, when she had tried to forget where she’d come from. The corporation had been happy to let her hide. They liked their new superheroine uncomplicated and uncontroversial, and since no one who’d been there for her coronation had spoken out against her, they were going to keep their mouths shut for as long as they could.

But time had moved on, one day at a time. Carrabelle had grown older, and eventually grown up, and realized that her silence wasn’t helping anyone--not even herself. There were little girls out there who were just like she’d been, trapped in the wrong bodies and trying to convince their parents that they knew themselves all the way down to the bone. There were little boys being forced into parts they’d never asked to play, raging at the center of their shells of false femininity. She was supposed to be the princess of all the children in the world, not just the ones who’d been lucky enough to be born with an outside that already matched their inside.

“If you’d done your research before you came in here looking for some juicy gossip, you’d have found the interview I gave on my eighteenth birthday, the one where I brought pictures of myself from before I convinced my family to allow me to live as a girl,” said the Princess. Her voice was tight, and the more observant reporters noted how many birds had appeared, roosting on the trees all around them. If she lost control, Hitchcock was going to be proud. “You’d have been able to read what I said then, which was, I think, about as well-thought out as any discussion of the topic is ever going to be. I’ve never lied to anyone. I was born a girl. I will die a girl. The fact that the hopes and dreams of the children of the world pointed to me and said ‘her, she’s the best princess we can find, she’ll take the best care of the story’ should tell you more than anything else that I have never deceived anyone. It’s not my fault that the doctors put a label on me before I was old enough to choose one for myself.”

“So you admit that you were born male,” said the reporter. He didn’t raise his hand this time: the pretense of civility was gone. The Princess was almost glad. If he wasn’t playing nicely, she didn’t have to do it either.

“I admit that I was assigned male at birth, by people who were not telepaths, who did not have the ability to look into my mind and heart and see that I was already a little girl. I was a girl when I took my first breath. I’ll be a girl when I take my last. You want to sit there, secure in the gender that they gave you when you were born, and judge me? I am a princess. The story chose me, because it knew what I was, just like I knew. And you know what? All those little girls who idolize me, all those little boys who ask me if I’ve got a prince out there, none of them care what the doctors said when I popped out of my mama. They look at me and they see a woman. Children are the magic mirrors of the human race. They see the truth when it’s in front of them.” The Princess shook her head. “You can try to paint me whatever way you want, sir. If you’ve got a bigot’s brush to use, well, I suppose that’s your problem and not mine. I think it’s time for you to go. The adults would like to have a press conference now.”

She turned pointedly back to the other reporters. Some of them had their hands up. Others were looking at the newcomer with expressions of mingled horror and pity on their faces, like they couldn’t believe he had come to the press conference without doing his research first. Many of them had discussed trans issues with the Princess, sometimes in this very forum. She was always happy to talk. She just wasn’t happy about being accused of intentional falsehood, and most of them couldn’t blame her. No one liked to be called a liar.

“I will not be ignored,” snarled the new reporter, rising from his seat.

The Princess snapped her fingers. The large bear that had been waiting by the entrance, looking like nothing so much as a rustic armchair, pulled itself to its full height and lumbered toward the reporter. “No, sweetie, you won’t,” said the Princess. “Bruno’s not going to ignore you. He’s just going to show you the way out.”

The bear reached for the reporter. The reporter pulled a pen from inside his jacket and blasted the bear across the courtyard with a deluge of red ink. The rest of the reporters, who had been working the superhero beat long enough to recognize trouble when they saw it, began scrambling away. Some of them even left their notebooks behind.

“You will not suppress this story!” shouted the reporter. Red ink ran down his hand and arm, swirling and spreading until it covered his entire body in a thin film. He lowered his arm. The film popped, revealing a black bodysuit with the letters FD on the chest in red. “The people will have Full Disclosure!”

The Princess stared at him. “Did you seriously just name drop at me?” she asked incredulously. “Did you stand there, in my place, during my press conference, and drop your name like it was something I was going to want to pick up? Honey, that’s not just crass, that’s downright unprofessional. Who taught you how to be a supervillain? Did they have credentials?”

“I ask the questions here!” shouted Full Disclosure. He turned his pen on her, shooting out a huge gout of red ink. For a moment, the Princess disappeared, wiped from view by the gory editorial curtain.

Silence fell across the courtyard, broken only by the sound of the birds ruffling their feathers in the trees. It was a silence so profound that when the Princess snapped her fingers again, it sounded like a gunshot. The red ink fell away, revealing her in her still-pristine dress the color of midnight and moonlight, covered in diamonds that glittered like stars in the night sky. She looked at Full Disclosure pityingly.

“A princess never gets her best gown dirty,” she said.

He shrieked something about ethical journalism and blasted her again. This time, a curtain of glitter appeared in front of her, absorbing and deflecting the ink. The Princess started to look annoyed.

“I don’t think you quite understand what you’re doing,” she said. “You’re attacking me on my turf, with thousands of children who believe in me so close that I can feel them. You really think you’re going to get anywhere? There are times and places when I’m vulnerable. This isn’t one of them. Now pack your pin and get out, before I have to do something unladylike.”

“I am not one of your lapdogs, here to be misled with facts!” shouted Full Disclosure. He turned his pen on her for the third--and, as it happened, final--time. The glitter absorbed the ink again, and when the deluge stopped, the Princess sighed.

