seanan_mcguire: (rose marshall)
[personal profile] seanan_mcguire
Title: Velveteen Presents Jacqueline Claus vs. The Lost and the Found.
Summary: And now for something completely different! Santa’s daughter must find her place in the world...whether she wants to or not.

***

Jacqueline Claus, adopted daughter of Santa Claus, one day to inherit his place as toymaker and guardian of the dreams of children--no pressure--started her day the way she started every day: by opening her eyes on a ceiling spangled with crystal snowflakes, each one perfect, each one unique. She remembered receiving them, one by one, tucked into Christmas stockings and birthday presents. She remembered Papa laughing as she exclaimed in joy at their fractal delicacy, the mysteries of their shifting shapes. She remembered Mama smiling, warm and welcoming and happy to see her daughter so delighted.

She remembered that none of this was true. That she was a punishment for another version of herself, a selfish, blue-skinned girl named Jackie Frost who had slept in a bed of her own, in a room of her own, in a different house. Jackie had collected crystal snowflakes too, but Jackie had made them for herself, rather than waiting for someone else to make them for her. Jackie had made a lot of things for herself, including, in the end, a mess that she couldn’t clean up on her own. Now Jacqueline was here, and no one seemed to understand that she wasn’t supposed to be. That she was supposed to be someone else, someone colder and crueler and better suited for the acts of heroism that seemed to happen around her on a daily basis.

Jacqueline rolled out of bed and shivered in the early morning chill. It never got truly cold at the North Pole. In the rest of Winter, yes, but not here; Santa wanted any children who came to visit to be as comfortable as possible. Her robe was draped over the foot of the bed, snowflakes and smiling polar bears on a blue fleece background. She shrugged it on, still yawning.

“Dear, are you up?”

“Yes, Mama.” She turned expectantly toward the door.

It swung open, revealing Mrs. Claus. She was still wearing her dressing gown, a cap covering her hair. Jacqueline smiled. She liked Mama best in the mornings, when she wasn’t being Santa’s wife yet, but was just being herself, open and warm and caring.

Jack’s smile died. She still didn’t know whether Mama and Papa knew that she wasn’t supposed to be here. She hadn’t been able to come up with a way to ask that wouldn’t make them think that there was something wrong with her, or worse, that there was something wrong with them. There was nothing wrong with any of them, except in that she shouldn’t exist.

The Snow Queen knew. She knew that much for sure, because the Snow Queen wouldn’t even look at her unless she didn’t have a choice. The Snow Queen remembered the daughter she’d lost, and she would never forgive Jack for being someone other than her.

To be honest, it made Jack’s head spin. She hoped Velveteen would finish her passage through Autumn soon. Once Vel was back, they would all go to the Hall of Mirrors, and Velveteen would choose a season, and maybe Jackie would be forgiven. Maybe Aurora would set things right.

It was a little weird, hoping that she’d be written out of reality before things got even more confusing, but she had long since come to terms with the idea.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” said Mrs. Claus, with her usual broad smile. Jack felt a pang of guilt. Whether Mrs. Claus knew that she wasn’t supposed to have a daughter or not, there was no denying that she enjoyed being a mother. It wasn’t fair that Jack was going to be taken away from her.

Maybe she was an overlay for Jackie after all, and once she went back to being who she was supposed to be, she would remember being Jacqueline, and she could make sure to be kind to Mrs. Claus. Maybe.

But probably not.

“Good morning, Mama,” she said. “How did you sleep?”

“Snug in my bed,” said Mrs. Claus. Her eyes twinkled with delight at her own small joke. “I’m sorry to burst in on you like this, dear, but you have a call on the mirror. You should pick up, if you feel up to it. It’s one of your little friends from the Calendar Country, and she seems to be quite worked up.”

Excitement welled up in Jack’s chest, hot as cocoa and twice as sweet. “Which one?”

“The Princess,” said Mrs. Claus. “Just let me know if you can’t stay for breakfast.” She backed out of the room, closing the door behind herself.

Jack waited for a count of five before lunging for her desk and the hand mirror that waited there. The frame glittered with traceries of bright, gleaming frost: the North Pole equivalent of call waiting.

“Hello?” she said.

The glass fogged over, clearing to reveal the face of the Princess. Her normally perfect curls were in disarray, and her lip gloss was a shade paler than her norm, conveying her dismay. “Bless, Jack, I was starting to think you’d gone into hibernation,” she said. “I need you to get your pretty polar behind down here, pronto.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

The Princess smiled grimly. “It’s Velveteen. She’s back. And honey, she does not look good.”

*

Superhumans with powers and skills related to healing have been rumored since the dawn of human history. Most cannot be verified, but in recent years, several dozen documented heroes, villains, and private citizens with health-based powers have made their presence known.

Candystriper, whose empathic powers work best on those who are sick or injured, allowing her to brighten their spirits and speed the healing process. Even some cases believed to be terminal have turned around after a few hours in her presence. Sadly, her lack of any actual combat abilities has led to her becoming a target for desperate people looking for a magic bullet, and she has not been seen in public since the Jimmy Michaels incident of 2013.

The Surgeon, whose hands can suture any wound or perform any operation, leaving behind seamless incisions which heal cleanly and without risk of infection. The demand for his services is too great; for the last several years, he has appeared only at children’s hospitals and when offered amounts in the high seven figures. Most believe that he has no need for money, but chooses to operate in this fashion to prevent being overwhelmed.

Apothecary, who can diagnose anything, and whose remedies make no medical sense, but which always work. Leeches are frequently involved.

The Night Shift: a trained RN with a duplication power, she has been known to serve as the entire staff for a hospital, appearing during times of crisis and vanishing again when the crisis has passed. Without her, several city trauma wards would report much higher fatality rates. Unlike the Surgeon, she does not accept payment, and does not have a public contact number. Many theorize that the two are a team, traveling together, with him underwriting her work. Regardless, no one can deny the amount of good she has done.

The list goes on, and raises the question of whether the superhuman community’s best service of the human race might be in ceasing their seemingly endless battles and allowing these many healers to devote themselves and their powers to service to the world. After all, if heroes and villains were not constantly in need of repair, who’s to say what could be accomplished by the people who spend so much of their time in putting them back together?

*

Travel between the North Pole and the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Castle was easy to the point of being trivial. Sometimes Jack used the Castle as a stepping-stone to the rest of the Calendar Country rather than trying to ride a mirror straight into the “real” world. Why do that, when a split journey was so much easier on her nerves?

She emerged from a full-length mirror in the Princess’s receiving hall, dressed in a red and green ball gown that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the ski pants and sweater she had donned before leaving her room. The Princess’s transit system was good that way. If she didn’t have time to brush her hair or put on a socially acceptable amount of lip gloss, the mirrors would do it for her, dumping her in the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle as pretty as a photo op.

(It would have bothered her, if not for the fact that most of the people who supplied the Princess’s power were between the ages of four and eight, and still considered magically appearing eye shadow to be the absolute height of sophistication. Really, she was just glad that all her clothes were mirror-made, and not sewn by the army of woodland creatures that supplied the Princess with her wardrobe.)

A scarlet macaw in a waistcoat flew over to land on her shoulder. “You’re wanted in the recovery room, ma’am, ma’am, ma’am,” it said, before emitting an ungodly screech. Part of a fairy story or not, birds would be birds.

“Thank you,” she said, because manners were especially important in a fairy tale, and between figures of mythic import. If the Princess was every storybook princess in the world, Jacqueline Claus was the spirit of goodness and generosity, and it wouldn’t do for her to forget her manners. “Can you take me there?”

The macaw screeched acquiescence and launched itself into the air, gliding away down the hall. Jack hiked her ball gown up enough to let her move and ran after it, trying not to focus on the way the hall around her kept getting decked for a winter holiday celebration that was never going to come. Papa was somewhat secular, having been divorced from the religious aspects of his holiday by decades of advertising and comfortable folklore. Jack was completely secular, with the entire palette of winter colors and decorations available to her. Tinsel and wreaths and silver snowflakes dripped from the walls both ahead of and behind her, shimmering into existence in answer to her presence.

They wouldn’t last long. The normal aesthetics of the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle would reassert themselves in no time, and the unseasonable holiday decorations would melt back into the walls, vanishing until the next time Jack walked by. Sometimes she wondered what the place looked like when she wasn’t around. She wasn’t sure she’d ever have the opportunity to find out.