“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” she said. She clapped her hands once, twice, three times, and the birds that had been roosting so peacefully in the trees took to the wing. Some of them were sweet little things, bluebirds and sparrows and starlings, as befitted the living incarnation of the dreams of children everywhere. Far more were hawks and eagles and snowy owls, crows and ravens and turkey vultures, as befitted Carrabelle Miller, who wore her gowns proudly, but never forgot where she had come from, or who she was, or how hard she was willing to fight to stay exactly where she was.

The birds descended on the screaming supervillain, who blasted them with gouts of ink, and swatted at them with his frantically flailing hands, and did everything within his power to hold their talons at bay. In the end, he even turned to run. It was far too late by then, of course; he had been lost the moment he chose to turn his red pen on the Princess after she had asked him nicely to stop.

The other reporters watched silently as the birds carried him, kicking and screaming, off into the blue storybook sky. Finally, one of them raised her hand.

“Yes?” said the Princess. “You can all come back to your seats now, by the way. Unless one of you is also a supervillain in disguise, I think the major excitement’s over for the day.”

The reporters returned to their seats. The one who had raised her hand asked, “Where are the birds taking him?”

“Oh, corporate security.” The Princess smiled. It was not a pleasant expression. “They’ll make sure he understands that while becoming a supervillain is a personal choice, it is a choice that comes with consequences. And sometimes those consequences will include being blacklisted from all the products and services provided by a large, multi-national corporation that doesn’t appreciate people being disruptive during their official press conferences. He didn’t technically break any laws, since the use of superpowers is approved in this courtyard and no one was hurt, so we don’t need to involve the authorities. I just hope he doesn’t have any children.”

Nervous laughter followed her last statement. Many of the reporters did have children, and were all too aware of how miserable their lives would be if they were suddenly cut off from the Princess’s parent corporation. She looked expectantly around the group.

“All right,” she said. “Who’s next?”

*

The press conference had devolved into predictable blandness after that. Anyone who might have been considering a question that was a little bit daring or boundary-pushing or, God forbid, interesting had decided to hold it back after seeing their supervillainous colleague carted off by the birds. And dull as it was, it had still managed to drag on for another two hours before her handlers had come in and rescued her for the afternoon parade.

Finally, another two hours after that, the Princess sat at her vanity and stared at her reflection, willing herself to find the energy to start removing her mascara. If she didn’t, she was going to fall asleep with it still on, and no amount of childhood faith and trust could keep her face from sticking to the pillow while she slept. It just couldn’t be done.

“You survived,” she informed herself sternly. “You don’t have to do this for another six months. Now be a big girl, and wash your makeup off while you still have a chance.”

It didn’t help. She was still exhausted, and her face was still a sea of cosmetics.

She could have called the raccoons to come and wipe it off, she knew, but they always used too much makeup remover, and they weren’t good about keeping it out of her eyes. It was almost better to risk sticking to the pillow.

Someone knocked on the doorframe. The Princess brightened immediately, turning her chair around and leveling an accusing finger at the figure standing there. “You are late,” she said, sounding almost triumphant about it. “The press conference ended ages ago. You missed an honest-to-goodness supervillain. The birds carried him off. Now what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I got hung up at the North Pole,” said the woman in the doorway. She was slim, with pale skin that glittered slightly when she moved, like all that glitter that the Princess had been slinging around earlier had somehow become a part of her. Her hair was white, but not just white, no: it held all the hidden colors of the aurora, sprinkled through it like secrets. Her cheeks were rosy, and her lips were faintly pursed, like she was fighting not to smile. She looked tired. “I’m sorry. I would have been here sooner if I could have.” She stopped then, looking at the Princess hopefully, like she was expecting something.

“Aw, honey, I’m sorry,” said the Princess, rising from her stool and pulling her robe a little tighter around her waist. “I shouldn’t pick at you, I know that. I just was really hoping you’d make it. What with Vel gone and everything, I feel like you and me should stick together as tight as we can. Do you need some cocoa? I know mirror travel takes a lot out of you, I don’t understand why your daddy doesn’t set you up with some flying reindeer of your own...”

Jacqueline’s face fell. “Santa Claus is a very busy man,” she said, in the sort of tone that managed to imply problems at home and beg for understanding at the same time. It was a nice trick. She’d clearly had a great deal of practice. “I’m fine with using the Snow Queen’s mirror if that’s what’s easiest for everyone.” She looked at the Princess carefully. “Is that...is that all you wanted to ask me about?”

The Princess frowned. “I don’t know what else I could have needed, sugar. I wanted you to be here, but it’s all right that you weren’t. I’ll tell you what. Help me get this makeup off, and we can go spend the afternoon slumming around the park, playing tourist. You know you get to skip lines when you’re with me.”

Jacqueline Claus, daughter of Santa Claus, heir to the North Pole, did her best to force herself to smile. It felt weak and insincere to her, but the other woman didn’t seem to notice. The Princess was already digging for makeup remover and a clean washcloth, chattering a mile a minute about the press conference and all the fun that they were going to have at the park. It should have been reassuring. It should have felt like normalcy, and home.

But this wasn’t normal, and this place wasn’t her home, and no one seemed to notice that anything had changed. The world had been sliced open and had healed around her, substituting her for another girl, one with skin like a winter sky and hair like a blizzard in the process of forming. She didn’t belong here. She had no idea how she was going to find the way home.

“Jack? Honey, you still with me?”

Jacqueline turned toward the Princess, forcing herself to smile. It was easier than it should have been. This woman looked so like her own Carrabelle, and she was so lonely. “Sorry. I was just thinking. Come over here, and let me get that makeup off of you.”

The two women sat together, the one helping the other to restore her sense of normalcy, even though her own normal was something far away and half-forbidden, and everything was peaceful, for a time.
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