The macaw led her to a tall door in a gilt frame. It flapped over to perch on the top of a tapestry, watching to see what she would do next.

She opened the door and let herself inside, of course. There wasn’t really anything else to do.

The recovery room was huge and airy, with walls made entirely of colored glass panels. It was like walking into a rainbow. “Polychrome would love it here,” she blurted, unthinking.

“We should call her.” The Princess looked away from the...pumpkin? Maybe. Some sort of gourd, anyway. It was huge and orange and sitting atop a mattress, attached to the bedframe by a green stalk. The Princess was standing next to it, and it was sort of sad that this was still not the strangest thing Jack had seen all day. “I was hoping to wait until the Night Shift got back to me, but I don’t think Yelena will be all that happy if she finds out we’ve got Vel and we haven’t been pickin’ up the phone.”

Jack opened her mouth. Then she stopped herself, understanding sweeping across her face, and said, “She’s in the pumpkin, isn’t she? You put her inside the pumpkin.”

“Pumpkins have a lot of strength in fairy tales. They can put broken things back together, if you know how to use them right.”

“You’re not worried about giving Halloween more of a claim over her?”

The Princess looked at her levelly. “Sweetie, am I worried about that, or are you worried about that? Think carefully on your answer now. I asked you here because I was hoping you could help, but I won’t hesitate to send you back to the North Pole if you’re here on holiday business, instead of as a friend.”

“I’m Vel’s friend before I’m anything else,” said Jack firmly, and the words were true and false at the same time. if she’d been the honest spirit of Winter, instead of the selfless one, she would have shunted herself out of existence in that moment, joining Jackie in whatever waited for Spirits of the Season who could no longer do their jobs. “I’m here for her. And I know that she doesn’t want to go to Halloween. Or she didn’t, before she did her term of service with them.”

“About that,” said the Princess. “I thought she was going to be gone for a year.”

“So did I,” said Jack. “I guess the people in charge had other ideas.”

The Princess looked at her thoughtfully, and Jack met her eyes without looking away. It was funny. People knew that her father was scrupulously honest--that he had to be, in order for the Nice List to mean anything--and so they assumed that the same was true of her. They didn’t understand that sometimes selflessness was more dishonest than selfishness. That she had to be prepared to hide hunger and thirst and desire under a veil of giving back to the world. Jackie Frost had been a natural disaster, but she’d been an honest one. Jacqueline Claus was a sweet smile and a warm hand, and she could lie through her teeth without ever letting her smile slip.

“You ever going to tell me what happened to her while she was in the Seasonal Lands, Jack?” the Princess asked, and her voice was soft, but it wasn’t gentle.

Jack shook her head. “It’s not my place,” she said. “Papa gave me my orders. I’m allowed to say that she came to Winter. That she stayed for a year. That she moved on to Spring. That’s it. Anything that she did or didn’t do while she was outside the normal flow of time is nobody’s business but hers and the Seasons that she served.”

“I don’t see how she could have served a year when she’s only been gone from here for a week. Not even a week, in fact. Six days. How does six days equal a year with you and however much time she spent with the other Seasons?”

“Time doesn’t work the same when you’re outside the calendar. I guess Papa just wanted to be sure she could come back home before people got too used to her not being there.” That felt right. It felt wrong at the same time. The Seasons wanted Velveteen to choose one of them. Why would they go out of their way to make her comfortable in the world they were trying to get her to leave behind?

Jack felt like she was missing something, and she didn’t like the feeling one little bit.

“If you say so.” The Princess touched the tough orange skin of the pumpkin with one hand. “I already called Torrey and left a message for when she gets back. She’ll pass it on to Lena, I’m sure. I couldn’t think of who else to tell. Our girl has allies, but she’s never been much of one for makin’ friends.”

“Are any of us?” Jack buried her hands in the skirt of her ball gown to keep herself from fidgeting. The fabric was soothingly slick. She twisted it between her thumb and forefinger, bending it into rosettes. “I have you, and Vel, and the penguins.” Jackie had had more. Jackie had had Tag, and everyone she’d met through ice skating and the X-Games and how had Vel even met Tag, in this world without a Jackie? Jack didn’t know. She knew so much about this life she’d been dropped into, but there were still pieces missing, and she had no idea how to patch them.

“Aw, sugar, it’s all right. You know I love you, even if you don’t have much of a social life. I just worry about our girl. She was supposed to get a break. She was supposed to go off and serve the Seasons and have some time to think about what just happened. She wasn’t supposed to get dropped right back where she started, beat all to hell and with no room for recovery. You know the wolves are gonna be at the door as soon as the news gets out.”

“Wolves?” asked Jack blankly.

“Honey, I know you’ve been off at the North Pole bein’ above all the bull we have to deal with down here on the ground, but I’ve done six interviews in the last six days. Would’ve been more if I didn’t have the company filtering the press inquiries for me. They’re fielding the subpoenas, too. There’s a lot of folks who want to know more about what happened at The Super Patriots, Inc., and Vel’s more than just a person of interest in this whole affair. Once they know she’s here, they’re going to get a lot more aggressive.”

“So we don’t tell anyone,” said Jack. “We give her time.”

A ringing like crystal chimes spread through the castle. The Princess sighed.

“I don’t think that’s our call,” she said. “Come on. Let’s go see our guests.”

*

Getting to the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle was supposedly difficult, for people who didn’t have access to magic mirrors or other forms of fairy tale travel. Sadly, the nature of the Princess’s contract with the corporation which funded her and kept her free of The Super Patriots, Inc. meant that she had to have at least one doorway connected to at least one of their properties at all times. She moved those doorways regularly, trying to preserve her privacy, but people always found them.

Sometimes the doors were found by children clutching plastic wands and wearing puffy, costume-grade ball gowns over their jeans and character shirts. They wandered into her really for real fairy tale castle with wide eyes, and could be bribed into leaving with hugs and autographs and silver apples from the bowl she kept in the foyer. Sometimes the doors were found by teens with scars on their wrists and shadows in their eyes, looking for magic in all the wrong places. Those, she walked with in the garden, and talked, and listened, until they were ready to leave her for the real world. Sometimes the doors were found by adults who needed, truly needed proof that magic was real, that their lives hadn’t been wasted on wishing. They were her petitioners, and she welcomed them all.

Mostly, though, the doors were found by assholes. Like this one. The Princess crossed her arms and frowned disapprovingly at the man who stood in front of her, shifting his weight from foot to foot, trying to look like he wasn’t uncomfortable. The Night Shift waited behind him, currently split into four identical bodies, each one holding a bag of medical supplies.

“What’n the name of the seventy-three known variations of ‘The Princess and the Pea’ are you doin’ here?” the Princess asked. “And don’t say you just dropped by to talk to me. I know that ain’t true. Wasting my time isn’t going to make me like you any more than I already don’t.”

“Is it true?” asked Action Dude. “Is Vel back already?”

The Princess unfolded her arms in order to study her nails. “Night Shift, you can come in. Just follow the bird butlers back to the recovery room, an’ you can get started. If you need anything, tell a critter. Squirrel, raccoon, it doesn’t matter. They’ll get it for you. As for you...” She focused her gaze on Action Dude. “You want to tell me how The Super Patriots already know about this, if y’all don’t have me under surveillance? Consider your answer real carefully. It’s going to have consequences.”

“The Night Shift was on a date with the American Dream when you called and said you needed her to come in,” said Action Dude. “Please don’t be mad at her. She didn’t mean to tell.”

“And I didn’t tell her it was a secret big enough to keep from a lover,” allowed the Princess. “I don’t think I want you here.”

“I know,” said Action Dude. “Can I come in?”

The Princess sighed and stepped to the side. Action Dude stepped over the threshold into the castle, offering a genial nod to Jack. “Hi,” he said. “How’s things?”

“Things are okay, I guess,” said Jack. She searched his face for some sign that he didn’t know her, that he thought she was a servant or something. She didn’t find it. Instead, she found recognition born of a shared history that had never really existed.

This world was like treacle. It was pulling her deeper with every minute that passed, and it wouldn’t be long before she was sunk so deep that she would never get out.

“Cool.” Action Dude waited for the Princess to close the door before he turned to her and said, “I am not here as a representative of The Super Patriots, Inc. I’m not here to get in the way, either. I’m here because I’m as worried about Vel as you are, and I wanted to know how she was doing. That’s it. That’s all.”

“And where was all this concern when she was running for her life and fighting for her sanity, huh?” The Princess crossed her arms again. Jack found herself profoundly glad that the Night Shift had already gone to look after Velveteen. Getting sucked into the middle of a superpowered throw-down wasn’t going to encourage better medical care.

“I fucked up, okay?” Action Dude shook his head, looking frustrated. “You really want to stand there and tell me that you’ve never made a mistake, Cara? That you’re the only person in the world who’s always been perfect? Because I don’t buy it.”

“At least when I fucked up, I didn’t break anybody’s heart but my own,” the Princess shot back. “You damn near killed her. Maybe you never raised a hand against her, but you damn near killed her all the same. You think you can just walk back in here and have me forgive you for that?”

“No,” said Action Dude.

The Princess, who had been gearing up to yell at him some more, stopped. “Well, all right then,” she finally said. “I suppose you can’t hurt anything by seeing her. But if she wakes up and doesn’t want you here, you’re gone. You got that? Gone.”

“If she doesn’t want me here, I’ll never come back,” said Action Dude.

“Good,” snapped the Princess, and swept off down the hall, moving with the sort of elegant grandeur that only came with having a ball gown and a castle to wear it in.

Action Dude and Jack followed at a more normal, less regal pace. Action Dude glanced at her several times, apparently steeling up the nerve to speak.

He’s going to do it, she thought giddily. He was just waiting for us to be alone so he wouldn’t have to worry about upsetting me. He’s going to do it.

“So, uh, how’ve you been?” Action Dude reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. “I haven’t really seen you since, you know. Everything got weird.”

“You mean since Papa had you put on the Naughty List for breaking Vel’s heart,” she said, with automatic primness. He didn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to be here. He didn’t remember Jackie. That felt weirdly like a betrayal. “I’ve been good, I guess. How’ve you been?”

“Awful,” he said. “But I guess that’s what I deserve.”

They walked on in silence for a little bit. Jack wanted to tell him that it hadn’t been his fault; that he’d been a child, listening to people he should have been able to trust, people who should have had his best interests at heart. She wanted to tell him that he’d done a lot of good and saved a lot of lives. She couldn’t. She was a good liar, but she was a good friend, too, and she remembered Velveteen’s face when she had walked away from her entire life because of him.

“Is it still ‘Jack,’ or do you prefer ‘Jacqueline’ these days?” he asked finally.

“Jack is fine,” she said.

“All the press calls you ‘Jacqueline.’”

“That’s because I’m Santa’s daughter, and they don’t want to print anything that might offend him.” But oh, how they skirted the line. If she’d had half the romantic assignations they’d penned for her, she’d be just about the most popular girl in the world. Instead, she spent her weekends home alone with the penguins and Lucy, or helping the elves build toys, or playing video games with the Princess. Normal things. Nice things.

She just wished they didn’t all feel like they’d been stolen from someone else. This life wasn’t hers. And she didn’t know how to give it back.

When they reached the recovery room, the pumpkin was gone. Instead, Velveteen was lying on the bed, sheet pulled up her collarbone, still wearing her mask. It was a small piece of professional courtesy: officially, the Night Shift didn’t know her secret identity. As for the Night Shift herself (herselves?), she was everywhere, hanging IV bags, checking vitals, feeding data into a laptop computer while also picking up printouts and mixing medications. Jack and Action Dude stopped in the doorway, taking it all in.

Velveteen, who had been healthy and strong a week before, if injured from the battle with Supermodel, was suddenly thirty pounds underweight, too pale, with circles under her eyes deep enough to have spread beyond the margins of her mask, like bruises. Her hair was brittle from malnutrition, and at least six inches longer than it had been. For all of that, she didn’t appear to have aged: not as they measured aging in the Calendar Country.

Action Dude made a small, choked sound of protest. “What did you do to her?” he asked.

“I don’t know what Spring or Autumn did,” said Jack. “I can’t tell you what Winter did. I’m not allowed, and I don’t know all of it. I wasn’t there for all of it.”

“Because you’re her friend. They knew you’d try to protect her if you saw what they were doing.”

That wasn’t true at all. Jack nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Exactly.”

The Princess walked back over to them. “The Night Shift says she’s malnourished, dehydrated, and exhausted,” she said, without preamble. “Our girl hasn’t been sleeping. For years, apparently, which isn’t possible. She hasn’t been gone that long.”

“Yes, she has,” said Jack. “We don’t do time the way you do, remember?”

“Jack...” The Princess frowned. “I love you like a sister. You know that. But if there’s anything you know that could help us help her, and you don’t tell me right now, so help me Grimm, there are going to be consequences.”

“There are always consequences, Cara.” Jack looked at the taller woman calmly, and shook her head. “All of this is consequences. Velveteen asked the holidays for a favor, because she wanted to keep the Governor of Oregon on her side. They gave her a dead woman as a gift for a broken-hearted sister, and she agreed to serve them for a year. Not to choose one, necessarily, but to serve them. If they knew they weren’t going to get to keep her, why should they play nicely with her? I don’t endorse what they did--she was my friend before she was yours--but this is already consequences. I’m sorry the holidays hurt her. I didn’t do it. And I can’t do anything to help, so I’m going to get out of the way and let you work.”

Jack turned and walked away, leaving the Princess staring after her, leaving Velveteen insensate on her bed, leaving the Night Shift to her work. Action Dude turned to watch her go, grimacing before he looked back to the Princess and said, “I’m just going to...I’m going to see if she’s all right. Okay?”

“Okay,” said the Princess.

“Thanks,” he said, and kicked off from the ground, rising into that odd half-jump that almost all fliers used. He quickly straightened out into a more traditional flying position and soared after her.

The Princess waited until he was gone before putting her hands over her face. “And here I was hoping this was going to be one of the good days,” she said, to no one in particular.

Velveteen slept on.

*

Jack walked until she was out of sight of the recovery room. Then she broke into a run, heading for the nearest set of tower stairs and plunging straight up them. Her dress didn’t slow her down. Ridiculous finery was something she had long since gotten used to, in her role as Santa’s daugh--

No. No. She wasn’t, she wasn’t, because this wasn’t her life, this wasn’t her world, this wasn’t her. She was supposed to be...she was supposed to...

She was sitting on the edge of the battlements, crying silently into her hands, when Action Dude found her. Her tears glittered silver and gold, like the dusting on a Christmas cake. He landed cautiously a few feet away, clearing his throat to let her know that he was there.

“Bad day?” he asked. He winced. “Um, okay. That didn’t...okay, that didn’t quite come out right. Are you okay?”

“I’ve been asking myself over and over again whether they changed the world and me, or just changed the world and got me from a mirror that no one was using.” She lowered her hands, looking at him miserably. “They changed us both. I remember being me and I remember being her, and I was supposed to be her, not me. I know it in my bones. This is my punishment. This is how they make me understand that I broke the rules. And it isn’t fair.”

She started crying again. Action Dude looked alarmed.

“I, uh, don’t know what to do with that,” he said. “Yelena never cried.” Not around him, anyway. He was sure she’d done her share of crying behind closed doors, where no one would see her, or judge her, for being a real person. “Vel did, but I’d usually kiss her tears away, and I think you’d punch me if I tried that. Justifiably so.”

Jack laughed in surprise, still crying. “You’d be getting coal in your stocking every Christmas for the rest of your life.”

“I’m Jewish.”

“Every Hanukkah, then.”

“That would be a lot of coal. I could probably heat the whole headquarters.”

Jack laughed again. Her tears had virtually stopped. “Papa doesn’t like anyone to go completely empty handed.”

“Well, he’s a pretty cool dude.” Action Dude looked at her sympathetically. “I don’t know what any of that stuff you were saying before was about, but I’ll listen, if you want me to.”

“No, that’s--” Jack stopped. She’d been talking to Jackie’s friends since she’d woken up tucked into a bed that shouldn’t exist, in a world that shouldn’t have been hers. She’d been trying to cope with the internal clash between two sets of memories, one that felt lived and one that felt like a story about a woman she wished she could have been. She knew she should have been. “I don’t know where to start.”

“What do you mean, you broke the rules?”

Jack looked down at her hands. “The Seasons...we’re not as nice to the people who work for us as we are to guests, and when Vel came to Winter, Papa wasn’t in charge of her trials.” But he hadn’t been Papa then, had he? He had still been Santa, the Big Man, blessedly distant from the frozen home she’d shared with her parents. The dissonance between memory and what she felt she should remember burned. “The person who was, she wanted to be absolutely sure that Vel was strong enough to do what Winter needed. She didn’t pull any punches. She didn’t take her time. Vel was going to die. She was going to freeze to death and die, and it was going to be Winter’s fault, and...”

And there would have been no more visits to the Calendar Country for Jackie, not until enough time had passed to put all Velveteen’s friends and allies in the ground, because they would never have forgiven her for letting Vel freeze. That was a selfish motivation. Maybe if that had been what moved her, she would have been okay. Maybe if she’d thought to cling to that, her hands would still have been cold, her heart would still have been frozen, and she would have still moved in a comforting spray of snow.

But Vel had been Jackie’s friend. Vel had been important to her. In the end, she had acted selflessly, against the wishes of Winter, to save her friend, and it had killed her.

Jack sighed. “It doesn’t matter, I guess,” she said. “I live here now.”

Action Dude frowned. “I have, like, no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure you just told me that you saved Vel’s life. Did you save her life?”

“I guess.”

“Okay.” He shrugged. “Whatever you need from me, ever, you’ve got. For the rest of our lives.”

“What?” Jack stared at him. “I didn’t do it because I wanted a reward.”

“I have two ex-girlfriends. They’ll both tell you that having me offer to be your errand boy is less a reward and more a cosmic punishment of some kind. But I’m still offering. Thank you. For saving her. Even if I don’t quite get how.”

“Jack?”

They both turned toward the sound of the Princess’s voice. She was standing at the top of the tower stairs, a solemn expression on her face.

“Vel’s awake, and she’s asking for you,” she said.

*

The Night Shift was good at her job--all her jobs. She could have run a hospital emergency room without anyone’s help, and had, in emergencies. When Jack and Action Dude followed the Princess back into the recovery room, Velveteen was sitting up in her bed, the sheet still wrapped firmly around her, exhaustion in her eyes.

She blinked at the sight of Action Dude, looking nonplussed. Then her attention moved to Jack, who tensed, waiting for the yelling to begin.

Instead, Velveteen smiled. “Jack,” she said. “Hey.”

“Hey,” said Jack, stepping around the Princess and starting for the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I just lived three years in less than a week, and did most of it without a pulse.” Velveteen’s smile turned wry. “I think I scared the Night Shift.”

“Sometimes nurses need a good scare,” said Jack.

Velveteen nodded. “I guess so,” she said. “Jack...”

Here it comes, thought Jack, tensing.

“You saved me,” said Vel. “I wouldn’t have made it out of Winter without you. Come here.”

Jack went to her, and if the people watching assumed that her tears were joy and relief, well, that wasn’t her fault. Telling them that they were wrong wouldn’t have changed anything, and so she didn’t say anything at all.

*

It was three days before Velveteen was strong enough for mirror travel. Jack wasn’t the only one who accompanied her to the North Pole. The Princess was there as well, and three instances of the Night Shift, and Polychrome, Victory Anna, and Action Dude, all of whom glared at anyone who suggested that they might be unnecessary. The Seasons had stolen Vel away from them once. They weren’t going to let it happen again.

Velveteen leaned heavily on Jack and the Princess as she walked, with the Night Shift following close behind, clucking about how she shouldn’t be out of bed. Together, the group walked to the Hall of Mirrors. The doors were closed. The steps were full. Santa Claus and the Snow Queen; Hailey Ween and Scaredy Cat; the Persephone and Lady Moon. All of them looked to Velveteen, waiting to hear what she would say.

“None of you,” she said, in a voice as worn-out and weary as the rest of her. “I choose none of you. I’m going home.”

Santa Claus smiled. Persephone nodded. Hailey Ween scowled.

“Then you’re free to go,” said Santa Claus. “The Seasons thank you for your service.”

“Fuck you all,” said Velveteen. She turned to go, and Jacqueline Claus, daughter of Santa, heir to the North Pole, was there to help her home.

At least one of them was going home.
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